I actually think there's something to like in Chuck Austen's Superman: Wrath of Gog. I'm certainly not one of those Chuck Austen haters; it's obvious the man can write, as seen in both JLA: Pain of the Gods and Superman: Metropolis. Heck, in the last example, it's even obvious he can write Superman. Ultimately, there's a lot that's right and wrong in Superman: Wrath of Gog, just as there's a lot right and wrong in Greg Rucka's Superman: Unconventional Warfare, and in the end I find myself wishing for something somewhere in the middle.
Chuck Austen's Clark Kent is a man having a bad day. He's been demoted in his job, his wife lies to him and then leaves town, and a villain who killed him is on the loose. Initially, Clark's reaction is pretty fun--every time life gets him down, he ducks out to save the world. Chuck Austen's Superman is a man who enjoys his work, tossing out mre than the occasional one-liner, like critiquing a teenage robber's bad grammar. It's not holier than though, really, so much as a breath of fresh air.
In this way, Chuck Austen's title has what Greg Rucka's lacks--a brash, bright, powerful Superman, which, I think, is something the audience wants. At the same time, especially when reading Wrath of Gog without Unconventional Warfare, Chuck Austen lacks Greg Rucka's Clark Kent-with-a-purpose. We get Clark's demotion, but we don't get any of the new cast that comes along with it. Because of this, Clark look all the more impotent, and Superman--well, I can see why Superman would break Weapon Master's hands, since, you know, that's Weapon Master's powers after all, but as Superman is taunting Gog ("God love a cliche. What's next, 'Mindless cretin?," shortly before Gog smacks him in the head while he's running his mouth off) it begins to feel less like Superman. He's making fun of the bad guys. Superman, in my mind, might say "How dare you?" but he wouldn't call a defeated villain "some loser who cries like a little girl when things get a tad hairy."
As many have noted already, where this story completely goes off the rails is the completely nonsensical apprance of a STAR Labs doctor who looks exactly like Jack Black and proceeds to spout inanities for ten pages. It seems to have nothing to do with the story, let alone confusing the reader when Superman already seems to know this person. It would be one thing, even, if this were a character that Black had played elsewhere, but I can't even find reference to that. Who's idea was this? Chuck Austen? Ivan Reis? And yet, at the sme tme, the writing of Superman in these sequences is fine. Strangely, it doesn't seem to be bad Superman writing, just bad judgement in general.
I'm of two minds of the last, and perhaps most controversial part of Wrath of Gog. Superman is laid up sick, and Lana comes to take care of him. When I heard Lana would be featured in Action Comics, I thought it was perhaps in answer to Smallville; we'd see Lana portrayed as something as a homage to the TV show. Instead, what we get is ultimately a very difficult convesation that's quite moving (whether you agree with it or not), where Lana suggests that Lois doesn't really care that much for Clark anyway, which is why she's gone while Lana is still around. And let me reiterate that Chuck Austen has a flair for dialogue; the conversation between Clark and Lana rates up there with some of his heaviest dialogue from JLA: Pain of the Gods. But what's frightening here is that, even though you would assume that the hero of the book, discussing his own wife, would be in the right in the conversation, I get the feeling that Chuck Austen believes that what Lana says is true; that Lois just loves Superman, not Clark. And it is a compelling arument, if only because the writers have made it that way with Lois away overseas, but frankly, that is just not the Superman story that I want to read (or, at least, read again, because I feel that writers have been down this path before). For more than sixty years we had the Lois who chased Superman and denied Clark Kent, and now they're married and it's a different time. Personally, I don't like writers who can't find anything creative to do with married couples, and so give them marital strife--it suggests that marriage is boring, or stagnant, and I don't think it is.
So I do honestly hope that there's a second Chuck Austen Action Comics trade paperback, because I'm curious to see where this goes, especially in light of what happens to Lois at the end of Unconventional Warfare. On the other hand, over at Yet Another Comics Blog, Dave says that the second trade will contain the worst Superman comic ever, so we'll see. What I'd like to see in Austen's is a scene where Lois shines--where Clark Kent's life isn't so bad, despite all the set up to the contrary. So keep all this in mind, and I'll weigh in if/when there's a second trade.
I'm going to finish the Majestic trade paperback now, and then I'll have a slew of new trades coming in this week. Thanks!