This is the last issue to have Gerry Conway's name attached, and once again he only plots it, while Joey Cavalieri handles the actual script. And the script is really good, but it's the plotting that matters most, as the very end of the issue sees the Dark Destroyer's anti-matter bomb denoting as he'd planned. Atari Force's entire universe is eliminated from existence, a bold final move by Conway and Cavalieri that I admire and adore.
The entirety of the issue is Atari Force's final confrontation with the Destroyer. It begins with an explanation of how the Destroyer has Martin's physical appearance, which I founnd largely unsatisfying. Basically, when the old Atari Force battled him originally, the Destroyer sent a part of himself out into space as a contingency plan. When his old body was destroyed, this fragment continued, eventually finding Martin and his wife Lyida on New Earth right before she gave birth to their son. So the Destroyer stole Lydia's life-force (not sure of the details of how that works), killing her, and then apparently also stole a bit of Martin's self before departing to be reborn in his new, Martin-based form. What bugs me about this is, a) shouldn't the Destroyer look like Lydia if she's the person he actually killed? b) it's a rushed and incomplete explanation, and c) it's too predictable. The Destroyer looks like Martin because he copied part of Martin. Dull.
I love that he entered a pregnant space swamp hippo in order to be born anew. Aside from that tiny tidbit, though, the Destroyer's backstory is weak and disappointing. However, it sets him up as being just as obsessed with Martin as Martin is with him, and that relationship is key to the ending of this issue. Martin attacks the Destroyer head-on, a straight-up fist fight between two old foes. And Martin, fueled by decades-old rage, manages to best the Destroyer in that combat (which is ridiculous, but more on that in a minute). However, punching the bad guy out does not disable his bomb, so even though Martin finally gets to defeat the being he's been chasing for twenty years, he loses the war. The bomb goes off, and reality is undone. So Martin and the Destroyer both win, and both lose, mirror images of one another right up to the bitter end. Martin succeeds in taking out his enemy but fails to save the world. The Destroyer pulls off his grand, universe-ending scheme, but dies in the process, a bloodied and beaten man laying next to his bomb as it explodes. The two were so hell-bent on getting at each other, they let it ruin both of their lives.
I do have a general problem with Martin using only his fists against the Destroyer, and with how quickly and easily Atari Force wins the battle in general. Considering when Tempest was fighting him, none of his hits even made an impact on the Destroyer, I'm unclear as to how Martin can so completely kick his ass. And issue #12 saw the whole team getting handily beaten by the Destroyer's forces, so since the events of this issue take place only minutes later, I'm confused as to why, all of a sudden, the same enemies fall to Atari Force in mere seconds. Morphea takes out a huge group of minions with a single mind-blast, which she's never done before. Nobody is overrun, and Pakrat and Babe barely have anything to even do. It all feels unearned, but I can forgive it to a degree, since the good guys fail in their most important goal in the end.
Also, in the midst of this overly-easy fight, Dart and Blackjak have another confrontation, and she finally admits to herself that he is, now and maybe forever, her enemy. That he let the Destroyer into his mind willingly, and will indeed kill her if given the chance. So she shoots him first, and even though the scene is a bit brief, new penciler Ed Barreto makes it visually quite moving. Three panels show the progression of Blackjak being hit and falling to the ground, while Dart looks on helplessly from afar. These panels are joined by a background image of a close-up of Dart's face, tears escaping from her eyes as she watches her former love go down. She knows she had no choice, and Morphea reminds her of it, but that does not ease the pain. Because Cavalieri's script didn't have space to get into the complex emotions of that moment, Barreto takes care of it in a single, striking image.
Barreto is a good fit for this book on the whole. He does some really dynamic layouts, and the issue has an almost overwhelming energy to it. There are a lot of overlapping panels, visuals that break out of the borders, and jam-packed action on these pages. And the cast are every bit as distinct and detailed as always. They look just like themselves, because Barreto's style doesn't stray too dramatically from García-López's. Barreto's figures are sterner and a bit more solid or firm, but some of that has to do with the all-action plot of this issue. Everyone has to be a bit more serious than usual, because they're involved in very serious business.
So all of the action looks great, even if victory comes too quickly for our heroes. And, again, it's barely a victory, because seconds after they finish the fight, the anti-matter bomb destroys everything in the universe. That's an excellent way to finish the long-running thread of the struggle against the Dark Destroyer, and a huge part of me wishes the series had just ended with it. How surprising and impressive would that have been? The villain wins, reality explodes, the end. I've always wanted to write a story that had an abrupt, unexpected end-of-everything conclusion, but Conway and crew got it done before I was even born. It is somewhat frustrating that Tempest's trial is unresolved, Rident's location is still a mystery, and other such threads are left dangling. But, at the same time, blowing up the universe resolves all of those questions, just with the same answer: "and then they blew up." I understand that, on a technical level, this is not great storytelling. Personally, though, I'm all for it. Let Tempest die with his story still unfinished. It speaks to the inanity of the court system that his trial would be ongoing in the moment everything burned. Plus it's a surprise, which I always like from my fiction.
It seems like the title has made an official switch from 23-page stories to 16-pagers with a 7-page backup. This issue, the backup is written by Paul Kupperberg and drawn by Dave Manak with Keith Giffen on inks. It is another Hukka story and, like the last one, it is silly and fun but inconsequential. Hukka meets and makes friends with a fuzzy, yellow, bunny-like creature named Chee. They play for a while, and then Chee jumps down a hole, so Hukka follows. Once down there, another of Chee's race tries to eat Hukka, and Chee seems to support that plan, until he/she/it is reminded of the fun it had with Hukka above ground. So Chee saves Hukka, but, sadly, cannot play anymore, since the rest of its family would still eat Hukka if they had the chance. It's a poignant ending to a sweet but simple tale about the cruelty of nature.
Manak draws Hukka well, infusing him with the adorability and curiosity I've come to expect. Chee, too, is extremely cute, almost overly so, yet in such a way that when Hukka gets down the hole and is chased by another of the same creature, it looks convincingly menacing. It's definitely an enjoyable backup strip, but what purpose does it serve? Why shorten the main narrative every month in order to include this? Which came first, the desire for fewer pages of the primary story, or the thought of doing backups? Either way, not the best call.
And I question the decision to continue the series after this issue, too. From a marketing perspective, assuming the book sold at all, I understand it. But creatively, it feels like the story is told. Atari Force have revealed the master plan of their arch-rival, a mystery some of them had been trying to solve since before the start of issue #1. And the Destroyer has carried out that plan, ending countless lives on countless worlds. It's so mind-bogglingly catastrophic a conclusion, to have to follow it seems an impossible task. If I imagine this issue without the few seeds it plants at the end in order to allow the title to move forward (Atari Force escape to Scanner One, Dark Destroyer sends a piece of his mind into Kargg's, etc.), it's all the more satisfying. The way Cavalieri writes it, the bomb unquestionably works. The universe if definitely destroyed, the people definitely die, etc. That's a powerful note to land on, and one I think fits the series perfectly. As I've said, Atari Force's strongest material always comes when the titular heroes are losing. By that logic, then, having them fail completely to disable the anti-matter bomb could and should be the greatest story ever. It isn't, because it has new creators and it's too short and it's not the actual ending of the series and so forth. But it's still an awesome way for Conway to say goodbye, and I suspect his original plan was to have the anti-matter bomb kill everyone, Atari Force included. I like to think so, anyway, and part of me will always wish that had been what happened, no matter how good the Mike Baron-penned issues end up.