It's a little hard to believe that Paul Cornell and Pete Woods' "The Black Ring" comes to a conclusion next month; in some ways it feels like it had just begun. But with the end just around the bend, the script kicks into high gear here, and the result is... interesting.
When Larfleeze (aka Agent Orange) attacks this issue, it's in some ways the least important part of the comic. Sure, it lets Cornell have fun with Larfleeze's ridiculous dialogue, and his perpetual need to own everything is worth quite a few laughs. But Larfleeze's buffoonery is in many ways little more than a distraction. There's bigger fish to fry here, from Lex's behavior to one of his employees, to the reveal of the final villain of the series. This is in many ways a grim issue, and not all of Larfleeze's mentions of "Hairless Lex Luthor" are enough to hide that.
Up until this point Lex has alternated between charismatic, driven, and cold-hearted, but this issue steps fully over the line into bad guy. That may not sound like much of a stretch -- after all he's Superman's #1 foe -- but the modern interpretation of Lex Luthor often sticks more on the side of "relentless" rather than "evil." Lex's decision on how to try and fend off one of Larfleeze's attacks is callous, cruel, and ultimately unforgivable. It's a reminder that for all the fun we've had in Lex Luthor starring in "Action Comics," he's still the bad guy and you had best beware of him.
We also get a chunk of foreshadowing about the nature of the spheres that Lex is pursuing. It's perhaps something we should have seen sooner, since the story is about to wrap up, but it's still an interesting piece of information. And then there's also the master bad guy, the one pulling at least some of the strings. I'll be curious to go back through the earlier issues and see if there are earlier hints scattered through or not, but in the meantime it's a revelation that makes sense (considering his previous relationship with Lex) and it's a nice cliffhanger leading into #899, even if—just like the hints about what lies inside the spheres—the sudden appearance of it feels a little rushed.
Woods continues his excellent run on the art, and hopefully he'll be around on the book once Superman returns to the title. For now, it's the little things that I like, from Robot Lois's sunglasses and kerchief combination to the self-assured smile on the master villain's face in the final panel. And when Lex takes aim, there's something about the stone-faced expression on his face which just sells the moment. I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's great to see Woods getting the high profile assignment that he deserves.
With all of the eleventh hour revelations this issue, it feels a bit like all the pieces are being hastily shoved together, but even with that sudden high speed nature it's still enjoyable. What could have been a mild disaster (Lex Luthor taking over "Action Comics" for ten months) has turned out to be a book to look forward to. Kudos to Cornell and Woods, and here's to their run lasting for a great deal to come.