Action Comics #899 came out this week, the penultimate chapter of Paul Cornell's Lex Luthor story 'The Black Ring'. It has been an interesting roller coaster ride of an arc. I have to admit I came into the story with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I wanted Superman back in Action so dealing with another year 'without Superman' didn't sit well. So maybe I read the first couple of chapters of this arc with a jaundiced eye.
But then the mystery, the nuances, and the dark humor of 'The Black Ring' started to win me over. What were the spheres all about? How was pulling Lex's strings? Why? And how could Lex not realize he was being played? Trying to figure it all out added an element of fun for me as a reader. And seeing that Brainiac was one of the people behind the curtain was a great reveal last month.
Can you tell there is a 'but' coming?
The problem with having a story building up to a big reveal and finish is that you need to pull it off. And unfortunately, I don't know if this issue pulled it off. When I have to reread an issue 3 times in a row to see if I understand what happened ... well it can't be a good thing.
Still there are some interesting wrinkles to this and Cornell has the last chapter to right the ship for me. But after riding a high of several issues, this issue of Action Comics left me a bit deflated. Part of that may also be Jesus Merino's rougher pencils, a significant departure from Pete Woods smooth as silk art. I usually like Merino's stuff a lot, especially his Justice Society work. But I missed Woods here.
As revealed last month, Brainiac has been controlling LoisBot this whole adventure, sending Lex on this quest for the Black Energy spheres. As Lex goes into space to seize control of the last 4 spheres, Brainiac arrives and let's his presence be known.
And Brainiac just can't help but gloat a little bit, filling Luthor in on how he has been able to mentally nudge Lex. Way back in the first issue of this arc, when Lex was injured by the LexCorp worker, Lois introduced nanites into his system. These undetectable technological germs were able to subtly influence Lex to continue on his quest even if it threw him into danger. And, of course, LoisBot was also there to use her more direct influence as well.
Okay, so far so good.
At first Lex seems shocked at the Brainiac reveal. But then he shows that he has known about the Coluan's plot for some time. He treats it as a joke, laughing at how bad his 'shock' was.
This is probably the best moment of this book as once again we see that Luthor is usually one step ahead of everyone, even evil genius android despots. Lex noted some suspicious hardware in LoisBot when she was split in two by Vandal Savage and so did some research. Not only has Lex known about the nanites, he has researched them and has control of them.
And anticipating the throwdown with Brainiac, Lex says he made sure Superman was too busy 'saving his disciples' to bother with the two villains.
Hmmm ... sounds like Lex is behind the Reign of Doomsday. I'll have to look back into WoNK but I am pretty sure that the Doomsday bludgeoned to death by Alura and the Kandorians somehow ended up in Lex's hands. It also explains why Doomsday is singling out the Super-family (although maybe not the Cyborg). By making it Doomsday and personal, Lex knows Superman is sure to take notice.
I also like how Lex so easily forgives Lois, who seems truly repentant. I like that LoisBot somehow was trying to fight her programming, a sign of her love for Lex.
There is a nice short battle scene between Brainiac and Luthor when they both shout out their technology-based attacks the way Ash yells out Pokemon maneuvers.
But the bottom line is Luthor has not only overcome Brainiac's viral nanite attack but has turned it into a weapon to override Brainiac's defenses. Luthor ends the battle by breaking Brainiac's neck, just as Brainiac thought he was doing when he killed the Toyman Lex-droid in (I think) Last Stand of New Krypton. Nice symmetry there, something even Lex notes.
With Brainiac defeated and in 'self-repair coma' mode, Lex changes the space spheres. The Earth-based spheres fly into space, completing a circle and opening a doorway that let's this monstrosity out.
It is a very nice design here. It has a feel of Kirby and looks almost like a Marvel Celestial. But it also has weird floating glyphs and a twisted visage which give it a more demonic feel. And the tentacles and appendages also make it vaguely Lovecraftian. Very nice!
Turns out this is the second being who has been trying to manipulate Luthor, the being Mr. Mind is working for.
A projection of Mind shows up to provide some much needed exposition. The being is from The Phantom Zone! That explains the horror that the Joker and others saw when they peeked into the sphere.
Somehow this being felt the 'negative emotions' from our universe and these caused him great pain, especially during Blackest Night. To help keep the energy away from him, the being formed Black Energy spheres on this side. It also knew that these spheres could be manipulated to form a door to open up a path to our universe. All it needed was someone to do that work from this side of the door. He set Mr. Mind up as a lackey to make Luthor that person to set up the gateway. And now that he is in our universe, he is going to end the constant wave of negative emotions by killing all living things.
Ummm ... wha?
So let me get this straight, a Phantom Zone god feels pain from our universe's bad feelings? Is able to manipulate that energy to a point within our universe to form black spheres? Is able to control Mr. Mind, but instead of having Mind make the gateway he has the worm set up articles about black energy to tantalize Luthor into investigating? Oh, and the God also knows that somehow the energy he manipulated on this side of the dimensional rift can be changed to something to help him get here?
It just seems almost too crazy ... too contrived ... too loopy.
I know ... I know ... this is the problem with comics. I can look the other way at gun-toting LoisBots, talking worms, android despots, and black spheres in general but I can't suspend disbelief for all of this. Unfortunately, the answer is no ... I can't. It doesn't make internal sense in comparison to everything else that has happened.
Lex was somehow expecting something like this too. And he also realizes that Mr. Mind has been trying to keep Lex from bring the LoisBot to this final battle. That must mean this creature fears Lois for some reason.
Given that Lois also has Kryptonian tech inside her and that Kryptonians knew how to access/control the Phantom Zone, then she must be able to be utilized somehow to control this thing. The best way for Lex to get hold of that tech is to sever the link between LoisBot and himself and somehow absorb the K-nanites inside her.
So this is another leap of story-telling faith. Just because she is part K-tech doesn't necessarily mean she has Phantom Zone hardware inside her. And I don't know how Lex knew that killing the LoisBot would lead another inoculation of nanites.
And this new influx of Phantom Zone controlling nanites lets Lex assume some sort of energy form and battle the being on a mental level.
Wow ... that is a lot of story, a lot of movement of the plot in just 6 pages. After a slow burn of 10 issues getting us to this point, we have to swallow a lot of exposition and some relatively implausible plot twists to get us to the end.
And in this new form, Luthor is able to 'possess' this being, becoming something of a god himself.
So a K-nanite infested Luthor is somehow able to psychically overwhelm an alien god from another dimension?
It just seemed like too much, too fast. As if so much information and decisions had to be presented and acted upon with no prior explanation or rationalization. As I said before, I had to reread the last half of the book 3 times to make sure I understood what was happening. This felt rushed. And that's a shame because the rest of this arc has really been wonderful.
I sometimes bemoan page counts and plot progression on this blog. But I would have loved more explanation of all of this issue's stuff, a way to make it more palateable, a way to explain it more than just rolling with it. In this arc, we got whole issues with Death, the Joker, Grodd with lots of conversation and discussion. These were sort of side adventures and all well achieved, all very good issues with an appropriate pace. We had 22 pages to get the whole feel of those encounters.
But the end explanation of the big villain, the not-so-big villain, the nature of the spheres, the purpose of the spheres ... really the foundation of the whole plot and sub-plots ... is all jammed into one issue?
I am hoping that the ending in Action Comics #900 helps me wrap my head around everything that happened here. And I can't wait to see Superman back in this title and to see what Paul Cornell has in store for him.