“The Black Ring” (part 5)
In 1989, DC Comics published a story called “The Sound of Her Wings.” The 8th chapter of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman saga, the issue introduced readers to a character that would soon become one of the most popular of the series’ creations, with a life that extended into two of her own mini-series, plenty of spin-off merchandise, an enduring status as a Goth icon, and even a comic pamphlet promoting safe sex, co-starring John Constantine (no, I’m not joking). That character, of course, was Death–Dream’s little sister–but despite her popularity, DC comics (and its subsidiary imprint Vertigo) have always been very careful to limit her appearances since the Sandman title ended, sanctioning her use only in Gaiman’s work and keeping her separate from DC’s various superhero books. Until now.
This latest issue of Paul Cornell’s run on Action Comics sees Death encounter Lex Luthor, after his encounter with Gorilla Grodd last issue left him at his guest star’s proverbial door. Whilst it’s initially jarring to see Gaiman’s character occupy the same space as a bona fide DC character (even though Sandman occasionally crossed over with the fringes of the DCU), that feeling soon gives way to a sense of intrigue about how a conversation between Superman’s arch-enemy and the universe’s most inevitable, unstoppable force of nature would actually play out.
On a certain level, Lex Luthor’s verbal sparring with Death makes for entertaining reading. There’s an accelerated journey for Lex through the Kübler-Ross process (well, part of it), there’s an interesting exploration of Luthor’s belief systems, discussing why he would choose to be an atheist even in a comic book universe that’s clearly populated by gods and which was birthed by a giant cosmic hand (a fact that’s alluded to this issue to comic effect), and there’s some fun to be had with Death’s visions of Lex’s concepts of Heaven and Hell, with Cornell realizing that less is more and choosing to only imply many of the details of Luthor’s fantasies rather than explicitly spelling them out.
However, despite being entertaining, there’s a sense that the confrontation between DC’s ultimate villain and the embodiment of death should have been a bigger deal, somehow. Just as it feels like things are getting going, Luthor’s encounter with Death ends, with only a hint that something bigger might be going on than has so far been revealed before we’re hurried along and introduced to the guest-star of the next issue. I’m not saying that I expected an epic battle between the two characters, or a peerless work of literature exploring the human condition, just that it might have been nice to make this encounter feel as though it carried a little more dramatic weight.
That said, maybe Cornell’s light touch is entirely warranted. Death has always been a character that has defied traditional expectations of how to treat the concepts surrounding the end of life and her dialogue feels perfectly fitting and in-character here (helped no doubt by Gaiman’s involvement in scripting the issue, acknowledged here in the credits page). It’s just a shame that, considering the significance of Death appearing in a mainstream DCU title, this issue doesn’t really feel like anything out-of-the-ordinary and it doesn’t really advance the overarching story of Luthor’s search for the Black Lanterns’ ring energy, either.
Putting aside my perhaps unreasonable expectations for the book, I’m happy to report that Cornell demonstrates his usual skill and charm as a writer here (I can’t think of anyone else who could get away with a caption that reads “Meanwhile, around 1,000 years ago” so effortlessly), and sets up another interesting story idea for the following issue. Pete Woods’s artwork also appears effortless, providing a take on Death that’s reminiscent of Chris Bachalo’s work on the character’s solo mini-series and coping with the constantly changing tone of the issue’s shifting realities very competently.
Even if there’s a slight sense that the issue is less than the sum of its parts and doesn’t feel like the big event it should have been, I’d welcome a return appearance from Death in the pages of Cornell’s Action Comics, especially if it provides a more compelling reason to justify this first extended cameo.
Finally, the issue also features a backup story about Jimmy Olsen and an alien invasion, written by Nick Spencer and illustrated by RB Silva. Whilst it’s jolly enough knockabout stuff, it’s also pretty shallow and forgettable, and I definitely wouldn’t miss it if it wasn’t there–especially if it meant that Action Comics would be a dollar cheaper each month.