For purported pacifists, superheroes tend to resort to violence with alarming frequency. For some, such as the Xavier’s X-Men, non-aggression is actually part of their stated code. For others, such as such as Superman, no code is needed; the influence of magic spells or red kryptonite or the firepits of Apokolips, not to mention multiversal counterparts such as the Nazi Overman, the soviet Red Son, or the morality-reversed Ultraman, have shown so many various violent versions of Superman that the original’s penchant for peacefulness and self-restrain are evidenced by the contrast. At the same time, comic books in general and the superhero genre in particular bear an expectation brought about by decades of convention to deliver on an implicit promise of frequent fighting and intense action set-pieces (indeed, “Action” is right there in the very title of this series).
Action Comics #966 (DC Comics)
While exceptions exist, with some of the greatest single issues of all time lacking so much as a single punch thrown (cf. Miracleman #16, Promethea #12), the absence of action needs all the more to be matched by outstanding character drama, deep worldbuilding, or a plot that’s particularly heady and high-concept. The inability to elevate every issue, month in and month out, to Shakespearean standards of quality, forces near every writer to resort to having his allegedly level-header hero trading blows at the most minor misunderstandings and petty provocations. Because who wants to read about rational adults resolving their differences by discussing them? This is part of the unspoken contract comic creators make with their readers, that for half the cost of a paperback novel, there may not be as much actually story comparatively, but the difference will be made up by having pretty pictures of perfectly proportioned musclemen mindlessly pummeling one another. At their best, comics are high art, every bit the equal of Rembrandt’s painting or Spencer’s sonnets; but most of the time they’re what I described above. I know this and I accept it. I’m almost always willing to gamble $2.99, and usually satisfied one way or the other.
As such, Action Comics #966 is a failure on all fronts. It smartly subverted the set-up for blows between Lana Lang’s Superwoman and Superman himself, with the former quickly deescalating their initial encounter. A lesser or lazier writer than Jurgens would have padded out a few pages with the requisite brawl between soon-to-be-allied super-people (haymakers are how heroes shake hands and say hello), if for no other reason than to give Stephan Segovia something more interesting to illustrate than twenty-two pages of talking heads. But Jurgens’ sin isn’t breaking convention; for that he should be congratulated. Rather, it’s that instead of “wasting” those pages on a pointless fight scene, he nevertheless wastes the entire issue on needless exposition. It’s nothing but housekeeping, “necessary” for re-positioning the characters to where he wants them in the story going forward (Lois Lane back at the Daily Planet, Lana Lang now a confidant of Clark’s secret), but not a story worth telling in its own right.
Even worse is the painfully pedantic conversation Clark has with Johnathan about why Lois no longer loves her son and has decided to become a career woman again instead of spending time with her only child any longer. I half-wish that last line was serious and not sarcastic. As it is, the conversation is so boilerplate, Clark as reassuring as any decent father, that the readers would have assumed the conversation to have occurred even had it not been mentioned, let alone dragged out over two pages. I’d actually have preferred for Superman to have socked Lana in the jaw unprovoked.
In comics jargon, “gutter space” is the blank area between the panels. Save perhaps for the (admittedly awesome) reveal on the last two pages, the entirety of issue #966 could have been relegated to the gutter. Nothing happens that couldn’t have been filled in (better) by the reader’s imagination in skipping directly over to the next arc in the series. The living Lois from a different dimension secretly took on the identity of the other Lois no one knew was recently deceased – it hardly takes an intrepid investigative reported to figure out that was where the story was heading.