Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: "The Black Ring"

There's a lot of anticipation, excitement—and, I'd wager, no small amount of anxiety—swirling around the upcoming Superman Unchained comic book series, which will be drawn by DC's co-publisher and super-comics' most popular artist Jim Lee will be written by the publisher's emerging most popular writer Scott Snyder, and will see release the same year as the plenty-riding-on-it Man of Steel movie, which just so happens to be the 75th anniversary of DC's publication of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman, Lois Lane and Lex Luthor characters.

If Snyder and company want to make one of the best Superman comics since All-Star Superman though, one of the stories they'll have to beat is going to be "The Black Ring," a 13-part storyline written by Paul Cornell and drawn (mostly) by Pete Woods, which ran through Action Comics from mid-2010 to 2011 (and spilled into an issue of Secret Six and an Action annual) and which has been collected in a pair of books, Superman: The Black Ring Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

The titling of those collections are somewhat amusing, as not only did the story unfold in Action rather than Superman, but Superman is barely in it—he doesn't appear until the very final chapter. That's a result of some behind-the-scenes stuff going on at DC at the time. Part of J. Michael Straczynski's deal with writing Superman was that he'd be the only person writing the character for the span of his storyline, the truly, incredibly terrible "Grounded" story, in which Superman walks around America (That's the one Straczynski famously quit writing mid-way through, and left it up to Chris Roberson to finish the work from his plot). And so Cornell got to write Action, but he had to to it without its star, an interesting obstacle he overcame with great gusto, turning the book into a Lex Luthor title for the space of a year.

And while Superman isn't on very many of its pages, and is only occasionally even mentioned (including a snide remark about the plot of "Grounded"), it is very much thoroughly, remarkably and incredibly a Superman story. It's also one of the better ones and, without a doubt, the best Lex Luthor story.

Cornell picks the characters up after the events of DC's Blackest Night miniseries—that's the one with the Black Lantern rings reanimating the corpses of dead superheroes and villains, if you're not a regular DC Comics reader—during which Luthor briefly wore the orange Lantern ring of avarice, which infected him with a more active id, making him needier and greedier than usual. After that brief encounter with cosmic power, he decides he wants it back, and discovers a power ring of a different sort.

When the Black Lantern rings were destroyed, they left a strange trail of a super-science nature, creating a series black energy orbs of an unknown nature. The act of studying them changes them, and Luthor discovers that if he can find and change each of them, he'll gain an unbelievable level of power, making him godlike (a status he successfully achieves in the climax, just in time to confront Superman).

Part of Cornell's setting Luthor up as an anti-Superman is giving him his own Lois who, in this case, is an android Lois Lane that Lex patterned on her DNA to provide him with a verbal sparring partner to help him think, a dirty secret that, in one of the book's several running gags, necessitates her wearing Old Hollywood movie star disguises around the rest of Luthor's team of recurring characters, so they don't recognize the fact that he's kinda sorta dating a robot duplicate of one of his city's most prominent journalists.

Luthor is indeed the star of the book, but Cornell writes the book as a sort of villainous version of the old DC Comics Presents Superman team-up title, as almost every issue sees Luthor somehow crossing paths with a major villain of the DC Universe: (Another) new version of Mr. Mind, Deathstroke, Gorilla Grodd, Vandal Savage, The Secret Six, Brainiac, The Joker, Orange Lantern Larfleeze and, most surprisingly, Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg's Death of The Endless, making a super-ultra rare (but welcome and surprisingly well-done) appearance in the DC Universe. Action Comics Annual #13 features two short stories, in which we learn bits of Lex Luthor's secret origin, and each of those stories shows a very young Lex apprenticing under different villains: First under Darkseid on Apokalips, then under Ra's al Ghul.

The effect of having all those guest-stars, aside from making the book a ton of fun and giving DC readers of just about every franchise affiliation a reason to look in the book's direction for at least an issue or so, is that Cornell can establish a sort of scale of DC super-villains, and place Lex Luthor within it. This is what he's like compared to The Joker, this is what he's like compared to Vandal Savage and so on.
Luthor emerges as the alpha dog of the DC Universe's villains—in many ways—but it's not so much about hierarchy as comparison and contrast. This isn't a fight comic, not really, so he doesn't fight each of those characters. Some he outsmarts, some he hires, some he fights physically and a few he just talks to. In fact, the issues devoted to The Joker and Death are little more than issue-length conversations, and yet they're still compelling. We get deep looks into Luthor's character and psyche, but not simply because Cornell has Luthor and the other characters telling us things about Luthor's character and psyche, but because the dialogue they're speaking reveals hints and aspects.

