Grumpy Old Fan | Form, function and ‘Forever Evil’

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Form, function and ‘Forever Evil’

Readers of superhero comics have long debated the merits of “decompression” and “waiting for the trade.” You can either read a serialized story as it comes out, or you can wait until it’s collected. With two issues to go, it looks like Forever Evil wants it both ways. It is structured for the Wednesday crowd but written for the trade; and so far, the result is a grim, vignette-driven affair. Writer Geoff Johns and artists David Finch and Ivan Reis (and their various collaborators) have set up an apocalyptic scenario and teased a handful of elements pointing toward its resolution; but they haven’t otherwise done much, issue to issue, to move the story closer to that resolution. Indeed, the deeper I get into Forever Evil, the more I suspect that it — like its prologue, “Trinity War” — may be only the latest chapter in an ever-expanding saga.

By itself that would be unsatisfying enough. However, Forever Evil was supposed to show off DC’s shared universe (New 52 edition). To be fair, its Justice League crossover issues have presented New 52 versions of Plastic Man, the Doom Patrol and the Metal Men, and alluded to past battles with old-school villains like Ultivac and the Construct. Still, except for the Metal Men, none seems directly related to FE’s eventual outcome; and each seems intended instead as an Easter egg or the seed of a future series. Indeed, while the “Blight” crossover has shown what happened to the magic-based superheroes, FE itself hasn’t delved too far into the whereabouts of DC-Earth’s non-Leaguer super-folk. For those of us wanting each issue to go somewhere new, or at least somewhere different, month in and month out Forever Evil has felt fairly repetitive. Moreover, in sidelining the Justice League itself, it’s removed a potentially productive narrative thread.

Inasmuch as these choices relate to the changing comics marketplace, Forever Evil could be one of the last big events structured this way, or it could be the shape of things to come.

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Last week’s issue of Justice League started this line of thought. I liked the Metal Men reintroduction (written by Johns, laid out by Reis and finished by Joe Prado and Scott Hanna) quite a bit. It balanced Doc Magnus’ sentiment against his creations’ unbridled optimism very effectively; Johns brought a fresh perspective to each Metal Man’s distinctive personality; and Reis and company updated the droids’ designs appropriately. In fact, just about my only quibble with the story was that it took place between the covers of Justice League.

This is because Forever Evil has co-opted Justice League as a secondary storytelling track. Johns did something similar four years ago with Blackest Night and Green Lantern, weaving certain subplots through both the miniseries and the ongoing. Now, it’s fine if you read both FE and JL, because the ongoing series offers the space to expand on certain developments in the miniseries; plus, you get a double dose of plot every month. It’s even OK if you just read Forever Evil, because it stands alone fairly well. (In this respect it does better than Blackest Night.) However, just reading Justice League is like trying to follow a movie by watching only the deleted scenes.

As it happens, though, Forever Evil and Justice League are likely to be collected separately, just as Blackest Night and its GL tie-ins were. (As far as I know, only Absolute Blackest Night collected both.) In fact, besides those two, there are several separate storytelling tracks. There’s the Martian Manhunter/Stargirl story in Justice League of America; the “Blight” crossover running through JL Dark, Pandora, Phantom Stranger and Constantine; the three ancillary miniseries for the Flash’s Rogues Gallery, the Gotham villains and ARGUS; and various discrete tie-ins in books like Teen Titans, Suicide Squad and some of the “Villains’ Month” specials. That adds up to at least seven different collections (eight if DC decides to collect all the miscellaneous material) for what, as of Issue 5, has taken up only 48 hours in the life of DC-Earth. Naturally, regardless of form, readers can still choose which tracks to follow. I’ve been reading the main miniseries and the Justice League books, and decided to follow “Blight” because I was getting two of those series anyway. That gives me at least one FE-related book a week, which both mitigates and calls attention to the glacial pace of the main miniseries.

At the risk of spoiling the story so far, here’s what’s happened over the past five issues of Forever Evil: the evil Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 has invaded “our” Earth, imprisoned the Justice Leagues, eclipsed the sun, revealed Nightwing’s secret identity, defeated the Teen Titans and Black Adam, and caused “our” supervillains to divide up into collaborators and rebels. Luthor awakened his “B-Zero” creation, Batman and Catwoman joined Luthor’s team of villains, Sinestro killed the Crime Syndicate’s Power Ring, the CS’s Owlman is trying to recruit Nightwing for his own ends, and now the big red energy-thing that destroyed Earth-3 is headed for our Earth. Meanwhile, Justice League has been crossing over directly with FE, offering infodumps on the Crime Syndicate, Cyborg and the Metal Men. Elsewhere, JLA has related Martian Manhunter and Stargirl’s attempts to save the Leaguers before their prison explodes; while “Blight” started off with Constantine, Pandora, Nightmare Nurse, Phantom Stranger and Deadman fighting a creature made out of evil, and now has moved to dismantling the Crime Syndicate’s trap for DC-Earth’s mystics.

