With its monthly counterpart currently dedicated to recapturing the zany fun of eras past, it is appropriate that this week’s Action Comics Annual also bears a striking resemblance to the comics of yesteryear. Like the many oversized annuals published during the Silver Age, it’s a multi-story offering, serving up previously untold biographical tales from the chief character’s past. These days in Action, that character is Lex Luthor, whose regular series run-ins with villainous luminaries from the DCU are repeated here thematically by author Paul Cornell to bring a young Lex in contact with such notables as Darkseid and Ra’s al Ghul.
As is sometimes the case when Cornell is a bit off his game, the notions brought forth in this annual are respectable in theory, though their execution is slightly lacking. The depiction of Lex as the epitome of arrogant brilliance is once again on point and it is interesting to consider how a pair of DC’s heaviest hitters might have influenced the prototypical super-villain during his formative years. On the other hand, however, this is a book that feels plagued by missed opportunities, mostly due to some questionable creative choices.
In the Darkseid story, Cornell allows a few ill-timed missteps to get in the way of an otherwise satisfactory script. The first of those is the decision to pepper Darkseid’s grandiose dialogue with modern colloquialisms, no doubt rooted in Jack Kirby’s approach to the New Gods mythos, but distracting nonetheless. Cornell’s other gaffe occurs when he insists on shoehorning several allusions to Lex’s future rivalry with Superman into the narrative. The references are anything but subtle and organic.
The problems are far more comprehensive in the Ra’s al Ghul segment, where a narration comprised entirely of poetic verse is more often frustrating than it is cute, clever, or (most egregiously) clear. It’s a thin coat of paint intended to spruce up a mostly skeletal plot, despite the fact that some simple straightforwardness would have gone a lot further.
The flaws of this comic are not limited to the writing, mind you, as both tales are at times difficult to follow visually. Ed Benes provides the book’s better effort in drawing the Ra’s story, especially considering the degree to which Marco Rudy overextends his talents in the Darkseid feature. Rudy unleashes a bevy of unconventional panel arrangements, the likes of which you might expect from J. H. Williams III. In so doing, he more than once makes it fairly difficult for the reader to discern what’s going on.
If I were to venture a guess, I’d say that the two stories contained in this annual were late minute editions to the Lex Luthor saga that Cornell has been crafting in Action proper. While that series remains a diamond in the rough, this book lags a few laps behind as a disappointing companion piece.