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.

Superman Trade Post: Up, Up & Away, Last Son & Escape From Bizarro World

superman up up and away Superman: Up, Up & Away (DC)
Written by Kurt Busiek & Geoff Johns, drawn by Pete Woods & Renato Guedes
Collects Action Comics #837-840, Superman #650-653

I’ve said time and time again here on the blog when talking about comics, especially DC Comics, that I was a hardcore continuity guy, especially when it came to Superman. Those are the books that got me into comics and taught me the most about the Man of Steel and the greater DC Universe. So, when Infinite Crisis went down and did some vague continuity edits that didn’t seem that well conveyed and I started reading Geoff Johns’ run on Action Comics, I was confused and angrier than I should have been. I was being over-reactionary and not really fair partly because of my bias, but also because I was so dedicated to the version of that character that I was so familiar with.

Since then, I’ve done more thinking about all this than I probably should have, but I go back to what I call the Puzzle Theory Of Corporate Comic Characters. The way I see it, every single existing Superman story is a puzzle piece that a new writer can come in and use. Take Batman for example. That character can work as the ultra-dark version seen in the Christopher Nolan movies or as the fun, upbeat version seen in the Brave and the Bold cartoon. It’s the same character with different past aspects highlighted by the creators. That’s the lens through which I checked out Johns run on Action Comics when I went back and re-read it recently. He’s more a fan of the Silver Age stuff than the books I read, so that’s what he highlighted. I’m doing the first three books here and will do the final two next week, then maybe get into the New Krypton stuff which he set up and then handed off to James Robinson, Greg Rucka and Sterling Gates.

So, Infinite Crisis changed the DCU a bit by making Clark Kent Superboy when he was a kid. That was the major difference for Supes, but they also took away his powers for a year leading into One Year Later and 52. Up, Up & Away is a crossover between Action Comics and Superman with Johns and Kurt Busiek trading off issues in an effort to set up the new world without a Superman and, of course, gradually bring him back. In the year since he lost his powers helping bring down Superboy Prime, Clark has been able to enjoy the finer aspects of being a regular person: getting really good at his job, being more present with his wife and savoring his more limited senses. But of course, it’s not meant to last. While Clark had most of his bases covered with Supergirl and other heroes watching over Metropolis, he didn’t account for Lex Luthor getting out of jail and going back to his mad scientist roots, gathering villains and wielding them as weapons against Metropolis and Superman once he does return.

I can’t say for sure, but I think I really liked these books when they came out and I liked it a lot on this read through. It seemed like both writers really got a good grasp of the character and did a few things that I really enjoyed, most of which had to do with Lex Luthor. When I started reading Superman books, he was the quintessential industrial bad guy, but I’m also a big fan of mad scientist Lex. Better than that, though, the book asked a question that I had never thought of until these issues: Why didn’t Lex put his genius to use curing cancer instead of going after Superman? I tended to think of Luthor in the sense that he was portrayed in the Lex Luthor: Man of Steel series as a good man trying to defend his people from what he saw as a threat, but that ignores the irresponsible and crazy aspects of the character that are also there. Why DIDN’T he cure cancer?! Cause he’s nuts. There are also stellar moments between Lois and Clark where she explains that, while she enjoyed her time with powerless Clark Kent, she knows he needs to be Superman for the world’s sake. This is my favorite relationship in comics.

The book ends and Superman’s back in the suit with the bad guys are vanquished. He’s even helping rebuild parts of the city and handing over the signal watch to Jimmy Olsen. It’s a cool ending that doesn’t really establish the new status quo of Superman or Clark Kent, but did give a cool feel for both before moving into the separate books.

