Quick preamble: My lady and I are currently in the process of moving from Texas to Massachusetts which means, among other things, that our scanner is no longer accessible. So there will be no scanned images for these Atari Force reviews for the foreseeable future, and indeed there may be no more for the rest of Atari Force Month. Probably a bad call for me to start with scans if I knew I was moving, but obviously I didn't think that through.
Atari Force #12 is interesting more for the external facts of it than the content inside. This is true for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it marks the end of José Luis García-López's run as penciler. He is one of the series' creators and biggest assets, and it's a shame this is his last issue, because a) the section he draws is only sixteen pages long, and b) this is some of his least impressive work on the book. It's still very reliable art. This is not García-López getting sloppy, just getting noticeably looser in his linework. On the largest panels, the splashes and spreads, he is his usual self: heavy detail, smart use of every inch of page space, smart angles, fluid action, strong emotion, etc. But some of the smaller panels seem unfinished, characters with featureless faces and vague backgrounds and the like. And even some of the main fight scene feels less exciting than usual. There isn't as much energy or creativity to it, just a bunch of people fighting a smaller bunch of other people.
García-López is a talented enough storyteller to get a little lax without the issue becoming muddled or dull. This is still fine work, and there are a few truly great moments. A two-page spread of the Dark Destroyer and his amassed forces as they confidently await their foes' arrival is particularly impressive, and the opening splash of Tempest on trial works as a captive introduction. Tempest is still battered and defeated, his head down and his body barely held up with help. In the background, the A.T.A.R.I. members who serve as his judges loom tall, and the room expands high and wide around them, giving the sense that Tempest is more trapped here than he was in his cell. It is the spaces in between these massive, heavy beats that come out a bit weaker here than ever before, and that's too bad. García-López was such a key part of the comic's strength, I hate to see him go out without a bang.
The final page, at least, is García-López on his A game, so he leaves the book with a memorable image. It is another full-page splash, and in essence, this one page is the whole point of issue #12. It features the Dark Destroyer with his enormous horned helmet off for the first time, revealing to Atari Force that, underneath, he is Martin Champion. Considering Martin is the Destroyer's oldest and most passionate foe, and standing right in front of him when this revelation is made, it's a safe assumption that there's going to be some explaining to do next time. For now, though, this works as a narrative bomb, a legitimately unexpected twist that, looking back, has been skillfully hinted at in previous issues. Is this some future Martin? An alternate reality version? An evil twin? Something even more complicated than those? The questions abound, and can be seen clearly on the expressive faces of Atari Force as they try to cope with the image of Martin Champion in the Dark Destroyer's clothes. It's an effective final page, and a fitting farewell from García-López, even if the rest of the issue wasn't fully up to snuff.
This issue is also the beginning of the end of Gerry Conway's time on the title. He plots this issue and the next, but they are scripted by others, with #12 being handled by editor Andy Helfer, who also wrote #8. As with the last time Helfer took the helm, there is no drastic change in writing style here. The cast is strong enough that their voices stay firm, and Helfer obviously has a familiarity with them. It only takes one page for him to handle the fallout of Blackjak's betrayal last issue, and he does a damn fine job of it. Dart visits Blackjak in his holding cell to search for answers, but the best he can offer is that he's always been a coward, but was able to pretend at bravery when she was around. Dart made him better, bolder, stronger-willed than he was, and the Dark Destroyer forced Blackjak to face the truth about his inner weaknesses by saving him. I can't think of a better way to break somebody than to force them to admit that their life is a lie, and that's what the Destroyer has effectively done here. So Blackjak is fully subservient, and though he says it through tears, he is no doubt sincere when he tells Dart that he'd try to kill her again if his master instructed it. Dart, for her part, tries to maintain stoicism, and recovers by going after the Destroyer with everything she's got.
It's not nearly enough, though, and Atari Force get quickly trounced by their enemy and his innumerable henchmen. They fall so quickly that Martin steps in and surrenders for them, not wanting to watch any more of his people die because of the Destroyer. And in the wake of that surrender comes the final reveal of the Destroyer as Martin, and everyone else's jaws hit the floor.
That is the bulk of the primary narrative, with the exception of Tempest's trial scene at the top of the issue. Which is the worst scene by far. It's basically all old hat, but screamed instead of just being heatedly discussed. Nothing is accomplished, since before any actual legal proceedings can be carried out, Tempest has yet another pointless tantrum and is knocked unconscious by Hunter. I'm not sure why the scene is even included, except maybe to fill some space and remind the reader what Tempest is up to. Once he gets carried back to his cell, Professor Venture tries to convince the court that the Dark Destroyer is still a threat, but as always, nobody listens. It's growing fairly tiresome by now.
And that's essentially all that goes down. Tempest gets nowhere, Blackjak admits what a bastard he is at heart, and then Atari Force gets beaten up by the Destroyer's goons until, WHAMMO!, he takes his helmet off and has Martin's face. His voice, too, in my head. That's a decent amount of material for a sixteen-page story, I suppose, but because this is the first time Atari Force has had such a truncated issue, it feels fluffy and overly brief. Most of the story is just a long build-up to the last page, anyway, and that feels like too little for a whole issue to accomplish. Like with the art, it's not that the writing is terrible or even necessarily bad, but it is certainly disappointing.
My disappointment is mitigated by the seven-page, Hukka-centric backup feature written and penciled by Keith Giffen. It's not astounding, but it's lots of fun, the story of Hukka hunting a tiny lizard-like critter for sport while unknowingly being hunted himself by a much larger beast for food. In the end, Hukka catches his terrified prey, and then notices that he is something else's prey in a hilarious full-page splash that also reveals the monster's full figure to the reader for the first time. And on the opposite page, an even larger monster swoops done from the sky and gobbles up Hukka's hunter in a single bite. Those two pages are hilarious and rich, and the crux of Giffen's entire piece. After them is one last page where Hukka lets his lizardish captive go, demonstrating the lesson of the story's title, "Do Unto Others." A simple little tale that Giffen draws with a tenderness and liveliness that adds a lot.
I do wish Tom Ziuko had colored to two huge beasts differently. They are both all pink, which makes it a tad less clear than it could be what is happening when the second one eats the first. But that lasts for only a second, and Giffen's designs for the creatures overshadow any tiny coloring missteps.
Atari Force #12 is an issue of awkward transitions. José Luis García-López finishes his stint as artist somewhat poorly, Gerry Conway plots but does not write this issue, and there's a backup story for the first time, which for some reason means fewer pages for the main narrative. As the old creative team phases out, the book finds itself stumbling a bit, and it's aggravating. I don't know the history of why the original creators left, if they walked off or were told to leave or what, but no matter the situation, I wish it had been done more smoothly. As Conway's epic story winds down, he doesn't even get to script it; the cast may still sound like themselves, but the book itself feels different here. And not in a good way.