The other side of Brian Michael Bendis’ vision for Superman is laid out in Action Comics: Invisible Mafia.
With his family mysteriously absent, Clark Kent endures rumors and speculation about the state of marriage. As both a reporter and Superman, he pursues a string of mysterious fires that leads him close to a Metropolis criminal cabal using strict, subtle methods to operate under the Man of Steel’s radar. Lois Lane’s return and the debut of a dangerous and lethal villain called Red Cloud are steps along a path leading to a significant new threat.
Bendis has indicated that while the Superman title is devoted to universe-spanning superhero action, his Action Comics run is centered more on Clark Kent as a reporter and the cast of characters at the Daily Planet. Not that the Superman persona doesn’t get plenty to do in this arc, but Bendis has come up with a good way to distinguish the two books, also allowing him to spend a little more time focusing on the man behind the superhero identity in Action.
The focus on the Daily Planet is welcome and Bendis cannily uses the current state of traditional newspapers as a potent background element for Clark’s work life. Staples like Perry White and Jimmy Olsen are front and center, but Bendis also works in several new characters (co-workers, allies and adversaries), giving Clark/Superman a lot to bounce off and illustrating how both sides of the character balance out. Red Cloud is an intriguing new enemy, though the “secret” of her identity won’t be much of a surprise.
More interesting is how Bendis elects to handle the Kent/Lane marriage. Before Bendis began his run, there was much concern among fans about the apparent de-emphasis of the family dynamic that had been so appealing in the Rebirth era. And while Bendis takes a different approach to the relationship, it’s still a crucial element of the mix. He plays into Lois’s strength and independence, devising a scenario that has the couple very much still together, even as they’re pursuing separate paths for the moment. Overall, Invisible Mafia shows Bendis effectively blending the kind of grittier crime comics that helped make his reputation with mainstream superhero action. It gives Action Comics a distinct identity and purpose and that bodes well for where the writer is taking the franchise.
Invisible Mafia sees the work of three A-list artistic talents. Patrick Gleason, Yanick Paquette and Ryan Sook take similar approaches to material, so the shift from one to another as the arc progresses is fairly smooth. They all produce clean, bold work with some unexpected stylistic flourishes and compositional choices that enhance the storytelling and effectively communicate the intentions of Bendis’ plotting. Each comes up with an expressive interpretation of the book’s star (as both Clark and Superman), that’s the best melding of classic and modern. Color artists Alejandro Sanchez, Brad Anderson and Nathan Fairbairn tackle different parts of the arc and contribute significantly to visual appeal, nailing the contrasts between bright, dazzling moments, dark, shadowy corners and some crucial shading choices that surround important elements of the story (Red Cloud’s appearances, a bout with Kryptonite).
Much like with the first arc of the current Superman series, Action Comics: Invisible Mafia gets the new era off to a strong start, teasing some promising developments to come.