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Paul Cornell’s Run on Action Comics – The Black Ring (Volumes I & II) (Review)

LEX LUTHOR!!! — Kneel before GRODD! You have walked into my ambush! And I have brought my biggest combat spoon– to eat your tasty brains!!!

– the moment I fell in love with Paul Cornell’s Action Comics

I adore Paul Cornell. He’s just a fantastic writer. His most notable work to date has probably been two episodes of the televised Doctor Who (Father’s Day and Human Nature/Family of Blood), but he’s also made a rather fantastic addition to the stable of writers at DC comics. If you wanted proof of up-and-coming new blood at the company, Cornell’s increasing contributions over the past few years certainly make a case for it. I think his Action Comics might be one of the most shamelessly “fun” runs in modern comic books, an adventure that rejoices in the sheer ridiculousness of comic books, without sacrificing character or depth for cheap spectacle. It helps that Cornell manages to take one of the most fascinating characters in comic book history and craft in insightful look at his protagonist’s personality in a single year-long storyline.

This is Lex Luthor’s time to shine. And not just because he’s bald, although the glare on that thing must be something.

The power of the world in the palm of his hand...

Luthor is a fascinating character, to the point where – after four big-screen appearances in the five Superman films since the seventies – I’d argue there’s still room for a clever take on the character in Zack Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel. He’s a foe of Superman, perhaps the most iconic comic book superhero ever created, but he lacks the relatively simplistic and defining characterisation that has pinned Superman down in the public imagination, leading many fans to identify the superhero as “boring” or “out of touch.” While Superman is and always will be the champion of truth and justice (and, depending on the political climate, the American Way), Lex Luthor has been many things to many people. Mad scientist. Career criminal. Real estate conman. Corporate executive. World-conquering supervillain. All of these are valid takes on the character, and Cornell doesn’t try to elevate one above the rest, but to reconcile them all. We get Luthor in his lab, Luthor in the boardroom, Luthor in space, Luthor in the jungle.

To be honest, the weakest part of Cornell’s The Black Ring is the storyline itself, Lex’s quest for more power and glory. It should be simple, because it’s fairly basic: Lex Luthor likes power, and wants more of it. However, the story’s muddled by references to various aspects of continuity, and it’s initially quite vague what exactly the connection is to Blackest Night, despite the title and an early flashback to Luthor’s time as an Orange Lantern. It’s strange, because a quest plot should be relatively straightforward, and the series works really well if you focus on the individual issues.

The ending also suffers because it’s a bit out of nowhere and relies on a fairly large amount of convenient comic book logic to put the pieces where Cornell wants them to be. There’s also a rather bizarre and mood-zapping tie-in to Reign of Doomsday, the on-going crossover that Cornell would inherit. The nature of the final threat is never suggested until the penultimate chapter, and then it’s just a plot device to put Luthor in the same sort of place Grant Morrison put him at the climax of All-Star Superman, with a decidedly different result. So I can forgive him that.

There've been some cowboys in here...

However, the plotting isn’t really the main draw here, which feels an quite odd thing to say. If the story seems a bit off, how is this such an impressive run? Part of it is Cornell’s wonderful wit and the sheer joy he demonstrates on playing with classic comic book clichés, like talking monkeys and evil universe-eating worms, but the vast majority of it is the superb character work that underlines the run. This arc is pretty much everything that anybody will ever need to know about Lex Luthor’s character, and also about how he fits in the context of Superman, and wider pulp fiction. After all, only the Joker could claim to be a more iconic comic book bad guy.

Brian Azzarello’s superb Lex Luthor: Man of Steel suggested that Luthor sees himself as the hero of his own story, the champion of humanity against an alien and unknowable Superman, a modern-day “god”who has come down to rule mankind. We initially see Lex as Lex sees himself, as this sort of ambiguously heroic figure, before the facade is completely dismantled, and his vendetta against the Man of Steel is revealed as a purely personal hatred that consumes Luthor completely. There are elements of that portrayal to be found here, in Cornell’s take on the character, one who views Superman as an alien figure with sinister plans for the world.

