If I regret the passing of the general will to use certain narrative conventions in the contemporary superhero comic book, it's not to say that I can't identify a host of modern day approaches to storytelling which I greatly admire. One of these is the attitude to continuity which a significant number of today's best writers share, in which creators work not to define what is and what isn't canon so much as to tell the best stories they can without crudely violating their predecessor's work. It's an approach which is far less likely to inspire the creation of continuity-fixated stories than that which was largely dominant in the decades following the late Sixties, and it's one which tends to begin from the premise that pretty much everything that's been shown in the past is, to a greater rather than to a lesser degree, valid and important, even if it can't be referred to anymore. These days, those tales which simply can't be incorporated into 2011's scheme-of-things are far more likely to just not be mentioned rather than being put to use to serve as a vehicle for some dry tale set on reconciling the detail of the past with the complexities of the present. And thankfully, the slate-wiping threat of the ret-con seems less and
less viable as every year passes, while those books which do deal with the fine print of what is and what isn't the detail of the canon appear more and more anachronistic with every passing month. Such a respect for, and tolerance of, the genre's rich heritage is obvious in the pages of the three issues of this crossover, with both "Action Comics" and "Secret Six" drawing off different aspects of DC Comics history and its various traditions without ever threatening to degenerate into stories largely and unproductively about the trivia of the DCU's past. Instead, what we're given is a tale of fascinating characters whose present life is informed rather than determined by their past in the DCU. And so here we can have our inter-galactic super-intelligent lil'green worms as well as our psychotic rapists, we can have our Robot Lois's as well as our mass murdering immortal beasts. What matters isn't any pseudo-scholarly dissertations on how such characters can possibly share a common fictional universe so much as the fun to be had by the fact that they do.
We'll touch on several aspects connected with this matter in the final part of this piece , but for the moment, it's worth noting that Mr Cornell and Ms Simone's decision to avoid the slightest taint of the worst excesses of the continuity-obsessed in no way means that their characters have ceased to be informed by their comic-book past. Quite the opposite is true. In "Secret Six" # 29, for example, the entire story is constructed so that its true climax doesn't sit at the conclusion of the issue's punch-up, as is traditional, but after it in far quieter circumstances, and the story's denouncement draws off the common history of the Savage family while adding an absolutely shocking and totally defining moment to it. The reader isn't buried in a weight of facts and figures, of story references and continuity re-writes. Instead, we're told that the tale of Scandal Savage's mother took place "some time ago" in a "remote village" where her father was hiding from the Brazilian army. The events we're told of by Ms Simone are harrowing, and all the more so because they depend not a whit on their relation to this particular issue of the Justice League or that reference made long ago in Crisis On Infinite Earth. What we're given is all that we need to be given in order to move us about the characters we're reading about, and there's nothing of the irrelevant detail of any of the 75 years of DC comic books needed to make anything more meaningful out of a briefly told and deeply moving tale such as that of Scandal's mother here.
The fact that "What Luthor Has Wrought" contains those two distinct climaxes coming quickly one after the other, one relatively celebratory and once distinctly not, one concerned with physical safety and the other with emotional loss, again lends the comic the sense that it's a more detailed, more rewarding experience than it might otherwise have been. For at the point when the reader is expecting what's effectively the epilogue, we're actually just about to receive information which colours our fundamental understanding of Scandal Savage as a character. In the first of the tale's conclusions, Scandal Savage succeeds in manoeuvring herself and her team into a position of relative advantage to both Luthor and her father; just this once, while the Six might not actually proposer, they are getting to leave on their own terms without losing any more of their self-regard than can be associated with a tactical retreat and a loss of promised riches. And that's the point at which most comics would close, for the final punch-up traditionally allocates, as is the way with the genre, appropriate rewards to its participants according to their relative virtues. And since Scandal Savage is the least compromised of the three main antagonists on show, ultimately more sinned against than sinner, and since she's managed to see off her father while even satisfyingly chinning Lex Luthor, there's a pleasing sense of a job well done and a conclusion well-wrought as she manoeuvres the Six out of danger.
