“Action Tank” is a middle-grade sci-fi series about a boy who’s lost in space and needs to get home in time for dinner. It’s also so much more. Warning: minor spoilers ahead.
Creator: Mike Barry
“Action Tank” is one of the best, if not the best, comics made for kids I’ve ever read. Everything hits, from the design to the edification, the humor to the plot, and it’s crafted with exceptional design, imagination and care.
Writing children’s stories is hard enough. Comics are another level when it comes to determining the level of humor, complexity and violence that’s appropriate for a space epic for ages 7-12. It can be easy to scale back too far – kids are resilient, smart and flexible, and they understand far more than we give them credit for. “Action Tank” is a fine balance of these three necessary elements, and Barry goes to town with sympathetic and mysterious sidekicks, a comical-but-threatening villain and, in book #2, a Neptunian community that’s one part Mad Max, two parts Galaxy Quest. There’s plenty of light but meaningful narration to fill in some of the story as our band of heroes progresses, and Rex and the bird add mystery and heart to the tale.
Barry’s adept at weaving in some space facts, too – just enough to keep us interested and pad out the group’s solar system jaunt, but not too much to detract from the overall narrative push. There are consequences for everyone’s actions and big explosive set-pieces with rough landings, but no blood, gore or shock visuals beyond the multi-sensory fun of a spaceship’s rough landing or a lightning bolt’s final strike. The boy’s Action Tank upgrades coincide with deep lessons on morality, restraint, courage and compassion, and Barry designs a periodic “Action Tank” manual to introduce each with a ton of meta joy for all readers, big and small.
Barry’s art is clean and expressive, with a controlled line and excellent creature and background design. Barry’s graphic design skills feature in a big way in “Action Tank,” and he often makes exceptional use of depth and space on the page to communicate the vastness of each landscape, and the wonder of the journey. Panel shapes and layouts reflect speech, emotion and sometimes even sound effects, and each page is a marvel that can be enjoyed on its own and fits neatly into the narrative and a guiding aesthetic. There’s nothing here for the sake of it. Rather, “Action Tank” is brimming with creative visual twists, bright colors and top notch design for the sheer joy of it all. Seamless design can be difficult to master in comics because the dazzle can often feel slick, but Barry’s intent here is to entertain first and foremost.
Barry’s also adept at lettering his own work, and the font he chooses is poppy and accessible. Everything’s legible, and Barry tailors the text color to each page so it stands out. Sometimes there’s a lot to read, but it never feels overbearing or unnecessary. Barry’s humor is wacky but light, and there’s a good dose of gentle sarcasm at times to balance out the purity of the more emotional moments. The tone of “Action Tank” is just right, and Barry’s lettering carries and enhances that tone.
Overall, “Action Tank” is just a delight, through and through. The story is original, evocative and earned, the mood and tone are pitch perfect and the design and art are a joy. Barry absolutely nails the age group he’s going for, and crafts something really lovely for parents and kids to enjoy together – or separately! The highest compliment I could pay this book is that I wish I had something like this to delight in as a kid myself.
The Verdict: 9.5/10 – “Action Tank” delights with exceptional graphic design, beautiful art and a lovely, heartfelt story.