Who would have thought that LexCorp wasn't an ideal place to work?

At the climax of The Black Ring, Luthor confronts his opponent, making the same old grand self-justifications. “You have held back the human race for so long,” he insists, “the ultimate paternal safety net. A hypocrite who told an entirely different species to aspire to his physical type.” You can read the bitterness, lurking just beneath the surface of his logical attempts to justify his own discomfort with Superman. I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s so much more to discuss about Cornell’s adventure before we even get into Superman in too much depth.

The beauty of Cornell’s story is the way he exploits the absence of Superman. The character of Superman was tied up J. Michael Straczynski’s noble (but misguided) attempt to put the character back in touch with the common man during Grounded. I’ll save my criticisms of that particular story for another time, but it’s telling that – in contrast to Straczynski’s attempts to put Superman in touch with the common man – Cornell instead celebrates the delightful and absurd on Lex Luthor’s adventures. There are androids and aliens and psychotic clowns and mind-controlling worms and brain-eating gorillas, all on Luthor’s trip around (and sometimes beyond) the world. It’s all rather wonderful, and (if I were a suspicious individual) I might suggest that it was a rather telling criticism of Grounded, one asserting that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with comic books having a good time and offering solid character work to boot.

Maybe Lex Kent change...

It’s telling that, even with Superman off the table, Lex can’t seem to keep his mind from wandering. While scheming, he can’t help but ponder how his latest plot would impact the Man of Steel, musing, “How ironic if he should return to find that I’d saved a grateful humanity.” He might dismiss the “wild inaccurate interpretations of [his] personality” that suggest he wants to be Superman, but it’s hard to ignore all the evidence, despite how Luthor tries to explain it away. When possessed by the very form of avarice, Luthor declared, “What I really want… is to be Superman.” However, he tries to brush that moment of weakness aside, casually asserting, “The things the Orange Ring makes one desire. Ridiculous.”

On the other hand, as Cornell repeatedly points out, Luthor very clearly covets aspects of the Man of Steel. His silly green and purple battle-suit gives him super-strength and the ability to fly, and it’s suggested that he’s only romantically interested in Lois because Superman “has” her. (And people are but possessions to Lex.) Luthor claims to hate everything Superman is, but he really seems to hate himself – he aspires to be the very thing he despises. Luthor’s reaction to discovering that Superman is Clark Kent is quite telling, to the point where he all but concedes his bitter jealousy of his long-time foe. After witnessing the death of Jonathan Kent, Luther declares, “I was happy to be rid of what I had for a father! But you… you got them!” He’s so incredibly bitter and envious of Superman, despite his claims to hate the Kryptonian.

It always comes back to this...

Anyway, figuring that this whole “Lex Luthor and Superman” milarky has been done to death, Cornell hits upon a rather brilliant idea. Instead of rehashing a conflict we’ve seen play out countless times, Cornell instead decides to give us something just a bit more interesting. He pits Lex against a variety of DC supervillains from a whole range of different backgrounds, with the ensuing conflicts serving to compare and contrast and add shading and texture to Luthor’s own personality. We’ve only really ever seen the character defined by his relationship to Superman, where he stands for humanity against the alien, or the selfish capitalist to the selfless hero of the people, while Cornell promises somethign a bit more.

Here, we get to see Lex interact with a wealth of different characters, all of which serve to draw a clever contrast or comparison with Luthor himself. For example, his confrontation with the parasitic Mister Mind allows us a glimpse into Luthor’s psyche, as we see him act out a Promethean fantasy. He lives a fantasy where he steals fire from the Gods, insisting, “And I did it all by myself.” We discover that Luthor’s greatest invention (at least from his own perspective) is himself. It’s all done in a rather light-hearted and clever way, without ever seeming forced or heavy-handed.

Lex is having one of his "episodes" again...

