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The Action Reaction | November 2021 Analysis

The Action Reaction team digs into the storytelling and themes of the Warworld Saga and Son of Kal-El! Don’t miss it!

Rook: This month, we got a second helping of Action Comics as the Warworld Saga truly began. What are your big takeaways from these opening chapters?

David: My earliest take on PKJ’s Superman was ‘he’s Nice Space Conan’ – specifically in his King of Aquilonia phase, where he’s got a lifetime of achievements behind him and a kid ready to take over but sometimes he’ll still find an excuse to saddle up and head out to wreck some fools – so even if not for the Future State setup, the story moving fully into swords and sandals and Clark having to rally a rebellion would feel pretty inevitable. It’s a bit of an interesting departure when most of what we’ve gotten so far has been big sci-fi action while this is relatively speaking scaling way, WAY down (even if objectively it’s still super-beings fighting on an alien planet), but it’s territory he’s well-versed in and a space where Superman easily stands out.

Gabrielle: I’m unexpectedly loving it. I had a feeling that it would bore me, as in Superman’s case I always feel more at home with miniseries or graphic novels. But the voice PKJ finds for the characters he’s using is very interesting, and I like where the story is going, feeling like a very unique time in Clark’s history. I cannot stress enough how much I’m loving the art from Miguel Mendoca and Adriano Lucas. Practically every page has something that leaves me staring at it in appreciation for longer than I usually do. The action scenes feel dynamic,  the more personal character moments are spot-on, and the vibrant color palette is just beautiful even among the horrors of Warworld.

Rook: In addition to making for a great opening scene, it strikes me as a pretty deliberate choice to make the first Lord Premier of the United Planets a two-faced bastard. How do you feel about this aspirational organization having a dark heart from the start? 

David: Given they haven’t fixed everything by the 31st century I’d say it’s pretty reasonable. I’m curious how it plays into there being some kind of galactic conspiracy or secret predating them that I imagine is unrelated to Jor-El’s Circle, and that whatever this Kryptonian-related situation is was baked into an El-formed organization from day one.

Rook: Agreed. I imagine Jon Kent is going to lose his shit when he finds out that, on top of everything he went through in the future, the organization he helped create immediately left his dad to die, but it feels like a natural weakness of the United Planets rather than a manufactured one. And it’s certainly interesting how they continue teasing a secret connection between Warworld and the House of El, now with ramifications for the larger United Planets and the other spacefarers of the galaxy. 

Gabrielle: I think everyone would agree it’s pretty realistic, especially considering the threat Superman could present to their power. I felt it was clever how since the other members, or at least some part of them, seem to be out of the conspiracy, they could trace the fault back to the Lord Premier since he leads them continuously to a dead end where they’re unable to help Kal-El, but it could still be a coincidence or a mistake, even if we obviously know that’s not the case. I’m very intrigued to see how that develops, so it worked for me. 

Rook: Phillip Kennedy Johnson is really bringing his trademark interplay of worldbuilding and character to the forefront here, using the world to comment on the character relationships and vice versa. How effective is it for you (so far), and how do you see it developing as the saga continues?

David: I wouldn’t go so far as to say this feels like a full fleshed-out culture (but to be fair I almost always roll my eyes at “Gotham is really like a character unto itself!”), but this IS the first time it feels like an actual place, with rules and recurring motifs, as opposed to a big space gun for Superman to smack around or an endless fight pit. After 40 years of these guys being around that’s no small accomplishment.

Rook: It’s certainly a step up from the discount Death Star/gladiator hell, yeah. Given all the various story and character beats that the team is juggling in these two issues, it could have been lost by the wayside, but they wove in details of the culture and power structures in such a way that they made the character moments hit harder. 

