Lex Luthor Trade Post: The Black Ring Volumes 1 & 2

superman the black ring vol 1 Superman: The Black Ring Volume One
Written by Paul Cornell, drawn by Pete Woods
Collects Action Comics #890-895

When the New 52 was announced a few years back, there was a part of me that was glad because it offered such a clear and obvious place for me to cut off my relationship with monthly comics. For years I’d worked at Wizard where it was part of my job to stay on top of what was going on which was easy because we used to get a couple copies of every book each week. I got laid off a few years before the big switch over and kept up as well as I could, but fell way behind. Once the continuities shifted, I didn’t feel like there was a limitless number of future comics that I’d have to check out just to stay up to date. Sure there would be New 52 books I’d check out and probably love, but that could all be absorbed in trade form.

In that time between Wizard and the New 52, though, there still were some really great stories that I missed, including Paul Cornell’s run on Action Comics that showcased Lex Luthor as he tried to discover the truth behind the Black Lantern rings he discovered during Blackest Night.

In this first volume Luthor finds himself dealing with a new brand of obsession thanks to his exposure to the Orange Lantern and Ring in the aforementioned crossover. That urging makes him want to find out what’s up with the Black Lantern rings even more than he would have otherwise. This quest puts him on a path that leads to opposition and interference from Mr. Mind (or a clone/copy of the one from 52), Deathstroke, Gorilla Grodd, Vandal Savage and even Death from Sandman, marking her first appearance in the DCU (or at least the first time in a long time). To help balance himself out, Lex has created a robot version of his one true love, Lois Lane, who also happens to break out the big guns whenever necessary.

I had more fun reading these six issues than I expected to and I thought I’d enjoy it. I’ve been reading Superman comics since 1992, so I’ve seen plenty of takes on Lex Luthor, some more successful than others. I thought Cornell did a fantastic job of setting this version up and carrying that out through a series of adventures that not only make sense in the general concept of the character (who always craves power in every version) while also having fun and presenting a somewhat roguish character that you kind of hate to love. Luthor’s as smarmy and conceited as you might expect, but he also earns it by being the smartest, most prepared guy in the room, even when said room includes interdimensional telepathic worms and ancient immortal barbarians. He’s basically jerky Batman with no costume and a mad-on for the world’s most beloved superhero. With Superman not actually appearing in this book — he was walking around the country in the yawn-inducing “Grounded” story over in Superman at the time — I personally found it easier to get on Luthor’s side.

And boy does Pete Woods draw the heck out of these issues. Every time I look at his pages I wonder how he can achieve such a smooth, shiny, detailed look. He’s Terry Dodson or Frank Cho-esque while keeping female proportions in a more realistic zone. And his facial expressions are up there with Kevin Maguire’s which is super important when working with a smarmy character like Luthor. This first volume really impressed me to the point where I was really glad I already had the second one on hand so I could jump right in and keep reading.

superman the black ring vol 2Superman: The Black Ring Volume Two
Written by Paul Cornell with Gail Simone, drawn by Pete Woods with Jesus Merino, Marco Rudy, Ed Benes, Marcos Marz, Luciana Delnegro, Dan Jurgens, Rags Morales, Ardian Syaf, Jamal Igle & Gary Frank
Collects Action Comics #896-900, Secret Six #29

I’m not usually a fan of one trade ending on a cliffhanger and leading into the next one, but since I had both volumes on hand, it didn’t bother me too much. Being the incredibly well prepared evil genius that he is, Luthor already had a plan at the ready in case Vandal Savage came at him, one that included the Secret Six, which is lead by his daughter Scandal. Secret Six is one of those books that people seem to either love or hate. I’m somewhere in the middle, loving much of it, but hating Ragdoll, so the inclusion of that issue, while appropriate for the story, did get on my nerves a little.

From there, we get a pair of flashback issues that find young Lex hanging out with Darkseid and Ra’s al Ghul before returning to the present where he gets back to his main mission which brings him into contact with Joker and Larfleze before reaching its epic conclusion which includes Luthor gaining the power of a god, but losing it because SPOILER he doesn’t like being told what to do or having rules.

