Installment 5: Action Comics #732
“The Saving Skull”
- Cover Date: April 1997
- Released on: February 26, 1997
- Triangle Number: 1997/17
- Writer: David Michelinie
- Pencils: Tom Grummett
- Inker: Denis Rodier
- Editor: Joey Cavalieri
Spoiler Free Synopsis
Superman pulls himself together. Lois’ selfless act. New abilities emerge. An excursion around the bay doesn’t go as planned. A not so happy ending.
Spoiler Filled Commentary
I don’t have as much to say this time out compared to the last two entries. This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just the realities of going through what was essentially a weekly comic book. Some chapters are going to inspire more commentary than others. This issue served mainly to move the various plots along. You had movement on Scorn’s escape from Kandor, the resolution of the Atomic Skull story that began in Adventures of Superman and the continuation of Superman’s runaway powers. The fact that this issue was entertaining and engaging is a testament to David Michelinie’s ability as a writer to make it all work.
Scorn makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the issue and we see a shift in his focus. When Scorn broke through the ice at the end Superman #121 he was shouting about being free like he was General Zod at the beginning of the Donner Cut of Superman II. Now it seems he feels a calling of some kind and that calling centers around Superman. This makes sense when you consider that the Superman was the reason that Scorn was able to escape the Bottle City in the first place. Michelinie’s narration is dramatic but not over the top. This scene served mainly to keep Scorn in play and move him to the next part of his sub-plot.
During this scene, we also get to see more of a scientific team that appeared four issues ago. This made me chuckle a bit. Teams of scientists in the arctic were kind of a running gag in Action Comics going back to when Roger Stern was writing the title. They were usually there to witness something funky, usually involving the Fortress of Solitude, or to grouse about being stationed in the arctic. We get both of those in this issue and Michelinie does that neat writer thing by giving the two speaking scientists names so that we can connect with them as a people and not just faceless characters.
Fun little continuity goof; somewhere during the production of this issue someone got a little confused as to which scientist was which. On page one, Amos is the guy in the greenish blue coat complaining about being left behind and Marsten is in the Han Solo on Hoth coat. Cut to page five when suddenly the guy in the greenish blue coat is calling the guy in the Han Solo coat Amos and getting on the plane. It’s a minor mistake but once I noticed it I couldn’t unsee it.
Michelinie shows that he has a firm handle on Lois as a character in this issue. She’s worried about Clark but that doesn’t stop her from stepping up and putting her safety on the line for others. This sort of thing can be seen as hollow on a dramatic level because the audience is pretty sure that nothing bad is going to happen to Lois but the other characters don’t know that. They do notice it and this leads to a neat bit of business on the bottom of page eight where Dirk tells Perry that for his money Lois is the real hero.
Actually, he says that, “that Lane woman” is the real hero, which is in character for him.
My favorite part of this issue was how Michelinie had Superman learn about his new abilities on the fly. This organic form of storytelling not only played up the drama of the issue but it gave us something that I discussed in a previous installment. Back when I first got into Superman his powers and abilities were locked down and I am willing to go out on a limb and say that this is a common experience for other fans. With the exception of the occasional retelling of the origin or stories set in the early days of his career as Superman or Superboy we rarely got to see a Clark Kent figuring out how his powers worked. I like those stories and I like seeing those moments, so getting to see Superman have to figure out a whole new set of powers and abilities is exciting. Even though it is flying the face of tradition on a pure story level and on a pure super-hero soap opera level, this is exciting stuff.
I’m not suggesting they should have kept the new powers and the new look. I am suggesting that stories like this shake things up and make the material seem fresh again.
For those keeping score Superman’s new abilities include:
- The ability to, for lack of a better term, teleport instantly over long distances, which is how he was able to get home from the arctic.
- The ability to see different energy spectrums, which is how he was able to follow the Atomic Skull’s radiation signature.
- Magnetic powers, which is how Superman was able to stop the truck that he suspected was the Atomic Skull’s escape vehicle.
- The ability to interface with a computer and absorb the information directly into his mind, which is how he was able to get the info he needed on Joe Marten.
- The ability to absorb energy and radiation, which is how he was able to decontaminate the radioactive barrels that were about to fall into the harbor towards the end of the issue.
Superman doesn’t mean for any of these powers to manifest. They just do. You could argue that it is awfully convenient that the right power manifests at just the right time in the story but that’s how these stories work. It is a coincidence but coincidence is the bed fellow of super-hero fiction. It’s also dramatic and exciting and made for a good read.
Before re-reading this issue it had been some time since I had been exposed to this version of the Atomic Skull. I had forgotten a lot of the particulars of his characterization and backstory. He’s not a bad antagonist but at the same time he’s not Brainiac or Metallo, so his history gets lost with the other minutia I have absorbed. The idea that Joe Marten had a psychotic break when he first got his powers and because of that break suffers from the delusion that he’s the hero from an old movie serial may not be the most sensitive characterizations by today’s standards but I honestly believe that the people crafting his stories were not deliberately trying to demean those that suffer from mental illness. This stems from the fact that while they played the Skull as a threat he wasn’t evil. Lois does her best throughout this issue to keep him calm and in the end he is the one of the heroes of the story. Without his intervention the barrels of toxic waste could have killed a lot of people. I was pulling for the guy by the end of the issue, which is not something I was expecting to do.
Michelinie ends things on a somber note, which was something else I wasn’t expecting. The previous two cliffhangers were dramatic and exciting. This one sent a very different message and I think this was the smart way to go. Again, I in no way thought that because of the final panel that this was going to be the end of Superman but Michelinie allowed me for a few fleeting moments to buy into that thought, which made me excited to read the next chapter. I’m going to be honest; I was not expecting much from the issues that led up to the big change. I remembered enjoying them back in 1997 but part of me just wanted to jump right into the fray and get to the new powers and costume already. I’m glad I took the time to really examine these comics because I am seriously enjoying them.
Before I sign off for this week I wanted to give some love to the art in this issue. Tom Grummett is one of my favorite Superman artists of all time. He is definitely in my Top Five and it was great to see him come back to one of the monthly Superman books full time after being away for a while. He is teamed with Denis Rodier and they make an interesting pair. Superman looks bulkier by Grummett and Rodier than he did when he was drawn by Gummett and Hazelwood but that isn’t a bad thing. Rodier is another favorite, which shouldn’t be much of a shock to those that are familiar with my love of the Post Crisis era. I was particularly impressed with the shots of Superman in his electrified mode. There is enough detail that you can tell that it’s Clark but at the same time they pull off how odd the effect is.
Next Time: We’re almost there, folks! The penultimate chapter of Superman: Transformed!