Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest – Action Comics #851

Posted: Sunday, July 8, 2007
By: Keith Dallas

“Last Son: Part 4”

Writer: Geoff Johns, Richard Donner
Artist: Adam Kubert, Dave Stewart (colors)

Publisher: DC Comics

Average Rating:

Bryant Frattalone:
Shawn Hill:
Chris Murman:
Kevin Powers:
Nicholas Slayton:
Dave Wallace:

Bryant Frattalone

Plot: Zod and his indistinct army make short work of Earth’s heroes while Superman briefly struggles with being sucked into the Phantom Zone and gets a quick visit to a plot contrivance, courtesy of the wispy Mon-El. Mon-El provides some snippets of back history. There’s an eye blink of a battle with an underwhelming villain. Mon-El gets a little sick, Superman shortly returns to Earth to save the day but not without the help of… (aw, but that would be telling)

Commentary: You can probably tell by my Plot synopsis that I wasn’t entirely thrilled with this month’s issue of Action Comics. All the more disappointing because the wait for this story to pick up again was soooooooooo long. It was eagerly anticipated after the excitement and tension built up from the previous issues. The homage, blend and build of things gone before from the world of the movies, comics and even Smallville brought to life by the fun and frantic pencils of Adam Kubert has been an enjoyable ride. Some may say, “What about continuity? How does this fit into current DC storylines?” I stopped asking those questions years ago because some of my favorite comics stories have broken continuity and been outside of current events. Highlights from this storyline so far have been the boy from Krypton turning out to be Zod and Ursa’s child, Jor-El’s complicity in making the former fellow genius Non a mindless brute, Luthor’s return to mad-scientist status and his leashing and unleashing of Bizarro and other cool tidbits via the art. All that being said we’ve been waiting for a big, epic payoff. Everything in this issue seems rushed to give us a lot of story and finish what we’ve been waiting so long for but nothing much is really said and most of the big action takes place through the view screens of the Phantom Zone with Clark as spectator. Even the “action” in the Phantom Zone is well, blah. As far as I know this is Superman’s first foray into the Phantom Zone himself in the comics, though I could be wrong unless you count Brian Azzarello’s story with Jim Lee a few years ago where he used the Zone and Zod to good effect. But again, where does that story fit in current continuity? So, taken on its own Johns, Donner and Kubert’s run on Action Comics has promised big things but hits a bump in the road in this latest segment.

We should have spent more time in The Zone, built up more tension on Earth, seen more character interplay. Zod’s army was a sketch at best as was the sole bad guy Clark encounters in the Zone. The Zone should have been a place of dark wonder, but instead I found myself mentally yawning. That’s not to say the issue failed totally. The idea of Zod and Ursa being “super” bad parents and abusers is intriguing. Superman giving Mon-El hope that he would find a cure for him and he would one day be free of the Zone was kind of touching. But, this is “Action” Comics! Where was the big screen action? Finally, I’d love to say more about the ending, but it’s the most entertaining part of the book and has the best visuals of the story too. I don’t want to ruin that much because it may be worth the price of admission though the majority of the issue was underwhelming.

Final Word: The weakest chapter of this story thus far with just hints at greatness hopefully to come.

Shawn Hill

Plot: Trapped in the Phantom Zone, the son of Jor-El and Lara learns how Zod and Ursa got out, and meets an old friend. I have no idea where the other three parts of the story were, mind you. I’m jumping on the Donner bandwagon a bit late.

Comments: The most interesting parts of this issue take place out of the eerie 3-D gimmickry of the Phantom Zone. Back on Earth, Ursa and Zod turn their unwelcome attentions to figuring out the “genetically inferior” enigma of Lois Lane. As the super-criminal Kryptonians subdue the populace, Superman seeks aid from an unlikely (but theoretically sound) source. The cliffhanger this issue is a good one, one that ties in with the recent idea-laden Action Annual also by Donner, and the future looks likely to hold a fun re-exploration of many aspects of the Superman mythology in store.

