Crisis on Earth-3D!: Villains Month, Week One

If you've been keeping up with the events in the DC Universe, then you know things are looking particularly grim for the good guys.

At the conclusion of "Trinity War," the Justice Leagues faced an invasion from the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 — "The birthplace of all evil," as one character called it — evil counterparts of the Justice League. In the first issue of Forever Evil, these villains claimed to have killed all of the Justice Leaguers, they freed all the supervillains from all the super-prisons and organized them into an army called The Secret Society, they did some awful things to Nightwing and then even moved the moon to permanently block out the sun.

Those jerks.

To mark the occasion of evil temporarily winning (again), DC declared September Villains Month, and is interrupting the ongoing adventures of its heroes with special ".1" issues starring various villains. Each of these was to bear a fancy plastic 3D cover that jacked the price up a buck and ultimately created shortages, an artificial collectors/speculators market and irritated a whole bunch of retailers, many of whom were already pretty irritated by having to figure out how to order something like, say, Justice League #23.3: Dial E, which fused one of the publisher's best selling comics with one of its worst.

We — and by that I mean you and I, for the course of this post — aren't going to concern ourselves with that aspect of the books, however. Instead, let's look under those covers, whether they're the fancy plastic 3D ones or the regular, cheaper "standard edition" ones and concern ourselves with the quality of the comics concealed behind the covers.

For each of the books discussed below (almost all of those released last Wednesday), I'll also address how connected they actually are to Forever Evil, and assign them a rating somewhere between "Not Very Good" and "Absolute Evil," on an arbitrary scale* accessing their bad-ness, in a Michael Jackson Bad kinda way, where "bad" means "good" and "evil" therefore means "awesome."

Makes sense? Well, get comfy, because there are a lot of these books: I'm covering eleven of these things. (Oh, and there will be spoilers, obviously.)

Action Comics #23.1: Cyborg Superman Written by Michael Alan Nelson Drawn by Mike Hawthorne

The credits for this issue read, "The Cyborg created by Dan Jurgens," which is pretty interesting, considering The Cyborg Superman is a riff on Superman (there's no "created by" credit for Bizarro, another such riff, for example) and considering the shocking origin of this New 52 version of The Cyborg Superman — who is an entirely different character with an entirely different origin and set of motivations. While most New 52 characters are simply new versions of the old ones, this is an old name attached to an entirely different character, and that character first appearance (seriously, guys — spoilers).

Despite the title, this is really an issue of Supergirl, as the presence of Supergirl writer Nelson suggests. It opens a few days before the explosion of Krypton, as Jor-El and his brother Zor-El are arguing about different ways to save Kryptonians. Jor's all, "Let's shoot people to Earth on rockets," while Zor's all, "No way dude, let's do something-something Braniac something-something" (I don't read Supergirl, so I wasn't sure what he was talking about, but the characters seemed to know).

Well, you know their kids Superman and Supergirl both eventually made it to Earth A-OK, but apparently Zor didn't die along with the rest of the planet. Instead, Brainiac turned him into the Cyborg Superman. That's right, the Cyborg Superman is Supergirl's dad!

I'm not clear on why the cyborg-ification process turned him from a blond to a brunette, or why he wears Superman's costume (Brainiac only alludes to the fact that "You wear the family crest of Krypton's greatest mind"), or why he has Superman's powers (he'd need to be in a yellow sun for a really long time to get them, right?), but there you have it.

Now obsessed with perfection and strength and rooting out weakness (a thematic connection, at least, to a speech Ultraman makes in Forever Evil #1), the Cyborg Superman starts scouring space in search for those deserving Braniac's cyborg-transformation process.

Johnson's script is fine, but it's hard to see around the big decision in the middle of the story to care about how well it's crafted. The design of the character shuns the Terminator-inspired design of Jurgens' version, but also looks pretty weird, including a gigantic right arm. That aside, Hawthorne does a strong job of differentiating the two eras he draws, and (especially) of conveying action sequences.

I'm kinda surprised DC hasn't announced a new, New 52 version of "The Death of Superman" by Jurgens yet, given how different it woulda had to go down once you removed the Justice League, Supergirl, Superboy and the Cyborg from the proceedings (and changed the relationship of Steel and Lois to Superman).

Rating: Without Scruples.

Connectivity: Zero.

Batman #23.1: JokerWritten by Andy Kubert Drawn by Andy Clarke

Because if there's one thing fans love about Andy Kubert, it's his writing! OK, maybe that's a low blow, but it is strange that Kubert is writing — and just writing — this issue instead of also penciling it (or parts of it; it's broken up into two portions, after all). Heck, he doesn't even draw the cover (that would be Jason Fabok).

