Grek Pak and Aaron Kuder’s first big story is collected this week, which pits Superman against a force from the Phantom Zone. Much like Superman’s best battles he must use his willpower alone over brute force to fight a monster that defies logic itself. There’s no punching through this one…is it good?
Superman: Action Comics Vol. 7: Under the Skin (DC Comics)
This book collects Action Comics #36 to 40 and Futures End #1. For those of you keeping track at home this collects a four issue story arc with Superman fighting the Ultrahumanite as it has taken over Smallville, a single issue done-in-one with Superman facing Bizarro and a story about a mysterious being giving normal humans extraordinary powers.
Why does this book matter?
The best Superman stories pit Supes against a villain that forces him to explore his inner demons and do something other than blast or punch his way to a conclusion. This story does that in droves all while delivering a horror story. A Superman horror story that pushes Superman to the brink of his sanity? Giddyup!
The Ultrahumanite is something straight out of a great horror movie.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
Writer Greg Pak solidly sets up the villain in a variety of ways, from the slow reveal of who they are and what they can do to the very location of the battle. Superman rushes to Smallville after detecting an anomaly and quickly learns he can’t get a quick win like always. A cloud has covered his precious hometown and instead of flying through it he’s teleported to the other side. From there Superman must use the help of his friend Hiro and, once inside, Lana and Steel. As Pak adds layers to the story there’s plenty of misdirection, surprises and truly weird stuff going on.
I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so disgusted by a villain in a comic book before. As the plot reveals one horror after another Kuder does a fantastic job unpeeling the monster, which at first appears to be some kind of necromancer, but turns out to be something far more disturbing. No matter how big and complex the monster gets Kuder does a great job delivering a scary atmosphere, be it the zombies, the death cloud imprisoning our characters or the final beast itself.
The flashbacks also help solidify this as a story worth reading as it is connected to Clark’s past. There are multiple flashbacks in this volume, some drawn by other artists to distinguish them as flashbacks and they go a long way in giving weight to the battle at hand. This isn’t just another tentacle monster for Superman to fight; it’s something that’s been looming over Superman since he was a boy and something he has yet to understand.
In a lot of ways this story arc has to do with loss and grief. The Ultrahumanite feeds off these feelings and thus is inescapable. In fact Pak and Kuder do a good job with the theme of never escaping, from Lana losing her parents and never getting over that loss, to the Ultrahumanite attaching itself literally to the characters without their knowing it. The characters get uncomfortable and unnerved quite a bit which makes for great storytelling.
Kuder does a great job with the art.
The two single issue stories are also fantastic. The Bizarro story reminds me of the All Star Superman series as it plays around with tropes that makes Superman so great. It also does not hold back with an introduction of the Bizarro Justice League, a battle with Doomsday and finally a battle with Doomzarro. In some ways this single issue does what most story arcs would drag on for three or more issues. That makes this a great bang for your buck. Heck, Kuder’s art in this issue alone makes this volume very worth picking up.
The final single issue explores a Superman story set five years into the future as Supes has given up being a hero and wants to do some good on a smaller scale, growing plants in Ethiopia. Meanwhile humans are being given powers by a strange entity, like flight and invulnerability, all to prove a point. These powers are bestowed on them as a lesson, from a girl who does not value her own life and wants to commit suicide to a boy being bullied at school, and each comes with a strong message. This all sets up Superman being given something to prove. It’s a strong story that shows Superman can’t ever quit.
It can’t be perfect can it?
The Ultrahumanite story is fantastic, but it does end rather abruptly in a vague sort of way. The message is somewhat clear as to how the day is won, but it doesn’t feel earned since Superman uses his will alone to defeat something, in a page no less, that seemed to have him beat. The meaning is lost because of this abruptness and it’s not even clear what is going on as things get wrapped up. In a lot of ways this story reads as if Pak had another issue or two planned to finish the story but was told to wrap it up in four short pages.
Love the Bizarro story!
Is It Good?
This book will make you love Superman again. From the horror themed story requiring Superman to use his willpower over brute force, to the Bizzaro one-shot that explores the complexity of his weirder stories, you can’t miss with this volume.