Whenever that happens, of course. Meanwhile, the meat of this issue is Superman vs. Dev-Em in the Phantom Zone, and fun though the 3D visuals are, they fail to mask a completely perfunctory story, where everything proceeds by the established, timeworn beats of standard plotting:
A. Superman is disoriented by suffering the fate only meant for Kryptonian bad guys.
B. But Mon-El is there, unchanged from when Superboy exiled him to save his life, to serve as his guide.
C. He takes him to the only solid edifice in the Phantom Zone, a stage set where time passes (explained away by a convoluted and rushed bit of Kryptonian technobabble). Therein resides Dev-Em, charged with preventing Superman’s escape, to the death.
D. And he almost does it, too, if not for Mon-El, who risks his own life and immortality to save his friend at a crucial moment, as a hero would.

When the 3D effects stop, the real story starts, and I’m not sure they’re enough to warrant all the work it takes to experience them (the included glasses don’t work so well with real glasses, for one thing). Unless you’re enamored of novelty, I’d say the cheaper non-3D version of the issue is more than sufficient.

Because you’re not really here for a 3D thrill, are you? You’re here, like I am, for Richard Donner. Comics often seem to try to become like their successful movie versions these days. The X-Men all donned black leather for awhile, and Spider-Man went crazy and found his black suit. The Donner Influence is a bit different, as it’s so many decades delayed and has been filtered through other licensed TV shows.

But the crystalline architecture of Krypton technology is a nice addition to the comic book lore, and Zod and Ursa certainly make good villains, ones we saw much too little of in Superman 2. And Donner has clear ideas for Luthor, Kryptonite Man, the Parasite and Bizarro as well. I’ll probably check in to see those play out as well, when I hear about them.

It’d be nice if there were a steady dose of interesting Superman stories, but that’s the downside of the Hollywood influence. These big shots are busy and don’t always finish what they start or make a full-time commitment. It’s a waiting game for stories like this, but I guess it remains worth it.

Chris Murman:

Geoff Johns, you are getting good at not giving fans what they want. The creative team you helm has made this four-issue story late beyond reason. Civil War is kicking your butt in the production department at this point; that’s how bad it’s become. Any impact the last page was supposed to have on our collective impression of the book has been reduced because of said delays.

Some are even criticizing the 3-D effects as a gimmick to distract us from those delays. I realize most of these problems have nothing to do with you. That being said, others are overlooking the delays and art to still chop down your cherry tree because this issue gave us zero payoff as to the plot involving the escaped Phantom Zone criminals and Zod’s son, Christopher. You just can’t win, can you, Geoff?

Regardless, I have to commend you, Mr. Johns. You gave me an issue far better than I thought it was going to be. That includes my being miffed at the delays like most fans.

Being surprised doesn’t always mean extra bullets in the rating, mind you. I was sure as you-know-what surprised when I read Sinestro Corps a week ago, and we all remember how poorly that turned out in my rating of the issue. What makes this shock and awe different is because the story delivered by Johns and Donner is not the script I’m used to. Gone was the superhero posing I expected from Big Blue as he was supposed to knock all the Kryptonians back to prison with one fell swoop.

Instead, we were given a more character driven tale about Clark having to get back to a world that needs him, a world that has gone awry with all the super powered criminals running the show; in effect reducing the JLA and JSA to the junior varsity. I mean, how do you think things were supposed to happen when an army of Supermen attacked Earth as we know it?

No, this tale was about Clark getting back home. It was about that road being difficult. Finally, this tale was about Supes realizing he has a long hard road ahead of him if he is going to right his adopted ship. He’s going to have to make some hard decisions if he is going to get things back to normal, and they begin with allying with Lex Luthor and his band of merry super-villains.

So we didn’t get the big fisticuffs we were begging for between Zod and Spit Curl. Was there anyone who was thinking we would get that in only four issues? Most likely, Johns and Donner have mapped out this story to take place over the next year, maybe two. Amazingly, this is a self-contained story that doesn’t require us to read any other issues to get what is going on. We may have to read some fill in issues until the story keeps going, but all I’m going to do is put them back on the shelf and wait for the names on this title to appear next.

