A lot of people criticize the new Superman for being a more troubled version of himself, but there’s something to be said for a Clark who knows something of tragedy and fear firsthand. All those hang-ups offer more fodder for a horror story, at any rate. As Clark’s nightmare in Smallville builds, you realize there’s no way Pak could have gotten the same effect from this premise with the obliviously cheerful and paternalistic Superman of the past.
Lana getting consumed in a fire represents a typical fear for Clark—and for any hero, come to think of it. Doesn’t matter who it might be, everyone has a person they dread losing. Pak only gets so much traction scripting the sequence, even succumbing to a melodramatic “It buuurrrns!” from Lana to get the tension where he wants it to be. At such a moment, Kuder proves invaluable, visually drawing out Clark’s terror by stretching out the distance between Clark and Lana with every panel, despite the desperate speed as Clark chases after her. The splash close-up on Clark’s face as he screams her name is fantastic, giving him an expression of mingled rage and grief that works, even if it’s one you’re not used to seeing from him.
It’s when Clark encounters the reanimated corpses of his parents in his own kitchen that Pak really turns the screws. Kuder does a great job emphasizing every necrotic detail on the rotting Kents’ bodies and the macabre way they stiffly go through the motions of cooking and eating breakfast, but Pak’s the one who finds the perfect words to torture Clark:
“But once we got to know you…we feared you.”
“We’re just sparrows, Clark, and our instincts tricked us. You were the cuckoo in the nest. Growing so huge, so strong. Terrifying.”
“We’d write each other notes, and then burn them, so you couldn’t hear what we were saying about you. …We knew we’d die someday. Like anything that stands next to you for too long.”
Though Clark determinedly considers these statements lies at first, “that horrible doubt surges in my throat like bile,” and it’s then that you finally, fully empathize with what he’s going through. Clark has all the same subconscious anxiety as any adopted kid about being truly loved by the parents who took him in, but on top of that is the special terror that they only kept him out of fear for themselves. This all stems from the general fear Clark has of himself, which, in a twisted way, is a reminder that he’s really a nice guy at heart.
To balance the emotional turmoil of the issue’s first half, the second half pushes the plot steadily forward, revealing interesting wrinkles as the psychic Smallvillians turn out to be the good guys in all this, using their powers to maintain control of the monsters running amuck. But just as one horror diminishes, another grows to take its place. The insidious thing about the creatures who’ve latched onto everyone is not just that they force people to go through their worst nightmares like a reverse Mercy plant, not even that they feed on the fear produced, but that they “take all that terrible knowledge of where we’re inevitably going…and they make it feel good.” If Pak can tease that idea out a little more, he might have a really a genuinely frightening plot on his hands.
And just because you can never praise Kuder’s art enough,* it’s worth mentioning Clark’s reaction after his parents collapse into lifeless heaps once more. Those two beats he takes to just gaze at the Kents’ bodies, crouching over them with his arms outstretched but his hands pulled back, both wanting and not wanting to touch them—those beats make his subsequent explosion that much more powerful yet less cathartic. No amount of heat vision can give relief to that kind of trauma.
* Notice I don’t mention Jae Lee and June Chung’s contributions to the issue because their two pages really aren’t memorable in any way.
– Phew. Looks like Hiro is finally going to sober up after all, which is great because I was really starting to hate that dude.
A Superman story that ventures into somewhat uncharted territory and finds fertile ground there.