This is not an origin story of The Joker, although it alludes to his childhood, in which he is abused by an aunt who looks like a zombie version of Shelley Duvall's Olive Oyl. And it's also not a story of what Joker is doing during the events of Forever Evil.

Instead its a kinda-sorta origin story of Jackanapes, the evil gorilla clown that Kurbert created alongside writer Grant Morrison as a future Batman villain in the pages of their Batman #666 (and Morrison later returned to in a flash-forward scene in Batman Inc).

This Jackanapes isn't that Jackanapes, though. This one is simply a normal, non-talking baby gorilla that The Joker adopts as a baby and raises as his own son, until it dies during a killing spree gone wrong. Is there a connection between the two? One would assume, but the book ends only with "To be continued? Pick up current issues of Batman to find out!"

Kubert uses The Joker's parenting of Jackanapes as something to play off of The Joker's own childhood with his aunt, for whatever that's worth, but any story that attempts to put a backstory to The Joker inevitably falls flat. He's a character that's too present to have a past, and any attempts to humanize or explain him inevitably diminish him.

Props to Clarke, though. I'm sure plenty of Kubert fans would have preferred Kubert art to go with the Kubert script, but Clarke does a pretty fine job here, giving The Joker flashbacks an almost early-Sam Kieth look, and he draws a hell of a zoo gorilla.

Rating: Naughty.

Connectivity: None. The Joker is only referred to in a single line of dialogue of Forever Evil, but it would be shocking if he doesn't appear in the story. The last time Geoff Johns wrote a story about all the villains on Earth teaming up (Infinite Crisis), he included The Joker — appearing at the end to kill off the organizer who neglected to invite him to play with all the others. It likely will tie in to the upcoming Damian: Son of Batman series that Kubert is writing, though.

Batman and Robin #23.1: Two-Face Written by Peter J. Tomasi Drawn by Guillem March

If you read Forever Evil, then you already know that the Scarecrow approached a group of Bat-villains in the ruins of Arkham Asylum and handed out the special Earth-3 coins of the Secret Society to those there, including Two-Face. You also know whether the villain formerly known as Harvey Dent decided to join the Society.

This is basically a full-length extrapolation of what takes place in the space of a page of Forever Evil ... although the same things happen, they happen differently. (It's worth noting, the ending of this special is rather ambiguous, intimating that Two-Face refuses rather than accepts the invitation, given where he puts the Society coin ... which, on the subject, isn't it kind of weird DC's not giving out plastic Society coins with issues of Forever Evil or something, as it did to great success with those plastic Lantern rings a few years back?)

Here the Scarecrow makes his pitch to Dent while both of them are standing in the dramatic up-lighting of the Bat-Signal (this issue's drawn by Guillem March, who illustrated the title characters of Gotham City Sirens posing on the signal on the first issue of that series), and Two-Face decides to try and "save" Gotham by catching and executing all law-breakers ... until he later decides against it (if "decide" isn't too strong a word; the coin toss dictates his actions).

Story-wise, Tomasi uses the one-shot to delve into Two-Face's thinking during the time of the events of Forever Evil (the Justice Leagues all gone, all super-prisons busted open, all supervillains getting invites to team-up, if you're not reading), and sketch out the character's origins and modus operandi in an elegant, efficient manner, leaving much to March's superior story-telling skills to make such things clear.

It's not a must-read, and it's not exactly the ultimate Two-Face story, either, but it's a pretty great primer, with even greater artwork.

Rating: Maleficent.

Connectivity: Medium.

Batman: The Dark Knight #23.1: VentriloquistWritten by Gail Simone Drawn by Derlis Santacruz and Karl Kesel

Former Secret Six writer Simone goes very, very dark in this "red skies"-style tie-in to Forever Evil, which lays out the origin of the new new Ventriloquist in a killing spree set during the blackouts that occurred in the first issue of Forever Evil.

This Ventriloquist is not the original one created in 1988 by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle (and killed off by James Robinson & Co.'s 2006 "One Year Later" arc, "Face the Face"), a character who is apparently alive and well in the New 52 (I've only seen him appear once, but it was in an issue of this very series). And it's not the new, female version created by Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen in 2008.

