Thursday, 13 August 2015

Action Comics #43 - Review

Words: Greg Pak
Art: Aaron Kuder
Colours: Tomeu Morey
Letters: Steve Wands


It’s fitting that my blogging about comics should begin with a piece about the latest issue of a title that (for better or worse) changed the medium as we know it, especially as the story within is so 'of the moment'. With Action Comics #43, Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder present the third issue in an arc that has been really compelling up till now, as Superman squares off against a group of wholly unsympathetic riot cops looking to beat down a group of assembled ordinary Joes, who’ve peacefully gathered for a pro-Superman rally in Clark Kent’s neighbourhood.

It’s an interesting hook, bearing in mind contemporary US news events, which puts the Man of Steel in his element as an optimistic and inspirational figure and defender of the downtrodden. He may be shorn of his immense power (more on that in a bit) and decked out in jeans and an S-logo t-shirt following his identity having been leaked (more on that in a bit), but this is Superman at his purest: as a form of wish fulfilment and embodiment of ‘goodness’. And it’s been a really fun couple of issues so far.

To briefly recap, issue #42 ended with a genuinely suspenseful cliffhanger moment as, after taking a lot of punches with stoic, good grace befitting the last son of Krypton, Superman finally relented, punching the officer in charge. Of course, this is exactly what the bad guy was hoping for and set up some interesting questions, namely: how is Superman going to deal with the fallout of having assaulted a cop? Especially having provided an excuse for a squad of riot police to beat the crap out of his assembled friends and neighbours. How on earth was he (being Superman the character and Pak as writer) going to resolve this one?

Somewhat anti-climatically this is all resolved by page two of the issue. It begins with a great opening splash, in which Superman realises exactly what he’s done (“Me... punching a cop? In anger? This isn’t what Superman’s all about. This is bad...” ) which further raises tension for the reader, only for Pak and Kuder to reveal that the officer in question – Sergeant Binghamton – is a more literal monster. He's in fact one of the Shadows, a mysterious new enemy currently being established over in the pages of Gene Luen  Lang and John Romita, Jr’s Superman. This has the effect of instantly letting Superman off the hook and also saves the assembled innocents as the riot cops turn their capacity for violence upon their unmasked sergeant.

In a great little character moment, Superman's answer to the cop's "how'd you know. Superman?" is a straightforward and completely honest "I didn't".

This is potentially a problem, for the issue and potentially the whole arc, because the stakes were raised somewhere higher than “will Superman beat the monster?” to somewhere infinitely more interesting. Perhaps there was internal (and quite understandable) reluctance at DC comics to have Clark Kent punch a cop, so it makes sense that Pak and Kuder would go the route of revealing Binghamton as an even less ambiguous monster, eligible for guilt-free punching. Yet it might have been more interesting a problem for Superman if nobody else around had seen the officer’s true nature, with our hero still having to face the consequences of that act with all their teased implications.

Which isn't to say the situation blows over without any moral consequence. Pak is smart enough to have our hero wrestle with what he intended to do - which was to punch a cop in the face in anger - noting his sense of “shame and relief” after the fact. Still the story loses a lot of the momentum and sense of curiosity which had been built up so skilfully in the preceding chapters.

Yet even if it doesn't continue on the trajectory I'd have found most immediately rewarding, over the rest of the issue it becomes clear that Pak wasn't necessarily interested in telling “Superman vs. Police Brutality” so much as a more optimistic and constructive tale about people overcoming their differences and banding together for a common good. It's about a community healing rather than the easy thrills one might derive from Clark punching back – even if the characters are bound by genre convention to do this by fighting somebody else (monsters!). (Sidenote: a superhero title called Action Comics would make an unlikely forum for a tale of peace and anti-violence after all.)

I love Greg 'The Incredible Hercules' Pak's writing as a rule, but this attempt at making Jimmy Olsen seem cool/relevant made me laugh and it's a perfect encapsulation of the 'hip' DC YOU branding. #auto-uploading
In the end the comic is smarter for taking this approach than I had initially given credit on reading that second page reveal. As the police and protesters aligning against Shadow-possessed government officials it suggests a conflict between Superman and the institutional causes of systemic inequality rather than just the foot soldiers themselves. As the "to be continued" text sums up nicely, with a playful hokeyness that's visible throughout the book, "Does Superman Know You Can't Beat City Hall?"

But putting current affairs and specific story beats to one side, where this story arc has really shone so far is in its deceptive simplicity and accessibility.

This brings me back round to Superman’s vague, undefined loss of a portion of his power and the aforementioned detail that his secret identity has been leaked to the public, apparently putting him out of favour with elements of the population and government*. That all sounds like business that would intimidate or alienate a new reader, yet happily this isn't the case at all.

There's no convincing some people, apparently.
I jumped onto this series with #41, at the start of this arc (which more broadly forms part of a nominal crossover event called “Truth” taking place over all the Superman books), and it’s written in such a way that makes it very easy to just roll with this status quo. It’s quite amazing in the modern era, but this is genuinely an arc you could hand to somebody completely new to superhero comics and they'd get what’s going on. Better still I think #43 pulls the same feat even as it comes in the middle of an arc. Everything you need to know to enjoy this comic is presented in the pages of this comic and is supported by coherent storytelling. That shouldn’t be such a big deal but it’s far from the norm in comics.

If you'll indulge a little anecdotal case study to support this point: my wife is reading and enjoying this arc, with no prior Superman knowledge (save the general pop culture kind) and zero investment in the broader DC universe whatsoever. This is something even the very best writers at “the big two” find extremely difficult to do and it’s something more comics need to do if they're ever going to attract significant numbers of new readers instead of just selling comics to nerds who already like comics (like this writer). Which I don’t mention as a business problem (although it is) so much as an inclusivity issue. Ultimately, a wider range of people reading comics will translate into a wider range of people writing comics.

So if you know somebody who’s into the movies or TV shows (or the cosplay or the t-shirts or the video games or the action figures) but doesn't know where and how to jump into the books themselves (which was me circa 2011), this issue and this story form a brilliant jumping on point.

It’s smartly written and purely enjoyable - easily one of the best superhero books coming out at the moment.

*There's potentially something about the current immigration debate here but I won't go into it for fear of using up all my SJW tokens in my first comic review.

No comments:

Post a Comment