Yet what unexpectedly follows is a far more emotionally involving climax which provides a measure of gravitas to what had already been a thoroughly enjoyable three-cornered jape concerning a pack of more or less endearing if reprehensible criminals. That revelation of the fate of Scandal's mother, and of Vandal Savage's behaviour so vile that even Luthor labels him as a "monster", causes so much of the previous events, both in the crossover and right back through the Six's history, to fall into a different and tragic perspective. All that fighting, all those page-turners and relatively light-hearted events, become something else, as if the three issues which had worked exceptionally well as something of a romp, of a black comedy, are now re-cast as something far bleaker, something far more challenging and upsetting. For all the enjoyment that the three issues have given us, we're left unable to forget that Vandal Savage is, yes, something of a superstitious buffoon, but also that he's fundamentally a raping, murdering brute whose crimes are probably without parallel in the history of the DCU's Earth. And we're also left with Luthor once again defined as the monomaniacal moral black hole that he is, since his response to Savage's proclamation of just one of his crimes against humanity is merely to briefly insult his immortal companion. Other folk's suffering aren't important to Mr Luthor when his own perceived self-interest is obsessing him, as it always is, and it's important that we're never allowed to forget that, least we forget that he too is far more reprehensible than his few better qualities might allow us to completely believe.
Or, to put it another way, we may have spent three issues laughing, if often in a rather uncomfortable fashion, at and with these folks, but none of them are really very funny at all, except for Ragdoll, who remains utterly terrifying despite that. And the end of "What Luthor Has Wrought" throws the sixty and more pages which have gone before into an appropriately thoughtful and mournfully qualified perspective.
That double conclusion of Ms Simone's to "Secret Six" # 29 works, of course, not just because of how that final issue of the crossover has been structured, but also because of all of the set-up that's been so deliberately crafted into place by Mr Cornell over the course of the preceding two issues of "Action Comics". For unlike most modern comic books, whether part of a crossover or not, which seek to attract and maintain the reader's attention from their very first page by charging from one water-cooler moment to another in a hectic, turn-the-page-quickly fashion, the Luthor/Secret Six crossover is very deliberately constructed to function as a three act tale, with each of the three issues featuring a distinctly different structure to each other, and with none of those conforming precisely to the rather frantic model of storytelling followed by so many other comic creators today.
It's immediately notable that the pace of the storytelling, and the frequency and density of incident, increases significantly from the first to the second issue of "Action Comics", setting up the intensity of the conflict which is presented at the end of "Secret Six" # 29. That this requires a degree of unselfishness from Mr Cornell is undeniable, for in order to create the first two acts of an arc that'll be closed elsewhere, he can't afford to preempt either the meaning or the scale of jeopardy in Ms Simone's closing issue. And where some writers might without meaning to undermine the work of their colleagues by not thinking of the structure of a crossover as a whole, and by focusing on the impact of their chapter in isolation from the wider structure, Ms Simone and Mr Cornell work unselfishly together to create a story which serves the interests of two quite separate and distinct books as well as producing a tale which in many ways stands apart from them both.
And so, we can clearly see that the first part of the crossover in Action Comics 995 is dedicated to establishing a status quo to be disrupted while ensuring that coming installments won't be overshadowed by any events depicted there. There are, in fact, only 3 panels showing any kind of what we might call action, or more specifically violence, in "The Black Ring Part Six", and the comic ends on nothing more excessive than a still scene of a call being put through to a room containing a casual if curious Secret Six. Part 2 of the crossover, however, contains more than two dozen panels of action, and it closes with six tense shots setting up a great explosive disaster about to occur from the perspective of various appalled members of the book's cast. In essence, this is a crossover whose authors trust their readers to know what a story is, to realise that not every page need feature the universe exploding in order for it to be enjoyable and rewarding. Doing so is, however, an act of faith which, I suspect, not every creator and editor would feel comfortable investing in.
This is not, however, to say that that first chapter is a slow or dull comic book. For one thing, as we have discussed, it's woven through with a rather bleak and amusing sense of humour, and, as we'll soon discuss, it uses both the fictional history of the DCU and the history of our own slightly-more real world to serve as a backdrop for a tale of powerful and deluded men heading for a confrontation for no more valid reasons than greed and superstition. And in order to create a sense of reader-carrying pace in the absence of any great eye-catching set-pieces, Mr Cornell ensures that no scene lasts for more than three pages, and that none exists for anything other than to establish a specific and relevant plot point. This is a story with a clear purpose and direction, even if it won't yet hit escape velocity until more than thirty of its pages have passed, and as it jumps from one locale to another, and from one point in history to another, the questions it places before the reader are designed to snare through curiosity what might elsewhere be gathered through spectacle.
And there very much is a sense that Mr Cornell's first two chapters of the crossover are being written with an eye on creating a suitable sense of momentum for the story as a whole. In the first chapter, for example, 13 sides of story pass before a genuinely intense page-turning final panel is placed before the reader. To close that many pages on rather quiet enigmas, and on often very restrained if not uncompelling ones, ensures that the first issue of the crossover in particular reads very much like the prologue and first act that it's designed to be.
