Halloween Roundtable Review: ‘Action Comics’ #894 (With Death!)
ComicsAlliance writers Laura Hudson, Chris Sims, Caleb Goellner, Andy Khouri, David Brothers, David Uzumeri, and Chris Murphy sit down for a roundtable discussion about the newly released Action Comics #894 by Paul Cornell and Pete Woods. WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW.
David U: Action Comics #894 features the first intersection of Neil Gaiman's Sandman and the DC Universe since Grant Morrison's JLA, as Death herself shows up to have an extremely entertaining conversation with Lex Luthor. Basically, Luthor has just fallen off of a cliff after his confrontation with Gorilla Grodd, resulting in a near-death experience with the avatar of non-existence. In the true style of Neil Gaiman's Death, she's flippant and fun rather than morbid, and it results in an interesting look at the nature of both existence and death in the DC Universe.David B: Can you sum up Death for us, Uzumeri? Kind of what's different about her from the guy with the robes?
David U: Well, Death in the DC Universe has taken various forms over the years. The most famous are probably Jack Kirby's Black Racer and the Morrison/Millar Black Flash, who where confirmed to be the same character in both Final Crisis and The Flash: Rebirth. Those two are context-specific faces of the endless aspect of Death, which we meet in this issue in the form of the goth chick with the ankh necklace and the tattoo and all the stuff we recognize from Neil Gaiman's Sandman.
Laura H: Also I would like to note that while Caleb was preparing the Death Halloween costume post earlier, I instructed him to find a "death panel" to help illustrate it.
Chris S: LAURACARE IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL.
Chris S: This is not, however, the first time the Vertigo/Sandman/Gaiman version of Death has appeared in the DC Universe. Cary Bates used her in Captain Atom #42 way back in 1990, where she appeared along with the Black Racer (Jack Kirby's version of death) and Nekron (created by Alan Moore and recently seen all over the place in Blackest Night), and there was a pretty big controversy at the time.
David U: It's worth mentioning that Nekron was also mentioned in this issue, with the implication that it's an aspect of her. Actually, to be honest, Nekron himself represents the void of nonexistence, while Death is ... the death BEFORE nonexistence. At least according to the old Books of Magic miniseries.
Chris S: Also, the Black Racer also got a mention too, which makes me think Paul Cornell was at least giving a nod to Bates and Captain Atom.
Andy K: We know that different peoples in the DC Universe perceive the Endless differently. Is it possible that the New Gods see Death as the Black Racer, and that they're not two different entities?
Chris S: Andy, I think one of Gaiman's sticking points with the Captain Atom issue was a line Bates put in about how death is a pretty big concept and there's room for interpretation, rather than just Gothity Death being the be-all and (har har) end-all that would come from being one of the Endless. But I could be misremembering that.
Andy K: I choose to believe she is literally the last thing a life sees or communicates with before passing on to oblivion.
Chris S: And I choose to believe that death is a dude wearing blue, red and yellow knight armor who skis through space. Clearly, this is an impasse from which we shall never recover.
David U: In that case, I'll just mention that Pete Woods kills these first three pages. MURDERS, with the nose-touch. I've been a big fan of Pete Woods for a while -- a buddy of mine called him "DC's Mark Bagley" before DC's Mark Bagley was Mark Bagley. But he pulls out some really great work on this issue, and makes up what he lacks in flash with intelligence. His storytelling is almost perfect.
Chris S: Death and Luthor are both extremely expressive, which is a very important thing to do when you've got an issue of two people standing around talking to each other. He manages to make things visually interesting and keep up with what Cornell's doing in the dialogue, which -- let's be honest here -- a lot of artists just wouldn't have been willing or able to accomplish. It's solid stuff. Especially coming off of the previous issue, which had telepathic talking cannibal gorillas fighting robots. It's a big shift.
Andy K: I think Woods captures Death herself perfectly -- she's meant to be cute and comforting despite her gloomy appearance and he nailed that -- but overall, I'm not feeling the artwork in this issue. For a brooding, Galactica-esque metaphysical journey into Lex Luthor's mind, the visuals seem very plain and unimpressive. I agree it's appropriate for the setting to be not overly, um, DEATHy, or whatever, but I'm commenting on the nature of the drawing and coloring itself.
