Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #602

In 1988-89, DC changed Action Comics from a monthly Superman-focused series to a weekly anthology, also changing its name to Action Comics Weekly. It lasted 42 issues before reverting to a monthly format. I am going to review all 42 of those issues, one per week for 42 weeks. This is the second of those reviews.
It's weird to me that the first and final stories are about the same heroes as they were last week (Green Lantern and Blackhawk, respectively), but all the other heroes' stories are ordered differently. Well, I guess Superman is still fourth, since it's just the two-pager that comes in the middle, but still, I'm not sure what the point is of shuffling around only Deadman, Secret Six, and Wild Dog. Why change the order at all? And if you do, what's the significance of having the same characters at the beginning and end?
The Green Lantern story suffers from some overwriting, with James Owsley pulling the classic move of having characters recap past events in dialogue, even though it makes no sense for them to do so in the context of the scene. Right up top, John Stewart angrily tells Hal Jordan about how they used to be in the Green Lantern Corps together but now only Hal and two others are left, all as part of John's reaction to his wife Katma's murder. If there was ever a worse time to pointlessly tell Hal something he already knows about his own personal history, I'm hard pressed to think of what it could be. It's especially weird and distracting because Gil Kane has both John and Hal react totally appropriately to Katma's death, with Hal doubling over in shock and disgust while John lashes out in blind anger through tears. It's melodramatic, but perfectly so, and if the dialogue was more natural and more willing to go deeper into the emotions rather than the exposition, it could have been a powerful opening scene. Katma's funeral is a little better; with the backstory out of the way, Owsley does take time to add some heart and style to the writing when describing Hal's exhaustion, frustration, and depression over not yet finding Carol Ferris/Star Sapphire, Katma's killer. But then Carol shows up out of the blue, which is confusing and jarring and a little too easy. Her interactions with Hal work, though, as she torments him by talking about murdering Katma, and then knocks a jet out of the sky to distract him while she runs away. It's not the most interesting action, but it seems like Owsley is taking his time with this story, letting Carol's menace grows little by little for now, one atrocious act at a time. So this was not a thrilling showdown, but Hal was put thorough the ringer pretty good, and Carol was successfully built up as a villain. Reasonable but underwhelming accomplishments for a second beat.
It's a little difficult to get over the odd moment of sexism in this Deadman story. After discovering that CIA section chief Grace Kasaba has been inhabited by Talaoc, who is I think the ghost of a former Mayan ruler—it probably said exactly who he was last issue but I forget—Deadman inhabits the body of one of the local soldiers and punches Grace in the face. This one punch is evidently so devastating that Talaoc realizes choosing a woman to inhabit was a bad idea. He says of Grace, "Though she had the fighting spirit, she is a woman, and too weak to fight you." Now, obviously this is just one character speaking, and he lived hundreds of years ago, so I don't mean to suggest that writer Mike Baron actually believes all women are weaker than all men. That's not even necessarily what Talaoc is saying, though it certainly feels like the implication. Either way, since Talaoc's next move is to jump out of Grace and fight Deadman directly, it seems like his reasoning could just as easily have been more along the lines of deciding that, for this particular conflict, possessing any human was the wrong move. That way it would tie directly into his behavior after the punch, and there wouldn't be a weird potshot at women everywhere thrown in for no real reason. Having said that, Baron's writing is otherwise quite sharp, moving through the story briskly and upping the stakes several times in only eight pages. Also, and far more importantly, Dan Jurgens draws the hell out of this story. You can really see the trapeze artist come out in all of Deadman's movements, and Talaoc's forceful anger in all of Grace's expression. Plus the panel where Talaoc finally exits Grace is outstanding. Liz Berube's colors deserve much of the credit for that panel, too, a sudden burst of light in midst of the otherwise duller pages. Things end on a visually and narratively exciting moment, so all told I enjoyed the read and am looking forward to more of this tale, but that single line of dialogue continues to be irksome nonetheless.
Wild Dog has never been more boring than this. The whole script this issue is a series of slow conversations designed to introduce various characters, old and new, and minimally set up their positions in the story that is presumably going to follow. Susan King tries to convince her boss that Wild Dog is still news, and he disagrees. She is then sent to cover a protest at a newsstand, which leads pretty quickly to us meeting the villain of this narrative, the national head of the Legion of Morality, B. Lyle Layman. The local chapter of the LoM are the protestors, pissed because the newsstand in questions sells, among other things, pornographic magazines. That's the LoM's whole deal: they're ravenously anti-smut. Dangerously so, it turns out, because at the end of the story the newsstand is bombed. Meanwhile, Lt. Flint argues halfheartedly with Jack Wheeler, Wild Dog's secret identity. Flint's mad because he knows Jack's secret but hasn't arrested him due to their friendship, while Jack is mad because he agreed to stop being Wild Dog for Flint but doesn't believe it'll stick, insisting Flint will want Wild Dog back someday. I bet Jack's going to be right, but also I don't care. I don't care about any of this. Fanatical porn censorship is not compelling, Layman is such a stereotypical slimeball cult leader character I lose interest in him as soon as he speaks, and Wild Dog isn't even present except for the opening page, which merely summarizes the events of last issue's chapter. Meanwhile, Susan's thread is dropped too quickly for her to seem important enough to pay attention to, and pretty much nothing else happens until the explosion in the final, tiny panel. A definite snooze.
