T. Kyle King’s published work ranges from newspaper columns to film reviews and from short stories to law review articles. Most notably, he served as a site manager and staff writer at DawgSports.com, a daily weblog devoted to University of Georgia athletics, from 2006 to 2013, and he is the author of a book about the history of the college football rivalry between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Clemson Tigers published by Clemson University Digital Press in 2013. Kyle is a lifelong comic book fan whose thoughts on comic books previously have appeared at ComicsVerse, Progressive Boink, and the Superman Homepage. Kyle is a Superman guy.
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Action Comics #51, the third chapter in Peter J. Tomasi’s multifaceted run-up to DC Comics’ impending Rebirth event, was released this week. Initially billed as the audience’s introduction to the Super League, the story arc spanning several series carries the actual title The Final Days of Superman. ComiConverse’s Man of Steel writer, T. Kyle King, has his review of the latest installment.
When last we saw him, Kal-El was on a quest to find his cousin, Kara. In Dazed and Confused, the Last Son of Krypton tracks down Supergirl and learns why she has been hidden from public view. However, the Man of Tomorrow is overlooking other secrets, from Metropolis to the Loess Plateau of China and he is confronted with the secrets he has been keeping at the Fortress of Solitude.
Fresh from his fight with Superman in New York City, Dragon returns to the Shanxi Province in China and reports to Doctor Omen. She is pleased to see he has the Action Ace’s blood on his claws. The parolee suddenly imbued with Kryptonian abilities, now evidencing a split personality, appears at the Daily Planet claiming to be Clark Kent. After he unleashes his powers on a team of security guards, Lois Lane fells the impostor with a stun gun.
Superman has tracked Supergirl to a Department of Extra-Normal Operations ghost site in National City, from which he believes he is rescuing his cousin until she reveals the real reason she has been working with the D.E.O. voluntarily. Kal-El confesses to Kara that he is dying, and she accompanies him to the Arctic Circle. At the Fortress of Solitude, he persuades her to take over his role as Earth’s superpowered protector after he is gone. While there, though, he is met by a longtime ally who is outraged at not having been told of Superman’s terminal illness.
Action Comics #51 teams Tomasi with penciller Paul Pelletier, inker Sandra Hope Archer, colorist Tomeu Morey, and letterer Rob Leigh. Some of the names appearing on the masthead may be unfamiliar to readers who focus exclusively on Superman titles, so the look of this issue is a bit unconventional in comparison to recent comics in Kal-El’s current continuity.
In certain cases, this distinctiveness is disconcerting. Occasional cartoonish exaggerations make facial features appear either distorted or indistinguishable. While the artwork of Dazed and Confused sometimes suffers in close-up, the imagery works effectively when zooming out to give the pictures scale. The build-up to Superman’s entry in a page-turn reveal is orchestrated well, and the fine line work and lighter color palette maintain an upbeat tone in an issue featuring weighty themes and intense action.
It was evident from the outset that Tomasi was charged with a heavy responsibility. Not only must he transition from the continuity reset of the New 52 to the soft reboot of Rebirth, he must set the stage for numerous forthcoming publications featuring Kryptonian heroes who have made Earth their home. He must clear the decks for Dan Jurgens’s pre-Flashpoint Superman to replace the current iteration of the Man of Steel in Action Comics, introduce the concepts Gene Luen Yang will bring to fruition in New Superman, and pave the way for his own stewardship of the main Superman title.
That is a considerable burden for one story arc to bear, particularly when the author is saddled with the cumbersome and confusing baggage from Truth and Savage Dawn while moving the Metropolis Marvel in the direction of his much needed fresh start. With Action Comics #51, an extra duty has been added to what already was a daunting assignment: Steve Orlando’s Supergirl will capitalize on the popularity of Kara’s solo television show, and Dazed and Confused began laying the groundwork for that title, as well.
The need to keep so many plates simultaneously spinning in the air gave Action Comics #51 a few awkward moments and a somewhat disjointed feel. Short sequences starring Doctor Omen and the unworthy recipient of Superman’s powers ratcheted both those subplots up a notch through the inclusion of momentary bursts of grisly violence. Each of these storylines appears to be unfolding methodically, but both sequences relied upon the tired tropes of comic book characters severing arms and Superman’s eyes glowing angrily.
Fortunately, these fallbacks to easy conceits were the exception rather than the rule. Doctor Omen’s calculated amputation of Dragon’s hand because the claws bore Superman’s blood was shocking — and disquietingly reminiscent of Lex Luthor’s stratagem in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — but the dispassionate dialogue passing between the characters made the scene more than merely gory. Likewise, Lois’s unflinching willingness to speak truth to power in the midst of risk came through in two panels and six words, nicely capping off a sequence that meandered slowly through three introductory pages before descending into stunningly sudden slaughter.
Supergirl’s is the greatest cross to bear, as her absence had to be explained in a way that was plausibly consistent with the events of Savage Dawn and that successfully imported the D.E.O. association from her live-action program. Because the news of Superman’s impending death had to be sandwiched into this whiplash-inducing transition, Kara has trouble finding her feet as a credible character in the first half of Action Comics #51.
More of the real Supergirl shines through in the Fortress of Solitude, although her cousin does most of the talking and her lack of contractions makes her speaking style slightly stilted. As an explanation of Kara’s motivation for what is to follow, though, Action Comics #51 accomplished its objective of showing promise, even if it falls to the future to fulfill it. Superman’s and Supergirl’s exchange just before the cliffhanger ending — in which she asks, “So what is next?” and he answers, “I have quite a bit still to do” — sums up a busy issue that often lived up to its title: Dazed and Confused.
Action Comics #51 was a good issue, but not a great issue. No part of it was particularly poor, but the need to do so much prevented any of it from being done as well as it might have been. Nevertheless, the latest chapter of The Final Days of Superman sounded as many strong notes as weak ones, did not give especially short shrift to any of several central figures in the drama, and maintained the flow of the story through the specific series in which its segments appear. In short, this issue went where it needed to go, but it lacked the luxury of taking the scenic route when the shortest distance between two points was what the situation required.
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T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
This story did what it had to do, but its need to do too much left little room for nuance.