Some of these comparisons and encounters are just good fun, while a lot of them offer very insightful observations about Luthor. Cornell suggests that Luthor is somehow more evil than the immortal Vandal Savage, because there’s nothing he cares about more than his quest for power – while Savage would draw the line at the loss of his daughter, something that Lex shrewdly exploits.Lex is shown to be relatively indifferent to the suffering of his staff and even his companion robot, modelled after Lois Lane. When the Joker murders Spalding, Luthor’s faithful assistant, Lex isn’t even mildly frustrated. “Hmph,” he muses, “It doesn’t matter — now I know what’s going on.” Later on, he puts a bullet through another employee’s head to remove Larfleeze’s leverage over him and he even kills the woman who seems to love him towards the climax of the tale. There is nothing Lex cares about more than himself.

Tying back to Blackest Night, Cornell has Larfleeze cross paths with Lex, and reveals that Luthor’s greed eclipses even that of the Orange Lantern. In one of the nicer character moments of one of the better DC crossovers of recent years, Luthor was deputised to serve as an Orange lantern, an agent of avarice – a rather wonderful little scene in a crossover composed mostly of wonderful little scenes. Indeed, Luthor still seems to yearn for the power of the Orange Ring, despite claiming to be dismissive of it. However, a telling moment occurs when Larfleeze experiences a taste of the power that Lex covets. Larfleeze confesses, “I… do not want that.”

Amber alert?

One of the more fascinating interactions over the course of the series has Luthor conversing with Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Gaiman held on to the rights to his creations, making their appearances in DC comic books remarkably and refreshingly rare over the past few years (the last major appearance of Dream was in an issue of Grant Morrison’s JLA). Here Cornell gets to have a considerable amount of fun with the idea of faith and religion in a continuity as surreal and strange as that of the wider DC universe. My inner geek especially appreciates the nerdy in-jokey references to “the big hand theory” of the universe, a sly reference to the Green Lantern villain Krona, without being intrusive.

There’s something very telling in the way that Luthor engages Death, like an adversary or a foe to be challenged and defeated. When Death dismisses the events of Blackest Night (“it looked like they were all having a great time”), Luthor is immediately hitting the “righteous indignation” button that comes so naturally to him, trying to invoke the “racism” card against Death. “Thousands of people — my people — were killed!” he proclaims. “Your people?” Death replies. “Human beings!” he clarifies, “You wouldn’t understand–!” It’s such a great reaction, because it’s Lex using the idea that more powerful beings simply don’t comprehend humanity in a truly ridiculous situation, demonstrating the absurdity of his logic taken to the extreme. “Y’know,” she suggests, “this would be so much easier if you’d please stop treating me like a… super-villain.”

Show me heaven...

It’s nice to see a writer acknowledge that while atheism is a perfectly valid and rational belief in our own world, that logic doesn’t hold sway in comic books. A lesser writer would take a look at Luthor’s rationality and insist that he stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the possibility of the supernatural or the divine, but Cornell is shrewd enough to know that Luthor’s self-denial doesn’t run that deep. This is a fictional universe where the Spectre is a legacy title, with countless characters serving as the spirit of God’s Vengeance, along with numerous other pantheons co-existing. It would turn him into the parody of a character to have him ignore all the in-universe evidence of deities.

“I know Hell is real,” he concedes. “I’ve been there.” Instead, Cornell plays with the idea that Luthor’s own flaws run so deep he’d hold steadfast to them in the face of Death and the divine. “Do I get to argue?” he asks her. Even without a hint that she’s judging him, Luthor feels the need to insist, “Just because I did what had to be done! Who else was going to do it?” Death, trying to be helpful, suggests, “How about if you just… said ‘sorry’?” Luthor’s immediately defensive, even with only Death around, “Sorry for what?”

Gorillas in their midst...

