Crisis on Earth-3D! Villains Month, Week Four

When the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 invaded and seemingly conquered Earth-New 52 in Forever Evil #1, claiming to have killed the members of the Justice Leagues, the home-Earth villains took over DC comics, scrawling their names over the logos of their foes and initiating other evil acts like using decimal points in their issue numbers and putting the wrong stories in the wrong titles. (A Dial H epilogue and a Lobo one-shot in Justice League comics? A Batgirl story in a Batman comic?). But, most nefariously of all, the villains of DC Comics raised the price of each issue by a dollar and launched one of the biggest gimmick covers schemes in the modern history of direct market super-comics: heavy, plastic, 3D lenticular covers primed to be collected more so than read, and sparking insidious speculation, goosed my unpredictable shortages to many retailers. The monsters.

But while most attention has been focused on the covers, there are, in fact, stories beneath them, and so for the past three weeks we've been not judging the books by their covers, but by their contents. (Here's Week One, Week Two and Week Three, if you missed 'em.) As in the previous months, I've been ranking the books on their overall quality, on a scale of one to 10: Not Very Good, Somewhat Disobedient, Naughty, Morally Deficient, Without Scruples, Iniquitous, Wicked, Maleficent, Evil and Absolute Evil (although, as none received a perfect 10, you might want to adjust your reception of my ratings up by one).

Also, and perhaps more importantly, I've been noting how connected each is to the Forever Evil event that ostensibly led to this state of affairs at DC, so, if you're only interested in these things for their narrative import rather than their creators or characters, you'll know which are worth your attention. So let's take one last wallow in the evil of  (almost) every issue of this week's Villains Month, and hope for the swift and triumphant return of our heroes starting next month.

Action Comics #23.4: MetalloWritten by Sholly FischDrawn by Steve Pugh

The New 52 Metallo, a zealous soldier who volunteers for a still-experimental mad military science program in order to help save the world from Superman and/or Brainiac, worked fine in Grant Morrison's initial "Year One" Action Comics story arc, but the character didn't and still doesn't seem to have anywhere to go from there.

The design, a man's head atop a giant green battle suit, looks redundant sharing the same milieu as Lex Luthor (Metallo's the one with the hair), and his motivation stands out as particularly weak compared to those of most of the other Superman villains given spotlight issues this month.

In this issue, Fisch tries to give the character a new purpose, as after Metallo spent years in a sort of coma, General Sam Lane (Lois' dad) finally finds a way to wake him up by giving him a kryptonite heart. He's put back on active military duty, but his heartlessness gets him a dishonorable discharge of sorts (i.e. blown up in an unmanned drone over the sea). But he's too powerful to be exploded to death, and marches on Lane and the military for revenge.

The timing is pretty dubious — this story climaxes between the disappearance of Superman and the events of Forever Evil #1 — and a one-page coda is all that connects it to the miniseries, as Scarecrow shows up to give Metallo his membership coin.

Pugh's art isn't at its sharpes  t— perhaps because colorists Barbara Ciardo and David Curiel are working straight from pencils? —and he's not given a whole lot of interest to draw. Just army guys and a couple of guys in generic metal battle-suits, both bearing the fairly obvious design flaw of helmetlessness. It's a so-so comic from two creators capable of much better things.

Rating: Without Scruples.Connectivity: Low.

Aquaman #23.2: Ocean Master Written by Tony Bedard and Geoff Johns Drawn by Geraldo Borges and Ruy Jose

Outgoing Aquaman writer Geoff Johns co-plots this issue with Tony Bedard, who handles the script, which is a more or less straightforward story that could could have been titled "This is What Ocean Master Was Doing Around the Time oftThe Belle Reeve Breakout" (but "New Fish" is shorter and punchier), and a companion to their Aquaman #23.1, which followed Black Manta through the same time period. (The two Aquaman archvillains appear briefly in one another's books too, mostly just glaring at one another.)

The writing team does a great job updating or introducing the character and what his whole deal is: Aquaman's younger brother who ruled Atlantis while Arthur was on the surface world playing superhero, Ocean Master attempted to invade the Eastern seaboard of the United States in the "Throne of Atlantis," a Justice League/Aquaman arc that is conveniently available in collected edition this very week. They're also able to show his personality, without resorting to telling us — in fact, Orm is silent through much of the issue, refusing to talk to most humans — and we witness the very, very slow evolution of his character.

