What happens when Superman loses? Philip Kennedy Johnson on fallout of Action Comics' Mongul clash

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What happens when Superman loses? Philip Kennedy Johnson on fallout of Action Comics' Mongul clash

Superman may have lost the battle against Mongul, but the war is just beginning. 

Action Comics 1038 cover

The Warworld Saga blazes on in the pages of Action Comics this week, and though Superman is licking his wounds in the aftermath of one of the most devastating losses of his heroic career, he's not yet ready to give up his quest to liberate an entire planet.

Last month, we talked with writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson about handing Superman that massive defeat, what it meant for the future of the saga, and the Man of Tomorrow's own quest to continue to fight for every single soul on Warworld. Now, Johnson is back to exclusively talk with SYFY WIRE about the fallout from that battle, what Superman's gained amid all this loss, and the "sword and sandal" epic that's coming next. 

**Spoilers for Action Comics #1038 ahead.**

Action Comics 1038 cover

In Action Comics #1037, Superman and the Authority took the fight directly to Mongul in a showdown with the ruler of Warworld and his collection of high-powered Champions. It ended very, very badly. By the end of the issue, Authority member Lightray was dead, Superman was impaled on a spear, and the entire crew ended up in a Warworld dungeon. For Action Comics #1038, it was very important to Johnson to avoid following that up with yet another high action moment, and instead focus on what Superman might have learned from his loss, and what it means going forward.

"Superman has just been handed one of the biggest losses of his very long career. This issue was not the time to see him kicking ass again," Johnson said. "We really wanted to make the readers understand he's not dead, but he also has lost control of the situation. We see the Authority, too. We see them fight back, and what happens then. But I'm kind of taking each issue chapter by chapter, and giving each issue kind of a theme. And this issue was too soon to see Superman fighting his way back, in my opinion. This one, we needed to see Superman really understanding his situation, and kind of setting the stage for what comes next."

Action Comics 1038 preview page

Superman's situation, as Johnson has made clear in the last several issues of Action Comics, is far more complicated than just punching his way out of Warworld. For one thing, he's been slowly losing his powers, and the red solar energy of Warworld isn't helping that problem. For another, his goal isn't just to win, but to liberate the entire planet, something made harder by the Warzoons and their all-consuming devotion to the culture that Mongul has created in his current incarnation. That means, for the reader, that understanding Warworld itself is just as important as understanding Superman's motives, and that's where certain key sequences of Action Comics #1038 come in. In one dramatic moment, as members of the Authority are taken into one of the planet's forges, we see firsthand the culture that's been built up around chains not as devices of bondage, but as status symbols in a culture that values dominance and battle above all else. For Johnson, who previously worked in anti-human trafficking efforts, it's a theme that came directly from firsthand experience.

"I found that people who we were trying to rescue, and even people that we did rescue in some cases, had this invisible chain that it was really hard for them to shake in part because they valued it themselves," Johnson said. "And these chains that this person has put on them, they've also taught them to value it and to protect it. And the people that are trying to get them out of that situation are seen as enemies very often. It's not this situation where they're asking everyone to help trying to find someone, to get them out of the house. That's not the situation at all. They want to be there very often. And they don't understand that they've been brainwashed by this horrible person. That is the situation of everyone on Warworld, at least that's how Mongul wants it to be. He is this trafficker on an intergalactic scale and the chains are a real thing that I've seen in my lifetime."

Mongul's hold on Warworld even extends to the Phaelosian refugees Superman meets in the issue, who've been embedded in the culture of the planet for so long that they don't see Superman as a liberator, but as another opponent in Mongul's vast war games. It's a vast, insidious, deep-rooted mentality, but it's not unbreakable. By the end of the issue, even as Superman resists Midnighter's pleas to destroy the planet rather than save it, we see rays of light leaking in as the Warzoon known as Khaljo sit in his own cell. After being imprisoned for his failure to capture Midnighter, Khaljo sits across from Superman and watches how he handles defeat. Then, realizing that Warworld might be a lie, he carves an iconic Kryptonian "S" into the dirt at his feet. It's a small moment, but a pivotal one for Johnson and the rest of the Action Comics team. 

"The last page, when we see Khaljo realizing who Superman really is, and that he's there to save them all, and [realizing] that he's been wrong this whole time and makes himself a follower of Superman, that was the key to this whole issue," Johnson said. "And I wanted to show that he's won his first follower and more are going to come."

Before Superman can win enough followers to resist Mongul, though, he and his fellow heroes in the Authority will have to face the arena of Warworld, and the gladiatorial battles to come. For Johnson, who teased game-changing art by Riccardo Federici in the upcoming issue, Action Comics #1039 is where a lot of the major promises of the entire Warworld Saga are fulfilled.

"Action #1039 to me is the promise that we made to the reader in [the Future State series] World of War," Johnson said. "It's the beginning of the sword and sandal chapter of this story. It's a Frank Frazetta painting that will go on month to month, with characters like Superman and Natasha Irons, OMAC, Mongul, and Khaljo, and these new Phaelosian characters. They're the characters that we're seeing in the painting as expressed by the artwork of Riccardo Federici, who was just born to do that kind of thing. We're going to go even deeper into the world building of the lore of Warworld. We're going to see what's under the surface. We're going to see much more about this mythology that we've been kind of teasing since the very beginning. It's the sci-fi space epic that I have been wanting to tell since I first got this call. It all really begins in #1039."

Action Comics #1039 is in stores January 25. 

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