David B: I'm with Andy, honestly--the art didn't wow me here. It felt stiff, like two posed statues rather than actors emoting It's really, really obvious that they photoshopped in her art in post. There are panels where it isn't there, where it's strangely large, where it looks like it was pasted in and then someone used the emboss filter on it.
Chris S: I agree that the backgrounds are weird, but it worked for me. Again, not sure if it was intentional or not, but I thought it did a good job of getting the hazy, dreamlike near-death experience vibe across and putting the focus onto Woods' strength, facial expressions.
Laura H: Death talking with Luthor reminded me of the dozens of e-mail exchanges I have every day about about minutiae. Like, dude, you may not realize this, but I'm really busy.
David U: Doesn't that match the material though? The banalness of death? I mean, Luthor's going through what everyone goes through. That's the whole point -- an extraordinary man reacting to the most ordinary experience possible.
Chris S: I really liked that. Having Death be an outside observer on stuff like the dead rising and fighting the living and having her shrug it off as "not a big deal" really classifies her as something less like a character and more like us, the readers. The key appeal of Death (aside from the fact that everyone loves a cute goth girl) has been that she's really relatable despite being, you know, *DEATH*, and the script and art do a good job of getting that across.
Chris M: On the other hand, though, I kind of liked the concept of "Death is sort of a ditzy teenager, and that's why so many people waltz back and forth from alive to dead back to alive" in the DCU.
Chris S: I got less "ditzy teenager" and more "utterly fatalistic." They're all going to come back to her eventually, so in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if Captain Boomerang gets another 10 years?
Andy K: Yeah, as much as this issue says about the nature of Lex Luthor, Cornell and Gaiman do a very good job of reintroducing Death. I think the line that sums her up best here is "Hey -- not judging."
Laura H: It's interesting to see Luthor react to her the way he does with his usual antagonists, and how ineffective it is. Because that's what he's used to: people he can fight, or use, or ignore. And suddenly here's Death, and she's not particularly invested in him, or winning, or losing, or anything he has to offer. It's a very unfamiliar framework of interaction for him.
David B: I do like that Luthor never says die, if you'll pardon the pun. It fits very well with his rivalry with Superman. He's stubborn until death, and even then, he's... stubborner.
Laura H: It's kind of admirable.
Andy K: Yet Luthor can only be himself. He resolves to defy Death, like any other challenge.
David U: He's hardcore! I mean, Lex Luthor is hardcore as hell. I love how he tries to pull a sympathy con on DEATH. And I mean -- you know when Luthor is angry or helpless when he pulls the sympathy card. Has he EVER pulled the sympathy card on Kal-El?
David B: He's never had to. He knows how to get around him. I don't think it was angry or helpless, either. I think he was just flashing through plans and gave sympathy a try.
Chris M: I really like the line "I can't be helpless", because I hear him delivering it in a business-like, matter of fact tone.
Laura H: As he's progressing through the stages of grief, do you think any of them are genuine, or just tactics of pure manipulation? Feeling for weaknesses?
David B: They are genuine until he realizes that he's going through the stages. After that, they're weapons.
Chris S: I've been a little less enthused with the Luthor story than others, but when he tries to con Death Itself? That's as Lex as it gets. The brilliance of the structure is that he uses each stage of grieving as another tact to get his way. Anger, he shouts at her. Doesn't work, so he moves to bargaining with her. Doesn't work, so he tries to con her. And then when he gets around to where "acceptance" would usually be, he just outright goes for "defiance." It's a great portrayal of just how Luthor works.
Laura H: My favorite part is when he tries to bargain and asks her what she wants, and she says "a magic pony that sings." That next panel, where you see him immediately start formulating his scheme to find this magic pony.
Caleb G: It's also kind of nice to see how after Death explains that people come back to life all the time that Luthor doesn't really want to as bad. Conquering heaven becomes more interesting.