Gabrielle: To be honest, I don’t tend to be a fan of sci-fi stuff in Superman. I like it when it’s a bit campy and simpler like during the silver age. It can all feel very similar when it’s just one alien dictator after another, and it’s afraid of getting weirder. However, I’m surprisingly hooked to this story. We definitely don’t know a whole lot about Warworld, but we still have some time to deep dive into it. But what we do know has me interested, even if it’s just something like ‘’Not everyone in Warworld wants to be there’’, which should be a given. The art definitely helps with this.

Rook: Hell’s bells, Sampere’s art continues to astound. Even from orbit, Warworld has this hellish majesty about it, like the landscape revels in being a place of conflict and horror. What stands out to you about this rendition of Mongul’s home, either on a macro or micro-scale?

David: I’ve been talking up Sampere for as long as he’s been on the book, and pretty much gave my farewell last month, so I’ll just give him one last congratulations for making a fiery hell-planet that isn’t totally indistinguishable from Apokolips.

Rook: Just looking at how the colors in Action Comics glow with life, I want to follow Adriano Lucas’s work wherever it takes him. What moments stand out to you as examples of the coloring elevating the storytelling in this book?

David: The coolness of the initial scene with Thaaros and Thalric giving way to the glow of the fire as the tone shifts; the hooded figure managing to stand out as something truly out of place rather than a generic projection. Miguel Mendonca deserves enormous credit for being sandwiched between Sampere and Federici and not being utterly humiliated in the process, but I don’t think Lucas’s role in smoothing over that transition can be understated.

Rook: How do you feel about Sampere and PKJ’s rendition of the Authority? Now that they’re no longer under Morrison’s pen, and have a few missions under their belt, what feels like a deliberate departure and what’s too important to change?

David: To my utter shock – because much as I’ve been liking this run, I accepted upfront that no one other than Morrison was really going to be able to get this guy to work – I think PKJ’s doing a pretty damn good job writing Manchester Black? He’s a little more charismatic than he was played as in Authority itself where he was an overcompensating mess, but he definitely leans closer to that then anything he used to be.

Most of the rest aside from Lightray have been pretty broad thus far, which makes sense when this is still first and foremost a Superman book and they’re playing backup, but there’s nothing here that feels like a conscious departure from what Morrison had in mind for this bunch. I think I’d rather they continue on in a proper Superman & The Authority title after Warworld rather than Johnson having to continually justify and balance their presence once the action heads back to Earth, but this doesn’t break anything the way it so easily could have.

Rook: This version of Manchester Black feels like he’s got a bit more confidence and self-assuredness, a little pep in his step since he ended up back on the winning side. I’m looking forward to his demeanor falling apart after the mission goes south, and seeing if he’s able to put himself back together with or without Superman’s help.

Rook: Which lines of dialogue really drew you into a character, and showed what makes them compelling?

Personally, I loved how much Lightray’s dialogue about Superman mourning a nameless corpse said about her. She’s always been distant from the rest of humanity, held at arm’s length as some celebrity or curiosity, so seeing that empathy affects her in a different way from the others. It speaks volumes for her potential as a character going forward – which is a relief, considering the final promise of Superman and The Authority centered on her largely unknown and fresh new face. I liked her in that series, but seeing PKJ tease more depth to her character makes me feel like Morrison’s creation won’t be going to waste any time soon.

Gabrielle: I agree with you about Lightray’s dialogue. An all around excellent moment for both her and Manchester Black. However, talking about him, I simply loved how in the midst of battle, while the rest were fighting the alien that wounded Apollo, he figured out it was a vessel being controlled and went to fuck the guy up with a bat. Awesome moment and art.

David: It’s a moment that would normally be the worst kind of masturbatory “He’ll show us HOPE!” schlock lots of writers bank on for Superman in the place of real character or spectacle. But in this context, where the person reacting is someone who’s been playacting heroism for her whole adult life and is struck in the face of the real thing, and that it’s a moment of bitterest melancholy before the big attempted rescue, it really works. I don’t think anything beats “Sometimes, the old ways are best” for me this month though.

