Drew: How do you beat the unbeatable man? Normally, Superman writers struggle with this question in trying to create any real tension — the conventions of comics dictate that Superman is the most powerful being on Earth and that the good guy always wins, so how do you manage to wring a compelling story out of that? “Doomed” solves this problem by turning it on its head: what if Superman was the bad guy? Then the fact that he’s the most powerful being on Earth lies in direct conflict with the fact that the good guys always win, making the question of how to beat Superman no longer a trivial detail, but a key to the resolution of the conflict. Of course, years of the other kind of conflict have given writers an arsenal of weapons to use against Superman — they’ve never quite worked on their own, but maybe they can get the job done together. Action Comics 32 explores this idea in earnest, but reminds us that for all the ways we have to beat Superman, he was always our only solution to beating Doomsday.
The issue opens to find Clark horrified that the Doomsday force is causing things to die and burst into flames by his mere presence, forcing him to flee to the Atacama desert. Meanwhile, General Lane is recruiting a cadre of Superman villains, including Metal-0 and Atomic Skull, but the real weapon is some kind of aerosolized Kryptonite, which effectively kills Superman, leaving only Doomsday in the drivers seat.
That’s a clever twist — we know how to defeat Superman, but are pretty clueless when it comes to defeating Doomsday — but it follows a pretty lumpy issue. My biggest problem revolves around Superman’s half-assed attempt to avoid killing things.
Like, he has enough forethought to go somewhere where he can’t harm anything, but openly acknowledges that he picked a really shitty place for doing so. Steel is quick to offer the moon as an option, Which Superman is reluctant to accept — not because the Doomsday force wants to keep him near things to kill, but because Superman doesn’t want to “ditch” all the people that need his help. Steel is kind enough to not point out that Superman has already quarantined himself from those people, and that the only way to not actively harm things is to not be near them, but it’s sure as hell obvious to the audience.
But okay, Superman’s brain is corrupted by a malevolent force designed to kill everything, so maybe he’s not thinking all that clearly. I can get behind his psychology not making all that much sense, but that leaves us without much of an emotional core to latch on to here. Lois’ trust of Superman has gone from 100% to 0% between Superman 31 and here, going so far as to coach John Corben to his death in hopes of also killing Superman. Steel is the only one with any hope of saving Superman, and he’s pretty quickly overwhelmed by all of the villains Lane sends their way.
Okay, I’m being unfair — Steel isn’t the only one who hopes to save Superman, he’s just the only one to take any steps to actually help him. Diana and Lana have a moment on the phone (by somehow calling each other simultaneously), but their scene seems to exist largely to comment on how weird it is that neither of them will play a role in the action of the issue. Actually, why is Diana back at her apartment? The last time we saw her, she was standing next to Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, worrying about where Superman would turn up next. Did she just give up the search in hopes of catching up on some TV or what?
Actually, the timeline in general is pretty wonky here. Clark claims that he fought Doomsday “yesterday,” which, given nothing more than the number of nighttimes we’ve seen in this event, doesn’t add up. I don’t want to come off as nit-picky here, but it strikes me as odd to assert that the event has happened within the course of a day unless it was somehow important. Is it supposed to feel like things have gotten out of control quickly? That the public’s faith in Superman eroded instantaneously? That all of his allies have been incredibly busy, leaping from the events of one issue to the next? I’m not entirely sure what writer Greg Pak is going for here, leading me to wonder what the timeline actually looks like.
Oof. Yeah, maybe I didn’t like this issue so much. Pak’s run on Action has been so emotionally focused, it feels like a backwards step to have an issue that aims to simply present an adversary big enough to take Superman down. It’s mostly a punch-em-up, which I realize is an important part of Superman storytelling, but tends to leave me pretty cold. Were you able to enjoy this issue more than I was, Patrick?
Patrick: I do think I enjoyed the issue more than you did, but I’ve sort of started to read the Doomed story as one about “Superman and Friends” rather than just Superman. I like seeing Steel get a little more play in this issue, and it’s a thrill every time he pulls out that ridiculously-sized Thor hammer.
The biggest character misstep has got to be Lois Lane, who comes off as manipulative and downright cruel towards both Corben and Superman. I know that Lois is one of the more opportunistic of superhero lady-allies, but…well, I guess this is an important piece of Lois Lane characterization here. She is the kind of person who would sacrifice the life of a man at the end of his rope to stop a hero she used to believe in. That’s pragmatic, but the kind of pragmatic we’d normally apply to Batman or Lex Luthor. Lex is a particularly odd point of comparison, because he appears to actually be siding with Supes on this one.
There’s another piece of characterization here that I don’t love, and that’s Doomed Superman. Artist Scott Kolins pulls his very own Spider-Man 3, and gives the evil version of our hero shaggy dark hair that hangs down over his eyes like a cheesy anime villain. It’s weirdly rote shorthand for angst, but comes up short of “possessed by the living embodiment of death.” Depicting Superman’s isolation and desperation should be pretty easy — I mean, the dude flew himself out to the middle of the desert, for crying out loud. Kolins comes so close to pulling it off: there’s a panel where Clark sits alone on a mountain top. Unfortunately, it’s cluttered with a bunch of copy, and even Steel in the panel.
This panel is actually a good example of how the bevy of Supermaniana is getting in the way of telling a simple story. Instead of focusing on Superman in this moment, we’re subjected to a sliver of conversation between Steel and Wonder Woman as well as Lois’ monologue to Corben. What is the moment about? Three things all at once?
I almost wonder if there isn’t a comment to be made about how many cooks are in the Superman kitchen right now. Within the narrative, there are a ton of interested parties, each with their own ideas on how to address the Superman issue. We don’t get to see what Lana and Diana would like to do, but we know that they’re on the same page — a page which involves “trusting him,” whatever that means — but we more or less understand what Lois’ and Steel’s angles are here. In a way, that’s like seeing Scott Lobdell, Greg Pak and Charles Soule trying to figure out how best to tell one story between the three of them. The problem might be that they’re facing down an ancient evil that’s just too formidable, and modern Superman stories can no longer be what they once were. Both inside and outside the narrative, Superman was transformed by Doomsday, and while everyone thinks they have a solution to this transformation, they might just be making it worse.
Drew, I really like this idea that Action Comics 32 owes a great deal to the various stories that have come before it for ideas on how to kill Superman. You mention that we only have one solution for killing Doomsday — I assume that’s: “Superman?” The issue plays the idea that Superman has been killed by the Kryptonite explosion with an alarmingly straight face. It’s totally a bluff, because: obviously. But maybe that’s just what Doomsday is, he’s the monster that makes Superman die. I understand that he can continue to be a threat to mankind (and the rest of life on Earth) but for my money, he’s kind of served his purpose at this point.
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