For many comics fans, the re-appearance of Neil Gaiman's Death is a big deal, big enough to make them pick up a comic that, normally, they wouldn't even go near. That her use is apparently sanctioned by Gaiman and being written by Paul Cornell gives us just two more reason to get excited.
At this point, you can probably almost sense the impending "but," can't you?
But. It turns out, "Action Comics #894" is a rather un-exciting use of the character that many people will buy this comic to see. In interviews for "The Sandman Companion," Gaiman said 'Whenever I considered using Death, I thought of Marlon Brando getting paid $4 million to appear in just ten minutes of Superman: The Movie. So I would bring Death on only when I really needed her, and I mentally paid her $4 million for each appearance - and made sure that she earned the money.' "Action Comics #894" might be the first time someone let her phone in an appearance.
The problem, for those of us who love Death so dearly, is that there's nothing here that convincingly explains why she's being used. Her participation adds texture, but what does she contribute to the story itself, beyond publicity? It's hard not to feel as though more could have been done, especially from a writer of Cornell's proven form.
As it is, the characters are very well-written. Death's dialogue is light, perky and disarming with the smattering of existential musing that her perspective allows. Luthor, meanwhile, is calculating and analytical, smart enough to recognize what's happening and yet arrogant enough that he wants to try and react in some way Death won't expect. There are moments of vulnerability for him that are almost without precedent. As a succession of character moments for Luthor, it's actually very good.
But the plot? It feels like it fell out of a book of templates. Having Death trotting out a few standard post-mortem tropes without any of the subversions that define her just doesn't feel right. The story's only twist (such that it is one) actually comes close to entirely negating the issue's premise. Admittedly, Cornell addresses this as a mystery to be answered, but it raises the stakes to almost impossibly high levels. What could be going on with Luthor that would cause one of the Endless to take time out for a random chat? Could anything hope to qualify in a series necessarily denied the scope of "Sandman"?
Woods' artwork is as spot-on with its depiction of Death as Cornell's characterization: youthful and innocent, but with a carefree confidence. Luthor, meanwhile, is resolute and uncompromising, with only the barest falter. There are some angles and visuals that look a bit weird, but they're forgivable -- less so, the unimaginative backgrounds: generic greenery for the first half of the issue, outright blackness for the second. If we know anything from the industry's artistic trends, it's that storytelling, no matter how competent, can't substitute for interesting visuals, and this issue lacks the latter in spades.
"Action Comics #894" isn't a bad comic by any means. In fact, it's quite good in most ways that count. It just can't help but miss the high standards it courted. Replace Death with some other character and this could have been a truly excellent issue. But invoke her, and the readers who arrive in her wake will expect far better than they receive. It's a risk Cornell clearly felt comfortable taking, but not, it would seem, one that has paid off.