Thursday, December 9, 2010

Review: Action Comics Annual #13

I have settled into enjoying Paul Cornell and Pete Wood's Luthor-driven run on Action Comics, as each issue walks the tightrope, balancing action, intrigue, and humor. Given that I went into the run lamenting the lack of Superman in the title, it is no small feat that I am happy that this story is being told. Unfortunately, Action Comics Annual #13 didn't live up to the monthly chapters.

In the annual Cornell tells two stories of Luthor's distant past, a well-coiffed Luthor just starting out. This Luthor ends up running into Darkseid and Ra's Al Ghul  in two stories and I don't know if these wrinkles in Luthor's history are worth it.

Last review of the main title had Vandal Savage awaiting the arrival of Luthor for centuries. As I said then, I worry when writers dip into a character's distant past knowing that it will color every story thereafter. While Cornell was able to navigate that problem deftly with Savage, he isn't as smooth here in the Annual. These are sort of spanners thrown into the gears of continuity. In the end, I had to ask myself 'did these semi-origin stories add or detract from Luthor's character?' We'll see.

The first story is wildly drawn by Marco Rudy, last seen in Supergirl Annual #2. His work is very trippy in this story, innovative but sometimes detracting. Take this panel with Luthor hanging out in a nightclub. Sure the background adds to a alcohol-fueled environment, but it in other places, it was hard to follow the action. Comics work best when words and art work together. Here, the art often distracted.

The young Luthor is destitute in Metropolis and heads to the clubs to try to figure out a way to make money. There he runs into a young Perry White, undercover in the bar, trying to worm his way into the seedy background of the place.

White tries to 'save' Luthor by getting him out of the bar figuring something ugly is going to go down. But Luthor wants to stay.

Turns out the club is owned by Bruno Mannheim, crime boss, head of Intergang, and underling of Darkseid.

Luthor talks his way into being employed by Mannheim, much to Luthor's chagrin. Here White (undercover as one of Mannheim's men) sees greatness in Luthor but thinks Lex simply needs a mentor.

While working for Mannheim, Luthor discovers a sort of Boom Tube doorway, which of course leads to Apokolips. Luthor is both shocked and fascinated by this world, realizing that there is more to the world than the veneer. There are deeper threats, weirder places.

Despite the horror around him (including seeing Darkseid immolate a slave), Luthor remains staid. He is trying to absorb all he is seeing. Darkseid puts Luthor to work, having him designing weapons.

After more than a month of servitude, Luthor has had enough and decides to try to wrest control of the place from Darkseid. It is an impressive amount of hubris by this young Luthor.

After a failed assassination attempt on Darkseid by Luthor, Lex runs off and 'luckily' finds a boom tube device to get back home. But he didn't come home with just the experience. He palmed some Apokoliptian technology.

Back home, Luthor uses the tech to make a business killing, applying for patents and making money hand over fist. Despite this wealth, Perry White tries to convince Luthor to join him at the Daily Planet. Remember, White hopes to mentor Luthor into doing the right thing.

Of course, Luthor wants no part of it. Why would he work for someone when he can instead sit in power. The conversation unravels, ending with Luthor swearing he will destroy White.

In the end, Darkseid 'allowed' Luthor to escape because he sensed some 'father-killer' feelings within Lex. Nice pick up, given Lex offed his father to get the traveling money to get to Metropolis.

I do like this ending line by Darkseid. "One day he will take the bait set by a god!" This whole story arc I have been wondering who has been pulling Luthor's strings, who is making him act this way grasping for power. Maybe this line is a clue. Maybe transforming the Black Lantern 'death' energy to White Lantern 'life' energy (pure conjecture on my part) will resurrect Darkseid. Hmmm ...

