Sunday, March 15, 2015

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #617

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 (sort of) for 42 weeks. This is the seventeenth of those reviews.
Even though it had been a full month since I last read an issue of this, I didn't feel the least bit lost in any of the stories. So that's something.
Green Lantern gets bested by the Freak Show, the new group of villains whose team name we did not know before now. Several members of the team were also introduced for the first time here, and all-in-all it's an odd bunch. They seem to have very straightforward powers, but their abilities are varied and they're a sizable gang, so together they become interesting and formidable. I do find it annoying that their leader remains faceless, because I feel like that gimmick where a character's face stays hidden for a long time is almost never worth it, but hopefully it'll end up paying off in this case. The fight between Freak Show and Green Lantern was on point, and it took up most of the pages, but the opening of the story saw Hal coming home to try and apologize to Arisia, who pretends to be in some kind of trance, but is really just ignoring him because her feelings are still hurt. As soon as he leaves, she wails out his name, which is frustrating behavior. I want Arisia to be more active. She was a Lantern once herself, and it'd be nice if her inner willpower didn't have to translate into this kind of unhelpful stubbornness. She can be and has been better than that, and with Hal having a rare moment of maturity, I wanted to see Arisia's more mature side as well. I guess that's their dynamic—one of them is being childish at all times. But I don't love to see that play out, because it's an easy/lazy way to create tension, it makes me not like them as a couple, and the incessantness of it is stressful. So all of that was present up top, which stunk, but it quickly got into some solid superhero action that I really liked.
This Blackhawk story is crawling. Martin Pasko just doesn't seem as suited to this character as Mike Grell was. Pasko is slowly assembling the team and adding one half-nugget of information about their upcoming mission each issue. It's taking too long, and because of that, it's starting to get boring. Meanwhile there's this whole obnoxious subplot about how Blackhawk thinks Olaf wronged Natalie in some way, so when the two men see each other, a fight breaks out immediately. It's lamely macho, and it feels like internal conflict amongst the heroes for the sake of it, not making anybody look good or serving any purpose. That spat took up all of the final two pages, so the story ended with its most annoying and least compelling part. Plus the opening two pages were devoted to setting up the Olaf-Blackhawk friction, and the whole story was only seven pages long, so...not a lot of tasty meat on these bones. Rick Burchett's lines and Tom Ziuko's colors continue to be fun, energetic, and quirky, but the narrative doesn't have nearly the same pop. The art may look great, but there's not enough for it to do, and even when there's action, its heroes punching heroes in the name of someone else. Something's got to happen that I care about, and soon.
Wild Dog just makes me so angry as a protagonist. He's always so smug about how necessary his hyper-violent bullshit is, and then when his craziness causes a kid to imitate him, he yells at the kid and then goes home and fumes about how his methods are supposed to be his own. First of all, it's idiotic to think nobody else would be called to action by his vigilantism. If one person starts getting away with taking justice into his own hands and killing whoever he deems deserving of death, of course others are going to follow over time. Secondly, where is Wild Dog's guilt or sense of responsibility when faced with the reality of his young fan? Even when consequences of his work that he hadn't considered are right in front of him, he doesn't waver on the importance of what he's doing. His arrogance is bottomless and ever so aggravating. Also, the ending of the Wild Dog chapters are consistently too abrupt and unexciting. This issue ends with two panels of Susan King on the news reiterating the plot of this story. Or not even the plot, really, just the central moral questions, points that have already been raised, implicitly and explicitly, in the preceding pages. It's not dramatic, it's not new information, it's not a surprise, and it has nowhere to go. In short, it's the worst possible place for an ending, and I'm not even convinced those two panels belonged in this story at all. A much, much stronger conclusion would've been the panel that came before, where the kid who loves Wild Dog is writing in his journal about how he's going to keep helping his hero no matter what. That's where you want to land, on the promise of this child participating in more dangerous activities, the threat of Wild Dog's whole deal being unraveled because of the worship he accidentally inspired. I guess that is where it tried to wrap up, but it went one step to far by having King repeat those themes, instead of letting them speak for themselves.
