I read all 13 of the Villains Month issues released this week by DC Comics, and in so doing I saw 89 people killed (Kryptonians and Thanagarians included) in all manner of ways. I saw people shot to death with laser guns, with regular old bullet guns, with eye-beams, with an arrow and even with an umbrella. I saw people stabbed, bludgeoned, impaled, decapitated, blown up, pushed off buildings, flash-frozen and shattered. I saw someone's neck snapped, someone's life-force magically drained, people sliced in half with psionic energy, and others torn to pieces by claws.
I saw a bestial woman eat the still-beating hearts of her victims.
But man, the rabbit that Arcane tore in half? That's the image that sticks with me from this week's Villains Week offerings. Thank God they didn't put that on the cover; imagine that arc of rabbit innards being flung your way in lenticular 3D!
So, to recap: The Crime Syndicate, the Justice League's evil opposites from Earth-3, have invaded Earth-New 52, organizing the local super-villains into a veritable legion of doom called the Secret Society. They also claim to have killed the Justice League members, who, dead or not, are at the very least missing in action. They certainly aren't around to defend their own titles (which their villains have also taken over), or the sanctity of assigning whole numbers to sequential issues of comic books. These villains are so evil they've made the covers 3D, upping the price of the books by a buck. Also: allocation, which I don't quite understand, but it sure sounds like an evil word, doesn't it?
Who can stop them? Not I. All I can do is bear witness, as best I can. So read on for reviews of all of this week's Villain's Month issues, probably-not-very-helpful ratings of their quality (ranging from Not Very Good to Absolute Evil, as explained in the first installment) and their connectivity to the main Forever Evil event.
Action Comics #23.3: Lex Luthor Written by Charles Soule Drawn by Raymund Bermudez and Dan Green
Upcoming Superman/Wonder Woman writer Charles Soule gets a chance to preview his take on the Man of Steel's archenemy in this, one of several of his Villains Month titles seeing release this week. It's essentially a day-in-the-life portrait of Lex Luthor, of the same sort that Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Wes Craig recently produced for Adventures of Superman #4 (theirs got the job done better in half the space, for what it's worth).
It also, somewhat belatedly, answers the question of how Lex Luthor got from his jail cell in "Trinity War" to his helicopter meeting with Thomas Kord in the beginning of Forever Evil #1. (As to the events of Superman Unchained, in which Lex breaks himself out of jail? You got me.)
Soule does a pretty neat job of twisting around Luthor's obsession with the Man of Steel, so that the villain is shocked that his missing archenemy isn't spying on him or interfering in any way, given that Lex is all Superman thinks about.
The artwork is fine, but unremarkable. This is basically a character study bouncing off of an element of Forever Evil — that the heroes of the Justice League are all missing — and thus it's something of a writer's comic.
Question to anyone who read this issue already: Why didn't Supergirl or Superboy or Power Girl try to catch that shuttle?
Rating: Wicked.Connectivity: Relatively High.
Batman #23.3: Penguin Written by Frank Tieri Drawn by Christian Duce
Tieri's day in the life of the Penguin will likely strike anyone that reads this week's Detective Comics #23.3 as odd, given that in the TEC issue we learn Oswald Cobblepot has a position of power in the Society-ruled world, which seems like it might have made for a more interesting 20 pages of Penguin comic than this issue, which neither ties into Forever Evil nor tells the character's origin. (The latter probably would have been redundant, given that DC recently produced a five-part miniseries doing just that in Penguin: Pain and Prejudice.)
Tieri has the Penguin brutally murder three guys who were trying to game his casino and had the gall to insult him. (The follow-up? "Do these men have families? Not anymore they don't. See to it.") Then Cobblepot puts together an elaborate trap to blackmail the governor that includes a beheaded prostitute and ends with the politician committing suicide on television.
Tieri takes the mafia-style crime lord approach to the character and runs with it, in the process turning him into something akin to a fat little Joker with slightly better management skills. Nothing about the character really says "Penguin," save for surface details. For a one-issue exploration of how incredibly evil The Penguin can be, you'd be better off looking in back-issue bins for Jason Aaron and Jason Pearson's 2008 Joker's Asylum: Penguin #1. For origin stories, there's 1989's Secret Origins Special #1, or 1997's Batman #548 and #549. As for the aforementioned Pain and Prejudice? That's actually pretty terrible, and five times as long as this comic.
