Lex Luthor and his entourage drop by Arkham Asylum to see The Joker about a black sphere. High jinks, hilarity, and homicide ensue.
While most readers (myself included) don’t care to see Superman reduced to a pedestrian (in both senses) shadow of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’s socially conscious Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics in which Superman discovers himself and America while setting drug dealers’ houses on fire (never mind that the subbing of writer Chris Roberson totally turned that thing around), that storyline in Superman has certainly allowed the Man of Steel’s supporting cast, namely Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen, to step into the spotlight and show how fun comics can be.
To quote Elliot S! Maggin, “Must there be a Superman?”
I’m gonna be real with you, Superman can stay “grounded” for all I care so long as Paul Cornell’s Lex Luthor misadventures continue to appear monthly in Action Comics–especially as drawn by Pete Woods, one of the most underrated illustrators in comics. If you need proof, dig the sweet mustache he draws on the penultimate page of the story in this issue. You’re welcome.
In “The Black Ring: Part Eight” (which thankfully doesn’t feel like a tiring multi-part story arc), Luthor continues to meet (and subsequently fuck with) various supervillains. So far we’ve had run-ins with Gorilla Grodd, Vandal Savage, and the Secret Six. Here in Action Comics #897 we finally get The Joker as Luthor visits Arkham Asylum. As you might imagine from Paul Cornell writing The Joker, the result is a riot. Not, like, a prison riot, but a funny ha-ha kind of riot.
Tension is the key to this issue, and based on a simple premise: one character wants something that the other will not give. In this case, Luthor is on a quest and he wants a straight answer. The Joker, of course, is the last person to give one.
Not only does this situation create great conflict, but it allows Cornell to write preposterous dialogue like, “Oh, it’s like a camp version of Blade Runner!” as well as semi-obscure jokes about the German pop outfit Snap!
Oh, and Lex Luthor punches The Joker in the face.
Save for the antiheroes of Secret Six, there has yet to be anything resembling a superhero in the pages of Action Comics since Lex Luthor became protagonist. It’s easy to overlook that fact because DC’s super-villains have been more compelling than a lot of the company’s heroes these days. If Action Comics #897 is any indication, maybe the DC universe doesn’t need superheroes at all.
Considering the generous portions of humor that Paul Cornell has been dishing out these days in Action Comics, you’d expect an issue spotlighting The Joker to be a real laugh riot. Never one to be pinned into a corner, however, Cornell actually ends up taking a more contemplative approach–dialing the yuks down to a level much lower than anticipated.
Of course, his Joker still dishes out plenty of one-liners–including a particularly biting one at the expense of his old frenemy, Lex Luthor, but the focus is primarily on the character’s penchant to outwit and befuddle his enemies. As funny as the Clown Prince can be, his true threat as an antagonist has always been his ability to manipulate a situation to his advantage–which is the aspect of his personality most prominently featured here.
As that manipulation unfolds, the intrigue of the long storyline that has been running in this series really begins to ramp up. At times, it may have seemed that the basic premise (which involves Luthor’s quest to obtain the secrets of a mysterious source of power) had been merely an excuse to have the big baddie rub shoulders with this book’s rotating gallery of guest stars. By the end of this issue, however, that plot is once again at the forefront with a few added layers of complexity.
Cornell makes wise use of The Joker’s personality in achieving this end. I suspect that quite a lot of the information presented here could be reliably taken at face value, but The Joker’s tendency to speak in riddles and half-truths keeps us guessing. These deceptions, added to an unexpected bit of treachery by another character, left me with a renewed interest in seeing how this story will wrap up when Cornell is done.
Sadly, the issue falters in its attempts to turn The Joker into a philosopher musing on the nature of human existence. Some of the notions he takes time to ponder are certainly valid and interesting, but their presence in the dialogue are frequently unnatural and distracting. For instance, when Joker slips into a soliloquy about his status as a self-aware archetype, it’s a clear interruption of this issue’s rhythm.
Month after month, the artwork of Pete Woods continues to astound. By this point in the run, he’s tackled nearly every corner of the DCU–and all of them quite impressively. Given the high number of characters he’s able to render extremely well, I think it’s time to put him on the short list to draw the next major DC crossover event.
By now, reports of the excellence of Action Comics are old news. The fact that this issue, starring two of the greatest villains in all of comics, ranks in quality somewhere around the middle of Cornell’s run is a testament to how spectacular the writer’s work has been on the whole. Even when it stumbles, this is a Top Five book, easily.
