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Comics: Action Comics – What Lies Beneath

By (January 1, 2015) No Comment

Action Comics Vol. 5: What Lies Beneathsuperman what lies beneath cover

Greg Pak, writer

Aaron Kuder, artist

DC Comics, 2014

The “New 52” front-to-back revamp DC Comics performed on its entire run of superhero comics in 2011 took some of the most recognizable comic book characters in the world – Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc. – and radically re-conceived them, changing costumes, origin stories, powers, and attitudes with the goal of simplifying decades of tangled back-stories and ideologically updating characters who in some cases debuted seventy years ago. It was the kind of conceptual housecleaning both major American comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, engage in periodically in an attempt to attract new readers, but “the New 52” was more sweeping than any previous such gimmick; a great many changes were fundamental.

No character was more sloppily and damagingly re-conceived than the company’s flagship character, the single most famous superhero in the world, Superman. In one of his relaunched titles, Action Comics, he’s just beginning his public career, wearing a T-shirt, work boots, and an ordinary red blanket as a makeshift cape and feared by the populace at large; in the other, Superman, released almost simultaneously (but taking place an unknown handful of years in the future), he’s wearing a grimmer version of the old famous carnival-acrobat’s outfit, an indestructible battle-armor with nonsensical piping and popped collars. The two versions of the character might have looked different, but they shared one thing in common: they were as far away from the friendly, smiling, big Boy Scout of the earlier continuity as they could possibly be short of him being an actual super-villain.

action comics 2This “New 52” Superman was coldly inhuman in his outlook (when talking with his fellow heroes, he floats a little above them, arms folded), a more or less indifferent visiting alien being of immense power whose motivations for helping people are as impenetrable as his skin. In his Clark Kent persona, he was morose and resentful; in his Superman persona, he seems to scorn humanity (as a damning example, he cares nothing for Lois Lane and is instead dating Wonder Woman based entirely on the first and apparently only thing he notices about her: she’s physically strong). A cynical reading would be that the “New 52” creators were making a deliberate commentary on what they saw as the simple naivety of the earlier versions of the character – that they wanted to Batmanify Superman.

It made for singularly disspiriting reading, as though we were suddenly following the preening, self-admiring adventures of the football team captain we found most insufferable, only now imbued with superpowers. In Action Comics we watched that character strut and wisecrack as he defied law enforcement, and in Superman we watched him grit his teeth and fly around semi-angrily. Long-time Superman fans had the singularly unhappy experience of watching their favorite hero get systematically emptied of every quality that made him interesting in the first place.

This shallow, annoying version of the character received the ultimate booster shot in 2013 when DC Comics’ parent company released the movie “Superman: Man of Steel,” which gave viewers a Superman who lets his adoptive human father die before his eyes, wildly flattens the city of Metropolis while fighting a cadre of super-villains, and executes an opponent he could easily have incapacitated. Any forlorn fan of the original version of the character might well have left the movie theater 100 percent certain they’d never see their old friend again – and that certainty would have been buttressed when the movie went on to make half a billion dollars world-wide.

And yet, at right around the same time “Superman: Man of Steel” was thrashing and yelling in movie theaters, Action Comics – where the whole franchise started – got a new creatitve action comics 3team: Greg Pak as writer and Aaron Kuder as artist, and almost from the first moment of their collaboration, a very appealing Superman was suddenly having adventures in print again. The first few issues of that collaboration are now collected in a hardcover volume with very nice paper quality and color transfers. What Lies Beneath is an actual breath of fresh air in the “New 52” portrayal of Superman.

Maybe the most surprising thing about that portrayal is that it is the “New 52” Superman, clearly, rather than a throwback to earlier versions of the character. This version of the character is still sleek and slightly wry, but Pak wastes no time working into his version of the Man of Steel a greater humanity than the “New 52” character had shown before. It’s surely no coincidence that this aspect arrives at the same time as a sparkling-good human anchor in the person of Clark Kent’s childhood friend Lana Lang, now an adventurous archeologist, but the enhanced likeability of Superman himself holds true even as Pak puts him through his paces, facing first a small blue monster who turns out to be very touchingly more complex and then an apparenlty sinister government agent, and then an entire subterranean hidden kingdom.

All this is drawn with wonderful exuberance by Aaron Kuder, whose sense of panorama is first-rate and whose monster designs are virtually Kirbyesque. The joining of his art to Pak’s wonderful dialogue and pacing creates, at long last, a thoroughly successful realization of the otherwise-bankrupt “New 52” version of the first and greatest superhero of them all. Old fans of that character can buy this new hardcover without trepidation.