ACTION COMICS #988 By Dan Jurgens and Ryan Sook
Dan Jurgens brings Jor-El and Kal-El together in a harrowing tale that explores how two completely divergent views of humanity can form.
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Father and Son Reunited
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If you thought the previous issue was as brutal and harrowing as a Superman comic book could get, think again. ACTION COMICS #988 picks up on last issue’s stunning revelation that Mr. Oz is, in fact, Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El! Where the previous issue portrayed the savagery of humanity in the present day, ACTION COMICS #988 takes us on a guided tour through the unending horrors of humanity’s past. Jor-El takes his son along for the ride, showing Superman how he survived Krypton’s explosion, how he came to Earth, and how he grew to believe that humanity is a lost cause that they must both abandon.

The result is another poignant and difficult look at humanity today. Writer Dan Jurgens is unrelenting in his depiction of humanity’s cruelty, violence, and hypocrisy. Jurgens successfully casts doubt as to why a heroic figure like Superman should even bother. More subtly, ACTION COMICS #988 is also a father and son story that shows parallel lives, as well as polar opposite experiences of human nature. This, I believe, is the key to understanding where the arc of “The Oz Effect” might be headed.

ACTION COMICS #988 page 2. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

ACTION COMICS #988 opens with a striking image of Superman simply stating: “Liar.” From there, Jor-El takes Kal-El on a journey through his past, with the goal of definitively proving that he’s NOT a liar. First stop is Krypton, where we see Jor-El’s “Stardrive” project mercilessly shut down by his own father-in-law, despite it being the only hope of saving the planet’s people. We then see the usual scene of Jor-El and Lara sending Kal off to Earth while Krypton explodes around them — but with one key difference. Instead of them both burning alive, Jor-El is saved by a mysterious blue light (gee, I wonder who did that) which wraps around him. The light protects him from the exploding planet while he watches his wife burn to death before his eyes.

The same blue light then transports Jor-El to Earth at the same time his son arrives. Yet while Kal-El winds up in a safe home with loving parents, the blue light dumps Jor-El in the worst place on Earth — a battle-torn community plagued by famine and starvation, and ruled by a brutal, savage warlord. Here, a sympathetic family takes Jor-El in (much like his son) — but the peace doesn’t last. As the family turns on itself, Jor-El witnesses firsthand humanity’s unending capacity for self-destruction. It’s this experience — along with some CLOCKWORK ORANGE-style brainwashing, where Jor-El is forced to watch humanity’s entire history of war and genocide — that drives Jor-El to one distinct conclusion: Humanity doesn’t deserve Superman.

READ: Discover how Superman learned the true identity of Mr. Oz with our review of ACTION COMICS #987!

Initially, I’d worried the Dr. Manhattan factor might interfere with this storyline. It’s so easy to use big blue as a convenient plot device. Yet, in execution, Dr. Manhattan saving Jor-El makes perfect sense. In WATCHMEN, Dr. Manhattan became gradually disconnected from humanity, losing touch with basic feelings like love and joy. He instead became a critical observer. Without knowing Geoff Johns’ planned endgame in DOOMSDAY CLOCK, I can surmise that Manhattan’s interest in Superman comes from his total inability to understand how a being of complete goodness could possibly want to stay on Earth. So who better to convince Superman of an anti-Earth opinion than his own father? Hence Manhattan’s desire to not only save Jor-El, but also to brainwash him into believing that Earth is beyond saving.

Jurgens laces the narrative of ACTION COMICS #988 with the essence of Dr. Manhattan through the words of Jor-El. Superman’s father is more or less a cypher for the big blue God in terms of the overarching narrative. Yet in the confines of this comic, Jor-El’s viewpoint is gripping and powerful. When Jor-El begins to doubt the worthwhile nature of humanity, it feels totally earned — and we really can’t help but agree with him.

The most striking example of this comes when Jor-El tries to repay the family after being rehabilitated. He steals food from the warlord, Kasaam, and brings it to the family. While most of the family enjoys Jor-El’s gift, their youngest son — for reasons unfathomable — decides to go straight to Kasaam and squeal on them. This results in Kasaam entering their home with troops, placing his machine gun in the hands of the young son, and forcing him to murder his entire family. Jor-El goes into a fit of rage and kills Kasaam and every last soldier in the area. Faced with the young boy, the last living person there, all Jor-El can do is scream: “WHY?” The boy answers with another stream of bullets.

ACTION COMICS #988 page 16. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment

This entire sequence mirrors the brutal acts seen throughout the previous issue, ACTION COMICS #987. In the context of Jor-El’s experience, this explains exactly why Superman’s father has become so jaded. Jurgens so far has utilized “The Oz Effect” with a steady stream of boldness. He doesn’t hold back with any of his depictions of violence. We see an entire family shot to death, their bodies strewn and bloody in the aftermath. No shadows to cover the violence, no glossing over the events with narration or time-jumping. We’re rooted firmly in the present, in humanity’s violence.