I have to give Roger Stern and Curt Swan a lot of credit for making their two pages count. There's a great deal of energy, action, and humor in the eleven panels worth of Superman adventure provided here. Admittedly, the story doesn't advance much and we learn almost nothing new about what's going on, but Supes gets to deafeat the bad guys, save someone's life, and look good doing it. The crooks appear to be pretty small potatoes so far, largely incompetent and cowardly and not exactly a challenge for the Man of Steel, but again, we don't know the background yet or where this is going to lead. For the time being, seeing Superman enjoy himself while deftly handling such a simple bunch of thugs is more than entertaining and fun enough to make these two pages feel worthwhile. There are laughs and thrills both, and Swan's Superman continues to perfectly match what I think of as the ideal version of the character, so I'm digging hard on this shortest of the short stories collected in this particular issue.
After last issue's tee-up, we're now presented with the actual concept of the Secret Six. Or...half the concept, I guess, since Mockingbird still needs to fulfill his promise of asking for something in return for the gifts he gives to the cast. Each member of this newly-recruited Secret Six has either a major injury or serious medical condition that they'd rather live without: blindness, deafness, muteness, arthritis, epilepsy, paraplegia. They also all have backgrounds that will make them particularly useful for the kind of espionage work Mockingbird seems to have planned. There's an actor, a marine, a star athlete, a special effects artist, a journalist, and a mathematician/computer specialist. Mockingbird gives them each a high-tech article of clothing built specifically to solve their respective problems and enable them to once again take full advantage of their special skills. So the arthritic special effects guy gets gloves that give him a full range of motion in his hands, the voiceless actress gets a weird sort of head wrap that acts as an artificial voice box, and so on. I quite like the idea that, in a comic full of superhero stories, Secret Six is composed entirely of regular human beings who happen to have advanced but fully realistic know-how/capabilities. They're better than the average person at what they do, but not superhuman in the least and, in fact, are all struggling against physical ailments that act as obstacles, preventing them from using their knowledge and skills. It's a sort of reversal of the normal superhero set-up. Martin Pasko does overstuff his script a bit, which makes many of the panels look crowded or cramped because of all the text, but the positive side effect of that is that a lot of stuff can happen in this eight-page space. We meet all the characters, see them get their gifts and experience incredible joy at regaining their lost talents, and then follow one of them as he learns the consequences of trying to go against Mockingbird's will. We also watch the previous Secret Six get tricked into boarding a plane together, which is then flown straight into a mountain, a shocking ending for the reader and characters alike. It's a beefy chapter, and it builds a very solid foundation for this iteration of the Secret Six.
Blackhawk begins to warm on me here, even though he's such a schmuck, because Cynthia Hastings is the perfect foil for him, so since I like her, it makes me like him more. They're both comically exaggerated, Blackhawk as a strutting, over-confident, oversexed warrior, and Cynthia as a no-nonsense hardass who's too smart to spend time suffering fools. They represent opposing sides of a particular behavioral spectrum, and that gives them a powerful chemistry and amusing interplay. They're one-dimensional for now but it works because, for one thing, there have only been 16 total pages so far in which to meet them and, for another, Mike Grell, Rick Burchett, Pablo Marcos, and Tom Ziuko all work together to create the overall vibe of a Saturday morning cartoon for adults. All the punches are wide hooks, people fall over constantly, furniture shatters, facial expressions are regularly hammed up for comedy, and Blackhawk and Cynthia (who have all the lines of dialogue except the very first one) are both full of quips and sass and general attitude. It's the definition of fun-loving, and that comes through more clearly here than it did in the debut, I think because Cynthia and Blackhawk actually get to interact this time. Oh, and the naked fight scene at the beginning didn't hurt, either. Now that the tone has been solidified, I feel like I know better what to expect from future installments, and I'm eager for it. Also, despite what I said at the top of this post, I think having Blackhawk come last makes perfect sense. It allows the other stories to be however serious or silly they want, because no matter what, the issue as a whole gets to land in more lighthearted territory, giving the reader a quick breath of fresh air before sending us back into the real world.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Wild Dog/"Moral Stand Chapter Two: Dog Gone"
5. Green Lantern/"Requiem"
4. Deadman/"Showdown"
3. Secret Six/"Look What Fell Out of the Sky Today"
2. Superman/"They Can Run, But They Can't Hide!"
1. Blackhawk/"Another Fine War Part 2"

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