Indeed, it’s a recurring theme throughout The Black Ring that Luthor’s central fear and phobia stems from a low sense of self-esteem. In the first issue, after an employee attacks him with a tool (and draws blood), Luthor can’t get past the incident – despite the fact he’s fired the employee and is dealing with far more important matters. “I have tried to show mercy, Lois,” he tells his robot companion, “but yes, I can’t stop — thinking about him. About how he made me helpless, if only for a moment. I can’t let him live.” In an extremely petty and vindictive move, Luthor orders an assassin to kill the former staff member, something the robotic Lois correctly identifies as an ineffective use of resources. Not least because Lex has had the sniper camped out opposite this guy’s window all night.

Throughout the run, Luthor prides himself on the fact that he’s above it all (“I am greater than my need,” he insists, “I’m my intellect, not my feelings”), and yet he can never rise past the minor setbacks – the idea that anybody else might be dismissive of him, regardless of whether they’re a god or an alien or regular employee on the street. “Do not turn your back on me!” he commands the god Darkseid. After trying to seem calm and collected in dealing the Joker, he snaps when the clown starts making fun of him. “Do not laugh at me!” he yells, threatening to kill the psychopath in his cell. For a man who claims to have such grand motives, he’s remarkably petty. When Vandal asks him to disarm the bombs, Luthor has a condition. “Tell me I beat you,” he insists.

Preparing for a killing stroke...

Even when he’s confronted by Superman, one can see the inferiority complex at work. Luthor is granted nearly unlimited power, and the first thing he does is to confront his old foe. “And the first thing you did was come after me?!” Superman demands. “And the first thing you did in response was to ignore me,” Luthor states, as if that’s the worst thing that anybody could do. That, according to Cornell, is the heart of the character, the one who fears so much the idea that he doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things – and it’s something captured beautifully in that interaction with Death.

Almost as fascinating as that rather wonderful issue is Luthor’s conversation with the Joker, a character Lois identifies as his “polar opposite.” It’s a fascinating take on the characters, and one that makes me a little bit sorry that no heroes made guest appearances. After all, the fact that Joker is the “polar opposite” of Lex only underscores just how similar Lex Luthor is to Batman, a character who is also frequently contrasted with Superman. Indeed, aside from a small cameo in Action Comics #800, the only real reference to Batman emerges when Lex reads the announcement that Bruce is funding Batman, a reference to Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated. I don’t mind references like that, because they are relatively unintruisive.

Resurrection man?

Anyway, Lex regards Bruce’s funding of Batman as a fatal character flaw. “You think you know somebody–!” Lex remarks, “He’s letting down the human race.” It reminds me of the sequence in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, where Bruce provides Luthor with kryponite, underscoring the fact that both characters are essentially Promethean – they both stand for the triumph of human accomplishment, and both fight against threats to the human world. However, while Batman is prepared to take Superman down if necessary, Lex doesn’t even have the capacity to see past his own xenophobia and racism.

If Cornell could have featured one hero, I would have loved to have seen Bruce Wayne – particularly because the two have so much in common and are so fundamentally different. I think it’s fantastic that the Joker is able to scare Luthor by threatening to unleash the Bat against him. “No,” he warns Lex as the billionaire considers snapping the Joker’s neck, “the Bat would come after you.” Lex behaves himself after that threat, an implicit acknowledgment that even Luthor is afraid of the Batman.

The joke's on Luthor...

The beautiful irony of the Joker is that even the madman has more self-awareness than Lex. After all, he seems gleefully aware that he’s in a comic book, making an obscure reference to an earlier conversation between Luthor and Death, and even spotting Pete Woods’ artistic references. Taking credit for murdering Spalding, a henchman who resembles David Tennant, the Joker remarks, “He reminded me so much of that actor — I wanted to see if he’d turn into someone else.” Of course the Joker watches Doctor Who.

Not only is the Joker aware of how the story will end, but he’s aware of Luthor’s central character flaws that will lead to “the biggest joke of all time.” It’s quite something when a mad clown is more aware of your flaws than you are – and the Joker urges Luthor to respond to it in-character. “For my sake,” he insists, “for all I stand for, when that opportunity comes along — take it seriously!” The Joker is able see the world from Luthor’s perspective, and insist that Luthor “take it seriously”, something that the Joker could never do.