Duce's art is somewhat reminiscent of J. Calafiore's (who worked with Tieri on a Penguin story in Gotham Underground), only Duce may favor even deeper and darker little lines in the expressive faces of the Penguin and his opponents.
Rating: Not Very Good.Connectivity: None.
Batman and Robin #23.3: Ra's al Ghul Written by James Tynion IV Drawn by Jeremy Haun
It's kinda-sorta the secret origin of the Batman villain whose origin has been re-told more than any other Batman villain, this time by the writer of last week's Court of Owls issue and the artist of last week's Riddler issue (the latter of which may be the best of these one-shots so far).
Tynion wisely glosses over the details most thoroughly explored in previous tellings and instead brings readers up to date with what the character has been up to lately (taking a backseat to Talia in Batman Inc., mostly), couching the story in the events of Forever Evil.
With Batman dead and the world ruled by a cabal of villains from this Earth and a Syndicate of villains from another, more evil Earth, an unnamed member of the Society seeks out Ra's to offer him membership.
The villain has electrical arm bands and a red cowl so could conceivably be a New 52 Electrocutioner, but whoever he is, he holds his own in a sword fight with Ra's for a while before getting killed. The insubstantial nature of the character detracts somewhat from the drama of the offer and the story, and from the triumph over him. Given the fact that the Syndicate includes an evil Batman from a different dimension, it's sort of a shame that Tynion didn't have Owlman extend the offer, but then, that would have led to a bigger and more significant story than DC likely would have wanted in a done-in-one like this.
As is, it's a decent enough refresher on who Ra's is, and it's one more example of a villain refusing to join the ranks of the Society, although unlike some of the others, there's a good chance this is the last we'll see of Ra's in the course of the storyline, given his longevity (virtually immortal, he can afford to take seven months off from trying to conquer the world).
Haun's artwork is strong, and while he tends to scrimp on backgrounds, he excels at the costume changes that denote the shift in time periods, and the old-school, Orientalist theatricality of Ra's at certain points in his life.
His panel of Batman and Ra's engaging in their favorite sport of shirtless scimitar-fighting is shameful, though: Haun draws Batman without a single hair on his chest, as if to suggest either a lack of virility in Batman, or that he waxes his chest. I'm not sure which is worse.
Rating: Maleficent.Connectivity: Medium.
Batman: The Dark Knight #23.3: Clayface Written by John Layman Art by Cliff Richards
Prior to the reboot, it took a couple of story arcs spread over the course of several years to give original Clayface, actor Basil Karlo, the shape-shifting powers of Clayface II, Matt Hagan. With the New 52-boot, they apparently were able to streamline their Clayface history right off the bat, and give Karlo Hagan's powers, no muss, no fuss.
In Layman's portrayal of the character, he's essentially a big, dumb thug with anger- and impulse-control issues. His powers keep him from meeting the sort of untimely end other criminals with his temperament might suffer, but he seems unable to rise above the level of formidable henchman. (This seems somewhat at odds with his portrayal in his most recent comic book appearances in, let's see what book was it now, ah, yes: Batman: The Dark Knight. Huh.)
In this issue, by TEC writer Layman, we see a well-planned robbery go wrong due to Clayface's unprofessional manner while he reminisces about his time as an actor. When he crawls out of the sewers, Forever Evil just happened, and the streets of Gotham are going nuts as people react to the news that the Justice League — Batman included — is dead.
Clayface goes to his favorite bar (also drinking there are White Rabbit, Great White Shark and a person who appears to be New 52 Zebra-Man) and hears about the Secret Society, wonders why he didn't get an invite and then strikes out to try and show the Society that he's got what it takes to rate inclusion. And screws it all up.
Richards' Clayface is a pretty distinct one, veering rather far from the Animated Series-inspired version seen on the cover of this issue (drawn by Guillem March), with a long, rather ape-like body and a skull-like face that could pass for Killer Croc's were it colored differently.
