Breaking down "Event" comics, Part Five: <i>Villains United</i>; or, when the heroes are jerks, the villains shall be heroes!

Part One: Identity Crisis.  Part Two: Countdown to Infinite Crisis.  Part Three: Day of Vengeance.  Part Four: The OMAC Project. I have a confession to make, comic book blogaxy.  I cannot remember ever reading a comic book by Gail Simone.  Yes, bring down the scorn!  I can handle it!  Now, I may have read something by Simone, but if I did, it was something where the name of the writer simply didn't register.  I have never read Birds of Prey, for instance, but if she wrote a back-up story in some anthology, I may have read something by her.  I don't know why I have never read anything by Gail Simone, because I have heard good things about her writing and her blog is certainly interesting, but after reading Villains United, I may have to start reading her work.

Yes, you read correctly!  An Infinite Crisis tie-in mini-series that I thoroughly enjoyed!  I suppose that's not a surprise, since the scuttlebutt on yonder Internets is that this one was actually, you know, good.  I didn't read any reviews of it prior to reading, but that's the impression I got. I didn't even read Jim Roeg's wonderfully erudite breakdown of the first four issues, even though his discussions of comics occasionally make me think I should even give junk more of a chance!  He has that effect!

So, yes, I liked it.  But that's not the point, is it?  My liking it or not isn't going to convince anyone to buy it - this is part of DC's huge event anyway, and anyone who wanted to buy this already did.  The point is, like all of these posts, is not whether I liked it or not, but why a comic works, why it doesn't, and how it fits into the Brave New World that is today's DC.  In all of these posts, I have let you know my opinion, of course, but I have also tried to understand the mentality of these comic books.  And I wonder why Villains United works while the previous books, for one reason or another, didn't quite.  Is Simone that much better a writer?  Maybe, although Willingham is excellent on Fables and Rucka can be very good.  Eaglesham's art certainly helps - the shifting between Saiz and Richards on The OMAC Project was disconcerting, and Justiniano is decent but not as good as Eaglesham is.  Even Val Semieks, filling in for an issue, was good.  It's more than that, however - the series itself is conceived differently than the first two of the four leading into Infinite Crisis, and this allows Simone much more freedom than Willingham or Rucka.

For one thing, it feels as if this series is not editorially-mandated, or at least not as much as the previous two were.  Day of Vengeance was built in order to kill Shazam.  No matter how talented a writer Willingham is, it's tough to construct a six-issue mini-series simply to kill a wizard.  It has to color your enjoyment of the series (okay, maybe it doesn't have to, but it should).  The OMAC Project was a natural series, in that the rest of the heroes had to find out who killed Blue Beetle eventually, but I wonder if Dan DiDio told Rucka that Max had to die and Diana had to kill him.  I don't know if he did, but it feels like it.  With Villains United, the oppressive hand of DiDio doesn't seem as evident. "Throw in Pariah and Alexander Luthor," Dan said as he sipped cognac and allowed Simone to kiss his ring in thanks for allowing her into the inner circle, "we have plans for them.  Other than that, you're on your own."  After kowtowing her way out of the room without ever turning her back on him, Simone went and wrote a nasty little tale of reprehensible people doing reprehensible things.  Which, if you think about it, is the stuff of great fiction.

Villains United has a great deal of tension in it, not the least of which comes from the fact that everyone in it is a bad guy, so we're never quite sure when someone will die.  Of course, villains in the DCU are as hallowed as the heroes, so we're pretty sure that no one major will get it, but we're never positive, and that's what makes it interesting.  I've said before that death itself doesn't mean that a book is any good, but the specter of death certainly helps, especially in a book such as this, where morally murky people are running around doing mean things to each other.  From the moment Deadshot blows the Fiddler's head off, we know that the ground on which the series rests is shaky, and what follows, although the major bad guys come out fine, is fraught with the idea of mortality.  The story Simone tells is good enough to stand on its own, but the added tinge of danger helps.

Simone is also able to add a bit of depth to the characters that, because they are villains and therefore rarely get the spotlight, doesn't necessarily contradict anything that has come before (as far as I know - but it has been pointed out before that I'm not too bright).  Simone does a nice job with the Secret Six - these people are still villains, but Simone shows us that they are actual people, too, with children and lovers and lives outside of villainy.  Luthor's Society is made up of the "villains" of the book, and they aren't fleshed out as well, but they still get some nice moments.  Freed from the constraints of having to act like heroes, the characters in the series get to act like people.  It's refreshing, because we can see their motivations and understand them, and although they are mean and nasty people, they do things that aren't too far removed from reality.  Simone makes all their actions feel natural - even Jade's betrayal, even Knockout's betrayal, even Deadshot's despicable actions.  It's a measure of Simone's talent that she can make us feel bad for these characters even though the DCU would be better off without them.  Go, Deathstroke - kill them all and let God sort them out!  But in the final stand within the Six's mansion, we feel anxiety and relief when "the good guys" escape relatively unscathed.