Rather this third one is another female version with a different dummy, one that looks like the puppet from the Saw movies and is named Ferdie. Simone dispenses with the most interesting aspect of the original Ventriloquists — that they were colorfully crazy people of the sort the best Batman villains are, and that their narratives could sometimes teeter on the brink of suggesting the Ventriloquists weren't really ventriloquists, but that the dummy was really alive. Her Ventriloqist, like Dini's, is as evil as the dummy, but, unlike the previous versions, she has super-powers, some form of telekinesis that apparently allows her to control the incredibly articulated doll.

So in this story, the new Ventriloquist opens a theater, providing food and electricity to the masses of scared Gothamites. After a handful come in, she starts her performance — a series of dirty jokes — while we hear her origin story. Meanwhile, a gang—The Crime Alley Cretins—break in, intent on stealing food and raping any women they can find. Ferdie kills them all, while the Ventriloquist murders the audience. The end.

Simone does dark pretty well, but this is so dark and sleazy it's hard to imagine the reader who would enjoy spending time soaking in it — I sure don't want to meet such a reader! — and while she does a good job in distinguishing her third version of a pre-existing character, there's a creative bankruptcy to the whole endeavor, with the "new" elements cribbed from various horror movies. Santacruz's pencils, slathered in ink by Kesel for the appropriate level of blackness (which colorist Brett Smith accentuates), are fine, but given the question marks about the two villains' abilities, I would have preferred better staging (It's not entirely clear if the Ventriloquist is a Ventriloquist, for example).

Oh, and in addition to all the men, women and children killed during this narrative, Simone even lets the villain get away with killing a cat and showing us its corpse. Yeesh.

Rating: Morally deficient.

Connectivity: Very low ... in fact, as low as you can get while still technically qualifying as a tie-in.

Detective Comics #23.1: Poison Ivy Written by Derek Fridolfs Drawn by Javier Pina

Don't say vagina dentata don't say vagina dentata don't say vagina den-

Oh, hi there! I didn't see you come in!

As with Dark Knight #23.1, this is something of a "red skies" tie-in, but it is a tie-in. Poison Ivy, who appears with the Riddler and Two-Face being rescued from Arkham in Forever Evil, walks around the Batman-less Gotham City, musing on her origin and murdering passersby with super plant-powers, a few of whom seem to deserve it (an abusive husband and father, a gang of drug dealers that point guns at her).

That's really all there is to the book. Pina's artwork is on the interesting side. While the pages and panels set in the present day are fairly generic in nature, those set in the past are drawn in a more open style (particularly those during her childhood), and colorist John Kalisz helps them look quite a bit like watercolor on grainy paper, the backgrounds of these scenes are all white, and one can see the texture of the paper.

Ivy's past is, of course, unhappy, beginning with her as a little girl, watching her mom get beaten up and eventually murdered by her husband or boyfriend, and progressing to an accident at Wayne Enterprises that gave her the plant powers to murder people left and right.

The strongest image may be one set in a park, in which Ivy makes the foliage come alive like giant monsters made of trunks and leaves, but, like the aforementioned issue of Dark Knight, this is a pretty dark, bleak story.

But at least no household pets are killed during the proceedings.

Rating: Without Scruples.

Connectivity: Very low.

Earth 2 #15.1: Desaad Written by Paul Levitz Drawn by Yildiray Cinar

The title says Earth 2, where the James Robinson/Nicola Scott New 52 Justice Society lives, but the cover shows the Worlds' Finest team of Power Girl and Huntress, Earth 2 refugees living on Earth-New 52, so it took me a while to figure out what Earth this story was actually set on (Earth 2, like the title says), and I still can't quite make sense of the timeline, and where events fit into the history of Earth 2, vis a vis the Steppenwolf-led invasion from Apokolips that killed off Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

This is the introduction of the New 52 Desaad, who looks more sinister, with his dark gray skin, terrible claws, mouth full of teeth and brightly glowing eyes, but he sorta sick the effect with the bright fuchsia robe and hood. He wanders out of the ocean one day, and starts manipulating people into doing terrible things, as he's powered by pain and suffering. He stalks Michael Holt and Michael Holt's MacGuffin, does a bunch of stuff I don't understand the import of because I'm not reading Levitz's Worlds' Finest, I guess, and, strangest of all, stalks a character he refers to as "the artist," a comics artist who is simply a cigar away from resembling a young Jack Kirby, which filled me with confusion.

That was, sadly, the only emotion the book made me feel. It's not bad enough to cause me pain or suffering, and thus empower Desaad further, just confusion, ranging from mild to extreme. Is there an Apokaliptian god of confusion? Because I spent the few minutes it took me to wade through this book feeding him, her or it.

Rating: Not Very Good.

Connection: None.

