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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: Action Comics #19

Another day, another new creative team on a DC comic.  After a 1.5 year run, Grant Morrison is no longer the writer of Action Comics.  Morrison's run on Action was an interesting one.  There were a few twists and turns, many of them quite nice.  The decision to "kill" Clark Kent made for an interesting turn on the Superman story model that had worked for over 70 years.  While Morrison's run on the series came to a pretty satisfying conclusion, it was a long, hard road getting there.  To say the comic was met with mixed reviews would be an understatement.  Perhaps the biggest drawback to the entire 20 issues (#1-18, 0 issue, and an annual) was that the story being told was complicated, slow-moving at times, and ultimately took far too long to develop.  It was admirable for Morrison to plant the seeds for his over-arching story so early on and he certainly brought a level of intelligence to his writing, but it was ultimately a run better suited for trades as any number of issues became confusing when treated individually.  Now the writing duties on Action Comics have, briefly, passed on to Andy Diggle.  Time to see the kind of tale he will be weaving with the Last Son of Krypton.

With Action Comics #18, Andy Diggle takes us a year back to a conflict Clark Kent and Lois Lane were covering in the Middle East.  As often in that region of the world, tensions are running high and the smuggling of illegal weapons (robots with human pilots to be exact) calls for an intervention from the one and only Superman.  While fighting these robots, Superman makes a discovery that is shocking, yet confusing.  Meanwhile, Lex Luthor puts a plan in motion to stop his arch-nemesis.

If there were any readers who survived Grant Morrison's run on Action Comics hoping for a Superman story with a bit more traditional superhero action, they will undoubtedly be more pleased with Andy Diggle's first issue.  This issue stands in stark contrast with the ones before it.  There is no introspection, no brooding, no seeds of larger stories.  Instead, this issue reverts to the more laid back superhero approach: bad guys show up and Superman stops them.  Such a story is not necessarily a bad thing by any means, it is a formula which has made the character a success throughout his entire history.  Although the jump from a run filled with so much substance, to one that has anything but is a bit jarring if one has been reading the series since the New 52 started.

Perhaps the best thing Diggle does in this issue is bring Lex Luthor back into the forefront.  Lex is a character just as famous as Superman and it is, frankly, about time he pulled some focus in the New 52.  While Lex had certainly been present in Action Comics before, his presence almost always came off as more of a background role, secretly pulling the strings.  Such a role can work for a man like Lex, but it is also a lot more fun to see him just be completely evil and controlling.  The scene in this issue with Lex and his psychoanalyst serves to show just how intimidating a man Lex Luthor really is, and the twist at the end of that scene is quite chilling.  By setting this story a year in the past, Diggle seems to be explaining why Lex Luthor suddenly became such a big part of the final two issues of Morrison's run on Action.  The appearance of Lex in those issues was rather odd due to his aforementioned small role.  While setting the story a year in the past takes away from some of the tension with what Lex is up to, it is still an intriguing enough evil plan to keep one reading.  With Lex Luthor, pretty much anything can be better than yet another real estate scheme.

There are a few things which seem a bit odd in this issue, and it is unclear whether they are really working to the detriment of the comic or not.  The most strikingly odd thing to take place in this issue is when Clark puts on his costume.  For the first time in this comic we see that his costume appears to be made of some sort of liquid-like material which is stored in his "S" shield until needed.  Previous issues had explained that Superman's New 52 costume was Kryptonian battle armor which had been personalized for the wearer.  What makes the reveal of how Clark puts the costume on so odd, then, is that this is really the first time this has been shown, and does not seem to add up with any other times the suit has been seen not on Clark (although it is entirely possible this reviewer has forgotten something from a previous issue - that Morrison run had quite a few confusing spots). It is not a bad choice to have Superman's suit be put on in such a way, in fact, it is quite awesome.  The only reason it is such an odd move in the story is completely due to it being previously unseen.

Another odd thing in this issue is perhaps a silly thing to remark on, but it is the choice in primary antagonist.  While Lex Luthor is revealed to be pulling the strings in the final pages, Superman spends much of the issue fighting giant robots with human pilots.  This is not an odd concept by any means, although the robots look nothing like the mech-like armor shown on the cover.  Instead these machines look more like something H.G. Wells came up with than something Lex Luthor would have.  There's nothing wrong with having Superman fight giant robots, it is one of the things we all love him for.  Once the reveal is made that Lex Luthor is the man behind it all, however, it seems odd that such a xenophobic man would choose such a decidedly alien design for his weapons.

As mentioned earlier, the story of this issue is general superhero fights bad guy fanfare.  The action is actually quite nice, with many beautiful scenes unfolding throughout the story.  Something which makes the action in this issue more interesting to read is Superman's internal monologue while he is fighting these robots.  Despite being a clearly antagonistic force, Superman is still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, waiting to let them throw the first punch.  It is Superman's unfaltering morality which makes him one of the more looked-up-to characters in superhero comics, and one can definitely see this morality when Superman makes sure to take care not to harm the humans inside, only the robots.  The sheer amount of action in this issue may not be what fans of Morrison's run on Action Comics were hoping for, but it just may be the perfect thing for new readers.

Far and away the most outstanding thing about this issue is the art.  Just look at that cover!  Go ahead!  Scroll back up!  It is absolutely beautiful art from Tony S. Daniel.  In an issue with so much action, it would be quite easy for things to become confusing after a few pages.  Not the case with this book as Daniel does an excellent job of making the action sequences both beautiful and coherent.  Despite this comic coming with a $3.99 price tag, the art alone almost makes it worth it.  Daniel is easily giving some of his best work here in Action Comics, rivaling some of the best art to ever be done in a Superman comic.  The most disappointing thing about the art is that Tony S Daniel's tenure on the comic will be lasting about as long as Andy Diggle's writing (three issues).  If DC kept Daniel on Action Comics no matter who was writing, it would always be worth buying.

Overall, this is not a terrible issue...but it is also not a great one.  As previously mentioned, long-time readers on Action Comics may find this issue a bit jarring considering the depth of the previous run.  It is most definitely not an easy transition between creative teams as Diggle appears to want to tell more of a standard superhero story, while Morrison was more about the slow burn.  This issue is most definitely a good start for new readers as all of the requisite Superman elements are here for those not too steeped in the lore: Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Superman fighting giant robots.  While this is a fun issue, one can easily get the impression that this is not going to be a particularly memorable run.  Superman writers do not have to make the character brooding or have a ton of introspection to make it a fun read, but it would be nice for the story to have enough substance to make it worth multiple readings.  So far the only thing worth continually returning to this issue for would be the art.

Rating: B

Summary:  Action Comics #19 is a lot more simple on the story front than previous issues, but an interesting villain coupled with beautiful art makes it worth picking up.
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