The ending is surprisingly dramatic (and satisfying), as Johns and Bedard used much of the issue to wallow in the darkness and depravity that has characterized Villains Month, only to show a glimmer of something better and more noble in Aquaman's brother.

With Ivan Reis' occasional collaborators inker Ruy Jose and colorist Rod Reis working with penciler Geraldo Borges, the look of the comic is fairly closely aligned to that of portions of "Throne" and Aquaman, so it not only looks good, it looks right.

Not only one of the better issues this week, in terms of its individual quality and its relevancy to the crossover, it's one of the better issues this month.

Rating: Evil.Connectivity: Medium to High.

Batman #23.4: Bane Written by Peter J. Tomasi Drawn by Graham Nolan

Artist Graham Nolan, a far too infrequent presence in DC's Batman line these days, returns to draw the character he co-created, making this the only Villains Month issue in which a character's creator was the artist. (Granted, there was only a small pool of characters that were young enough that their original artists are till alive, still drawing and not upset with DC editorial about something or other to begin with, and thus able to do so: Count Vertigo, the Court of Owls, Cyborg Superman, Harley Quinn, Lobo, Mongul, Ra's al Ghul. DC did have Jim Starlin write the issue featuring his co-creation Mongul.)

It's great to see Nolan's smooth, clean linework and assured storytelling again in a DC comic, and to see Bane looking so good compared to the past few times I've seen him (all drawn by David Finch, I believe). It's also interesting to see Nolan's New 52 Bane, which looks like the original from the neck up, but has a more generic, Army-guy costume more evocative of what Tom Hardy wore in The Dark Knight Rises (also, I notice the prodigious back and shoulder hair Nolan used to grant Bane is gone).

Nolan's working with Batman and Robin's regular writer Tomasi here, and this is very much a companion piece to last week's Detective Comics #23.3 (the Scarecrow issue) by Tomasi, in that it leads into the Arkham inmates vs. Bane's sane criminals of Blackgate showdown in the upcoming Forever Evil: Akrham War miniseries (also by Tomasi).

It tells of Bane's basic origin story without getting into details, and his plans to take Gotham City with an army of Santa Priscans and freed Gotham prisoners, all hopped up on his Venom super-steroid (and there's a pretty great last page, with Bane gesturing operatically at Gotham under its eclipsed sun).

As fine as its art is, this book underscores and emphasizes one of the things I find most frustrating about the New 52 sorta-reboot. Bane makes mention to the events of "Knightfall," but if anyone reading this wanted to read about that time Bane broke Batman and took over Gotham City, they'd find much of "Knightfall" in contradiction to the New 52. So, as I've said, before, we get a worst-of-both-worlds scenario, where continuity wasn't reset, just dramatically changed, and no one knows in what ways it was changed. Feh.

Anyway, pretty good comic.

Rating: WickedConnectivity: Medium ... but leading directly into another tie-in series.

Batman and Robin #23.4: Killer Croc Written by Tim Seeley Drawn by Francis Portello

Oh, hey, can I complain about New 52 continuity again? This issue features a somewhat-pivotal scene in which a Robin browbeats the defeated Killer Croc on the night of his criminal debut, it's set "three years ago," and I have no idea which Robin it is. Croc originally debuted (pre-Crisis) along with Jason Todd, but this Robin talks more like Dick Grayson, and his costume looks most like Tim Drake's — but all of the Robin costumes look more like Tim Drake's now. I guess who's who isn't really all that important anymore ...?

Seeley's story is a rather elegantly constructed one, fitting an original, complete crime story together with Croc's origin and explaining what he was up to and will be up to during Forever Evil. His Croc seems awfully smart compared to previous takes on the character, and he uses some pretty big words in his narration, but then, part of Seeley's goal seems to be to contrast the "real" Croc with the character that's always being underestimated by others, even whichever Robin was trying to talk him out of a life of solo super-crime and into something he's better suited to, like being "muscle" for another, better criminal.

Francis Portella's art is among the best this week, and this book is among the better-looking of the month. Portella's work has a lot of slightly abstracted or exaggerated, expressive personality to it, but it's also highly detailed, so one sees every scale in Croc's hide and every drop of water or brick in the background when the character surfaces in an underground wave in a sewer. Portella is colored here by Guillem March's usual colorist, Tomeu Morey, which goes a little way toward explaining why the art here snaps and pops as well as it does.

His design for the title character is something of a compromise between the original and the later, more monstrous version, most closely resembling a bigger, more-detailed and menacing version of the Batman: The Animated Series design, right down to the shape of his skull.

