Grumpy Old Fan | Pandora, Despero, and being ‘Forever’ 2002

The final issue of Forever Evil was originally scheduled to come out this week, but now seems to have been delayed until May 21.  That’s too bad, at least for those of us who’ve been following the thing since September (because those delays evaporate in collections). However, it gives me some time to digest what’s been presented so far. It also offers a chance to look back at a 2002 graphic novel that features a couple of the same peripheral elements.

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As Caleb pointed out last week, Pandora helped craft the New 52's underlying cosmic structure in the final issue of Flashpoint.  There, she told the still-unrebooted Barry “Flash” Allen that the “shattered history of heroes” needed to be fixed so it could be strong enough to stave off an ominous threat. Pandora then appeared in each of the New 52's initial group of first issues, a silent reminder of these books’ common origin.

However, DC was slow to reveal Pandora’s details. She went unnamed for just over three months, she received a Free Comic Book Day spotlight a few months after that, and she finally got an origin (and an ongoing series, albeit one tied almost immediately to “Trinity War”) last summer.

Instead of clarifying matters, though, these new insights took Pandora further away from her initial Flashpoint function. Perhaps most confusing was her relationship with the New 52's version of the Multiverse, because her infamous “box” turned out to be a three-eyed silver skull that, as of “Trinity War,” opened a portal to Earth-3. Therefore, while the Pandora of Flashpoint wanted the three DC, Vertigo and WildStorm universes knitted together, that still didn’t prevent the existence of the evil Earth-3 or the troubled Earth-2. To get technical for just a minute: If Pandora existed before the New 52, she might well go back to a period between the end of the original Multiverse in 1985, and the migration of various main-line DC titles to the new Vertigo imprint in 1993. For that matter, the New 52 Multiverse is itself different from the Multiverse that debuted at the end of the weekly series 52 -- and Pandora’s work hasn’t cleared up any of that. Put more simply, she might have wanted to combine various parallel universes, but she must still deal with at least one that remains malignant (or, as“Trinity War” put it, the “birthplace of evil”).

Moreover, even as Pandora’s origin explained that her great crime involved unwittingly activating a sort of Mother Box, it acknowledged that maybe she hadn’t done enough to warrant eternal condemnation. The wizard Shazam said as much in the final pages of Pandora #1, although by that time Pandora had been fighting Shazam’s traditional foes, the Seven Deadly Enemies Of Man. Certainly this is all in the service of making Pandora sympathetic -- something she’ll need in order to carry her ongoing series -- but I’m not sure she’s all the way there. Cumulatively, all this backstory has made her a hyper-competent magic user buffeted by the whims of forces which are even more powerful. There’s potential for comics-industry meta-commentary, to be sure; but I doubt DC is going to give us Pandora, Agent of Editorial.

There are two more bits of information which I’m sure I’ve mentioned previously: Pandora’s three-eyed skull/box looks an awful lot like it’s related to Despero, who happened to show up in Justice League right before Forever Evil started (fighting a League team which included the traitorous Atom); and the Crime Syndicate’s Power Ring is powered by Volthoom, presumably the same entity revealed to be the First Lantern from the dawn of the Green Lantern Corps (which, by the way, seem exclusive to the main-line DC Universe).

So there’s a lot going on, not just with Pandora but with her roles in “Trinity War” and Forever Evil, and even a little bit of Green Lantern and Justice League history. I haven’t even mentioned her fellow Trinitarians of Sin, the Question -- who showed up in “Trinity War” to offer dire portents, and then disappeared for Forever Evil -- and the Phantom Stranger, who (like Pandora) has been active in the “Blight” tie-in because ... well, maybe DC wanted to hype his and Pandora’s ongoing series? Anyway, you have to think Geoff Johns, Pandora writer Ray Fawkes, and anyone else at DC who’s remotely invested in Pandora are each wracking their brains trying to a) craft a story that’ll encompass all these things, and b) get it out before DC’s superhero readership stops caring entirely.

To recap, you’ve got

  • Pandora, who started as a cosmic guardian and is now a magic-using, gun-toting avenger (and who, according to Felix Faust in Pandora #9, is neither human nor from the main-line universe);
  • The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man (aka the Seven Deadly Sins), imprisoned by the wizard Shazam, released by Pandora, and now hunted by her;
  • “Pandora’s box,” the shiny three-eyed skull that opened the Earth-3 dimension door and was subsequently destroyed;
  • Despero, the hulking three-eyed alien who crashed the Justice League Satellite just prior to Forever Evil, and who has been appearing as part of the “jailbreak” storyline in Justice League of America;
  • Volthoom (aka the First Lantern), the entity powering the power ring of Earth-3's Power Ring, recently defeated by DC-Earth’s Green Lantern Corps;
  • The New 52-niverse itself, formed out of three timelines by the Flash (with Pandora’s guidance), but still part of a Multiverse; and
  • The Question and the Phantom Stranger, Pandora’s fellow Trinitarians of Sin.

In thinking about how these disparate elements related to one another, I realized I’d already seen a couple of them working together.