Flash #23.1: GroddWritten by Brian Buccellato Drawn by Chris Batista and Tom Nguyen

So we're just calling him Grodd now? Not Gorilla Grodd? How will I know what species of primate he is if we drop his first name? (Was "Gorilla" his first name, or simply a redundant designation? Hey, who's that gorilla over there? Oh, that gorilla? That's Gorilla Grodd, the gorilla.)

Confession: I've yet to read an issue of The Flash since the New 52-boot. I know it's one of those books that people constantly cite as one of the best and/or most interesting, and being the one that was written by an art team, I'm sure it had a lot to recommend it, but I just can't get excited enough about Barry Allen to move my eyeballs over comics starring him.

I bring this up only because I want to note that I'm coming at this issue from a place of complete ignorance, having missed the first 23 issues. That said, while some of the details in terms of how this or that happened to so-and-so were lost on me, I found this easy enough to follow.

The mayors of Keystone and Central City and some of the nice gorillas from Gorilla City erect a statue of The Flash, when Grodd appears out of the Speed Force with new and improved powers: Not only is he psychic, he can also move at super-speed, fly and do something with red lightning that allows him to throw helicopters out of the sky.

In the space of this one issue, he conquers The Flash's hometown/s, forces the other gorillas to serve as his army, captures Solovar, rounds up all the humans into a refugee camp, kills rogues Girder and "Chroma" (the New 52 Rainbow Raider; apparently "Rainbow Raider" isn't bad-ass enough of a name for the New 52) and seemingly achieves all of his goals, only to learn a hard lesson about being careful what you wish for, and rushing off.

Buccellato gets a lot done in a few pages, and the Batista/Nguyen art team is pretty incredible, drawing probably the best comic book gorillas this side of Arthur Adams.

Rating: Wicked.

Connectivity: Medium ... in addition to reflecting events from Forever Evil #1 like the missing Flash, the solar eclipse and the freed villains, it ends with a tag reading "To be continued in Forever Evil: Rogues Rebellion," which seems to suggest who exactly the Rogues are rebelling against. (Although it's possible they're rebelling against the Society, I hope it's against Grodd; The New 52 Rainbow Raider must be avenged!)

Green Arrow #23.1: Count VertigoWritten by Jeff Lemire Drawn by Andrea Sorrentino

Poor Green Arrow. He's been around since 1941, and he still doesn't really have any villains worth noting. In fact, Count Vertigo seems to be the closest thing the guy has to a Joker, and Count Vertigo is a noble from a fictional European country with the power to make people really, really dizzy.

Well, at least the New 52 gives Green Arrow's current creative caretakers use this chance to try and make Vertigo a more compelling, more threatening villain. I'm not entirely sure how well they succeed — he comes across as a pretty generic figure here, a fifth-rate Doctor Doom with vague powers that make people's head veins bulge. But they sure give it a try.

This is the sad life story of the child count of the country "Vlatava" whose mother fled with him to North America during a rebellion that killed his father. There she became a prostitute, and sold him to a company that experiments on little kids. They gave him the vertigo powers. He uses them to kill people.

Visually, this version of the character is infinitely less interesting then the original, lacking any semblance of a costume, unless you count the red spiral painted on his naked torso, which he usually keeps covered, or the little green disc on his forehead.

Sorrentino's artwork is all photo-manipulation, which is a style of comics art that is apparently popular enough that more than one artist produces work like it, but it makes me feel slightly nauseous, and question why I'm looking at this when I could just be googling things like "Helena Bonham Carter Fight Club" "teddy bear close-up" and "child cancer ward" and get similar images.

Rating: Not Very Good.

Connectivity: None.

Green Lantern #23.1: Relic  Written by Robert Venditti Drawn by Rags Morales and Cam Smith

I'd probably be pretty angry about this book if I paid $2.99 for it, and $1 angrier if I sprung for the fancy cover. It isn't a comic book, but a picture book.

I'm not kidding and not exaggerating, although I suppose one could argue over the definitions of "comics" and "sequential art" and whether or not the borders of a page can account for implied panel borders or not. At any rate, this comic features no panels and no dialogue, just 18 full-page illustrations (and one two-page illustration), with the main character's narration. It looks and read exactly like a kids picture book, save for the fact that it's occasionally interrupted by ads, which, because of the lack of panels on the pages, look for a split-second as if they might be part of the narratives. (Shirtless CW Green Arrow? ?! What are you doing in outer-space?)

