It’s been quite a week over here for me. Between struggling with the Department of Labor being unclear and confusing and applying for jobs, I managed to write reviews of Jonesy #1 and the Jem and the Holograms Valentine Special over at Graphic Policy and Welcome Back over at PopOptiq. I also had a piece about the Hawkeye vs. Deadpool series go up at PopOptiq last week if you’re wondering about any thoughts I might have about The Merc With A Mouth before I see the movie.
Today though, we’re talking about a DC book.
Even though I’ve never played D&D, I am absolutely fascinated by the idea of alignments to boil down a character’s motivations and to build up from there. I’ve been using the phrase ‘chaotic neutral’ a lot lately to describe figures in wrestling like Asuka and Brock Lesnar, who don’t seem to fall easily on the face/heel dichotomy and seem to fall back more on their own drive versus any sort of moral code. Well, that and their ability to just fuck shit up.
‘Chaotic neutral’ was the first word that popped into my mind when my friend Tomas commissioned me to review Villains United by Gail Simone, Dale Eaglesham and Val Semeiks. This 2005 mini-series was part of the lead up to Infinite Crisis and eventually lead into an ongoing Secret Six miniseries. The story itself revolves around six supervillains being recruited by an entity named Mockingbird to fight against The Society, a group of supervillains brought together by Lex Luthor in response to the Justice League of America covering up the rape of Sue Dibney by lobotomizing her rapist Dr. Light and then erasing part of Batman’s memory when he opposed the idea. The fact a decent mini-series came out of something so terrible is kind of a miracle.
That’s the thing. Villains United is a good series. The writing is good, the character moments are good, the art is good, and the colors by Sno-Cone are especially good.
I just don’t think it’s my kind of good.
It pains me to say that too because I had two people who were acting like they were proud of me for reading this and I could barely get into it.As I mentioned before, a lot of the strength of this series isn’t in the action so much, but in the way the characters interact with each other in between the big scenes. It would be very easy to turn a book that’s all about villains into a violent doom and gloom scenery chewing fest. There’s even a bit of all three in the pages.
However, Simone does a great job of humanizing all of the characters and making their own personal motivations clear, no matter what side of the battle between the Society and the Six they’re on. Catman’s self-penance is a major and fascinating driving force of the story, especially when it butts heads with Deadshot and Jade’s more mercenary take on things. My personal favorites though were Parademon’s attachment to Rag Doll and Scandal’s backstory. The fact Scandal was casually revealed as a lesbian in a book that came out in 2005 is kind of mind-blowing to think about now, but I could have missed those headlines.
The character interactions in the Society are fascinating as well, in both the higher level (any time Lex and his right hand men meet) to the lower level (a bunch of C-List rogues playing board games while our “heroes” are being tortured). It adds a level of humor and human to the story, which I appreciate.
It seems to be everything else that takes me out of the book.
It started with the extended torture of the Six, but in shows with scenes like Jade suddenly being okay with her daughter being killed because she might have conceived “a replacement” with Catman. I know that this is a book where are no good guys and I can respect that. I’ve watched plenty of shows where there’s no real good or bad involved. I guess just the way it comes across here, somewhat relentless, just could have been a turn off. I understand stakes and I understand darkness. I just maybe feel off personally reading a story where there’s an entire chapter of supervillains getting violently tortured and looking bloody. I enjoyed Daredevil, but I still feel ill thinking about the scene with the car door.
The ending of the book was probably my personal favorite scene though, where Catman warns the Green Arrow of the Society, but still punches him in the face for what the JLA did to Light. It serves as a stark reminder of how thin that divide between hero and villain is. Plus, the last panel has the best exchange in the entire book.
Deadshot: So… what do we do now?
Catman: We get to the others, and decide if we’re going to be saints or sinners, somehow.
Deadshot: Aw, hell. Let’s just flip a coin.
If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the Secret Six, I don’t know what does.
Villains United is a fine book. The art is on the clean and neat side of usual superhero comic art, and Simone’s writing is excellent. I just don’t know if the strength of the character interactions that I did enjoy is enough for me to revisit it a lot in the future. If stories about chaotic neutral supervillains is your bag, maybe this story will be better suited for you than it was for me then.