As 2012 closes, and feathered serpent Quezacotl prepares to down mankind like a handful of stale cashews, we're seeing the last of this year's extra-sized annuals. My batch this week included two, the first of which is Avenging Spider-Man, written by Robbie Williams and drawn by Brad Walker. The latter, who's rubbery faces and agile layouts have evolved incredibly during runs on Secret Six and Guardians of the Galaxy, is always a welcome sight.
Here he draws the relentlessly goofy tale of schmoes Frankie and Spags, brothers who use a metal detector in Central Park, hoping to find battlefield treasure. That's right. They want junk left in the wake of super-fights involving the Avengers, Hulk, alien Skrulls, godly Asgardians, and many more, so they can get rich (or become super-villains, whichever happens first). Across town, meanwhile, Peter Parker stumbles through a typical day in which he regrets waking up. A pair of butchies, finding that he heads for The Daily Bugle's publishing offices, squeeze him off a train with, "Ha! Print media's obsolete, pal!" and, "Digital is the future of information delivery!" as well as, "It's just a matter of time until all tablet devices incorporate a homogenized system for payment and distribution, dork!"
Later, Frankie and Spags find an alien box that makes everyone around them violently disagreeable. Peter's suited up as Spider-Man and already on the Thing's radar. As the orange-bricked quarter of the Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm is usually a gentle soul. In fact, he's babysitting Franklin and Valeria Richards when he's reminded that Spider-Man owes him poker money. With Frankie and Spags crossing Manhattan in a stolen taxi, the rest writes itself.
Avenging Spider-Man, with rotating creators and guest-stars, is a lighthearted title where Marvel's heroes take a breath from life and death struggles. Month after month, it proves that Spidey, despite his introverted alter-ego, is an extrovert; he's at his best around other heroes. Occasionally, he and they share some "Slobberin' Time," which, after dropping five bucks, you can enjoy without my help.
But if you do crave your heroes on the brink, the Action Comics annual is a solid chapter in the newly established Superman mythos. We're treated to the return of the Kryptonite Man (a vengeful lunatic named Ramsay), who's infused with radiation from crystals that came to Earth in the infant Kal El's rocket. Sholly Fisch's script and pacing are refreshingly straightforward compared with the last year of uneven, tempestuous Grant Morrison stories.
Cheery art by Cully Hamner serves us a classic Metropolis team-up, as Superman visits John Henry Irons, the reluctant hero Steel, in his lab. The Justice League heavy wonders if he can trust Irons, since the doctor was present when the army tested his alien strength in a torture session. This leads to a great moment where Irons can only laugh at the idea of Superman feeling threatened by him. "Come on," he offers, "I'll buy you a coffee."
What follows, once K-Man's empowered, is pure Man of Steel: a construction crane endangers its operator and civilians, Big Blue steps in heroically and poses for Jimmy Olsen's camera, Lois Lane stands enamored, and then the villain shows up to make dog food of the whole scene. Throughout, light dialogue allows Hamner maximum space for iconic shots. We also see Christopher Reeve's likeness in this Superman (mainly the nose), an homage artist Gary Frank started years ago.
But my favorite thing about this jumbo Action Comics is the backup story by writer Max Landis (Chronicle) and artist Ryan Sook. It's got no words to mar Sook's exquisite compositions, and begins with a man thrown explosively from an atomic submarine. Washing ashore (on what seems to be an island), he's attacked by a leopard while guarding his cachet of gathered fruit. He shouts in fear only to blast the big cat with a purple ray, incinerating it. After some further hunting and exploring, the now bearded castaway remembers his former life. A beautiful (and murdered) wife in a shallow grave surface in his mind as the flesh on his face deteriorates. Pulling it off, he's left with a glowing purple skull.
If screenwriter Landis can bring this taut magnificence to a regular scripting job, I'd love to see him tackle any of DC's major characters. But it is Superman, with a revamped film on the way, who's most in need of a gripping and accessible run of comics that new fans will read. Older fans too, might like some more pitch perfect Action Comics. We'll still be here if Zack Snyder's Man of Steel stinks, and Quezacotl misses his appointment.