Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: Action Comics #39

Action Comics #39 came out last week, the last chapter of the 'Horrorville' arc, a truly creepy story. One thing that I have liked about writer Greg Pak is that he has done a great job recently of putting Superman into unfamiliar territories. Whether it was the bizarre landscape of Subterranea or the grim events of 'Superman's Joker' or this Lovecraftian Smallville, seeing Superman out of his element has upped the drama of the stories.

We aren't punching Terra Man or foiling Luthor here. We are dealing with fear-eating demons invading out plane. We are looking at reanimated corpses and psionic farmers. It is weird. And how do you put conflict into stories with an invulnerable super-strong protagonist? You put him in places where he is uncomfortable and ask him to deal.

But it isn't just monsters that make this creepy. This is personal with the Kents and the Langs and the whole hometown being mired in the thick fog of the macabre. I have loved it.

The art is split between Aaron Kuder and Scott Kolins. I like both artists ... Kuder a bit more. If Kuder can't keep up with the pace, I'd prefer him take a whole issue off now and then instead of the hodgepodge approach. Kuder's flashback pages in this issue, in particular, are superb.

Lana is in the more frightening area of the Phantom Zone, her fear and life being drained from her by the head monster. There are tiny fear demons feasting on the Smallville citizens. And the Phantom Zone rift is wide open.

The psionically powered Smallvillians (sp?) decide that it is time to plug the bleed from the Zone. Even if that means that Lana will be trapped inside and the minor demons will be trapped in the town.

I like Superman's response here. Pak has a bunch of 'Supermanisms' that he has had our hero say. "Don't punch down" for example. "There's always a way!" is another.  Here is an easy one. "I don't give up!"

I really like Pak's Superman.

Steel is able to delay the psionics from closing the rip into the Zone so he and Superman can head in. And then, in a 'hey comics!' moment, Steel uses his armor to tone down his fear. And he envelops Superman in the armor as well. Calmer and less scared, the two venture forth until they see Lana in the grips of the ultimate monster ... the Ultra-Humanite, the monster in the corn rows that Clark fought years ago.

I love Kuder's art in these flasbacks,  a sort of pencilly, wispier, ghostlier art.

And a new Ultra-humanite! I like this one way more than the original. We have plenty of mad scientists in the DCU. But a fear demon who looks like an elder god! Now that is new!

And then Lana, about to die, voices Clark's fears. He eventually is going to lose everyone. He can't save everyone. He will have to make tough choices. He will have to eventually live a sad life.

That is a powerful fear. Clark is such a caring person. To understand that he imagines a life alone as a failure is an interesting take on the character.

But Clark is in charge of his decisions. He decides that he has to save Lana. And the best way to accomplish that is to allow the Ultra-Humanite to feed on him. Clark becomes prey.

And then we get a wonderful array of the tragedies in Superman's life ... whether they be the distant past, the recent past, or a possible future.

This scene of the young Clark, grieving his parents' death, lying with his head in Lana's lap, feeling guilty for laughing at a sitcom. But also feeling joy that people can move on.

This is a rare scene of emotional vulnerability for Superman and, as such, incredibly powerful.

And then the pain he feels for not being there to save Lana's family. He so wanted to spare her that pain. He so wants to provide her the support that she gave him.

There is something so wonderful about this Lana/Clark relationship in this book. It is an old friendship supported by love.

Then the perceived possible future tragedies. Lois dead by Metallo. Bruce killed by Luthor. Supergirl (unnamed but in the panel) and Diana killed by Zod and Faora.

Superman expects himself to fail, to see his loved ones die around him.

We see visions of Superman outliving all the people he loves, going into space, isolated.

This is his greatest fear.

And you know what ... it makes sense. Above all, he cherishes life and he loves his friends and family. Being alone would be the thing that scares him.

We see it. We see the fear on his face. We see how he thinks not existing, his friends not existing, his friends dying weighs on him. And trying to not think about the problem doesn't mean it isn't there.

Superman's fear is so great, so heavy a meal that it calls home the demons on Smallville to feed. It makes the Ultra-Humanite drop Lana. And then ... it is soooo great ... it sates the whole demon horde. Full at last, they sleep.

That is how great the fear of losing his loved ones ... of losing anyone ... is. It feeds a dimension of fear demons.

It is the antithesis of the calm, cool, unworried Superman of All-Star Superman. But it is as valid. And humanizing. I am one of those people that thinks that the man is as important as the super.

With the greedy demons sleeping off their dinner, Superman, Steel, and Lana are able to escape. And with the heroes back on Earth and the demons back in the Zone, the rift is sealed.

And finally we get that apology from Lana. She realizes that she was blaming Superman for something that truly wasn't his fault. She realizes how great his nightmare is, how much he hurts from the Lang's deaths.

It is a oddly quiet but somewhat deep ending for this arc. Superman doesn't beat up, freeze, or heat vision the Ultra-Humanite. The monster is defeated by Superman's fears. The allure of the arc was Superman being put in an environment that he isn't used to. So why not an ending that isn't an ending we are used to as Superman readers.

This whole story has been brilliant, slowly amping up the terror with each issue. Great pacing, great art, and intriguing concepts for a Superman story. Pak and Kuder (and Kolins) are clicking on all cylinders.

Overall grade: B+


Martin Gray said...

I agree, this was a great ending to a marvellous arc. I'm so pleased Lana came to terms with Clark's limits - he can aim to save everyone, but sometimes it's just not possible.

Did you get a chill from that final panel? Passed me by on first read...

Jay said...

Probably the best Action Comics run in a decade if not longer, and its completely flying under the radar. Bizzaro and Action #40 got a Channel 52 page last week, hopefully such promotion continues so this book gets the status it deserves.