By: Greg Pak (story), Aaron Kuder & Mike Hawthorne (art), R.B. Silva (pencils), Ray McCarthy (inks), Dan Brown & Eva de la Cruz (colors)

The Story: All those stories about mole people are finally proven true—except worse.

The Review: As I said in my review of Superman Unchained #5, I’m not of the camp that believes Clark Kent should have a completely happy-go-lucky childhood—emphasis on “completely.”  Done right, a little pathos makes the boy Clark seem even closer to us, like when his super-hearing kicks in and he catches his parents mentioning he’s “not human[.]”  How many of us had an experience of overhearing what we shouldn’t and the massive anxiety it produced?

So, yes, a little rain has fallen into Clark’s early life, but hey—rain is a good thing, and the sun that comes out afterward more than redeems it.  Jonathan and Martha, like the awesome parents they are, quickly notice the sad changes in their son and decide to fix things with the truth, rather than let the secret fester.  Clark’s initial reaction to his extraterrestrial legacy is naturally rendered, rejecting it even as he reaches out for it, but his parents’ gesture leaves a lasting impact on his values: “Love?  Yeah.  From the parents who wrapped me in the blanket…and the parents who saved it for me.”

Clark’s upbringing reveals itself in all sorts of ways through this issue, especially in his treatment of Baka,* the monster turned monster-child from last issue.  That he lets Baka run a bit wild through the Fortress is a testament to the parents who let him repeatedly jump out of trees to see if he could fly, but it’s also a display of Clark’s adventurousness.  His desire to throw caution to the wind just to see what happens reveals he’s in some ways more human than the eminently rational, risk-averse Bruce, whose voice of reason apparently serves as Clark’s conscience.**

While Pak’s ever-developing portrayal of Clark is rapidly becoming a gold standard for this new age of Superman, Pak’s vision of Lana is already there.  His reworking of her character shows how much our ideals of femininity have changed.  Lana’s competence and boldness makes her seem no less an appropriate romantic coil for Clark; in fact, these qualities make her even more so.  Her independence elevates her from being a mere damsel in distress and equalizes her relationship with Clark, who’s no longer just her knight in shining blue armor.  This change in their dynamic comes through in all their dialogue.  In response to Lana’s outrage that he hadn’t quite gotten rid of Baka, Clark asks, “You have any idea how hard it is to actually throw something into the sun?”

“I can’t believe you, Clark!”

“Lana, I’m in the suit.  Please don’t call me—”

“Whatever!”  Pak’s dialogue is so revealing in itself that you wish that he had just stopped with that, instead of the endless inner monologues that follow their every action or line.  That kind of thing is fine when they’re on their own, but distracting and cluttered when both are doing it at the same time on the same page.

As strong as the character work is, it’s the unexpectedly fun plot developments that make the issue a standout.  Most revolve around the lovable Baka, who utterly defeats Lana’s attempt at a badass moment by reacting to her electric gun with delighted laughter, followed by a lot of leg-hugging.  But there are bigger joys than the charming comedy of Clark and Lana arguing over his new monster-pal.  Pak seems to retrofit the Silver Age confidence in even the most outlandish ideas by introducing the “hidden curses, glories, and temptations of IMPERIAL SUBTERRANEA!”***  Suddenly, the life and world of Superman are bursting with wonderful possibilities, the kind we haven’t felt in a long time.

Kuder’s art revels in that sense of wonder, like a kid hysterically splashing around in a pool just for the sheer thrill of being in the water.  Underground kingdoms are old hat in the superhero genre, but Kuder makes them seem like new in the massive double-page splash of Imperial Subterranea, a complex network of bridges and constructs seemingly growing out of the stone itself, as if stalactites and stalagmites had undergone some advanced evolution.  The only downside to Kuder’s strengths is he blows Silva and Hawthorne’s perfectly respectable work out of the water, making you wish he could have just covered the whole issue himself.

Conclusion: Crazy as it sounds, Superman is actually becoming fun again.  If Pak-Kuder can continue this streak, DC’s first and biggest icon may recapture the glory that made him a star in the first place.

Grade: A-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * As someone who had a lot of early exposure to the joys of anime in its original language, I really wish Pak had chosen a name that didn’t constantly evoke memories of me pointlessly, joyfully, stupidly calling my pals idiot in Japanese, just because I could.

** And how sweet it is that even out of the issue, Bruce remains an intimate part of Superman’s life.  A bromance for the ages.

*** Letterer Steve Wands, I appreciate the distinctively retro-horror shag you give to “IMPERIAL SUBTERRANEA”.  Makes me feel like I’m reading a Stan Lee-era issue of Fantastic Four.

– Perhaps this is purely a coincidence, but I’m always eager to think “Oh, boy” is a Quantum Leap reference.