Before JLA hit the stands there were signs of its arrival. Harbingers, if you will. Think of these books as the John the Baptist to Jesus (the JLA ongoing). But only do so if you are a big fan of blaspheming because, come on, you really shouldn’t be putting the son of man on the same plane as a comic book, no matter how good said comic book is. I mean, dude. Sacred, you know.
Sorry, where were we?
Ah, yes, right. Before the JLA. Signs. Portents. Rumblings. Rumors. Rumours (if you’re British). Miss Rumors (if you’re nasty). So for me, before there was the JLA, these were the seeds of the book. One is obvious. One is…less so.
I’ll begin here because a.) chronologically, it comes first and b.) this is the one that is a bit more of a sell so might as well tackle the challenge first.
UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED was…released on to the world (you thought I was going to say unleashed, didn’t you? Well thanks a lot for thinking I’m hacky, my biggest fan) in 1995, two years prior to the launch of JLA #1, the Grant Morrison penned, predominantly Howard Porter drawn blockbuster series. It is not a prequel to said series in any traditional sense nor was it, seemingly, intended to be. Before I tackle how exactly I think it, then, connects to JLA, let me start by reviewing the series on its own merits.
Every superhero comic book fan who’s followed the medium for some time can tell you that, now and again, there are “perfect” series for you. These are, at least in theory, books or arcs that hit a particular sweet spot for you, that nestle into your sensibilities and interests so perfectly that your desire to read them, to consume them, to possess them, can hardly be ignored. UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED is, for me, that kind of book.
First off, it is important to understand what kind of comic book reader I was at the time. I was a late comer when it came to comics. I didn’t get my first one until I was nine or ten and did not start following them with any great level of commitment until high school. Which I know is pretty unusual, but there it is.
Survey comic readers and you’ll find a lot of them go fallow during high school. Perhaps a combination of funds—parents no longer at the stage where they readily pay out for things for you but still not able to legally work—social pressures—comics aren’t cool, physical relationships with people you’re attracted to are, certainly these two things cannot coexist—and/or just needing a break from it—what was so transporting as a kid and can be analyzed and explored with a critical eye as an adult might seem too immature and/or too opaque to a high school student—kills the interest. In any case, when many were falling by the wayside, I was just stepping up into my interest.
As a new, largely uninformed comics reader, I didn’t really know what to start with or what might interest me. I was a Marvel guy in terms of characters I liked: I loved Spider-Man, Daredevil was (and remains) my single favorite hero in comicdom, the Hulk was of tremendous fascination to me and so on; and I knew this largely without picking up more than three comics a year. On the DC side, I really only had the same commitment to and love for was Batman. I knew other characters, of course. Everyone knew Superman and Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Hal Jordan edition, was my Dad’s favorite DC character from his youth, and I’d been exposed to the likes of Flash, Aquaman, Hawkman, and even Red Tornado through the Super Powers toy line or this single volume Superheroes Encyclopedia from my local library (Lucy Robbins Welles, what’s up!) that I would repeatedly pour over as a grade school kid. But I didn’t KNOW them, KNOW them, you know?
So a company-wide crossover where everybody was dealing with the same event and thus on, roughly, the same page? That sounded like a mighty fine way to understand this largely unfamiliar roster of characters.
Although DC was no stranger to the line-wide crossover dating back to 1985’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, with 1994’s ZERO HOUR, they began a seven-year run of late summer/early fall events. UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED was the second of these and the first that I was into comics enough to partake in. I had snagged all the issues of the ZERO HOUR limited—these crossover were usually marked by a 4-6 issue limited series for the “main story” while the crossover in ongoing titles were considered additional, technically ancillary, but still super important, installments—in the 50 cent bin months after it was over. I had also gotten five or six of the ZERO issues—for one month, all books crossing over with ZERO HOUR were numbered 0—but had otherwise not participated. This time, though, I was all in. I was getting whatever UNLEASHED books I could get my hot little hands on, as well as the “main” series. It was to be my pivot point to the larger universe.
Besides timing, though, the series had a few other things going for it. One of them was Mark Waid, the writer, who was in the midst of a titanic FLASH run, a number of issues I had borrowed and read from my good friend Tim Sheridan and quite enjoyed. Another was the prominent use of Kyle Rayner, the so-called “new” (and oft-hated) Green Lantern, who’s title was one of the few I had many issues of and bought with some regularity at the time (I wouldn’t fully start following comics month-to-month until Grant Morrison’s JLA debuted). The big one, however, the proverbial coup de grace, was that it was a series with a villain focus. I loved villains. LOVED them. Still do, truth be told. I loved stories told from their perspective, stories about them going good for a moment and teaming up with their arch enemies, stories about them going even badder. I loved their costumes, their codenames, their origin stories. I liked heroes, but villains…they really held me interest. There were so many more of them and because of that, they were hard to really get a hold of. I came to comics for the heroes, but stayed for the villains.
So, again, line-wide crossover written by a guy who’s other work I liked with a hero I liked figuring prominently and a focus on villains including many I’d never heard of. Boom! I’m there.
The action revolved a new player in the DCU, Neron. Like Marvel, DC does not have a single Devil character but rather several who, at various points, seemed to act the part. Like Marvel with Mephisto, however, Neron was the clearly intended front-runner to be the “actual” devil; as close as a comic company might want to get to endorsing the Christian “Satan” by basing a character on that Prince of Lies.
