Saturday 17 July 2010

Why Lex Luthor Brings Out the Best in Paul Cornell (and Pete Woods)

Finally got through the pile of comics that's been growing over the past few weeks (I've been swallowed up by Justin Cronin's The Passage, which I've now finished; it's bloody great – read it), and it was a decidedly mixed bunch. Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin was, as ever, top notch, with some lovely artwork from Frazer Irving; Morrison's Batman #701 was also very good, bringing more to the 'untold' tale of what happened to Bruce between the end of Batman RIP and the events of Final Crisis than I figured, and with some surprisingly strong art from Tony Daniel; Garth Ennis' Wormwood was pretty amusing, if a bit slow; Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's Scarlet was interesting, but not as radical as Bendis seems to believe; everything else was run of the mill.

But there was one comic book that went above and beyond what I was expecting – and it was the one comic book I decided in the end not to buy that week when I went to the comic shop: Action Comics #890, which marks the debut of writer Paul Cornell and artist Pete Woods. Luckily I managed to score a copy of the variant edition on eBay (that's the cover, by David Finch, on the left there), and I'm damn glad I did. Because it's the best-written superhero comic I've read in some time.

The set-up is this: with Superman off traipsing across America in J. Michael Straczyknski's Superman #701 (and disappointingly weepy that was too), he's no longer featuring in Action Comics. Instead, the spotlight falls on Lex Luthor, and his scheme to find and tap into the power of the Black Lantern rings from Blackest Night. That's the plot, but it's really the least interesting thing about this comic. What really makes the issue sing is Cornell's characterization of Luthor, and the sizzling dialogue we get as a result.

There's something about Lex Luthor that brings out the best in certain comics writers. Actually it's broader than that: I think it's villains in general that a lot of comics writers respond to; witness the way Norman Osborn's slow meltdown was often the high point of Marvel's Dark Reign event, or how Mike Carey found his voice with Lucifer. But Lex is a prime example: Brian Azzarrello turned in his best superhero comics work with the Lex Luthor: Man of Steel miniseries; Jeph Loeb, Joe Kelly and others did good things with Luthor during their President Lex storyline in the Superman family of comics; and the likes of Geoff Johns and Gail Simone used Lex effectively in Villains United and during the run up to Infinite Crisis. (And now I come to think of it, DC's President Lex and Villains United really prefigured what Marvel did with Dark Reign to a large extent.)

So there are certainly plenty of precedents for writers responding to villains in general and Lex in particular. And in Action Comics #890 Paul Cornell has upped his game considerably. For those who don't know, Cornell is best known in the UK for his work on Doctor Who, first in Who fandom, then as a writer of tie-in novels, and eventually on telly. The comics he's written prior to this have all been for Marvel, and haven't quite clicked: his Wisdom miniseries was marred by a subpar-Morrisonesque confusion, and his Captain Britain series was decent but unremarkable. On Action Comics, though, he's come into his own.

There's a lot to love about Action Comics #890. It helps that artist Pete Woods, a heretofore talented but undistinguished DC Comics journeyman, invests Cornell's script – which does after all feature extended sequences of people standing around jawing – with an expressive, elegant flow. But there's also the at times sublime dialogue ("Go on, have an adventure outside your skill set"; "So he's genuinely gone on this journey of his. Doubtless to seek more power. In the flyover states, oddly"; "It hasn't even been tested on animals – let alone homeless people"), Lex's arrogance, malevolence and batty quest for power, and a robot Lois Lane.

Above all, though, it's how Cornell writes Lex. There's a great sequence, much of which you can see here, where Lex fires an employee, who promptly attacks Lex, furious that his job's gone just like that when he has mouths to feed. Lex then spends the rest of the day and the evening ruminating on this attack, before contacting a hitman and telling him to kill his former employee. But the real kicker is, the hitman has been positioned on a rooftop across from the ex-employee's apartment the whole time.

It's that kind of insight into how Lex's mind works that provides choice moment after choice moment. Cornell, like Mike Carey, Brian Azzarrello and countless others before him, has finally, whilst writing a villain, discovered his comics mojo, and in the process benefited from a wider truth, one that applies to all fiction: sometimes it take a bad guy to bring out the best in a writer.

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