Friday, July 16, 2021

Review: Action Comics Annual 2021

The Action Comics 2021 Annual came out this week, a nice mix of current storylines and the Future State future peeks. Much like the Future State House of El one-shot, this was a very entertaining read by  writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson with art by House of El artist Scott Godlewski and with Siya Oum providing the framework story.

I was very impressed with all that Johnson pulls off here. The framing story really builds on the current Phaelosian storyline working its way through the main Action book. This framework is from the past as we see the current teenage Thao-La back when she was more of a young child. This section gives us some backstory as well as a new mystery to unravel.

We then move well into the future as we hear another tale of the House of El. This one predates the House of El one-shot. We get some Supergirl here, learning what she did before she sulked off to the moon in her own Future State mini. These characters descended from Superman are interesting. I like seeing them fight together as a group. And I like the glimpses we get of their culture.

And on top of that, we get a nod to a mini-series from the early 80's, one of my faves and one I have not truly reviewed here on this site. So maybe that will be a little blog mini-project to start up. I am all in favor of the direction Johnson is taking us with the Phantom Zone.

As for the art, Godlewski slips us into the Future State world easily. His pages are mostly battles and he brings us into the fray expertly. I like the designs of the various Els. Siya Oum's pages are the framework and non-Phantom Zone pages. There is a more angular and slightly stylized look to these pages but there are solid moments there as well.

If I have one quibble, it is that many pages are devoted to the Els fighting there way to the center of the Phantom Zone. I think that part could have been told in about half the pages, making this more like a regular issue. No complaints about the art in those sequences. Beautiful.

On to the particulars.

We start out in the past.

A young Thao-La is running through the slums of Warworld. She holds in her hand a chunk of iron that perhaps crudley suggests the shape of Superman in an iconic flying pose. Despite the grim nature of the world, she is skipping and smiling.

She slips into a back room where a storyteller is imparting wisdom through stories. The shush Thao-La when she mentions Superman, worried the goons on Warworld will hear her.

Instead, this raconteur decides to tell them a story from the future. Hmmm ...

I do like this peek into Warworld. To see the ghetto-like town where these slaves live, to see this little bit of resistance mounting ... it gives a better understanding than it just being a big world for gladiator battles. 

And I love seeing the hope in Thao-La based on Superman despite this being her home.

The story pushes us into the future where Kara Zor-El is the leader of Sanctuary and is presiding over the marriage of the Valkyrie Alura to the Phaelosian Warworld fighter Khan. We have seen all these folks in that House of El one shot (my review here to remind if wanted: )

It turns out that part of this marriage is the name El being given to Khan (that at least explains his Khan-El name in the one shot). But he needs to prove himself by squaring off in battle with one of the El family. He picks Brandon, the Superman of Earth.

The reveal that Khan is a Phaelosian is a good one. It explains his power levels. And Kara saying that the Phaelosians began as seekers of truth and became warriors links nicely with all we have learned in the main book.

Of course, no supe-hero wedding goes off smoothly.

Cousin Pyrrhos, the baddie from the one-shot, crashes. 

He won't tolerate this wedding and sends all the Els and Brainiac 4 to the Phantom Zone.

Pyrrhos is all about pure bloodlines, totally Slytherin in his approach to things. So I suppose it is apt that his magic binding spell takes the form of snakes.

But that is it for Supergirl in this book action-wise. She is taken out quickly and imprisoned for the bulk of the book. She doesn't get to do much except talk sternly.

And can I mention how much I dislike this dress they have her in. It looks like a rejected Disney princess gown.

The Els are surprised to see weird Cthulhu-like wraiths in the Zone and have to circle the ranks to fight them off. 

Suddenly they are aided by ... the Cyborg Superman??

The Cyborg says he can help the group escape the Zone and acts friendly and helpful. But initially Brandon doesn't believe. He knows the horrors the Cyborg has done.

I like this response. The Cyborg is horrible.

I like that the Cyborg is again Henshaw, hopefully erasing the 'Zor-El is the Cyborg Superman' plotline which was terrible. 

And I suppose this opens up the possibility of the story where Superman tosses Henshaw into the Zone.

 The Cyborg knows of someone and something in the center of the Zone which could be an escape point, especially with Brainy there.

As the team battles the wraiths and move in, the Cyborg gives a history lesson on the Zone. Jor-El discovered it. But what he saw was just the sleeping mind of the monstrous being Aethyr. While Aethyr slept, the Zone was just a ghostly dimension. But now that he has awakened, the presence of Aethyr has turned the Kryptonian criminals into these monsters.


Now that is a callback to one of the trippiest mini-series from the Bronze Age, The Phantom Zone by Steve Gerber and Gene Colan! (You can hear me and blog friends Ryan Daly and Mart Gray talk about it here: )

I kind of love that this weird, hallucinogenic interpretation of the Zone is coming back into continuity. And it makes me think it is high time I do a deep dive review of that series.

And Godlewski shines showing all sort of monsters and dragons in this place.

Finally, at the center, we reach the Cyborg's goal. There is a dead Mister Miracle clutching a Mother Box. The circuitry was too alien for Henshaw to link with. But perhaps Brainy could coax it to open a portal. 

How the heck did Mister Miracle end up in the Phantom Zone? Which Mister Miracle is it? Why didn't he just use the Mother Box to leave?

Okay, in this instance, Miracle is a literal Deus Ex Mother Machina ...