It's an all-around sharp design, accentuating the cartoonish nature of the character, which reinforces Layman's sad-sack, loser version of the villain.
Rating: Wicked.Connectivity: Medium.
The Flash #23.3: The Rogues Written by Brian Buccellato Drawn by Patrick Zircher
Captain Cold! Heatwave! Weather Wizard! Mirror Master! Golden Glider, sometimes! And Trickster, when he's not in jail! They're The Rogues, various Flash gimmick villains banded together to rob the banks no one gimmick villain could rob alone!
And aside from some mostly unfortunate redesigns, and the fact that they now have super-powers rather than wielding super-weapons, they're pretty much as they were before the reboot, particularly under Flash writer Geoff Johns: Not-that-bad bad guys who are only in it for the money, eschew killing and collateral damage, and usually stick together (come to think of it, I think these guys may actually be more heroic than the Savage Hawkman).
Regular Flash writer Buccellato reintroduces them, their powers (which are mostly self-explanatory, really), their origins, their morals and their inter-gang conflicts by showing them embarking on a heist gone wrong.
The book lines up quite nicely with Forever Evil, in which they appeared in a few panels, witnessing Johnny Quick tear open Iron Heights, and Flash #23.1, in which Gorilla Grodd conquered Keystone and Central City. After attending the supervillain pow-wow hosted by the Crime Syndicate, they return home to find their cities in ruins. "To Be Continued in Forever Evil: Rogues Rebellion" the last panel reads, making this a pretty straightforward bridge between the main Forever Evil series and the Rogues' own spinoff series.
This issue's artist, Patrick Zircher, will be drawing that Buccellato-written miniseries as well. His artwork here is fine, but given the high standards of the parent title's often-inventive visuals, it seems rather weak.
Rating: Maleficent.Connectivity: High.
Detective Comics #23.3: The Scarecrow Written by Peter J. Tomasi Drawn by Szymon Kudranski
The Scarecrow is probably my favorite comic book supervillain, and one of my favorite super-characters of any alignment, in large part because he's a character who invites distinctly different interpretations by virtually every artist who draws him. In that regard, he's more like Batman than most of the other Bat-villains, who various artists tend to tinker with, but few feel free to redesign from appearance to appearance as radically as the Scarecrow.
That's one reason why I've been somewhat disappointed in how strictly enforced his design seems to have been since the New 52, and that the design is such a dull one. No hat, not hair or wig, no patches, no coat or cape or straw; just a guy with a bag over his head. The Scarecrow on Jason Fabok's cover has some stitching on the bag and a scary mouth with some strategically placed ropes, but the Scarecrow inside is by artist Kudranski, and looks alternately like the worlds' worst Cobra Commander cosplayer and a guy robbing a bank with a nylon on his head.
I'm not a fan of Kudranski's artwork anywhere I've seen it thus far. Backgrounds, where they exist at all, are photographs; not drawings based on photographs, just photographs of buildings. Characters are photo-referenced to the point of looking traced, and often positioned in shadows or in the distance so that they are mere suggestions of figures emerging from coloring effects. It's the exact opposite of what I look for in comics art — nice drawings of interesting-looking characters.
It's sort of a shame then that he gets to draw not only the Scarecrow, but also Mr. Freeze, the Riddler, Killer Croc and Poison Ivy in this issue. Tomasi's script is mostly sharp and smart, but it can't really make up for artwork that works against it at every turn.
I was a little frightened by the first line of the script, in which the Scarecrow riffs on Apocalypse Now, of all things: "I love the smell of fear in this unending darkness. It smells like victory."
Tomasi recovers quickly after that, though, with the Scarecrow essentially just walking around Gotham, talking to various Bat-villains, each of whom has been given his or her own territories of the city to rule (a la "No Man's Land") by the new mayor, the Penguin (I've lost count of how many homages to that one episode of the Batman TV show where Penguin runs for mayor we've seen at this point).