Neron, in search of that one pure soul that’s going to make him all-powerful, goes through the DCU’s heroes, villains, and some civilians, wheeling and dealing in the same of sowing chaos. Some bite, some don’t. The villains that do tend to get upgrades—Lex Luthor gets his health back, Blockbuster gets to be smart, Killer Moth becomes a literal killer moth called Charaxes (the worst, by far, of choices made) and so on—while heroes tended to get gifts—Blue Devil gets his chance to be a movie star, one of Hawkman’s many “avatars” gains an edge over the rest, Spectre is freed of his human host—with ironic consequences.
Meanwhile, James Jesse, the Trickster, having stolen Rainbow Raider’s “ticket” to Neron’s party is taken under Neron’s wing as a sort of observer. Jesse, looking for a big score after some associates of his were killed, decides this is the biggest score of all—outsmarting the Devil. He bides his time, observing and plotting, until the heroes also arrive in Hell and the Trickster takes his one shot at beating the Devil.
As one would expect, the crossover issues varied wildly in quality. GREEN LANTERN’s issues—featuring a character who Rayner had temporarily healed before he knew the limitations of his power ring and Mr. Freeze—I really liked, but then, I was already reading that book. Other “good” crossover issues included AZRAEL #10, GREEN ARROW #102-103, STARMAN #13, FLASH #107, and BATMAN #525.
On the bad side there were tie-ins from JUSTICE LEAGUE, EXTREME JUSTICE, FATE, and HAWKMAN, which ranged from poorly constructed to wildly obtuse and difficult to understand. Others merely failed to register like DAMAGE and THE RAY.
The main series, however, I liked. I know it is not judged as one of DC’s better crossover by collected wisdom of comicdom, but I politely disagree. The elevation of Trickster to a position of importance that allows him to act on humanity’s behalf—thus, as a good guy—but to do so for almost entirely selfish reasons—thus, still not all that good—is smart and well handled. Most of the heroes get little by way of character development, but that’s hardly surprising given the venue. That said, moments like Batman’s rejection of Neron or Blue Devil’s realization he’s been played make you wish there was a bit more room for that kind of storytelling here. The fact that Waid cannot do much with some heavy hitters—Batman is a non-factor, Superman is totally absent—is worked around with little muss and the team that descends to Hell is reasonably powered and boasts enough variety of A-D level characters that it doesn’t just feel like he was forced to go through a list of 30 characters and narrow it down to ten or so.
There is some irony to the series as illustrated by Waid in his afterword in the trade. He discusses how he started with the idea of tossing out DC’s “lame” villain or molding them into late 20th century creations, but pulled back the deeper he explored. Yet, there are several choices that still feel this way. Killer Moth’s transition to Charaxes, for instance, is almost exactly what Waid points to as his initial, flawed instinct in how to take UNDERWORLD. Mongul’s fate feels like so many crossovers when a “big” character is deposed of with little muss or fuss by the newest villain to convey why the reader and heroes should be afraid, while diminishing the older character in question. But overall, the writer does seem to be a man who decided that, ultimately, the villains of yore just needed a new coat of paint, not to be turned into terrifying monsters and murderers.
Howard Porter still had some growing to do on art—his bodies tend to be a bit stocky regardless of the powerset, Flash being a particularly big example of this, backgrounds can be rather simplistic—but he already has a great range of faces with strong expressions in his quiver. Additionally, his action work is slick and kinetic and he uses some out of the ordinary panel layouts to keep things visually interesting. The coloring is somewhat bizarre, especially the green flames of Neron. It feels more like Malibu or Marvel Comics circa just after they acquired Malibu’s coloring company: too bright, too gaudy, too much.
Overall though, even if it failed to live up to my expectations of it, both 14 year old and current aged me recommend UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED.
Now as to how this fits into JLA. First, there is the whole Howard Porter as penciller with this being, I believe, Porter’s biggest, splashiest job to date until JLA two years later. Additionally, it was the first time he got to handle a large cast of characters, not just a hero, a villain, some supporting players, and the occasional guest star.
It is also foretells Waid’s role in the JLA launch. It was Morrison’s book from issue #1, but Waid’s fingerprints are still all over it with him writing both the direct prequel (JUSTICE LEAGUE: A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTMARE, see tomorrow’s post), some fill-ins, a prestige format one-short, and taking the title over from Morrison when the Scot ended his run.
Additionally, in terms of content, it gave us Neron—who figure prominently early on in JLA—and the first big sense of how the post-ZERO HOUR DC universe would “feel.” Additionally, it showed how to deal with the character changes that had previously derailed other JUSTICE LEAGUE books in the way it handled Superman’s absence, Captain Marvel’s busted wing, or Sentinel’s (Alan Scott) newfound youth, an example that Morrison either took to heart, if he noticed it, or was just on the same cosmic wavelength of. UNLEASHED isn’t a direct prequel or predecessor to JLA, but it feels too much like a JLA story for me to just ignore. It is the DCU on the precipice.
They’d never fully discard the grim ugliness of the post-WATCHMEN/DARK KNIGHT RETURNS era where the only lessons we seemed to learn was meanness and anger sold books. However, in Waid largely veering away from his initial intent to rebuild DC’s villain nastier and crueler than before, the seeds for the bright, largely optimistic JLA begin to be noticed.
UNDERWORLD also, admittedly only sort of, begins the thesis that would run throughout the JLA run, of the common man stepping up to be a hero. The Trickster is a villain, true, but he is one without powers who is shown, early on, as essentially at his lowest ebb. He might not be a civilian, but he’s nowhere near special either. And yet, when the dust settles, the world has him to thank for selling him. Not Batman. Not Superman. Even Captain Marvel, really, is not the hero of the day. Disappointing villain and low-rent con man James Jesse saved the early despite all its larger than life super powered figures.