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As of Thanksgiving 2002, DC’s superhero line was humming along nicely. There were no “No Man’s Lands” or Electric Supermen, legacy heroes were plentiful, and Lex Luthor was President of the United States. OK, so it wasn’t perfect, but it was relatively calm. Accordingly, into this peaceful environment came JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice, a hardcover graphic novel written by David S. Goyer and Geoff Johns, penciled by Carlos Pacheco, inked by Jesús Meriño, colored by Guy Major, lettered by Ken Lopez, and edited by Dan Raspler and Steven Wacker. It was advertised as the start of a new series of Justice League/Justice Society team-ups, and while those didn’t last too long, V&V holds up pretty well.

As one might expect, it hews closely to an old-school structure: The two teams get together socially (at Thanksgiving, naturally), but they’re called to a crisis (the Fourth World villain Doctor Bedlam, attacking a global conference where Luthor is speaking), and it balloons into something much bigger. Turns out Doctor Bedlam’s mind-hopping technology is just the vehicle for a coordinated series of attacks from the old JSA villain Johnny Double, working with -- wait for it -- Despero and the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. (Luthor even finds himself unwillingly on the heroes’ side.) The 7DEs then take over the bodies of seven Leaguers and Socialites -- including Batman, which was refreshing, as today we’d probably expect Superman to be “turned evil” so Bats could take him out -- and collectively spread their “emotional virus” across the world. Naturally, the combined teams split into smaller groups before coming together at the end to settle affairs with Despero and Johnny.

What struck me about this original graphic novel was its efficiency. At 94 pages, it has plenty of room for character moments (like Stargirl’s nervousness about visiting the Watchtower, or Black Canary’s professionalism as a member of both teams), big action sequences (including a few splash pages and double-page spreads), and even some exposition. The latter is handled especially well, considering the plot picks up from a Despero story in Supergirl, involves a semi-obscure New God and some Marvel Family minutiae, and uses legacies like the Hector Hall version of Doctor Fate without needing to explain who Hector Hall is. Basically, V&V is comfortable within the larger (and, at the time, more complicated) DC Universe, but doesn’t feel compelled to wallow in the details. Despite its continuity connections, V&V tells a pretty simple story which springs out of, and plays off of, the interactions between the “worlds” of the JLA and JSA.

Beyond that it’s straight-up superheroics: Green Arrow, Black Canary and Doctor Mid-Nite staring down Despero, the Atom telling two Flashes how to turn a fire demon into a black hole, and Wonder Woman’s lasso casting out evil spirits. Thanks to Pacheco, Meriño and Major, it looks fantastic (although I still can’t figure out what Batman was eating for Thanksgiving -- banana pudding with monster-sized Nilla wafers?). Virtue and Vice is about seasoned professionals tackling global- and cosmic-level threats, and like its heroes it exudes confidence.

By contrast, Forever Evil wants to show how different it is from such garden-variety superheroics, mainly by removing most of the superheroes from the playing field. As such, it is probably unfair to compare the two stories. Virtue and Vice was meant to stand alone (mostly), while Forever Evil is part of a larger, longer campaign to reshape the New 52. V&V was about celebrating the Original Super-Team and the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes, and FE goes in almost exactly the opposite direction. Heck, maybe the reason the Despero/Pandora/Seven Deadlies connection hasn’t been made in FE is because somebody at DC is trying to make it sufficiently distinct from the events of V&V.

Nevertheless, Virtue and Vice connected those disparate bad guys in a way that felt natural, worked within the logic of DC’s shared universe, and didn’t otherwise get in the way of a splashy story about superheroes, monsters, and demons. Forever Evil is a story about different degrees of criminality and the ways in which a “bad person” can work for the greater good. However, FE (including its tie-ins and preludes) has also wanted to establish its universe-building bona fides, and so has been throwing ideas at readers without having them pay off. (FE is also having to build some of these elements from the ground up, whereas V&V could just remind readers of what they may already have known.)

This aspect of the miniseries (and its tie-ins) suggests most strongly that DC isn’t done with the fallout from Forever Evil. I expect its final issue -- whenever it comes out -- to be a massive clash of storylines, wrapping up JLA’s jailbreak; the return of the magic-users from “Blight”; the arrival of Cyborg and the Metal Men; and of course the big battle between the Crime Syndicate, Luthor’s Injustice League and the Luthor of Earth-3. However, I also think FE #7 will include a substantial infodump (like the one at the end of “Trinity War”) setting out whatever connections Geoff Johns needs to make for his conclusion to work.

At the very least I think FE #7 must take care of everyone from Earth-3, but that doesn’t mean it’ll settle these other plotlines -- including Pandora’s role in Flashpoint. Faust’s comments in Pandora #9 about “what [she] created” suggest that at least one person hasn’t forgotten about her original function, even if the explanation takes another year and/or another big event, which could be the upcoming Futures End. After all, Crisis on Infinite Earths started off with a mysterious force destroying Earth-Three, so who’s to say Pandora isn’t the harbinger (as it were) of something similar?

Ultimately, however, the real difference in Virtue and Vice and Forever Evil comes down to a business decision. By the end of 2002, DC had spent more than 16 years (since summer 1986's Superman reboot) crafting and cultivating the revisions to its shared universe, and could put together a story using disparate elements from across that universe. In 2014, DC is barely two and a half years into a similar process, and has little of the narrative infrastructure that could facilitate a similar story. Thus, while Forever Evil has its problems, on one level it’s the product of its environment. One hopes that the current crossover cycle ends sooner rather than later, so that DC can let its shared universe develop organically, and some day produce a story as evergreen as Virtue and Vice.

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