Today, Shane and Taylor are discussing Action Comics 36, originally released November 5th, 2014.
Shane: Horror in comics has recently hit a major revitalization. Heralded by the meteoric success of The Walking Dead, we’ve seen such titles as American Vampire, Uzumaki and Locke & Key emerge to terrify the market. Even mainstream superhero books like Animal Man and X-Men have made real attempts to embrace the horror genre, but, honestly, answer me a question: If you had to pick an iconic superhero, one of the real icons, to have a major horror arc…would Superman be your first choice? No. Not at all. Batman, sure — he fits right into the dark world. Even Wonder Woman, with her mythological connections, could gravitate towards a number of unsettling stories. But Superman, the paragon of hope? Not a chance.
And yet, in the newest story arc of Action Comics, Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder return Superman from a recent major crossover and send him straight into an eerie small town mystery. It’s a little weird to see Smallville portrayed in such an off-putting way so relatively soon after Jeff Lemire’s Superboy run did the same, but perhaps because of that series breaking that barrier, it works: when Lana Lang wakes up screaming from a nightmare that quickly becomes reality, it feels almost natural. That’s a bit of a bold claim when we’re discussing her recently deceased parents revivified at the “hands” of a tentacled, eyeless monster, of course, but it’s believable all the same. Compounded by an unearthly mist that cascades through the town, and we have a setting straight out of a Stephen King novel.
Superman, true to form, flies in to save the day…but he can’t fly back out again. Many writers claim it difficult to put Superman in a situation he can’t just punch himself out of, but with panel after panel of him flying at super-speed, you can just feel the frustration: Superman is trapped by forces he can’t combat, and unknown to him, a veritable army begins to rise. He may succeed in stopping the immediate threat, but the nightmare is really just beginning.
After the recent events of the “Doomed” crossover, Superman’s world is all a little up in the air: his oldest friend, Lana Lang, is having difficulty trusting him after he failed to save her parents’ lives, and it drastically changes the dynamic set up by Pak in earlier issues of his run. We’ve had multiple storylines where Lana proves a valued partner to the Man of Steel, but in this issue, we see just how shaken her parents’ deaths have left her, and how badly damaged her relationship with Superman becomes as a result.
In a single panel, Pak and Kuder show Lana not as the spunky optimist she’s been, but as someone with genuine resentment in her heart. She may try to recover immediately afterwards, offering apologies and promises, but her bond with her best friend has been weakened, and it’s clear that the horrors emerging in Smallville will test that relationship. Many great horror films show alliances being both forged and shattered amidst the most threatening of atmospheres, and that appears to be just one of the many classic tropes the creative team flirts with as they turn the world of Smallville upside down. Our protagonists are contending with a sealed environment, the rising dead, untold monstrosities, and what appears to be a dark plot everyone but them is in on — really, in comparison, what’s a little broken trust?
As I discuss the relationship between Superman and Lana, I want to take a moment to praise how Pak has used established DC history and crossover events to build a small but rock-solid supporting cast in Action Comics. It’s been difficult to show Superman with a consistent group of comrades ever since his departure from the Daily Planet, and writers have clearly struggled: you can only show so many other superheroes before the book just becomes the next Justice League, and previous runs on the Superman titles seemed a little strained in their attempts to find excuses to include classic characters like Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. In this issue, though, we see that John Henry Irons has firmly joined the Action Comics crew as Lana’s boyfriend and the newest protector of Smallville, coming out of his New 52-defining role in “Doomed”. Meanwhile, the heroic Toyman from Pak’s own Batman/Superman continues to make guest appearances as a confidant and tech-wizard. It’s a bit of an untraditional cast for a flagship Superman title, but it works, and I’m eager to see how they all come together to handle what’s coming their way.
The horror genre isn’t one particularly known for its happy endings, and as someone who has followed Greg Pak’s work for awhile now, I’ve also noticed that he isn’t one to wrap his stories up in a neat and tidy little bow for the sake of stability. Although I think the easy route would be to show Superman and Lana reconcile and rescue Smallville, I think it’d be even more believable to see their relationship go the other direction. I understand that this is your first issue of Action Comics, Taylor — based on this as a jumping on point, can you see the cast coming together or drifting apart? And once we’ve moved past that, what are your thoughts on Superman’s beard? Studly, right?
Taylor: Seeing Superman, the quintessential American Hero, don a beard shows just how accepting of facial hair the country has become. This whispers a secret hope into my ear that before long we’ll have our first president with a beard since Benjamin Harrison chose to wag his face follicles way back in the year 1893. Of course the long absence of beards in office perhaps hints at the very reason we are seeing Superman with a beard at all in this issue.
Generally, when an author wants to show a character fallen on hard times, a go to move is to have their character grow a beard. Examples of this narrative technique abound in pop-culture but none in recent memory stands out quite as much as Jack Shephard on Lost. Speaking on that beard at any length would require a gratuitous amount of spoilers, so I’ll just have it be known that Pre-Beard Jack is a capable chief of surgery while Beard-Jack is a Nirvana-blasting, oxycodone-addled train wreck. Similarly, bearded Superman represents a man fallen on hard times. While his outward facade of capable hero is intact, the reader sees that this but a mere act. Beard aside, this is never more apparent than when Clark tries to console Lana after seeing the reanimated corpses of her parents.
Here, instead of being the living embodiment of safety and security, he’s a bumbling shell of cliched sayings empty promises of safety. Lara is right to angry with Clark here because he’s failed to live up to that big ol’ “S” on his chest. Instead of being super, Clark is average here. The beard is the outward sign of his inability to live up to his name both in his ability protect and console.
Still, the beard does look rather handsome on him. That no one can deny.
This is all an effort by Pak to make the character of Superman interesting. As you alluded to earlier Shane, writing for Superman can be hard. Here’s a dude who can do basically anything, so how are you going to challenge him? In this case Pak has chosen two ways to make Superman a character who faces a real crisis. His first, as discussed above, is to somehow protect and console one of his dear friends. While Clark has this internal conflict going on he also has the external conflict of the weird fog surrounding Smallville. I think it’s a smart move to challenge Superman with an environment with which he is unfamiliar. While Clark has might, it’s basically no use if he can’t use it properly. This is demonstrated aptly by Kuder’s depiction of his frantic attempts to escape the besieged city.
Those red lines, all of which represent an attempt to leave the town, show just powerless and frustrated Superman is when he can’t figure how to properly aim his strength. Earlier in the issue Clark gets an assist from Toyman in how to enter the city, but on his own, he seems in over his head. This creates an actual interesting and perhaps dire situation for Supes.
All of this is to say I was mildly interested by this issue. I’ve never been one for the zombie genre and now especially it’s feeling a little too well-tread. Still, I like to see Superman challenged some, so I look forward to seeing how this arc plays out.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?