David U: I think the second issue of the run made it pretty clear -- he just doesn't think like other people. Luthor is the New God of Indomitability. If there is one thing that bald son of a bitch will not do, it is bow down to a symbol, or an ideal, or a principle.
Chris S: It's why he's an Atheist. It's not that he doesn't believe in anything above humanity, it's that he doesn't believe in anything above Lex Luthor specifically.
David U: Oh god, I loved this line, it made the issue for me maybe, and I loved the rest of the issue anyway -- the reference to the "Big Hand Theory."
Chris S: If it wasn't for Grodd threatening to carve out and eat Luthor's brain with his war-spoon last issue, that line would've been the absolute highlight of Cornell's entire run.
David U: Like, in our universe, he might be religious to be contrarian. But in a world where there's a Big Hand Theory, Luthor chooses to say "f--- that!" in the face of all evidence. It almost requires a degree of FAITH in the human experience.
Andy K: This might be too deep a reading but I don't think Luthor necessarily has faith in the human experience. I think he has to follow that philosophy and do everything he can to prove it, because human is all he can ever be. Yet he's faced with the existence of Superman and Death herself. He's like Bush and WMD. they're not there but he has to keep insisting they are or it undermines his existence.
David U: Yeah, totally, but in... maybe faith in human POTENTIAL? With "human" meaning "Lex Luthor's." I mean, look at this line in the DC Universe: "Deciding on atheism isn't a LOGICAL choice. It's an ETHICAL one."
David B: His creed is Luthor, yeah. He's the pinnacle, so he must be the highest power of all.
Laura H: We see that same attitude in his reaction when he wakes up in the hospital bed. Most characters would have some sort of "it was all a dream... OR WAS IT?" moment, but he never has even an instant of doubt in his experiences or what he thinks he knows.
Andy K: I was impressed by the self-contained nature of this issue. I haven't read the previous four parts of this storyline, I just picked this up because Death's in it and I had no trouble working things out. And now i want to see where Luthor goes from here, obviously. Great writing from Paul Cornell. And even more than wanting to read more about Lex Luthor, this issue makes me want to re-read The Sandman.
Chris S: Cornell's done a very good job of keeping his stories self-contained, but linked. It's very much the thing I love about old-school comics storytelling, where you get an overarcing plot with individual chapters. So you've got "the one where Lex meets Death" and "the one where Lex fights Mr. Mind in the Old West" and "the one where Lex fights Gorilla Grodd." It works very, very well.
David U: Honestly, this was my favorite comic this week. Like, above Hickman's FF, above a lot of stuff I usually love. Between the main Luthor story and the brilliant Jimmy backup, this was just .... man, what a $3.99. When I pay $3.99 for a comic, this is what I want.
Laura H: Also, what exactly was the "check" Death said she was doing? Why did she let him think he was dead for, oh, the entire issue?
David U: Because he's trying to harness the energy of death. I mean, this arc so far has been him trying to Figure Out the Black Ring. How did it work? What did it do? What was the deal?
Laura H: Well, that's what he wants to know. What does Death want to know about him? What does she accomplish by doing this?
David B: I think Lex's plan to harness the Black Ring energy is going to end up biting him, and he'll have to choose. At some point down the line, Death is going to go "This is what you said. Do you still believe it? Are you ready for this now?"
Andy K: I think Death says it pretty plainly: She's just curious to know what this very special man has to say about stuff. She likes people, she's been known to party. She let Hob Gadling live forever just for being a solid bro.
Laura H: Obviously the experience makes him at least consider the idea of God, since he demands to speak to him and present his case. Maybe it's not about sussing out Luthor's beliefs; it's about giving him an experience that shifts them.
Andy K: Maybe, Laura, but that seems kind of pro-active for Death. As she says, she's busy.
Laura H: I mean, not that busy, or this issue wouldn't exist. Unless you see it purely as a product of the Big Hand of Dan DiDio.
Chris S: For all my fence-sitting, I am totally excited about Vandal Savage's City Made of Traps, which we learn about at the end. That sounds AMAZING.