One of the really interesting things about this book is that, by bringing Luthor into contact with some of the DCU’s most prominent villains, you not only get a better idea of what makes him tick, but why some of these people strive for their goals even after getting their butts handed to them time after time by the superhero community. Each of them has something that pushes them forward. And while those motivations aren’t the main focus of the book, they are there for the reader to mull over to their degree of interest.

Another great aspect of Cornell’s story as a whole is that, by defining Lex Luthor so damn well, it also helps to define Superman. We see how complex Lex Luthor is and why he hates Superman, but at the very end we see why Lex is the bad guy and Superman is the good guy which makes for an incredibly appropriate 900th issue celebration. For all his claims of wanting humanity to thrive without aliens lording power over humanity, this is just a guy who doesn’t like being told what to do sacrificing the potential to do great good for his own ego. He doesn’t care if the aliens are above humanity, he hates having an alien over HIM.

It all harkens back to a great scene in the post-One Year Later Superman story collected in Up, Up And Away. Superman lost his powers for a year which left Lex free to supposedly pursue all those altruistic motives he supposedly had for killing Superman, but instead he wasted it to which Superman responds with a line like “You could have been curing cancer while I was gone!” That all sums this character up perfectly. If you believe he wants to help humanity, you’re buying into one of his many lies, but then again, I can’t really fault you for that because he’s pretty damn good at it.

It’s probably pretty obvious by this point, but I love this run. I read these volumes thanks to copies acquired from my local library system, but I think I’ll keep an eye out to add them to my collection. It’s rare to find such a well plotted out story that moves along surprisingly well for so many issues and also does such a great job of defining a character.

Trade Post: Demon Knights Vol. 1: Seven Against The Dark

demon knights vol 1 seven against the dark Demon Knights Vol. 1: Seven Against The Dark (DC)
Written by Paul Cornell, drawn by Diogenes Neves, Michael Choi & Robson Rocha
Collects Demon Knights #1-7

I tried unsuccessfully to start this review with an extended metaphor comparing DC’s New 52 initiative to dealing a deck of cards. It didn’t work out so well, but there is one aspect that I will stick with: Demon Knights is a nice shuffling of characters from different eras dealt together in a new context that play well together. In a lot of ways, this Paul Cornell book is what I was hoping for from more of these New 52 books, fresh takes on old characters that remain true to the characters while not relying on old continuity to tell tales.

And that’s basically what you get with Demon Knights, a book that finds known characters like Vandal Savage, Madame Xanadu, Jason Blood/Etrigan The Demon and Shining Knight along with newbies The Horsewoman, Al Jabr and Exoristos all hanging out in a town under attack from The Questing Queen (who I assumed was Morgaine La Fey) and Mordru in the middle ages. For various reasons, all seven stick around and decide to fight against the overwhelming odds set against them.

Cornell did some wonderful things with this book. Not only does it meet the rubric I mentioned above, but it also does such a good job of introducing all of these characters, balancing their various stories and also telling a tale in seven issues that feels complete while also leading into something else. So many of the New 52 books I read feel like stepping stones or incomplete stories which isn’t bad in and of itself when you’re dealing with monthly comics, but you can’t ignore the fact that so many of these books had creative shake-ups and what not. It’s nice to feel satisfied with a story that also works as a larger chapter.

On a similar level, the book works kind of like something along the lines of JLU or one of the other animated adaptations of these larger comic book universes in that it takes elements I’m familiar with and does different things with them that work because they’re in a completely different setting. I’ve read Jack Kirby’s Demon and then Matt Wagner’s mini, a number of various Savage appearances, Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers and also knew enough to figure out who Exoristos was pretty easily. That familiarity didn’t hinder my reading of this, but also wasn’t necessary to enjoy the comic.

Also, while the Seven Samurai-ish set-up of this story isn’t the most unique thing in the world, this comic does something that a movie like 13 Assassins doesn’t in that you learn about the characters as the threat looms, not ahead of time. When you’re watching a “let’s hire assassins” movie in that case or “let’s band together to fight dragons” comics, you kind of want to get right into the action. Cornell does that while also taking a few tangents to get more into characters like Shining Knight and Horsewoman before swerving back around to the big time action.