Perhaps the most resounding element here is that the murders aren’t committed by aliens with laser beams or robots with futuristic weaponry. These deaths are caused by human beings with man-made guns. Jor-El and Superman are the aliens in the room, and they’re the benevolent ones. All they can do is watch.

Another fascinating aspect of Jurgens’ story is the father and son parallel. Jurgens explores the concept that vastly different experiences can influence and distort the perspective of two otherwise similar people. Jor-El and Kal-El came from the same biological background and possess the same general sense of morality and understanding of right and wrong. Superman, who was raised on a farm and ingrained with homegrown American values, was able to see the good in humanity, even in the worst among us. Jor-El, by the mere fact that he landed in a completely different part of the world, had the complete opposite experience of Earth. Superman has faith in humanity because he’s seen the good. Jor-El has no faith in humanity because he’s seen nothing but evil.

READ: ComicsVerse explores the difficulties of reinventing Superman for the modern era in our analysis piece, “The Struggle in Establishing the Modern Superman!”

Jurgens speaks to the contradictions inherent on planet Earth. Someone growing up in New York City would indeed have a completely different perspective on humanity than someone raised in Gaza’s West Bank. Jor-El and Kal-El fall into this dual paradigm, and Jurgens executes the shift beautifully. Unfortunately, Jor-El’s view of Earth borders on radical nihilism, and I believe this is where the conflict between father and son is going to emerge over the course of the next three issues.

Jor-El only sees the worst of humanity, because Dr. Manhattan wanted it that way. Superman has the benefit of a more rounded perspective, understanding both the good and bad aspects of humanity. That’s why Superman will never go along with his father’s plea to leave the Earth to its fate. Superman will stay and fight as he always has. The question is whether Jor-El will stay with him, or intervene for his son’s “own good.” With Dr. Manhattan pulling the strings, I suspect there will be no peaceful resolution between father and son.

It’s great to see artist Ryan Sook back in the game for ACTION COMICS #988. His bold figure work and expressive facial patterns go a long way to selling the somber mood of “The Oz Effect.” The very first page features a striking image of Superman denying his father’s claim. There’s so much to see in Kal-El’s facial expression: suspicion, anger, denial, and fear. A single image reveals the complex conflict of a son realizing his father might be alive. There’s some great reflective interplay too, such as when Mr. Oz’s past encounters with Superman swathe the region around the Man of Steel in green. There’s the faintest gleam of green in Superman’s bright blue eyes. This acts as a metaphorical acknowledgment of Mr. Oz’s place in Superman’s internal world.

ACTION COMICS #988 page 6. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Sook’s Jor-El design is also quite striking, with the green of Mr. Oz’s robes giving way to the green of Krypton, mixed with the red and yellow of Superman’s symbol. The robe turns into a regal cape and cloak, indicating a feeling of authority and quasi-royalty. This helps to sell the image of Jor-El as a figure wise beyond Superman’s years. Most interesting of all is Jor-El’s left eye, sealed shut from Kryptonite shards wedged into his socket. It’s an intriguing visual design, and on a deeper level, makes me wonder whether that Kryptonite lodged in his face might be partially responsible for Jor-El’s radical outlook on humanity. Since Kryptonite is damaging to the body, it’s not difficult to imagine a shard lodged that close to Jor-El’s brain could be causing mental deterioration. It’s a clever visual clue that might indicate where “The Oz Effect” storyline is heading.

ACTION COMICS #988: Final Verdict

Overall, ACTION COMICS #988 provides a phenomenal continuation of “The Oz Effect.” It delivers a wholly believable and satisfying explanation of how Jor-El survived and came to Earth. While it lacks the horror and sheer visceral impact of the previous issue, it more than makes up for this by taking the narrative in an increasingly fascinating direction. There are many stories that explore whether humanity needs Superman. Yet Dan Jurgens does them one better by crafting a story that explores whether Superman needs humanity. On his own, Superman would never reach this conclusion. With his own father as the vehicle of doubt, the argument suddenly takes on a whole new form of believability.

Kal-El’s resolve for the people of Earth will no doubt hold. Yet the fact that Jurgens successfully casts doubt on Superman’s role on Earth is a tremendous accomplishment. In just two issues, Jurgens has taken Superman’s story in an unbelievably bold and exciting direction. Using the father and son dynamic as the vehicle, Jurgens is slowly but surely reshaping Superman’s relationship to humanity in a way that reflects and sharply comments on the modern era. Jurgens reinvented Superman in the 1990s with THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN. Now, 25 years later, Jurgens is poised to reinvent the Man of Steel once again.

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