I shouldn't think about it too much.

Since out heroes can't stay stuck in the Zone, it isn't surprising that Brainy can interact with it.

But Brandon's worries were warranted. Miracle died from a heat vision blast. Only the Cyborg could do that. And when Henshaw tries to leave on his own, the Els have to beat him down and jump through the portal together.

I suppose it shows the power of the Cyborg Superman that he could kill a New God.

Back in Sanctuary, Kara remains trapped in a cage. Sigh.

But that chunk of iron Thao-La was playing with is in a place of prominence in the Sanctuary throne room. It stands as a symbol for people rising up against oppression.

I must admit that is pretty cool. 

It shows what an inspiration Superman is. And it shows what an inspiration Thao-La must become.

For me, it also shows that Johnson continues to 'get' what the Els should represent. Not cursing and puking and wallowing in self-hate and self-pity. They should inspire.

With the portal open, the Els roar in. Alura flies a Phantom Zone dragon directly into Pyrrhos forcing him to retreat. (I think he retreats. His disappearance is vague. After setting him up as the big villain, I would have liked a bit more denouement.)

As for Henshaw, while despicable, he was responsible for the Els escape. Kara, as leader of Sanctuary, pardons him. But tells him to never give the Els reason to look for him. 

It is pretty cool that Kara is the head of state here. Too bad we get to see very little of her like this, even in this issue. And she certainly wasn't this strong in her Future State book where she moped around gloomily.

With the battles behind them, the marriage is blessed by Kara and we finally get a kiss.

We learn about the futures of some of the Els.

And then we are back to the framework story.

Our storyteller speaks of Kara. She rules Sanctuary for some time before leaving to other worlds. And she even meets Superman again.

All right. 

Too bad it isn't 'she inspired the Els as their leader and many looked upon her as the true core of the family'.

But at least we didn't get 'she feels overlooked and gets sad and thinks her dead dog is the only one who loved her and isn't the star in her own story and dies'. 

As for this storyteller, Thao-La can sense that this wasn't a made up story. This was an actual history from the future being told in the past.

So who is this person marooned on Warworld from the future, powerless to escape? I don't want it to be Booster. Too easy.

One of the Els from the future? A Legionnaire? Any guesses?

In total, this was a fun read. As I said, it works fine as a stand-alone peek into the future. But the bits which impact the current arc make it more impactful. And the return of Aethyr! Cool.

Overall grade: B+


Anonymous said...

Maybe the old man is one of the Midnighters caught in a loop. Or Andrej Trojan who's been in orbit around Warworld in the future.

Others are in ceremonial garb, and look like Els, but I guess poor Kara only has a tulip to wear.

I could tell from some clues last time that Khan and Alura were probably married, but wondered if Khan had married his cousin, since I assumed they were both Els. But no, we see he took the name El from Alura. Now, what does it mean that she's a Valkyrie of Warworld? Is she a regular El or part-Asgardian now? I guess we'll learn more eventually, as Johnson has it all worked out.

I like spending time with that group quite a bit!


Anonymous said...

Oh that Tragic Amish Super Prom Gown, the current creatives have done the impossible they've created a worse costume than all the costume variants and proposed costume variants of the early 1970's combined! If they wanna put her in super spandex tights, fine go with it, if they wanna rock the super skirt, again fine, this is the worst of both worlds in extremis.
But...I digress.
I wanted to enjoy this more, but Kara got so easily marginalized so early in the story, (Caged Again, Supergirl, Caged Again) that I decided the whole mishaugas is pretty much a harbinger of things to come. By that I mean Superwoman will be this vaguely ineffectual matronly presence while the storyline is driven by multiple Superboy-Supergirl-SuperWhatevs variants. All this merely solidifies my notion that Kara aka SuperGirl soon to be SuperWOMAN is being rocketed into lunar obscurity while a "New Supergirl" supplants her in continuity.
At least until DC decides they hate the new SG as much they did the original and then who knows what the hell will happen? This is what happens when comic publishers go for "cheap heat"...short money or dumb ideas that make quick money.


Anonymous said...

She's wears her cape around her waist for some reason.


Anonymous said...

hello from a french fan of supergirl,

Supergirl is the leader of Sanctuary, the only good new.

I found this :

Martin Gray said...

Great review. I really liked the Oum artwork, I especially like the two panels at the bottom of page seven, as Kara looms behind the first frame and interacts with the second. (At one point I thought there was something going on with her being unable to touch the ground, so often does she float, but no, she touches the floor later.)

My guess for the storyteller is Shilo Norman, either he wasn’t really dead in the future or he ‘got better’. we know that it’s likely someone from the present who went to the future, and look at that scarf… that could easily be the Mr Miracle mask, worn around his neck.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind the costume too much. It's not the best, but it's also not the worst. The current CW and upcoming Flash movie have worse costumes.

The most important thing for me is staying true to character when it comes to Kara. I think this issue corrects what went horribly wrong in her own future state comic. I can believe that this is a probable future development of Kara Zor-El as she gets older and changes with time.

This comic gives me hope that I can find some entertaining reads in future Future State books. I hope that this is DC course correcting Kara in the FS line and not just a reflection of the skill of this particular writer.

I will try to decanonize her own future state book in my head and try to find good things like this in the coming books.

Anj said...

Thanks for all the comments.

I think this future House of El with its various members is a nice elseworld/potential future.

As for Kara, I am just trying to stay optimistic.