Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Superman - Action Comics, Volume 5: What Lies Beneath Review (Greg Pak, Aaron Kuder)

I love when I’m surprised by a book - I’ve read Greg Pak before, he’s not really my kind of writer, and, after Grant Morrison left Action Comics, I didn’t expect the series to be as good, but the first volume of Pak and Aaron Kuder’s run is quality!

Lana Lang happens to be part of a mining operation in Venezuela which unwittingly unleashes a subterranean monster - Superman to the rescue! 

The book starts off with the chaff. There’s a wholly pointless rehashing of Superman’s origins taken from the short-lived and unpopular Secret Origins series (is there honestly anyone reading this who isn’t 100% clear on Superman’s origins at this point?!), and a Zero Year tie-in where Morrison’s t-shirt and jeans Superman saves a ship in a storm. The latter isn’t bad but totally unnecessary. 

Bullshit aside, we finally get into the main storyline, What Lies Beneath, which looks like a straightforward Superman-hits-Godzilla-type-monster story at first but develops into something more nuanced and interesting. Pak writes a really good Superman. The inner monologue sounds right, his actions - and it lives up to its title of Action Comics with some big action scenes - are bang on, he’s putting preserving life ahead of everything; this feels like Superman as he should be. 

Without giving too much away about the monster, the story is broadly about misunderstood outsiders being perceived as one thing because of their looks and being rejected, a very Superman theme. The non-human characters tend to behave more humanely than “normal” humans as the Godzilla monster Baka isn’t the real threat, an American called Ghost Soldier is. 

The best Superman fights are the ones where he’s not just stupidly hitting something as hard as he can (a la James Robinson’s Superman); with Ghost Soldier’s phased weaponry which can pass through solid objects, he can cut into and damage Superman’s body without the MacGuffin of kryptonite (which I’m pleased to say isn’t in this story at all). Superman is shown to be vulnerable and has to think of other ways to defeat his opponent. Better yet, Ghost Soldier actually has character development too, showing that he isn’t one-dimensionally evil. I look forward to seeing more of him and his shady organisation, Harrow, in the next book. 

Pak writes a strong Lana Lang (who’s sorta like Lara Croft here) whose friendship with Clark is convincing and enjoyable. Refreshingly there’s no Lois Lane being forced into the story to get Superman to talk about himself, and there’s no Daily Planet or Lex either. Pak shows Superman needn’t be formulaic and that’s a big part of why his take works so well. 

Maybe it’s because his style reminds me a little of Chris Burnham’s but I loved Aaron Kuder’s art. There are some really striking images throughout and I didn’t even mind the New 52 Superman outfit as much with Kuder drawing. Baka does sorta look a bit like the Bamfs from Wolverine and the X-Men though and the Ghost Soldier design is a tad unexciting and bland. 

Their Action Comics isn’t as cerebral as Morrison’s but Pak and Kuder prove to be an excellent creative team for Superman. Their first book together is full of great stuff from strong characterisation, wonderful art, and a fast-moving, compelling storyline. The test of a worthwhile Superman writer is someone who can stay true to the character, without resorting to making him dark or evil, and still keep the reader engaged - I’m pleased to say Greg Pak passes superbly. Definitely check out What Lies Beneath if you’re a Superman fan.

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