Luthor feels the power of the Darkseid...

The Joker is essentially able to step so far outside himself that he can understand and respect and encourage people to act according to their own directives and personalities – in fact, many of his schemes rely on that. Lex lacks that objectivity, seemingly unable to comprehend how people can see anything different from him. The Joke doesn’t believe in absolutes, while Lex insists he is the only absolute. Of course, the two also share that profound emptiness within. The Joker fills it by being whatever the world needs him to be – “the clown at midnight” in Grant Morrison’s Batman and Spalding’s murderer here. Luthor, on the other hand, tries to fill that void inside himself with power and knowledge, hoping that those black spheres inside his soul will somehow magically turn white.

Luthor always wants “more.” He’s never content – although he’d consider it a virtue. That’s the difference that Superman, his counterpart, can see perfectly. “When… will you get it, Luthor?” he asks. “This approach of yours, the way you do things, it’ll never work. The emptiness makes even your successes worthless.” Superman states that Luthor had the chance to find his own “Ma and Pa Kent”to make him a better person, but the void inside himself wouldn’t allow it.

A cutting betrayal...

In fact, Cornell almost seems to suggest that Luthor did find his father figure in Ra’s Al-Ghul, in a short story narrated in haiku. “The Old Man of the Mountain with the New Man of the City.”  Al-Ghul, the Batman foe, had clearly been a strong influence “who had gracefully allowed him to show his weakness, never shown” and “to admit his faults and thus control them.” That’s a type of trust right there, the kind of faith and love that, even in its own perverse and warped way (Ra’s Al-Ghul is a genocidal maniac, after all), might be able to fill the void inside Luthor. There’s every indication that Ra’s considered Lex “an heir to tend the world’s salvation”, another strand that connects Luthor to Batman.

However, it’s the need to fill the void inside him with more – the contents of a forbidden box – that catch Luthor out and cost him the one decent father figure that he might have had. He ends up abandoned, alone in the desert. “And all those flaws that might have saved him,” we’re told, “had he known them, shown them, seen — were locked up in that moment’s secrets. Blames on others — save for dreams.” Luthor’s longing and sense of loss is conceded by his hope that Ra’s would be waiting for him, even to tell Lex he’d failed that rather obvious test of character.

Oh, snap!

It’s interesting to consider, as Cornell does, why a billionaire like Luthor feels such emptiness and insecurity. After all, he claims to be the smartest mind on (or off) the planet, and yet his pride bristles at even the slightest possible weakness. Cornell playfully suggests that Lex knows deep down inside that he isn’t quite everything he claims to be. For all Lex’s claims that he’s a self-made man who accomplished everything on his own, he returned from Apokolips with “new inspiration”, in the form of alien technology that allowed him to claim “twenty patents” and “forty million dollars in venture capital.” For all Luthor propagates the myth that he pulled himself up from his bootstraps, it’s interesting to consider if his xenophobia represents an attempt to externalise his self-loathing, to turn it on the very people who made his rise to fame and fortune possible.

It’s fascinating that Cornell never really revisits one of the defining aspects of Luthor’s life – the murder of his father, which allowed him to move to Metropolis, a cruel twist on the death of Superman’s parents that sent him to Earth. Instead, Cornell just suggests it by offering Lex various surrogate father figures, including the tyrannical Darkseid and the genocidal Ra’s Al-Ghul, as well as the more reasonable Perry White. One might suggest that the murder of his father is the defining aspect of Lex Luthor, and everything since has just been a variation on a theme, as he refuses to acknowledge anyone’s authority over him or compassion towards him (even attacking Superman as “paternal”). Darkseid, perhaps the most archetypal foe in the entire DC pantheon, remarks of Lex, “He has the aspect of the father-slayer!!!”

Mind over matter...

