Superman: The Black Ring is good, and this is a successful examination of the Lex Luthor character, though it all does get somewhat marred by too much cosmic hoo-ha. As well -- as is the fate of many such long comic book story arcs -- the inevitable interruption of crossovers and threads from other stories creates some confusion here, preventing The Black Ring from ending quite as strongly as it began.
Lex Luthor merges with a Phantom Zone creature at the end of this book, and in that way attains the god-like power he's always craved. Lex can only keep the power, however, if he uses it for good, and Lex is only able to achieve that magnanimity for a moment before he devolves to base selfishness. All superhero comic books must ultimately be a tragedy for the villain, but Lex's fall is especially poignant because in failing to keep the power, he also fails to truly comprehend any of the lessons he's learned about himself over his two-volume "quest for self-realization," as one character calls it.
The second volume of Black Ring begins with the two-issue crossover with Secret Six (also collected in Secret Six: The Reptile Brain), an annual, two issues guest-starting the Joker and Orange Lantern Larfleeze respectively, and the two-part conclusion. Of these, the Joker's is the best chapter and the most like the great material in volume one. Most of the issue finds Lex and the Joker sitting across from one another in a cell, debating the differences between order and chaos. Though we've seen team-ups between these two arch-nemeses before, Cornell's issue seemed especially wise; Cornell never tries to find where the two villains coincide, but instead focuses entirely on their differences, and it makes their encounter unexpectedly fresh.
The rest of the book, however, never quite achieves that issue (or the previous volume's) studiousness. The Secret Six story is chaotic, not always as much about Lex as the conflict between Vandal and Scandal Savage. The Larfleeze issue feels tacked-on, an unnecessary pause between the Joker issue and the story's conclusion, though Lex's calm murder of one of his employees there -- reminding the reader that Lex is the villain, not the hero, of this story -- is likely one of the best and most horrifying moments of the story. In the annual, Cornell and artist Marco Rudy do a nice Jack Kirby impression, the story and art weird and whimsical like the best of New Gods, but the story doesn't tie to the rest of the book and so fits unevenly in the narrative.
I had suspected, and indeed internet spoilers suggested, that Brainiac was largely behind Lex's quest, and certainly the controlling force of Lex's Lois Lane robot. Cornell made this obvious indeed because the surprise is that Lex has been aware of the manipulation, and planned for it. Had Brainiac simply been the "power" that Lex had sought throughout these pages, I would have been disappointed, but Cornell turns it to one of the book's best revelations. There's a great nerd-chic moment that follows in which Lex and Braniac shout techno-babble at one another, and I've appreciated how both Black Ring and Grounded have called back to the "New Krypton" storyline more than I expected, as in the fight between Lex and Brainiac.
Unfortunately, said "power" turns out to be a Phantom Zone monster, quite inexplicably. Again, Cornell ties it all up well alongside "New Krypton," but it's tiring to find the Phantom Zone again at the culmination of another Superman story (as if every Batman story would have to end at Crime Alley). The various prophecies and hints from Vandal Savage, the Joker, and Death of the Endless all make sense at the conclusion, but a Phantom Zone monster is rather less than what I expected -- the monster's threatened destruction of the universe hardly seems enough to scare the Joker into remaining at Arkham Asylum or to cure Larfleeze temporarily of his greed. Not to mention that once Superman arrives on the scene, Lex at once seems seems the scheming super-villain and not the story's dashing protagonist, far less impressive with his god-like powers than he was in the Joker's cell in a trench coat and suit.
The final chapter of this book is Action Comics #900; we're not treated to the original issue's back-up stories (controversial as they were) and the main story is not quite an anniversary tale (though a good ol' Superman/Lex Luthor battle never hurts in a pinch). What the issues does is show a number of tragedies from Superman's life, drawn by different artists -- again, not the most hopeful anniversary fare, and especially not for the last Action Comics anniversary issue before the DC New 52 Relaunch, but we are treated to Dan Jurgens drawing once again the death of Superman, and Gary Frank drawing again the death of Pa Kent. Artist Pete Woods, a favorite since his Robin days, gets much of the credit for the nuanced, often silent scenes of Black Ring, but Frank's Superman is bar none, and the sequence where Lex realizes Clark's secret identity is gripping.
Even as Lex has hunted this mysterious power over the past two books, the conclusion is incongruously cosmic; after Lex has wheedled his way through the villains of the DC Universe, to blast Superman back and forth with power beams comes off pedestrian. The climax also turns on Lex having sicced one or more Doomsdays on Superman's allies, something never shown in the book but discussed in dialogue after the fact. Informed readers know this relates to the Return of Doomsday and Reign of Doomsday crossover books, but someone picking up Black Ring in the bookstore because they like Lex Luthor, for instance, might think they lost a page.
All of this contributes to the unraveling of Black Ring's conclusion; there's a bit in the middle here that's of the quality of the previous volume, but much of the rest is confusion and battles of the kind you might find most everywhere else.
Taken as a whole, however, Superman: The Black Ring has been a great romp through the DC Universe, and notable especially for Paul Cornell's use of Sandman's Death, and as a fairly faithful story of the aftermaths of both the Blackest Night even and "New Krypton." If nothing else, this storyline has made me take notice of Cornell's writing, and I'm eager for his Reign of Doomsday (awkward ties to this book notwithstanding) and also his Demon Knights and Stormwatch in the new DC Universe.
[Contains original and variant covers, sketchbook and text pages by Pete Woods]
Loved Lex Luthor in Action Comics? Wanted to see Superman return? Excited for the return of Doomsday, or just ready for the new 52 already?