Artists Neves and Choi also came together to tell a really dramatic, big cool story packed with swords, fire, demons, dragons, robot dragons and priests getting their faces burned off. So much goes on and their kinetic, but clear styles really work well with the material.

All in all, I’m happy to keep this book in my collection. I’d like to get the other books before the series got cancelled and will at some point, but unlike so many other trades I read, I’m not worried about whether the rest of the series will “ruin” how I feel about this one because it stands so well on its own.

New 52 Team Trade Post: Stormwatch & Suicide Squad Volume 1

Stormwatch Volume 1: The Dark Side (DC)
Written by Paul Cornell, drawn by Miguel Sepulveda & Al Barrionuevo
Collects Stormwatch #1-6

I read through about half of DC’s New 52 #1 issues a while back, but it’s hard to judge an entire series based on just one issue, so I was pretty jazzed when I got my hands on some of the trades. One of the books I was most curious about was Paul Cornell’s Stormwatch, which I had read none of. On one hand, I’ve liked Cornell’s work in the past and on the other, I’m a big Wildstorm fan and was curious to see how some of those characters and concepts were integrated into this new DCU. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised with the results.

The tricky thing about doing anything with the Stormwatch and Authority characters is that Warren Ellis put such a stamp on them. He added a seriousness and a weirdness to the proceedings of these characters (and created half of them) that you really can’t separate them from him. Heck, most writers who tackled the team after Ellis left did their best, but it was difficult to pull off. I think Cornell did a pretty great job of playing in that same kind of sandbox, but making it more of a solid superhero story that, as far as I know, works well within the framework of a bigger superhero universe.

The basic idea with this team is that they deal with the dirtier and darker problems that the JLA can’t or won’t deal with. The series picks up with the team — which very smartly includes Martian Manhunter — trying to recruit Apollo and Midnighter and deal with a world-threatening bad guy. It’s a cool, fun and weird superhero story that throws out some rad ideas (I like how Jack Hawksmoor talks to the personifications of cities) and includes some rad action that sets up a larger story, something that works very well for an episodic adventure like this. I also dug Miguel Sepulveda’s artwork which suits the darkness and the superheroics both quite well.

I’m curious about the rest of this series, but right after this collection, the writer changes twice. Paul Jenkins, a writer I’m not wild about, comes on and is soon followed up by Peter Milligan. Did anyone read those issues? Does it flow well? Does it continue to pay off the promise of the sixth issue? Let me know in the comments.

Suicide Squad Volume 1: Kicked In The Teeth (DC)
Written by Adam Glass, drawn by Federico Dallocchio & Clayton Henry
Collects Suicide Squad #1-7

Suicide Squad is a concept I dig in general, criminals being used on missions instead of rotting or dying in prison. I liked it the first time I saw it in The Dirty Dozen (such a great movie) and every time I encountered them in comics. So, this was another book I was primed to like. I think this one caught some flack, didn’t it? I can’t remember, but it’s definitely a darker and dirtier book, something I dug because you don’t need every comic to be on the same wavelength. In fact, I give DC a lot of credit for casting as wide a net as possible when it came to tone and themes with the New 52 books.

Anyway, the New 52 version of the Suicide Squad includes Harley Quinn, Deadshot, King Shark, El Diablo, Voltaic and Black Spider. They’re sent by Amanda Waller to take care of the smaller, dirtier missions that even Stormwatch isn’t paying attention to. The thing I liked most about this book is how fast it moves. They literally go from one mission to another as quickly as possible. Writer Adam Glass also doesn’t drag things out to six issues when he can do shorter ones, which I really appreciate.

This book covers all kinds of bases, from zombies to heroes-on-the-run and lots in between, plus the fun of seeing some of the weirder, smaller characters pop up (Mad Dog!). Because it’s a new team and a new universe, you really don’t know who’s going to make it out alive from issue to issue or who’s going to try and turn on the others, so it makes for an exciting ride. My one gripe with this series is the inconsistency of the artwork. It changes by page sometimes which is a real bummer, especially because some of the guys don’t hold up as well as others. Worse yet, some art styles look cartoony while others look darker, so it kind of throws you out of the story a bit.

