Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Forever Evil #1 is an uneven debut for the seven-issue miniseries, revealing that the Crime Syndicate — for those who came in late, basically an evil Justice League from the parallel Earth-3 — has killed all the Leaguers and is recruiting allies among DC-Earth’s supervillains. Although a handful of scenes are genuinely chilling, much of it is exposition and survey, with some of that geared apparently toward ancillary miniseries. Geoff Johns’ script works well when his characters can give speeches, but turns awkward and simplistic in crowd scenes. David Finch’s pencils are appropriately murky and grim, although there’s not a lot of subtlety; and inker Richard Friend seems to have gotten quite a workout. (This is the superhero-comic equivalent of a downpour at dusk.) Fortunately, colorist Sonia Oback manages to bring some variety to the gloomy proceedings, whether it’s brightening up a neon-lit cityscape or energizing a crackling solar corona.
Still, for the start of the first “universe-wide” Big Event of DC’s New 52, Forever Evil #1 feels like an apocalyptic tease. The issue’s main shocks aren’t as shocking as one might imagine, and the demands of a shared superhero universe will require them to be reversed. There’s undoubtedly more carnage to come, but for now it’s an exercise in attitude.
Naturally, there’s more after the jump. SPOILERS FOLLOW …
If Forever Evil #1 has a theme, it’s “abuse of power.” Granted, that’s not a particularly deep theme, but it runs through the issue’s two big monologues. One of those — and easily the best part of the issue — comes in the introductory sequence, where Lex Luthor tells a business target* just what will happen to him and his family if he doesn’t agree to be bought out by LexCorp. It’s juxtaposed with Lex’s internal monologue about what he did to an ungrateful cat, which itself is a little on the nose, but a succinct way to sum up Johns’ approach to the character.
Given his prominence in this issue, and editor Brian Cunningham’s comments that “if you are a Lex Luthor fan, you will love this miniseries,” odds are good that the Greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time eventually will help save the day. Lex and the Crime Syndicate’s Ultraman come from the same “you don’t understand my genius” place, but their fundamental difference is basically actual altruism. As part of the other monologue, Ultraman tells the assembled Secret Society that the Justice League’s Earth deserves what it gets because it “wastes its time protecting the weak.” Compare that with Luthor, who wanted to save his sister’s cat a) because she wouldn’t shut up about it, b) because he could, and probably (although this isn’t expressed) c) because, deep down, he loved his sister. When Luthor realizes, at the end of the issue, that Superman has been replaced by someone with his powers but without his ethics or restraint (and who snorts Kryptonite to boot), he recognizes his role has changed as well. We haven’t met the current version of Earth-3’s heroic Luthor, but he can’t be far off; it’ll be instructive to compare how close he is to “our” Lex.
So, in summary, Luthor gets some of the issue’s best moments, and a Superman analogue gives an evil version of the sort of inspiring speech the real Superman’s supposed to give. Also, the Crime Syndicate announces its arrival across all electronic media with a stark orange “THIS WORLD IS OURS.” Those are the high points of Forever Evil #1. The rest isn’t bad, but it wavers between “somewhat derivative” and “clunky,” with a little “disingenuous” thrown in.
While I did like the “THIS WORLD IS OURS” detail, Grant Morrison went it one better, sending the Anti-Life Equation through social media in 2008’s Final Crisis; so even with our ever-increasing dependence on technology (and FC no longer being in continuity), it felt a little repetitive. The similarities don’t stop there.
Of course, Forever Evil isn’t the first DC event to feature the villains winning. Final Crisis had Darkseid recruit a Secret Society to help rule the Earth, although in light of the Anti-Life Equation they were almost superfluous. Before that, 2005’s Villains United (written by Gail Simone as a lead-in to the Johns-written Infinite Crisis) featured a newly assembled Secret Society, motivated by the events of 2004’s Identity Crisis. Heck, an army of supervillains from across the Multiverse took over Earth-Four for a couple of issues, ‘waaay back in Crisis On Infinite Earths issues 9-10.
And that reminds me — the scene in Forever Evil #1 where Ultraman fries the Monocle is fairly generic, but to this longtime reader it felt like a callback to Crisis on Infinite Earths #10, where Brainiac notes that “we do not need two Luthors” and disintegrates the Earth-Two original. Likewise, the handful of pages where various villains banter among themselves reminded me strongly of similar meet-and-greets in COIE. Both seemed composed around an expedient dialogue formula: each character calls out another by codename, and then says something descriptive.
Here’s a sample from COIE #5 (scripted by Marv Wolfman):
GREEN ARROW: That’s Rann … where Adam Strange lives.
EARTH-TWO HAWKGIRL: Rann? Adam Strange–? Who are they?
GREEN ARROW: C’mon, you hadda hear of ‘em, Hawkgirl.
ATOM: Arrow, the Hawks from Earth-2 aren’t from space like our Hawks.
And from Forever Evil #1:
MULTIPLEX: I told you it was legitimate, Frost. The coin means you’ve been chosen.
KILLER FROST: But for what, Multiplex?
THE PENGUIN (in an unrelated conversation): [The Joker’s] going to start trouble, Bane. That maniac hates structure.
BANE: If the Joker starts anything, Penguin, I will break him the way Batman should have.
