Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Action Comics #43. Written by Greg Pak (Batman/Superman, Storm) and Aaron Kuder (Green Lantern: New Guardians, Avenging Spider-Man) with art by Kuder and colorist Tomeu Morey (Deathstroke, Convergence), this issues tackles contemporary political issues through a superhero lens by having Superman fight a monstrous metaphor for corruption and prejudice. (This review reveals major plot points.)
Action Comics #43 begins with a full-page splash of Superman punching a police sergeant in the face, shattering the gas mask that protects the cop from the tear gas he’s spraying at peaceful protestors on the street. It’s an intensely relevant image considering the events in Ferguson this week as protestors faced off against police as they crowded the streets on the anniversary of Mike Brown’s death and the days following. The political angle of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder’s current Action Comics storyline has shown new sides of Superman’s character by making him an adversary of the Metropolis Police Department.
Outed alien Clark Kent has become a public enemy after Lois Lane revealed his superhero secret identity to the public. But his neighbors have rallied their support behind him by creating Kentville, occupying the streets to show that they stand by their local hero. This act of protest has incited the M.P.D. to action, but Clark Kent won’t let his friends suffer for his decisions, throwing a punch that exposes the true threat motivating these overly aggressive cops.
Pak and Kuder introduce a potentially problematic twist in the conflict this week by revealing that Sergeant Binghampton has been possessed by one of the shadow monsters terrorizing Superman across his various titles, and it’s understandable why some readers might be disappointed by this development. Superman fighting a cop who has been corrupted by the power of his badge is a much more complex problem than Superman fighting a cop who has been corrupted by a supernatural force. But the shadow monsters function as a metaphor for the extraordinary threat of a militarized police force and a city government that sees no problem with it.
Even though the story’s foundation is in real-world sociopolitical issues, this is still a superhero comic, and the creative team is using the conventions of the genre to offer a fantastic interpretation of the problems currently plaguing U.S. cities. Pak and Kuder’s story isn’t about exploring the institutional problems that have led to a cultural climate where minority communities are oppressed by a militarized police force; it’s about people finding strength by uniting against an overpowered enemy. Some may view the shadow monster reveal as a cop-out; it’s definitely a way for the creative team to step around the conflict’s deeper ethical complications by making Metropolis’ corrupt police officers and government officials agents of an evil supernatural entity. But that simplification effectively turns abstract ideas into a physical force for Superman and his allies to fight against.
In reality, people protesting the actions of police departments and city governments aren’t fighting superpowered shadow monsters, but they might as well be, considering how heavily the odds are stacked against them. Superhero comics are all about metaphors, and Pak and Kuder make it very obvious what the shadow monsters represent in their story, especially in the issue’s final scene. Standing outside the mayor’s office, Officer Annabella Petruzzelli complains about the danger posed by Kentville and the alien the town has chosen to support, revealing an uninformed prejudice that makes her the perfect candidate for possession. This scene establishes that the shadows prey on those who have already subscribed to a discriminatory perspective; they don’t differentiate based on race or gender. The white male sergeant is as vulnerable as the black female mayor, suggesting that once a person reaches a certain level of power, they become susceptible to an evil influence.
Officer Petruzzelli has no interest in becoming some shadow’s pawn, and flees from the mayor’s office into the hallway where Clark Kent and his allies in the M.P.D. are waiting to take down their shared enemy. “Don’t worry, Petruzzelli,” Clark says. “We’re all in this together.” That final line is the major theme of this storyline, and the most powerful moments in this issue are when that idea of communal power is at the forefront. After having his apartment broken into, destroyed, and marked with graffiti saying “GO HOME ALIEN,” “EARTH IS OURS,” and “SKUM,” Clark realizes that his presence makes him a danger to his neighbors and gives an inspirational speech to keep those around him safe. He humbles himself by confessing that his depowered state makes it impossible for him to defend everyone, and begs his supporters to protect themselves and each other if they’re going to stay in their neighborhood. “You’re all Superman now,” Clark says, and the rousing line is given even greater impact by Kuder’s two-page splash showing the residents of Kentville in meticulous detail.
There’s a somber mood to the image thanks to Tomeu Morey’s muted color palette. Putting Clark in the background accentuates how small his current situation makes him feel, but pairing that line with the expansive ensemble shot introduces some hope as Clark deputizes an army of Supermen, Superwomen, and Superchildren. The enthusiastic positive response from his neighbors is exactly what Clark needs to hear after having his spirit crushed. In the issue’s most heart-wrenching moment, Superman remembers what he’s fighting for as he looks at the Kent family picture that was vandalized in his apartment. Standing between his adopted parents, young Clark’s face has had holes poked through it and his body has been scratched out, but he folds the picture over so his defiled self disappears and he’s left with an image of his ever-supportive parents smiling at him. No matter what is written on the walls of his apartment or in the pages of the Daily Planet, Clark Kent will always hold on to his humanity as long as he remembers the lessons his parents taught him, and that small moment packs a huge emotional punch.
The major benefit of having a fantastic villain is that it allows Kuder and colorist Tomeu Morey to create more sensational action sequences, and Kuder specifically channels Akira as Superman faces off against Sergeant Binghampton and his bulging right arm, which is heavily reminiscent of Tetsuo’s massive appendage in the manga classic. Kuder’s run on Action Comics has cemented him as one of DC’s top talents, and this issue is a career highlight for the artist with its dynamic action, intricate detail, and rich characterizations. It’s also Kuder’s third issue with a story credit, and his involvement in the plotting of the book has brought even more energy and passion to his artwork. The action is sharper, the linework has more texture, and the emotional beats of the script are crystal clear, heightening every aspect of Pak’s script.
After being joined by a team of colorists for the past two issues, Kuder has a single colorist this month. Morey adds depth and dimension to the artwork with subtle gradients that show a refined understanding of how light sources interact with different surfaces. The superhero spectacle of the opening fight is played up by Morey’s bold palette of red, pinks, and purples. Using green and yellow as the dominant colors for the temptation of Officer Petruzelli creates a sickly atmosphere where these shadow monsters thrive. Kuder and Morey do beautiful work together, and hopefully Morey will remain the book’s sole colorist for the foreseeable future, as he brings a level of detail that matches the specificity in Kuder’s art.
The structure of the current storyline spread across the four main Superman books (Action Comics, Superman, Batman/Superman, Superman/Wonder Woman) is very smart. Each book addresses a specific period in Clark Kent’s new outed, depowered life that is connected to the others, but also stands on its own. Having events in Superman spoiled by plot developments in other titles set later in the timeline is a risky decision, but it allows readers to follow single titles instead of requiring them to buy four books to get one story. It also gives creative teams the opportunity to maintain their individual voices while serving a larger character arc.
Gene Luen Yang and John Romita Jr.’s Superman has a more traditional feel as it marks the end of Clark’s old life and sets up a new status quo. The other books have used the changes in that title to shake up the dynamics between Clark Kent and his community (Action Comics), his girlfriend (Superman/Wonder Woman), and his closest superhero friend (Batman/Superman, which also features another major shakeup by having Jim Gordon as the new Dark Knight). It’s a brand new era for Superman, and these big changes have made the hero’s titles stronger than they’ve been in years by reinforcing the central ideas of truth, justice, and alienation at the character’s core.