Review: Underworld Unleashed trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 19, 2010

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.
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18 comments:

  1. Just popped in to answer the demo question: I have never read Armageddon 2001, other than a Justice League issue I grabbed in a pile of comics many years ago. Haven't read a bit of any of the others.

    I'm looking forward to the Final Night review. I have wildly mixed opinions of the story, so it'll be interesting to see your take

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  2. I have read Armageddon 2001, and still have the issues that I read. I have the armageddon 2001 issues, probably one or two justice league annuals, and probably a bunch of others. Fantastic premise, fantastic start, great way of doing "in continuity" elsewords stories, but it fails in the end, for reasons that are well known (the ending that got changed at the last minute - they should have stuck with the original ending). Still, Waverider was a nice character, and there was potential that never got realized in having both Waverider and Matthew Ryder as characters.

    Need to reread Underworld Unleashed. I remember reading it and feeling it was semi-incomplete, probably for the reasons you noted above. It might be worth it for me to reread them.

    Looking forward to that Final Night review. I thought it was a fairly decent trade at the time, but it is one of the early trades I bought during my re-entry into comics in the late 90's (I've had 3 comic phases in my life - one in the late 80s to maybe 1991 or so, one in the 1998 to 2002 era, and this one that started maybe 3 or 4 years ago with the publication of GL rebirth HC and focuses on the trades.

    Anyway, given the prominence of the GL series, is it time to revisit that era in another Geoff Johns "retcon"?

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  3. I think this is probably the only linewide DC crossover I never read any part of (due to a few brief years around that time of stopping collecting comics, mostly due to the Image-ness alluded to by Mark Waid above). I agree how frustrating it is to have certain key-events like Final Night fall out of print; very glad I still have my tattered old TPB of that one.

    Novaguy, I fully agree about Armageddon 2001; fantastic execution for an event, and likely only uncollected due to that incredibly poor, hastily rewritten final issue. The Action Comics annual (w/ President Superman) was probably the highpoint of that series for me; I believe it won or at least was nominated for an Eisner that year for best standalone story. T'would be great to get a collection of at least the better-third of those annuals!

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  4. It's amazing how well-known the Armageddon 2001 ending change is, even given how minor the two characters involved were (and how the ending only very minorly changed the result of the resulting miniseries, Armageddon: The Alien Agenda). Everyone has a right to be miffed that the end didn't match the build-up, of course; from my perspective, I both didn't know until later on that the end had been changed (that it wasn't always meant to be who it turned out to be), and also I felt like the culprit in the book was always a tad obvious -- that is, I kind of liked the change-up, even as I understand it might've felt disingenuous to others.

    Waverider is a favorite of mine, and I ask the question in part to see whether the character has completely fallen out of the frame of reference for current readers -- I think he might've appeared in 52, but even there only briefly.

    Can you imagine a Showcase Presents Armageddon 2001? Wouldn't that be a fantasticly thick volume of Elseworlds and dystopia? Seems to me you could take Showcase Presents Armageddon 2001 on a long plane flight and never look back.

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  5. If there's one reason why I'm grateful for Underworld Unleashed, it's the fact it brought the real Lex Luthor back, which allowed the Superman writers to sweep that whole clone business under the rug. It's a shame Superman couldn't be a part of this event, though.

    I'm also fond of the Trickster's characterization as a free agent, which only makes me more annoyed at what they did to the character recently. Johns tried to redeem him by stating he and the Piper were working undercover to bring the Rogues down, but the damage had already been done by then.

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  6. I recently dug out my Armageddon 2001 issues since posting that last comment and was shocked at how FEW annuals the series actually took place over; at just 12 annuals and the two bookends, the series could easily fill one Showcase volume. I can't for the life of me understand why DC puts out so many of those cheaply-printed color collections (of randomly-selected issues throughout a hero's publishing lifespan) and let stories like this one sit on the shelf forever.

    My DC-reading friends and I all had our own theories on the Monarch revelation at the time; I was convinced it was Max Lord, finally able to use his mindcontrol powers to affect & reshape the entire world

    (This L.E.G.I.O.N. annual by Alan Grant really stood out as well; I'd completely forgotten about the brief intro where Waverider briefly sees Lobo's future.)

    Waverider's last appearance was around the halfway mark of "52" being tortured by Skeets with no mention of a possible death/escape/etc. I'd fully expected Jurgens to bring him back in Booster Gold by now (or, more likely, in his upcoming Time Masters series)

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  7. Since every annual was done by a different creative team, doesn't that pose a problem to DC collecting the series? Wasn't there some royalty scheme in place during the 80's-90's that makes it really difficult to collect issues from that time period that have more than one set of creators?

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  8. Here's a link from Wikipedia about what I'm referring to:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Showcase_Presents#Possible_reprint_exceptions

    (Although they do say that in some cases they try to renegotiate the royalty fees so they can get books reprinted.)

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  9. I hadn't thought of how many creators would be involved in a book like that -- or, would also be interesting, Eclipso: The Darkness Within -- but it does seem like great Showcase fodder.

    Maxwell Lord as Monarch? Interesting ... you had an idea ahead of its time, in part.

