Superpower Made Perfect in Weakness
Faster than a speeding bullet!
(though a little slower)
More powerful than a locomotive!
(but not quite as powerful)
Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!
(yep, cause he can't fly)
"Look! Up in the sky!"
(or the ground!)
"It's a bird!"
(or a guy)
"It's a plane!"
(nope, still a dude)
(yeah, it's Superman!)
Yes, it's Superman - strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
(eh...let's say "far-ish beyond those of mortal men")
Superman - defender of law and order. champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice...
(yes, all of that)
...who disguised as Clark Kent...
(nope, everybody knows that now)
...mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper...
(he kind of got fired after everyone found out the secret identity thing)
...fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!
In the last few months, Superman doesn't exactly look like the Superman most people know. Long story short: Everyone knows Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same. Superman's powers are greatly diminished. He is back to the t-shirt and jeans look first introduced when Action Comics was rebooted in 2011. And lots of people don't trust and/or like Superman.
Writing all of that down, it sounds like a ploy to make the world's first superhero cool, hip, and edgy for a new audience (Did I mention he drives a motorcycle now? He drives a motorcycle now. Because he can't fly.). And there's probably many ways in which those story beats play out that completely miss what makes Superman so special.
Thus far the story arc has avoided pitfalls. What has been interesting to me is the question embedded in the narrative: What happens when the powerful become vulnerable? What happens when your fortresses (of solitude or otherwise) come crashing down? Does it change the way you act and react? Do you become more angry? Do you run and hide? What do those once powerful now weak need?
Clark Kent is being run through a wringer unlike any in the character's 75+ years of existence. Yet even though he is sometimes more angry, as one would be if his or her world was turned upside down, writers Greg Pak (Action Comics and Batman/Superman) and Gene Luen Yang (Superman) have not forgotten Clark's core: his commitment to try and help others. He is more vulnerable and those whom he saves do not necessarily like him; sometimes they hate him. Yet he is still trying to be a hero in spite of massive self doubt.
The story arc isn't over and it frankly has lost some steam after a jaw-droppingly strong start. The Action Comics thread centered around Clark returning home to Metropolis for the first time since his identity being revealed. Jimmy Olsen and his neighbors throw a block party to welcome him home; complete with a banner that says "Kentville." We learn pretty quickly that the once-powerful-now-weak need community.
Meanwhile, a corrupt cop furious at Superman moves into the lower income neighborhood to break up the party and eventually forces a reluctant SWAT team to use force in scenes that echo Ferguson without seeming exploitative. It is something to see Superman stand alongside the weak against the powerful.
The most recent issue finds that a villain named Wrath is pulling the strings, using anger to turn individuals like this cop into Shadow Warriors. The more anger there is, the more powerful she becomes. There is an interesting thread in here about anger that corrupts and righteous anger that protects the innocent. But the most recent issue plays out more like a summer blockbuster (it is called ACTION Comics) with Superman and police officers battling Wrath at City Hall. While the issue wasn't bad, I found myself missing Clark inspiring his community in Kentville.
Still I love how the story is examining the old Pauline idea that power is made perfect in weakness. I wrote back in the spring that Superman is not Superman because of his powers, but in his efforts to choose the right thing even in the face of difficult circumstances. By bringing Clark low, Pak, Yang, and others are putting that idea to the test. The weakness is showing him to be more human.
Yet that human weakness is more inspiring to his neighbors. There is a wonderful scene in the aftermath of the fight in Kentville in which Clark tells his neighbors that they are all Superman and they need to look out for each other. One by one women and men figure out their strengths and how it can serve their community. It's the kind of quiet moment that makes a superhero comic something special.
Rumor has it DC Comics is a bit uncertain about this storyline (and the creative new direction of their line as a whole because of sales) and might begin to undo some of the story sooner rather than later. I hope not. Comics are cyclical so I know that we'll one day return to a fully powered Superman with Clark Kent as his secret identity. And there will be great stories in that return to status quo. But I hope DC lets the writers play with this concept for a while longer. It's an engaging story and an interesting portrait of a beloved character. For the time, a weakened Superman seems more powerful than he has been in years.