If heroes are only as interesting as their villains, Batman's had it over Superman for quite a while now. With this book, Cornell demonstrates that Luthor is every bit as compelling a character as anyone in Batman's rogues gallery—or, at least, he can be—and is a villain who deserves the status of archenemy to the first and greatest superhero.

Part of that is that unlike most comic book villains, Luthor genuinely, truly believes he's the good guy in his story (at least, the modern, post-Crisis Luthor does) and that Superman's the bad guy, and that he's doing the right thing. Even when he does bad things, like murdering his own employees, it's generally in service to what he sees as the greater good. And yet Luthor's not deluded; he's not a crazy person. He just sees things differently than the reader, and that makes him an awfully scary, awfully realistic villain—those are the kinds of villains he have hear on Earth-Prime, after all.

The climax of the book, which I've actually written in about before in passing, as DC also collected it in Superman: Reign of Doomsday, features Luthor integrating the nigh omnipotent powers of The Zone Child, and becoming not just a god but, for all intents and purposes, God-God. The only catch is that he can't use that power to do anything evil and, if he keeps trying to, say, kill Superman, he'll lose it. And so Luthor's faced with the ultimate dilemma: Having ultimate power but not being able to do the one thing he wants to do more than anything, or losing it all but being able to continue pursuing (even if fruitlessly) his life's ambition.
You know how it turns out, but it's a hell of a dramatic moment nevertheless, and remains one of my favorite and, I think, one of the best definitions of the Luthor/Superman relationship.


Pete Woods draws much of the book/s; he was the main artist on Action during Cornell's run. He has a nice, clean, smooth style, one that's realistic without ever sliding into faux photorealism. It often reminded me of Kevin Maguire's art in terms of style, although one wouldn't mistake the art of one of those gentlemen with that of the other.

I imagine this would have been a blast to draw. Luthor and Lois (a Lois who turns into a robot!) are visually interesting characters, and Woods got to draw much of the DC Universe (and the now rarely-drawn Death) and got to confront some interesting design challenges, like putting together the Zone Child and coming up with a new Mister Mind (I may return to his Mr. Mind design in a future post, as I love Mr. Mind, and love what Woods does with him).

The work of several other artists appear within, but the story and book is structured so that when a different artist comes in, it's for a clearly defined space of time and a easily identifiable purpose, justifying it. Compared to the last Superman graphic novel I read—Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and The Men of Steel—this seemed like a masterpiece. Editing is, I suppose, one of those aspects of comics you only really notice when its done badly. Of course, I suppose it's also possible that if one sees editing so badly for so long, one does begin to notice good editing as the anomaly, as I did here.

The art team of Marcos Marz and Luciana del Negro draw 22 pages of this collection, pages that Gail Simone (and not Cornell) have written. That's Secret Six #29, the second half of the Luthor/Savage "team-up". When Savage attacks Luthor's corporate headquarters, angry that Luthor seems to have circumvented the fulfillment of a prophesy Savage heard long ago in his immortal life, Luthor calls on the mercenary team of The Secret Six, which, of course, includes Vandal's own daughter, Scandal Savage (I also read a few Secret Six trades this week; Marz and del Negro are a pretty damn great compared to those who provided much of the art in Secret Six after Nicola Scott's departure).

The stories in the annual each have different artists. Marco Rudy draws the Metrpolis/Apokalips story, full of highly showy lay-outs that seem perfectly appropriate, given the outsized, Kirby-scaled emotions inherent in a Fourth World story. Ed Benes draws the Ra's al Ghul story, inking himself. The best I can say about it is that it doesn't look like Benes drew it; it's probably the best work I've ever seen from the artist.

It's not until the penultimate chapter that Woods gets a fill-in artist, and while the shift in style is quite noticeable—it's Jesus Merino, whose work is much more rendered than that of Woods, so the cleanness and smoothness that defined the look of the story until that point is lost—it's not all that jarring considering the shift in setting (that issue takes place in outer space, and Luthor has traded in his suits and lab coats for a space suit version of his battlesuit) and the fact that the final issue is full of guest-artists.

