Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: Action Comics #20

Action Comics #20 came out this week, the second issue of the Andy Diggle and Tony Daniel brief story arc. Now I gushed last month about the first chapter of the arc as it read like a great more classic Superman story with some great Lois moments; a brilliant, dangerous, sociopath of a Lex Luthor; and a inspirational and strong Superman. But it also was something of a bittersweet book as I knew that Andy Diggle's time was truly shortlived and Tony Daniel had already said he was off the book after the arc.

This issue has Diggle in the credits, a book he said he 'wrote part of' when on Twitter. And Daniel takes over both writing and penciling on the book.

I have to say I was very happy with the book as, quality-wise, it picked up right where the last issue left off. Sure, there is some super-science hand waving as we get the explanation of exactly what is happening here. But there is, I believe, a nod to a classic and personally beloved Superman story from the 70s. And that alone might have made me happy. But there is solid action in Action. And there continued to be this exploration of who Luthor is these days.

The book starts off with a brief scene showing Luthor being taught jiujitsu. While his knowledge of the moves is superior, the teacher feels that Luthor is lacking an understanding of self. Physical skills cannot take the place of self-awareness. Luthor seems to shrug off the comment, taking advantage of the teacher's bow to throttle him.

Last month we saw him imprison his psychiatrist. Here he knocks out his martial arts instructor. All of this shows that Lex realizes that something is missing, some understanding of who he is. But no matter how he looks, he just never can face himself in the mirror. But I am intrigued that Lex is going through these steps. He just can't take a full step towards helping himself.

It also is telling that his default response is a show of power. Might always seems to make right with Lex.

Meanwhile, Superman awakens in The Block, Dr. Veritas' lab. Last month's cliffhanger showed Superman's hand mutated by Luthor nanites. Here he awakens with a normal hand, his body's super-immune system having fought off the 'infection'. The hand is cast off, a separate hunk of flesh.

I do find Veritas' and interesting character and wonder if she is some nascent form of Maxima. She clearly has some physical attraction to Superman, here coyly saying she undressed him and that's okay because she is a doctor. She also asks him to call her by her first name (something he doesn't do). I hope that her attraction to him doesn't become some obsession, having her descend into lunacy and villainy.

Like in Scott Lobdell's Superman book, I like that there are name-drops of prior major threats he has defeated. Here we learn he defeated The Stream of Eternal Maelstroms.

Now last month we were told that the Luthor used nanites to scan Superman's DNA and rewrite it from the inside. Now I like the idea that Superman's immune system would eventually recognize the devices as foreign material to be engulfed and destroyed.

This month, we are told that it is something more of a virus which has fused with Superman's DNA, becoming a hybrid lifeform, separate, alive, and different. Now I guess if this thing had some sense of survival, that ripping itself away from Superman's body makes sense. And it draws it's power from Superman ... hmmmm.

In some ways, I think of it more like John Carpenter's The Thing, a sort of mimicker, an absorber, a shape changer but with it's own sense of self and self-preservation. There can be no higher compliment that comparing something to Carpenter's The Thing.

And, much like the Thing, it isn't dead after separating from Superman, only in stasis.

It comes to life, growing in mass (probably by absorbing some power from Superman) and changes shapes from alien-looking monster to a more Superman-like form. And it even says 'we are one'.

Veritas sends Superman and the creature to a red sun room to weaken them both. And then, with those lights cut, Superman freezes it with superbreath and shatters it. Veritas then teleports it to a red sun galaxy where those rays and a lack of oxygen will kill it.

Now there is a lot to digest here.

For me, that 'we are one' muddy appearing Superman which drains Superman of power completely reminded me of the Sand Superman from the famous Kryptonite No More story from the 70s. I love that story. Unfortunately, later in the book this form (and Jimmy in the armor from last issue) are explained away as a feverish hallucination. Sounds like there might have been more there had Diggle had time to stick around ... but now it needs to be explained away. Too bad.

