A Man of Steel who can't fly. No heat vision. Cape torn to shreds. Yup, Action Comics #41 is the best Superman comic to come out in years.
This week marks the start of what publisher DC Comics is calling the New DC Universe, an initiative where they will be debuting big status quo shifts, new series and tonal divergence for longstanding characters. Fittingly, it starts with the character who put the company on the map more than 75 years ago.
As foreshadowed in teasers over the last few weeks, today's Action Comics #41 stars a Superman who's a lot weaker now. This issue by Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder doesn't offer up any explanation as to why a bunch of Kal-El's superpowers aren't working. Instead, readers see him going on a big road trip across the United States, experiencing the sensations of cold and hunger for the first time.
Thanks to Lois Lane, people now know that Superman is also Clark Kent and that he wasn't born on Earth, along with having a general sense that he's a lot more vulnerable now. When a group of young malcontents tries to get all xenophobic on him, Clark shows that he's still strong enough to put down a bully.
That sequence serves as a call-back to the earliest Superman stories, where he'd deliver comeuppance to a man who was assaulting his wife...
or dangle a corrupt senator's criminal associate off the Capitol building.
The bully confrontation is a quick moment that also shows the pulled-in focus that the next few months of Superman comics will probably offer. Kal-El has been brought low, so to speak, and his reactions to being less indestructible will be all over the place, ranging from panic to unexpected delight. Some of the beats that we've seen elsewhere make sense. If you could fly and have bullets bounce off your skin once, wouldn't you do anything to get those abilities back?
Superman can be a tricky character to grapple with. On one hand, he's supposed to a near-unbreakable power fantasy, capable of feats far beyond the abilities of mortal men. On the other, the best versions of the Last Son of Krypton have been relatable, able to sum up the most admirable qualities of the human spirit in larger-than-life form.
It's a difficult balance to strike and trying to do so leaves creators open to criticism on from all sides. Make him too strong or ultra-capable and it seems there's never any risk in his adventures. Script a Kal-El who's extra-emotional and it will feel like he lacks the toughness that many feel is an essential part of his character. Action Comics #41 manages to dodge those pitfalls.
This is a Superman who — right now — can't save a planet, galaxy or multiverse. Hell, he might not be even be able to save his own block, from the looks of it. But he shows a broad range of recognisable emotions, with the ones that catalyse his heroic nature brought to the forefront.
When Clark comes back to Metropolis, he's met by cops dead-set to arrest him...
but there's a also a block party on the street where he lived, thrown by neighbours grateful for how his superheroics made their lives better.
Kuder's art on Action has been a highlight for a while and this issue shows why. His style skates the line between goofy cartoonishness and rough-edged realism, with facial expressions that sell the sincerity of a moment or chunk of dialogue. Almost every page has Clark relating to an existence previously taken for granted with wonder, concern or resolve. As for Greg Pak's dialogue, yeah, some of it makes Clark sound very bro-y but it also creates a feeling of organic connection. The paternalism that was one of the the most off-putting elements of the character is nowhere to be seen.
Sure, he's still strong enough to punch a giant shadow monster in the face, but Superman feels like one of us now. There will doubtless be a main plotline concerned with the trope-laden intricacies of this or that villainous machination. But as long as the stories to come figure out ways to make Clark Kent come across like a dude you might meet at the supermarket, I'm on board for the ride.