Action Comics #865

Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jesus Merino
32 pages, color
Published by DC Comics

One thing I’ve noticed that happens on a pretty regular basis in super-hero comics is a periodic retooling of a supporting character. More often than not, it’s a villain, one that a writer often seems to feel was handled in a way that should be fixed, or at least changed. Sometimes it’s generally viewed as successful, like Geoff Johns’s handling of the Flash’s Rogues Gallery during his time on the book. Other times, it’s a change that seems to anger most readers, like Doctor Light in Infinite Crisis. With the new Action Comics, Johns is clearly hoping for the former as he tackles a character with one of the stupider names in comics—Toyman.

Toyman has had it. He’s tired of being sent to Arkham Asylum, with all of Batman’s insane foes. He doesn’t belong there, you see. He would never, ever hurt a child. And he’s not someone that should be associated with all of those Batman villains. He’s on the Superman side of things. And to prove it, he’s going to kidnap Jimmy Olsen and explain all of this to him very, very carefully. But don’t worry. He would never hurt a child.

"The Terrible Toyman" is certainly not what one would call an average issue of Action Comics; barely starring Superman at all, narrated by one of his C-grade villains. At the same time, though, I think it works really well as both a change-of-pace story and as (presumably) a set-up for the future. Johns carefully lays out the Toyman’s twisted logic, explaining both his early life and also his personal code of ethics. Johns also takes the time to address the numerous other "Toyman" characters from over the years, here, narrowing the field back down and finding a connection between them all. As someone who didn’t have any sort of strong feelings one way or another to the character, judging it strictly on its own merits, I think it works. It’s a fun little twist, it makes the Toyman’s skills all the more dangerous, and by the end of the story I actually found myself thinking the sentence, "I sure would like to see another story with the Toyman in it." Now what were the odds of that ever happening, pre-Action Comics #865? (I suspect the answer to that rhetorical question is: none.)

Up until now I’d only ever encountered Jesus Merino’s art as an inker (usually for Carlos Pacheco), and at that he’s certainly good. What I didn’t know, though, is that he’s equally talented when it comes to pencils. Merino uses two different styles for the story, both pretty effective. For everything set in the present, it’s a very traditional, pencil-and-ink look for Action Comics. If this was all I’d seen of his art, I’d have been pleased; he’s got a good grasp of the human body, and he is able to bring out both the humorous parts of the story as well as the more creepy ones to life in his art. There’s an early close-up on Toyman’s face that could have come across as quite silly, for instance, but Merino draws Toyman in such a way (with his unkempt stubble and broken glasses that block the view of his eyes) that it’s hard to find him laughable; conversely, it’s hard not to laugh when Merino draws an army of Superman action figures tying Jimmy Olsen up in an homage to Gulliver’s Travels.

For the flashbacks, though, Merino uses a softer approach, one with less rigidly defined details and letting the coloring take over in what appears to be gentle ink washes over the art. It reminds me of the style that Tim Sale often uses for books like Superman For All Seasons or his paintings for the tv show Heroes, and it works to great effect. Not only does it instantly delineate when the story has shifted into a flashback, but it also mutes some of the worse aspects of Toyman’s past, putting a bit of a haze or a filter over them to try and keep them from being horrific for the Toyman to remember them.

Johns’s early run on Action Comics seemed to have been punctuated by artistic delays, but with stories like this and his recent collaborations with Gary Frank and Eric Powell, I think people will quickly be remembering these recent successes when asked about the comic. It’s a good, strong story, and it definitely makes you want to read more from Johns.

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