Action Comics #899 is an impressive issue in that it manages to accomplish several interesting and entertaining things all at once — without feeling like any one of them is compromised by the others.
First and foremost, it’s a straightforward grudge match between Lex Luthor and Brainiac that sees the two villains battling to decide which one will end up wielding the mysterious Black Lantern power that Luthor’s been seeking ever since the start of Paul Cornell’s run on the book.
As well as being a physical conflict, it’s an enjoyable battle of minds as two of Superman’s more cerebral foes seek to outmaneuver each other. As they do so, they whip out attacks and counter-attacks in quick succession, lending some deadpan comedy to a fight that could otherwise risk appearing overly serious and po-faced. There’s also a pleasing sense that both characters have done their homework on each other, laying groundwork in advance of the fight that they can then call upon in the midst of their conflict.
This brings me onto another enjoyable aspect of the book: as the villains fight each other, they reveal information about their plans that readers will realize had secretly underpinned many of the events of previous issues. Plot developments, character motivations and even entire characters are given greater significance in retrospect as a result of this issue, meaning that a lot of readers will probably be keen to dig out their back issues and reread the entire story with this new information in mind.
Tossing these kind of revelations in the middle of a battle is a satisfying way of making explicit the solutions to certain mysteries without the whole book having to slow down so that we can appreciate just how clever Cornell has been. As such, it strikes a nice balance between exposition and action, just at the point at which people might be seeking some clarity in preparation for the story’s climax.
Talking of which, the end of this chapter is about as exciting and climactic as it gets, setting up a huge threat for the next issue that promises to demand the attention of many other characters from the Superman family if it’s to be successfully thwarted. It’s pleasing to see Cornell follow through on the idea of Lex Luthor actually getting what he wishes for in terms of phenomenal cosmic power (although the geek in me wants to follow that with “itty bitty living space”), and I look forward to seeing how the writer resolves the situation in the next issue.
Jesus Merino and Brad Anderson’s art manages to stay consistent with what has gone before in the title under Pete Woods, giving us some satisfying spreads of large-scale cosmic action and managing to get away with some slightly posed-looking figures purely because Cornell’s take on Lex and Brainiac makes them come across as poseurs themselves. By the end of the issue, there’s a sense that the art team is pulling out all the stops to bring us something big and impressive, lending a greater sense of weight to Cornell’s conclusion than might be achieved with a more reserved style.
All things considered, this is a very nicely handled showdown between Brainiac and Luthor that makes for a great payoff for many elements of Cornell’s run — going all the way back to the first issue — whilst also setting up an epic showdown for the anniversary issue #900 in a way that feels more organic and natural than a lot of DC’s cosmic crossovers of late. However, if you haven’t checked out Cornell’s run on this book yet, then I’d probably advise you to start at the beginning, as much of the enjoyment of this issue depends on seeing how the writer brings together his disparate story strands in preparation for a high-stakes denouement.