After my colleague Dave Wallace wrote several glowing reviews of Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI-13 series, I decided to check out Cornell’s work for myself to see if he was indeed a British writer following in the tradition of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Warren Ellis (my three favorite writers still producing contemporary comics on a regular basis–though Moore’s production is becoming irregular now that he is slipping into semi-retirement). Thus, Dave and I wrote a collaborative review of Captain Britain and MI-13 #10 as a way to get me to read my first Paul Cornell story.
I believe it was the only issue of that series that Dave awarded less than four bullets to (he usually gave the issues either four or four-and-a-half bullets). He
gave issue #10 three-and-a-half bullets while I gave it merely three. It was an average comic book published at a time when I couldn’t afford to by “average comic books” (I still can’t, as a matter of fact).
In other words, my only exposure to Cornell’s work at Marvel left me less than enthused. However, when he took over the writing chores on Action Comics, I decided to give him another try. For the most part, I have not been disappointed with Cornell’s run on Action (the first issue of his Knight and Squire series is another matter entirely).
In Action, Cornell writes dialog that sounds natural for the characters being presented, and he uses situations in the DC universe as fodder for his stories without miring himself in the company’s “mega events.” In the case of Action, Cornell is using an aspect of the Blackest Night / Brightest Day mega event, but he is handling the material in such a way that I do not feel lost even though I have not read the Blackest Night / Brightest Day story and have no desire to.
Thus, in both his handling of believable dialog and his ability to tie his work to a mega event without losing the focus of his own story or his ignorant readers, Cornell is indeed following in the steps of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison–both of whom excelled at those two achievement in stories that were peripherally tied to one of DC’s mega events (such as Moore’s Swamp Thing #46 and its ties to Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Morrison’s Animal Man #6 and its ties to Invasion).
However, I wouldn’t say that Cornell is yet at the level that Moore and Morrison were at in the 1980s when they were working on the books I mentioned in my previous paragraph. Nevertheless, I have been able to rely on being sufficiently entertained by Action Comics every month enough to award it three-and-a-half to four bullets, and this issue is no exception.
I was hoping for an issue that might go down as one of the most memorable Joker stories of all time, but it doesn’t quite achieve that lofty height.
Still, after reading so many Luthor-Joker team-up stories when I was a kid (mostly as reprints), it was great to see Luthor and The Joker together again. Of course, in contemporary comics they could no longer have the type of team-ups that they had in the Silver Age, but they now make a nice contrasting couple with Luthor’s left-hemisphere-dominant Apollonian approach to crime and The Joker’s right-hemisphere Dionysian approach.
I particularly liked The Joker’s quip, “I think if I can just kill Batman, I’ll save the world” as a facetious comment on Luthor’s single-minded delusionary view of himself as the world’s true super-man / Messiah.
The one qualm I had with this issue is with the way Pete Woods depicted The Joker. Woods has been doing excellent work on this series, and he continues in that vein with Action #897 except for his misapprehension of The Joker’s appearance (though I understand about artistic license and Woods’s right to draw the character however he sees fit).
As most Batman fans know, The Joker’s appearance (as created by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, and Bill Finger in 1940) was based on Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of Gwynplaine in the 1921 silent film The Man Who Laughs. In that Victor Hugo story, Gwynplaine’s face was permanently carved into a gruesome ear-to-ear smile. While The Joker’s face was not initially carved into a permanent smile (nor was it part of the original mythos), the chemicals that gave him his permanent chalk-white skin, red lips, and green hair supposedly contorted and paralyzed his facial muscles into the character’s iconic grin.
Those chemicals were the basis for the poison The Joker created that would kill his victims while also contorting and paralyzing their facial muscles and turning their lips ruby red.
Over the years, very few comic book illustrators actually depicted The Joker with a permanent smile. Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson usually did, but the only post-1960s instances that I recall of The Joker being drawn with a permanent smile throughout a story are Neal Adams’s “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” in Batman #251 (save for the last page where Adams may have slipped) and Marshall Rogers’s “The Laughing Fish” and “Sign of the Joker” in Detective Comics #475-76.