SUPERMAN LAST SON Superman: The Last Son (DC)
Written by Geoff Johns & Richard Donner, drawn by Adam Kubert
Collects Action Comics #844-846, 851 & Action Comics Annual #11

I hope there’s a point in my comic reading career when I can completely separate my reading of a trade from the knowledge I have about how that series came out in a monthly format. It’s not much of a problem anymore because I don’t read many single issues anymore so lateness has very little meaning to me. If you don’t remember or weren’t around, the books in this collection were widely spread out, had fill-ins by completely different creative teams and didn’t actually get finalized until much later when the annual came out, allowing DC’s flagship title to continue on without as much interference. It was frustrating.

There was actually a lot that frustrated me about this book the first time around. It was assumed that the lateness came from then-new DC acquisition Adam Kubert. I don’t have much tolerance artist lateness, especially if it’s an artist I’m not into. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about and therefore wasn’t very forgiving when month after month passed and the story still hadn’t wrapped up. There were also a pair of story elements that bothered me. First, the book features Superman meeting the Phantom Zone villains for presumably the first time which I thought had already happened in the previous continuity. Second, I didn’t want Superman to have a kid.

However, this time, I was able to just take it all in at once. And you know what? I liked most of the story. I did my best to ignore the lateness and my continuity bias, instead just letting myself focus on this new story and it’s pretty good, though I’m still not a great big fan of Adam Kubert’s. Aside from some poorly constructed figures when zoomed out, my main problem with the art was that it looked like the figures were being photoshopped onto painted backgrounds. When artists do that kind of thing, it looks inorganic and distracts from the implication that you’re looking at a whole broken up into many panels.

As usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. This story kicks off with a young Kryptonian landing on Earth. He’s soon followed by Zod, Ursa and Non (better known as the bad guys from Superman II) who are actually using their son as a tether allowing them to escape the Negative Zone. Now Superman has to fight for the very survival of his adoptive planet and his new foster son in the face of overwhelming odds.

I dug the ins and outs of this story from the explanation of how Lor-Zod was conceived to Mon-El’s appearance and the Bizarro fight to the people Superman turns to for help in defeating his enemies. My only real problems this time around were still related to other comics, but not the ones I read as a kid, but instead Up, Up & Away. Somehow Clark Kent went from a confident guy wearing a Smallville jacket to a suit and tie-wearing doofus who felt the need to act as such to hide his secret identity. Doesn’t that seem weird? Wouldn’t that kind of big character change cause a lot of people to wonder what’s going on? However, as its own thing and the beginning of Johns’ solo run (he recently said on Kevin Smith’s Fat Man On Batman podcast that he basically hammered out the beats with his one-time boss Richard Donner and then scripted it himself), it works a lot better than it did as a monthly comic. One of the major negatives at the time was that Lor-Zod wound up spending months and months with Clark and Lois, basically spinning his wheels until everyone got their stuff together and gave him the proper send off which wound up being really emotional and well done.

superman escape from bizarro world Superman: Escape From Bizarro World (DC)
Written by Geoff Johns & Richard Donner, drawn by Eric Powell
Collects Action Comics #855-857, Superman #140, DC Comics Presents #71 & The Man of Steel #5

While I might want to forget some elements of the previous books, I have only good memories and experiences with Escape From Bizarro World, which is a three issue story drawn by The Goon‘s Eric Powell. While working at Wizard, I was given the assignment of interviewing Powell for a sketchbook feature. You can actually see the sketches in the intro written by Brian K. Vaughan, but the amazing Darkseid one he did wasn’t included because he has nothing to do with the story. That image of Darkseid has become second only to Jack Kirby’s in my mind for iconic interpretations of the character. Powell was also a super nice guy to interview. He had a death in the family at the time and still took the time to help me with the article, something I don’t know if I could have focused on in his shoes. Good guy that Powell.

This story completely plays to Powell’s strengths as it takes place mostly on a planet that Bizarro smashed together and happens to be under a blue sun which has given him “Bizarro Vision,” the ability to create Bizarro clones. The downside? They hate him. Bizarro needs advice so he kidnaps Jonathan Kent which eventually brings Supes to the planet. Superman actually wants to just get out of there and leave Biz to his problems, but his dad is there to play moral compass and help the two figure out a way to change the status quo. It’s a great series of moments, but doesn’t hold a candle to the few scenes of Superman’s dad getting his son’s powers and understanding for a little while what that’s like. Better yet? The gift Bizarro gave him at the end. Man, that gave me a little lump in my throat!