Rook: The whole of Warworld society seems to be set up as a foil to how Clark Kent operates as Superman, their values standing at odds to his. What do you think PKJ is angling to do with this, and why?

David: What struck me while reading this was some folks’ complaints at the number of Marvel movies (Iron Man 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Spider-Man: Far From Home) where the plot is essentially “an agitator shows up, makes a bunch of unimpeachably correct criticisms of society or its almighty figureheads, and the superhero gets a little sad about it but then beats them and maybe makes cosmetic reforms that don’t actually change the power structure that led to all this.”

In here, Superman is that guy. He flies down from on high with his coterie of underlings to smash a monument in the form of a Mongul statue and give a big speech to the shocked onlookers about how their society has fooled them into thinking they’re free but he will show them to throw off their shackles by beating the high holy hell out of their hero. It’s just that instead of him turning out to be a bastard so that the heady questions can be sidelined, he’s Superman. It’s a huge statement of intent that this is actually following through on the notion of a more proactive Superman and the attendant complications, rather than using them going to space as a cop-out.

Rook: That’s a great lens to look at the story through: “here is your flawed but tried-and-true superhero formula, and we are turning it upside down to pick apart the fundamental issues with its structure.” 

Rook: How does Mongul-Who-Is stand apart from his father, Mongul-Who-Was, to you? Does he immediately catch your interest as an antagonist, or is it an uphill battle to make any Mongul interesting?

David: He’s still just kinda Mongul, but amplified by the surrounding context substantially. If Darkseid’s back to being a big dopey chump for the time being, I’m perfectly fine with this new kid being the official lord of Space Fascism, especially if he can live up to being Superman’s personal version of that.

Rook: Agreed. In addition to Darkseid, uh, being on the outs currently, the way Warworld and Mongul are presented really elevates the character. I can actually buy that the Warzoons are loyal to this guy for broader cultural reasons than “he is the best and fightiest fighter,” because Mongul feels like an extension of Warworld, rather than the other way around.

In the past, Warworld was a source of obstacles, sure, but it never dared to feel like it could outlive Mongul. Whatever threats Warworld had to offer, everything would ultimately would end in a smackdown between Superman and papa Mongul. Severing that connection by killing off the old Mongul and putting Warworld front and center was very deliberate. That way, Mongul Junior and his squad of besties each feel like they can reflect an aspect of Warzoon culture and the kinds of mentalities Warworld produces, rather than being pale reflections of Mongul Senior (who was himself a reflection of Darkseid and Thanos that never seemed to find a niche like his forebears.)

Gabrielle: I would like if he gets some more unique features down the line, because as of now he is just Mongul. Same goals, same behavior, same motivations, he even killed his father to steal his name. I guess you could make a point that the book is trying to show how every person of power in a system like that ends up being the same but even then you could still shake some things up.

Rook: What strikes you about the members of Mongul’s entourage, either visually or about their characters?

David: Orphan’s a great l’il weirdo, and Chaytil delivers a rad enough speech that one of the characters goes “wow, that was a cool speech” and I didn’t hate it, a truly miraculous accomplishment.

Gabrielle: They look like they’re about to drop a sick metal album. Not much in the way of character in my opinion, but Chaytil has a great moment and a design that reminds me a lot of Mad Max: Fury Road, and that’s always cool. Another favorite would probably be Mongul’s mount to be honest, just because it looks dumb and fun.

Rook: One thing that strikes me about them is that their designs each embody Warworld in a different way, which is a hell of a showing from a character design standpoint, and reflects PKJ’s style of defining characters by how they relate to the larger world he’s built. From Orphan to Teacher to Unmade, all of those characters have an implied backstory (and relationship with the Monguls) that intrigues me.

Also, the structure of this story suggests that we’re going to have some grudge matches between the Mongul squad and individual members of the Authority, and I can’t wait to see that happen. Giving the Authority such juicy antagonists to fight against is actually a great way to shine the spotlight on what makes each part of Superman’s team tick, and I’m excited to see how that plays out. 

