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Why does Superman leave Earth behind? Writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson explains Kal-El's 'impactful' move in Action Comics #1035

By Matthew Jackson
Action Comics 1035 Cover

Earlier this year, DC Comics made headlines when the publisher announced that its main Superman title would be transformed into Superman: Son of Kal-El, and that Clark Kent's son Jon would take his father's place as the Superman of Earth. It's a story that was teased out by DC's Future State event that has since taken on a larger life, but it's only part of the bigger Superman picture.

In the pages of Action Comics, writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson has been telling the story of why Clark Kent made the hard choice to leave Earth behind in the first place, and in this month's Action Comics #1035, it all comes to a head.

For the past several months since taking the title over from Brian Michael Bendis, Johnson -- who helped lay the foundation for this shift with Future State titles like Superman: Worlds of War and Superman: The House of El -- has been crafting "Warworld Rising" alongside artists like Daniel Sampere and Sami Basri. In that story so far, readers have seen what happens when Superman discovers what appears to be a long-lost Kryptonian colony of aliens calling themselves the Phaelosians, who've fallen into slavery on Warworld under the iron fist of a new, deadlier incarnation of Mongul.

As he learns more about the Phaelosians and their connection to Krypton, and as a fragment from their ship wreaks havoc on Earth, Superman grows more and more concerned about Warworld's place in the universe and his own place as a protector of life and freedom everywhere. It all builds to Action Comics #1035, when he must choose between his Earthly duties and his larger responsibility to Mongul's captives.

"In Action Comics #1035, we're going to finally see what the last six issues have been building to," Johnson told SYFY WIRE earlier this week. "We get these big, climactic moments of combat, personal sacrifice, victory, and tragedy. We see Superman and Mongul finally face off for the first time. This is the first time that Superman has met this particular Mongul, the one who killed his father in the Villains issue under Bendis. That was a really fun, gratifying moment too. We get to see a little bit of Kryptonian culture with [a] funeral, because not everyone makes it out of these issues. And we get to see Superman and the Authority come together for the first time in the pages of Action Comics. So yeah, it's a very impactful issue, with a lot of resolution for the Warworld Rising arc and a lot of setup for the Warworld Saga, the massive Superman event we’ve been setting up for more than a year! Stay tuned, it only gets bigger and more epic from here."

In the gallery below, you can see an exclusive peek at what all that sacrifice, victory, and tragedy looks like in Action Comics #1035, from Superman's meeting with Mongul to a couple of major goodbyes.

As many readers guessed from the time solicitation information for this issue arrived, Action Comics #1035 is indeed the issue where Superman must make a hard choice about leaving Earth for Warworld, something Johnson and company had to not only set up, but pay off in terms of the emotional stakes of the storytelling. For Johnson, that all ties back to this story's version of Mongul, and a particular hard line Superman has to draw.

"I think the idea of Superman knowing that slavery exists somewhere on such a large scale, and not addressing it, would be crazy. That dissonance is just too great," Johnson explained. "Superman cannot abide a slaver, and that’s how I'm trying to set Mongul apart from other giant, muscly, alien villains like Thanos, Darkseid and others. At a glance they all kind of seem similar, and if they're portrayed too one-dimensionally they can almost be interchangeable.

"I'm trying to set Mongul apart from the others as having created this cult of slavery on Warworld, and I think that makes him the true antithesis of Superman. That's why Superman is compelled to go. Not only are there potentially millions of slaves on Warworld, but it becomes even more personal for him when he discovers who they are, and because of what happened to Kandor. He feels a kind of kinship with them, and the knowledge that they're out there, that they know about him, that they look to him to save them, he feels like there's no choice but to go up there. And Mongul knows that."

As Johnson hinted, Superman's decision to face Mongul head-on on his own turf is the start of something much bigger in the pages of Action Comics. In the months to come, Superman -- backed by a new version of The Authority that readers have already glimpsed in Grant Morrison and Mikel Janin's Superman and the Authority series -- will head to Warworld for the next phase of Johnson's epic Warworld Saga. Once there, readers can expect to learn a lot more about the title location, what drives it, and what it means beyond the implications of its famous name.

"I want to show readers the culture of Warworld. Warworld shouldn’t be just a big, shiny metal ball with guns sticking out of it, filled with mindless, faceless Warzoon soldiers," Johnson said. "It's a planet where people live, the remnants of all these otherwise annihilated civilizations that Warworld has brought down. Potentially it could be this cultural preserve, where the last bits of all these different races across the universe are found, and they're all slaves. What would it be like to be one of those people, to live in a place like that?

"That’s a big part of what I want to do with this story. I want to show the different races and cultures that have come together on Warworld, but I also want to show the cult of personality that serves Mongol there: the propaganda, the misinformation, the Bloodpriests who help Mongul maintain his God-like status on that world. I think there are a lot of opportunities to make parallels on Warworld with our own civilization. Basically, we're making it a much more complicated place with a lot more facets that make Mongul and Warworld themselves much more interesting, I hope."

But this is about more than just Superman flying off to fight Mongul. Whether we're talking about the seeds Johnson and company planted during Future State, or the seeds planted in Action Comics via the mysterious hunk of alien material known as the Genesis Fragment, there's a bigger story at work here. The first part of that story was navigating Superman to a place where he'd make the momentous decision to leave Earth. With that in place, bigger things lie ahead.

"For Superman to go to Warworld without Jon or the Justice League, there were a lot of pieces that had to move for that big of a decision to make sense. The motivation for him to go was the discovery of the Phaelosians, and that they’re enslaved on Warworld," Johnson said. "But I also wanted to set up some conflict between Superman and the Justice League, conflict between him and the nations of Earth, and also make the stakes super high by establishing that this new Mongul is a much greater threat than his predecessors had been. We were able to get all of that done by introducing the Genesis Fragment, which ties into this mysterious conspiracy on Warworld. I can’t wait for readers to see those seeds start to grow and pay off, which is about to begin."

Action Comics #1035 is in stores September 28.