After last month's Zero issue, Grant Morrison opts for another themed issue with #13. This time opting for a Halloween connection, he presents a complete story updating the Phantom Zone to a more modern aesthetic. Once again, the story centers around Clarke finding more about his Kryptionian origins, but the writer is determined to make the issue accessible.
In order to do this, Morrison even introduces story book narration, which largely proves superfluous expect for a brief scene near the end, where it sheds light on a sequence involving invisibility. The story is illustrated by Travel ("Animal Man") Foreman, who adopts a rich, computer enhanced style that complements the Kryptonian imagery of the flashbacks and imbues a futuristic haunted house look to the Fortress of Solitude. Where the artist falters is with the character design for the villain, doctor Xa-Du.
The character sports an overly busy look, suffering from the lack of clarity, and at times looks alternately like a mummy or a cloaked figure. The reader is not given a good look at the Ecto-suit he wears, which proves central to freeing Superman from the Phantom Zone trap. Otherwise, the pages look eerie and effective, washed in blues, blacks and browns, with splashes of red reserved for Superman's cape.
In many ways, Foreman's artwork recalls Gene Ha's contributions to the series, but he ends up lacking the veteran artist's definition when it comes to the character physiques. Interestingly, DC feels the need to imbue an outsider character in the Phantom Zone, giving the Phantom Stranger a role that consists of two pages of exposition.
The character is otherwise dubiously out of place, and presumably only shows up to prepare the readers for his place in an upcoming crossover. For the purposes of the story, General Zod could have taken his place, as the character was always closely associated with the Phantom Zone. Perhaps the writer has deemed the character too important to play only a small role in his first appearance following the flashbacks in the early issues of "Action Comics".
Otherwise, the issue is largely notable for reintroducing Krypto, last seen fighting Zod in the aforementioned flashback. The Clark-Krypto dynamic works on a level that the otherwise scattered "Action Comics" run constantly aspires to, but rarely succeeds. The Superdog's loyalty completely justifies Clark's desperate efforts to save the dog, and seeing the two reunited provides a pleasant respite before the final page teasing Morrison's last Superman storyline.
Sholly Fisch picks up this sentimentality in the back-up, providing a piece that unapologetically invites the reader to wallow in emotion. Showing the ghostly Krypto's loyalty and love for Clark quickly turns into a universal story about a boy and his dog, with the creators going so far to underline the notion both in dialogue and the title. There is little that is subtle about this back-up, but in its heavy handedness it does turn into a moving science fiction story.
Brad Walker's art is similarly bold, but lacking the polish that would make it noteworthy on its own. The layouts are clear, but suffer from occasional problems with proportions and clunky details. The pages showing Clark's adventures and the destruction of Krypton are needlessly cluttered and unappealing, but in general the artist does manage to visualize the script in a way that brings out the best in Fisch's narration.
The penultimate issue of "the Boys" finishes up the last storyline, leaving only the next month's epilogue to complete the series. Ennis writes a slightly anti-climatic conversational story about the relationship between Hughie and Butcher, as the two men cope with the consequences of last issue's cliffhanger.
Butcher no longer a direct threat, Ennis comes clean about his methods, but the writer mostly concentrates on the differences between the pair and the dynamic they have established over years of working together. It goes without saying that the veteran character-oriented comics writer manifests a deep understanding of the human nature, supplemented by Braun's expressive artwork.
Faced with the script that features two immobile characters talking on the rooftop, the artist does his best to provide a variety of perspectives, moving us in and out of the the pair's faces and rotating the point of view to maintain the tension. Despite all this, the layout remains clear and functional at all times, the characters tense, desperate and melancholic.
In the middle, the script breaks from the blue-toned melancholy by using a four page sequence showing the eventual fate of Jessica Bradley. The break is short and logical, even as it leaves the character in a frenzy. Refusing to settle for shock tactics, Ennis goes on to cite the relevant bits of dialogue between Bradley and Sitwell, which put the events in their proper context.
Getting back to Hughie and Billy, the writer has them go through all of the questions that longtime friends would ask each other when facing certain death, in turn providing the characters with final definition. Butcher remains charismatic and manipulative to the very end, but it comes with a genuine sense of honesty and affection. Ultimately, "the Boys" is Hughie's story, and it ultimately falls to him who has to overcome one last challenge, revealing his true nature.
It's hard to say whether this is the best way the story could have ended, but there is no question that the creators commit to it and present it in a very accomplished way. It's refreshing to see a genre effort finishing up with such a downbeat character driven resolution, that both stays true to the characterization, and still remembers to offer an explosive ending, on par with the most exciting moments of the series.
The Venom/Scarlet Spider crossover begins with the "Alpha" issue, co-written by Cullen Bunn and Chris Yost, and pencilled by Lan Medina. The regular writers of both titles assume the reader is unfamiliar with the current premise and offer a very dense script. The story alludes to the events in the couple of recent "Carnage" mini-series, but otherwise functions as a thriller, in which the pair of vigilantes have to contain the escaping psychopath.
The absence of Zeb Wells, the writer of the aforementioned "Carnage" and "Carnage U.S.A." leads to a distinct lack of humor, or anything approaching a style of its own. Both Venom and Scarlet Spider are larger than life personalities, but they end up little more than civil servants, working closely with the local authorities to deal away with the threat. The story introduces some of the supporting characters from both books, but Flash's newspaper reporter ally, as well as Kaine's friends the policeman and doctor only serve to fill in the otherwise generic roles in the very plot-oriented script.
Lan Medina, his art inked by three inkers, likewise feels stifled by editorial mandate, turning in competent but uninspired work. The layouts are clear, the characters on model, but there is no illusion that anyone in the creative team is giving anything more than their professional best. Medina's Scarlet Spider thus becomes too bulky and generic, Carnage, while Venom stays on model, thanks to the artist's recent stint working on the solo title. The artist also takes time to warm up to Carnage, as his version of the symbiote initially appears as if Kasady is wearing a costume.
It's hard to judge the artist's take on the Micronauts characters, as they seem analogues to some of the Mantlo/Golden characters, but at the same time distinctively new. The publisher hasn't renewed the licence in years, but still retains the rights to the characters created during the long run the title enjoyed in 1980s. It's unlikely that much of the today's audience is familiar with the series, but "Minimum Carnage" is another chance to try and integrate bits and pieces of the continuity into the modern day Marvel universe.
Seeing Carnage associating with the derivative Micronauts characters and eventually escaping into what is essentially Microverse should add a layer of interest to the crossover, but comes off as random. The relatively grounded "Spider-Man" spin-offs seem like a last place to revisit the Micronauts following Marvel's cosmic crossovers, and it's highly doubtful that "Minimum Carnage", as seen in this prologue issue, will amount to more than a generic story meant to provide a short sales boost to "Venom" and "Scarlet Spider".