Action Comics #39 review

The Phantom Zone story climaxes and concludes with Superman and Steel going into the ghostly realm to confront the beast responsible for the physical and psychological horrors that have plagued Smallville. It turns out that the monster has known Clark for a very long time, and may be too much for even a man of his power. 

I've never seen Superman as frightened as he is in this issue. He's not afraid for himself, but for Lana Lang, his lifelong friend. She's been subsumed into the villain's body, become both food and mouthpiece. Having seen the corpses of his parents, the Kents, reanimated, Clark is filled with horror at the thought of what might happen to her. 
We see just how much Lana and her late parents have meant to Clark in a flashback to the days immediately after the death of Martha Kent, not long after Jonathan was killed in a car wreck. It's beautiful, subtle comic book storytelling. 
Steel and teen Toyman Hiro are both on good form here, the former coming up with a fine protection trick in the Zone, the latter showing the psychic Smallville trio they're not the smartest guys in the cornfield. But, as it should ever be in the comic that gave birth to the the superhero, it's Superman who's the star. He finds a way to make fear work to his advantage, freeing victims its dragged into the zone, and putting a cap on the threat of ...

... oh, I've not actually named the villain. Thing is, it was such a splendid surprise for me that I don't want to spoilt the reveal for anyone else. If you've read the book, you know; if not, I urge you to get a copy - physical or Phantom Zone, it doesn't matter. Just grab this entire storyline and see if you can figure out which longtime villain has been making their New 52 debut before the revelation. 

Writer Greg Pak's Superman continues to be thoroughly believable - a man of huge courage, big heart and unending spirit. Pak finds the perfect balance between small town boy and cosmic hero, a Superman for all time. And I love his Lana, a woman who might have fallen in love with Superman if they hadn't fallen into a brother/sister relationship. Steel, meanwhile, is always a solid presence, and I've finally warmed to Hiro. 

I still haven't warmed to the Smallville psychics, though - they may not be as bad as I believed, but they remain a creepy presence. 

I've moaned in previous reviews about the flashbacks in this storyline, believing it was the creative team succumbing to misty-eyed nostalgia, or talented guest artists helping out hardworking Action man Aaron Kuder with some pretty, but irrelevant, page filling. I apologise, I was wrong. The flashbacks prove to be extremely relevant. 

And they continue to be gorgeous. Kuder himself handles them this time, using a wash approach that adds an extra level of realism and beauty to the sequences  - even the scary ones. And Kuder's eye for a sharp composition only gets better, with every moment choreographed to optimum effect. There's a dreamlike quality to these panels that conveys the mood perfectly. 

The estimable Scott Kolins draws the here and now sequences, maintaining the tone set by Kuder in earlier chapters without foregoing his distinctive style. He has an especially nice line in grim determination. A terrifically expressive craftsman, Kolins is welcome any time Kuder needs a break. 

Helping keep things consistent is regular colourist Wil Quintana, who fills the Smallville and Phantom Zone sequences with sickly browns, greens and blues, while embracing a pastoral palette for Kuder's more somber sequences. 

I'm not sure if letterer Steve Wands handled the superbly squelchy sound effects, but probably not - it's more logical they should come from Kolins' Korner. Whatever the case, Wands produces fine, expressive work throughout. 

The final two pages are just perfect. The crisis is over, kind words are exchanged, it's back to everyday life - but something lingers ...

How about that cover? It's been one fantastical spooky image after another in this storyline, and here's Kuder and Quintana with yet another. Ring-a-ring-a-roses has such disturbing connotations, given its connection to the Black Death, and it fits the themes of this story perfectly - an unstoppable plague corrupting those we love, leaving the survivors mere husks, their spirits broken. 

Pak, Kuder and co's Phantom Zone tale is one of the best Superman stories I've ever read, with perfect moments ranging from the epic to the intimate. DC should rush release a collection and promote the heck out of it, because work of this quality deserves to be seen. And Pak and Kuder are the quality creators Superman deserves.