That’s a lot of material, but in practice it seems like the further one gets from the main miniseries, the faster it moves. Like the Johns-written Flashpoint, Forever Evil seems content to have established its setting so it can tell appropriately-bleak stories within that setting. This has let Forever Evil and Justice League focus on characters, particularly Lex Luthor, the Syndicators, Batman and Cyborg. However, that focus paradoxically makes it hard to tell a distinct story beyond “Luthor decides to save the world.” Through five issues each of FE and JL (counting the Secret Society issue from Villains’ Month), there’s been plenty of scheming, but not much forward motion.

More accurately, the forward motion has been split among those various tracks, at least as far as the three Justice Leagues are concerned. As mentioned above, the story of Forever Evil has been “villains win; ‘heroes’ fight back.” In FE itself those heroes have been Luthor’s crew, plus Batman and Catwoman. In Justice League it’s Cyborg, in JLA it’s Martian Manhunter and Stargirl, and in the “Blight” crossover it’s been Constantine, Pandora, Phantom Stranger, et al. However, it’s hard to see at this point how the various League teams will figure (if at all) into FE’s conclusion, other than an awkward series of deus ex machina-style reveals: “Look, they’re out of the Firestorm Matrix! Here comes Cyborg with the Metal Men! Hey, that Thaumaton thingee isn’t working!” For that matter, the infighting among Ultraman, Superwoman, and Owlman will no doubt inform FE’s ending as much as Luthor’s inevitable method for exposing Ultraman to direct sunlight.

(Brief digression here — yes, I think it will be Luthor, not Superman, who defeats Ultraman. One of the aforementioned save-the-day reveals could well be Superman pushing the Moon back into place, then flying down to announce “oh hey, we escaped.” Still, given Luthor’s prominence here, and the appropriateness of him downing “a” Superman, my money’s on him sending Sinestro and/or Black Adam to move the moon.)

While we can see how these various pieces work together generally, the fact that they’ve been split apart weakens Forever Evil as a whole. In this respect I’m happy to read Forever Evil alongside the aforementioned crossovers in single-issue form, because it gives me an overall sense of progress that I don’t think you really get from the miniseries alone. By the same token, though, a Forever Evil miniseries that incorporated all of these subplots, and left the various Justice League series to their own devices, would definitely look a lot different. It would have a bigger cast, fewer double-page spreads, and not as much room for character bits. It might also be a better piece of storytelling.

See, in its current form, Forever Evil has not only outsourced much of its narrative thrust, it’s made sure that practically nothing which happens in those crossovers will really advance the plot — because the really important developments must happen, virtually by definition, in FE itself. For example, if the March solicits are any indication, the various Leaguers won’t be freed from Firestorm’s prison until JLA #13, set to be published two weeks before FE #7. Likewise, Cyborg and the Metal Men are scheduled to fight Grid in Justice League #29, which comes out a week before FE’s conclusion. For its part, “Blight” had exactly zero impact on the main FE miniseries, and could well end satisfactorily (after eighteen issues) without ever being mentioned in FE itself. Entertaining as it has been, “Blight” therefore threatens to be the crossover equivalent of busy work.

This sort of compartmentalization isn’t new to big crossover events. (After a while, the Green Lantern Corps simply dropped out of the pages of Crisis On Infinite Earths, and their subplot finished up over the course of six or seven issues of Green Lantern.) However, it seems especially obvious in Forever Evil, which has treated the various Justice Leaguers almost as afterthoughts. Indeed, the Justice League hasn’t appeared as such in its own title since the end of “Trinity War” in August. I could easily picture a Forever Evil conclusion where the escaped Leaguers show up after all the dust has settled, and find Luthor giving them the “what took you so long?” treatment. The point of FE may well be to get readers used to the idea of the new-look League that debuts in April.

Nevertheless, that makes me wonder why Justice League and JLA spent the past six months crossing over with FE. Why not tell stories (even if they’re flashbacks) featuring the actual Justice League, and publish separate Forever Evil [Colon] miniseries for the background and jailbreak subplots? Blackest Night did something similar with its Tales of the Corps miniseries. To be fair, Blackest Night had the advantage of spinning directly out of the Green Lantern books, whereas Forever Evil has been more of an external threat to which the various Leagues responded. As such, the GL books were better-suited to telling their own stories than the JL books have been.

Still, it’s not like readers won’t buy the Justice League titles, and it would satisfy readers who actually wanted to read more normal League stories during the fall and winter months. The classic complaint about crossovers is how much they derail ongoing series, and that’s especially true in an environment where big events end up driving the narrative of an ongoing series, instead of the other way around. Forever Evil’s structure sprawls out into the three Justice League titles seemingly by choice, not necessity. It could be leaner and tighter, but it has the space to do otherwise. (And yes, I know I’m spending almost 2000 words arguing for “leaner and tighter.”)

I can’t help but think, though, that as digital distribution and collected editions become bigger parts of the superhero-comics marketplace, events like Forever Evil will gradually abandon this branched-out structure. When we buy these comics, we’re basically buying story pages, arranged into standard-sized chunks. However, those chunks are tied to readers’ every-Wednesday buying habits. As digital and the collected-edition market move readers away from those habits, the single issue may similarly fade. Until then, readers and publishers may have to balance the every-Wednesday needs against the convenience of a collection, and hope the story makes it through intact.