This month starts the Darwyn Cooke variant covers for DC Comics. I’ve been a long time fan of Cooke, his style is clearly retro and in the same tradition of great artists such as Jack Kirby. As a vocal fan of Bruce Timm and Dave Bullock, it’s only natural that I respond to Cooke’s artwork. So when I looked at the DC Comics first week of variant covers, “Action Comics” issue 37 easily captured my eye. With its bold energy, youthful power, and old-fashioned depiction of heroics I immediately knew I needed it. Why? Because this is my Superman! The Superman I grew up with was the Man of Steel who stood for truth, justice, and the American Way. “Man of Steel”, “Superman Returns”, and The New 52 all feel like constant attempts to try to re-address his relevance in today’s world. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s not the Superman I know, love, and have dedicated my life to. So in reading Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder’s second installment in their very first outing together on Superman, I am left somewhat uncertain as to the story they have set out to tell.
Immediately following the events of this summer’s “Doomed”, Smallville is still recovering from the biochemical attack masterminded by Brainiac. The aftershock of Doomsday resulted in the loss of Lana Lang’s parents and Superman re-evaluating his existence on Earth. In turn, Lana has aided in massive humanitarian efforts to help rebuild her hometown, thus becoming a bit of a Super-Woman herself, and Clark grew a beard and is no longer the same Superman we’re familiar with at the start of the New 52. Smallville, only just recovering from an alien invasion, is once again under attack. But this time it’s in the form of a hauntingly atmospheric cloud akin to John Carpenter’s The Fog. We’re not quite certain who’s behind it, however there are clues that it could be from the Phantom Zone, and it’s raising the dead. Even Smallville has zombies!
In “Action Comics” issue 37, Superman has enlisted the help of Hiro, the Toymaster. Superman is desperately trying to escape Smallville so he can reach the other members of the Justice League but is continually transported to the other side of the cloud each time he attempts to penetrate the mist. Hiro thinks it’s “so freaking cool”, he finds the mechanics of it enthralling, and wonders how much he could profit from it if he could figure out what exactly the mist is. In the meantime, Superman begins to suffer from massive neurological trauma that his friend, John Henry Irons dismisses as “what we mere humans call a headache.” He does take note of an unusual amount of electrical activity found in Superman’s brain. Superman, along with Irons and Lana, head out into Smallville only to find that its residents are acting as if nothing unusual has happened. They are creepily reminiscent of The Body Snatchers meets an episode of The Twilight Zone. Superman, Irons, and Lana immediately recognize something is off with them and investigate only to eventually come under attack by the Smallville townspeople seemingly mind controlled by the cloud.
Greg Pak’s first outing on a Superman solo story is far different from his acclaimed work on “Batman Superman.” He has taken the Man of Steel out of his traditional setting and placed him in a more psychologically and emotionally driven story. Aided by Aaron Kuder’s strong physically driven artwork, the team deliver a story that lives up to its “Action Comics” namesake. Pak focuses on humanizing Clark by developing more of his supporting cast, highlighting Lana Lang and John Henry Irons a.k.a. Steel. Much like Geoff Johns and Romita Jr. by rounding out the story with familiar players from the Daily Planet bullpen Pak and Kuder have definitely managed to flesh out the Superman mythology. Lana Lang is a great representation of a strong, independent and caring female character and quickly outshines Lois Lane’s New 52 appearances! It’s been a smart move of Pak to focus on Lana and her relationship with Clark dating back to when they were kids. Lana has been a more permanent and recognized fixture in the Superman saga since tv’s “Smallville”, but it hasn’t been until Pak’s development of her that she’s become such a strong character in her own right. Pak’s Lana Lang is worthy of her own title and along with Kuder’s art, she is more of the selling point of “Action Comics” than Superman himself. They’ve also developed her relationship with Irons to a point that feels natural to the story, perhaps more natural than Superman’s relationship with Wonder Woman.
However, the “Horrorville” story arc that Pak and Kuder are telling feels more fantasy and pulp than any other genre. The horror genre is an interesting and fresh take for Superman, but for some reason, never feels quite right. It’s a considerable change of pace and direction for “Action Comics” and is in keeping with the trend of pushing classic characters into new arenas. (Afterlife with Archie, anyone?) If this was Lana’s book, it could work, but this is Superman and unfortunately failed to connect with me. As a Superman fan, there are certain expectations I have. Just as there are certain story beats that Manapul and Buccellato know they have to meet with “Detective Comics”, there are certain beats that we look for Pak and Kuder to meet with “Action.” They deliver a story that filled with Superman doing big things such as blowing out a field fire, Lana wielding a shotgun as if she were Stallone, and a slimy, tentacled creature that is an even more muscular version of the monsters Kuder draws so well! But there are certain Superman-ish moments that don’t feel like Superman. Maybe it’s because of the unconventional direction (horror) they’re taking the story in or possibly because of the excellent story Pak is telling in “Batman Superman” (Superman’s Joker), but “Action Comics” issue 37 was disappointing.
Blame it on the classic and timeless variant cover by Darwyn Cooke, but Pak and Kuder’s “Action Comics” doesn’t feel classic. It feels new. It’s often said that people fear change. I always believed change isn’t bad or good; it just is. So maybe this Superman fan needs to take his own advice. Either way, Mr. Grek Pak and Mr. Aaron Kuder please continue with what you are doing. It’s clear that you are telling a Superman story unlike any before. Maybe this is what will take “Action” into the Alan Moore territory of years ago! A story recognized for its difference and brilliance years later.
“Action Comics” issue #37 gets three out of five stars.
Action Comics (2011-) #37
Writer: Pak, Greg
Artist: Kuder, Aaron
Cover Artist: Kuder, Aaron
On Sale: December 03, 2014
Publisher: DC Comics
Diamond Id: OCT140275