While we’re on the topic of the screwed up personal relationships that define Lex Luthor, it’s worth discussing robot!Lois. It’s so very “Luthorian” of Lex to build himself a copy of something he deems a rival to possess, because people are just objects to him – not just women, but men too. There’s not one companion on Lex’s adventure who tags along because they respect Lex – they are there because they were designed by him, or because he’s paying them. When he coldly executes a staff-member, he seems to believe he can placate the rest of his employees with “a hundred-thousand-dollar bonus.” He buys the Secret Six to use as pawns against Vandal Savage, and he treats his security staff as cannon fodder, sending them to certain death to buy him five seconds from a rampaging Deathstroke.

I like the matter-of-fact way that Cornell deals with the sexual relationship between Lex and his robot!Lois, who is actually the only sympathetic protagonist for most of the comic. It’s not left ambiguous, but is just sort of “out there.” Looking for a euphemism, his employees describe Lois as Luthor’s “girlfriend” and it’s hinted they enjoy a fairly kinky sex life. When robot!Lois does a vocal impersonation of Grodd to by-pass a security measure, Luthor observes, in front of Spalding, “I like the voice.” She responds, “I’ll keep it on file for later.”Of course, this probably an accurate reflection of how Lex sees sex – it’s not the basis of any intimate interpersonal relationship, but rather a method of stress relief. If he can build a robot that happens to satiate his needs, so be it. Never mind the creepy subtext that he is – in a way – her father.

Luthor faces his Death...

Lois herself is actually a rather wonderful character, who serves as an effective mirror to Lex. Just as he’s blind to his own faults and self-delusions, and powerless to stop them even when he isn’t, Lois is subject to her own internal programming – a pawn of Brainiac and Luthor. She has an excuse that Luthor doesn’t, and even she makes a noble attempt to overcome the conflict at her core. There’s something heartwarming in the end to her arc, as she is allowed to roam the cosmos as a free agent. “I’m finally free,” she tells Superman, which is something that Lex could never be, because he could never break from his programming, his own flaws.

Cornell, like a lot of writers before him, getsthat Luthor could never be a hero. in fact, the final confrontation with Superman feels great because we’ve approached it with Lex, and seen his side of this little adventure, making the outcome seem logical from both sides. Lex does well when measured against his fellow bad guys, but its his confrontation with Superman that really reveals the fundamental flaws nesting at the heart of the bald meglomaniac. Though the storytelling mechanics to move the story to the climax are a little clunky, the series does feature one hell of a climax, as Lex is given the opportunity to make the universe a paradise… if only he can let go of his hatred of Superman.

Orange ya glad to see me?

The fact that there are countless other monthly comic books being published in the shared universe means that we were never going to see Lex move past that barrier, but The Black Ring works so well because Cornell explains to us why Lex could never do that. Superman is willing to sacrifice his grudges and his dignity for the sake of galactic peace, pleading, “I’m sorry, sorry for everything! For anything!” Luthor, who has much more to apologise for, scoffed at the idea of apologising to Death in private, while Superman is willing to bow before his greatest foe in the hope of making a better world. Superman has known Lex for long enough that he’s undoubtedly aware it’s impossible for Luthor to change, but he begs, “Be the hero you were always capable of being!”

And Luthor can’t do that. He fails, horribly. As the Joker predicts, he acts perfectly in-character.Even after losing the chance to bring peace to the universe, he’s still petty and vindictive, rather than remorseful. “Ha ha ha ha ha!” he taunts Superman, as he’s on the verge of collapse. “Ahh! Ahh! Your little acolytes… still… danger…” Lex falls back on the familiar lines, trying to blame it all on Superman, but we all know it’s a lie. Superman isn’t holding Lex Luthor back from solving the world’s problems. He’s had a whole year without Superman to make the world a better place, and he wasted it hunting for power. “You have forced me to do so many terrible things,”Luthor insists, but we’ve seen him do pretty terrible things entirely of his own volition.

All boxed in...

