Pak & Kuder’s Action Comics spearheads a Superman comic-book revival

Pak & Kuder’s Action Comics spearheads a Superman comic-book revival

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Action Comics #28. Written by Greg Pak (Batman/Superman, Eternal Warrior) and drawn by Aaron Kuder (Green Lantern: New Guardians, Avenging Spider-Man), this issue continues a fantastic run that has shown a deep understanding of Superman’s character while depicting his larger-than-life adventures with gorgeous artwork.

The cover of Action Comics #28 is a simple, iconic shot of Superman soaring through the air, flying away from a bright explosion in front of the book’s massive logo, which has been etched in a giant piece of stone to make it a significant part of the picture rather than letters at the top of the page. It’s an image that is all about creating a sense of big, putting a huge Superman front and center while the logo sits in the background like an alphabetic mountain range, containing no information about the contents, yet suggesting a story that lives up to the first word of the book’s title. And it most surely does.

Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder’s Action Comics has quickly become one of DC’s best titles by delivering breathtaking superhero spectacle, pitting Superman against threats like a Gotham City hurricane and enormous subterranean monsters that force him to use the full extent of his abilities. Exquisitely staged by Kuder, the action is just one of the reasons to check out this run, which has done impressive work presenting a lead hero that is immensely likable and relatable by focusing on his relationship to childhood sweetheart Lana Lang. Superman may be dating Wonder Woman currently, but there’s a flirtation that is constantly present between Lana and him because of their history together, bringing a playful quality to their relationship that works exceptionally well with Pak’s story.

While the plot has its fair share of serious elements, this run is succeeding because it’s a whole lot of fun, taking readers to sprawling new locales with two adorable best friends that constantly find themselves in the middle of exciting battles. The current storyline finds Clark and Lana engaging with a race of underground creatures that have sustained themselves by tapping into an unlikely power source, telling a fairly traditional Superman vs. giant monsters narrative with style and charm.

In Pak’s story, Clark doesn’t view Lana as his equal, but his better. She’s a kick-ass action hero without any powers, and Clark admires her ability to better the world using her mind rather than her fists. The use of duel narration to get into the heads of both characters brings an added layer of complexity to their interactions, and Pak often uses the disconnect between Clark’s and Lana’s thoughts and actions for comedic purposes. When Lana discovers that Subterranea is a matriarchy, she takes advantage of the chance to play a joke on her bestie, telling Queen Kokya that Superman isn’t her consort, but her slave; the word she thinks of saying is “friend,” but “slave” is a lot funnier. Then Ukur the subterranean warrior makes things really awkward by saying they smell like a mated pair, igniting a spark of attraction that will continue to burn throughout the issue.

The script gives Kuder the opportunity to design a rich subterranean setting that is both alien and organic, showing off the attention to environmental detail that puts him in the same camp as visionaries like Arthur Adams and Geof Darrow. That detail is matched by Wil Quintana’s coloring, which uses a soft palette of pastels to create a calm, welcoming fantasy environment that becomes doused in more vibrant, saturated hues once the action heats up. The panel of Clark and Lana entering central Subterranea is a breathtaking display of Kuder and Quintana’s finely tuned creative synergy, with Quintana’s colors adding considerable dimension and atmosphere to the painstakingly rendered linework.  

The art in this book is just astounding, perfectly modulated to Pak’s script to maximize the impact of each scene. #28 opens with a full page splash of Superman, Lana, Ukur, and giant blue dragon-dog-monster Baka standing in battle-ready poses before a silhouetted shrieking creature, setting up a confrontation before the next page reveals the silhouette to be a tiny white lemur-like creature, playing with its equally cute brethren on a rock formation. The drama of that opening page amplifies the humor of the following page, firmly landing the visual punchline that forces Clark and Lana to suppress their laughter. Kuder creates an extraordinary sense of scope by constantly zooming out to show relative size, and those recurring long shots provide visual depth that lends a big-budget cinema quality to the book.

