I’ve had a complicated recent history with Superman. Regular readers of my column, IN YOUR FACE JAM, know that I’ve gone from wanting to care about Superman to actually caring about Superman. And then there’s the whole “Man of Steel” thing — the thing being that it exists and I saw it. So as a guy that’s gone back and forth on Superman a number of times in the past few years, I’m incredibly surprised to be writing about how much I’m enjoying “Action Comics.”
Yeah, for the first time in my life, I’m reading and enjoying a Superman comic month in and month out as it’s being published. This is because writer Greg Pak and artist Aaron Kuder are doing something downright, well, super.
To be clear, I’m no Superman purist and I’m not a die-hard fan. I will not stick by the Man of Steel through dips in quality; I reserve that specific type of fan dedication for the X-Men. I really didn’t know what to expect when I bought Pak and Kuder’s debut, “Action Comics” #25. I know I expected a good story because Pak’s been a favorite of mine for years, but I didn’t know what type of Superman story I was going to get in a post-“Man of Steel” world.
Now, I promise that this isn’t another thousand-word essay bashing “Man of Steel.” The Internet’s full of those, and I bet two more will have been written by the time you’re done reading this column. It’s just that in order to put my reaction to Pak and Kuder’s “Action” in context, you have to know my response to “Man of Steel.” I was disappointed by it because I felt that it offered up way too much violence and neck-snapping and not enough hope. I’m not here to get into whether or not that interpretation of Superman is wrong; it just wasn’t what I wanted from a Superman movie after falling in love with stories like “Superman: Secret Identity” and “Superman: Birthright.” So going into “Action Comics” #25, I would not have been surprised if the New 52 Superman hadn’t bent a bit to “Man of Steel’s” box office-fueled will.
While I’m sure “Man of Steel” fans also loved “Action Comics” #25, I know that this “Man of Steel” naysayer really loved it. The issue itself opens up with a grim and gritty take on a young Clark Kent, having just discovered his powers. He enjoys fighting off a group of supremacists and their creepy spider-walking robot, and he doesn’t get that upset when the civilians he saves run away screaming. He thrills at the action and doesn’t care with what others think. He saved people, right? Who cares if they’re scared of him? It’s hard to not think of that as a metaphor for “Man of Steel.” Superman saved Earth in that movie, right? I mean, yeah, Metropolis got leveled and the film was fine with Superman taking a life, but who cares? The good side still won, even if it left some Superman fans a little scared.
About halfway through the issue, though, Clark has a realization: He punched down. He let his power make him a bully. When Pak’s run with Superman is over, this will be remembered as the first of probably many defining scenes in his run — Superman, looking down at his hands, having realized his true power and what it actually means to wield that power.
Then, Pak and Kuder put Superman up against a hurricane in a situation where he gets to punch up instead of down. The best parts of any Superman story, in my newly formed opinion, feature the character pushing himself past his limits to save others. This sequence, where a not-yet-fully-powered Clark Kent tries to stop a hurricane, hit all the right buttons. The storytelling by Aaron Kuder is excellent, as he captures both the magnitude of the storm and Superman’s newly humbled face. It’s just good comics.
The creative team upped their game in the next issue, as they began what’s shaping up to be their first major storyarc. In “Action Comics” #26, Superman goes up against a giant monster that mysteriously emerged from underground and chose Clark Kent’s old buddy Lana Lang to mess with. Even though Pak did a great job of establishing his Superman’s moral code in #25, he still surprised me towards the end of #26 with a twist that I’m still in love with today.
When faced with an unstoppable killing machine, Superman’s left with no other choice than to grab it by the scaly scruff of its neck and toss it into the sun. Considering how “Man of Steel” ends, this seemed like a regrettable yet believable plot point in a late 2013 DC Comic. Superman flies off with the beast and returns alone, hiding a broken look on his face and remaining silent before taking off again. We’re led to believe that even if this Superman doesn’t punch down, he’s not above making a tough call. This is a Superman that values hope right up until he has to get realistic. Fine. That’s where the original superhero is at right now, and that’s what I initially expected when I started reading “Action Comics.”
Except, that’s not what happened at all. Superman lands and unwinds at the Fortress of Solitude, recalling the moment his heat vision first kicked in, leveling everything in sight. To his human father, his son was the uncontrollable beast, but he didn’t turn his back on him. Just like Superman won’t turn his back on even a seemingly mindless monster. As we see Kuder’s majestic depiction of the beast under impenetrable glass, we read Pak’s words: “So I don’t care what they say… I’m gonna be there for you.”
That’s all I needed to see to know that this run on “Action Comics” will go down in history, at least with me. It has a Superman that puts others’ needs before his own, a Superman that always finds a way no matter what, a Superman that I want to believe in. It has female protagonist in Lana Lang, that’s fascinating, fearless, funny, and stubborn in all the best ways. It has Kuder’s excellent storytelling capabilities and creature design, which make this version of Superman stand out from every other one out there right now, and they’ve kicked off a story that keeps getting bigger and more expansive with each new issue. And, this is a big one for me, it’s fun.
Superman’s been a lot of things in 75 years. I mean, for a lot of my comic reading adolescence he was a blue lightning guy. While Pak’s take on Superman isn’t radically different, I would say it’s radically similar. So far this run on “Action Comics” seems to echo the best Superman stories I’ve ever read, by everyone from Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek to Mark Waid and Grant Morrison, while also placing this innately Superman character into new situations. It’s like what would happen if a favorite canceled TV series came back with new episodes that somehow felt the same and were as good as the original episodes. That’s hard to pull off, but that’s what “Action Comics” feels like to me.
DC Comics had a rough time in 2013, but with Pak and Kuder’s “Action Comics” leading the way, 2014 looks like it’s going to be a great year.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).