Action Comics #900

Action Comics 900

B-

This week’s Action Comics release marks the first time an American superhero comic has legitimately published 900 issues. That seems like a milestone worth celebrating, and so DC Comics has assembled some of its top talent to pay tribute to the Man of Steel, who not only stars in this issue but essentially begat the entire superhero genre himself back in 1938. The comic which results is very, very good, though not without a couple major flaws that prevent it from being a wholly satisfying reading experience.

Action‘s pages are divided into two halves. The front of the book wraps up Paul Cornell and Pete Woods‘ amazing “Black Ring” story that’s been running since #890. In the back, we get five separate short stories from top-tier creators, as well as a little bonus material. This much is obvious: the $5.99 price tag shouldn’t deter anyone; this book is packed with material and well worth six bucks (also note: there’s no advertising inside the issue!).

People who follow this blog regularly know how much I’ve loved “The Black Ring.” Cornell and Woods bring that thread to an excellent conclusion here as Lex Luthor finds himself with the powers of a god-child from the Phantom Zone. Now Luthor can finally do what he’s always wanted: destroy Superman. His technique: to show the Man of Steel how real humans think and feel, thereby knocking him off his extraterrestrial pedestal. It’s a fantastic outing for Lex, Action‘s hero for the past 11 issues. Previous books have put Luthor up against some of the major antagonists of the DC Universe, from Gorilla Grodd to Joker to Braniac, so it’s only appropriate that now he’s got to face his ultimate adversary. Though I’m sad to see Lex-as-protagonist leave Action, this issue provides a great device for passing the book back to Superman himself.

What really makes the “Black Ring” conclusion work is that writer Cornell has captured some serious philosophical issues in its final showdown; the principle that’s driven Luthor for years — “without Superman, I could save the world” — is truly put to the test. If Lex could just look past the Man of Steel, he could eliminate all negative emotion in the world. Watching Luthor grapple with this dilemma is fascinating, and it really defines his character in a way that few other authors have managed.

The problem with the “Black Ring” finale is that it’s also used as a waypoint for another story currently running through the Superman titles, “The Reign of Doomsday(s).” For someone who’s only following Action Comics (like me), these pages seem weird and out of place. This issue opens with Superboy, Supergirl, the Eradicator (he’s still alive?), Steel and Cyborg Superman trapped in a vessel apparently owned by Doomsday and trying to fight their way out. Every so often this story thread pops up to remind us it exists, as we see these characters get pummeled for a few panels by a Doomsday who can apparently ape their powers. These segments truly feel like they’re written by a different author, one who exclusively employs action movie clichés. Though the book makes a weak attempt to tie this in to the Luthor plot, the truth is they intersect only in the most trivial of ways. In the end, any page relating to Doomsday ends up feeling like a weak attempt to bring readers into the entirety of DC’s Superman line, and it totally detracts from the power of “The Black Ring” conclusion. Readers would be much better served to not read any page that doesn’t feature Lex Luthor.

And that brings up another potential downfall of Action #900. Would readers who haven’t been following “The Black Ring” or “Reign of Doomsday” get any satisfaction from the first half of this book? Yes, the battle between Lex and Superman is timeless, but I think understanding what’s happening there is predicated on having read the last 10 issues of Action. Don’t get me wrong: “Black Ring” was a tremendous story that I think most comics fans would enjoy, but a lot of people are going to pick up this book just because it says “#900″ on the cover, and it seems that those people will have to settle for the material in the back half of the book.

So how about that back half? Damon Lindelof (Lost / Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk) and Ryan Sook shed some new light on Jor-El’s classic dilemma re: the end of the world. Paul Dini and RB Silva tell a sweet three-page morality tale about the power of one’s actions. Geoff Johns and Gary Frank look at the odd domesticity of the Lane/Kent marriage. David Goyer and Miguel Sepulveda examine Superman’s international role in a world made smaller every day. Finally, Richard Donner and Derek Hoffman script a tale (storyboarded by Matt Camp) in which a cocky human attempts to build a suit which mimics Superman’s powers, causing something of a disaster.

The second part of Action #900 plays mostly to the middle ground, and it does it well. With one exception, none of the stories presume much consequence, nor do they detract from anything we already know about the Man of Steel. I do question the strange inclusion of the Donner script. We’ve visited the well of regular humans manufacturing Superman’s powers many times, from 52 to the front of this very comic, and I don’t think Donner draws anything new from it. Additionally, though it’s kind of cute to have Donner’s contribution take the form of a movie script, the written directions give the feeling that this was actually meant to be drawn as a comic but someone ran out of time. On the other end of things, the Goyer/Sepulveda political tale, though a bit heavy-handed, manages surprising relevance. Lots of stories have dealt with the possible anachronistic qualities of “The American Way” part of Superman’s slogan, but I can’t think of any that have really looked at it through the lens of modern technology and social media, nor through relatively recent developments in international relations. I’d like to see this story have lasting effect; it could take the Superman titles to some interesting places.

Before I wrap up, I want to say a word about this book’s art. All told, 15 pencillers worked on Action #900. With one exception (a one-page flashback in “The Black Ring”), all of them did an amazing job. I don’t know how DC pulled together so many artists whose work just shines, but it makes this book a pleasure to look at. Pete Woods and Jesus Merino anchor the main story, with flashbacks from Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund, Rags Morales, Jamal Igle and Jon Sibal, and the incomparable Gary Frank. Something else at the back of the book I didn’t mention above: Brian Stelfreeze closes out Action‘s 96 pages with a spread showing Superman’s artistic evolution over the years. Every figure’s drawn in the style of a predominating Superman interpretation, from Curt Swan to Neal Adams to Ed McGuinness to Gary Frank. I can’t tell you how happy I am that Frank’s Superman was chosen as the Platonic ideal of DC’s current interpretation of the character. Frank’s artwork on the Superman books has always excelled, and when he comes in to draw a three-page flashback focusing on the death of Pa Kent in “The Black Ring,” he really nails the emotion on which Cornell’s script operates. Even given its flaws, Action #900 works because of creators like Cornell, Woods and Frank, who continue to ensure Superman’s relevance 73 years after his first appearance.

tags: action comics, gary frank, lex luthor, paul cornell, pete woods, superman

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