Rating: Evil.Connectivity: Medium.

Batman/Superman #3.1: Doomsday Written by Greg Pak Drawn by Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund

At this point, it's probably futile to complain that the villain here doesn't really have anything to do with the title of the comic book (there's not even the slightest hint of a connection to Batman in this issue, despite sharing billing with Superman). That's been the case with several of these books, particularly those with the words "Justice League" somewhere in the title.

Set before the destruction of Krypton, "Tales of Doom" includes a few connected stories about a giant, gray, boney, mindless, rampaging Kryptonian monster that Superman's mom and Zod fought a long time ago. It's unclear whether this Doomsday fought and killed Superman (at least from this story), but one imagines he'll be facing him in the future, given that DC used one of these Villains Month issues on him.

The character is as barely there as he was in his original appearances, and here his lack of personality or any intimation of sentience lacks the impact or threat it once did, simply because we've seen him in various forms off and on for about 20 years.

I'm not a fan of Booth's art, and this issue certainly didn't convince me to reappraise it ... although there is a five-page section where he illustrates a children's story about Doomsday fighting a champion of the House of El wherein the style is deliberately flatter and more abstract and with fewer lines, which convinced me Booth doesn't have to draw the way he does, in the Jim Lee-meets-Rob Liefeld style he favors, he just chooses to.

His presence is somewhat unfortunate because this is one of those characters DC easily could have had the creator of illustrate; there's a created by credit citing "Brett Breeding, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson and Roger Stern;" of those, Jurgens just penciled the Brainiac issue, and Ordway was practically publicly begging for work not too long ago.

Rating: Somewhat disobedient.Connectivity: None.

Detective Comics #23.4: Man-Bat Written by Frank Tieri Drawn by Scot Eaton and Jaime Mendoza

Probably the quickest read of any of this week's issues, Frank Tieri's Man-Bat script seems to pick up after some other story I haven't read ... in which Man-Bat Kirk Langstrom's wife Francine has betrayed him, taken some different version of his were-bat serum and turned herself into the more monstrous She-Bat, who, like the Cheetah, has bare breasts covered in fine hair that is just long enough to hide her nipples. Or the formula makes your nipples fall off? That must be it, because I don't see any nipples on Man-Bat either.

The story is simple to the point of simplistic: She-Bat is a bad bat-monster who kills innocent people, and Man-Bat is a good bat-monster who wants to stop her. To do so, he tries to come up with a better bat-monster formula, and rapidly becomes a worse and worse bat-monster himself, until he's an all-bad bat-monster. The end.

Eaton and Mendoza's art is pretty strong, although their bat-monster designs leave a lot to be desired, as the principles basically just look like werewolves with umbrella armpits, their wings only looking gigantic and wing-like when they're shown in silhouette in extreme long-shot. Bat-men should be a lot more interesting to look at and, I assume, a lot more fun to draw, than these two are and, I assume, apparently were.

Cover artist Jason Fabok's Man-Bat isn't perfect either, but he sure gives him an interesting, scary and somewhat bat-like face.

Rating: Without scruples.Connectivity: Low.

Green Lantern #23.4: Sinestro Written by Matt Kindt Drawn by Dale Eaglesham

What, this guy again? I might be misremembering things a bit here, but it seems to me I've read something like 15 origin stories of Sinestro this past decade or so, and this one's not any different than any of the others. It simply strings them all together to form a unified whole, so that any of the little retcons Geoff Johns might have slipped into the character's past during his time franchise-running Green Lantern are made slightly more official than they might have been the last time we saw them.

To his credit, Kindt at least tries for a framing device, having the book-obsessed space lady Lyssa Drak re-telling herself Sinestro's biography and, eventually, tattooing it into her skin with her own yellow fear power.

Interestingly, Kindt (through Drak) completely glosses over everything that Johns himself didn't write, so we skip right from the point where Sinestro was kicked out of the Green Lantern Corps (i.e. his entire career as as supervillain) to the events of the "Sinestro Corps War" and then over the "War of Light" business to the "First Lantern" story arc. That may be of necessity, because what exactly happened in DC history is still pretty unclear now (I would say the events between, oh, "Emerald Twilight" and Johns' Green Lantern #1 are all sorta murky and ill-defined at best now).