I do love that Cornell basically takes the ending to All-Star Superman and turns it on its head. In Morrison’s definitive Superman story, Lex gained near-omnipotence and discovered that it was impossible for anybody with that much power and knowledge to be a bad person – he transcended his very human flaws by assuming the facets of Superman, the man transforming to the divine. However, Cornell suggests the very opposite: Luthor could never be Superman because he very simply doesn’t have it within him. It works because it’s so very tragic, and yet perfectly in-character. You could read these issues and you’d know all that there is to know about Lex Luthor, which is quite impressive.

As is all the character work. Cornell does a great job with most of his “guest” characters. I’ll confess to being a bit confused about the inclusion of Deathstroke, but Cornell writes a great Vandal Savage, as a man who has lived long enough to become bored with life, and a fascinating Joker. I am extra sorry that Knight & Squire wasn’t published in hardback, because I want me some Cornell Joker. There are other moments of insight, like the way that Larfleeze refers to Luthor’s employees as “constructs”, which is a very telling comment (and perhaps not too far from the truth).

You must be joking...

In fairness, part of the charm of all this is the fact that Cornell is unashamedly writing a very “comic book” comic book. His version of Mister Mind breaks the fourth wall! His take on Darkseid ends every sentence with at least one exclamation mark! Grodd has a giant spoon he uses to eat people’s brains! There’s never a sense that Cornell is taking any of this too seriously, which is endearing. After all, he’s crafting an entertaining story with larger-than-life characters, it doesn’t need to be entirely serious or self-important. Hell, the annual, collecting the Darkseid and Ra’s Al-Ghul stories, is framed like an old-fashioned “untold tales of…” (or “secret origin”) story (even with a “young Lex Luthor in…” title), with Luthor getting caught up in alien affairs less than a day after arriving in Metropolis.

It helps that Cornell has found the perfect artistic partner in Pete Woods. The pair just have a perfect synergy, so much that the guest issue by the superb Jesus Merino feels like a distraction. When you consider that quite a lot of Cornell’s issues feature Lex and the villain-of-the-month conversing at length (with the superb Death and Joker issues just extended conversations), it’s all the more remarkable that it’s never boring or dull. Woods is great with faces and body language, and you get the sense of characters in motion, which is just an incredible accomplishment. I mean, look at some of the screenshots here and tell me that it isn’t superb.

Luthor's always been a Brainiac...

It helps that Woods does an impressive job with a wide range of DC characters, with Lex crossing paths with everyone from Mister Mind to Superman to the Joker. In particular, I love how emotive Woods manages to make Mister Mind, effectively an overgrown worm, in the panels where he seems to converse with the audience. More than that, I think Woods is one of the few artists able to make Larfleeze both scary and comical, a line the alien has had difficulty walking since his debut. The pair just work really well.

There’s fantastic elements of synergy between the pair, like the wonderful old-fashioned use of lightening bolts to indicate surprise. Lines like “I am Super-Gorilla Grodd” or Vandal Savage’s almost cartoonishly evil plan to construct a city “in which every detail — will be a trap” make it clear that this is to be a decidedly old-school comic book, one that doesn’t feel the need to feature ridiculous amounts of death and gore to convince the audience to emotionally invest. Indeed, one issue even features annotations pointing to a very dated comic book (“this happened between panels in Flash #124,” we’re told), and the grand finale includes a thought-balloon rather than a caption, as if to call to mind an older style of comic book, one predating the modern fascination with “darker and edgier” or even “grounded” storytelling. The Black Ring is never afraid of being silly or larger than life – after all, isn’t that what comic books are for?

Lex Luthor to the rescue!

The Black Ring gets an unreserved recommendation as a perfect “pop” comic, an example of how a writer can construct a clever and well-written story without needing to be overly-serious or afraid to indulge some of the zaniness that comes with mainstream comic books. Paul Cornell’s Action Comics is easily one of the great Superman runs, which is remarkable for a comic that barely features the Man of Steel at all. It’s fast, fun, charming, smart and pulpy, all at the same time – I think that several of the individual chapters are on my “favourite issue ever” shortlist. And that’s no mean feat.

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