I'd originally thought that "The Black Ring" was concluding here, but I'm glad that's not the case. Because as anti-climactic as this issue of "Action Comics" is, it's nice to know we still have one more chapter.
First, the good part. I like the idea that Lex Luthor and Brainiac (who showed up at the end of last issue as the final foe in this story) are playing a massive game of chess, each trying to out-maneuver one another, trying to think multiple steps ahead to avoid getting the killing blow. It's how characters as smart as them should be presented, able to use their wits as a weapon. Paul Cornell gets that right, and in general I've appreciated how he's shown Lex Luthor to be an exceedingly smart person, not just a generic bad guy.
The down side, though, is that there's a little too much, "Aha, but let me tell you my own brilliance!" back and forth. I'm not saying each issue needs to have a fight scene, but rather that this issue feels remarkably free of any sort of energy. It just sort of limps along, and the physical confrontation between Lex and Brainiac feels like a cheat. Conflict, be it physical or mental, needs to be a little more exciting.
And when the secret of the black spheres is finally revealed, well, it also feels anti-climactic. In many ways it feels undeveloped, despite the fact that we've been reading about them for ten issues now. "Action Comics" #900 may still pull this part of the story up and into something stronger, but for now the moment of reveal is far less interesting than the lead-up to this moment.
Pete Woods is absent this month (no doubt gearing up for the conclusion) and Jesus Merino steps in to pinch hit. I loved Merino's art on his "Justice Society of America" run with Bill Willingham, but it isn't as strong here. Brainiac here looks less like a scientist in a jumpsuit (something I appreciated in Gary Frank's redesign) and much more like a stereotypical villain in a spandex outfit, and in general the expressions on their faces seem to focus far too much on a furrowed brow to illustrate frustration or struggle or anything else but happy. (The less said about pop-eyed Lex right before the final blow is administered to Brainiac, the better.) And as for the true force behind the spheres? It looks like a leftover monster from an early '90s comic. Hopefully Woods can salvage its appearance.
I've greatly enjoyed most of the Cornell and Woods run on "Action Comics," but this chapter feels like a misstep. I appreciate what Cornell and Merino were trying to accomplish here, but it doesn't quite hit the mark. Here's to next month's conclusion being up to the normally higher standards of this run.