Personally, I loved the 3-D effects. The design on the glasses was well done, and made me feel like a five year old reading the issue with them on. You’re telling me your shop wasn’t filled with people who were “oohing” and “aahing” on Thursday as they had their glasses on? My shop owner walked around with them on all day in celebration. Kubert’s art continues to impress, so let’s forget we’re old people and enjoy the gimmick. It’s cool, you can say it.

I’m totally on board for the Revenge Squad story planned for the next Action Annual. Who knows when we’ll actually see it, but it’s going to be good nevertheless.

Kevin Powers:

Our lord and eternal ruler finally returns to the pages of Action Comics. Of course, I am referring to General Zod as the much anticipated and delayed penultimate chapter of “Last Son” finally hits the shelves. I will tell you right off the bat that I am not even going to comment on the delays riddling this story-arc. I’ve accepted that delays, whether from DC, Marvel, Devil’s Due, et al., are just a fact of comic book publishing life, and there’s nothing that can be done. If delaying a story means a better ending or better artwork, then fantastic. I just don’t really want to see another Spider-Man/Black Cat or Daredevil/Bullseye. All of that aside, the Man of Steel has been in very good hands as of late. In my opinion, Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza, Darwyn Cooke, Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns are five of the biggest names in the industry. Throw in Richard Donner and there’s even more of a reason why Superman is doing extremely well across the board. But for me, this arc has always been about one of my favorite villains of all time, General Zod.

This issue picks up where the last installment of “Last Son” left off; Superman has been exiled to the Phantom Zone. In the “real world” Zod and the escaped Kryptonian criminals of the Phantom Zone are wreaking havoc and essentially taking the world. There’s a great panel showing a Kryptonian fortress where Zod and the Kryptonians are rounding up Earth’s heroes.

This brings up my first question for Dan DiDio: why is Amazons Attack such a big deal when General Zod has a Kryptonian army running around Earth? This is Geoff Johns and Richard Donner, an unbelievable creative team, but why are this arc’s issues released months apart and do not take part in Countdown or the greater DCU? While this story does perfectly fine on its own, and I am more than happy with the Sinestro Corps saga, “Last Son” should have completely replaced Amazons Attack. “Last Son” should be a “mega-event.” There should have been more timely and efficient artists put into play, and this story arc should have integrated into everything in the DCU. Ultimately, not doing that seems to take away from the overall threat posed by Zod and brings the impact of this story down a notch.

The number one thing you need going into this issue, besides reading Parts 1-3 of “Last Son,” is to have read Action Comics Annual #10 (my review of which can be found HERE). I had a feeling the Annual has some sort of greater significance to this story arc, and it becomes more than apparent in this issue. I can’t even try to downplay the importance of the Annual to this issue. If you didn’t read it, you will be lost, and that is unfortunate. If you have read it, however, you will understand everything and realize how fantastic the Annual was in terms of playing directly to the Johns/Donner run. I won’t spoil too much, but I will say that the Annual story featuring Mon-EL takes up much greater importance in regards to this issue. Speaking of Mon-EL, some of the scenes in the Phantom Zone during this issue are brilliant, and many questions surrounding Zod’s time in the zone are answered. However, I wanted to see more of Zod and the Kryptonians wreaking havoc on Earth, not of Superman and Mon-EL fighting a random Kryptonian criminal while spitting out rhetoric regarding Jor-EL.

What is most shocking to me about this issue is the relationship between Zod and Christopher. While the scene between Lois and Ursa echoed Margot Kidder and Sarah Douglas, the idea that Zod has a flawed relationship with his son adds greatly to the character. There’s a human element of Zod and Christopher’s relationship, one that I didn’t see coming. This relationship ultimately makes Christopher want to be just like Superman and possibly want to kill Zod. It’s a very interesting twist that shows exactly what kind of a person Zod really is. While the impact of Zod on the DCU really shines through in this issue, the fact that this arc was not a DCU crossover “mega-event” really takes away from this story.