Despite that little potential hint, I have to say that overall I didn't like the story. Do I need Luthor to have met Perry White in his youth? Do I need White to try to bring Luthor into the fold? Do I need Luthor to have interned for Darkseid? Or to have made his millions off of stolen tech? I don't think so. I don't think these new background threads add to Luthor's history. In fact, I think the millions made from the stolen tech detracts from Lex. Isn't a better story, isn't it more befitting of his hatred of metas, if he made his millions on his own, with his own work, gathering his power one step at a time by his own hands.

It just felt wrong. Luthor works better for me as a self-made man. And the quirky art befuddling me at times didn't help. Again, it is nice to look at, swirling psychedelically off the page, but at time overwhelmed to text.

The second story again looks to the past.

Now it seems that Luthor spent a while interning for Ra's Al Ghul. Don't ask me when this happens ... pre-Metropolis? Early Metropolis time? The problem is it looks like Luthor spends a long time with Al Ghul. It shouldn't be after he has been in Metropolis. But it can't be before since we know Lex went from Smallville straight to the big city.

And I also don't know if Luthor would necessarily work under someone for this length of time.

But Lex does learn from Ra's. He learns about what it takes to try to control this planet.

And Ra's seems to like Luthor. Luthor isn't distracted by Talia. He isn't distracted by Ra's treasure. He just wants to learn. Luthor even spurns Al Ghul's more physical teachings like swordplay.

Throughout his stay though, Luthor wonders if he is learning from the right master. Ra's seems to want to take control of the world through bloodshed, by purging. Luthor wants it all.

Finally, Ra's baits Luthor with his own version of Pandora's box. Ra's tells Luthor that inside the box is a book with the secret of all their questing.

Surprisingly (although he is young), Luthor takes the bait, opening the box and discovering a tome with empty pages.

Knowing now that Luthor can't be trusted, isn't the son and heir he is looking for, Ra's actually kills Luthor. He then dumps Luthor's body into a Lazarus pit bringing him back.

Ra's feels that for Lex a life after a defeat is a worse punishment than death. But I think that Ra's would recognize that Luthor is a potential rival, maybe someone who would want revenge. My gut tells me that Ra's would have left Luthor dead.

While I don't mind this story's impact on Luthor's history as much as I did the first, I don't know if this added much. Have Lex and Ra's interacted ever? Has he run into Talia? Because this story would mean they would not only have met before, but lived together and worked together for some time. Did this story add or detract from Luthor's origins. I guess I am neutral.

I thought the method of telling the story, as though it were a fable, or pulled from Ra's biography was a nice touch although sometimes a bit heavy-handed.

Ed Benes' does understated work here. It looks as though it was only pencilled and looks nice if unspectacular.

So neither of these stories blew me away. Nor did they add much to the history of Lex. I'll be happy to get back to the current storyline.

Overall grade: C


mathematicscore said...

I had a very similar reaction, and while I don't regret this purchase, I'd have liked it a lot more at 2.99. I actually liked the Darkseid story better than the Ras, as it seemed to advance Luthor's "Higher Purpose" arc in the main storyline, plus it plays nicely into his recurring theme of believing he is self-made, always the best man, even though he often is not.

Diabolu Frank said...

I grew up on X-Men comics. Unlike blacks or gays or whatever, every mutant really did know every other mutant as part of one great big incestuous messed-up family. I was really into all that soap opera and interconnectedness as a kid, but I eventually burned out on how overcomplicated yet circular it all was. When I jumped ship to DC, part of the appeal was that the universe was so big, whole segments could be completely isolated into its own continuity and specific genre.

The first R'as al Ghul story I read was the 1983 Batman Annual. I loved how sophisticated the character was, and how special his appearances every few years were. It was a big deal that this brilliant man had chosen only Brice Wayne to be a worthy opponent and potential heir. If anyone else interacted with Ra's al Ghul, is was a big deal.

Today? Ra's al Ghul is a joke. Lex Luthor? Bane? Jason Todd? Everybody gets a turn, and now there's Damian running around besides? They're not special-- they're just in-laws. I guess everybody else grew up on X-Men comics too, and every universe is like the deep south on Sadie Hawkins Day now.