ACTION COMICS #11
Grant Morrison continues his second larger arc on "Action Comics" with an issue that is emblematic of the series to date. The story starts with a strong sequence featuring Superman saving and bonding with citizens of an impoverished Metropolis neighborhood, presented in Rags ("Identity Crisis") Morales' detailed artwork. The focus on Superman as an approachable, spunky young man in touch with the interests of his neighbors feels far outshines the strange alien-related threat he has just dealt with.
Yet, the story is not content to continue in this manner - with the turn of the page comes the artistic change, as Brad ("Heroes for Hire") Walker steps in to illustrate a sequence featuring Clark in his new guise of a fireman. The change is obviously temporary, and in keeping with the Silver Age stories which were liable for any contrivance that would be neatly undone by the end of the story. Realistically, the comic stories are paced differently in 2012, which justifies the change as the young Superman spending the arc experimenting with a different alter ago.
This is further cemented in a two page scene featuring Batman, that picks up on the mention in the last month's issue of the "Justice League". Still, for the story's sake, the reader only has to know that the two are friends, and that Clark feels free to speak openly with the Gotham superhero. Unfortunately, at this point, the frequent scene changes, with Rags Morales' two pages stuck between two blocks of four page Brad Walker sequences, contribute to the choppiness in the presentation which has quickly came to define both this issue and most of the ones that preceded it.
It's not that the two artists sport completely different styles, which is certainly not going to endear this issue to any of the readers, but that the cumulative effect of all the fragments and tangents doesn't add up to the greater whole. As the issue goes on, Superman's new secret identity get supplemented by the main plot line, once again involving the aliens with the plans for taking over the Earth.
This goes back to the core of Morrison's re-imagination of DC's premiere superhero. While initially playing up the fact that the story echoes the character's Great Depression beginnings, the writer has since come to balance the social justice elements with a healthy dose of science fiction, centered around the character's alien heritage. And while it's completely possible that once he finishes this story, Morrison will use the September's #0 issue to come back to the character's Smallville beginnings, the status quo remains decidedly un-Superman like for the time being.
Seeing Superman living in Braniac's ship hovering in Earth's orbit and having to deal with the threat wiping out the galactic civilizations feels strangely out of character, following John Byrne's more grounded take on the mythos. The focus on Clark's alien heritage can be taken as part of his coming of age, with the superhero side of the character gradually replacing the science fiction leanings. Nevertheless, Superman is the first and in many way archetypal superhero, making the change of focus seem largely out of place, particularly when utilized in such a stop and start fashion.
It remains to be seen how the arc works as a whole, but in this particular case, it can be said that the writer did little to make #13 anything more than a collection of scenes that directly follow the ones in the preceding issue. The story comes with the standard Sholly Fish back-up justifying the inflated price. Illustrated by the "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents"' Cafu, eight pager would feel right at home in an anthology of Superman stories, or even as a subplot in this very issue. As presented by Fish, it stipulates an interesting, if underdeveloped idea of a store specializing in selling Superman T-shirts.
The story could only be done with Morrison's newest iteration of the character, as the T-shirt is a part of one of his Superman costumes, but despite Cafu's expressive facial work, only picks up at the end, being somewhat elevated by a welcome twist. Otherwise, as always, the back-up inoffensively picks up on the Morrison inspirations to provide a more grounded piece of world-building that is unlikely to be referenced again, despite the plot referencing some of the events taking place in the main story. Most interestingly, the dialogue firmly grounds the Morrison/Morales plot as taking place roughly a year after Superman debuted, making for another problem in the publisher's timeline.
Both the Justice League and Morrison's Action Comics (despite the two-part "Legion of Superheroes" story preceding the current arc) firmly take place in the early days of the character's career. Johns tries to present the events as taking place five years later, to make them concurrent with the rest of the publisher's titles, but in story terms, it's clear that a much shorter time has passed between the two arcs. Morrison on the other hand, has his story changing focus sometimes issue by issue, but the bulk of the narrative that he seems adamant on continuing does feature a slowly evolving cast and the character of the young Superman. As of now, it's been relatively easy to piece together the chronology of the events, but seeing several different versions of the character so far does contribute to the aforementioned lack of focus.
With the series' ending announced at #70, the last story has slowly turned into the deconstruction of the group. The titular Boys, their mission fulfilled in the previous arc, finally get to question their leader's decisions, leading to a devastating confrontation. Billy Butcher's genocidal side was previously largely kept in check by the manipulations he performed to get his revenge on Homelander, the title's Superman analogue. With the last vestiges of the organized superhero front torn down, Ennis has started wrapping up the loose ends, which in a story this violent, means a barrage of deaths, much more painful than the ones that preceded them.