That issue was Action Comics #900, so DC had artist aplenty show up to draw a page or so apiece, the justification being that the Zone Child-empowered Luthor is forcing Superman to relive painful moments from his past. Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund, Rags Morales, Ardian Syaf, Jamal Igle and Jon Sibal and Gary Frank contribute art to that issue, which is otherwise all drawn by Woods.

One final note on the art: The covers are horrible. They are all by David Finch, and while they're the worst art inbetween the covers of these two collections, style and quality aside, they are really, really bad at defining what's inside each issue, and what's inside the collections.
The first issue featured a very old, very angry-looking Luthor with the Orange Lantern ring on the cover—an image that gets one panel in that issue. Strangely, that's what they went for with the cover of Black Ring Vol. 1 too; Luthor wearing an orange ring, in a one-panel flashback to Blackest Night.
They're all kinda like that. The second issue features Luthor battling Mr. Mind in his own brain, which is full of weird imagery (Luthor as a Promethean caveman, or Mr. Mind and Luthor dressed as cowboys, for example). The image of the cover takes one of those scenes—Luthor as Dr. Frankenstein—renders Luthor completely unrecognizable (compare the Luthors on those two consecutive covers), and throws in a Frankensteinian Superman for some reason.
Most of the covers are just Luthor fighting someone in background-less background-lite spaces, and they generally do a rotten job of distilling the story inside into an image. Maybe the best example being the Gorilla Grodd issue.

I believe it was Grant Morrison who first posited that Grodd ate human beings, although it's possible Geoff Johns beat him to it, and I just remember Morrison because of this awesome Ed McGuinness cover—
—but Cornell runs with it. His Grodd collects human brains in jars, and eats one when he needs to gain the knowledge from it (He's not only a talking gorilla from a highly-advanced civilization of talking gorillas, he's also psychic; maybe that's how his biology works. I'm sure I don't know).

And when he goes into battle with Luthor, he brings his "biggest combat spoon-- --To eat your tasty brains!!!.
Here's Finch's cover:
Instead of the "Ha ha, the man-eating super-gorilla brought silver ware to a fight," reaction, I had more of a, "What did Finch draw? Is that a spoon?" sort of reaction.

So, in conclusion: Pete Woods rules, David Finch drools.


I suppose it's worth mentioning that this particular story is virtually un-tellable in The New 52, as it necessitates a long history of enmity between Luthor and Superman, and is built on the backstories of Luthor's interactions with many of these characters, including some that I don't think have even been introduced into the New 52 yet (Mister Mind? Some members of the Secret Six, like Ragdoll and Catman and Black Alice? Certainly not Death...).

One could tell it, but then, one would have to fairly thoroughly introduce all of these characters in a manner that explains them and makes them interesting to readers who are either completely unfamiliar with them, or familiar with them, but not to the new versions of them in the New 52.

After reading this, I was a little flabbergasted as to why Cornell wasn't writing a Superman comic in The New 52. They had Morrison for Action yes, but Superman was a mess from the get-go, with George Perez announced as the writer/lay-out artist and that lasted, what, three issues? That was one of the many more musical chairs-like books in The New 52.

If Cornell did this well writing a Superman story in which he wasn't even allowed to use Superman for a year, imagine what he could do he could write a Superman comic with Superman in it!

Instead, Cornell was given Demon Knights, a fun, quirky series about a Dark Ages version of the Justice League, and StormWatch, an Authority-in-the-DCU series, neither title of which he's still writing. For both he was given terrible artists to work with, and the results were books that were hardly even readable.


Akilles said...

I should`ve bought these trades months ago...

Unknown said...

An additional note about David Finch's Action Comics covers is how poorly composed they are. He made no effort to consider the placement of the logo or other elements of the trade dress. On the Grodd cover you show, the spoon is actually completely covered by the logo.

On the very next cover, the logo had to be made transparent, because Finch had put Luthor himself in a spot where the logo would have completely obscured him.

David Charles Bitterbaum said...

...and now Cornell is back at Marvel with me praying we get a Pete Wisdom book or more Captain Britain and MI:13 out of him.

Anthony Strand said...

This is my favorite DC comic of the past few years.

Also worth noting - Four of these issues (#893-896) featured Nick Spencer's Jimmy Olsen as a back-up, which is also terrific. Obviously people buying the singles missed out, because that story didn't get finished until it was collected. But for those four months, Action Comics was the best possible $4 you could spend on a superhero book.

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Terrific post – nice to see a proper appreciation of Cornell and Woods' run. If not of David Finch's covers; I guess I'm alone there...