Sunday, May 08, 2005

VILLAINS UNITED #1

Bottom line right at the top: I liked the concept more than I liked the execution. More precisely, I like the promise of the concept more than I liked how that promise was made.

Villains United requires you to swallow some pretty big bits of gristle to get to the meat. Some of these bits are unavoidable because they come from the DCU-wide drive toward Infinite Crisis and quibbling with them requires taking on the entire house of cards. It's like No Man's Land -- it's a ridiculous concept, but either you suspend belief and accept it or you spend the entire rest of the massive storyline arguing that the basic premise is ridiculous and everything else that follows is therefore impossible.

The purpose of VU is simple: in the wake of the revelations in Identity Crisis (this is what I mean about lying back, thinking of England, and getting on with things), the Secret Society of Supervillains has been recreated. But some folks don't want to play along. The Six are a half-dozen bad guys who have turned down the Society's offer and lived to tell the tale; under the management of the mysterious Mockingbird, they will turn the upcoming fight between good and evil into... something else. Either a triangle or a two-front war -- for the good guys or the bad guys TBD. (*cough*Thunderbolts*cough*)

[Pausing here to provide source material on the Secret Six (go visit Myke's DC Cosmic Teams) for readers.]

The unifying of villains is a great concept in and of itself. Both Ed Brubaker (Sleeper) and Mark Millar (Wanted) are authors who have recently shown how effective bad guys working together can be, far more so than the old Brotherhood of Mutants (because, let's face it, Magneto's teams never got very far). Villains by definition are working without social restraints and, given the same advantages as the hero team, should be more successful because they're not worried about things like collateral damage or oaths not to take human lives. Get someone creative and dangerous to coordinate their efforts -- such supremely selfish individuals would need a firmer guiding hand than the voluntary cooperatives that are the hero teams -- and they should be very close to unstoppable.

The problem is finding someone to play taskmaster. Because no matter how powerful the components are -- and the Society's executive board is extremely powerful -- they're failures on their own and Simone's take on Dr. Psycho is a perfectly good example of why. He's not quite as Hannibel Lecter creepy as he was in his recent appearance in Wonder Woman, but you can certainly get an appreciation of both his power and his madness and therefore see how dangerous he is as well as how easily he can be undone by those very same elements. For all of his intelligence and ability, he is really rather easily distracted -- the rambling rants are funny and ghastly, but they're also proof of why he'd never succeed. He needs others around him to keep him on track.

If the Society has the feel of an employee-owned corporation, the Six isn't quite so cheerful in its sales pitch. More Suicide Squad than Charlie's Angels, while the Society gets its heft from quantity, the Six are allegedly together because they have 'potential' to be far greater than the sum of their parts. And that gets scare quotes because while Deadshot and Cheshire are known quantities, I know practically nil about Scandal, can accept Parademon as the archtype he is, and look at this new Ragdoll and think both and neither of Ragged Robin or the Ragdoll from Starman, but, well... Catman.

The last time we saw Catman was during Brad Meltzer's run on Green Arrow and he was used wonderfully -- a third-rate bad guy who could put up a marginally better fight against Arsenal and GA than an unarmed civilian could have, but not by much. Catman was depicted as a loser too clever for his own good, a guy with a lot of ideas and no ability to carry them out successfully. Meltzer had a jolly time with the badinage on both sides and then Catman went away and all was well.

Here, we have a Catman who has been... transformed. In no way that could possibly be described as unique or interesting or logical. He is now part of the DCU's Doctor Dolittle Brigade and that he's got cats instead of, say, rats or birds or bugs... color me unexcited.

We know we're supposed to pay attention to Catman, but apart from the fact that everyone in the issue is fixated on him like a prized NCAA recruit, there's no compelling reason to do so. The Six are interested becuse the Society is obsessed and the Society is obsessed because he turned them down. But we don't know why he turned them down -- in all the slinging of insults with Talia and Dr. Psycho, we never get a reason -- so it's all a lot of fuss over nothing.

