Lex Luthor leers monstrously from David Finch and Peter Steigerwald's striking DC Icons cover, but it's the Joker who steals the show this issue. The story sees Lex track down a Black Lantern sphere to the Joker's cell in Arkham Asylum and try to prise out of him whatever he knows.
Which turns out to be quite a lot, and the Joker's willing to share once he's sure Lex is playing his game. And not only does the chalky chuckler have one of the glowing balls of energy, he has something even more sinister, something far too scary to reproduce here ...
As the fella who's been sick and tired of Joker stories for several years now, I'd like to commend Paul Cornell on presenting a truly fascinating Joker. One who embraces the chaos in his carnage, the metaphysics in his madness. And it's the Joker's relationship to the black spheres that makes this issue even more compelling than the justly lauded story featuring Neil Gaiman's Death (such a strange phrase) a couple of months back.
There are clues in this issue to the big picture, hints at who's been manipulating Lex in his quest for Black Lantern power, at who Lex's not-so-trusty sidekick Lois-Bot is working with.
It's just a shame I'm not sharp enough to work them out. I'd guess that the only person up to the task of playing Lex is Lex - a future version, an alternate reality version, who knows? - but I couldn't give you a join-the-dots reason as to why my gut yells that. I do know that when a story is this much fun I'm happy to be swept along, enjoying the revelations as they come; I've read enough Cornell to know they'll be worth the wait.
The dialogue this issue is outstanding, with insights into how Lex and the Joker view themselves and each other that make so much sense, it's not true. Without forcing the issue, Cornell shows us that these two men really are opposites - order vs chaos, admitted madness vs self-denial, bald vs hair - while having an awful lot in common. They're as perfect foils for one another as they are their nemeses (click to enlarge).
And how perfect they look as presented by artist Pete Woods, colourist Brad Anderson and letterer Rob Leigh, each villain conniving, each convinced they have the upper hand. The variety in the layouts, acting and angles prevents an issue basically confined to one room from ever being dull to look at. We eventually switch scenes for the arrival of another DC antagonist at the end of the book - if Cornell makes me like this guy, I'll be envying his talent even more than I already do.