I am a fan of this ending. I’ve been curious about Lex Luthor’s purpose since “Up, Up and Away” as I have always been a fan of the megalomaniacal businessman. However, Luthor appears to really be back in his element, focusing all of his time on bringing down Superman, or in this case Zod and the other Kryptonians. Had this arc become a “mega-event,” Luthor could have had a mini-series that really would have made the ending of this issue much more exciting. While the ending does provide a great cliffhanger, it is unfortunate that we have to wait a few months for Action Comics Annual #11 before we get the ending.

Adam Kubert’s artwork has been very hit and miss with me throughout this arc. If he truly is the reason this series was delayed then I can’t help but wonder why DC didn’t hire a more efficient artist or artists and create a crossover event. Instead this issue is a mixed bag. There are pages where the artwork is phenomenal and Kubert is really at his best, but there are others with a great deal of inconsistencies. There are points where the inking seems to be a little too much, and there are moments where the line-work is a bit excessive. Dave Stewart does an excellent job on colors, especially in the Phantom Zone sequences. My biggest problem is that I just don’t feel Kubert’s artwork was phenomenal and that ultimately hurts this issue.

This may not be the strongest issue of “Last Son” in terms of artwork, but it is still a well-written issue. Delays happen and I can’t wait to read this arc from start to finish once it ends as I am sure that I will find it one of the best Superman arcs ever. I’ll wait forever for a story by Johns and Donner, but I don’t really feel Kubert’s work has been worth the wait, especially when the Johns and Donner run will continue before Kubert finishes this arc.

Nicholas Slayton:

At long last, the fourth part of Geoff Johns and Richard Donner’s “Last Son” arc has arrived. While the wait has been agonizingly long, it does nothing to impact the brilliant quality of this issue. After three issues of an awkward tone, Johns and Donner abandon the overtones of the Christopher Reeve movies, instead giving the reader a tone reminiscent on the modern, realistic Superman found in “Up, Up, and Away.” And it clicks.

For those in need of a recap (I admit, I quickly reread the previous issues to remember what happened), Clark Kent’s adopted son Christopher is none other than General Zod’s scion, Zod, Non, Ursa, and a small army of Phantom Zoners have escaped, and Superman was trapped in the Phantom Zone with no way out. Pretty sweet, huh? This issue picks up right where it left off, with a now powerless and distraught Superman receiving help from an unlikely source: Mon-El, his childhood friend still trapped in the Phantom Zone, unable to escape without facing mortal lead poisoning. Johns and Donner captured the relationship between the two friends perfectly in the Action Comics Annual, and this maintains the quality. Mon-El’s knowledge of the Phantom Zone soon proves indispensable and Superman’s main hope.

After reuniting with his friend, Superman is forced to enter Fort Rozz, a Kryptonian prison located in the Zone that due to the explosion of a Phantom Zone Projector is free from the limbo effects of the Zone. The origins of Christopher, as well as the machinations of Zod and his cronies are explained, and are downright disgusting. Johns and Donner have perfectly captured Zod’s personality. He’s an egotist, a conqueror, and above all a strategist, even willing to use his own son to achieve his goals. The General echoes Terrance Stamp’s iconic portrayal, but there’s something more sinister here that adds a truly terrifying menace to the General. Also making an appearance is Dev-Em, now apparently a purple alien despite previously being a Daxamite like Mon-El. No explanation is given to this change of appearance, but his haunting taunts truly make the segment worth while.

Yet the best is saved for last. Lex Luthor is back, and may be Earth’s last, best hope. Under Johns’ pen, Lex has become a fully realized character, no longer a one-dimensional evil industrialist or a crazed scientist out to kill Superman. Rather, he’s as resourceful as Batman and far smarter than any other human out there. Seeing aspects from the Annual play out was a great treat, and Lex’s new team shows uncompromising promise.

