A covert ultra-secretive US military agency so dedicated to national security and protecting the world from 'the enemy' it will willingly seek to incite a confrontation with the worlds greatest hero, (never villains mind), and to this end has super powered and deadly operatives of their own to fight the good fight on their behalf and take whatever measures are necessary....
Am I speaking of The Tower which has made recent connections in the Superman world? Perhaps I am speaking of The Machine as run by General Lane in Scott Snyder's Superman Unchained? Or could I be speaking of Argus...? At a stretch I could be suggesting Amanda Waller's recent attempt to band together and militarise her own handpicked Justice League of America as a counteracting force to the World's Greatest Heroes. But no, really I could also be speaking of both police and Army in general when it comes to an unprecedented confrontational attitude between the state and iconic heroes like Superman and the Justice league.
Since the revamping of their universe in 2011 DC Comics have gone to stringent lengths to make sure the relationship that the Worlds Greatest heroes have with the emergency services and public at large is anything but trusting. This mandate has been taken to such extraordinary lengths that at this stage it is now veering into being near parody... leading one to wonder, can there be a Superman story in 2014 that has a mutual respect between a Superman and the governmental agencies that are supposed to be aligned on broadly the same horizon as him? Why the unyielding distrust and paranoia between peoples hero and State?
Reading this months Action Comics, especially on the back of Superman Unchained, is an experience that left me with both weariness and bafflement.
Weariness at the over familiar sight of yet another pompous self-important civil servant dressing down Superman, presumably safe in the knowledge that Superman won't just kill/maim them after the first ten seconds of derision as a 'General Zod' or 'Mongul' assuredly would.
And Bafflement at the rushed haphazard join-the-dots approach which writer Greg Pak employs to string out this denoument to the Subterranea storyline told over these last three issues.
Last Issue left us with the last page introduction to The Tower's apparent commander Harrow, this issue gives us not a lot more to go on other than she shares the same philosophy and moral cowardice as General Lane and Lex Luthor, a fervent believer that Superman is bad news for the world and all he gathers is trouble. Presumably if all the superheroes vanished the world would be a better place... though of course Forever Evil and its spin-offs are a textbook example as to why this thinking is hopelessly naÃ¯ve and lacking in any logic. The basis of Harrow's fatuous argument is ultimately distilled down to the basic accusation that because Superman is so compassionate and always willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those he meets he is in fact recklessly endangering the public and the world at large. Citing his intervention in the jungles of Venezuela and first contact with Subterranea she lists off his 'recklessness' in allowing Baka and his kin the time to acclimatise to the strangeness of the surface world and the unforeseen effects this then had on them. To her this act of common mediation is perfectly valid provenance to the reality of Superman's unprofessionalism.
To anyone with an ounce of common sense and humanity on the other hand this is merely evidence of one man playing intermediary and guardian to both parties. Whether it is Superman or Doctor David Livingstone the compassionate intention behind their actions is transparent to see. But in comicbookland good men are fodder by which dubious governmental agencies will justify their own existence and self importance on, Scott Snyder's entire Superman Unchained series is built on exploring this principle, indeed it seems no exaggeration to say that the bulk of Superman tales in the last six years have been regurgitating the exact same formula - in examining the morality and realities of a moralistic figure who appears too good to be true. Unfortunately all too often by now it comes across on the page as an attack on the characters integrity and the altruistic nature of the man himself.
Harrow's unwavering fanaticism in her belief, immediately noted by Superman himself, is almost as remarkable as the bizarre and confused nature of Tower and herself. Is Superman dealing with a government agency? The Supernatural dead? Or is this something else? Harrow demonstrates power and physical characteristics that are very similar to the Silver Banshee, but in apparently raising the dead soldiers of wars gone by she evokes the figure of Olympian god Ares, recently seen calling on the dead soldiers of history himself.
So who is she? What is Tower? Where does the Scott Lobdell subplot with General Lane fit in with what is presented here? Greg Pak offers no illumination on any of these points. This lack of explanation throughout the story lends it an air of perfunctoriness, because things just happen.
Harrow can summon the dead, conjured soldiers she calls upon attack Superman and try to tear him apart with spears and weapons, but there is subtlety on display here, Greg Pak's Superman is the suffering saint, the man with all the power in the world but who fears to use it to its full extent. While Harrow castigated him for this lack of ruthlessness and inhibition the truth to the worth of this ability to constantly question himself and reinforce his self-belief quickly becomes apparent, as weathering the mystical attacks of the soldiers Superman is able to gain their attention and show them the real foe - the now near demonic Harrow.
What happens next validates Superman's stance, even Harrow momentarily has to begrudgingly admit to the hypocrisy, but as she is forced to 'release' the dead she reverts to type and again refuses to see the absurdity of her argument. By exploiting the unwilling dead she shows she has no qualms about their rights, their needs and sacrifice are irrelevant to her so long as they do what she wants. And yet even as Superman again shows his nature as compassionate mediator all she can do is take this act of human decency as another 'proof' of her belief in Superman's weakness and threat to the world. Fanatical to the bitter end.
While the plot bears little scrutiny Greg Pak does at least hit the right notes with the characterisation of Superman. The constant internal battle between action, emotion, and the ultimate need to stay in control and not give in to those impulses. What appeared to be yet another story designed to berate the characters integrity and worth serves instead to reaffirm it, he has every reason to be angry with Harrow and 'The Tower', and yet throughout the exercise he manages to control his righteousness and even when under serious pressure from an army of the dead he shows a strength of character all too often missing from the New 52 era - the ability to Inspire.
Faced with the hordes of dead soldiers Harrow conjures the sensible and natural reaction is to fight, that is probably what Harrow expected, but in scenes reminiscent of the finale of Never Ending Battle storyline his true nature is his true source of strength. Faced with an implacable moral challenge Superman does not compromise his ethics, he is what he is. And while Manchester Black finally saw the true face of the man and accepted it, Harrow instead accepts and rejects. What would she be without her strange fixation on his supposed threat to the world after all...
...of seeing our invulnerable hero with a bleeding mouth or with projectiles of one sort or another penetrating or (worse) sticking out of his skin?