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Action Comics Annual #1 – Review

By: Sholly Fisch (story), Cully Hamner (art), Val Staples (colors)

The Story: Kryptonite Man and Superman both turn green, but not for the same reasons.

The Review: Some time ago, I spoke somewhat dismissively of annuals as mainly forgettable, unnecessary samples of reading.  No matter how enjoyable, entertaining, or well-crafted, they almost never lose their sense of uselessness.  Rarely do they have an impact on whatever story is actually going on in the main series.  That’s what makes the New 52 annuals such pleasant surprises.  Without exception, all of them have contributed something important to their titles.

While there’s no clear tie-in between this annual and any ongoing plot thread in Action Comics proper, it’s certainly not a story you can dismiss.  Fisch gets the honor of introducing a major staple of Superman mythology to the new DCU, and the end of the feature makes it clear we’ll be seeing this story continue in the ongoing series at some point.  The only problem is Fisch never convinces you to look forward to that point.

I’ve never much liked Kryptonite Man as a villain.  He always seemed too obviously a character specifically targeted to Superman’s weakness.  I imagine he must have been quite a sensation back in the day.  The logic must have seemed inspiring at the time: what could be more crippling to the Man of Steel than kryptonite?  How about kryptonite with the intellect of a man?  Brilliant!  But this no longer being the 1960s, K-Man seems mostly a cheap sort of antagonist.

Fisch’s attempts to color K-Man’s character with some sordid backstory largely fail.  The ol’ “irrational resentment of the superhero” thing has really been played out, and even if it wasn’t, it takes a lot of creative development to make it work.  Instead, we get a rather long summary of Superman’s connection to K-Man—though it’s rather odd he chooses to give it to K-Man himself, in a somewhat touchy, defensive monologue:

“‘Stealing your wife’?  You were beating her!  You’d been doing it for years!  So I stopped it!  I knew the fall into the river wasn’t high enough to kill you.  But you sure wouldn’t hit her again.  Especially not after I helped her settle into a women’s shelter where you’ll never find her.”

The other focus of Fisch’s story is John Henry Irons, who once again plays a major role in the Superman mythos, but most definitely a subordinate one.  In some ways, I applaud his decision to shy away from superheroics except on an as-needed basis; his work for impoverished folks abroad certainly has more long-term social impact than Superman’s rescues any day.  In other ways, he seems to sell himself short in his choice, as if he’s so convinced that his idol is all Metropolis needs that he shouldn’t try to get in the way.

Hamner takes a mostly mediocre script and does his best with it, which is probably why the issue looks and feels as solid as it does.  What I love about his art style is it has this cartoony quality that makes it light and easy to look at, and yet it’s totally consistent and detailed and sophisticated in the way it tells a story, so it has far more class than your usual cartoon art.  While Hamner doesn’t get anything remarkable to draw here, he makes it all look attractive.

As for Ryan Sook—well, the guy can’t draw anything unattractive.  If his covers on Justice League Dark and DC Universe Presents hasn’t convinced you of this yet, Sook is an artist of the very finest caliber and it’s a shame and a crime that we don’t get treated to his art in a monthly book.  Maybe it’s a good thing, then, that for his short feature in this annual, Max Landis leaves the text out of his script entirely, letting you admire Sook’s art with no obstacle whatsoever.  The silence of the feature delivers a lot of tension and import (or the impression of it, anyway), and in many ways, it’s the direct counterpoint to Fisch’s story.  Even without dialogue or direct exposition, you get more out of Atomic Skull’s origins than you do in twenty pages of K-Man.

[Update: Staples has just told me that colors can make or break the art, and he is absolutely correct.  I'm afraid I give colorists short shrift on these reviews, but I'll make an effort to be more attentive in the future.  It's especially shameful overlooking colors from someone like Staples as the bright, primary hues give a fun, classic look to the issue, but his subtle shadings and shadows lend it sophistication.  Notice how light plays off faces to enhance their tension.  That's supportive coloring, right there.]

Conclusion: First-class art with a mixed bag of writing.  Ultimately, it’s the story that matters, and no matter how much you love Hamner or Sook, they can’t elevate a mediocre tale that far.

Grade: B-

- Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: - Natasha Irons survives!  Now, if she’s around in the current DCU, how can you possibly keep Stephanie Brown out?

- It’s amusing that Hamner once again gets to draw the Australian Outback.

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