In researching the DC Comics crossover Final Night for the DC Universe Trade Paperback Timeline the other day, it struck me that a number of fans, especially those who came to DC Comics through Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, or the current Green Lantern series, may not have read this nor the crossover one previous, Underworld Unleashed. For trade paperback fans, neither crossover is even still in print!
As a graphic novel fan, the fact that a new copy of Underworld Unleashed or Final Night isn't officially available (though often find-able online or at your local comic book store) is disappointing to me for a couple reasons which I'll innumerate in a later post. I'm fortunate to have access a copy of each trade, however, and what I want to do this week is review both books in the Collected Editions manner, but also contextualize the stories a bit for those who may not have followed the DC Universe at that time.
The three-issue Underworld Unleashed, by writer Mark Waid and JLA's Howard Porter, presents the villain Neron offering to empower DC's villains in exchange for their spreading chaos, and the heroes journey to Hell to stop him. The story is ambitious and at times affecting, but doesn't read well in comparison to modern standards (just, granted, about fifteen years later). The crossover itself is notable because it's the first line-wide DC Comics event after the Zero Hour crossover and soft-reboot, and in that way would have seemed to somewhat set the tone for that era's "new" DC Universe -- and also, it was the first line-wide DC crossover in four years, aside from Zero Hour, that would actually take place within the comics titles themselves and not in the annuals like Armageddon 2001, Eclipso: The Darkness Within, and Bloodlines.
[Just curious about the Collected Editions demographic. How many out there read Armageddon 2001 or the others when they first came out? How many have read it in back issues since?]
On paper, Underworld Unleashed offers a cogent vehicle for an in-title crossover; Neron makes rather vague mayhem in Underworld itself, and then each branded title offers a different transformed villain fighting the title's hero. In a way, it's much like (in fact, remarkably similar to) Libra's story in Final Crisis; Underworld, I'd argue, impressively empowers the villains but isn't much on characterization; Final Crisis was detailed, but lacked Underworld's follow-through. The "Faces of Evil" cover branding that followed Final Crisis sounded a bit like Underworld, too, in that it was supposed to spotlight DC's villains, but ultimately there wasn't much connectedness in the "Faces of Evil" titles.
The great difference between a crossover like Infinite Crisis and Underworld Unleashed, reading Underworld now, is that Underworld is largely a framing story for events happening in other titles, whereas Infinite Crisis is the main story. As such, don't look for lots of answers here. Items like what deals heroes like Hawkman make with Neron get brief mentions but no details; there's also an entire conflict between the demons Blaze and Satanus and Neron that ends in Underworld, but begins elsewhere and isn't ever explained.
Where Underworld Unleashed works is in its mood, not in its story. The best part is probably the first ten or twelve pages, where Waid's Neron organizes a Rube Goldberg-esque prison break where everything goes tragically wrong at once; the scene where then-Justice Leaguer Blue Devil realizes the hellish influence at work is chilling. Toward the end, Waid sets the people of the DC Universe on the brink of war, and the continued threats of fire, brimstone, and nuclear meltdown is equally creepy. While the interlude issue Underworld Unleashed: Abyss - Hell's Sentinel ends up being rather boring, and doesn't contribute much to the overall story, it manages to name-check some of the usually off-limits supernaturla characters like Swamp Thing, and the art by both Phil Jimenez and JG Jones is bar none.
It's worth noting that since Underworld Unleashed came out, Neron has appeared somewhere in the DC Universe almost every year since; for a new villain in a mid-level crossover, that's a notable accomplishment (and better, so far, than Libra). In part I think Neron has pervaded because he's the ultimate McGuffin, limitless in his power and always able to appear with malicious intent; I was thrilled, however, to see some storylines left unfinished in Underworld Unleashed completed just recently in Reign in Hell and Teen Titans. Again, I think Underworld will feel light when read by most modern readers, but obviously the story caught enough imaginations to shape the DC Universe through the present day.
In his afterword to Underworld Unleashed, Waid waxes somewhat apologetic about the story, noting that the story bowed somewhat to the pressures of the 1990s Image Comics era in trying to make the DC villains superficially cooler than they were, something Waid suggests he regrets. That era of comics gave way itself to a more reverent time (think the revamped alien Teen Titans then versus the classic Titans-based Teen Titans now); villain revision still goes on, but we find someone like Sinestro getting an enhanced characterization rather than magic new powers. In that way, we see the impetus behind Underworld Unleashed reflected still today, only refined over so many years.
[Contains partial covers, afterword by Mark Waid]
Next, we'll look at the crossover that followed, Final Night, and then some closing thoughts.