It’s a quick story with all kinds of goodness on both ends of the comic spectrum. Johns and Donner weaved a wonderful story that ranks up there with some of my favorites. At the same time, Powell not only gets to draw backwards zombie-ish versions of the Justice League and Superman’s supporting cast, but also does a Superman so iconic I almost can’t stand that there’s only three issues.

To beef up the trade, DC did something pretty fun by including three different Bizarro issues from years’ past. Better than just including some basic stuff, though, they actually got Johns to pick issues that inspired him when writing the character. The writer even writes mini essays about why he included each issue which is pretty great.  So, instead of reprinting Bizarro’s first appearance, he went with the one where Bizarro and Bizarro Lois Lane have a kid who’s normal and therefore a weirdo on their planet. This plays up on the themes of alienation that Johns used throughout all of his Superman stories.

Alright, I want to say one more thing while on the subject of how these books are collected. I understand it makes sense to collect the books by artist, but there are a few issues here and there from Johns’ run that weren’t collected in these books. I don’t have the exact issue numbers on hand, but I know there was a Toyman issue that got passed over for collection. I’m sure I’m not the only one to suggest this, but it would be nice to have a Geoff Johns Action Comics Omnibus. They’ve done that with his Teen Titans and Flash runs, so maybe we’re not far off from that with Superman.

Wildstorm Trade Post: Authority & Wildcats World’s End

The Authority: World’s End (Wildstorm/DC)
Written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, drawn by Simon Coleby
Collects The Authority #1-7

I talked about and explained the whole concept behind Wildstorm’s World’s End event in last week’s Trade Post where I wrote about the Stormwatch and Gen 13 installments. Today I’ll be reviewing the two Authority collections from the same time as well as the second Wildcats one (I thought I had the first when I started reading these trades, but soon realized that wasn’t the case).

As I said in that previous post, the Wildstorm Universe basically came to a crashing halt and all the heroes had to figure out how to go on in the face of such widespread destruction and death. In the case of The Authority, their headquarters, The Carrier, a gigantic ship that can travel through dimensions and is powered by a baby universe, got all messed up and crashed in London, fusing with the city. The new world is so polluted that Apollo can only stick around for a few moments, Engineer can’t access her nanites and Jack Hawksmoor doesn’t have any cities to draw power from because they were all destroyed. Midnighter and Swift are both alright and doing their best to keep the survivors they can find safe.

It’s a really interesting dynamic because, for their entire lives as characters, the Authority have always been the king turds of poo mountain. They had the best powers and the best tech to back them up, but they only worked best for the world they were living in and not the one they are living in. Abnett and Lanning do a great job of chronicling how they deal with these new circumstances. This collection shows how Midnighter stands against an unkillable enemy, what a new virus is doing to people, how a few other survivors are doing and gives alternate angles to a story from Stormwatch where the two teams meet up.

The Authority: Rule Britanna (Wildstorm/DC)
Written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, drawn by Simon Coleby, Brandon Badeaux, Drew Johnson & Mike S. Miller
Collects The Authority #8-17

The Stormwatch crossover at the end of the previous book got the team back up and running in some respects. The Carrier powered up a bit as did Angie and Hawksmoor. On the other hand, Apollo still can’t handle the atmosphere and, as if that weren’t enough, he’s got that Warhol virus running through him.

This collection deals with a lot of the Authority’s previously-fought enemies, showing how they survived the apocalypse and have even taken advantage of the situation. You’ve got the blue guy from Sliding Albion, Kaizen Gamorra and his super powered weapons and even Cybernary. We also find out a little bit more about whatever happened to the Doctor.

