There is no activity known to humans that does not proceed by rules. Storytelling is no different, and indeed the very definition of genre largely depends on which set of rules a given narrative follows. And, since every activity proceeds according to rules, every activity, including storytelling, allows for the possibility for cheating. In a story, this often takes the form of violations of expectations established by evidence, foreshadowing, and genre. Action Comics #43 is an exercise in cheating of a rather brazen sort.
To review, Clark Kent, now revealed to the world as Superman, has returned to his home neighborhood in Metropolis and discovered it under attack on two fronts. First of all, the Metropolis docks are the site of an assault by shadow monsters that readers of Superman know have been unleashed on the world by the evil HORDR Corporation (kind of a Microsoft with cult characteristics and open aspirations of dominating world information flows). Secondly, Clark’s street, and his neighbors, are the targets of an attack by vicious riot police under the command of the brutal Sergeant Binghamton. Binghamton, in the last issue, had explained how he and his friends had grown tired of living in Superman’s dangerous shadow, or bleeding in the backwash of his adventures. Now that the dangerous alien is at last weakened, the time has come suppress him and all those who support him. The last issue ended with the showdown between Clark and his neighbors and the police.
The genre seemed clearly fixed as thriller with aspects of tragedy and social commentary. The confrontation, whether by coincidence or conscious design, had deep resonance with recent, and controversial, real-world events in Maryland and Missouri. The actions and reactions of the various players seemed drawn straight from a textbook study in social psychology. Indeed, if anything, they were altogether too clearly meant as explorations of certain psychological and behavioral types.
And this is where the cheating comes in. Binghamton, on contact with Clark’s fist, comes to pieces. Not because he has dissolved into a bloody cloud, as might be expected of a mere human punched even by a weakened Superman, but because he is, in fact, one of the shadow monsters in disguise. In the ensuing fight, which is exceptionally well-drawn by Aaron Kuder, Clark quickly deduces that Binghamton wants to make the Kryptonian lose his temper. The problem is we never do figure out why he would want that, except perhaps in an attempt to further discredit Clark.
There follows an awkward scene in which Clark delivers a speech about the power of ordinary people, and how each of them has the ability to be Superman. Given that this is, on a literal level, blatantly untrue, the whole thing falls flat. The follow-up where individual members of the crowd actually start declaring themselves Superman is … silly. Whether a call out to Spartacus, a symbol of empowerment, or a strange riff on Nietzsche, it is peculiar and slightly disturbing. The last scene, in which we see that the shadows have infiltrated and taken over the mayor’s office, returns us to the main storyline with a sharp jerk
Although the direction established by the previous issue was problematic, abandoning it so suddenly seems like a bait-and-switch. The social commentary suddenly collapses into a rather ordinary plot about shape-shifting monsters taking over the world in secret. The two themes might have worked together had they been integrated more smoothly, but as it is one gets the feeling that the previous issue just served as teaser that was never meant to see a real follow-through, while the shadow monsters give the creators a ready mechanism for avoiding hard themes and diffusing thorny conflicts. Mainstream superhero comics, due to their eternal ongoing nature, are not the best vehicles to explore complicated and difficult moral quandaries that cannot be readily resolved or controversial arguments that have not clear solution. But, there is such a thing as an artful dodge. This was not it.