The DCnU has been a pretty dark place since its inception. The heroes aren't trusted. The heroes feel isolated. Grisly acts of violence have become common. It has been sometimes hard to deal with this overall tone of even the good being tarnished.
And then there is Action Comics.
It hasn't been the typical Year One take on an origin story. It has had a zero issue, an alternate Superman issue, a flash forward story, and a whirlwind pace. And yet through it all writer Grant Morrison has continued to show us a true Superman. Someone who is here to help, who wants to help, who inspires. We have been shown who this Superman is; we haven't been told. And as readers, we see that this is a hero ... not isolated, not alone, not jaded. He is on the streets with us, fighting for us, and inspiring us to fight with him. It has been remarkably upbeat.
Action Comics #13 not only continued that trend but added the single brightest spot in the DCnU that I have seen since the inception. There is still that inspiring action by Superman. There is still that knowing wink and modern adaptation of Silver Age elements. And then there is that ending.
There is a Halloween theme to the issue and Travel Foreman's art is well suited for this issue.
The cover is by Bryan Hitch, someone whose art I have never been high on.
The beginning of the issue starts on Krypton at the trial of Xa-Du, a scientist who developed 'Living Death', a form of suspended animation which turned people into zombie slaves. The crime is so terrible that he becomes the first person sent to the Phantom Zone for imprisonment. The sentence is 20yrs at which point the council will reassess, to see if he has rehabilitated.
The scene smacks a bit of the Donner movie trial scene with the judges on high, in black and silver robes. And like Zod in that movie, Xa-Du promises revenge on the house of El, as Jor-El is the man behind the Phantom Zone projector.
Cast in the zone first, Xa-Du is truly alone and without any senses. It must be horrific.
The one quibble I have with the issue is the timeline. We are told Krypton explodes 20 years to the day that Xa-Du was sentence. And yet Jor-El was there, looking plenty adult, 20 years earlier at the trial. So how old is Jor-El when the planet explodes. Twenty years just seems a bit too long ago for it to make internal sense to me.
Back in the '5 years ago' time period of the book, Superman is in his arctic Fortress of Solitude reviewing Kryptonian artifacts which he has enlarged from Kandor with the help of Ray Palmer. It is an interesting mix of statues and weapons including the classic Jor-El and Lara holding the planet statue we have become used to seeing in a fortress. (It is sort of the equivalent of the T Rex or Giant Penny in the Bat Cave).
Among those artifacts is a large mirror-like object, a way to look into the Phantom Zone as well as a projector.
Now I don't know when we moved from the Collector satellite to the Arctic fortress so I suppose their is another story there. And I don't exactly know why Kandor would have a Jor-El and Lara statue in it unless he was that big a figure.
Looking into the mirror, Superman sees both paw prints on the inner part of the glass as well as Xa-Du who screams of having his revenge.
And then, suddenly, he is out of the Zone ... and uses the projector to have the ultimate revenge, sending Superman there.
We have seen Xa-Du in Action Comics #5 when Jor-El thinks of sending everyone into the Phantom Zone as the planet is exploding. It is in that scene where Krypto attacks Xa-Du and ends up in the Zone himself.
I love Morrison's take on Superman and his understanding that the Silver Age was a golden age for the character. Some of the elements of that Age can be used in the current comic landscape.
So I loved hearing the roll call of criminals threatening Superman when he enters the Zone. Ursa the She-Devil. Jax-Ur, destroyer of the moon. Ak-Var. Non. And someone saying he must kneel! (We know who that is.)
Not only do we hear these names but we hear their crimes. So the Silver Age origins of Jax-Ur and Ak-Var are back.
It is these sort of panels and landscapes that suit Travel Foreman's art style so well.
Xa-Du is not a nice guy and instantly thinks of taking over the planet. He will shatter the people 'made of glass'. He will expose the Kandorians to Living Death, making them his army of zombies. And he will abandon the other Zone villains, who probably lent some of their strength to help him escape.
In the zone, Superman runs into not only the criminals, not only Krypto, but the Phantom Stranger who got sucked in by Ecto-technology. The Stranger was investigating 'ghost voices' emanating from somewhere in Metropolis, the telepathic voices of the Zone convicts who were boasting of escaping. It had to be a trap done to lure Superman to the Fortress had he not already been there.
Even Superman has to question 'ecto-technology', one of those excellent throw away ideas that are littered throughout Morrison issues.
The Stranger can escape. Superman can conquer Xa-Du mentally and escape. But Krypto won't be able to. Krypto must stay.
It turns out Xa-Du is wearing a ecto-suit of pure consciousness (so at least he has that going for him ... which is good). I assume the suit was made by the combined concentration of the Zone criminals and Xa-Du was the one chosen to escape using it. But as a suit of consciousness, Superman can overwhelm it and take control.
I also love that Krypto followed Superman to the Earth portion of the Zone. He was going to be near his boy, Kal no matter what.
I have talked about Action Comics and Morrison's Superman has been a bright point in the otherwise grimy dark DCnU. Here is a wonderful example.
Superman's conviction is so strong that he simply wrests control of the ecto-suit from Xa-Du. It is the simple conviction that 'the best in us will triumph over the worst' that 'against all odds, good is stronger than evil'.
It is that simple. Now if only the other DC creative people could realize it ... if Geoff Johns who writes a floating Superman looking down on people ... if Matt Idelson who calls Superman a loner ... if they could grasp this simple concept that defines Superman ... maybe the whole DCnU would be a nicer place.
Using Xa-Du's body, Superman re-opens the portal, escapes, and pushes Xa-Du back in.
Unfortunately, Krypto is left behind.
But Superman had promised Krypto he would come back for him. And Superman doesn't renege on promises. Using some left over Xa-Du tech, he reaches into the Zone one last time and pulls Krypto out. After a super-speed trip to space for a yellow sun bath, Krypto is hale and healthy once more. I love ... love ... how Superman cuddles with him, telling Krypto he is the best dog in the universe.
If there is any place that needs the light touch of a super-powered dog playing with Superman in space, it is the DCnU. And we have that again. I can only thank Grant Morrison for writing the type of Superman that needs to be written.
As for Xa-Du, we see the gnome recruit him. It shouldn't come as a surprise given we saw him before in the flash forward story in Action Comics #6.
So this was just another fantastic issue in this run. Action Comics has been the best book of the DCnU for me, showing me that a more classic Superman can still work in the dark world of today's comics. An immutable hero in Superman. Silver Age elements reimagined. Even Krypto. That isn't even mentioning the new elements of the story - the little man and his anti-Superman army.