Surprise, surprise, Bob Galt wasn't safe in Clark Kent's apartment. As soon as Galt was left unsupervised, it was a safe assumption he'd go missing before long. It's shame that such a predictable twist is the entire reason for this chapter's existence. Everything leading up to that reveal is housekeeping, Superman finding a way to explain his presence in the hospital to the doctors, going over some exposition in his though balloons, and then BAM! Galt is gone. If that ending had been a legitimate shock, I think this would've been a strong beat, but it was so easy to see coming (even without Superman's "astounding X-ray and telescopic visions") that it ended up being fairly blah. Curt Swan sure continues to deserve his reputation as arguably the best Superman artist ever, though. It's worth commenting on anew every so often, because he captures the charm, good intentions, strength, and power of the character in an almost effortless way. It's really something, an artist understanding a character at a level you don't even realize is uncommon until you look at such a clear example of it like this.
I love how the Phantom Stranger shows up in Action Comics Weekly for these short little stories; it's very in-line with the concept and tone of the character. This was a bizarre one, where a scam artist named Sylvia Blane somehow figures out real magical words, gets possessed by the angry spirit of an ancient king, and goes on a rampage through the city streets until the Stranger figures out a way to calm things down. The king, Ky'lhorr, was magically cursed by an enemy during his life and forced to kill uncontrollably, so he cast his soul into a dimension where he thought he'd be safe (or the world safe from him), only to be summoned centuries later by a fake medium seeking fame. It's a depressing situation, made a bit lighter and more digestible by the Stranger's levelheaded approach, as well as the overall mood of the story, which is a little jittery and crazed to match Ky'lhorr's personality. One of the reasons these shorter Stranger tales work so well in this book is because Paul Kuppererg works with a different artist every time, and he always seems to write to their strengths. Or maybe they are selected based on the story, or maybe it's just luck. Whatever the reason, Joe Orlando is a great pick for this story. He makes Ky'lhorr stand out from the nameless citizens he terrorizes, not just because he's wearing old-school armor, but because of how detailed he is, and how larger-than-life. Even compared to the Stranger, there's something that sets Ky'lhorr apart. The Stranger himself is very simple, not too intimidating but a solid presence. You can't miss him, but he's not overbearing, either, which is perfect because his heroism involves less offense and more negotiation in this story. The amusingly cynical ending worked for me, where Sylvia decides to leverage the event to advance her career, because the Stranger had already secured the more significant victory, and it was good to see him take out the bigger evil and be defeated by the smaller, more common one. Another hit for the Phantom Stranger, and a done-in-one at that.
Things get dark for Nightwing and Speedy. The former has two intense fights against Jade that take their toll on both combatants, the latter gets emotionally tortured by Jade before being poisoned by her. Jade, meanwhile, has to abandon her child to save herself, a choice that weights heavily on her, but was also the only one she ever could've made. It's heavy stuff, but it doesn't hold back the pace of this story's action for a second. Marv Wolfman and Chuck Patton gel nicely, filling these pages with beautiful acrobatic battle sequences, poetic prose in the captions that never gets too purple, and characters that are written and drawn with enough detail and care for all of the narrative's emotional battery to hit with full force. My interest in this Nightwing story has always been moderate at best, but this time around I was heavily invested from start to finish. It kicked off with a fight already in progress, kept going at a quick clip all the way through, and the slowest part was also the most devastating, when Jade cruelly taunts Speedy with promises that he'll never see his daughter again. It was mighty fine superhero entertainment, the ideal mix of melodrama and exaggerated violence.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Blackhawk/"Seems Like Old Times..."
5. Wild Dog/"Fatal Distraction Chapter Three: Puppy Dog Tale"
4. Superman/"Missing Person"
3. Green Lantern/"Assault on a Green"
2. Phantom Stranger/"Channel Switching"
1. Nightwing/"Motives"

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