Issue 68, the third part of "Bloody doors off", features Hughie gathering up the rest of the boys and sharing his intel with them, in what is essentially a twelve page monologue summing up the truth behind the recent events, while clarifying some of the conclusions the character has drawn from his own investigative work. Despite the amount of the world building, and the seriousness with which he approaches the story seven years in the making, Ennis manages to preserve the voices of the cast in these info-heavy pages, and finishes on a nice twist involving the Female.
The rest of the story considers the much more direct confrontation between Mother's Milk and the Butcher. The writer uses a two page break in the middle of the sequence to concentrate on a subplot, before returning to the two, now past the point of reasoning out with each other. Employing the technique enables the shift to seem more natural while still shocking. The horrible violence these two friends unleash on one another demonstrates the culmination of their differences, and ends with the death of one of the characters.
It goes without saying that Ennis' character work carries out what would in other hands be a sensationalistic ill motivated fight, but there are still some glitches in the presentation. Russ Braun, the artist that replaced the series co-creator Darick Robertson is on a technical level a better draftsman, but he tends to repeat some of the poses the character makes, which is usually reserved for his rendition of Butcher but in this issue leads to some monotony when it comes to Hughie's expression. More importantly, his take on Mother's Milk somewhat squares with Robertson's more realistic depiction, leading to a large swathe of panels where the character doesn't really look like himself, as presented before.
This is typically excusable in a monthly comic with alternating artists, but feels slightly out of place considering Dynamite's commitment to the title, and the artist's otherwise superior work. Braun's MM simply looks too broad, too cartoony, and with the beard shown here brings to mind Popeye's Bruto instead of the more realistic character design, as seen on Robertson's cover. It doesn't really detract from the impact of the final pages, but seeing the character's huge cartoony hands lashing out at the square jawed Butcher, certainly brings to mind a different sensibility than that of the series' co-creator.
The accelerated schedule Marvel has forced on its titles regularly calls for fill-in artists, and in the case of Punisher #13, the editorial saw fit to employ Mico ("Moon Knight") Suayan. With the news of a "War Zone" crossover imminent, it's difficult to gauge where the Greg Rucka run is headed. On the face of it, the writer is bringing his creation, Rachel Cole-Alves back head on with the men who staged a massacre on her wedding day. Thus, by returning to the story he was telling before the "Omega drive" crossover, Rucka feels like he's starting to wrap up the plot threads. With the news of a line-wide relaunch starting October, it would be a surprise if this particular iteration of Marvel's vigilante survived to be on the stands in a year's time.
Until then, the writer presents another solid, if under-performing issue of "the Punisher". In order to get an upper hand against the Exchange, Frank and Rachel are forced to go undercover and infiltrate a superhero technology auction, which is a plot recently seen in Scott Snyder and Jock's "Black mirror" arc on "Detective comics". The Punisher has a better plan, though, and the issue reads inoffensively enough, but there is a certain conflict at its core. Having Punisher in a disguise is a traditionally silly element, but one that Rucka fully commits to, in order for his story to work. Throughout the Rucka/Chechetto run, Frank is well aware that he is working in the Marvel universe, and he tries to turn the situation in his favor.
This time, it includes a plan to get a piece of superhero hardware, while posing as the 1980s villain, the Power Broker. There is something off about the last latter, which coupled with lines like "Get out of my way! Criminals masterminds and henchmen first -- " supposes a lightness of tone that isn't really to be found in the otherwise grim tone. The writer usually finds place for some whimsy and black comedy, but his is a down to Earth style, which is why he has carved a niche for himself writing urban vigilantes like "Batman".
Perhaps Marco Chechetto's more animated style would have carried the tone a little better. Mico Suayan's works in a slightly more detailed photo referenced style here, making for a movie-like atmosphere, but the static images eventually take the life out of some sequences. A Dean Martin lookalike approaches Rachel at one point, but the likeness is so belabored that it takes the reader out of the story to think about the reference. It's certain that being a fill-in artist is a thankless job, but to his credit Suayan does manage to be very clear when it comes to layouts. Likewise, he has a consistent take on Chechetto's characters, which avoids the confusion in the final pages.
Despite the minimal backgrounds, the reader is at all times present that Frank and Rachel are on a boat, with Matt Hollingsworth's colors making captions replacing the need for captions when it comes to the scene shifts. All in all, #13 is a decent comic, and an acceptable chapter in the ongoing Rucka "Punisher" narrative. It does little to elevate the story so far, which has seen much more accomplished moments than the ones provided here. Hopefully, by the time they are finished with the character, Rucka and Chechetto will leave behind a complete story, that is none the worse for inclusion of outside superhero elements.