It might sound like this book is steeped in continuity and might be difficult to slog through, but I didn’t find that to be the case. It’s one of those things where you’re told enough about the characters, but if you’re really interested, you can find out more online or in other collections. It makes a great companion to the first volume, but like Stormwatch and Gen 13, the last issues of the series have never been and might never be collected. Again, the appeal here is the creative use of the Armageddon situation and how it has changed this team of badasses.

Wildcats: Family Secrets (Wildstorm/DC)
Written by Christos Gage & Keith Giffen, drawn by Neil Googe, Pete Woods, Phil Jimenez & Ryan Sook
Collects Wildcats #8-12

I don’t usually read through a series of trades without having everything, but I was too far into my World’s End re-reading when I realized it and, honestly, it doesn’t matter too much. I remembered enough of the basics–or so I thought–to read on and still enjoy the second volume. Turns out I don’t remember many of the specifics of those first six issues, but I do remember that the ‘Cats are still in New York in the Halo building and, like The Authority or Stormwatch, help as many people as they can. There’s also a cool nod to Joe Casey’s Wildcats 3.0 that I liked as a Wildstorm fan: people are going butt nuts crazy over getting the Halo batteries that never run out of juice. This is a great example of taking an elements from a shared comic book universe and using it in a later story that I really dug.

Anyway, the bulk of the story in this collection finds the Wildcats dealing with Majestic, a fellow alien who has created his own island paradise–and also knocked the Earth back on its axis after the Armageddon event, if you were curious–and gone crazy. Actually, on the surface, he’s okay, giving people a well built paradise to live in, but behind the scenes, he’s keeping his daughter captive and trying to make a child with her.

Meanwhile, Ladytron has made friends with a bunch of fellow robots which also lead to problems with the Daemonites kicking back up. When the Wildcats went off to encounter Majestic, they left Ladytron behind. The Daemonites took this as the perfect time to attack and did so. By the book’s end the two storylines come crashing together and leave the ‘Cats in a much different place than they were when this whole thing started. Again, I think there’s enough fun action and drama in the book that anyone can enjoy it, but I’m not sure how accessible it might be to a new reader. I like to think it is, at least someone interested in checking out the existing World’s End books.

Trade Post: JSA Strange Adventuers, Wildstorm After The Fall & Hardware The Man In The Machine

JSA STRANGE ADVENTURES (DC)
Written by Kevin J. Anderson, drawn by Barry Kitson
Collects JSA Strange Adventures #1-6
I’ve been a big fan of the JSA concept for years. I love the idea of legacy characters still kicking around in modern times offering a sense of connection to the past that can only be done in fiction when dealing with magical beings who have various elements keeping them alive for decades after they should be dead (especially when you consider how often they put themselves in danger). While I’ve read every regular issue of JSA since Geoff Johns launched the book back in 1999, but I skipped or missed a lot of the JSA minis that have come out since then. I was pretty excited about Strange Adventures because it presents a JSA story from back when they were first a team as opposed to them being the old soldiers they are today. I was looking forward to seeing the tale told from a different perspective and, while the book does offer another perspective through the eyes of Johnny Thunder, I didn’t really like this book.

My main problem is that the book didn’t feel very original. The overarching plot involves a super powered genius coming to the world and telling them he’ll fix all these problems if Green Lantern and Starman give up their power sources. When the heroes don’t, the guy turns bad and starts wreaking havoc, but only after regular people get upset with GL and Starman. There’s nothing very original there, that’s the plot of several pieces of science fiction from Twilight Zone episodes to movies. It’s boring and it was so obvious, I thought that Anderson might be messing with the constraints of that kind of story, but that didn’t happen. The only part of the story that I found really interesting was Johnny Thunder’s interactions with a pulp writer and his desire to become a writer himself. I can obviously relate to that and I love fiction that involves writing and creating in one way or another, but even that part of the story didn’t feel entirely original as Johnny Thunder has been portrayed as the newbie who wishes he could really do something before. All in all, Strange Adventures wasn’t a bad comic to read, it just wasn’t a particularly original one. Kitson’s art sure was pretty though.

