Graphic Detail: Superman: The Black Ring, Volume One
Graphic Detail takes an in-depth look at a new graphic novel or trade paperback released each week.
You guys ready for a bold statement? Superman: The Black Ring volume one is probably the best book where Superman appears in the title but not in the book itself. Crazy, right?
Black Ring is actually all about Lex Luthor, who you all may remember as having been portrayed by the smarmy Michael Rosenbaum on Smallville, the smarmier Kevin Spacey in Superman Returns, or the actually-he-seems-like-a-pretty-okay-guy Gene Hackman in the original Superman films. Lex so rarely gets to be the star of his own story, which is a shame, because he's a really interesting character. There's something about all that pride boiling inside him that even makes him a little relatable. He doesn't hate Superman just because he's evil—he hates Superman because Superman is one of the only people that makes him feel impotent. That's a pretty human motivation, even if most of us don't turn those feelings of insecurity into plans for world domination. But then, most of us aren't billionaires with robot power suits either.
Anyway, this story picks up right after DC Comics' 2009 giant crossover Blackest Night. If you read that, you know everything you need to dive right into this one, and if you didn't, Black Ring's first chapter will explain it to you, but for a quick refresher: a bad guy named Nekron brought a bunch of dead people back to life to do his bidding, and to power them he gave them Black Lantern rings (like Green Lantern rings, but for not-living people). To fight the thousands of Black Lanterns, some of our favorite characters were given lantern rings of their own, and Lex ended up with one of them. The ring gave him power beyond his wildest imagining, but unfortunately, it was quickly taken away. But Lex remembers what it was like to have so much juice at his command, and he wants it back. Black Ring follows his quest to reclaim that power at any cost.
To write this story, DC picked the perfect man for the job: Paul Cornell, a British television veteran who, among other things, has worked extensively on Dr. Who (he also writes other comics, including Demon Knights and Stormwatch). Cornell captures Luthor's haughty attitude better than almost any other writer; Lex's disdain for people not as smart as he is palpable in every panel, and his uncontrollable intellect pops up in the strangest of places, like during the third chapter, when he records audible notes to himself in the middle of a fight with a crazed killer. But what's really the best thing about this book is how funny it is. Cornell's got a great sense of comedic timing and wordplay that make light of the more ridiculous aspects of this story. In chapter four, for instance, Lex runs up against a massive evil monkey known as Gorilla Grodd who likes to eat humans. What is Grodd's battle weapon of choice? A giant spoon, of course.
Throughout the 12-part Black Ring (the first half of which is reprinted here), Lex's quest for power takes him all around the globe, which means that he encounters a lot of different characters we don't always see him interacting with (like the aforementioned Gorilla Grodd). The most interesting of those is Neil Gaiman's famous goth girl Death, who you'll be familiar with if you've ever read the Sandman graphic novels. Very few writers get to take Gaiman's creations into their own books, especially when it comes to superhero comics—Cornell is maybe the third to do so with Gaiman's blessing—so Black Ring takes on special meaning for Sandman fans. The chapter where Lex meets Death is in fact probably the highlight of this book, as we see him try to actually negotiate his way out of being dead. Of course Death has none of it, though she and Lex get to have a nice talk about Life, the Universe, and Everything.
We haven't even mentioned the art yet, which comes courtesy of the mega-talented Pete Woods. Pete has a real knack for character work, facial features especially, and everyone in this book seems like someone you could know (unless they are, you know, giant gorillas or something. Maybe even then). He draws his Lex somewhere between Rosenbaum and Spacey, but with more of Rosenbaum's hiply snug features, so people coming to this with Smallville's character in mind will find an easy transition.
Overall, volume one of the Black Ring is the start of one of the most interesting looks at the Lex Luthor character—and the DC Universe as a whole—in recent memory. If nothing else, this book's worth it for the time Lex spends with other great characters like Grodd, Deathstroke, Vandal Savage and, yes, Death. But there's something both really hilarious and totally compelling about a balding, middle-aged man with more money than the Monopoly Man going crazy over trying to possess a piece of jewelry. Readers know it, Paul Cornell knows it, and even Lex kind of knows it. The fact that this book doesn't take itself too seriously—except when it really needs to—makes it one of the more seriously interesting new releases from DC. A-
Do you find Lex Luthor intriguing?