Rook: The Lord Premier’s dialogue in Action Comics #1027 does more than tie the hands of the United Planets, and explain why Superman and the Authority are on their own. It’s charged with deliberate commentary about how “civilized” nations treat refugees and wash their hands of their responsibility for the underprivileged. Between this, the standoff over the Genesis fragment, and the atrocities of Warworld, it seems like PKJ is leaning heavily on the themes of corrupt power structures standing in the way of real change – much like the focus of Superman: Son of Kal-El back on Earth. What works (or doesn’t work) for you about this?

David: It’s a more nuanced take on this than we typically get, Superman dealing with layers of national bullshit where he’s often not able to purely muscle his way through to do the right thing and when he does there are going to be long-term consequences, but he’ll go through with it and take the heat rather than ending every issue bummed that there are some problems…even a …SUPER-man…can’t solve…

Rook: Right. After a few decades of Superman’s secret weakness being bureaucratic red tape, it feels a lot truer to the original version when he takes a stand and says “no, some laws have to be broken to do the right thing,” and the world (the galaxy, even) reacts to this in a way that pushes the status quo forward instead of feeling resigned to eternal superhero universe stasis. 

Gabrielle: It’s honestly very much my thing. Comic books have worlds where technology thousands of years more advanced than ours, metahumans, unreal physics and more are all possible, but defying fascism and capitalism is going too far? It’s of course a problem ingrained in our society that the system and everything that aids it want us to believe that these are just good and normal, or at least impossible to change. If you have all these opportunities in your fictional world and you don’t take them, it’s simply dumb. Of course, the only reason it’s possible now it’s because it won’t affect the company’s sales, but I appreciate taking advantage of that. I appreciate the nuance as well, showing that Superman can and should do these things, but also how difficult it is and specifically why it is that way. 

Rook: Speaking of Son of Kal-El, issue 5 may not be the conclusion of this story but it puts a cap on its first chapter. Now that the groundwork is established, what’s your take on the series so far?

David: When I say the book’s “good enough”, that’s an extremely relative description. It’s competently put together, has so far only had one truly awful swing at topicality (though I’m braced for that climate change story), and has crowd-pleaser moments that are making the rounds on Twitter and Tumblr. That’s the goal of EVERY Tom Taylor book, with Superman having always tamped down some of his worse creative tendencies, and it’ll give Jon a baseline for success that could hopefully lead to him staying in the role long-term and getting better work down the line. I even think #5 was the best issue yet. But it’s a thoroughly unremarkable, workmanlike execution of the notionally radical logline “queer young Superman II goes up against a corrupt government” on pretty much every level. 

I’m gonna spend the whole run subsisting on nice little moments and toys added to the toybox to be played with properly once a Dan Watters or Brandon Thomas or god willing Al Ewing eventually gets ahold of it, and hoping with all I have that it isn’t instead instead given to someone who’ll immediately drive it into the ground. I don’t think this is going to break anything. I think it might even be good for establishing some legitimacy for Jon in the role as a reliable fan-favorite in the way that having a more distinct creative hand upfront might not have (Morrison blew everyone away with Batman and Robin, and once that ended Dick didn’t even remain in the cape and cowl for a full year). But I wouldn’t be reading a book of this level of quality if I didn’t have a very specific personal engagement with Superman.

Rook: I’m starting to feel like I’m grading Son of Kal-El on a curve. I like each issue, and I agree that #5 is up there as the best so far, but it feels like Taylor is focusing on keeping the story accessible rather than really swinging for the fences. I get the instinct – this is many people’s first Superman comic, and DC has a lot riding on Superman II being a good entry point, but I feel like they’re underestimating their audience here. I mean, Aja/Fraction Hawkeye was a ton of people’s first comic, and it captured that kind of interest from people who don’t usually read comics because of how stylishly and cleverly it used the medium. 