Second, why does Veritas have a red sun room so handy? If she does become a villain, she'll be well-armed.

Again, I might have to reread the last issue but this conversion from nanite attack to virus is again confirmed.

But the Luthor connection is lost. I do like that Superman's first thoughts are of the people of Earth. If he is infected by some virus, can he expose humanity? That sounds like Superman.

It looks like Superman's fears are appropriate. Somehow he infected people in Metropolis when he crashed in Metropolis with his alien hand. Again, hard to know how nanites inside Superman and designed to wreck his genome would then jump into humans and affect them.

It is a nice way to cash in on the current zombie craze.

And it is interesting that the zombies are attracted to Superman like a moth to a flame. When Superman lands to combat these things, they stop stalking more humans and follow him. And then they seem to fuse and attack.

So all that is good stuff. A fast thinking, protective Superman defeating one monster and protecting his city from another.

But remember, one of the things I like about this arc is the exploration of Luthor. Amazingly, he seems to simply shrug off the fact that Superman defeated his genetic re-writing scheme. He wanted his nanites to kill Superman from the inside out, not from the outside as a separate entity.

I like that the only close 'person' in Luthor's life is a robot bodyguard named Aria. That also seems to say a lot about him.

Aria seems to be more than simply a machine, expressing emotion and loyalty to Luthor. I do wonder if her name will be changed to Faith. Is she the 'Mercy' of the New 52?

And we get one last peek into Luthor's mindset. He dons a sort of modified classic Lex armor and promises to defeat the very hybrid he helped create, saving the world when Superman can't. He might be a narcissist. But I also think Luthor is very needy. He not only thinks he is great and wonderful, but he needs to constantly be told he is great and wonderful. And if Superman is beloved and considered the 'best', it must drive him crazy. Why else would he try to grab the spotlight like this?

And so we reach the end of the middle of the briefest run by Diggle and Daniel. From that point of view, this book did just what a middle chapter should do, deepen the story, identify the threat, and set things up for a satisfactory conclusion. Unfortunately, it also feels just a touch rushed. I bemoan the decompressed nature of comic story-telling these days. But here, the explanation and exploration of this hybrid threat seems a bit rushed. Was this originally a 3-parter? Or was the plan for this to be longer and more in-depth before Diggle's decision to leave the book? I wouldn't mind one more issue in this arc.

That said, these two issues have been dense in story and characterization. In particular, I like the contrast between Superman and Lex in these issues. The Lex moments have been very strong.

Daniel does a great job on art especially with the wildly morphing hybrid monster.

I wish I knew if they were channeling the Sand Superman story!!

Overall grade: B+


VIIC said...

Anj, as for this separation of Kals DnA and the virus, my first thought went to an All-New BIZARRO born. With a slight twist. What do you think?

Martin Gray said...

Thanks for the review, Anj, I enjoyed this issue lots. At the end, though, Lex is out to get Superman, not the hybrid, which is gone by then.

I found a few of the layouts confusing, as to directionality, especially in the 'hands of Super-Orlac' sequence. Overall, though, very nice work from Tony Daniel.

I love your idea that Veritas might go bad - I'd prefer that to her current Super-Professor Potter mode ... Unlike Potter, or Jenet Klyburn or that Rampage woman, Veritas is too able to sort out Superman's problems. I'm OK with scientists as researchers, but not as deus ex machinas.

I was confused by Superman and Veritas considering the Superman-faced monster a delusion, given they has a big picture of said 'delusion' afterwards.

Looking forward to any thoughts you have on the back-up ...

Anj said...

Thanks for comments.

VIIC, the Bizarro idea is a great one.

Mart, I also don't like when the scientists just become 'tools' to solve the plot problems. I thought Lex was fighting whatever the humans/nanites had become which were still battling Superman. I'll have to look again. And back-up thoughts soon.

And, via Twitter, both Diggle and Daniel both said they didn't know about the Sand Superman story so this wasn't an homage.