The first volume of this felt a bit too much like “Lex Luthor Team-Up,” or “Versus” as was more often the case. Having Luthor travelling the world to find black orbs that were supposedly the remnants of the Black Lantern rings from “Blackest Night” felt more like just an excuse for writer Paul Cornell to match the character against some of the nastiest inhabitants of the DCU. And Death of The Endless. Mind you, I don’t think that giving Cornell the license to do that is a bad thing as he clearly has a great understanding of the character and his motivations, and the man writes great dialogue as well, but those six issues still came off as feeling more slight than they should’ve. Then I read this volume and everything fell into place.
(By the way, if you do have the first volume, you’ll REALLY want to re-read it before reading this one.)
It’s not a perfect fit, as there’s a lot of fat in the first half of the book that felt like it could’ve been trimmed. As much fun as it is to see Luthor square off against Vandal Savage with the Secret Six mixing it up in the background, we didn’t need two whole issues of it. The annual collected here also derails the narrative for a while as we learn about Luthor’s initial arrival in Metropolis, his first job working for Intergang, and subsequently, Darkseid. As a story about the character’s formative years, it’s actually pretty good in the way that we see how Luthor refuses to be subservient to even a (new) god. Unfortunately, aside from some vague foreshadowing that kinda makes sense in the end (if you want it to) it really has nothing to do with this story. There is some very nice Kirby/Steranko-inspired art from Marcos Rudy in the main feature, though.
Then you get to his one-on-one with the Joker and everything starts to click. Not only is Luthor’s conversation with his opposite number a thrilling examination of their mindsets, but we also see the larger plot start to come together. Indications that the conversation with Death has a more far-reaching significance than first thought and some very clear signs that there’s much more going on inside “Lois’” circuitry than her creator had intended. This is followed up by his re-match with Larfleeze as we see the lengths to which Luthor will go in his quest, and find out the one thing that the Orange Lantern doesn’t want. Though I’m tempted to think that the confrontation and various reveals in the penultimate chapter -- which takes place IN SPACE -- are more than a little silly, Cornell embraces the cheesiness so wholeheartedly that you won’t care.
This leads up to the final chapter and an empowered Luthor’s inevitable showdown with Superman. Though the big blue has been occupied elsewhere throughout this storyline, his very existence has served as the motivation for Luthor’s quest and their encounter here is one of the rare times when he winds up holding all of the cards from perspectives of both strategy and power. However, as a wise man once said, “It’s not enough that I have to win, but YOU have to lose,” and that proves to be part of Cornell’s final statement on the character. It would’ve been nice to see where he would’ve gone with Luthor if not for the advent of the “New 52,” but I’m sure he’ll find a way back here eventually.
Providing more than able artistic support for this story is the art of Pete Woods. The man is tasked with drawing everything from a closed-in boardroom fight, verbal duels between Luthor and the Joker, and an outer-space summit between him and Superman, and nothing looks out of place. He makes the fantastic believable, and with characters who -- with an occasional awkwardness -- emote credibly as well.
In the end, these two volumes were a ton of fun, and a great example of how a story can read much better all in one sitting. So yeah, I ultimately turned out to be wrong when I said that the first volume would probably be read better in single-issue form. But when the results are this good, I don’t mind so much. This is a story that may be seen as a defining statement of who Lex Luthor is in years to come and further proof that Cornell is one of the best superhero writers working in the business today, and absolutely worth picking up now in hardcover or later in softcover.