Action Comics #42 is not so much a story as a meditation. In this book, Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder provide a set of linked meditations on multiple subjects. The first is the theme of falling and rising, dropping to your knees under the weight of life’s blows and fighting to stand again. The vehicle they choose to tell this morality tale is the unlikely character of Clark Kent, enmeshed in the TRUTH crossover in which his identity has been exposed and he has been partially depowered, evidently in the wake of using his newly discovered solar flare ability. Now, just returned to Metropolis, Clark struggles to protect his home from a shadow monster while even more ominous darkness gathers at has back.
That darkness is embodied in a police Sergeant named Binghamton. He represents all those who have toiled for law and order in the shadow of Superman, and who have grown to resent it. He hates dealing with the attacks of supervillains and the cleanup following cosmic battles. He hates that mere mortals bleed and die in obscurity while colorful heroes grab the glory. Now he is determined to act out his resentment by leading riot police against Clark Kent’s home neighborhood, where the citizens are determined to show their support for their favorite son.
The final meditation comes straight from recent headlines, echoing recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. This plotline follows the response of the citizens to the approach of the riot police. It dissects two main strategies of resistance and charts the argument between their primary advocates. It shows the weaknesses of both in the face of determined and unconstrained authority. And it carefully examines the importance of moment-to-moment events, as split-second actions can lead to violence rapidly spinning out control. In the final pages, Pak and Kuder bring all of the strands of narrative together, as Clark Kent returns from his battle with the shadow to stand between Binghamton and his neighbors.
The structure of the story is solid. But it is the nature of meditation to focus attention, to heighten awareness and bring forth detail. And focusing attention slows time. Action Comics #42 proceeds at the pace of a sloth trapped in the phantom zone. Clark’s battle with the shadow is weighted with stream-of-consciousness narration that feels like a heavy chain draped around the action. The sequences involving Binghamton and the Metropolis citizens are actually painful, as the story lurches awkwardly from one set-piece confrontation to another.
Whatever the problems with the script, Kuder’s art us superb. His realistic style is perfectly suited to a more human Superman. It also is well suited to a story that is as much about modern social dynamics as superheroes.
Honestly, at points this book feels more like a non-fiction narrative focused on police malfeasance and urban unrest than a superhero comic. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a Superman book, or any other comic, addressing such themes, but the techniques used to do so here badly damage the pacing and disrupt the narrative. The TRUTH storyline continues to be among the best initiatives of the DC You. This issue, however, was a stumble.