Actionverse: The Stray Volume 1
Writer: Vito Dels
Artists: Carlos Cabaleiro, Sean Izaakse, Ares Taveras
Publisher: Action Lab
I have no idea how to begin to tell you what’s going on in Actionverse: The Stray Volume 1. And for a collection explicitly marketed as a way to discover the background of a character, that’s a pretty serious problem. Now, I should state right off the bat that this is my first foray into the Actionverse. But that’s exactly why I chose this as my place to start. When a comic says “Volume 1” on the cover, and promises that it’s going to introduce you to the titular character and his origins, that’s a pretty good sign it’s meant to be a jumping-on point. Unfortunately, that’s not what you’ll find here.
Actionverse: The Stray Volume 1 is split between two stories. First, a series of flashbacks to Stray’s days as the Rottweiler, costumed sidekick and son of the Doberman. A pointy-eared, animal-themed vigilante, Doberman is also a member of the superhero team Aegis. As such, his teammates include a caped flyer with the who wears of his name on his chest and an immortal Greco-Roman warrior woman. If that sounds suspiciously like the Justice League to you, then stop being suspicious and start being certain. It’s pretty on-the-nose.
This story chunk follows Rottweiler (this world’s Robin, I guess) as he forms his own youth team, TeenAegis. Yes, TeenAegis DOES have a red-wearing bowman as a founding member, how did you guess? Other nods to Young Justice include the team evaluating obvious Kid Flash and Aqualad parallels for membership.
The hook of Actionverse: The Stray Volume 1 was supposed to be fleshing out the backstory of a hero from other Actionverse titles, who the audience got excited about. Pulling back that curtain to reveal nothing more than a DC Universe ripoff is unbelievably disappointing. And the story it pulls out of it isn’t much better. TeenAegis head off to investigate a spate of suicides in a private school, only to end up fighting an evil version of the X-Men. What a ridiculous way to squander all that good will.
The art in this section is also less than stellar, with a style made up of loose line drawings with cell-shaded backgrounds. Of course, there’d be nothing wrong with that done well, but the lines here are disappointingly inconsistent, often giving weird, uncanny-valley facial expressions and odd body-language. The action scenes feature some exciting panels, but even these don’t really flow from one to another. As a result, the fight scenes play out like a series of unconnected snapshots. More than anything, it’s reminiscent of a mid-2000s flash animation or webcomic.
Even the segment’s themes are strangely incoherent. It keeps teetering on the edge of making some kind of statement about teen suicide and then either forgetting it or undermining its own point. In one egregious example, Rottweiler confronts the definitely not-an-X-Man behind the suicides. The telepath been forcing students to kill themselves by way of revenge for his friend who they bullied into suicide. In response to those crimes, Rottweiler gives a speech shaming the villain for perpetuating a cycle of pain instead of reaching out to care for his friend. Surprisingly, this scene actually has the building blocks of a sincerely powerful moment. Then, as soon as the villain leaves the room, Rottweiler informs us, “I just said whatever I thought would make him lose focus.” That’s a direct quote.
By contrast, the latter half of the Actionverse: The Stray Volume 1 takes place in the present day, with Rottweiler now filling a more Nightwing-like role. Happily, the art in this section is head and shoulders above the flashbacks. Dynamic poses, excellent character design and a delightfully old-school comic book vibe make these pages much easier on the eyes. Unfortunately, though, that’s where the improvement ends.
At least the flashback’s plot was reasonably coherent, even if it wasn’t a great story. It took the time to explain who everyone was, what they were doing and why. No such luck in the back half.
In this section, Rottweiler (now called the Stray) teams up with a member of TeenAegis as well as several allies from other Actionverse titles. This starts off with a plan to capture a high school sweetheart of Stray’s introduced in the flashback. For reasons unexplained, she apparently graduated from “shooting a guy with a gun she just happened to find” to “full fledged supervillain.” The rest is just way too convoluted to effectively summarize. Highlights include alien demigods born on earth, invaders sent to destroy them and a massive brawl between dozens of Actionverse’s superheroes.
Ostensibly, this story is supposed to build on the background and characters introduced in the flashback. The problem is, it includes dozens of elements the flashback didn’t introduce at all. The result is almost impossible to follow. Concepts and plot points appear out of nowhere with no more than a single line’s explanation. Characters wander into frame with no introduction, deliver their dialogue and disappear in the space of a single page — apparently never to return. Even fight scenes seem to jump hectically from one beat to another, with no connective tissue. Altogether the arc reads like an ambitious two or three years’ worth of monthly stories crammed into just two issues.
It’s also anyone’s guess what this section was going for in terms of theme. There’s a lot of talk about intolerant aliens hunting down superpowered demigods, but that never really comes to fruition. And aside from that, the book keeps launching sporradic drive-by attacks on other social issues. At one point, Stray halts everything in the middle of a massive fight to lecture a cop about police brutality. As much as that’s an admirable point to make, it’s a full page detour that stops the story dead and never comes up again.
The Verdict: Skip it.
Now, as I noted in my introduction, this was my first foray into the Actionverse. But I’m a lifelong comics reader. I know that sometimes hopping into a new universe requires you to play catch-up. But I don’t think that’s the problem here. Instead, this is a matter of pacing. As much as I respect the creative team’s ambition in trying to tell a story this size, it would have been much better stripped down to its core cast and beats. As it is, this intended jumping on point ended up as the most inaccessibly cluttered story I’ve read this year.
But you know what’s weird? Despite all of this, I weirdly kind of like Actionverse: The Stray Volume 1. When the art is good, it is really good. Especially the Stray’s costume which looks awesome, even with those ridiculous floppy dog ears. And despite the disappointing origin, there’s something magnetic about the character. He seems like a fun, upbeat hero, who I would absolutely love to see again. Hopefully in a story that gives me some room to breath — and some time to actually get to know him.