Today, Patrick and guest writer Chuck are discussing Action Comics 23.4: Metallo, originally released September 25th, 2013. This issue is part of the Villain’s Month event. Click here for our Villains Month coverage.
Patrick: Have you ever wondered why we find the idea of an evil version of our heroes so interesting? From Bizarro to Venom to Dark Link, we love seeing a warped mirror image of the protagonist. I think it’s because we get to double down on the time we spend exploring their common details. But there’s also this kind of “there but for the grace of God” fascination — if circumstances or perspective were just a little bit different the hero could become the villain. Sholly Fisch tries that same approach to Metallo, and it results in making the character feel less interesting, less unique. Fortunately, that’s exactly what he’s going for.
John Corben’s been dealt a rough hand. Not only has General Lane kinda jerked him around with Lois, but he’s also been cyborged to shit in the name of having a Superman deterrent. Plus, he’s taken more than a few Super Punches (a hazard of the occupation), so he’s been in a vegetative state for the last 31 months. That’s nothing a Kryptonite core won’t cure! Uniquely equipped to fight Superman, the US Army sends him to Qurac instead. There, the walking tank is tasked with assisting the in the delicate dance of counter-insurgency. It should come as no surprise, then, that he destroys a hospital full of both targets and civilians. Surprise or no, Lane decommissions Metallo via explosion.
By this point in the story, Fisch has dropped the terms “insurgent” and “unmanned drone,” both of which cast the US Army of this issue as the actual real-world US Army. It’s important that the army isn’t fighting a magical king or some kind of alien invasion – their targets are bad people with guns. Metallo is immediate automatic overkill. There’s virtually no commentary about the Army’s decision to deploy Metallo to the war zone in the first place, so you kinda have to ignore any of the red flags that pop up, suggesting that there’s any substantive commentary on US intervention in the Middle East. Ultimately, that’s not what the story is about (although, it could have been) – the story is about Corben using the assets he’s been given and then being rejected because of it.
No one likes rejection, and Metallo is no different. So he returns to the base, demanding General Lane’s head. Enter Metal-2 – another dude in a Metallo-esque rig, and tasked with stopping Corben. They brawl until Metallo has his doppelganger on the ropes, at which point Metal-2 self-destructs in an attempt to kill them both.
Metallo survives the explosion, but John Corben is essentially wiped out in that moment. He’s been betrayed by the only support structure he had left. It’s interesting – there’s this running gag throughout the issue of people referring to Corben colloquially as “Metallo,” as a sort of slang for Metal-Zero. It’s kind of a dumb pun — one that we chastised Fisch’s other Villain Month title for a few weeks ago. This shitty pun pays off in spades in the final moments of the issue, as Corben himself rejects both his given name and the official-sounding Metal-Zero, embracing the supervillainous “Metallo.”
This is one of the rare Villain issues that convinces me that the character is actually in the headspace to team up with the Secret Society and the Crime Syndicate. Even though they’re fans of evil, it’s sorta surprising to see all the villains hop on board with the new world order so readily. Especially because these issues have tended to focus on the immense power these villains have been amassing. Metallo does quite the opposite, stripping the character down, and robbing him of his resources. By his own words:
Damaged bad. Cheated out of my own revenge.
He’s perfectly set-up to join whatever ranks will have him.
Here is another example of art credits conflicting with what was originally solicited. Instead of Will Conrad, we’re treated to interiors by Steve Pugh of Animal Man fame. I’m used to seeing his work colored by Animal Man man series colorist Lovern Kindzierski, whose aesthetic is very flat, giving the pages he works on a bold, distinctive look. The colorists on this issue, Barbara Ciardo and David Curiel, use a lot of digital coloring techniques that add shape, dimension and dramatic lighting to Pugh’s drawings. They never go overboard with it, and the team occasionally pull of some beautiful sequences. Here’s my favorite page combining Pugh’s gift for stark contrast with his colorists’ gifts wielding color gradients and special effects:
Chuck, this is kind of a weird issue, isn’t it? We’re asked to invest in this character who’s been in a coma for 31 months and has no qualms about murdering civilians for no reason. But by the end, not even the character himself is invested in that person. Does that sort of meta-realization work for you or do you wish we got into who this character actually is? Also, is there any more compelling image than a robot marching across the ocean floor on the road to revenge? I almost wish Fisch wouldn’t have been coy about what was happening in those opening panels – it’s so much cooler looking when you know where Metallo is.