Interestingly, Simone chooses to include three different "romantic" relationships, none of them traditional.  Obviously, Blake and Jade hook up, and that's the traditional pairing, but Scandal is in love with Knockout, who betrays the Society at the last second and helps save the day.  We don't get much of their relationship, but Scandal's love letter to Knockout in issue #2 is a nice way to show the relationship and also give us some insight into Scandal's character.  The fun homoerotic scene in issue #2 with Lawton and Blake is nice, because you don't have to read it that way, but it's cooler if you do!  Even if we don't accept the romantic spark between these two, it's a nicely done scene that we remember later on when Blake finds out it was Lawton who killed "his" lions.  At the end, of course, we can infer that Blake and Lawton have ironed out their differences and are now a couple.  They even get to walk off into the sunset!  The weirdest relationship in the book is between Ragdoll and Parademon.  We never learn why Parademon takes such a proprietory interest in Ragdoll, but his insistence that "the clown" be safe is funny and strangely touching.  With small touches like this (among others, Cheshire's crocodile (?) tears in issue #3 included), Simone helps humanize these villains, which is strange.  In the other books of this mega-event, the writers are trying to "humanize" the heroes by having them kill bad guys.  Simone doesn't need to do this, because the villains are already evil.  Therefore, she can concentrate on what the other writers should have done - humanize the characters without having them shed so much blood.

This highlights the Bizarro DC Universe we have entered in the past two years.  Floyd Lawton is a horrible man, by all accounts.  He has never really been portrayed as anything but a horrible man.  Cheshire?  Ditto, and she does show her true colors at the end.  Thomas Blake might be a noble cat-lover, but he has also been shown as a bad guy.  Ragdoll is a sociopath.  Yet these characters are the "heroes" of the book.  And they act somewhat like heroes.  Sure, they're not perfect, but they do try harder to be heroes than the actual heroes in the other books.  The Society is brought together, after all, ostensibly to fight against the Justice League because they're in the mindwiping business (Dr. Light is strangely absent from the mini-series).  Ironically, Blake becomes the conscience of the DCU when, at the end, he tells Ollie that everything that is happening is on his head.  Batman never confronted the Justice League - he simply built spy satellites.  Perhaps he should have tried shaming his fellow Leaguers.  So while the heroes of DC are acting more and more like villains and in the process losing some of their humanity, some of the villains of DC are acting less like villains (not exactly like heroes, just less like villains) and in the process gaining some humanity.  It is a circumstance that makes this series work, but again, DC is treading dangerous ground by doing this.  As Blake tells Ollie, "You were all great once.  You can be that way again ... but you'd better hurry.  Before the line between you and us gets too damn blurry to see."  It's a nice sentiment expressed well, but it feels like meta-commentary.  Would Blake really say something like that?  Why does he care if the Justice League "plays fair"?  He never does.  The last time I saw Catman, he was leashing Batman to an antenna so his pet tiger could get some exercise.  Yes, that was fifteen years ago, but it's the same character.  Blake should want the JLA to act less like heroes, because then they would lose the respect of the public.  Then it's a free-for-all!  However, the line is good because it expresses nicely what the heroes of the DCU should be doing.  If they need someone to point it out to them, however, can they really be heroes anymore?  Decent people don't need to be told that lobotomizing someone, no matter what the reason, is not heroic.

Villains United subtly introduces some elements that I assume will be important later on, including the alliance between Vandal Savage and Luthor and what Lex has been doing.  However, unlike the previous two mini-series, it comes to a conclusion that does not feel like you've spent all that money just to be led to another series.  You can read this series in a vacuum and still get a good story that wraps up in a satisfying fashion.  It's just another reason that this rises above the prior mini-series in this group.

Oh, and just one point: did anyone else think it ironic that Brad Meltzer ruined the Justice League just so Dr. Light wouldn't be so pathetic yet he had no problem turning Thomas Blake into a big pathetic loser?  Just wondering.

Anyway, in the larger scheme of things, it's a sad comment on the state of the DC Universe when a series with absolutely no "good guys" can not only be highly entertaining, but show heroism in a better light than the series with the "heroes."  DC decided to raise up their lower-level heroes by making the top echelon of heroes worse, and now they have decided to bring down their heroes even more by showing that villains have a better sense of honor and decency than, say, Batman.  Nice move, DC.  Way to inspire.  Still, we shouldn't hold Simone responsible.  She took what she was given and spun a fun story out of it.  In the climate of King Dan and JoRucknick, his unholy creation, that's saying something.

You know I have links, in case you think I'm crazy and want different opinions! Three different opinions of issue #1, a good review of issue #3, Randy Lerner liked issue #1 but had some of the same problems I did, and Scott finds a medical mistake in issue #2. Honestly, that's all I found! I'm sure there are tons more, but Google sucks. Yeah, I said it!  

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