It's been a blood-soaked reading week since Countdown to Final Crisis Volume 3; first the mayhem of Countdown: Arena and now JLA: Salvation Run (and I'm not even over Watchmen yet!). But whereas Arena, fun as it was, offered a dose of gruesomeness without much characterization behind it, I become increasingly impressed the more I think back on Salvation Run at all the subtle touches that Bill Willingham and especially writer Matt Sturges injected into this story (along with the gruesomeness).
Salvation Run, the story of the pantheon of DC Comics bad guys imprisoned on a deathtrap planet, is an easy read for someone without much knowledge of the DC Universe, but even better for long-time followers. Bane doesn't like Catwoman, of course, because of events way back in Knightfall. Catman comforts Scandal because they work together in Secret Six. The relationship between Vandal Savage and Lady Flash referenced here started back in the 1980s. And the vicious, heartbreaking conclusion to the story of Monsieur Mallah and the Brain has been building for years. You don't have to know any of this to enjoy the story, but Sturges clearly did his research, and it shows.
Indeed, it's amazing just how many threads from how many different other comics Salvation Run picks up, if you like that kind of thing (else I imagine it's pretty annoying). I wouldn't say Salvation Run resolves anything very well, but certainly there's pieces of Justice League, Outsiders, Checkmate, Catwoman, Shadowpact, Flash and the aforementioned Secret Six here (not to mention, obviously, Countdown to Final Crisis). I also delighted in the prison planet's completely unexpected tie to Blue Beetle (in itself a tie to 52 and from there back to Jack Kirby himself). I am enjoying Countdown to Final Crisis more and more these days, and undoubtedly it's because we see now a greater sense of a shared universe as the stories begin to come together.
Sturges' real stars in this book, of course, are Lex Luthor and the Joker. Not much new is established -- in the interest of time and an expansive cast, perhaps, Sturges adheres firmly to the established tropes of Lex Luthor the schemer and Joker, force of chaos -- but each character gets a chilling moment that confirms how Sturges "gets" these characters. There's a moment where the Joker has infiltrated Lex Luthor's rival camp to steal supplies, scuffles with and finally has the opportunity to kill Luthor, and then doesn't because all he wanted was supplies -- the look on the Joker's face, ably rendered by Joe Bennett (though Sean Chen does great work here, too) is simultaneously as sane and as crazy as I've ever seen the Joker.
Luthor here, too, returns to a place of grandeur among the gathered villains. In the way in which Luthor takes charge and provides the villains a way home, and both determinedly but reluctantly sacrifices more than a handful of them as a power source, the reader gets a clear picture of how Luthor could be both the president and a super-villain at the same time. Certainly, all the villains of the DC Universe now owe Luthor a favor, and I'm eager to see his interaction with other villains elsewhere after this. Sturges doesn't quite show enough of Luthor's trouble in these pages (the winning device gets built with startling ease), but Luthor's crazed refrain in the end, that he's the hero rather than Checkmate or the Justice League, is perfectly true to character.
As a sequel, in a way, to the pre-Infinite Crisis Villains United, Salvation Run strikes me as what that prior mini-series should have been. Don't get me wrong -- I enjoyed Gail Simone's story at the time, but we can agree it was more an introduction to the Secret Six series, whereas Salvation Run really profiles the villains' interaction with one another. If Salvation Run has a bad reputation (see J. Caleb Mozzocco at Blog@Newsarama), I tend to think it's really the mini-series's proximity to the on-again, off-again Countdown than a fault of the story itself.
Matt Sturges finished off well the final issues of Shadowpact and he similarly provides a detailed, accessible story in Salvation Run -- which, with all its crossover-ness, one expects is quite a challenge. I have been nervous, admittedly, about he and Willingham taking over Justice Society of America after Geoff Johns, but so far I've read nothing by Sturges that disappoints. If you're on the fence about Salvation Run, I'd say pick it up.
[Contains full and variant covers, "What Came Before" text page.]
We'll follow the threads of Salvation Run now with Justice League, Gotham Underground, and Catwoman.