Here's how Kudranski renders Gotham:
It's basically a blurry photograph of a city, with certain skyscrapers that look taken from other photographs decorated in a manner to suggest that maybe a particular villain controls them. Like maybe the one with a giant plastic bag over it is supposed to be semi-encased in ice, so maybe that's Mr. Freeze's building ...? And the Ventriloquist (or a Ventriloquist, I guess) tied a giant, partial ventriloquist dummy onto another building using comically large rope ...?
Tomasi's script is built around a series of conversations, each of which is meant to show certain parallels between the various Arkham escapees (none considers himself insane, of course) and highlight the Scarecrow's abilities as a psychiatrist.
At present, he is re-visiting various allies who have carved up post-Forever Evil Gotham and warning them that Bane is organizing former Blackgate inmates into an army intent on taking over their city. That's the story that will be told in Forever Evil: Arkham War.
I have a feeling it will be a lot less funny than the last time Arkham faced off against Blackgate ... in the softball game played in Showcase '94 #3 and #4, in Alan Grant and Tim Sale's "Madmen Across the Water" (I think it ended up seeing eventual collection in Tales of the Batman: Tim Sale).
Rating: Somewhat Disobedient.Connectivity: High.
Green Lantern #23.3: Black Hand Written by Charles Soule Drawn by Anblerto Ponticelli and Stefano Landini
Charles Soule makes his second appearance in this week's Villains Month credits for this somewhat-aimless story of William "Black Hand" Hand, a once-obscure Green Lantern villain who became a major player in the franchise during Geoff Johns' run, his role culminating during Blackest Night (although he recently reappeared during the climax of the Johns run).
Here he falls back to Earth, near his childhood home, and wanders about in a state of amnesia, using his ill-defined death powers to kill those around him and/or raise them as zombies. By book's end, he recovers his memory, and seems to set about on a devious plot of some kind to get revenge on Hal Jordan ... although he'll likely have to wait until after the next Green Lantern crossover story, "Lights Out," sees completion.
Soule has a couple of funny moments here: I liked his blase recapping of the rebirths and deaths of Hand on Page 3, and the comment about zombie-invasion training that one panicking cop makes to another.
This is set during the events of Forever Evil — no heroes around, the cops pretty busy — but its main narrative concern seems to be getting Black Hand from Point A to Point B, and trying to complete its utilitarian task in as entertaining a way as possible.
It has its moments, but they aren't many.
Rating: Morally Deficient.Connectivity: Low.
Justice League #23.3: Dial E Written by China Mieville Drawn by 21 different artists
This is a sort of coda to Mieville's canceled Dial H series, and seems to be mainly an exercise in emptying his notebook of all the various super-character names, powers and costumes he came up with but didn't get a chance to use before DC pulled the plug.
Why it's appearing in an issue of Justice League instead of Dial H is as obvious as it is mercenary; DC didn't even bother to make Brian Bolland insert images of the Justice League laying around defeated in the background of the cover, as they did for the other two Justice League books released this week (neither of which had anything at all to do with those books or teams either).
So, the H-Dial, or a Dial, falls into the possession of a group of bad kids. Some police try to stop them, and a villain tries to get the Dial for himself. The kids take turns using it, at a rate of at least once a page, unleashing enough goofy villains to supply DC with a second Villains Month worth of one-shots. Each page is drawn by a different artist, which sounds kind of fun, especially when you hear the line-up (Brendan McCarthy! Jock! Jeff Lemire! Emi Lenox! Emma Rios! Etc!). In practice, however, it just makes for an exhausting, confusing and ultimately meaningless jam book. Even if the characters weren't constantly transforming because of the Dial, they would still be constantly transforming, because of the different artists drawing them on every page.
It's a fun book to look at, I thought a few of the villain names were funny (Baba Iago, for example). and I snickered to see a guest appearance by Lemire's Underwater Welder, here dubbed "The Bends," but it's something of a chore to actually read.
Rating: Wicked.Connectivity: None.
Justice League Dark #23.2 Written by Dan DiDio Drawn by Philip Tan
Nobody's favorite creative team -- the guys that brought you a 14-issue, 2010-2011 run on The Outsiders -- reunites for a story in which solar scientist Gordon Jacobs (not Bruce Gordon) gets the black Eclipso diamond in the mail, listens to Eclipso tell him his origin story ("Eclipso's story unfolded in Sword of Sorcery, Demon Knights, Team 7 and Catwoman!" an editor's note states at the bottom of a two page-spread in which Eclipso talks around jagged panels of cameos featuring characters from other DC comics, three-fourths of which have been canceled), and then tells Jacobs Jacobs' origin story, to prove how well he knows him (and to let readers know what it is).