Most of this first issue was, directly or indirectly, about Catman and we still have no sense of who he is or what his motivations are. He's joining the Six to take revenge on the Society for killing his feline friends and he's possibly going to be the key to the heroes figuring out what's up. He doesn't register as either reluctant bad guy drawn back into a world he left behind or reborn nature freak who will destroy the Society's plans out of vengeance for his lost lions or much of anything at all besides a couple of cliches propped up by Dale Eaglesham's strong jawlines. Like Savant over in Simone's Birds of Prey, he's yet another hunky blond independently-minded bad guy blackmailed into working for someone else. I found Savant painfully boring, so I'm not holding my breath here. And that's a problem if Catman is our entry point into the Six.

If you want to throw together a team of heavy hitters and unknowns, that's one thing. A team of known quantities and blank slates works perfectly well. But as I said when talking about turning Maxwell Lord evil -- if you want to sell me a retcon, you have to ground it somewhere in canon. You can't present me with a fait accomplit and not expect me to wonder how it came about. Certainly not when characters in the story are doing the same. Truly obscure characters who haven't appeared anywhere recently or at all -- most of the Six -- don't matter so much. But Catman is still in my memory banks from Archer's Quest. By the end of the issue, I was fairly convinced that not only was the retcon uninteresting, but it was also completely unnecessary. The Catman written by Meltzer would have been perfectly suitable for this storyline and Simone wouldn't have wasted so much time and space trying to turn Prince Adam into He-Man without the power of Grayskull.

Catman's lack of clarity and motivation is a reflection of the book at large. Like Day of Vengeance, VU is a good read and the story hangs together just fine until you start to expect it to make sense under examination. Simone didn't lose a fight to the Exposition Fairy -- given initial velocity from the books and storylines that came before, she dodged it completely. The origin and purpose of the Six is supposed to be opaque, but this would have been a perfect chance to shine some light on the Society. We've now seen countless appearances of the Society across the DCU, but nobody's bothered to tell us why Lex Luthor's joining up with Talia (or where Nyssa is) after she double-crossed him out of LexCorps and Dr. Psycho and Teth Adam -- Deathstroke's becoming the Wolverine of the DCU where he has to be in everyone's book, so he's excused. The why is as important as the what and how and it was nowhere to be found and this is where it should have been found. Even Wanted managed to get a bit more motive worked in and that was an isolated series and not a universe-shifter.

Extra ammo left over:

* There's been some criticism for similarities between this and Millar's Wanted, but I honestly wasn't as reminded of that as I was by Powers with that opening recruitment montage of cameos. There's nothing to screw up here, but I would have been a little happier if Simone had emphasized some of the other benefits of joining the Society other than revenge for/protection from what happened to Dr. Light. If the whole point of the Society is that it's an unprecedented collaboration, its benefit is undercut by the fact that so many bad guys know and care about what happened to Dr. Light at the hands of the JLA. The Teen Titans didn't know about Dr. Light and Batman didn't remember it until recently, so why does every sixth-rate larcenist in spandex know the whole tune? If part of the sales pitch was telling the bad guys, then that would have been perfect and should have been shown. Otherwise, the recruitment scene has a sort of Knute Rockne 'Win One for the Gipper' feel that is just wrong.

* More wrong was the use of Lian Harper as Cheshire's blackmail material. And this is disappointing because Simone did such a fantastic job handling Cheshire with this matter over in BoP. Chesh and Dinah's verbal catfight was fantastic because Simone made Cheshire human. Cheshire is jealous of Dinah's constant contact with Lian, so she aimed her blows low by aiming them at Dinah's relationship with Roy. You want to make Cheshire squirm and earn points for novelty? You don't poison Lian (again) -- you threaten to kill Roy, whom Cheshire still loves. Cheshire knows she's not a fit mother, so she lets Roy raise their daughter because it's safer for Lian; kill Roy and you not only scar Lian and break Cheshire's heart, but you also probably leave the kid in Dinah's custody because Cheshire is still the woman who nuked Quarac and there are plenty of people out to kill her. Also and additionally, the choice of Lian smacks of poor timing -- it's too soon after the execrable arc in Outsiders that saw Lian kidnapped, branded, and left open the possibility of sexual abuse. It was a pointless, worthless storyline, but it was also only a few months ago and so this becomes yet another impugning of Arsenal's ability to protect his daughter and Judd Winick's doing that well enough on his own to not need support.

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