Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Action Comics 37, originally released December 3rd, 2014.
Patrick: The opening to Jaws is just about perfect. A beautiful young woman indulges herself in a (probably drunken) morning swim. It’d be an idyllic scene but for the foreboding sense that this moment is somehow too precious for a movie with a giant shark on the poster. When the inevitable shark attack happens, the audience is briskly snapped away from the pleasant scene and tossed back and forth like the film’s first victim. The violence is jarring, not because it’s particularly graphic or believable (there’s no reason a shark would drag someone around the surface of the water for so long), but because we’re able to feel the loss of the pleasantly banal moment that came before. Action Comics 37 plays a similar trick, insisting on a Smallville that’s apparently very serene, until that very serenity ends up be just as creepy as any external threat Superman can face.
Trapped within the mist-encased Smallville, Superman works himself up into a infinitely looping frenzy. Then, whether through exhaustion or massive psychic attack, Supes gets knocked out cold. While Clark’s out, he dreams of his childhood. I’m a sucker for Young Clark stories, and I love the way this one presents the themes of this issue in miniature. Basically, Clark is happy and healthy and capable of helping the townsfolk of Smallville, but that which seems like a boon — in this case, his super lungs — turns out to be a terrifying liability. In attempting to to blow out a crop fire, Clark accidentally feeds the blaze oxygen, further endangering the one person left in the path of the fire. It’s an efficient sequence, with an amazingly varied art style. I’m used to seeing flashbacks in comics drawn by different teams, but that’s not what’s happened here. Penciler Aaron Kuder and colorist Will Quintana simply alter their techniques. Gone are Kuder’s dark ink outlines, and pencil shading replaces a lot of Quintana’s flatter colors. The color palette itself is much more washed out, and — especially when compared to the rest of the issue — favors bright white backgrounds over the Autumnal grays and browns throughout the rest of the story. The thing I love is that the look of the characters is still 100% Kuder — just look at those faces!
Once Clark snaps back to, everyone in town appears to be totally ready to accept the fact that Superman will be able to ameliorate the minor inconvenience that has befallen them. Their confidence in unnerving, and John Henry does his best to try to explain away this behavior by saying that Smallville has been through so much recently: Doomsday, Eradicator, Brainiac. He’s not wrong, that’s enough to send a whole town into shock. And yet… that explanation doesn’t sit quite right with Lana, reinforcing the same feeling probably brewing in the reader at this point. Kuder and Quintana get a few pages to present some really awesome atmospheric images of the town eerily at peace. This little bit might be my favorite part of the issue.
First of all, how gorgeous is that first panel? The coloring, the balanced composition, the fact that Superman is kept at such a distance from us while he expresses his inability to see. It’s the perfect expression of the unease that limitation makes him feel. I love that the camera stays stubbornly far way during the next couple panels, making sure that we don’t get too used to the idea that Superman’s there to save us.
That’s when all hell breaks loose. Some kind of glowy portal — possibly to the phantom zone, but who the hell knows — opens up, and the townsfolk attack Superman with a barrage of psychic “NO.”s. In a nice little callback, the storytelling team allows for the first glimmer of hope has Superman uses his refined cold-breath abilities without accidentally killing someone.
There’s not really a moment to recover or celebrate that minor victory, because something’s about to come out of that space-hole. This is that moment in the monster movie where we all find out whether we’ve been frightened by something genuinely scary, or just some chump in a cheap rubber suit. My earlier example of Jaws proves faulty here, because Kuder is every bit as capable of delivering on the monsters to match the alien ferocity of those in our imaginations.
Pretty awesome, indeed. Comics are obviously a medium that have more opportunities for impossibly designed monsters than most, but I really think Kuder nailed the design of these things — particular the one that holds Hiro in its tentacles. It almost looks like it defies anatomy, and working out which part of its head is which puts knots in my stomach.
Drew, did you feel that the monster at the end of this book lived up to the atmospheric hype that preceded it? Do you kinda wish that Hiro could be just a tiny bit more effective as a hero? And is there any thing more badass than a shotgun-toting Lana Lang?
Drew: Is that a shotgun? It’s a weirdly high-tech-looking thing she uses to tase one of the possessed old dudes. It’s effectiveness against alien monsters remains to be seen, but whatever it is, I’m sure it’s a comfort to Lana, who is otherwise heading into a fight as the only non-superhero member of her team.
As for Hiro: yeah, he’s kind of an idiot here. He drives all the way to Smallville planning to cash in on whatever is causing people to teleport right through it, never mind the people trapped inside. It would be frustrating if Pak wasn’t writing him so clearly as the comic relief — Superman kind of sort of puts some faith in Hiro to get help, only to set up the smash cut to Hiro not getting help. The intersection of greed and playing with this weird teleportation thing plays right into what we know about the character, making his non-heroism feel totally believable.
Getting back to your question about the monster, I actually think you were onto something with your Jaws analogy. The problems Spielberg had with the mechanical shark are well-known, and those problems forced him to shoot around the shark, making directorial choices he straight-up wouldn’t have if he had had a shark to film. The result is a movie that’s more suspense thriller than creature feature, at least for the first act, which I think is a big part of why we remember it. I’d say that’s also why Alien is so effective — while the titular alien is featured throughout the second and third acts, it’s always half in shadow, or shot so tightly to obscure most of its body. Indeed, it’s not until the very end of the movie that we finally see the whole thing in frame, at which point, the suspense is really over.
That’s not to say the monster design here isn’t awesome — it’s inarguably better than a rubber shark — just that I might lament the reveal of any monster. I’m so enamored of that eeriness that hangs over the rest of the issue, I just wish we didn’t have to move on to a thing Superman can fight. As if to confirm my fatigue with Superman fighting monsters, John Henry rattles off a lits of monsters Superman has fought in Smallville, suggesting that these kind of threats don’t really scare the residents of Smallville anymore.
That would be a kind of self-scathing meta-commentary if Pak didn’t go on to suggest that the residents of Smallville only feel that way because they’re possessed by some kind of unspeakably evil force. More specifically, that evil force seems to consume and take over everything it comes in contact with — to which we can draw all kinds of parallels to modern comics consumers. With that detail, Pak focuses the critique back on us, giving us that list of monsters not as a reassurance that we should feel bored, but as a reminder of what Superman stories are. If you don’t want to see Superman punching monsters, you probably don’t want to read a Superman comic. It’s an assured statement of purpose, one this series desperately needed after the everlasting crossover of “Doomed.”
Throw in some stellar art, and this is a tight little issue. It does feel like the conflict isn’t really all that different from what we saw in issue 36, but I value the meta-commentary (and that flashback sequence) enough to forgive a little lethargy. This feels very much like a return to form, and I can’t wait to see where this series goes next.
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?