"There's no right or wrong, but I believe there's good and bad…" Eddie Vedder's lyrics remind us how difficult it is to achieve audience engagement in stories writ large with idealism.
Action #23Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Scott Lobdell, Tyler Kirkham
Publication Date: 2013-10
Characters that resonate with a wide audience create the most compelling stories. And more often than not, characters resonate when the audience can relate to them. People look at characters like Batman or Peter Parker and see someone who is human and flawed yet they are able to accomplish amazing feats. However, this creates a challenge for someone like Superman, who is not human and whose feats are practically god-like in their scale and impact. No matter how much Superman resonates with an audience, nobody will ever know what it feels like to fly at the speed of light, move a planet with sheer muscle, or survive being Wonder Woman’s lover.
Yet Superman still resonates with audiences because unlike Batman and Peter Parker, he represents an ideal. He personifies all that is good, moral, and just. That ideal is more powerful than any human in the same way that Superman is more powerful than any human. And upholding that ideal can make stories about Superman seem more like a morality tale than a compelling narrative. But Action #23 manages to create a narrative that shows that upholding that ideal can still be a compelling story. It also shows that as easy as it is to relate to certain less-powerful characters, there’s not much they can do when an alien monster shows up to devour the Earth. Let’s face it, Batman doesn’t have anything in his utility belt for a threat like that.
This is the threat that Superman has to face in Action #23. It's called Lexus and instead of a luxury car, it's a planet-sized cross between a monster truck and a demon. And the knights of Pax Galactica have been fighting this creature for 23 years. Its origins are basic, but the details are important to the story. Lexus was forged from the disembodied heart of Queen Lourdes's brother, who apparently had an evil in his heart strong enough to forge a terrifying body out of the disembodied planets he destroyed. Essentially, he's evil on a level that makes it so nobody will complain about Superman having to kill him so critics of Superman: Man of Steel can rest easy.
While Lexus as a threat may be somewhat basic, it serves an important role in the scope of the story. This is a threat of pure, uncompromising evil. In the same way Superman represents the pure idealism of all that is good, a creature like Lexus represents the exact opposite. Normal humans and less than upstanding heroes can't comprehend evil on that scale in the same way they can't comprehend Superman's ability to be good. At the same time, nobody except someone who is as powerful and as good as Superman has the ability to take on someone like Lexus while also dealing with Queen Lourdes's knights of Pax Galactia. Because in the same way it's challenging for mature adults to deal with immature children, it's difficult for someone as good as Superman to deal with creatures this arrogant.
Before Lexus even arrives, Superman clashes with the knights of Pax Galactica. They treat him the same way the the weakest kid is treated in a game of dodgeball. But as soon as Lexus arrives, the game stops and the battle begins. And Superman, understanding that any frustration or anger he feels towards these creatures won't help, looks past their juvenile behavior so that they can battle Lexus. In a perfect world, everyone would be able to overlook such petty misgivings. But in the real world, people hold grudges. In the real world, something as trivial as being cut off in the freeway is enough for someone to be seething with rage for a two-hour drive. But Superman doesn't have that kind of time. He overlooks it and focuses on a more important task, namely saving the world.
And his ability to succeed where Queen Lourdes's knights have failed says something else about Superman's persona. Since he tries to fight with a level head that is clear of arrogance, he is able to surmise the weakness of the Lexus. The details of its origin are key in that it allows him to devise a strategy to end the creature once and for all. It's a strategy that Queen Lourdes, her knights, and no being without god-like powers could carry out. But because Superman is Superman, he is able to to do so and destroys the Lexus by destroying its heart.
It's not just an amazing display of power. It's a perfect demonstration of how Superman isn't just some overpowered demigod. He's as powerful as he needs to be to do the right thing. Using more power might be easier, but it wouldn't be just. He demonstrates this in another way that's almost as dramatic as destroying a planet-sized robot demon. After seeing such a feat, Queen Lourdes and the knights of Pax Galactica swear their eternal allegiance to Superman. Now most people probably wouldn't pass up the opportunity to have completely obedient superpowered slaves in the same way they wouldn't tear up a winning lottery ticket. But that is exactly what Superman does. He didn't destroy the Lexus to gain favor with Pax Galactica. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
That embodies the true core of Superman. Action #23 doesn't really break new ground in Superman's story or do anything too novel. It establishes a powerful threat that only Superman can stop and shows him stopping it while not cutting any corners along the way. There's no shortcuts. There's no cut-and-paste. Superman does things the right way and that's all there is to it. That's what makes Action #23 a satisfying Superman story. While less durable characters like Batman still has a place in modern mythology, there will always be room for living embodiments of an ideal like Superman.