Steve Orlando can write. It wasn’t that long ago I praised his Batman/Shadow team-up as one of the best Batman comics I’d read in a long time. The script there was neither overwrought nor expository nor frivolous.

Which makes this issue of Supergirl (“Escape from the Phantom Zone” part 2) a total conundrum but for the fact that the previous issue wasn’t exactly a fine tight piece of writing either. But far from being merely “not up to the standards” of the Batman crossover book with Dynamite, Supergirl is alarmingly both awkward and incoherent in some ways.

Starting with the Supergirl and Batgirl annual in late March, Kara and Barbara have teamed up because of a mysterious message from a prisoner named Psi, leading them to take a tumble into the Phantom Zone with a tech geek squad caricature named Ben (whose relevance at this moment is still uncertain–perhaps his primary function was to be the first one to fall into the Phantom Zone, precipitating the merry chase by our super-duo).

Once they’re in the Phantom Zone, Supergirl loses her powers and they stumble on the magical city under the control of villain Xa-Du.  Because the Phantom Zone, far from being a isolating penitentiary of self-reflection, is full of hellish kingdoms where hapless prisoners are rendered into tallow for the power of the…er…powerful.

The appropriation of human flesh, rendered in vats, is the most worthy piece of this fantasy disaster; and only because I have a sick sense of humor that way.

I just want to say this to my friends and coworkers: I have use for your meats!

The short of it is: this wandering trio gets captured by Xa-Du, and spend more time than anyone could hope for explaining what’s happening and developing a plan. They subsequently break out of their prison in a completely predictable (and largely uninteresting fashion), and are reunited with Psi, who, as it turns out, happens to transform into a giant pink dragon.

There are moments in comics when completely ludicrous things happen and I marvel at the bravery of the writers and delight in the total wackiness of the worlds they create.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those times.

Is “Wakrack” the sound of Batgirl’s fracturing pelvis here?

Brian Ching’s art continues to be too loose–to the point of being unreadable. It becomes almost necessary for Orlando to make the characters articulate what should be completely obvious action because the art fails to clearly convey what’s actually happening.

I could call out a fairly long list of examples, but I’ll just point to a few:

  • Xa-Du slaps on a villainesque helmet and poison claws (I want to say something here about a villain whose evil power involves scratching people like a drunk teen girl scuffling with her former bestie for dancing with her prom date, but who has the energy for that). The point is Xa-Du scratches Supergirl. But she has to talk through the action: Oh Claws! Oh Venom! because the pictures convey none of this. Yeah, he’s got glowing hands and there’s some vague white marks that could be scratches, but the characters don’t look engaged with one another at all and their postures make so sense for the action being implied.
  • Psi turns into a GIANT pink dragon. She’s a young woman in a floaty bubble prison on one page and the next page is a huge (and, admittedly glorious) spread of *RAWR* dragon!  And again, we’re told it’s Psi because we didn’t actually see her change. Comic books have a long history of milking transformation (think: the Hulk, or Man-bat if you disdain Marvel). There’s always at least one or three panels demonstrating interim stages of metamorphosis. Especially when the change is big like this. At least a reaction shot first, an explosion, something!

Unfortunately, this is the artwork in a nutshell. It too-often lacks the essential “sequential” portion of the artform. One panel juts up against the next and sometimes the relationship between the two is only made clear by the script. It’s a pretty basic failure of the medium overall, sadly. If I’m having to stop and absorb narrative information to make sense of the action, I’m not having the seamless comic-book reading experience that I should.

Recommended If…

  • You’re interested in the curious goings-on in the Phantom Zone.
  • You like giant pink dragons (and no, that’s not a metaphor).
  • +.5 for a pretty awesome cover by Robson Rocha and Daniel Henriques.

Overall

There’s too much explaining here: as if Orlando doesn’t trust Ching to convey anything in his panels. Sadly, that wouldn’t be an unwarranted concern with the way some of the action fails to track throughout this book. The story is already a hard sell with a fanatical villain boiling people in pots to attain power through imbued sartorial choices, and the sudden appearance of a rampaging dragon. For those of you who followed Batgirl here from her own pages, all I can say is we’re a long way from Burnside–and I never imagined I’d be in such a hurry to get back.

SCORE: 4.5/10