Then Eclipso possesses him, we see his new design (which involves a badly scarred face), they kill Jacobs' fiancee's dad and then they argue about it.
It's not the worst art I've seen from Tan, although that might be in large part due to all of the artsy effects he attempts in these few pages obscuring the need to draw all that much stuff. It's not the worst writing I've seen from DiDio, either.
"The End?" the last panel asks. A future appearance by the character in the pages of JLD would seem necessary to justify this issue's existence, but given that almost every New 52 series Eclipso has appeared in has been canceled, perhaps it would be better for Justice League Dark if this really is The End.
Rating: Somewhat Disobedient.Connectivity: None.
Justice League of America #7.3: Shadow Thief Written by Tom DeFalco Drawn by Chad Hardin
I am shocked — shocked, I say! — that the New 52 version of Silver Age Hawkman foe Shadow Thief is now a woman, and that the female version's costume is much more revealing than the male version's was, and that it's rendered even more revealing on the cover of the comic than in the actual comic.
When the old, male Shadow Thief was using the suit, he was just a living shadow, often stretching across surfaces like a shadow (along with The Gentleman Ghost, he was one of the more visually interesting of the guys Hawkman swung his mace at). This version is usually just drawn in a tight, form-fitting black body stocking, albeit one that's alive and Venom-like, able to sprout stabby tendrils. And her lips are always visible, so you don't forget that she's a lady.
DeFalco's story is an origin, telling the tale of a Mossad spy who went rogue, was recruited by A.R.G.U.S. (DC's answer to S.H.I.E.L.D.), discovered a pair of alien weapons, including her shadow skin suit, and then discovered her boss at A.R.G.U.S. was an alien from the now-defunct WildStorm imprint.
Now she devotes her time to hunting and killing aliens. So she's more of a Shadow Assassin than a Shadow Thief, but maybe some other comics publisher already owns that trademark ...?
The script is pretty paint by numbers, beginning in medias res, flashbacking to the character's life story and then ending with a reversal of fortune where she comes back from the brink of defeat to win the day (by, um, slaughtering a bunch of guys).
Hardin, who some reader's may want to take a peek at solely for his next gig, Harley Quinn, is one of the better artists on this week's issues. His panels are deep and richly detailed, and his lines and characters have a lot of personality. This being a modern DC comic set during Villains Month, there's a fair amount of gore and a high body count, but Hardin renders all of the action dynamically and much more tastefully than some of his fellow artists.
Rating: Without Scruples.Connectivity: Zero...to either Forever Evil or apparent parent title Justice League of America. It ends with the words "The End...For Now!" so maybe she'll show up in one of those books eventually.
Superman #23.3: H'El Written by Scott Lobdell Drawn by Dan Jurgens and Ray McCarthy
Having not read any of Scott Lobedell's DC writing to date (that I can remember), and not having read the amusingly titled "H'El on Earth" crossover of the various Super-books, I know absolutely nothing about the character H'El, who is apparently a long-haired shirtless Kryptonian with a backward S-shield scarred into his chest and a loincloth over his Superman pants.
At some point after that crossover, he was sent back in time to un-exploded Krypton, where he's discovered by young Jor-El, who created him? Only it turns out that everything H'El thought he knew about H'El was wrong! And so he gets mad and murders Zod and Jor-El in the past.
One assumes that will have consequences. Somewhere down the line.
Jurgens, who is probably still the definitive Superman artists for a lot of fans, handles "penciled art" while McCarthy is credited with "finished art." Whatever the precise division of labor, it looks pretty Jurgens-y, and this vision of past Krypton is an all-around more appealing and consistent looking one than we got in the Zod issue. Superman himself doesn't appear, but Jurgens draws both young Jor-El and H'El to resemble Kal-El.
