Sunday, 8 September 2013

DC Crossover: Forever Evil

Anyone who’s followed the output of Marvel and DC for any significant amount of time will know that crossover stories are common. They usually fall under the heading of “event”, stories that focus on a development that affects the entire fictional universe and is told through all of the companies’ regular monthly titles. Theoretically they’re meant to present a larger than usual threat and story but in reality the concept has become so overused that it’s now impossible to see them as anything other than cynical cash-grabbing ploys and half-hearted attempts to provide memorable stories that will be critically acclaimed now and fondly remembered for years to come.

Which brings us to Forever Evil.

This is DC’s big 2013 “event”. The heroes of the world disappear, supposedly defeated by evil versions of the Justice League from an alternate Universe. Just to be as confusing as possible these alternate versions form a group called the Secret Society (shorthand for one of DC’s old bad guy gangs) but are actually, according to various writer interviews promoting the crossover, the Crime Syndicate. Things like this shouldn’t really matter but they do, a by-product of the cynicism with which these things are dreamt up. The continuity is considered more important than writing good stories.

Crossovers usually fall into one of only a few groups: generic stories of new all-powerful megalomaniacs destroying stuff until they’re beaten; two factions of good guys fighting one another (a theme Marvel particularly enjoys; and convoluted continuity rewrites designed to tidy up and simplify things that have only become needlessly complicated because there are so many crossovers going on to begin with. With the heroes gone their various rogue galleries inherit ongoing titles for a month (imaginatively dubbed “villains’ month”). In theory this is a nice idea. It gives writers the chance to present fresh perspectives on the villains and tell stories they wouldn’t be able to with the regular catalogue of lead characters.

Unfortunately that doesn’t happen. Few concessions are made for new readers and all but one gives us stories that are instantly forgettable and not at all enjoyable. There’s a ridiculous amount of philosophical pondering, done to illustrate that the villains aren’t just villainous for the sake of it but have internal conflicts and deeper motivations. These (poor) attempts are undercut by the fact that all of backstories we’re presented with (with the exception of the Joker) are flimsily presented. As readers we’re expected to take far too many leaps of logic to get these motivations to work. The writers seem to want to use famous quotes and Latin phrases as a substitute for logical, understandable writing.

The main story kicks off in the first issue of limited series Forever Evil. The opening pages ham-fistedly remind us that Lex Luthor is a thoroughly nasty individual by having him threatening to kill a man and ruin his family in order to get him to agree to sell his company. By the end of the issue, after Crime Syndicate leader Ultraman (a bad Superman who snorts Kryptonite like it’s coke, is harmed by sun rays, and has a U emblazoned on his chest) has made it clear that the Justice League is gone and supervillains rule the Earth, Lex has been recast as a good guy realising that Superman is needed to sort the situation out. We’ll see his quest to save Earth in the other six issues.

The various villain specific issues are even less noteworthy. The .1 that follows the various issue numbers is supposed to denote that a comic is both a good jumping on point for newcomers. While Forever Evil is fairly new reader friendly (ironic considering it’s not a .1 title) the same isn’t true for four of the other five titles I read. I’m fairly up to speed on a lot of Marvel and DC continuity and there were things here that baffled me. That shouldn’t be the case. If DC wants to continue existing it has to attract new readers, which means being as accessible as possible.

Grodd #1 (Flash 23.1) sees Gorilla Grodd return from being trapped in the speed force (whatever that means) to resume his place as king of Gorilla City. There’s no context in the entire story, which leaves it disinteresting for anyone who hasn’t been following the Flash title. I can’t imagine it was especially thrilling for people who knew what was going on.

Grodd quickly becomes a dictator, torturing and beheading his foes. That’s a pretty dark tone for a book starring a magical talking gorilla. Still, Chris Batista’s artwork is pleasant enough.

Two Face #1 (Batman and Robin 23.1) tells the convoluted tale of Two Face in a Gotham City with no Batman. He starts out trying to save the city by killing petty criminals. He’s also a member of the unseen Owlman’s Secret Society. Later on the Society turns on him so he shoots some grunts and, after a new coin toss, decides to let the city bleed. You gain no greater knowledge or insight into the crossover by reading the issue. It’s entirely pointless, a perfect example of why these things have a reputation as cynical cash-ins.

Completely detached from the regular DCU is Cyborg Superman #1 (Action Comics 23.1). Zor-El, a Kryptonian scientist, spends the days before his planet is destroyed trying to reverse engineer Brainiac technology. His intention is to create a capsule that will protect the city of Argo from imminent destruction. Naturally this doesn’t work out well for him.

The planet is destroyed and Argo is left hanging alone in space, its citizens dying or dead. Brainiac shows up, attracted by a beacon activated by Zor-El for unclear reasons. He turns the scientist into the “perfect” creation: a Cyborg Superman. We’re meant to empathise with Zor-El’s plight, driven to this low in his impossible quest for perfection as he simply tried to do right by his race and his family. But he’s written as such a bland, tedious character that I didn’t really care one way or the other about him. That it wasn’t made clear whether or not this story would impact on the DCU at large didn’t help matters there.

Relic (Green Lantern 23.1) is a confusing mess of continuity references. It exists more to set up the forthcoming Green Lantern crossover series (yep, another one) Lights Out rather than add to the concept of the cast of heroes being gone and the bad guys being in charge.

A scientist from the universe before ours (yeah, that old chestnut) realises that the emotional power source that seemingly every living creature relies on is finite. When his peers don’t believe him he sets off to get proof. He turns out to be right but it’s too late to save the universe and he ends up sucked into the next. The issue ends with him “awakening” looking decidedly evil. As a setup it may work but as part of Forever Evil, which is what it’s meant to be, it falls flat.

The final contribution I picked up was Joker #1 (Batman 23.1). It was easily the best of the six. Rather than dash off a generic story reliant on fanboy-pleasing continuity Andy Kubert instead writes a story that gives the Joker some emotional depth and both works alone and as part of the larger narrative.

Andy Clarke’s artwork helps a great deal too. It’s a pleasure to look at and he cleverly uses two very different styles to differentiate between the modern scenes and the handful of flashback’s to the Joker’s childhood. It’s the only one of the titles that I felt could have worked as an ongoing series. Perhaps creating that feeling wasn’t a concern for DC, but it should have been. It would have made many of these one shots mean more.

I’ve only read a handful of the books from the first week of what is set to be a month-long initiative and the first issue of a seven part series. As such it would be unfair of me to state definitively that Forever Evil hasn’t worked. There’s every chance that the books I chose not to look at this week and the ones that will be released in the future are and will be very enjoyable and create a coherent narrative that provides an entertaining story with a satisfying conclusion. Based on what I’ve seen I doubt that’s the case but it could happen.

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