Son of Kal-El, on the other hand, is taking an incredible and genuinely risky premise and playing it pretty safe in order to make sure that its ideas stick. I can’t blame the creative team for that decision – screwing up Superman II’s first series would go down in infamy for all time, after all. On top of that: the basics of what a good Superman story can look like are pretty unknown outside of comic circles and My Hero Academia. (Apologies to, uh, every live action Superman movie currently released, but I’d prefer an adaptation of Son of Kal-El over all of them. That’s a controversial take, but personally, none of them get the soul or the spectacle right.) 

Still, for a comic that’s supposed to be charging forward, waving the flag of the future, these first five issues ultimately reflect the past.

Rook: But getting into the specifics of what this issue did right: personally, I love how Jon’s need to be everything to everyone is his greatest weakness. He has so much to live up to that he feels like the whole world has to be on his shoulders alone, or he’s letting down people he could be helping. It’s very human, and very Superman, while still distinct from Clark. They’re both driven by altruism and empathy, but Jon’s got a title and a role model to live up to, someone who the whole world really has relied on for his entire life. That’s compelling stuff.

David: I did like the whole first chunk of the issue being Jon doing Superman stuff, really feeling like he’s inhabiting that role in all its glory for the first time, and spending the rest of it literally crashing from that high to the point of publicly humiliating himself. It’s a strong glimpse into all this concept could be.

Rook: Absolutely. Being Superman just means something inherently different to Jon than it did to Clark, and he’s going to have very different growing pains as a result. Clark couldn’t even fly when he first became Superman, and he didn’t have any supervillains to contend with, either. Jon grew up in a world increasingly afflicted with superpowered mayhem, and has to jump into the deep end of living up to a name Clark earned over time. Plus, if he doesn’t find a way to do what his father never could, the human race is going to keep marching towards global catastrophe. It’s the feeling of being on the cusp of adulthood and trying to realize your potential and be your best self, even as the future looks apocalyptic, and honestly I think a lot of people can relate to that. 

Gabrielle: I think we’re all on the same page here. I find the premise super interesting but it’s just not doing anything as interesting as it could be. As of now, it feels like a rehash of things we’ve already seen with Clark, Lois and Lex. It has some nice moments but they’re your typical nice moments that you will find in any Superman book. And that’s totally okay! Especially considering how the general audience has perceived Superman for the last few years. But there are more interesting ways to do it, which I think issue five improved a little upon. It’s a fine book, but as the months keep passing and things don’t change and risks aren’t taken it loses steam more and more.  

Rook: How do you feel about Jay, and his potential as a core member of Jon’s supporting cast going forward?

David: So on the one hand…Jay HAS to end up his “okay but this time the Smallville-esque sextual tension is deliberate” Lex with Bendix as a misdirect for the Luthor role, right? He’s cartoonishly on-the-nose as his boyfriend, an immigrant hero reporter of conviction who literally can’t be threatened by Superman’s enemies and even wears glasses, but at the same time he’s doling out gigantic truths about himself on an as-needed basis and commenting vaguely-bordering-on-ominously about how he’ll be able to recruit Jon into the fold. This feels like it’s hurtling towards some good old-fashioned “Batman falls hardest for people who wanna kill him” drama and long-term pining on both sides with Superman getting a nemesis who’s literally untouchable on the other side of an ideological divide.

At the same time: I can absolutely believe Taylor would simply come up with an abstractly perfect boyfriend to preemptively defuse criticism and wouldn’t dare pull the trigger “Superman immediately breaks up with that boyfriend we talked about in all the ‘Superman is bi!’ headlines.” Which wouldn’t itself necessarily be a bad thing by any means, but that’d require fleshing Jay out way further in a way I don’t see this book pulling off.

In any case: do like that aside from the obligatory splash page there’s no real pomp or circumstance behind the kiss that shook the world, they’re just two guys who think they’re cute.

