In Defense Of T-Shirt Superman: Why ‘Action Comics’ And ‘Superman’ Are Seriously Great Right Now
I’ve mentioned it before on the site and elsewhere, but I’m of the mind that the core Superman titles — Action Comics by Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder, and Superman by Gene Luen Yang, John Romita Jr. and Howard Porter — are better now than they have been in a very long time. They’re engaging, they’re fun and innovative, and they have a sense of cohesion that Superman as a character often lacks. But every time I say that, I’m always a little surprised that there are so many people who disagree.
Don’t get me wrong — no story is going to appeal to everyone, but for me, these are some of the most fun stories out there. Then again, that might just be because there’s a story where Superman joined a pro wrestling federation for forgotten gods, and that’s kind of everything I want out of comic books happening at once.
To be honest, I think it’s easy to see why readers might be turned off by the current direction. Ever since the relaunch of the New 52 — before that, even — there’s been a burning desire to see the “classic” Superman in action again, instead of the guy we’ve had recently. For way too long, Superman’s default look has alternated between standing around on covers looking sad about something, and standing around on covers looking angry at something with glowing red eyes, and neither one of those is really the Superman that I want.
And on the surface, that’s exactly what the current books are promising. Even if you can get past Superman’s t-shirt and jeans “costume” — and I’ll admit that after the Grant Morrison/Rags Morales run on Action, I’ve come to love that costume as a visual signifier of Superman being a champion of the common people — that guy certainly looks like he’s not having a good time. He’s all scowls and scary eyes, and on top of that, the comics all have stuff like “CORRUPTION” and “ALIENATION” blasted across the covers in bold, brutal captial letters.
There’s one that just straight up says “LIES.”
If you’re looking for Classic Superman, that’s a look that’s not going to have a lot of appeal, and it makes it very easy to dismiss everything that’s going on in those comics before you even get to page one. I have to admit, if I wasn’t already as big a fan of Pak, Kuder, Yang and Romita as I am from some of their other work — and in Pak and Kuder’s case, the work that they’ve been doing on Action over the past few years — then I might not have even bothered to give it a shot.
The thing is, the covers aren’t the comics.
The actual story, the one that finds Clark Kent’s powers diminishing, his Kryptonian armor costume destroyed (hopefully permanently) and his identity revealed to the world, isn’t quite what that boldface “INJUSTICE” is selling, even if it actually does involve the hilariously, ludicrously over-the-top element of Superman wrapping his fists in the tatters of his own cape so that he can punch things without busting up his now-vulnerable knuckles. And it is, in a lot of ways, a rejection of everything that the fans of Superman Classic don’t like about more recent takes.
Thematically, the stories that Pak and Yang are telling are literally about how “Angry Superman” doesn’t work. In Yang, Romita and Porter’s case, it comes through in a story where Superman’s enemies take advantage his newly revealed identity to attack those closest to him, prompting Superman to release a video where he grumpily tells everyone that he’ll come back at them tenfold if they attack his friends.
On the very next page, Lois Lane tells him that this isn’t how Superman is supposed to work, and sure enough, the whole experiment ends with Jimmy Olsen getting shot while Hordr_Root — basically Google as a supervillain — mocks him for ever thinking that threats like that were the way to go.
Pak and Kuder are even less subtle, if you can believe it. In their story, with Scott Kolins and Georges Jeanty, Superman fights someone who is literally named Wrath. She has the power to make people really angry, right down to making their clothes darker and covering their pupils with spooooky opaque eyes.
It’s a great example of story-as-criticism, but it never stops being story. The struggle that’s going on, with Superman dealing with ideas about anger and identity, rings true as part of the character, and the notion that he could lose his super-powers and still be Superman, trying to fight for what’s right and protect those closest to him, is, at its core, a solid take on the character.
And then, y’know, there’s the part with the wrestling.
The idea of Superman becoming an indie wrestler is — in addition to carrying on the proud tradition of Superman’s adventures in the squared circle — one that’s almost scientifically designed to appeal to me, but it’s also a great piece of storytelling all on its own.
It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really need Superman’s current troubles with his powers and identity to work, and instead, feels like the kind of big, weird premise that’s just been waiting for someone to come along and drop it in: A wrestling promotion where gods who are no longer worshipped tell modified versions of their myths through hard-hitting matches and over-the-top promos, with grappling standing in for their original morality plays. That’s as Classic DC Universe as it gets, to the point where I’m only half-joking about carrying on the tradition of wrestling stories from the past, and Superman fits into it beautifully, just as he would’ve at any point in his history.
The difference is that here, if you get past the divine bravado of the premise, it’s another example of story-as-criticism, a look at how stories of morality and heroism are often boiled down to punch-outs and one-liners, and how, ultimately, Superman isn’t built for that world. He’s made for something higher, a step past the stories of the past that have fallen into irrelevance. He’s bigger than that, and he should be bigger than that, even when it seems like that’s all there is.
And he is also, always, at the center of it, one of us.
There are other reasons to check these books out, too — I’m a sucker for what Yang’s doing in terms of bringing back obscure old villains like the Sand Superman from Kryptonite Nevermore, something that I honestly never expected to see crop up in the New 52niverse — but really, that’s what it boils down to.
If you can look at Superman cutting a promo while holding a title belt, with a guy standing behind him holding up a sign that says “SUPERMAN GONE BEAT YO ASS” doesn’t make you want to read these comics and see how it all fits together even a little bit, then we’ll just have to agree to disagree for now and see if the next new direction appeals to us a little bit more. If, however, that does spark your interest, then take a look past those grumpy covers and get the whole picture. It’s good stuff.
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