According to sources, Adam Kubert’s been the reason for the delays. Yet if that is indeed the case, I’d say it’s worth it. While his art is a tad sketchy and cartoony for my taste, the entire Phantom Zone story was amazing. His style was perfect for it, with a strange sketchiness and warped layout. Yet, the praise for this issue’s art has to go to colorist Dave Stewart. His use of muted colors and grays in the Zone added an amazing tone and atmosphere to the scenes set there, and the jaunt into Fort Rozz showed his skill at variety. Inside the Fort, immune from the effects of the Zone, the colors art brighter, cleaner, providing a great contrast to the muted nature outside.

After all the wait, this issue delivers big time. In all honesty, this is one of the best Superman stories I’ve read since the initial “One Year Later” arc. Johns and Donner have finally gotten acclimated and are now in full swing, updating old concepts and revitalizing forgotten characters. Adam Kubert’s Phantom Zone is a brilliant, twisted take on the concept. It’s a shame that we have to wait until the next Annual for the conclusion; this issue revitalized my interest in the story to new heights.

Dave Wallace:

Where were we again? Some months ago, the previous instalment of “Last Son” was published, and the long delay between issues meant that I genuinely had some trouble remembering where that last issue left off when I began reading this one. Still, the story proves simple enough, seeing Superman trapped in the Phantom Zone and desperate to find his way back to Metropolis, where Zod, Ursa and Non have launched their attack and regained custody of their son.
I found the majority of this issue to be fairly pedestrian, all things considered. Yes, there’s some interesting business with Mon-El, a character of which I had no prior knowledge, but whose plight was made fairly compelling under Donner and Johns’ pen. There’s also a fun cliffhanger which sets up an unexpected team-up for next issue and promises to make Lex Luthor and his cronies a more important part of the story than anticipated. However, the delays to this story make what might have been an interesting diversion in the Phantom Zone into an issue that feels like a frustrating exercise in treading water, never quite getting to the real meat of the story (the final part of which has now been rescheduled, to be continued in the next Action Comics Annual).
The most successful element of the story comes with Superman’s escape from the Phantom Zone in the second half of the issue, providing another unexpected wrinkle which really reinforces just how much of a threat the Kryptonian villains of the story have posed for the entire planet in Superman’s absence. I really have to hand it to expert colourist Dave Stewart for the effective way in which the dead, grey nature of Metropolis is conveyed on Supes’ return. However, the extent of the damage that has been done to Metropolis and the other DCU heroes - combined with the presence of Donner at the helm of the book - makes me worry that we’ll see another easy get-out at the end of the story, with Superman flying backwards around the world to reverse time, à la Superman: The Movie (and Donner’s original ending for Superman II). Still, I won’t hold that possibility against him until it actually happens. As for Adam Kubert’s linework, there’s certainly no indication as to why this issue took so long to produce, although he continues to tell the story clearly with a bold style which seems a little more cleanly-inked here than in previous issues. Kubert conveys the sinister transformation of Metropolis well and really makes the stakes seem high with his depiction of the captured DC heroes and revelation of a second Kryptonian Fortress in the middle of the city.
As far as the 3-D aspect of the issue goes, I was all set to write a review decrying the gimmickry that has resulted in a variant of Action Comics #851 being shipped with a pair of 3-D-glasses, and printed in the old-fashioned red-and-green 3-D style in order to make the images appear three-dimensional. However, on reading the issue with the 3-D glasses, I have to admit to being quite impressed. The 3-D element suits the story well, bringing the Phantom Zone to life in a way that really sets it apart from the other 2-D sequences of the story, particularly when the jagged shards of the image are made to point out at the reader. Yes, I’m slightly embarrassed to still be wowed by decades-old technology, but I found this 3-D aspect to be a lot of fun, and nostalgically reminiscent of the kind of innovation that used to be the hallmark of good Silver Age comics. Full marks to “Ray Zone” for the carrying off this aspect of the book so well.
On its own terms, I’m still very much enjoying “Last Son,” as it’s providing an unpredictable, exciting ride which is light on continuity and which pulls together some of the most enjoyable elements of the Superman mythos to create an accessible, fun story. Sadly, as is frequently the case these days, it’s being scuppered by scheduling problems which really detract from my enjoyment of it on an issue-to-issue basis. One to pick up in the inevitable collected edition, I think.

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