It's two months since Superman defeated Brainiac in the far reaches of space, pushing him into a black hole. He's spent the time since flying back to Earth, the Doomsday virus vanishing as a beard appears. It's not a happy return as a Waynetech satellite on the outskirts of the atmosphere blasts him with a green kryptonite ray - Batman was wary of Superman returning in Doomsday mode.
The falling Superman is caught by his cousin Supergirl, who takes him to the Fortress of Solitude and brings him up to speed on what's happened since he was away. The picture is mixed: supervillains Non, Mongul and the Phantom King are back in the Phantom Zone courtesy of an imploding projector. Sadly, the incident also sucked in super-scientific ally Dr Shay Veritas and Kal's interplanetary zoo. The Bottle City of Kandor, containing thousands of mini-Kryptonians, is also gone.
And 13,612 ordinary people have died as a result of Brainiac's attack on Earth, which put the planet to sleep.
Focusing on the billions of people he, Supergirl and a handful of heroes saved is something of which he isn't capable right now: thousands are dead and his presence on Earth may be partly the cause, having painted a large target on the planet.
A trip to Smallville, the first community put to sleep by Brainiac, provides little reason to celebrate - Lana Lang's parents are among the dead and whatever her intellect tells her, in her heart she's having trouble not blaming Superman. There is some light in the picture, as Lana and John Henry Irons, the hero known as Steel, are an official item, and blossoming.
Superman stops off at Wayne Manor to discuss the green-K ray, and Bruce Wayne is reassured to see his friend is cleansed. It turns out he's been protecting Clark's identity, and he suggests Clark lay low for awhile.
What Clark does, back in Metropolis, is compose a blog post for his news site entitled Who Needs Superman Anyway? This brings Lois Lane to his door post haste, all guns blazing - how dare he attack Superman publicly? Clark's delighted to see her, despite her anger - and relieved that after her recent bout of Brainiac mental powers, she's forgotten his secret identity.
At a delightfully buzzing Daily Planet, Lois writes a response to Clark's article, showing us that in his absence Metropolis has been well-served, superhero-wise, by Supergirl, Ghost Soldier, J'onn J'onnz, Baku, Krypto and even Metal Zero. We get her own take on the relationship Superman has with the world, and it's one I like.
Then we get a cliffhanger with Lana that's just wonderfully wacky and bodes well for next issue.
The excellent close is just what I needed after an issue that feels more down than up as writer Greg Pak plays fair with an issue labelled Superman: Doomsday [Aftermath]. Of course there would have been a huge death toll, and it makes sense that Superman has been gone awhile. But all that time alone with his thoughts, worrying about Earth, has scarred him mentally. He's happy to see that life goes on back home but is having problems focusing on the positives. And so, he turns against himself, as Clark wonders out loud if Superman should just go.
I wouldn't suggest he has a schizophrenic illness, as happened in the Nineties after he executed Kryptonian criminals and began bashing crooks as Gangbuster. I do think, though, that he needs some counselling; he needs his friends, he needs his family.
Currently said family numbers one: Supergirl. The role Pak assigns Kara is my favourite part of Action Comics #35 - she's stepped up to fill Superman's shoes, managing the post-Doomsday mess. She's pleased to see him, supportive physically and mentally ... it seems our Supergirl is growing up. If only he'd sit down and talk with her - as the last survivor of Argo City she knows about loss. And she likely has her own responses to process. Instead, he pushes her away, imperiously telling her he'll see her in 40 days after the Fortress reboots. Grateful much, Kal?
My second favourite aspect of this instalment is the removal of super-convenient know-all Shay Veritas. I reckon she should stay in the Phantom Zone for 1000 years, then go bother the Legion of Super-Heroes.
I hope Superman's mood lightens soon, because while tragedies are inevitable in a superhero universe, the prevailing mood in a Superman series should be optimism. I do not wish to read about a Superman and Lana who share Lex Luthor's opinion that the Man of Steel is A Bad Thing.
And could someone please, please (I may have said this previously) cutesify Krypto? Seeing this:
... reminded me of this:
If Superman is going to appear in public soon he needs to get rid of the beard, or Clark's friends will get suspicious. For now, the various cast members' reactions make for some much-needed lighter moments.
Mind, that's not the most disturbing image this issue...
Is Jimmy Olsen auditioning for Scooby-Doo Team-Up?
We have two guest artists, Scott Kolins and Vicente Cifuentes, and while their styles aren't especially close - Kolins likes delicacy, Cifuentes a bolder line - both provide strong figurework and intelligent storytelling. There are some great shots of Superman that recall the long-ago Gil Kane run and a Supergirl who truly seems to care as to whether she's living up to her cousin's legend. Clark's Smallville visit is a skilful mix of the bucolic and melancholic, while there's telling passion in the Lois scene. And as for the final page - whoa!
Usual artist Aaron Kuder provides the classic cover, with colours by regular partner Wil Quintana, who helps maintain the visual continuity of the current run inside with typically sensitive hues. Note, for instance, the lighting in this sunny Smallville scene:
Letterer Carlos M Mangual also deserves a shout-out for sharp work.
Action Comics #35 informs and entertains, but can we have a cheery Superman soon? Please?