Chuck: Patrick, I agree on both counts. Yes, it is a bit of weird issue, and a killer robot tracking through the darkness of the sea floor is a bit disconcerting. Although, I do like the image, like you, I kind of wish Fisch revealed that John Corben was in the ocean right away. It might’ve been even more unsettling and a little fun to see Corben walk by a sunken submarine or of some giant sea creature. However, it did stand out to me on the first page when Corben mentions how most men would’ve gone insane under the same circumstances, and how the isolation only focuses him. It stood out because it was the first time –first of many — that the issue made me question the humanity of Corben. That ends up being my main qualm with this rendition of Metallo.
Now, I didn’t have a huge attachment to former version of Metallo, in fact there is really only one really solid impression of him that I can draw from, and that’s his appearance Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. In that story, Metallo was digging up graves to find the possible corpse of his human body. I mention this because the idea that he is trying to hold on to some semblance of humanity is what kept my interest in the character. As I read through this current issue and Corben’s civilian body-count steadily grew I could feel my interests in the character steadily dwindle. It seemed more and more that he was just another killer robot that desired destruction. Which is fine, after all he is a villain, but I guess it would’ve been more compelling if he still felt human to me, although it might be a bit more important that he still feels human to Superman.
My concern is that by stripping away Corben’s humanity so completely, he is no longer (to borrow a phrase from Patrick) a unique deterrent for Superman or a unique villain in Superman’s rogue gallery. Yes, he has a Kryptonite heart, but that’s not what kept Superman from destroying Corben their first go-around — he didn’t even have it then — or the only thing that makes Metallo as a villain unique among the numerous evil robots Superman has undoubtedly faced. What stopped Superman — and what makes Metallo special — is that underneath all that metal, he is still human. If you take that away, he becomes just another crazed killer robot and it’ll be difficult to find a good reason for big blue (especially New 52 big blue) to not just set his heat vision to kill and melt Corben’s face off from space. (Okay, maybe a little extreme, but you get it.)
All qualms with the character aside there are certain aspects of this issue that I enjoyed quite a bit. Some of the action sequences caught my attention, like this panel here where Corben seems to be wading through gunfire and explosions during a practice session. It gives Corben a very military hero type of feel. In fact if you squint a little and picture him with a shield, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Steve Rogers in the exact same pose battling Nazis.
I am aware how ironic that statement is considering how awfully this particular “super-soldier” experiment went for this universe’s American military. But, of course this wasn’t enough to terminate the program, as we see Metal-2.0 come into the picture, which leads me to wonder where Metal-1.0 is and why he/she isn’t helping defend the base from Metal-zero/Metallo. (And yes, Patrick, that pun does make me sad.) The depiction of Metal-2.0 as the “super-soldier” Corben should’ve been was intriguing, and I wish the conflict between the two was longer or that it bothered Corben more to see what he could’ve been. But, hey at least we get a cool shot of Corben stabbing Metal-2.0 through the heart with a street sign.
Who knows? Maybe, we’ll even see Metal-1.0 in the future? Does it matter? At this point I’m not sure I want a more in depth look into the “Metal” program.
Alright, it might just be because I have a bias and I’m making some unfair comparisons, but I just wasn’t the biggest fan of this issue. Actually, it’s probably better to say that I’m not the biggest fan of this Metallo. The issue itself isn’t too bad of a read, but I’m just not invested in the character as much as I want to be. Also, since Metalo is a staple Superman villain-roster, we’ll probably be seeing him more in the future, and it would’ve been nice if I liked him more or “hated” him more. But, mostly I just feel indifferent about the character. My hope is that he’ll become more interesting in the future, although after reading this issue, I am even more excited to see Supes back next month.
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