Eaglesham frames many of the panels in an elaborate, golden page border with intricate, slightly Kirby-esque outer space-looking designs, as if they were appearing in The Book of Parallax Drak mentions. His figure work is as strong as ever, but there's something rather gauzy about the art, either because colorist Andrew Dalhouse is giving everything a soft light, or because the colors were applied straight to pencils. (If you've read, say, 50 or so of these this month, you'll notice relatively few of the books have both pencilers and inkers credited; most just have an artist credit.)

Although Sinestro appears on the cover of Forever Evil #1, this doesn't have anything to do with that, and, in fact, it seems rather disconnected from future Green Lantern events as well, in a way the previous three Villains spotlights didn't. The Relic, Mongul and Black Hand issues all promised impending payoffs, while this simply ends with a "The End ... For Now!"

Rating: Without Scruples.Connectivity: None.

Justice League #23.4: Secret Society #1 Written by Geoff Johns and Sterling Gates Drawn by Szymon Kudranksi

This is probably the most essential of any of the Villains Month issues in terms of its connectivity to Forever Evil, and the only one in which any members of the Crime Syndicate play any significant role (which is strange to the point of bewildering, unless Johns intends to focus on them at some length in Forever Evil #2-#7; certainly the origins of Ultraman, Atomica and Sea King would have made for better, more valuable tie-ins than unconnected spotlight issues of, say Cyborg Superman, Shadow Thief and Count Vertigo).

It's too bad then that it disguises its own importance with an irrelevant title (this book should have The Outsider, or possibly even Owlman, scrawled over the Justice League logo, as it's their story, not that of the Secret Society), and two of the three characters on the cover only appear in one panel, as floating heads.

It's even worse that this issue features the worst art of any of the 52 issues, courtesy of Kudranski, whose work here is even worse than in last week's Detective Comics #23.3. Not only is it dark, unappealing and reliant on photos for backgrounds and photo reference for foregrounds, it's downright unreadable. Instead of words and pictures working together to tell a story, this issue represents words working to tell a story in spite of pictures trying to stop them; the only way to figure out certain scenes is to read your way through them and put together what must have happened by the words.

Unreadable art aside, this story is narrated by Earth-3's Evil Alfred Pennyworth, "The Outsider" (the main, behind-the-scenes villain of "Trinity War," who kicked off the events of Forever Evil, which led to this whole theme month in the first place).

Set in Earth-3's Gotham City, the bulk of it revolves around Owlman's final battle with Earth-3's Joker, which occurred after the latter murdered and dismembered Earth-3 Dick Grayson, aka Talon. That's when Pennyworth developed his skin condition and laughing habit and, perhaps, his taste for purple (hard to tell, as the only color in this issue is black). Other events are revealed in clue-like fashion: Owlman's affair with Superwoman, a disaster requiring the entire Syndicate's attention, Pennyworth and Atomica's trip to Earth-New 52, the setting-up of the Society.

The weirdest thing about this issue isn't how poor the artwork is, but that Johns and Gates didn't flip-flop Earth-3's Joker into a hero the way they "should" have if it's a world where good and evil are reversed (In Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Earth-2, which introduced these versions of the Syndicate characters, Lex Luthor was the world's greatest champion, and direct-to-DVD movie Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths opened with the heroic Luthor and The Jester fleeing evil versions of Justice Leaguers). Here, Earth-3's Joker looks and acts the same; he fights Owlman not because the the Wayne dressed as a creature of the night is a bad guy and he's a good guy, but because The Joker values mayhem and chaos over order of all kinds. The Joker didn't just capture or even "just" kill Talon; he cut his body into five pieces and put each of them in a gift-wrapped box for Owlman to find.

This may be because Johns' new, New 52 version of Earth-3 is going to be radically different from previous versions, where instead of good and evil being reversed, everyone is evil: Villains remain villains, while the heroes are simply bigger, more powerful, more villainous villains. I suppose we'll have to wait to see if that's the case; if so, they seem to be jettisoning at least half of the fun of Earth-3, though. If it's cool to see what DC's heroes would be like if they were villains, the same goes for the reverse (as Kurt Busiek demonstrated ably when he played with Earth-3, in his JLA arc "Syndicate Rules" and Trinity, the latter of which prominently featured a heroic Riddler).

Rating: Somewhat disobedient.Connectivity: High ... in fact, it's the highest of any of the Villains Month issues.

