The book opens three-quarters of the way through 52, and one ongoing plot is concluded. It’s not the one featuring Ralph Dibny, formerly the light-hearted Elongated Man, but now a mental wreck. He’s been attempting to restore his wife to life in a magical universe, yet for all that magic he’s not come close, and his primary writer Mark Waid continues to drag him through the wringer in impressive fashion. For all his deterioration, Waid never lets us forget that even without super powers Dibny is an astute detective. There have been several examples over the series, and there’s another early on here, but it doesn’t look good for Ralph.

Or for the blind Adam Strange, for that matter, or Animal Man, stranded and believed dead on an alien planet. Yet others are even worse off. The resolutions, though, come rapidly over the first half of the book, and the format shifts. Whereas previously the lead characters shared chapters, each occupying a few pages, their plots now occupy almost entire chapters at a time, and for all the thrills removing the ensemble approach weakens the series. There are exceptions, the excellent and well conceived finale being one, but whereas some plots dragged in places previously, it was only for a few pages at a time.

Black Adam is the key cast member in this conclusion, having been almost supplanted by his supporting cast over the previous two books. Here, though, we see how other plots running through the series connect with him, and it ought to be a great surprise. Let’s just say circumstances don’t unwind in a manner favourable to Black Adam, and his solution has ever been one-note. Oil is duly poured on troubled waters. If, however, you’ve not particularly enjoyed the segments of his story there’s little escape here as it supplants pretty much everything else for over half the book.

Events escalate to the point where the 50th chapter is titled ‘World War III’. Its 24 pages are an ultra-compressed rendering of that title, with an ingenious solution to the problem at hand. Events, however, encompassed so many characters and aspects that a separate graphic novel, titled World War III, was required for the detail. Some might expect those four chapters to be included here, but for once their omission may not be entirely financial. Doing so would have dismantled the mood set by a focus on specific characters.

By the end of 52 an awful lot has changed, and writers Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Waid set up much that they would later work with. Morrison’s ambitious The Multiversity began here, for instance. Keith Giffen again provides layouts for eleven different pencil artists, and while some are manifestly better than others, no-one lets the side down. Be warned, however, there are some exceptionally gruesome scenes here drawn in explicit fashion.

Against all the odds, 52 was a resounding creative success, and those not wanting to bother with four trade paperback books can now opt for a single bulky hardcover omnibus edition. Success breeds sequels, though, and this was followed by several. The far less appealing Countdown took the same approach of 52 chapters. Giffen remained as layout artist, but a different group of writers handled the plot. Giffen himself wrote the better Four Horsemen, and those wanting to check on Black Adam’s fate are directed to The Dark Age.