Gabrielle: I mean, he’s there. I’m a bit tired of relationships in media that always try to be overly dramatic, so I definitely don’t want Jay to end up being part of a betrayal plotline or a ‘’will they, won’t they’’ story. Yeah, they’re teenagers, so there will most likely be some major problems, but you can do it in a less soap-opera way. I just wish he had more of a personality because he’s pretty boring at this point. Maybe they’re just being eclipsed by his motivations directly aligning with the plot and the start of the relationship, so let’s see.

Rook: He’s likable, he has potential, and I agree with the two of you that the relationship developing in low-key and relatively drama-free ways is more interesting than if they tried to go full soap opera at the beginning.

However, his development as a character creates a bit of a conundrum. Either he’s exactly what he seems, as “cartoonishly on-the-nose” as a love interest could be, OR he’s going to be revealed to be too radical and take the role of the agitator villain we’ve seen in all of those Marvel movies.

Ultimately, I think a blatant rehash of Jon’s parents won’t stick, but putting Jon up against another super who’s trying to fix real problems with society would be worse. It would undermine the thesis of the whole series, and waste time going through the motions of a plot we’ve already seen before. Sure, I think Taylor could write an entertaining version of that. I also think that Jay, as a queer person of color, deserves better than to be turned into that trope, and I think that it would just make Jon look bad by comparison. Any way you slice it, that’s a loss.

Rook: Okay – thoughts on the Guardian and Jimmy Olsen backup? 

David: Sean Lewis, I was the one guy who thought Superman of Metropolis was alright so I was rooting for you, and you have let me down hard.

Rook: Make that two of us, actually. The Future State: Superman of Metropolis miniseries had a lot of things I genuinely loved, but suffered from having to introduce a boatload of new concepts and a new status quo in only two issues while trying to tell a thematically resonant tale about Jon Kent. 

I think being given an even-smaller page count and structural limitations in the form of these backup stories really played to his worst instincts. Just like Superman of Metropolis, there’s so much time spent establishing new things and plot events whipping past that we don’t really get time to feel who these characters are and why we should care about them. 

Despite that, I hope Lewis gets a second third chance, because I did really like his first showing and it seems like his style of writing and plotting needs more breathing room. I’d pick up an ongoing series for a few issues, at least. 

Art-wise, I liked the way character’s faces were rendered and the compositions, but Guardian’s design, the monster, and the “dark web version of Metropolis” really underwhelmed. Lots of storytelling talent here from Sami Basri, as well as Hi-Fi on colors, but Basri needs a book that plays to his strengths a little more.

Rook: How about the Martian Manhunter story that began in issue #1027? It’s a very different take on J’onn, but I’m kind of loving the tone and voice that we’re seeing.

David: On the one hand I never need another “J’onn’s gonna finally connect with humanity!” story for as long as I live. On the other:

Rook: That is exactly the panel I was thinking of. I’m always impressed when I go from zero to “I need more of this character” in one introductory line of dialogue, and I’m a sucker for C-list villains with way too much confidence for their standing. Plus, given Martian weakness to fire, he’s a villain that will really force J’onn to think outside of the box and use his many, many abilities in surprising ways. 

Also, great touch using Kyle Rayner’s in-universe art in the museum gallery. He and J’onn should hang out sometime, I think they’d both get something out of it.

One reply on “The Action Reaction | November 2021 Analysis”

Son of Kal-El has had a failing trajectory from the start – based on the artificial aging of Jon Kent, a conceit that cannot be avoided or neglected in any critical read of this title.

The fact that the Action Reaction team avoids this data point in what is supposed to be a serious dialogue/critical review ultimately indicates this Gate Crashers exercise is suspect.

Revise this article, please, with a true summary of the Jon Kent title, and the impact that the age-up, and continuing fan calls for de-aging, have the Superman group interconnected titles.

A legion of fans do not want an aged up Jon Kent- that is suppressed by the comic media – demonstrated here- as well as DC/WB.

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