Now, it’s not exactly fair to make a comparison with a 28-year-old miniseries that dealt regularly with dozens of characters in practically each issue, and which was written under vastly different circumstances. Regardless, clunky dialogue is clunky dialogue, and the “cocktail-party” scenes in Forever Evil seem to exist solely to show why we care — for lack of a better word — about DC-Earth’s supervillains, particularly when the Crime Syndicate doesn’t appear to need them for anything. This would be a more important point to make if these villains were either new to the reader or if they played a larger part in the issue. Johns and artist Andy Kubert did a similar sequence in 2011’s Flashpoint #1, ticking off the heroes of that altered timeline.
Instead, the villains introducing themselves are each fairly familiar (Multiplex and Killer Frost may be the most obscure, but they’ve been fighting Firestorm since the mid-‘70s) and the sequence ends up explaining that the Crime Syndicate wants to recruit them. From that standpoint it’s not as efficient as simply jumping ahead in the narrative and showing groups of villains either affiliated with, or opposed to, the Syndicate. Still, it gives Johns and Finch the chance to write and draw villains they don’t usually get to handle, and I suppose we’ll see how much these characters contribute down the road. Speaking of which, other blatantly-expository scenes include a page’s worth of dialogue between Black Adam and Amanda Waller, presumably leading into a tie-in Suicide Squad storyline, and a couple of pages with the Teen Titans, also presumably setting up their tie-in issues.
One bit of exposition actually undercuts the mood the issue is trying to establish. When Despero brags that he — and not the Crime Syndicate — brought down the Justice League’s space station, he’s referring to the events of Justice League #20, when the Watchtower was destroyed in a battle involving him and some second-string Leaguers. To be sure, one of those Leaguers was later revealed as a member of the Crime Syndicate (and re-reading that issue really brings that out), but Despero did the heavy lifting, as it were. Thus, the most visible evidence that the League is gone actually comes from a little while back, and not from the Syndicate’s very visible arrival.
The Crime Syndicate also asserts its power in one of the more direct parallels to Luthor’s opening monologue, namely by unmasking Nightwing on global television. Just as Luthor outlined what he’d do to Thomas Kord’s family if Kord didn’t play ball, Ultraman declares that “[a]ll who would oppose us […] risk not your lives, but the lives of those you cherish. Your family, friends and neighbors will die while you watch.” Both speeches are meant to demonstrate the dangers of super-people with no moral compasses. The speeches work because they’re objectively scary, and together they establish a certain hopeless, cutthroat atmosphere. At first it was just Luthor; now it’s the whole world.
This too is nothing new, not just for DC generally but Johns specifically. The various miniseries that led into Infinite Crisis were meant to culminate in the DC Universe’s “worst day,” Blackest Night’s zombie-superhero aesthetic is self-explanatory, and Flashpoint’s altered timeline was basically Murphy’s Law run amok. So far Forever Evil looks like another variation on that theme, only this time testing how much havoc the villains can wreak on society as a whole, and not just the Teen Titans. Why it has to take seven issues isn’t clear from this first one, unless the implication is that the whole series will move at a somewhat-measured pace.** I expect Johns to check in with the Justice League (who, if I’m right about “Trinity War,” are trapped on a decimated Earth-3), and to make Luthor the primary opposition to the Crime Syndicate, but basically this looks like a pretty straightforward storyline: the Syndicate leaves its mark, Luthor and the League each try to bring them down, and some combination of the latter succeeds. (Throwing in Earth 2’s proto-Justice Society might be worth another issue or so, but upon further reflection I don’t think Johns will actually do that.)
Otherwise, the only questions about Forever Evil may involve how bad things get, and how much the Leaguers have to do to set things straight. Assuming the publisher doesn’t want most of its superhero line set in a dystopian hellscape, you have to think the answers will be “not that bad, relatively speaking” and “six months, tops.” Reverse Nightwing’s unmasking with some magic or time-travel (or both), rebuild the Watchtower, and before you can say “Mephisto,” voila! It’s April 2014!
To be sure, there’s that dynamic, but there’s also the expectation from any Big Event that “this changes everything.” Even accounting for my own natural resistance to change, I wonder how much change the New 52 really needs at this point. I mean, by April it’ll be just over two-and-a-half years old. The two years’ worth of actual comics have already seen a good bit of turnover, both in terms of titles and creative teams. Paradoxically, despite all of that, I’m not sure that the shared-universe itself has developed so substantially — i.e., is “old enough” — to warrant a round of big changes.
Ah, but that’s getting way ahead of ourselves. For now it’s sufficient to say Forever Evil #1 is a somber mix of the depressingly familiar, with a few flashes of innovation hinting at future improvement. I’m curious enough to keep reading, but I hope I haven’t read it all before.
* [The reference to Thomas Kord’s son is hard to ignore, and I am thisclose to predicting a New 52 version of the Ted Kord Blue Beetle by this time next year.]
** [Issue #1 features 32 pages of story, five pages of DC house ads, and a final editorial page. The ads don’t start until about Page 20, which obviously helps the story early on. There are four splash pages and a four-page spread, but they’re spaced pretty well throughout the issue. The scene shifts and the handful of action sequences are enough to keep things from feeling too decompressed.]