Batman and Superman have a long and storied history but in a recent fan comic shared on Twitter, artist Chan Chau encompassed a sweet, soft, and caring side of the heroes that we rarely see. The 17 page comic is one of the loveliest things that I’ve read in a while, and both moved and excited me in a way that most contemporary Big Two stories fail to do.
[ Soft Lead ]
Clark Kent, a cartoonist for the Daily Planet, visits his number one fan, Bruce Wayne, at his home for breakfast.
— Chan Chau (@Aluhnim) November 1, 2020
Soft Lead centers on Bruce Wayne inviting Clark Kent–in this story, the Daily Planet’s cartoonist–over for breakfast. While sharing a delectable warm meal fit for any Ghibli table, Clark shares his fears and worries over the irrelevance of creating art in the face of the wider horrors of the world. Chau brings the pair to life with a light touch, leaning into one of the things that superhero fans have often loved and longed for: the quiet moments between saving the world.
Here are two of DC’s pillars of justice talking over coffee and eggs. No suits, no villains, just imposter syndrome and creative pondering. But it’s not the kind of shoegazing that attempts to critique, condemn, or theorize on the nature of superheroes. Instead, Chau is interested in building out these two characters that we all know so well. We learn things here that seem to fit with our wider understanding of the heroes that also feel enlightening and relatable.
It helps that their vision for Bruce and Clark is an appealing one. Literal wide-eyed boys who are as nervous about being open as they are eager to share and support. Clean lines and dynamic paneling make Soft Lead feel both inventive and engaging while always grounded in the heart of the exchange at its core. Chau’s use of black, white, and greyscale is masterful. As readers we’re pulled through pages and emotions, from comfort and awe at sharing a meal with two icons to fear and vulnerability at the idea of creating and sharing hopeful art in a sometimes hopeless world. What I really loved here was how Chau subverts our idea of who in this pair would be the one who can imbue hope and who would be the one scared to share their work.
We rarely get to see Bruce as a friend. Love interest, sure. Emotionally unavailable father figure, certainly. But Chau envisions him as a confidante and trusted advisor. Clark needs someone to reassure him that his cute cartoons have just as much value as his superheroics, and Bruce is there to do just that. While Chau’s style is far from what we’re used to seeing in Big Two comics, it’s perfectly suited for both of the men and this sweet-hearted story. There’s a softness to Clark that understands just who he is both behind the glasses and the cape. A visual sharpness to Bruce that represents the Dark Knight we know while he contradicts our expectations with the kindness and depth that he extends to his friend and, as it turns out, favorite cartoonist.
Clark as a cartoonist is key here, as his struggle is one that makes Superman far more relatable than the superpowered alien usually is. This Clark is struggling with something that many of us have this year: how to balance doing the things we love with doing what needs to be done. In this case, Clark’s passion is for drawing charming kitten cartoons which he feels are both simplistic and unimportant. But Bruce sees them otherwise. To his close friend the strips represent hope and reflection, a side of Clark that is solely about him rather than his red-caped alter ego. It’s a rare recognition from Bruce of humanity as a vital part of heroism.
Soft Lead offers a levity, humor, and depth that many superhero comics are missing, not only in the stripped back text and intimate story but also in Chau’s efficient art. There’s so much power in the use of negative space, so much emotion processed through shadows and light. Dense backgrounds and realism are never dragging this comic down. Instead, we get to float above the scene, basking in the friendship and love the pair share, and hopefully learning a little more compassion for ourselves and our own pursuits that make the hard times a little bit easier.
You can get your own copy of Soft Lead at Gumroad!