By Greg Pak, Aaron Kuder, and Tomeu Morey
This year marks a major turning point for DC Comics. Their event comic Convergence brought an end to the much maligned New 52 branding title. With the New 52’s consignment to the dustbin of DC initiatives the company is undergoing a serious 180 in terms of identity and content. The biggest aspect of this is a push towards greater diversity of story genres and story leads, mainly signified by a radical reworking of most of the company’s big name heroes like Batman and Superman. Action Comics has ended up the heart of DC’s new identity, an imaginative reworking of Superman that’s smart enough to keep the ideological core of the character while reworking his current situation. What’s more, Action Comics isn’t just an enjoyable Superman comic; it’s a socially conscious and aware one.
The story is that for reasons that aren’t particularly important Superman has been more or less depowered. He still maintains his incredible strength and massive jumping abilities but all of his other powers are gone. His only edge in addition to the super strength is the scraps of his impenetrable cape, which he uses as brass knuckles. What’s more his identity as Clark Kent has been made public and attracted a lot of negative attention. This first major story arc revolves around Superman’s return to his old neighborhood. Even though Clark finds a very positive welcome from his old friends and neighbors his return has brought down the hammer of the police and municipal government on the area, viewing Superman as a magnet for trouble that should be removed.
There’s a background story revolving around some malevolent group of shadow monsters but the meat of what makes this an engaging and worthwhile issue really comes from Superman’s battle to protect his block from police eviction. Stripping Superman of his powers was a gutsy move from the creators and relegating his abilities to just punching things very hard easily could’ve landed the series in Man of Steel territory. It ran the risk of reducing Superman to a brutal brawler who only exists to deal out super smack downs rather than the a figure of who protects the innocent. However, Action Comics’ street level focus manages to neatly sidestep this issue. The emphasis is still on Clark as a defender of the innocent only now he’s defending them against much more human threats that parallel real world issues with police misconduct.
This latest issue adds a unique additional wrinkle to the mix that manages to firmly reinforce this as a Superman struggle in the classical sense. The idea is that because Superman’s enemies have are so much more street level he has to be even more careful about when he uses his super strength for fear of injuring someone. It’s a neat continuance of Superman’s key struggle as a hero, the question of how much intervention is too much. It’s a way to keep the comic’s character focus while the narrative emphasis broadens into new territory for the character. The other major point of this issue is about Superman’s new relationship with his community now that he is a street level hero and his identity has been revealed.
This particular challenge is newer ground for Superman as that comes about as a result of his diminished state. The idea is essentially just that because Superman’s no longer as powerful as he used to be he can’t give his neighborhood the protection it deserves. This is actually a pretty un-Superman dillema but it works in this context for two reasons. Partly it’s a logical extrapolation of Superman’s new state and good moment of character development but mostly it works because of how Superman adapts to the situation. He doesn’t give up, he doesn’t become disheartened, instead he digs in his heals and finds away around the problem. The emphasis goes from Superman being powerful enough to do anything to Superman’s symbol being powerful enough to rally together a solution.
The artwork, unfortunately, isn’t as stellar as the storytelling. Aaron Kuder is doing good job but his work is generally too busy and rubbery. His characters have a habit of adopting cartoonishly exaggerated poses that are meant to convey energy but end up looking like action figures. There’s also a little too much reliance on speed lines to drive the action, especially given how simplistic the action scenes are. Where the art really shines are in the smaller scenes. Moments like Clark returning to his defaced apartment, the aftermath of the citizen battle with the cops, and Clark leading a neighborhood meeting are low energy enough for the art to finally catch its breath. The saving grace art wise is the coloring of Tomeu Morey who really elevates the proceedings. Morey actually finds an engaging color balance that allows him to keep almost every panel grounded in a hue base drawn from Superman’s primary colors. Morey does a lot of great blending work on the speed lines too, giving them a great sense of emotion in addition to the energy they lend each panel.
Action Comics is a great example of how DC You’s reworking can make these classic characters fresh and relevant. Stripping Superman down to the bares bones of his abilities while keeping the emphasis on the responsibility of power and Superman as an inspirational figure for communities facing authoritarian and systemic oppression is a brilliant way to ground Superman in the issues of the here and now while staying true tot eh character. Best of all, Action Comics manages to avoid the problems of its spiritual successors ‘Grounded’ and Superman Earth-One by keeping the emphasis on this being a Clark Kent story. This helps keep things grounded and avoids a lot of the bloat and overinflated importance far too often heaped upon Superman stories. Bottom line, Action Comics is bold, well written, gets the character, and is one of the more meaningful comic books currently coming out of DC.