Today, Drew and guest writer Jennie Seidewand are discussing Action Comics 23.2: Zod, originally released September 11th, 2013. This issue is part of the Villain’s Month event. Click here for our Villains Month coverage.
Drew: The final shot of “Face Off,” Breaking Bad‘s season 4 finale, is absolutely devastating, revealing exactly what lengths Walt was willing to go to in order to survive. It’s a paradigm-shifting twist, one that challenges much of what we thought we knew about the character, and one that risks alienating the audience by keeping them in the dark. It’s an incredible feat that that reveal doesn’t fly Breaking Bad off of the rails — one that can largely be attributed to the fact that the series had long been about Walt’s lies and desperation, and about testing the audience’s sympathy for him. Writer Greg Pak employs a similar tactic in Action Comics 23.2: Zod, keeping the audience in the dark about Zod’s crimes until long after the fact. Unfortunately, without four seasons of incremental steps towards that crime, the reveal lacks any actual surprise.
The issue opens with a young Zod, orphaned and stranded by Kryptonian monsters on the frontier, is discovered by the brothers El. 17 years later, Zod has channeled the survival instinct that kept him alive into the study of war, though that seems to make him a bit of an odd duck on peaceful Krypton. That is, until a lone monster attacks the Hall of War. Zod and his buddies ably route the beast, and turn that victory into a rallying cry, vowing to take the fight back to the monster’s home planet (which is a long-standing enemy of Krypton). They do so, killing tens of thousands of aliens, until Jor-El discovers that the original monster was not an enemy at all, but was planted by Zod to justify his war. Zod is sentenced to the phantom zone, but he maintains that monsters like him are what make Krypton strong. Oh, and then there’s this shot of Zod looking at Superman, which is utterly perplexing to me:
So, a warmongering leader turns popular outrage about an attack into an all-out-war with a people he only pretends has anything to do with that attack? I’m all for political commentary, but this is beyond heavy-handed. What’s worse is that, for all of the obvious parallels to reality, Krypton’s support of the war felt totally unbelievable to me. Admittedly, I have a hard time believing the US attacked Iraq after 9/11, but at least there were thousands of lives somebody had to answer for — our moral outrage was justified, if not our actions. And even then, there was lots and lots of vocal dissent, and at least the pretense of diplomacy. Here, nobody is injured in the “attack” of a single monster, yet all of Krypton literally hails Zod’s plan to respond with all-out war, and with no hint of the Char ever disavowing the attack, or even asking how a lone Char combatant could have gotten to Krypton in the first place.
To Pak’s credit, at least the heavy-handed political commentary isn’t entirely one-sided: look at his groan-inducing , buzz-word-dropping use of the word “drone”:
Whatever sympathy Pak is hoping to garner for drone strike victims is mitigated by his depiction of them as loincloth-wearing savages. Did I mention that they’re also ugly monsters?
Political commentary aside, Zod’s assertion that monsters are necessary to push us to discover what we are capable of is at least interesting. This comes across best in the closing flashback to young Zod’s escape from the monsters that killed his parents, as we learn that he actually killed his own father in order to escape. That’s a compelling example of monsters pushing someone to do the unthinkable. Unfortunately, we see no such justification for the “unthinkable” later. Why does Zod want to reinvigorate Krypton’s armies? The only threat that ever comes up is the one he made up from whole cloth, so I don’t entirely buy the “I’m the necessary evil that made you stronger” line. He strikes me more as a snake-oil salesman.
With that, I’d like to welcome Jennie Seidewand back to Retcon Punch. You may recognize Jennie from when she joined us last September for the similarly lackluster I, Vampire 0 (which makes me feel guilty that I never ask her to write on anything worth reading). Jennie, you’re as sympathetic to anti-war messages as the rest of us — did those work for you here, or were you as off-put by their heavy-handedness as I was?
Jennie: Well, Drew, I think you’ve hit on the nail on the head here. There’s a pronounced and unskillful political commentary running through the issue, and it did very little for me except to make me shake my head. And, just as you expressed, I am thoroughly confused about the populace’s response to support a warmonger like Zod after a single monster’s attack. I hear Krypton pre-civil war was a peaceful, quiet planet. In order to build a society that values peaceful interactions, they’d also need to have some diplomatic standards in their community. Yet, here they just toss it all out and go right to war behind the odd-duck in their community without even finding out the monster’s origins? It entirely baffles me. As a peace activist myself, I like to think a peaceful culture would at least have tried some diplomacy.
But, the issue of development and mood-shifts isn’t just Kryptonian culture, here. Let’s look at Zod and the fact that he killed his father. I don’t get that shift either! I know Zod is supposed to be this big scary warmonger, but when we first meet him, he’s crying over the loss of his baby monster.
This is a curious beginning for such a warmongering general! Tears at killing his monster? How cute! Only, in the storyline, he kills his dad at the same age. Where’s the character growth and development? I could’ve accepted that living in the jungle turned Zod vicious. I could’ve accepted that after watching both his parents die he’d eventually grow into a bitter man. But, I can’t imagine a boy who cries over a creature dying (even if it is a monster) immediately turning around to kill his father. Unfortunately, the issue not only falls short in developing a believable shift for the culture as a whole but for Zod’s individual character. Which just makes it all around a disappointing story arch.
All in all, however, there was one interesting thread and comparison that intrigued me here. And it has to do with this idea of monsters and what makes a monster. I find it fascinating that in this issue Zod is a generally decent looking, very-in-shape male with that popular tousled-hair look going for him, and yet he’s an absolute monster inside. Now those primitive monstrous, savage looking folks — their characters seem to imply a calmer sense of being with a child Char pointing to the planes saying “Mama!” and the sweetness of Mama’s response with “darling,” etc. Doesn’t sound very monstrous to me. It’s intriguing to me that the idea of monster is so frequently worked in over and over through the text, and who we necessarily expect to act like monsters based on appearance don’t always do that here. In fact, it’s curious that Zod’s final words were “I will always be your monster” instead of saying yet again that he has always loved monsters, he’s now actually embracing the identity for himself.
Granted, this is really me reaching for something to make this a meaningful read, and probably just me imposing what I think might’ve been a more interesting approach onto a comic that didn’t necessarily strive to do that. So, in short, I’m not sure what would be enough to save the gimmicky, heavy-handedness of Zod as a whole for me, and it certainly wasn’t the end reveal of killing his father, the political commentary, or the character development.
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