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Action Comics #23.1: Cyborg Superman – Review

By: Michael Alan Nelson (writer), Mike Hawthorn (artist), Daniel Brown (colors)

The Story: The Cyborg Superman wrestles with what it means to be perfect and what it means to be alone.

The Review:  Spinning out of the dramatic reveal of last month’s Supergirl, this Villain’s Month one-shot shows us how the rivalry between two brothers created a monster.

Gone is the Fantastic Four pastiche and lovable, death-seeking Hank Henshaw and instead Michael Alan Nelson has tied the Cyborg much tighter into Superman lore. I expect that this choice will be a somewhat controversial one, however, let it not be said that he doesn’t make a good showing of it.

Unlike old standbys like Two-Face or the Joker, the Cyborg Superman can get by on a showcase issue. Though the story isn’t terribly complex, the two timelines of the issue are each engaging enough to hold a reader’s interest. Those who favor the archetypal power of comic book plots will particularly enjoy this one; however I wouldn’t blame anyone who prefers complex character work that feels that this issue is just a bit shallow. To those readers, I will merely say that while the issue favors the broad strokes of the Cyborg’s story, Nelson’s skillful writing backs it up and makes it feel alive.

Nelson finds the wrinkles within the Cyborg Superman’s single-minded obsession with perfection. The ways that these themes wind their way through each story elevate the issue beyond a mere showcase for the character and really demonstrates the value of the one-shot format that Villain’s Month is taking.

Perhaps just as interesting are the differences between the Cyborg Superman that readers of Supergirl have come to know and the one presented here. While it’s strange to see Nelson presenting a somewhat different version of the character in what is likely to be many reader’s first encounter with him, it definitely shows the depth with which Nelson is considering the character. The obsession is different and the behavior colder, but it tells a strong story while planting new questions in the reader’s mind. How did the Cyborg grow so independent of his creator? What was he doing for the last twenty years? And, perhaps most importantly, how did he go from a man obsessed with his own perfection to one desperate to become someone else?

Overall, the writing is rather strong. One scene on the eve of Krypton’s destruction stands out particularly. The art is beautiful and the dialogue cuts like a knife.

Speaking of the art, Mike Hawthorn and Daniel Brown make for an interesting pair, bringing a distinct look to each storyline. The action on Krypton is flatter and simpler with an earthy palette, while the Cyborg’s reign of terror favors heavier inks; a more detailed aesthetic; and strong primary colors.

The artwork throughout the issue is strong, however depth is not Hawthorn’s strong suit. Many panels, though appealing to the eye, have that sense of being several layered images rather than a three-dimensional world. Backgrounds are, appropriately, somewhat lacking in places, however you can rest assured that the focus of each panel is rendered wonderfully.

Hawthorn performs an essential duty in his expression-work, providing the depth that Nelson’s barebones script only implies. The quiet struggle to escape and survive the end is etched into the faces of his Kryptonians as clearly as fear and regret are in the Kamparan’s eyes.

It’s not the same as Diogenes Neves’ take on the Cyborg Superman, but just as Nelson writes a different version of his Cyborg in this issue, Hawthorn’s take feels well suited to this tale. The Cyborg has always been reminiscent of the Terminator, but it’s particularly apparent this month as he marches inexorably on in search of an equal. This issue embraces the idea that horror lies in inevitability and the single-mindedness in the Cyborg’s face is actually quite terrifying,

If there’s one final criticism of this issue, it’s that, while the reinvention of this character is extremely interesting, it fails to assure me that it will yield stability in the long term. Revelations regarding his origins seem to pigeon-hole the Cyborg a bit and the ending to Supergirl #23 throws the relevance of half of this issue into question.

The Conclusion: The issue is not brilliant, but it is a solid comic and, by a long margin, the best of the three Villain’s Month issues I read this week. It could stand to back up its archetypes a little better, but there’s something of a Claremontian quality in the issue that makes it a pleasure to read. While Villain’s Month has failed, as of yet, to justify itself, Action Comics: Cyborg Superman is a great place to get a taste of Michael Alan Nelson’s writing and a quick dose of old school comic book sci-fi.

Grade: B-

-Noah Sharma

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