Sunday, June 21, 2009

Review: Action Comics Annual #12

Action Comics Annual #12

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Pere Pérez
DC
Released June 17, 2009






What stands out most about this issue is that about 97% of it contains no dialogue. I come to this number by way of estimation more than through real math, but it is true that pages go by with nary a word balloon in sight, with no conversation being shared between the characters on the page. This annual is touted as the origin of Nightwing and Flamebird, two characters that have become very important and central to the current Superman continuity, and as such, the style of this issue is very much that of a legend, a tall tale told by firelight by an anonymous narrator who offers up story with selective omniscience.

Why this is important is that the story being told here is one that must be believed simply on faith. We must believe that these characters hear voices and share visions across dimensions, time, and space, with little in the way of storytelling evidence to show how these plot points are truly earned. In some parts, our narrator even begins many statements with the word 'perhaps', demonstrating that he (or He?) is not quite sure of everything here. And while this could give the story a shaky foundation and the feeling of being unearned, it works here mostly because of the type of story being told. This is a story of religious cultism, of mythological creatures, and of reincarnated destiny, all of which are things that can never truly be supported, only believed or distrusted based on one's predisposition on such things.

The main protagonist of the piece is Thara Ak-Var, a woman orphaned as a child by warfare, raised by adoptive parents, whose religious devoutness stands out in a world where religion is more a decorative formality than a doctrine for life. She suffers nightmares which she comes to believe are actually visions of a greater destiny, all of which leads her to abandon her military duty to take up the solemn and mysterious life within the Religious Guild. Through her we see a world not often touched upon in the Superman mythos, that of the spiritual foundations of the Kryptonian peoples. We see glimpses of ritual and we learn of the tale of the legendary creatures known as the Flamebird and the Nightwing, two beasts that essentially represent the concept of duality. Here, the metaphor is simple, Flamebird representing the fires of passion and emotion, while Nightwing represents the calm focus of thoughtfulness and intellect. They can never be as strong separated as they are when united. The tragedy of the legend being, of course, that they are doomed to be separated, doomed to be betrayed forever and ever.

If Thara represents the Flamebird half of the metaphor, then the Nightwing half is represented by our second protagonist, a boy simply named Christopher, born of science and nurtured in a ghostly dimension of neglect and fear, who somehow manages to survive pure-hearted and with a gentleman's maturity. He is a prisoner of greed and power in a swirling grey world of cynicism and hatred, and again, the metaphor here is strong, but not heavy-handed. Somehow, our two protagonists come to learn of the other's existence and the heavy grinding stone of destiny begins to turn for both of them.

By virtue of the third-person narration and the lack of dialogue for most of the piece, the panels feel static and the issue feels more like a narrated slideshow. Where at first this felt like a negative, by issues end I came to understand it as a natural way of telling a story that is a legend. This is a faery tale, after all, in the finest tradition of the Brothers Grimm or Mother Goose; a comic that could have just as easily opened with the line 'once upon a time', and not been foolish nor satirical. It would have actually been quite fitting.

Action Comics Annual #12 tells quite a beautiful story of tragic love writ large across the cosmos. It is the modern-day cliché of soulmates - the idea of there being someone out there made just for each of us - given a cloak of religiosity, and played out against a sci-fi backdrop of starships, killer robots, and bottle cities. Thara and Christopher find each other through sheer belief that the other exists. In the end, we see the obsessiveness of emotional passion bound in to rescue the strong yet persecuted fortitude of intellect, and in turn they are both saved by the journey and the validation of trusting faith. Who said romance is dead?
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