Friday, 5 October 2012

Action Comics #13 review

Linus was right. The Great Pumpkin does bring wonderful gifts at Hallowe'en. What else could explain the best issue of Action Comics this year showing up in October?

'The Ghost in the Fortress of Solitude' is presented as a fable for a dark, autumn night, with an omniscient narrator telling us what happened on October 31 on Krypton, and on Earth. Spinning out of Silver Age Superman lore, cryogenics abuser Doctor Xa-Du becomes the first Phantom Zone prisoner, projected there by Superman's father, Jor-El. Of course, he swears vengeance, and decades later escapes into Superman's sparkling new Arctic fortress and throws the Man of Steel into the Zone. There, Superman meets the Phantom Stranger, and a very old friend - Krypto, his childhood pet.

Unsurprisingly, our hero gets free, and wins the day, but can he retrieve the handsome hound?

I found this story hugely satisfying. It uses classic DC mythology with love and respect, shows Superman as a smart, confident hero, and brings several well-known knaves from Krypton into the revamped continuity. The idea that Krypton experiences Hallowe'en, when the barriers between 'seen and unseen' worlds thin - even if nobody knows it as such - is the perfect set-up for this story. And I'm pleased the Fortress is now in its most-famous spot, even if it does look like a quick-frozen sea anenome.

Writer Grant Morrison and artist Travel Foreman present the Zone prisoner's life as terrifying in a way we've seldom seen - it's no wonder so many inmates go ga-ga. As for the Phantom Stranger, we learn that as well as being a Wandering Judas, he investigates hauntings, which sounds a lot of fun, 'ecto-technology' and all. And he's useful in the story as a quick source of information for Superman; I don't doubt our hero would have figured things out for himself sharpish, but a super-speedy response to Xa-Du's breakout is needed, and it's Superman who puts the Stranger's words into action.

Superman and Stranger alike toss out some excellent lines, while the narration's measured tones contrast nicely with the increasingly frenzied events. There's no 'arf' from Krypto, as is traditional, but I can wait. The main thing is that the scenes between man and dog convince - these guys love one another.

One question - how long was a Kryptonian year? Jor-El is a grown man when he sends Xa-Du to the Zone, and 20 years later the planet blows up with the scientist looking exactly the same. I recall that Krypton's red sun is bigger than Earth's yellow star, but that would mean Krypton's years were longer, not shorter, surely? I may have to write to the Metropolis Mailbag ...
Guest illustrator Travel  Foreman - click on image to enlarge - gifts Action Comics one of its rare consistent art jobs. It's lovely work, as Foreman and colourist Brad Anderson find the perfect, spooky tone for the Zone. And the Fortress scenes transition from colourful sci-fi whimsy to locked room horror within panels. Xa-Du is scary both in his first, intermediate and final forms, and I look forward to seeing him again. As for Krypto, he's bigger than in the old days, but equally adorable.

This story is great work all round - letterer Steve Wands deserves a nod, too, for mood-setting font choices. One thing I'm not keen on, though, is the cover illustration, by fan favourite Bryan Hitch, in which Superman's  head resembles a particularly unlovely pig carcass.

The back-up strip is a happier affair, taking us through Krypto's life on Krypton and life (very) beyond. It turns out that the 'ghost dog' a hobo once told Clark was watching him has actually been by his side since his Smallville days. The unknowing Clark was never able to respond, but Krypto loved and protected his friend anyway. I'm so glad these two are now properly reunited to romp through space.

The one thing I don't like in Sholly Fisch's elegant story is the detail that Jor-El ensured dog/boy bonding via a spot of 'helix interweaving'. He should have trusted the pair to become friends, not stick the poor pet into a gas-filled booth . It's better than Silver Age Jor-El sticking Krypto into a prototype rocket and losing him, but still, this blog is agin unnecessary alien animal experimentation (we're sponsored by the Space Canine Patrol Agency, don'tcha know).
The one thing I don't like in Brad Walker and Andrew Hennessy's tasty stripwork is Jor-El's glowing, shield-shaped kneepads - nobody needs a couple of accessorised  flashlights on their legs. But yes, otherwise it's all good, especially the montage showing that Clark's never been parted from his old pal.

If editors Wil Moss and Matt Idelson are reading this, perhaps watching from some DC version of the Phantom Zone, a reminder - don't leave the back-up strip creators' names off the cover. I can't see sales falling if Grant Morrison superfans aren't conned into thinking he's writing the whole book, and good work deserves recognition.

Or do I have to send my dog Eartho around to bite you on the bum?

13 comments:

  1. I loved this issue as much as you did Mart. And I also got a bit flummoxed by the 20yr timeline.

    But it doesn't take away how great this issue was reintroducing the Arctic fortress, the Jor-El/Lara statue, the Phantom Zone and its criminals, and of course Krypto.

    If there is any dark place that needed the joy of a super-dog, it is the DCnU. So glad Morrison wrote this!

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  2. Exactly.

    I was wondering about that statue - presumably Superman made it from memories of his upcoming time travel trip, as it's unlikely Kandor had a statue of his parents together.

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    1. Why not Martin? From the zero issue is appeared that Jor-El was a world renowned scientist who had done much for Krypton. Perhaps the science guild's Kandor chapter honored him with a local statue?

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  3. It occurs to me with Krypton being as advanced as they are surely they must have very advanced cosmetic surgery and "super" anti-aging eye cream to keep those crows feet and laugh lines away from their eye? Or have a choice in whether to go bald or not or to go grey haired or not as a fashion statement in their culture?

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    1. Good point - I'm moving to Krypton. Did you ever see Shadow Lass's instant hairdo machine?

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  4. Loved this issue. Nothing really new here, but it was a lot of fun.

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    1. That;s fair, Jeff - old elements get a nice polish.

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  5. Great review, fantastic issue. Depsite my moniker I'm a huge Krypto fan, and this issue was even better than the very good Krypto-centered issue Busiek did on a fill-in shortly before the new 52. I like the comment above that if any world needed a super-dog it's the dark New 52.

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    1. Yup, Anj is right there!

      So, now we have Krypto - how about Streaky?

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  6. and 2 years later a message from the future !

    or the past depending on when you read this

    to me superman looked more like a monkey then anything else on that cover and that cover was a deterrent to actually buy the thing
    i only caved in because i needed it and a few others to get morrisons run on action comics ( and make sense of the story )

    and its a good thing i did because its quite a lovely story

    i generally dont care much for krypto but this story made me warm up for him
    in this comic at least
    his updated design also helps in that regard i never liked the generic some what mutt ish apperance of krypto

    now this version looks like a dog

    i disagree with the art though travel foreman's are is wildly uneven and downright sketchy at times
    and i wish brad walker had main art duties instead of back up

    but it is what it is

    a solid story with a hideous simian superman cover

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    1. Oh, two years is fine, thank you for dropping by - I'm writing this from a parallel Earth anyway.

      I see what you mean about that cover now, drat!

      Have you tried the current Pak/Kuder run, it really is excellent.

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