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.
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Hmm…I notice that Superman grew a beard the same time Clark Kent did…
The division between Action and Superman proper is getting into weird territory right now with Superman having a beard in one book and not the other, and with Superman getting a new powerset in the Superman title soon. Wonder how this will all shake out.
Man, I know I might be the exception in the comic fan world, but I really don’t care about the nitty gritty of continuity. Actually, I kind of resent that continuity exists, taking characters out of play, or altering their abilities or relationships, all in service of a series I might not even be reading. I think it often runs the risk of compromising otherwise classic stories by dating them with some weird detail that has otherwise been forgotten.
Some of my favorite stories are non-continuity and non-canon runs (though I suppose that now includes most of DC’s publishing history) that are much more interested in the essence of the characters than they are in the month-to-month ins and outs of every series they might have been appearing in at the time.
No argument as far as enjoying the many different self-contained takes on the various characters that are out there, and those indeed are some of the highest quality stories ever, but I’d personally rather those stories not be rushed by the hardcore monthly publication deadlines and that the artists attached to those be able to take their time turning in pages, and then they can be constructed as non-New 52-branded mini-series or outright OGN’s (which is pretty common for those types of stories). For me, if I’m going to go through all the trouble of being a dedicated Wednesday subscriber, I want the universe to more or less add up. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it’s still comics, but I like some attention to continuity and it’s one of the big draws of floppies for me.
Interesting. I wonder why we disagree so strongly about that. I think part of the reason I’m so hesitant about continuity is that Batman — easily my favorite character in any medium — is used so often, a huge number of his appearances are bound to be kind of crummy. I’d rather ignore whatever I don’t like, but really tightly-controlled continuity makes it harder to do that.
Well, I’m right there with you on Batman, as I find him to be an annoyingly overpublished character. The absolute definition of “too much of a good thing”. I dislike weeklies anyway, but I find Eternal (and its forthcoming second year) to be doubly annoying for exactly those reasons. I’m also with you as far as ignoring the things I’m not interested in; Here, for example, I dropped Action during DOOMED when it’s a character I love as handled by an artist that I love and a writer whom I feel has a very solid grasp on this apparantly tricky icon. Just not interested in following those other books involved. But I’m happy with my choices: I can read only the issues I want or skip the crossover entirely as I have. I don’t think it’s a perfect system, but I think that if DC is going to saddle the teams with a clockwork publication schedule then I might as well reap the benefits as far as continuity and events. It’s a bummer when it gets too complicated or ambitious for its own good, but when it does work then it’s a specific kind of awesome that’s totally unachievable elsewhere. As wonderful as the Marvel films have been, and they’ve been VERY wonderful at times, the continuity still seems elementary compared to the batshit crazy tapestry of fantasy that we’re all accustomed to by now. I live for that shit 🙂
I’m not into the zombie angle of this, and knocking of The Mist leaves me lukewarm considering a pretty rad film version is still in recent memory, but there are things to like in this one. Kuder is awesome at drawing anything that remotely looks like a monster. I LOVED his Parasite issue during Villains Month. And the highlight of this issue for me, art wise, is that sick moment when you see what the thing controlling the dead Langs really looks like. It’s pretty sweet. Also, I completely avoided anything DOOMED, so I get a little bang-for-buck in finding out about Steel and Lana hooking up. I love that angle! The Clark/Lana rift I’m not as hot on, mainly because I loved her being such a positive supporting character early into the Pak/Kuder stuff. Frankly, although I appreciate the attempt to depart from the usual Superman story, I’ll be happy to get back into regular Action Comics territory. Decent issue, though, overall.
The thing that I liked about the super-natural / zombie elements of this story was that it finally made all that “Superman is vulnerable to magic” nonsense make perfect sense. I just seen that weakness applied so lazily in the past — no, see this fire can hurt him because it’s a magic fire — and seeing Supes confounded by a fog that teleports him past the point he’s trying to fly to is intriguing.
Hey, Mogo, how’d you know to steer clear of Doomed? I was tricked into reading it by the Pak / Soule / Kuder combo.
Yeah, you’ve got a point there, and the frustrated zipping around in the background that Taylor points out is really nice. It’s a credit to this team that they’ll take an idea I’m not keen on but handle it well enough that I’m still interested.
As far as DOOMED, I just can’t handle any Lobdell Superman. I try not to be negative about it, and if people like his Superman that’s fine, but it’s not for me even a little bit. I had considered just catching the Pak/Kuder issues, but when the first Action issue with the DOOMED banner only had a few Kuder pages and seemed really detached and erratic compared to their very wonderful earlier issues then I began to suspect that they’d be holding out on their good stuff until after that story. Given that it’s a $4 book, I’d be getting a partial story, and they might phone it in… I just said “Fuck it.”
At C2E2 this year, I actually asked Pak how Lobdell-y DOOMED was going to be. I wasn’t interviewing him or anything, just getting him to sign my Kindle. It was clearly a breach of the pleasant Fan/Creator Interaction Protocol — especially considering that Pak is one of those very professional, never-talking-shit-about-people, creators. But I could tell that he was relieved when he said “Scott only wrote one issue – if that answers your question.”
Still feel tricked!
Hahaha, I’m so glad that you told me that. Was it as rough as I imagined regardless? There was just nothing for me to latch on to, I felt like. I tested the waters with an issue on a book I was digging (Action) and basically saw it as a Doomsday story without Doomsday actually in it, wherein Superman was being compromised (again) and turning into a famous villain (again [Justlice League 13-14]), which pretty much took the character that I was reading the book for out of the equation. And then, on top, with the art duties in the first issue dedicated to the story being split up, it all just kind of felt like they were gonna let the story be an opportunity for Kuder to get a lead on their next story. I tend to see those multiple-title-spanning “family book” events to be mostly an inconvenience to the various participants. I prefer my events to be structured the way Johns does it when he’s given free reign (Blackest Night, Forever Evil) where there is a dedicated mini and then individual teams can tie-in rather than alternate chapters. I really hated the way he was doing the endless stream of “events” at the end of his GL run, for instance, which I think mirrors my complaints here.
Yeah, it’s still very rough. There was a little bit when I thought it was just going to be a month or two and I was so excited to get one neat and clean crossover, but then it went on for months and had multiple annuals committed to it. There’s just no way there was enough story material (or innovative storytelling) to justify taking up that much time and money to read it.
I’ll echo your sentiment about not liking this style of crossover. The one place where it did work for me was RotWorld, but that’s partially because I was already reading Animal Man and Swamp Thing, and three extra issues of Frankenstein felt like a manageable expansion of the lore. But yeah, GL from Third Army to First Lantern was crummy – luckily the RL stuff was skippable. I can’t even begin to untangle what’s happening in that corner of the universe now (so many series!). Honestly: I don’t even know what Godhead is.
If there’s a crossover story and all of those parts are either being written by Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire, or a combination of the two in the same issue, then they can arrange that however they want to and it’ll be tops. I still haven’t read that unfortunately. I made the poor decision to not sub either at the beginning of the reboot since Vertigo generally isn’t my preferred style, but after discovering how much I love Lemire I then went back and have collected all but a handful of Animal Man issues, so once I fill that in, I’ll work on the Snyder Swamp Thing, and then read them both from the beginning.
Clark yelling “Lana! LANA!!” was an intentional Archer reference, right?
I had the exact same thought. Does Superman sound like H. Jon Benjamin?
With the beard – sure why not?