To remedy this lack of understanding how The Joker should be depicted, Grant Morrison physically altered the character’s appearance by having him be shot in the face in Batman #655. Then, in Batman #663, The Joker removes his bandages for the first time since surgeons had repaired his bullet-damaged face: He gazes at himself in the mirror, and he sees that “no matter how hard he tries[,] the smile is stuck there, as if on hooks.”
In “The Clown at Midnight” (Batman #663), Morrison clearly intends for The Joker to have the permanent grin he was always meant to have–harkening back to Victor Hugo’s Gwynplaine. Unfortunately, various illustrators in the past four years have depicted The Joker without a permanent smile, and Woods continues that lack of continuity here as he gives us a Joker who seems to be sporting a pencil-thin and curled handlebar mustache that is growing from the corners of his multi-expressioned mouth.
Seriously, I initially wondered why The Joker was wearing a curly, pencil-thin handlebar mustache. I eventually realized that Woods meant for that “mustache” to be scars emanating from the corners of his mouth–making The Joker appear more like the character Mister Melmoth in Morrison’s Seven Soldiers mega-series than Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs.
Again, while I realize that Woods has artistic license to depict The Joker however he wants, I wish the editorial overseers at DC Comics would demand some consistency and continuity in their contemporary mythology. If Morrison wrote just four years ago that The Joker has suffered a surgical disfigurement that causes him to have a permanent smile, then let’s have all subsequent illustrators of the character depict The Joker that way instead of allowing him to have multiple facial expressions with a curly, pencil-thin mustache that emanates from the corners of his mouth.
Okay, enough about that.
Finally, as I read this latest issue of Action, an idea came to mind regarding the black energy spheres that Luthor has been pursuing throughout Cornell’s story. Again, I have not read the Blackest Night / Brightest Day mega-event, so I have no idea how these black spheres factor into that series as an energy source for the “Black Lantern Corps.”
However, in this current issue, Luthor discovers that The Joker is able to manipulate the black sphere that showed up in his Arkham Asylum cell. In part, The Joker is able to make it small enough for him to hide it from the guards by treating it as if was a black-energy-sphere suppository.
Suddenly, I recalled one of my favorite childhood comic book stories–the two-part “Negative Crisis” story that ran in Justice League of America (first ser
ies) #55-56. In that story, black energy spheres (that are the same size as the black energy sphere is in this issue that The Joker shows Luthor) were absorbed into people’s bodies (similar, I guess, to how The Joker “absorbed” the black energy sphere to hide it from the Arkham Asylum guards).
Once these energy spheres were in the host bodies, they gave the people superpowers and turned them evil. Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt provided the exposition regarding what the black spheres were and where they came from:
The black spheres came from a universe in which they evolved–in positive time–to a peak, at which point they became the ultimate in super-intelligent life! They then started to devolve rapidly–in negative time–losing their intelligence.
To escape their doom, they sought out another universe still on positive time–ours–in order to maintain and even increase their super-powers! Because time was short, they had to hurl themselves at random into our universe. . . hoping at least some of them would make contact with the highest form of all Earth life-forms–human beings–and be absorbed into their bodies!
To some extent, Cornell’s story with the black energy spheres that Luthor is pursuing matches up with the details from that old Justice League story. Could the energy that powers the Black Lanterns be the black energy spheres from a “negative time universe”?
I have no idea because I know absolutely nothing about the Black Lantern Corps, and I have no interest in finding out anything about them. Still, there is another possible connection between this current issue of Action Comics and the conclusion to the “Negative Crisis” story in Justice League of America #56 in which Wonder Woman (of Earth-2) absorbed one of the black spheres. The Amazon Princess was able to drive the sphere out through the power of laughter:
I realized laughter was a weakness of the “negative” radiation within me–probably because the black-sphere beings had never been subjected to laughter–I giggled a little to encourage him [Johnny Thunder] to go on telling jokes!
Thus, through laughter, Wonder Woman was able to control the black energy sphere that had invaded her body. Is it any wonder, then, that The Joker is thus far the only person in Cornell’s story who has been able to control the black energy spheres? After all, he is a “the man who laughs,” and dark comedy is his specialty.
I’m probably wrong, but I would really enjoy this current story even more if Cornell ends up connecting it to Gardner Fox’s “Negative Crisis” story. It’s the type of thing that my favorite non-British comic book writer would do–Steve Englehart, who excelled at taking obscure bits of comic book history and weaving them into new-and-engaging stories.
In the end, that’s what Cornell is doing–telling a new and engaging story. I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.