In comics, history not only repeats, but it usually raises the stakes.
Case in point: "The Year of the Villain." This massive crossover at DC Comics features a major villain making offers to a wide array of supervillains to boost their powers and ... well, I'm not really sure where it's going, because it just got started May 1 with the 25-cent one-shot "DC's Year of the Villain Special."
Some of this should sound familiar to longtime comics fans. Because in 1995, DC launched a massive crossover featuring a major villain offering a wide array of supervillains a deal that usually boosted their powers. It was called "Underworld Unleashed," and it starred a literal demon from Hell named Neron.
Neron is described as the "Lord of Lies," a major player in hell. That's sort of Satan-ish, but what he really turns out to be is a take on Mephistopheles from "Faust." He tempts both heroes and villains with their greatest desires in order to obtain their souls. This usually involves boosting their powers and sending them on a task, but the game is ultimately rigged in Neron's favor.
He begins by sending five members of Flash's Rogues Gallery (Captain Boomerang, Captain Cold, Heat Wave, Mirror Master and Weather Wizard) to destroy five targets, without telling them that doing so will kill them. The five locations erupt into green fire, forming a pentagram, a magic portal through which Neron reaches Earth.
Neron goes on to make deals with a lot of supervillains, and even tempts a number of superheroes. Most, like Batman, the Wally West Flash and the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern, turn him down. But some, like minor hero Blue Devil, make a deal that they ultimately regret.
Because, duh, he's the devil! Or devil adjacent. Anyway, haven't any of these guys read "Faust"? Or at least comics books? Because in every story of this kind, making a deal with the devil is like betting against the house -- you're going to lose.
So a younger version of your humble narrator was rolling his eyes 24 years ago, incredulous that anybody would take Neron's deal. He was also snickering at Neron's outfit, a green, yellow and white Spandex atrocity that would look silly on anyone, much less a demon. Also, the younger me was quite certain that whatever happened in "Underworld Unleashed," it would all eventually be un-done and the status quo returned.
And he was right. Even the Rogues returned to life, after much smiting and girding of loins. It was just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Which isn't from the Bible, but it's Shakespeare, which is close enough.
So now comes "Year of the Villain," which sounds very similar to "Underworld Unleashed" in its broader outlines. But this time I'm not rolling my eyes.
For one thing, it's been earned. Unlike "Underworld," which popped up abruptly and left the same way, DC has been building up to "Year of the Villain" in many of its top titles.
In "Batman," Tom King has been writing a 100-issue Bat-epic that currently has Bane taking over Gotham City from a Dark Knight whose King-engineered trials have severely worn him down. "City of Bane" begins in "Batman" #75 in July.
In Brian Michael Bendis' "Superman" and "Action Comics," an organization created by Grant Morrison for Bat-books has been sneaking around Metropolis for purposes yet unknown. But what seems to be the case is that Leviathan, a secret organization, is setting about destroying DC's other secret organizations, like Spyral, Checkmate and so forth. It has already made an offer to Batgirl (in the "Villains" special) that has ominous implications. And rumor has it that Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane will also be in their hands soon. These events will result in a "Leviathan" miniseries in June, and 12-issue maxiseries starring Lois and Jimmy in July.
In "Dark Knights: Metal" (by James Tynion IV, Scott Snyder and others), a dark Batman/Joker hybrid has been unleashed from the Dark Multiverse, called The Batman Who Laughs. He's currently enjoying a miniseries in which Batman calls him an "apex predator" and tells Gordon: "He comes from a realm where all our hopes and fears exist in material form. ... He's not The Joker, Jim. He's Batman. He's me ... He's led my life, has my training, has my memories, my mind. ... But he's me free from codes, morals, heart black as The Joker's." The BWL is infecting people with ... something, which will result in an epic quest by the World's Finest team when they join again for a new "Batman/Superman" series in August.
And most importantly, in Scott Snyder's "Justice League" the team has breached the Source Wall, releasing ancient chaos on the universe, including an elder god named Perpetua, while simultaneously re-establishing the Legion of Doom, and revealing that Martians and humans -- and Martian Manhunter and Lex Luthor -- share forgotten links.
All of these elements are coming together in TYOTV, but the last one is taking center stage. Luthor -- who appeared to commit suicide in "Year of the Villain" Special -- is (spoiler) not permanently dead. In fact (more spoilers) he will be resurrected as part-Martian, and as Perpetua's right-hand man. Their goal is (I think) to re-write the universe, a lot nastier than it is now.
So now it's Lex Luthor who will be bargaining with a lot of villains (and probably some heroes) to boost their powers, if they'll do him one small favor and help him overwrite reality. This is serious business, because today's Luthor is a far cry from the mad scientist who was angry at Superman because he lost his hair. The modern version is incalculably dangerous, and this time I don't think the Reset Button will be hit. This time, I think whatever happens will stick.
Of course, I could be wrong. But I'll be reading "Year of the Villain" avidly as it proceeds. July brings Luthor's "The Offer" in a variety of titles. August is named "Dark Gifts" for what Luthor will bestow. September is named "Evil Unleashed," October is "Doom Rising" and November is "Hostile Takeover." From the titles you can guess that things are going to get pretty grim, but I'll say no more.
Meanwhile, Marvel Comics is launching a similar event in its annuals this year. I have no proof that this is their response to "The Year of the Villain," but history suggests it is. Regardless, "Acts of Evil" will pit various superheroes against bad guys they've never faced before.
Marvel has announced eight such battles. Ms. Marvel vs. Super-Skrull, Punisher vs. Brood Queen and Venom vs. Lady Hellbender arrive in July. August features Deadpool vs. Nightmare and She-Hulk vs. Bullseye. Ghost-Spider vs. Arcade, Moon Knight vs. Kang and Wolverine vs. Morgan Le Fay headline September.
And wouldn't you know it, this event has a predecessor as well. In "Acts of Vengeance," which ran through Marvel titles in late 1989 and early 1990, a mysterious stranger brings a ton of bad guys together and sends them out against superheroes they'd never faced before. The concept is that the heroes' lack of familiarity will give advantage to the villains.
Obviously, since everybody's still here, it didn't work. So spoiler.
It turns out the mysterious stranger is Loki, because, as Thor will tell you, it's always Loki. And, to absolutely no one's surprise, villains have a hard time working together. Especially characters like Red Skull, an unrepentant Nazi, and Magneto, a Holocaust survivor. You can see that they might have issues.
"Acts of Vengeance" didn't work out so well for the bad guys, and as to the readers -- well, some were entertained. And that's the point, after all.
Much the same will probably be said of "Acts of Evil." We'll find out in the months to come.
And in the years to come, I wouldn't at all be surprised to these two ideas come around again. They're concepts that each generation of writers probably needs to explore for itself.
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(c)2019 Andrew A. Smith
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