ACTION COMICS #980 by Dan Jurgens and Pat Zircher
While some of the more emotional moments are dulled, ACTION COMICS #980 thrusts Superman into conflict with a cadre of his villains. With a focus on developing Cyborg Superman, issue #980 is a setup issue for an intense battle to come.
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Visions of Good Things to Come
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The ACTION COMICS Rebirth line has carried a heart-stopping intensity that has helped to balance the character-driven storytelling of the SUPERMAN ongoing series. The great strength of ACTION COMICS so far is its ability to blend the emotional life of Clark Kent with the crime-fighting of Superman. One of my biggest worries going into ACTION COMICS #980 was the inclusion of Superman’s biggest villains. Classic Superman villains like Metallo, Mongul, and Cyborg Superman join with less recognizable names like Blanque and Eradicator.

With so many powerful foes introduced into the story, I feared that big, superpowered brawls would overshadow the more human moments that have been defining the current run. Luckily, in ACTION COMICS #980, writer Dan Jurgens with art by Pat Zircher, found a unique and powerful way to dig deeper into the world’s most recognizable superhero.

Superman at the Black Vault

Action Comics #980
ACTION COMICS #980 page 3. Image courtesy of DC Comics.

The story opens on Cyborg Superman’s united villains. We see him approaching each individual to convince them to continue working with him. Here, writer Dan Jurgens gives little hints into each characters’ motivation. While each is driven by their own separate needs, the only uniting factor is their hatred for Superman. Cyborg Superman, formerly Hank Henshaw, reveals that he plans on releasing General Zod from Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad.

Back in Metropolis, Superman rushes to check on Lois and Jon, who are discussing their upcoming move from Hamilton County. Superman warns the pair of the danger, knowing that Blanque and the Eradicator know his secret identity. After learning that both Cyborg Superman and the Eradicator are attacking Belle Reve Prison’s Black Vault, General Zod’s personal Phantom Zone prison, the real heart of this story comes into focus.

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The crippling mental influences of the Black Vault make both Superman and his Cyborg double witness their worst fears. While a fight does ensue, both are so badly affected by the Vault that they can barely stand. Here, we are given a brief glimpse into Henshaw’s past as a villainous parody of Marvel’s Mr. Fantastic. Superman, meanwhile, encounters his own fears of failure at each of his parents’ graves. As he looks on, his loved ones rise from the ground as zombies. Eradicator and Cyborg Superman flee, but the issue ends with the Clark Kent suffering this waking nightmare.

Glimpse into a Mind of Steel

Action Comics #980
ACTION COMICS #980 page 8. Image courtesy of DC Comics.

ACTION COMICS #980 is incredibly successful in its portrayal of the Man of Steel. Superman stories only work with a strong grounding in his humanity. Luckily, this issue delivers on his characterization. Two of my favorite moments from this issue actually have nothing to do with Henshaw’s Revenge Squad. The spotlight here shines on Superman digging into his emotions.

As always, there’s a rather affectionate moment between Clark and his son. Jurgens focuses this sequence on Jonathan’s relatable distress over moving and his desire to help his father fight. In another moment, Batman cameos to help Clark locate his runaway supervillains. Clark goes into surprising detail about his disdain of Amanda Waller and her Suicide Squad. It goes so far as to have Batman question Clark’s motives for investigating the prison. Both of these scenes feel so real, so grounded, that I only wish they occupied more space.

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Crippling Characterization

ACTION COMICS #980 page 13. Image courtesy of DC Comics.

My biggest issue with ACTION COMICS #980 is that it felt rushed. While well written, not a lot happens here. The setting changes rapidly to give a sense of a continuing story, but very little drives it forward. While I loved the Jonathan moments early in the issue, they didn’t feel necessary compared to other moments of characterization.

The Black Vault scenes seem like the biggest offenders. While the cover art teases General Zod, the tyrant doesn’t actually make an appearance. Most importantly, the scenes involved in Hank Henshaw and Superman’s visions felt like they weren’t given enough page time. Henshaw’s, in particular, felt very dated. The sentimentality presented here felt like a by-product of Silver Age Superman. The vast information we receive about Henshaw’s past feels forced. I kept feeling like Jurgens tried so hard to contextualize Cyborg Superman, but the exposition just fell flat. It was simply too convenient. I felt this way about the opening section as well. Each villain only receives a single panel to go through all of their present motivations.

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Superman’s visions of his parents are deeply compelling. While it has that same Silver Age sentimentality, it feels more purposeful here. Jurgens gives the moment more page time and relevance. More importantly, these visions give us new insight into Superman. Seeing the depths of Superman’s innate fear of failure is fascinating as a reader. This fear gives context to his desire to go into this battle alone.

ACTION COMICS #980: Final Thoughts

Where ACTION COMICS #980 shines is in its portrayal of Superman. The writing exposes so many new sides of this decades old figure. These revelations, however, only go so far to sweep the expositional and rushed villain motivations under the rug. While I appreciate any attempt at characterization, I only wish Jurgens gave it more page time.

I have to recognize the beautiful realism in artist Pat Zircher’s visuals. While there were a few hiccups, his crisp line work and attention to detail make this issue stand out. His style in this issue reminds me of classic Superman stories like THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN. For this classic lineup of supervillains, this style is incredibly fitting.

There are some problems with characterization, to be sure. ACTION COMICS #980, however, is a strong setup for the upcoming stories. If Jurgens slows down the story in the next few issues, the upcoming battle has the potential to be an iconic Superman event.

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