Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Five reasons to love Paul Cornell's Action Comics

Action Comics #890
Recently, the Mindless Ones tore Paul Cornell to shreds in a podcast full of "sniggering snark" (to use B. Clay Moore's expression).

I have to agree with them that Knight and Squire has been disappointing. As they said, Cornell should stop talking about England and just tell a super-hero story that is set in England. I was so underwhelmed by the mini-series that I decided to stop buying it just two issues before its conclusion.

I couldn't disagree more, however, with what the Mindless Ones had to say about Cornell's ongoing story "The Black Ring" from Action Comics. I thought their critique was unfair and most of their arguments amounted to pointless nitpicking. Failing to see the forest for the trees, they obsessed over bits of dialogue that, granted, sound pretty absurd taken out of context, but aren't really that outrageous when you consider that this is a fictional universe in which aliens that look identical to humans develop the ability to fly and shoot lasers out of their eyes when exposed to our yellow sun's rays.

Cornell's story makes at least as much sense as any other outrageous story found in books published by Marvel and DC every month, and it's unclear to me why the Mindless Ones demand from it a level of realism rarely found in super-hero comics. I'm also pretty sure that Cornell knows how absurd some of his dialogue is. He's aware of how silly all of it is and is banking on the fact that his audience accepts that and is willing to go along for the ride. Maybe I give him too much credit, but I find it difficult to believe that Cornell could have Vandal Savage talk about Luthor "meddling with his pustules" and be oblivious of just how utterly ridiculous that sounds.

Maybe the Mindless Ones just have higher standards than I do. It's true that "The Black Ring" is not without its flaws. I, too, have problems with the way the story is structured around a "villain of the month," and I think some of the individual issues fall a bit flat. (The ones featuring Deathstroke, Vandal Savage and the Secret Six were the weakest so far.) But overall I think Action Comics is one of the best books that DC currently publishes. And here are five reasons why I love it:

1. Robot Lois Lane

It's too bad there is no way of promoting the awesomeness of this character without spoiling the surprise in the first issue of "The Black Ring". From her first appearance, it was clear that something weird was going on with this version of Lois Lane. Why is she having dinner with Luthor? Why is he casually discussing his plans with her? Why is she acting so out of character? Has he brainwashed her? Is she just playing along and manipulating him? Is she a clone? Out of all the possible explanations, one that didn't occur to when I first read the issue was that she was in fact a robot. So 23 pages into the story, when Luthor suddenly tells her to go into safe mode – to which she replies, "Wha-- *glurrk*" – before he pulls the skin off her face to reveal the metal skeleton underneath – it was both shocking and exciting. Luthor's assistant then reveals that she was constructed from parts coming from Kryptonian Brainiac technology, some of which they're not even sure what they're for, which would freak anybody out except an overconfident egomaniac like Luthor. And then, as if that wasn't already amazing enough, when they get attacked, Luthor reactivates her and tells her to go into "smash mode." The next page is pure over-the-top madness: the red eyes, the impossibly excessive artillery, and best of all: "Grrr!"

Action Comics #890

This is simply one of the best character introductions I've ever read. Cornell had to then deliver on the promise of that exciting debut, and I think he succeeds. Robot Lois Lane is my favourite character in the series, and her scenes are almost always the highlight of even the weakest issues. She's sophisticated, stylish, intelligent, funny, and as I always suspected but is only now becoming clear, she has her own agenda. Her personality comes from a combination of the Brainiac technology she's built from, sampled Lois Lane DNA, and the way she was programmed by Luthor to challenge him and offer an outside perspective. These are three different and probably incompatible forces pulling her in different directions and making her a very complex character.

2. Lex Luthor

I think Lex Luthor is a fascinating character, but it takes a really good writer to be able to make him a compelling protagonist in a story of this length. And here too I think Cornell succeeds brilliantly. He writes Luthor as a calm and charismatic genius who is so full of himself that he is almost completely oblivious to some of the ways in which he's making a fool of himself. The best issues so far have been the ones that focused more on characterization than action (which is a bit ironic, given the title of the series), like the ones featuring Death (#894) or the Joker (#897). 

3. The humour

There are usually at least a couple of laugh-out-loud moments in every issue. Sometimes it's in the dialogue. Other times it's just something Lex Luthor does that reveals how much of a boob he really is. And most often, it's just the sheer over-the-top absurdity of what's going on that just makes it funny. Like Gorilla Grodd trying to bite Lois' head off and finding out she's made of metal (in #893), or the fact that a singing magical pony is a recurring plot point. It just feels like Cornell is having fun writing these stories and that fun transfers to my reading experience.

4. The story

Never mind that this ties into Blackest Night and the whole Green Lantern emotional spectrum mythology. Never mind that the reason this story even exists is that Superman happens to be taking a walk across America in the most boring super-hero story of all time. And never mind that Luthor's quest for orbs of black energy on the surface seems like an excuse to feature a different villain every month. In spite of all that, there is a story being told here, and it's not nearly as nonsensical or difficult to piece together as the Mindless Ones would have us believe.

It's a story that is being revealed in small increments, and it requires both patience and a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. I can see how someone picking up a random issue or analyzing bits of dialogue out of context would get frustrated by how esoteric it is, but if you've been following it from the start, it shouldn't be that hard to figure out.

Of course, we won't know for sure until issue #900 whether it all holds together and comes to a satisfying conclusion or not. But with all the hints that have been dropped so far, I think it has the potential to be pretty amazing. We've got two unseen, major antagonist pulling strings for unknown reasons: whomever Robot Lois Lane is working for (my guess is Brainiac) and whomever Mister Mind is working for (my guess is maybe Cyborg Superman, which would tie neatly this into the Reign of Doomsday event). We know that Robot Lois has planted the scientific articles that sent Luthor on his quest in the first place. And we also know that Death herself has taken an interest in all this. So all signs point to the shit hitting the fan in a major way before the story concludes, which of course will also coincide with the return of Superman to the title in issue #900.

5. Pete Woods' art

I know Paul Cornell can't take credit for this one, but I think it's more than fair to mention Pete Woods' art as one of the contributing factors to the story's success. His Robot Lois Lane is stunning, and I don't mean in terms of how hot she is, but more in the sense that she seems like a real character, with her own style and mannerisms and facial expressions. Pete Woods really brings her to life, and I think he does the same for Lex Luthor and even for the minor characters like his assistant, Spalding. He doesn't necessarily do anything visually striking or innovative with the layouts, but he's a good storyteller. And it's nice to have a consistent artist on a DC book, which seems like a real luxury these days. (It's a shame that David Finch's covers are so unappealing compared to the interior art.)

So if you haven't been reading this, I think you're missing out. Since Cornell took over in issue #890, Action Comics has been loads of fun, and if my predictions are accurate, the milestone issue #900 in April is going to be spectacular.


Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (a.k.a. Nick Jones) February 9, 2011 at 6:28 AM  

Really good overview. I posted something a while back when Cornell's run kicked off: http://existentialennui.blogspot.com/2010/07/why-lex-luthor-brings-out-best-in-paul.html

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