Kuder’s framing is essential to maintaining the grandiosity evoked by the cover, and Superman seems like an even bigger character when Kuder zooms out to show his massive power in relation to his size. This book contains five full-page splashes, and none of them feel like gratuitous padding. Each splash serves a narrative purpose, whether it’s setting up comedy like the opening page or showing a sudden sweeping outbreak of violence. A full-page shot of Clark and Lana watching gigantic stone sentinels come to life establishes the overwhelming threat they’re about to face, and that image is immediately followed by another splash page showing new character Ghost Soldier incapacitate one of the rock guards, a moment of triumph for the mystery man that firmly aligns him with the good guys. The final splash won’t be spoiled here, but it’s a striking image for a cliffhanger reveal that Ghost Soldier may not be as firmly aligned as suspected.

When the script calls for it, Kuder knows to tighten the framing and offer a closer look at the events. In a scene that will send Clark and Lana shippers into a tizzy, the two make themselves comfortable in their colossal living quarters by engaging in some harmless half-dressed flirting, and Kuder zooms in to highlight small, specifically noteworthy moments in their conversation. The opening establishing panel for the scene is one of those great long shots, showing a room that is enormous and opulently decorated, but also containing a surprising natural element with a small bird perched on a tree branch in the upper right corner. From there, the panels zoom closer and closer as Lana and Clark situate themselves, with Clark stripping off his top to tend to a knife wound he suffered earlier.

“Not every day you get to eyeball the World’s Finest,” Lana narrates as she peeks out from behind her dressing barrier to check out the super-beefcake physique across the room, and the following panels sexualize Superman in a way that shows where Lana’s attention really is during their conversation. Both Lana and Clark are wiping themselves down with damp rags, but the panels zoom in on Clark’s body in a way that is more sensual than the depictions of Lana, ending with a tight close-up on his bare belly button and chiseled abs as he pulls his shirt on. Lana likes to look, but she also knows better than to seriously consider Clark that way, so she pulls herself out of her lustful mode by throwing a towel in his face and bringing them back to a platonic place. Very little of that is explicitly stated in the script, but the panel layouts add a more intimate subtext to the conversation.

This week, DC announced that writer Geoff Johns would be joining renowned Marvel artist John Romita Jr. on Superman this summer, a surprise announcement that makes 2014 an especially interesting year for the Big Blue Boy Scout. Johns’ run on pre-New 52 Action Comics contains some of his best writing of the past five years, and Romita Jr. has the kind of bold, classic style that is a smart fit for the character, finally giving readers a solid reason to pick up Superman after the New 52 put that title in an extended creative slump. Promotional art has Romita inked by Klaus Janson and colored by Laura Martin, and if that’s the final Superman art team, it’s going to be one attractive book.

The whole Super-family looks to be getting an overhaul this year, beginning with Supergirl joining the Red Lanterns in the Green Lantern/Red Lanterns #28 flip-book. Charles Soule’s Red Lanterns dramatically changed for the better in the past year—along with Soule’s Swamp Thing and Jeff Lemires Green Arrow, two titles that also have strong issues released this week—and folding Supergirl into that book is an unexpected move that pushes the character in a new direction. If this was a year ago, that new direction would be very questionable, but Soule has turned Red Lanterns into a fascinating exploration of anger and aggression with a sharp sense of humor, finding a lot of depth within a concept that appears very shallow on the surface. And after her stint with the Reds, Supergirl will be moving to Jeff Lemire’s Justice League United, keeping her in the spotlight for the foreseeable future.

Superboy’s future isn’t clear, but with Scott Lobdell’s Teen Titans run coming to an end this spring, it’s very likely that all the Titans characters will be undergoing some considerable changes. (If the ending of The Green Team series is to be believed, there’s a high probability that Art Baltazar and Franco—the creative team of the beloved Tiny Titans—may be taking over the main Teen Titans series, which would be very cool.) The current Action Comics run proves all it takes is the right creative team to revive a title, and with Marvel unleashing a wave of new ongoing series with inspired teams, there’s no better time for DC to reconfigure its line. Hopefully the success of Pak and Kuder’s book will motivate the publisher to continue improving the quality of its Super-titles, because as some of the world’s most popular heroes, Superman and his family should be flying high instead of falling flat. 

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