Sunday, May 1, 2011

Signal Watch Reads: Action Comics #900 part 2

In Part 1 of this review, I talked a bit about why I was so excited about Action hitting its 900th issue.  In pretty short order it became clear that a 9 page story (more specifically one or two panels of that nine page story) was causing all kinds of controversy thanks to political talking point hyperbole and an apparent unwillingness to actually read or acknowledge the content of the story.  So, I did my part to talk about all that.

But I would like to talk about the actual story content of Action Comics #900.

Action Comics #900

Cover by DAVID FINCH; 1:5 Variant cover A by ADAM HUGHES; 1:5 Variant cover B by ALEX ROSS

900 issues and we have no idea how he hides the cape inside his dress shirt
The issue is 96 pages, most of which is made up of a mix of a grand finale of the past several issues of Action and wrapping up the previously mentioned Reign of Doomsday storyline.

In all the hubbub surrounding Superman's legal status, one thing that clearly got lost is that Paul Cornell wrote some really great, character defining stuff for Lex Luthor during his run, some of the most definitive work on the character in a while, and it all comes to a head in Action #900.

Black Ring Finale/ Reign of Doomsday
written by Paul Cornell
art by various

I haven't talked very much about Cornell's Luthor-starring run on Action Comics.  When JMS came onboard Superman, originally Marc Guggenheim was supposed to be writing the run on Action, but his plans didn't mesh well with those of JMS and Guggenheim's story was shelved for another day (and I really hope we see it at some point). Basically, JMS's story more or less pre-empted anyone else using Superman across the DCU for a year, and thus...  Cornell picked Luthor as his protagonist.

Cornell's run has been nothing short of great comics fun, which is, I think, the best way to sustain a long story about an arch-villain, lest you get into Azzarello territory and leave the reader wanting to take a shower after every new issue.  So Cornell chose to make the book funny (to an extent) but also to make Lex sympathetic as possible, even as he's spinning his machinations.  The Lex of Cornell's run is relentlessly curious and ambitious, and its as much a weakness as a strength, which is something all writers should consider when taking the character on.

Its tempting to summarize Cornell's run rather than review the story, but we'll keep it short:  The Black Ring  basically Lex Luthor's pursuit of a multi-part MacGuffin, or Cornell's excuse for Lex to globe-trot and meet all kinds of folks in and around the DCU, from Gorilla Grodd to Neil Gaiman's incarnation of "Death".  By the end of issue 899 (which was just a killer issue, by the way), Lex has unlocked "The Black Ring", an astounding source of power and manipulation, and that's what sets the stage for many of the events of 900.

In obtaining the power (leaked from the Phantom Zone), Lex has become a being whose cosmic power far exceeds even the seemingly limitless power of Superman.  And so the issue does what Cornell has done so well, it explores Luthor not through word box exposition, but by showing what kind of a person Luthor truly is through action.

spoilers ahoy

One can imagine Cornell ran some mental exercises while writing the story, or perhaps always had this in mind all along.  Using his awesome, cosmic powers, Lex draws Superman into deep space where he plans to use his power to torture Superman, over and over, making him relive the pain of various losses.  Luthor, ever the misunderstood hero in his own story, believing himself robbed of the privilege of giving humanity its point of aspiration, "you have forced me to do so many terrible things," he tells a trapped Superman, "but it was all for this moment--!"

Its a bizarrely creepy moment, and a fantastic look into the psyche of the character we see in the ongoing melodrama of Superman as "the villain".  Superman's mere presence has forced Luthor to his do evil to do what he thinks is right.  And his belief in Superman's otherness is so complete, he's devastated to learn not only of Superman's greatest source of grief but that the key to Superman was so close all along (and projects directly onto Superman his own mindset, believing Superman was laughing at him all along).

Its just wonderful stuff, illustrated by various artists as Lex forces Superman through old memories (done in the style of the original issues), including art by Gary Frank for more recent events.

Pulling upon the nigh-infinite power in his grasp, Lex realizes he has the opportunity to be saviour not just to the people of Earth, but to bring a new era to the Universe, and here is the beautiful, simple way of sharing Lex in a nutshell.  He does extend that power, shares it, and Superman being Superman is (even after the torture and certain death) is rooting for Lex to have finally made the right decision.  Given the opportunity to give all to the Universe but find that would include Superman (and possibly even make him irrelevant), Lex chooses revenge.  Its heartbreaking, and right, and its a devastating scene.

And as so happens, its not just Lex who loses, Superman gains nothing by Lex's loss.  Its the entire relationship as decoded and deciphered writ large, and while you'd need to have spent some time with the characters over the years, its a great conclusion to The Black Ring.

Interspersed, I should add, are two things:

1)  the last time we may see Robot-Lois, which is too bad, because I really liked Robot-Lois.
2)  The continued "Reign of Doomsday" plot.  Which...  well, it finally became marginally more interesting, and I'm curious where they'll take this next month.

Does it feel a bit as if DC forced Cornell to cram the Doomsday stuff in there?  Yes.  As we're spending time in "character exploration territory", we're pulled back and forth between the battle for Lex's soul and a 90's retro slugfest with Doomsday that is exactly what it looks like on paper.  Cornell is talented enough to more or less blur the two, but it winds up blending two tales unnecessarily, neither bolstering the other and forces an odd exit for both Lex and Superman for the "A" plot.

and in part 3 we'll talk about the back-up features!

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