By J4246419-0+ac_cv37_dsarrod Jones. As far as solid world building is concerned, there are few champions in the New52. Take several steps back and look at the entirety of DC Comics’ new(ish) enterprise, and you’ll find that there are few select corners in the company’s multiverse where strides are taken to finally make sense out of all this insane hullabaloo.

Over in Batman’s corner you’ll find Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV corralling the ever-expanding Bat-verse with their stellar Batman Eternal (and Snyder’s consistently great Batman series). If you were to peer in to the last three years’ worth of Wonder Woman (and then stop right there), you’d come to understand that Brian Azzarello gave Diana of Themyscira a greater world than anything DC was able to conjure since the days following Crisis on Infinite Earths. Geoff Johns – in spite of all his superficial widescreen grandeur – keeps Justice League functioning as the driving force behind at least a third of all the comings and goings of the DCU. (That figure is, I know, depressingly low.)

Where does that leave Superman? Is the Man of Steel the leader, the figurehead, he once was? In a New52 that expels so much energy into the Dark Knight, who is left to champion the World’s Greatest Superhero?

Greg Pak, that’s who.

Pak is a writer who certainly knows a thing or two about handling action: the writer is arguably best-known for his run on Incredible Hulk (which then turned into Incredible Hurcules, taking up the majority of that run), a book with no shortage of bombast and vitality, and Pak has taken that verve and confidently applied it to Action Comics, a book he has shared with artist Aaron Kuder since issue #25 was released one year ago.

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It’s a creative team that has come along when Superman needed them most. Since the inception of DC Comics’ New52, the Superman books have been in a constant state of upheaval, either losing creators from heavy-handed editorial control, or stagnating with creators only too willing to bend to its rule. Pak and Kuder have somehow toed the line that rests between compliance and defiance beautifully, effectively giving the Man of Steel an identity that is at once familiar and wholly brand new. And while it would be more than enough to simply accomplish that, the team has done something else that the hordes of artists who have come and gone couldn’t effectively achieve: they’ve created a supporting cast of characters for Superman – and Clark Kent, we needn’t forget about him – to engage with, fully realized characters who serve a purpose beyond hanging about The Daily Planet‘s bullpen.

It’s with Pak and Kuder’s latest storyline that we get to enjoy more of the burgeoning relationship between Dr. John Henry Irons and Lana Lang, two recognizable members of the Superman mythos who have received a vital second wind within the pages of Action Comics. (I could get into the details, but you’d be better served to visit your local comic book retailer to purchase issues #25 – 37.) While Dr. Irons is an effective hero in his own right (as the tech-genius Steel), it’s Lana who has come to the forefront of the book’s events, recreated as a dynamic figure whose very presence not only bolsters Superman, but never once threatens to disrupt our hero’s world: instead of the Lana Lang of years past, where John Byrne’s Post-Crisis reboot saw Lana as some lonely wretch forever pining after Superman, Pak and Kuder have supplied her with an assertive attitude and a razor-sharp wit, making Lana a character that has certainly eclipsed Lois Lane as the pre-eminent female figure in Superman’s life. It’s only a shame none of the other Super-books see fit to include her in all the fun.

But if Lana Lang deserves to be anywhere, it’s in Action Comics, and this latest issue sure is a doozy. For those who need it, here’s a brief re-cap: Superman has returned from the Doomed debacle, not quite at 100% and sporting a weary (but surprisingly dashing) depression beard. Smallville has been enveloped in a mysterious fog, forcing Steel, Lana, and the Man of Tomorrow to investigate its origins, while the dead rise from farm field graveyards, and the citizens of the biggest little town we’ve ever seen begin to act more than a little strange.

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And while the ongoing escapades are reason enough to hop onto Action Comics #37, Pak bothers to further explore the motivations (and hesitations) of a Superman who is definitely more Clark Kent than Kal-El. Through poignant flashbacks illustrated beautifully by Kuder (whose depictions of a little Clark and Lana are far beyond adorable), Pak creates a rich depth to Superman’s character that speak to the reader more completely than any previous (and current) incarnations during the New52. Those flashbacks thoroughly inform Superman’s decisions as an adult, and those experiences force Clark to consider the consequences of using too much power. (“… I could clap my hands and knock them all unconscious in a split second. But Mrs. Takahara’s in the early stages of osteoporosis. And Burt Gunderson has a heart condition…”) These private moments inside the head of the world’s greatest hero are always the best part of Pak and Kuder’s run of Action Comics. They are the quiet seconds just before all hell breaks loose.

Even with the story showing more than a few shades of Stephen King’s The Mist, Pak’s melodrama somehow avoids a derivative predictability by instilling real consequences to our hero’s actions against the forces that defy him. While it would be all too easy for Superman to blow through Smallville to get to the heart of the matter – and then effectively crush it – Pak won’t allow it, instead putting Superman, Steel and Lana in a position to do what they’ve done best: work together as a team. And while the mystery of this fog stymies the crew of good-doers, Pak and Kuder have a horrifying surprise in store for the town of Smallville, to say nothing of the reader who has to behold the final two-page splash. I won’t spoil the cliffhanger ending here, but believe me when I say, no one draws monsters as good as Aaron Kuder. And no one corrals them better than Greg Pak.

DC Comics/$3.99

Written by Greg Pak.

Art by Aaron Kuder.

Colored by Wil Quintana.

8.5 out of 10

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