Justice League of America #7.4: Black Adam Written by Sterling Gates and Geoff Johns Drawn by Edgar Salazar and Jay Leisten

We know Captain Marvel has changed quite a bit in the New 52 — to the point that we no longer call him Captain Marvel, but instead Shazam -- but how much has Black Adam changed? I'm trade-waiting Captain Marvel Shazam, so I don't know yet, and this is my first introduction to New 52 Black Adam. As far as I can tell, the only thing that's changed since Johns was writing the character extensively in the old DC Universe is that the lightning bolt symbol on his chest shoots out actual bolts of lightning, just like the symbol on the chest of the character formerly known as Captain Marvel.

The story opens in the ancient past, when Black Adam was the hero of Khandaq, and then moves forward to the present, where a brother and sister are divided over how best to affect regime change in their fictional country, ridding their people of the propped-up American strongman with facial tattoos who's now in charge. The brother wants to throw in with an armed group of revolutionaries calling themselves the Sons of Adam who plan to resurrect Black Adam (apparently killed in the Justice League back-ups, as Shazam was spreading his ashes in the desert in the first chapter of "Trinity War"); the sister wants to stick to social media and peaceful protest.

Guess which strategy ultimately proves most successful?

Once Adam has murdered back control of Khandaq, he receives the Crime Syndicate message that "This World Is Ours" and gets so mad he shoots lightning out of his logo and says in extra-big type, "THIS WORLD BELONGS TO NO ONE."

Black Adam, like Lex Luthor, Killer Frost, Black Manta, Harley Quinn, Deadshot and others, seems more likely to be fighting against the Crime Syndicate than with them (or simply sitting the conflict out all together).

Rating: Without Scruples.Connectivity: Low-to-Medium.

Superman #23.4: Parasite Written and drawn by Aaron Kuder

I hope DC editorial is being super-extra-nice to Aaron Kuder, because based on what work of his I've seen so far, he's probably the publisher's best talent acquisition since Chris Burnham. And, as he demonstrates here, he (like Burnham) can not only draw comics like a champion, he's also a pretty decent writer.

This is the story of The Parasite, who was once simply an extremely unlikable Metropolitan bike messenger until contact with some alien something or other and electricity turned him into the alien-looking creature that's always starving and feeds off of life-force and energy.

When we first meet him here, he's in the process of committing suicide by leaping off a building, but he's saved by Superman. Stopping people from committing suicide by jumping off of buildings is something of a trope in Superman comics now, done very well (Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's touching one-page instance in All-Star Superman, for instance) or done poorly (J. Michael Straczynki and company's talky scene in JMS's aborted "Grounded" run on Superman).

Here Superman simply swoops in to catch the plummeting Parasite, and simply by coming into contact with the nascent villain, Superman gives him a new reason to live: To feed off of Superman's powers.

A one-and-half-page coda is set during Forever Evil #1, as Parasite is broken out of Belle Reeve and heads home to Metropolis.

Rating: Evil.Connectivity: Low.

Wonder Woman #23.2: First Born Written by Brian Azzarello Drawn by "Aco"

While there are two decimal point-numbered issues of Wonder Woman this month, this is the one regular readers of the series will want to check out, as it's written by the comics' regular writer, drawn in a style not too far removed from that established by Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins and is connected to the ongoing plot of that book (Wonder Woman #23.1, featuring Cheetah, was actually more of a Justice League tie-in).

I gave up on Wonder Woman after about the 20-issue mark due to its slow pacing and repetitive story: It wasn't bad, it was fairly excellent comics-making, it just seemed like a better book to read in trade than in monthly, 20-page installments. But this nameless character has been around for a while, as he was (gradually) emerging during the last half-dozen or so issues of the series I read.

Here he appears all beat-up in the back of Apollo's stretch limo/SUV, and the current ruler of Olympus, whose hold is somewhat tenuous, transforms three ladies he finds on the street into his Oracles, and they spend the rest of the issue telling him (and us) the First Born's origin story and life history.

It's not a bad story at all, and some of it's inadvertently hilarious (like the one-panel allusion to the fact that he totally had a whole bunch of sex with hyenas), but artist Aco made some poor choices in image reference. First Born's entire life story occurred more than 7,000 years ago, but the artwork sets some of it in the time of the Roman Empire and the European Dark Ages. I'm neither a historian nor a mathematician, but I know that doesn't quite add up.

The best inadvertent laugh is probably that of the last few panels, as Apollo tells the unconscious First Born, "So your life, it's been nothing but torture? Well, I have news for you ... It's just getting started."

The next-issue box chimes in, "And the torture continues in Wonder Woman #24 next month!" That's probably not the best word to use when trying to get someone to pick up the next issue of your comic book.

Rating: Wicked.Connectivity: None.

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