When the new creative team of writer Greg Pak and artist Aaron Kuder was announced for Action Comics, I actually felt some optimism. And optimism with the DC Comics has been a rare commodity these days. I didn't know Pak's Marvel work too much but had thoroughly enjoyed the Batman/Superman work and people whose opinion I trust talked him up. And I enjoyed Kuder's Quietly-like art since I first saw it in Legion Lost.
Action Comics #25 came out this week and amazingly it lived up to my optimistic expectations. It isn't easy to do that. Tied into the Batman Zero Year event, this is a flashback story to the 't-shirt and jeans' Superman from Morrison's Action run, a younger, brasher, and in this story almost sadistic Superman. But Pak uses this story as a teachable moment for Clark, a time to reflect on his Smallville roots, recognize his limitations, and maybe turn the corner towards the more inspirational hero we eventually see in Superman.
But perhaps the biggest revelation in this book is the reintroduction of Lana Lang into the DC Universe. We saw a few peeks in Morrison's and Fisch's stories. But otherwise we she is still a mystery in the New 52. I have to say, I love Pak's take on her. She is strong and heroic, doing her best to help people, and working as an electrical engineer! I guess you can take people out of Smallville but you can't take the Smallville out of people.
As for Kuder, he really shines here, with great page layouts, imaginative panel shapes, and bringing this story the power it deserves.
The issue starts even farther back in flashback than Year Zero, to the day when Lana decides to leave Smallville and do something more with her life. Already we see that this isn't the prom queen Lana who ends up an newscaster. With her hair under a ball cap and her talk of 'doing things in the world', she is ready to roll up her sleeves and count.
It isn't that I thought the old Lana was vapid. But this is a newer feistier Lana and I like it.
I did like this panel sequence as we see Clark's dust trail as he runs to catch up to Lana before the bus pulls away. Maybe it is Lana's courage to leave and be 'bigger' that helped spur Clark along. Or maybe the weight of keeping Clark's secret made her stronger, made her want to do something more.
Then we move forward to Year Zero and Superman is now clad in his jeans and work boots. This is a nice opening 2 page spread of Superman at his 'social crusader' best. Just a nice action shot of him hoisting a truck to use as a weapon.
And he is fighting a group call 'the Supremacists'. What better group for us to see Superman fight, someone who fights for truth and justice. I also like that Superman is upset about the Supremacists stance on undocumented immigrants - after all Superman kind of falls into that category.
But this is that sort of scarier, almost drunk with power, kind of brasher Superman. Hey, he's young!
But throughout this fight we hear Clark talk about how he is smiling during the fight, how he is glad the Supremacists are wearing armor so he can strike them even harder, how he is thrilled to have them hit him with a weapon that hurts so he can test his limits. We don't see this behavior in a more established Superman that much.
The fight ends with Superman towering over the bloody Supremacists and laughing. Let's face it, this isn't the way today's Superman acts. The angle here, this low shot with Superman towering and laughing ... it is scary. You could imagine this being an Ultraman panel.
And as a bystander, wouldn't you be maybe a little bit scared?
But it is, as I said, it is a teachable moment. Pleased with himself about the beating he has doled out, Clark heads back to his apartment to pound out the story to send to the Daily Star.
While typing, he loses control of his strength and realizes that he has destroyed his laptop. It is that fine a line between doing what you need to do and overdoing it and being unnecessarily destructive. Such a small moment that means so much more.
And then Clark wonders if maybe everything he did with his powers makes him nothing more than a bully.
What is he going to be? What is Superman going to do?
There is a lot of action in this story but this one page scene was my favorite part of the book.
Before he can wallow too much, he hears about this huge storm approaching Gotham City which is currently in a black out. Maybe Superman can stop the storm from threatening the city. He jumps onto a rescue plane and hitches a ride.
Meanwhile, in one of those wonderful coincidences, Lana is the acting electrical engineer on an oil tanker in the heart of the storm. And then the story takes a wonderful parallel track as we see Superman struggling to help on a big picture viewpoint while Lana tries to help on a smaller stage. Her ship's engine has seized in the storm and she won't abandon ship. Not when she can help.
Just like we learned a lot about Lana from that bus stop, we learn tons about her here.
After the over-the-top skirmish with the Supremacists, Superman was due for a little humility. Despite his best efforts, he simply can't stop the storm.
While the laptop page was my favorite scene, this is my favorite panel. This is Superman's primal scream, that rage against failing to stop the storm, an anger that he can't help people. Great art by Kuder here. And great coloring, bathed in the light of the lightning ... but maybe white hot with frustration.
Just great stuff.
While he can't stop the storm, he realizes he can help stop Lana's tanker from being rammed by an abandoned cargo ship. He does his best to stop the ships from crashing, hoping he is strong enough.
Meanwhile, Lana is struggling to get the engine going, finally admitting she is afraid that she will die in the water.
The beauty here is the page construction, the arcing panels feel stormish, like a weather map. Lana in extreme close-up gives us a claustrophobic feel to her, making me feel how trapped she is. And then the great Superman 'slap' outside of the action as we see the ships keeling below.
So great action and art. Just a beautiful page.
As I said, the Lana and Clark stories of striving to be heroes and saving lives really run in parallel. And Pak does a good job of showing how close they are in thoughts, having them eventually echo each other, saying they will never give up the fight.
And, luckily, between Superman's strength and Lana getting the engines working, the ship is able to escape upright and mostly intact.
I think I am going to like this Lana.
Does Clark realize in the end that Lana was on that ship?
Does she realize that the 'something more' that helped them must have been Clark.
With Lois being pushed a little into the background, will Lana become the 'strong human who vies for Superman's heart' in this book?
I can't wait to find out.
I want Lois to be with Clark. But I would take Lana in a relationship with him over Diana in a heartbeat.
So excellent opening chapter, especially told in flashback, building a foundation for us to go forward with.
But wait ... there's more.
Back in the present day we see how much Superman has changed, taking time out as Clark to listen to the problems of the city and help as many as possible. He melts a gun, blows someone out of the path of a car, and even donates to the poor. I don't think it diminishes Superman to hear Clark say he simply can't help everyone ... but he will help as many as he can.
We end with a nice cliffhanger. Lana in Venezuela is deep underground in a drilling rig which accidentally releases a monster from the subterranean world.
So just a fabulous opening chapter for the new team. Everything seemed to click here ... words, art, page layout. And we get the return of Lana Lang!
Between Bedard/Cinar on Supergirl and Pak/Kuder on Action and Pak/Lee or Booth on Batman/Superman maybe I should feel optimistic!