I have had a love/hate relationship with Superman comics since DC Comics dropped the “New 52” branding last summer. Superman #40 (the last issue of Superman with the “New 52!” on the cover) was compelling, with a modern look at a less-super Superman. Sapped of his power, Superman was adapting to life as more Batman than Wonder Woman, and the issue was filled with the rest of the Justice League having their own fun at Superman’s weakened expense. At the time, I was really getting into comic books again after a long hiatus, and a great issue of my favorite character really had me even more excited. To top it all off, Action Comics #41 came out next, and that gave me even more of what I loved about Superman #40, only this time it was much more introspective, the stakes were a little higher, and the tone a little darker.
…Then things began to fall apart. Despite strong story beats and stirring moments, Superman and Action Comics went back and forth, telling different aspects of the same story, to further diminishing returns. What began as a personal exploration of a world with not only a weakened Superman, but with a Superman everyone new to be Clark Kent, turned into a massive conspiracy at the hands of Vandal Savage. Twist upon twist was laid on top of a bloating plot and the excitement I felt with Superman #40 in my hands was all but gone.
Superman #48, however, like its titular hero, is a cause for hope.
Now that Superman knows Vandal Savage has been pulling all the strings, he’s become more focused. He knows the only way to stop Savage is to be at full-strength, so he takes a massive gamble. In order to do that, though, he has to visit A.R.G.U.S. and Steve Trevor. Superman hasn’t seen or talked to Steve Trevor since he was outed as Clark Kent, nor since both their relationships with Wonder Woman ended. Needless to say, their reunion is tense.
Steve agrees to help Superman with his risky idea, and they head into the A.R.G.U.S. archives to find their supply of Kryptonite. Yes, Kryptonite. The combination of Superman’s weakened state at the hands of HORDR_ROOT (one of the pawns of Savage’s machinations) and the magic cast by the Gods of Olympus (see the last issue of Superman/Wonder Woman) makes Superman believe an overdose of Kryptonite will allow his body to drink the sun’s radiation again and restore his abilities. At the same time, another of Savage’s pawns, the Puzzler, attacks A.R.G.U.S. to stop Superman, and it’s up to Steve Trevor and the rest of A.R.G.U.S. to give Superman the time he needs to try his experiment.
Like All-New Inhumans #4, Superman #48 wastes no time getting everyone up to speed before things get real. Superman is much more focused than All-New Inhumans, though (not that that issue was unfocused). The stakes are high, but the scope is small. Save one scene explaining the origin of this version of the Puzzler, the entire issue is spent with Superman and Steve Trevor. Trevor, a regular human being, much to Superman’s awe, is still fighting the good fight, putting himself in harm’s way without question. The “normal people are Super too” idea has been hammered hard in this arc of both Superman and Action Comics, but it feels fresh here as it comes at a time when Superman is particularly vulnerable, and it comes from the perspective of someone to whom Superman is ostensibly close.
What we get in turn is a rousing moment when someone who could never really be a member of the Justice League no matter how close he is (something Steve confesses to in this issue in a rather touching moment) living the example the Justice League–especially Superman–is trying to set.
I was hoping we’d get the Superman back by the end of this issue, but it seems we may have to wait as it ends on a cliffhanger that should be resolved when Action Comics #49 drops this week. Despite how demoralized I thought I’d become (not even the artwork of John Romita Jr could elevate this arc–and it hasn’t gotten much better), Superman #48 revealed I’m still holding out hope for these books to be good–for this story to be good. My hope that I’d get to see Superman again at full-strength even though he’s at full-strength in other titles reveals that this story’s been working on me more than I thought. With that, I can definitely say I’m excited to get my hands on Action Comics #49.