Action Comics #999
Action Comics #999, by Dan Jurgens, Will Conrad, and Ivan Nunes, is an epilogue of sorts to the last few story arcs and the penultimate book before #1000 hits. Jurgens and company manage to impress with a nice little story about Superman putting the lessons he’s learned into practice.
Sam Lane, Lois’s father, comes to dinner with the Kents after being saved from a Logamban prison last issue by Lois and Jon (with an assist from Booster Gold and Superman). Lois and Sam begin to go at each other, disagreeing, of course, about Superman and his role in the world. Meanwhile, in space, Superman stops an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth. The asteroid’s core is made of a crystalline substance that gets stronger the longer it’s in contact with Earth’s atmosphere. Superman takes it to the Fortress of Solitude, using it to build an indestructible cell for Hank Henshaw, the Cyborg Superman. Back in Metropolis, Sam Lane is about to leave when a returning Clark stops him and is able to convince him and Lois to reconcile. The issue ends with the family sitting down to a nice dinner together.
Thematically, this issue knocks it out of the park. In the Booster Shot story that just ended, Superman saw what happens when someone is imprisoned in the Phantom Zone for a long period of time and has decided that it is inhumane to keep anyone there. This is really something that should have happened a long time ago: while the Phantom Zone has always been a good way to dispose of mega powerful villains, it’s always seemed a little incongruent with Superman’s character. It fit better with Pre-Crisis Superman than it does with the current version. Pre-Crisis Superman, for all of his goody two-shoes, Big Blue Boy Scout-ness, was more of a judge, jury, executioner type. Sure, he didn’t kill, but he had no qualms about putting someone in a purgatorial, bodiless existence for all of eternity, often times for crimes that didn’t fit the punishment. That’s an attitude that the current Superman doesn’t share. He’s had to use the Phantom Zone projector, but has always been a bit reticent about it. He’d rather give the villains a chance at rehabilitation.
Hank Henshaw has killed millions of people; if anyone could be considered irredeemable, it would be him, but Superman doesn’t see that way. After his experience with the future Zod family, he sees the effect the Phantom Zone can have on people, how it can torment them. Instead, he decides on another way to imprison Henshaw that won’t torment him for all eternity. Quite the opposite, actually, as Superman comes up with a much more humane method of holding Henshaw. This is such a Superman thing to do. Superman is exactly the kind of person who would want to keep someone imprisoned, while also keeping them happy, perhaps in the hopes that Henshaw will regret his actions and perhaps make amends for them. It’s a wonderful, fitting little twist that’s so perfectly in character and it takes something that has always been a wrinkle and smooths it out.
The other thematic element is the conflict between Lois and her father and how it connects to the one between Superman and Mr Oz, the former Jor-El. Both Sam and Jor-El are men built by their circumstances and those circumstances have made both of them bitter, hard men. Sam Lane has been running covert missions and working to protect the US and that has made him a man who has a hard time trusting anyone who can be a threat, including Superman. This attitude makes him extremely similar to Jor-El, who, after surviving the death of Krypton and seeing man’s inhumanity toward his fellows, also had trust issues. Superman was finally able to get through to his father, so it makes sense for him to be the one to smooth things over between Lois and Sam. Superman knows what it’s like to lose someone after getting them back, so he doesn’t want his wife to go through the same.
The art by Will Conrad and Ivan Nunes is just as impressive as it was last issue. Conrad is able to capture the emotion of the scenes between Lois, Sam, and Jon, while also delivering on the bigger, more action based stuff. The sequence with Superman and the asteroid and the fight between Superman and Henshaw are wonderfully laid out and a treat to look at, made all the better by Nunes’s colors, the asteroid scene especially. With any other colorist, this scene still would have looked pretty cool, but Nunes makes the whole thing pop a little bit more, especially after Superman cuts the asteroid in two with his heat vision. The crystalline core of the asteroid shimmers and there’s residual heat vision energy floating around and it draws the eye. In fact, the coloring throughout the issue is excellent. Nunes is able to make Conrad’s stellar pencils look that much better.
Jurgens, Conrad, and Nunes deliver another great issue. It’s really hard to imagine any other team taking this many plot threads and resolving them all in one issue and doing it so well. In this age of comic deconstructionism and taking six issues to tell stories, this team is able to touch on multiple themes and put a nice bow on them and do it all in a single issue. It’s doubtful that we’ll ever see its like on Action Comics again, especially given Bendis’ coming Superman takeover and his method of storytelling. Action Comics #999 is a treasure. It’s not flashy. It won’t be remembered in the pantheon of the greatest Superman stories, but it deserves a spot there. It is a perfect encapsulation of everything a great Superman comic should be.