WILDSTORM: AFTER THE FALL (WildStorm)
Written by Christos Gage and Russell Uttley, drawn by Trevor Hairsine, Brandon Badeaux, Ivan Reis, Mike McKone, Pete Woods, Phil Noto, Ben Oliver, Chris Sprouse, Wes Craig, Shawn Moll and John Paul Leon
Collects several WildStorm back-up stories
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of the WildStorm universe. I think it was pretty ballsy when they decided to basically destroy their Earth with the Number of the Beast miniseries and continue on with a post apocalyptic setting that has lead to a huge battle with some alien badasses, the combination of nearly ever super powered being still kicking around into one big team and then, more recently, splitting that group up into a space-faring one and one still left on Earth (Authority and WildCats respectively). Right after the big WorldStorm event that relaunched several books to varying degrees of success. In addition to kicking off new books, WildStorm also included back-up stories involving the company’s rich history of characters. All of those short stories have been collected in this After The Fall trade.

I’ve kept up on WildStorm comics for a while now, but when this happened, I wasn’t reading the back-up stories because I didn’t think I could keep up with all of them, so I’m glad they collected them all in one place. The overarching story here involves John Lynch getting the members of Team 7 back together to kill Sleeper and WildCat villain TAO. The whole thing’s very inside baseball and probably not very accessible to new readers, but I had a great time reading about characters like Deathblow, Christie Blaze and Cybernary. My only problem withe the book is that the whole thing builds up to something that doesn’t happen in this book. The TAO fight takes place eventually in, I believe, WildCats, but that means After The Fall kind of feels like the second Pirates Of The Caribbean movie in that, it’s fun in and of itself, but it’s basically a stepping stone for something else. The amazing stable of artists certainly helps the book and it’s awesome to see guys like Noto and Leon work on these characters I love.

HARDWARE: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE (Milestone/DC)
Written by Dwayne McDuffie, drawn by Denys Cowan and JJ Birch
Collects Hardware #1-8
Back in 1993 I was 10 and Milestone launched, a comic company that seemed focused on bringing more comics starring non-white heroes to the racks. I couldn’t afford to buy a bunch of extra books, but I was really intrigued by books like Hardware, Static and Icon and, by the time the inevitable World’s Collide crossover between the Milestone Universe and the DCU came the next year, I bought as many of the issues as I could. There was always something about the look of the books that I found very intriguing. At the time I didn’t really follow artists or even really realize they used different styles, but the kind of muted presentation of the books, especially hardware which looked painted to me, drew my interest. Jump ahead 17 years later and here I sit with a collection of the first 8 issues of Hardware. The collection really captures the art the way I remember it and the stories kept me entertained throughout the whole thing.

For those of you who might not know, the idea behind Hardware is that this super smart kid named Curtis got a benefactor in the form of a rich dude who put him through college, gave him unlimited resources in his lab, but considered the kid, now an adult, to be little more than property with a clause in his contract saying that if he quit, he couldn’t work for anyone else. After doing some digging Curtis discovers that his benefactor is actually a pretty bad dude, so he builds a high tech suit with plenty of add-on weapons (kind of like Centurions) that he uses to quash the bad guy’s criminal enterprises. It’s a fairly basic superhero concept, but I was surprised to find that Hardware actually kills some of the bad guy’s peons, something that he actually comes to question towards the end of the trade.

Overall, I really liked this book. Cowan’s art is fantastic especially when he gets to draw some of the crazier weapons and whatnot. McDuffie’s writing was pretty fun, but there were definitely some moments where I was completely confused, like in #3 when the book opens with Hardware killing the bad guy, then appearing in his girl’s place. I had no idea what that was about. For the most part, I liked the whole presentation and how they started to slowly build a big superhero universe. I hope DC continues to put out these Milestone books (I’ve got the Static one in my to-read party), especially the World’s Collide story. There’s a lot of goodness here.