Today, Suzanne and Drew are discussing Action Comics 38, originally released January 7th, 2015.
Suzanne: Have you ever read a story arc that you didn’t quite connect with? A few years back, I picked up Geoff Johns’ Blackest Night and was disappointed that it didn’t have the emotional punch for me that so many other readers felt. Maybe I was at a disadvantage — I was unfamiliar with the pre-New 52 universe and this was my introduction to many of the characters. Then I read the first few issues of Johns’ Justice League when the members confront the ghosts of their dead loves ones. For example, Thomas and Martha Wayne appeared and told Bruce how disappointed they were in his choices in life. Again, I didn’t have a strong reaction to the story because the stakes didn’t feel as real. Action Comics 38 includes a horror zombie version of Jonathan and Martha Kent. So can Greg Pak revive what has become a (somewhat) tired trope and also bring renewed focus to a series overshadowed by the recent “Superman: Doomed” crossover?
Clark wakes up from a nightmare about battling his first monster as a boy. He remembers hearing Lana scream as she tries to protect him from the monster. The plot transitions to present day — Lana screams for Clark in the burning Kent family home. Clark searches through the house, following the receding image of Lana covered in flames. Corpse versions of Jonathan and Martha Kent cook a rotten breakfast for him in the kitchen, telling Clark his greatest fears about his parents and their feelings about him as an alien. Lana and the monster controlling her vanish from the room leaving Clark alone and shaken.
Superman regroups with Steel and Hiro and discovers that there are creepy-looking monsters attached to each of them and the people of Smallville including a group of children. Apparently, these monsters feed off of their emotions and fear in particular (kind of like the Sinestro Corps). Some of the locals claim they were given powers after Doomsday opened the Phantom Zone. Superman “distracted” them from containing the monsters in the supernatural fog. Is it real or another creepy effigy? Not even Superman knows for sure.
Aaron Kuder’s artwork takes this issue to another level with an amazing splash page incorporating Clark shouting Lana’s name. This captures his panic perfectly. Kuder uses shadows so effectively, he sets the tone of a highbrow horror flick. Take this page where Kuder makes the falling corpses a focal point and contrasts it with Clark’s shadowed profile.
What makes Clark’s encounter with his dead parents feel more authentic than the other issues I mentioned? Credit goes to Kuder’s strength of fully engaging readers visually. Certain panel layouts and placement force readers to follow Clark’s frantic search through the house from his perspective and builds to its eerie conclusion.
Another important stylistic choice is that it’s Clark searching for Lana, rather than Superman. This helps readers relate to the situation more closely; essentially, Clark becomes the Everyman of the issue. The Kents’ dialogue about fearing Clark feels organic and builds on Clark’s fears in earlier issues about becoming too powerful. Remember Clark using his heat vision for the first time in the cornfields? His insecurity about always being an alien is prominent in this book.
Drew, were you as pleased with this installment as I was? Did the horror elements work for you, or did it fall flat? Do you feel that Superman can be as versatile and able to incorporate different genres of storytelling? Any idea about Pak’s choice to include Hiro in this story arc? Does he just like Hiro, as he’s made an appearance in his Batman/Superman run? His addition to the cast feels a bit superfluous to me.
Drew: It sure does feel like Pak really likes Hiro, huh? I can’t say I totally get it — his inclusion in Batman/Superman contributed to one of the weakest arcs that series has had, and his appearance here feels unnecessary to the point of distraction. He exhibits no agency, and really only serves to spoil the surprise when Clark and John discover monsters on their own backs. Maybe he’ll play an integral role as this arc wraps up, but so far, he’s felt like the lone misstep in what has been an otherwise gripping story.
Suzanne, I’m glad you asked about the horror elements, because I suspect those might be the very reason the zombie Kents work so well for you here. Unlike that scene in Justice League or even all of Blackest Night, this series has spent the last couple months building up a legitimate sense of dread even without the spectre of zombified loved ones. Moreover, the Kents are used very specifically here to elicit doubt and fear, rather than the inelegant grief of those other stories. I mean, sure, seeing the corpses of his parents up and walking around is certainly upsetting, but the real trauma is the thought that maybe they really were afraid of him all along. Clark has faith enough in his convictions to discount the first several volleys, but the corpses act just enough like his parents (in both words and actions) to plant a seed of doubt.
Ultimately, that doubt in his relationship to the Kents — inarguably the most important relationship Clark has — is what makes this sequence so effective. Anyone can throw resurrected parents at a hero (especially if you’re Geoff Johns, apparently), but challenging the lessons that define that hero? That’s something truly special.
Of course, as tends to be the case with Pak, there’s an equally intriguing subtext that I feel compelled to address. That is, Lana’s closing sentiment that we give in to our fears, and just surrender to the monsters that are on our backs. In true Pak fashion, that runs dangerously close to being too on-the-nose, but in the wake of the attacks in Paris, it feels oddly apropos. Ultimately, I think the fears Pak is getting at may be more tempting to give into than a group of armed thugs — say, the xenophobia that has sprung up in the aftermath of the attacks — but the point is that it can be tempting to give in to fear. Indeed, it seems that everyone is constantly trying to scare us, from politicians to companies to that one uncle who keeps sending you links about how 9/11 was an inside job, leaving us all with a bit of a monster on our backs. Superman is all about the hope we need to overcome those fears, and the faith in each other we need to banish them, making the challenge Clark faces here all the more thrilling. There’s no doubt that he’ll succeed, but I’m equally confident that it will be inspiring.
Man, it’s issues like me that make me realize the storytelling potential of Superman. So few writers really take advantage of all that he means and represents. Pak has proven time and time again that he not only understands what makes Superman great, but somehow manages to highlight those characteristics in the middle of decidedly atypical situations. It’s not so much de-construction as it is re-construction, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t help me appreciate Superman in a whole new light.
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?
I can’t believe neither of us mentioned Jae Lee’s flashbacks! They’re so good! I think enshrining Superman’s past in that kind of wispy, painterly art really emphasizes both what’s changed and what hasn’t about in the present day. It’s an affect Pak has also used on Batman/Superman, and I think it works beautifully here.