The format's not inappropriate to the subject matter, but it sure grates, and it certainly feels like DC is having a laugh, seeing how little actual comics content they can provide while charging full cover price. The artwork is by Morales, with Smith inking the parts that Morales didn't ink himself, but it is essentially little more than various aliens floating around in space, with colorist Andrew Dalhouse conveying more visual information on certain pages than Morales does (explosions of light over star-fields, for example). Three appearances by Kyle Rayner are the only images of a human being in the whole book.

The story is sort of intriguing, I suppose, and gives the new villain Relic an interesting motivation, but it reads like something that should appear in a free giveaway, not in a comic book people pay money for.

Rating: Somewhat disobedient.

Connectivity: None ... but it does tie-in to the next Green Lantern event, which will be occurring simultaneously to Forever Evil.

Justice League #23.1: Darkseid Written by Greg Pak Drawn by Paulo Siqueria and Netho Diaz

Did you ever wonder how Darkseid (nee Uxas) and Highfather (nee Izaya) got their powers and became "gods" ...? Well then has Greg Pak got a story for you!

Once, long ago, they were mere "mud grubbers," which is probably like a farmer, only in space. Their world had "gods," which were giant beings kinda like the gods of ancient Greece, only more vague and nameless. One day, Uxas had it with their nonsense, and he climbed up their equivalent of Mount Olympus, and started whispering stuff in their sleeping ears, stuff that made them fight each other to near-death. Then he scythed them all when they were on their death beds, and absorbed their god-power. Then he shaved his Amish beard off, put on a pair of biker shorts and football shoulder pads, and became Darkseid! (And another god gave his power to Izaya, for being cool, making him Highftahter).

Then a bunch of stuff happend. An "age passed," and we get to where we recognize Jack Kirby's Fourth World creations. It's the back half of this book that will likely be of most interest, as it introduces a teleporting trickster goddess of Apokolips, who leads Darkseid from world to world (like Earth-2, for example), seeing a world that could beat him. He finds it on Earth-New 52.

But Darkseid is smarter than she thinks! The whole time he's been collecting Superman corpses, to make a Frankenstein's monster style patchwork Superman!

Personally, I think the greater the air of mystery around Darkseid and the New Gods, the better. "God of Evil" is origin story enough, if you ask me, but I suppose Pak does a decent enough job of coming up with something that seems vaguely mythological. The artwork is fine, but it lacks even the slightest bit of Jack Kirby, and while an artist drawing the origin of Darkseid need not ape Kirby, it would have been nice if they had found someone with a similarly distinct style, or with an interest in exploiting an element of Kirby's style or influence.

The mode is, instead, just generic super-comics, which is hardly the most interesting mode for a story featuring the greatest super-comics artist of all times greatest (well, second greatest) super-villain.

Rating: Naughty.

Connectivity: None.

Superman #23.1: Bizarro Written by Sholly Fisch Drawn by Jeff Johnson and Andy Smith

Going by either the name in the logo or the name of the villain scrawled across that logo, this book suffers a bit from false advertising: It's really a Lex Luthor story.

Using a blood sample obtained during Grant Morrison's first arc on the New 52 volume of Action Comics, the Lex of three years ago attempts to create his own personal army of Supermen by injecting a Steve Rogers-like volunteer with Kryptonian DNA. The result isn't a new Superman, nor even a Bizarro, but rather a white-skinned, cold-vision and flame-breath having mindless monster that doesn't even survive the entirety of the issue.

Lex — who narrates and serves as the protagonist, spending part of the issue fuming about Superman, part of it experimenting and much of it emptying his own personal anti-Superman arsenal into the proto-Bizarro — claims it all as a victory, and promises to continue with his Superman project. Presumably, it will eventually yield the result seen on the Aaron Kuder's cover for the issue (and on the cover of Forever Evil #1), but for now this simply reads like a weird bit of misdirection that would probably be rather annoying ... were it not an issue "starring" the backwards character Bizarro. Of course a Bizarro comic would star a character  who aren't Bizarro.

Fisch definitely deserves some clever points for that, and for a script strong enough to sell that excuse. Johnson's pencils, inked by Smith, are crisp and clear and easy to read. It's really too bad they don't get a chance to cut loose on the title character the way that, say, Kuder did, and that after this tease you don't get to see how character translates into the New 52 (one, it goes without saying, that isn't necessarily conducive to fun Silver Age concepts like the backward Superman).

Rating: Maleficent.

Connectivity: None...so far.

*If you care, I'm using a scale of one to 10: Not Very Good, Somewhat Disobedient, Naughty, Morally Deficient, Without Scruples, Iniquitous, Wicked, Maleficent, Evil and Absolute Evil.

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