One more thing I want to say about these trades in general is that I like how consistent the trade dress is. I know that might sound goofy, but it’s something I pay attention to, especially as I look at my trades on the shelf. I like consistency. So far, all the trades I’ve seen have that bar across the bottom front cover displaying the creative team, but then the spines all have the same font and are separated by color bands at the top that I believe denote which sub-section of the new DCU they belong to. Kudos on that.

Youthful Marvel Heroes Trade Post: Secret Warriors Vol. 1 & Young Avengers Presents

SECRET WARRIORS VOLUME 1 (Marvel) Written by Brian Bendis and Jonathan Hickman, drawn by Stefano Caselli Collects Dark Reign: New Nation excerpts, Secret Warriors #1-6 One of my all-time favorite comic book characters is Nick Fury. I love the old Steranko stuff and pretty much anything else the guy appears in. Unfortunately after the sub-par Secret War miniseries, my boy disappeared for a while, but eventually popped back up in Secret Invasion and got his own book again during Dark Reign. I think I’ve gone on record as saying that I haven’t been a big fan of the huge sweeping events that have plagued Marvel from Civil War on. It’s so hard to pick up a trade and try to figure out when the hell it fits in with all that nonsense. It takes away the classicness of some really good stories and lead to even more bad stories. Lucky, Secret Warriors was a damn good book, though I’m not a big fan of the basis behind the book itself: Hydra has been running S.H.I.E.L.D. from the beginning. I’m getting sick of stories that pull that “Everything you knew was a lie!” comics. But, that’s not enough to keep me away, hell they did something similar to this story back in Nick Fury Vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury’s in this bad boy being all cool and secretive, training a group of young super powered people related to familiar heroes and villains, but also putting an army together made up of former S.H.I.E.L.D. guys, so you get a great mix of storylines from the missions to the relationships of the characters. I read this book pretty regularly when I was still at Wizard and even a little while after, but left off at some point. I always felt like this book should have been more important in the eyes of the greater Marvel Universe, but as far as I know it never turned out to be that. Ah well, I still dug the story and Caselli’s art is absolutely amazing. It’s stylized and a little cartoony, but still has an edge that integrates the multiple elements I mentioned. I’d check out anything this guy draws. For now, I’m keeping this book in my collection because it’s Fury and I dig the story, but I might get rid of it if the later volumes turn out to suck. We shall see. YOUNG AVENGERS PRESENTS (Marvel) Written by Ed Brubaker, Brian Reed, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Paul Cornell, Kevin Grevioux and Matt Fraction. Drawn by Paco Medina, Harvey Talibao, Alina Urusov, Mark Brooks, Mitch Breitweiser and Alan Davis. Collects Young Avengers Presents: Patriot, Hulkling, Wiccan & Speed, Vision, Stature and Hawkeye. Another team of young superheroes related in some way to other heroes, Young Avengers was fun when it came out. And by that I mean that original writer Alan Heinberg did a great job, but the book was SO late that it got really frustrating. Anyway, instead of getting forgotten or only featured in their own book like The Runaways were the Young Avengers were integrated into the rest of the Marvel U, including Civil War and the following events. Some even chose different sides of the Registration Act to support, effectively breaking the team up. this series of one shots came out to bring the focus back to the teen characters with a murderer’s row of Marvel’s hottest writers. Overall? The book suffers from the “when does this take place?” syndrome I mentioned above. It’s cool that they got Captain America writer Brubaker to write the Patriot story and Ms. Marvel‘s Brian Reed to write a story featuring the time displaced Captain Marvel meeting his supposed son Hulkling. I believe it turned out that Captain Marvel was a Skrull which kid of cuts the legs out from the story, but at least Hulkling’s emotions ring true. Aside from that, the book adds a few nice bits to the characters, but I’ve got to say that they would have been better off in an ongoing or a series of minis. Instead, this feels too little too late. I believe Heinberg’s coming back to the team which should be interesting. I’ll come back for that (after finishing this trade, I went back and re-read the original 12 issues which were pretty great still, I love how it seemed like they were related to some Avengers, but were actually related to others).