I'm kind of torn on my favorite part of this issue, but may be that Lobdell called the story "To H'El And Back." (Were "Highway to H'El" and "H'El's Bells" already used in the crossover? I kind of want this guy to get his own title, just so they can keep coming up with dumb plays on his name for punning story titles.) Or that Jor-El says "everyone is missing the winged stratadorm in the room" (because Krypton doesn't have elephants, but they do have that expression, I guess).
Or that the word "shiv" exists on Krypton.
Rating: Naughty.Connectivity: None at all ... but it does end with the admonishment, "Don't Dare Miss Action Comics Annual #2!" so it's at least connected to something.
Swamp Thing #23.1: Arcane Written by Charles Soule Drawn by Jesus Saiz
Hey, it's Soule! Again!
I haven't been reading Swamp Thing since ... Brian K. Vaughan took a stab at making Tefe the title character, I think? So admittedly, I know next to nothing about the New 52 version other than that every solicitation I read for it or Animal Man since the relaunch seemed to have the words "Rot" or "Rotworld" in it.
And as far as rot goes, it's something that Anton Arcane is really into; in fact, he was the avatar of the Rot, until the Parliament of Decay banished him to hell, which is, for him, a really nice meadow where nothing ever rots, not even that poor bunny rabbit he rips in half.
There he's visited by his niece Abby, unrecognizable from the hairline down, decked out as some sort of leather mummy succubus creature — she, apparently, has replaced her uncle as the Avatar of The Rot.
Soule tells me all of that is this issue, and he has the characters tell me about their pasts in perhaps the least=interesting ways possible: by having them tell me about their pasts (well, they're talking to each other, but I have to listen in).
While it's often pretty gross, Saiz has probably the best art of any of the artists who drew this week's crop of books (he or Hardin, I think). Highly expressive, both in the character acting and in a sense of individual style, he sells the grossness as well as the subtle shifts in emotion that the monstrous-looking Arcane experiences.
Swamp Thing has been so far removed form the DCU for so long that Arcane doesn't even seem like a super-villain that belongs in the same world as the Penguin or Lex Luthor, so it's somewhat disappointing that this story is set entirely within the regular milieu of Swamp Thing and doesn't have Arcane, say, getting asked to join the Secret Society or anything.
Rating: Morally Deficient.Connectivity: None.
Wonder Woman #23.1: Cheetah Written by John Ostrander Drawn by Victor Ibanez
Wait, Cheetah? Didn't we just get her basic origin in a few issues of Justice League not so long ago? (That's a rhetorical question, so you need not answer; the correct answer is yes, yes we did.) I think I would have preferred to see Dr. Psycho, given his role in "Trinity War," and the fact that we didn't just get his origin story told within the last year or so.
Well, Ostrander at least goes further back in Barbara Minerva's life, go fill in a previously unknown blank spot in her origin story, concerning the weird, Amazonian-inspired, Artemis-worshiping religious cult she grew up in before going off to befriend Wonder Woman and get turned into a were-cheetah.
After the Crime Syndicate busts open Belle Reeve supervillain prison, Cheetah immediately starts seeking out family members to murder, and U.S. Marshal Mark Shaw is charged by some guy taking over for the missing Amanda Waller to bring her in. (That's right, Mark Shaw; meet your New 52 Manhunter, as dialogue like "Look, Mark, you're one of the best manhunters that the U.S. Marshals have," emphasizes.)
The pair hunt, fight to a draw and then Cheetah is pulled away by fellow Society member Warp for, uh, you know, Society stuff. Ostrander can, of course, write this sort of stuff in his sleep, and, for all I know, he did. The artwork, like the vast bulk of this week's artwork, is decent but unremarkable — there's nothing particularly new or fresh or unique or noteworthy that Ibanez does, but he doesn't do anything wrong or poorly. either.
What is most noteworthy about this particular issue is that it has nothing to do with any previous issue of the current, New 52 volume of Wonder Woman — even the brief flashback appearance of the title character comes from a scene from Justice League, not Wonder Woman, which has so far remained completely disconnected from the broader DC Universe (save for New God Orion's appearances).
Rating: Morally Deficient.Connectivity: Low to Medium.