When a page finally does appear which closes on a panel showing an extreme of jeopardy, which doesn't happen until the ninth page of the second chapter, the effect of suddenly feeling compelled to snap pages over to discover what happens next is made all the more intense by the gradual build-up which has proceeded it. There are then 5 pages of final panels to pages marked by the threat of major physical harm to one character or another, before the dramatic device of briefly slowing the action to allow one character to display some emotional vulnerability is pressed into service. With a breathing space briefly created and then passed, and with the key relationship between Vandal Savage and his daughter emphasised for the coming final chapter, the last few pages of Mr Cornell's laps around this particular track before the baton is passed are marked by an increasing complication of the action all within a dangerously confined and crowded space. And if there's a feeling that Mr Cornell trusts to his craft to carry readers over from 895 to 896, there's also a sense that he wants to make absolutely sure that he hits his mark for where he and Ms Simone have designed the transition to occur between his issues and hers. The reader may have been a trusted collaborator up until this point, but now the audience isn't being granted any great measure of choice about whether or not they proceed over to the Secret Six. That cliffhanger is designed to compel the reader to jump from Action Comics across to the pages of the Secret Six, or, at the very least, to make the reader who doesn't feel as if they really ought to have done so.
There's a control of the writer's craft across all three of these issues which is as deliberate as it surely isn't typical. These are, if you will, stories where everything is very much not perpetually turned up to 11, and where protracted sections of the tale are even rather daringly turned down a few notches below ten where such is judged appropriate. To be honest, it is, in the context of the present-day market, a rather impressive and somewhat brave business, if one that's modestly and unpretentiously undertaken by the writers involved.
Mind you, none of the above is to suggest that there aren't problems that occur as the crossover switches from the pages of "Action Comics" to "Secret Six", but it is to argue that the structure that's been designed by both writers succeeds in maintaining its form and much of its effect even when there are problems with the story as represented on the page. For example, there are considerable visual inconsistencies between the, yes, thrilling scene shown at the end of Mr Cornell's last episode and the beginning of Ms Simone's closing chapter. Towards the end of Action # 896, Luthor's boardroom is further packed by the arrival of magically-protected armed soldiers commanded by Vandal Savage, who engage in a fearsomely high-powered brawl with the Six. Yet these uniformed men are quite missing at the beginning of "What Luthor Has Wrought", as is the evidence of the havoc that everyone's fighting has caused. In truth, it's as if there's been no preceding fire-fight at all. Most importantly, perhaps, the detonator panel which is depicted falling perilously against a piece of debris, and possibly being triggered by contact with it, in the last panel of Mr Cornell's shift is then inexplicably shown in Secret Six # 29 to be lying somewhat unthreateningly face down on an undamaged floor. These are, we would agree, substantial inconsistencies in the representation of the conflict, but my focus here is upon the scripts of these issues, and their cumulative effect certainly overcomes whatever problems there's been in creating a common artistic vision for the details of the showdown.
Although I do tend to assume that whatever is shown on the printed page is a reflection of the creator's conscious, deliberate and commonly-agreed choices, I'll admit that here I'm for once far more inclined towards the unintended cock-up theory of history than I am to imagining that what the reader's being shown in "What Luthor Has Wrought" is entirely what was intended. And yet, it is a shame that there's such a significant pressure drop between the cramped, crowded war-zone of the executive office in "Action Comics " # 896 and the largely empty, largely conflict-free scene in "Secret Six" # 29, for it really does undermine the satisfactory progression of the tale from the one title to the other. The deliberately created melee in a confined space of "The Black Ring Part 7" just morphs between issues into a visual representation of a far, far calmer debating chamber instead, and a great deal of the tension that's been developed simply evaporates away.. And where a willfully deluded Ragdoll delaying our re-introduction to a highly volatile and violent situation would be as funny as it was effective in raising the level of anticipation prior to a return to the action, a Ragdoll who interrupts a cliffhanger only to give way to a far less gripping scenario than was previously shown works against the success of the book. A pleasurable frustration from Ragdoll followed by the puncturing of an anticipated pleasure is no way to build upon the momentum that's been carefully created beforehand. (Weren't several members of the Six actually shot in Action # 896, because there's no physical evidence of it in SS# 29?) And yet, the fact that the three scripts in sequence still work so effectively together to carry the reader over these inconsistencies is a testament to how well they were crafted. But it is a source of some regret that such a well-constructed third act should be so obviously and unaccountably visually compromised at the beginning of its progress towards what remains a highly chilling and effective conclusion.
To be concluded;