David U: Has anyone seen the Doctor Who joke special written by Steven Moffat starring Rowan Atkinson? Where there was an entire city made of traps for the Doctor by the Master? Because I think this upcoming concept was informed by that, considering Cornell is Doctor Who 4 Lyfe.
Chris M: I love the text box "Meanwhile, around 1000 years ago . . . (!)"
David U: The (!) is fantastic
Chris M: Also, is Spearhavoc a character that's existed in the DCU anywhere before? Am I wrong in saying he doesn't really look as badass as someone named Spearhavoc should look?
Chris S: I think I would've remembered a guy named "Spearhavoc" if I'd run across him before.
Andy K: BOOM http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spearhafoc
Chris S: "After his consecration as Bishop was thwarted, he vanished with the gold and jewels he had been given to make into a crown for King Edward the Confessor, and was never seen again." There is nothing in that sentence that is not 100% BALLER AS HELL.
David U: You just blew my goddamned mind.
Laura H: Wait, this is a real person?
Chris S: Yes. Yes it is.
Chris M: It is based on a real person with a name made slightly more awesome by 10-15%
Laura H: "Spearhafoc's miracle: According to Goscelin, while Spearhafoc was working on metal figures at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, he lost a valuable ring given him by Edward's queen, and Godwin's daughter, Edith of Wessex, presumably as materials to use in his project. In his distress, he prayed to Saint Letard, buried in the church, after which the ring was found."
Laura H: Listen, I am not Sherlock Holmes, but given the earlier context offered by Chris I think I can solve that mystery.
Chris S: Hahahahaha!
Chris M: He did not keep 100% of the things he stole forever! Truly this is a miracle to be remembered for all time!
Caleb G: Sherlock Hudson strikes again!
David B: Encylopedia Hudson.
Chris S: Wikipedia Hudson.
Chris S: Not gonna lie, guys: in the 11th Century, it was WAY easier to convince people things were miracles. Like, say, if you lived for over 30 years? Probably some miracles involved. "Oh hey I found that ring I dropped in the hall the other day." "MIRACLE! WE SHALL GIVE UNTO YOU PRECIOUS METALS WITH WHICH TO CREATE STATUES!" "... Yeah okay, hey can you do me a favor and saddle up a couple of horses?"
Laura H: Also,we see a couple of Tarot cards in Savage's study, notably The Hanged Man, which can often mean spiritual enlightment, but also something kind of paradoxical -- that you gain control by letting go, or "win" by sacrificing or surrendering. Which kind of sounds like the anti-Luthor. Also, in the order of Major Arcana, The Hanged Man immediately precedes Death, the first card we see on the table.
Chris S: I thought i was the expert on "Tarot," Laura. (rimshot)
Chris M: Also, I'm just noticing this for the first time now, The Death card in the first flashback panel shows a young female Death.
Andy K: What's the current continuity explanation for Savage's immortality? Could Death have something to do with it?
Chris S: Aliens, dogg.
David U: It's a meteor of ... some kind or another.
David U: In Tomasi's Outsiders, he had a whole thing going on with all of his tribesmates also taking parts of the meteor and starting an underground civilization.
Laura H: Oh, you're serious, and not just making fun of Smallville.
Laura H: Also! I don't know if this is relevant, but according this Sandman webpage, The Hanged Man card often represents John Constantine.
David B: Is that the card that foretells all of your friends dying because you're a horrible bro?
Andy K: Hmm. It'd be a pretty big deal if Constantine crossed over. But Karen Berger is the monitor of Vertigo Earth, I don't see her going for it.
Chris S: I'd look forward to every single dialogue balloon of his just being full of black bars.
David B: Hellblazer needs to stay Vertigo as long as Milligan, Bisley, Camuncoli, and Landini are the creative team.
David U: Yeah, dude! Hellblazer's rad from all reports right now. But when Milligan's done, it might be time to stick him into the DCU. I doubt it'll happen at this point, though. If it did, Hellblazer 275 would have been the last issue. Like -- that would have been the moment, you know?
Chris S: LEX: Where am I? Is this... England?
Chris S: CONSTANTINE: "All [CENSORED]in' right, Squire? You look like a [CENSORED CENSORED CENSORED] ponce."