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  10. I recently started earning....so I went in with grand dreams of building a DCU complete collection from the ground floor.I had this list of great "events" ready since....say the first one:
    CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS
    HISTORY OF THE DC UNIVERSE
    LEGENDS-THE COLLECTED EDITION*
    MILLENNIUM
    INVASION
    COSMIC ODYSSEY
    ARMAGEDDON 2001#
    WAR OF THE GODS#
    ECLIPSO:THE DARKNESS WITHIN#
    BLOODLINES#
    ZERO HOUR:CRISIS IN TIME*
    UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED*
    THE FINAL NIGHT*
    GENESIS#
    ONE MILLION
    IDENTITY CRISIS
    COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CRISIS
    INFINITE CRISIS
    52
    COUNTDOWN TO FINAL CRISIS
    FINAL CRISIS

    On research,I found that the * marked trades were out of print,& MILLENNIUM & INVASION were very recently collected.I then went around buying from the beginning.The 1st 2 books easily available, COUNTDOWN TO FINAL CRISIS(all 4 volumes,as well as the companion) & INFINITE CRISIS I had bought when they were newly released damn cheap,for about 3$ each,same for 52 & the 1st 2 vols of COUNTDOWN TO FINAL CRISIS.The heavy task was hunting down the rest.I succeeded with LEGENDS,ZERO HOUR & UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED.I am still looking for the rest.I don't understand why,for the love of god,strategic issues that tie in to a lot of relevant stuff today,or were just really good & fun to read can be out of print,when the books which are just as relevant & also a bit perplexing without the other required material are out of print.This applies to the whole DCU.Case in point:
    -The ANNUAL storylines might have been a bit tortuous but at least ARMAGEDDON 2001 & ECLIPSO need to be collected.After BLOODLINES,they put all sorts of different themes,leading to some very good stories & even before that,a few wonderful stories had seen print,in particular a 3 parter running thru Detective,GA & Question Annuals 1988 by O'Neil & a standalone from Detetive by Mark Waid from 1989,simply the best annual I've ever seen. I'd love to see them all,especially with people deciding that the 60s annuals of BATMAN deserve the DC CLASSICS LIBRARY treatment...even as SHOWCASES...
    -BATMAN:LEGACY,a better sequel to CONTAGION is out of print
    -BATMAN:PROGIGAL,the FIRST time Dick donned the cape & cowl
    -Pivotal stories like A LONELY PLACE OF DYING,TEN NIGHTS OF THE BEAST,SON OF THE DEMON,BIRTH OF THE DEMON
    -Classic Batman tales like THE IDIOT ROOT & DARK KNIGHT DARK CITY by PETER MILLIGAN, & the whole of the DOUG MOENCH/KELLEY JONES run.
    -All the Ron Marz penned issues of Green Lantern
    -The Waid penned issues of The Flash
    -The infamous era of Superman trades,the late 90s with THE DEATH OF CLARK KENT,THE TRIAL OF SUPERMAN,THE WEDDING & BEYOND & DEAD AGAIN (uncollected)
    -The pre DEATH OF SUPERMAN trades like TIME & TIME AGAIN,PANIC IN THE SKY.Even 'that infamous story where the man of steel murders the phantom zone criminals' which was referenced in Superman lore a lot of times
    -The superb tales from LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT like SHAMAN,PREY,VENOM

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  11. Honestly,sometimes I just think that DC wants to forget that all of this happened.Doesn't leave much in the way of history if you don't keep it in print.A new reader who wants to jump in on Green Lantern post crisis gets in at EMERALD DAWN.The next trade he can buy is GREEN LANTERN:REBIRTH.Don't you think that's too long a gap.Okay,what about Flash? He can't buy the Baron or Loebs run as they haven't been collected,the Waid run is out of print,2 books still sell the Millar/Morrison run,the Johns run is out of print with exception of BLOOD WILL RUN & WONDERLAND...so from there he goes to THE WILD WESTS & from there to....FLASH REBIRTH..if you discount the shoddily written THE FASTEST MAN ALIVE..not much of a rebirth,right?

    Very very bad policy of Didio...frankly rather than better editions I hope some effort goes into bringing back the better storylines in print......

    Anybody thinks he can get me a copy of any of the above mentioned DCU,BATMAN,SUPERMAN,GREEN LANTERN trades & FLASH BORN TO RUN & BLACK ADAM:THE DARK AGE ? to India?
    Let me know.....

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  12. I think I have quite a few issues of ARMAGEDDON 2001 ...the SUPERMAN issue by Simonson & Hitch & the one by Jurgens,the LEGION,TEEN TITANS,FLASH,JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE,the #2 bookend

    A very few of ECLIPSO....a BATMAN,A SUPERMAN,A FLASH & a bookend

    A lot of BLOODLINES....all the SUPERMANs,half the BATMANs,JUSTICE LEAGUE,TITANS

    Quite a few ELSEWORLDS,YEAR ONE & LEGENDS OF THE DEAD EARTH.Only 1 of PULP FICTION & none of further events.

    They read nicely.Even the non event ones( read ELSEWORLDS,LEGENDS OF THE DEAD EARTH & PULP FICTION )would make for wonderful collections.Is there any way a guy can get word to DC? Just hoping..........

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  13. Where did you get the info that the UU & FN trades are OOP from?

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  14. As I noted here, this doesn't mean you can't find a new copy at your local comic shop, only that once your local comics shop sells out, new copies aren't available from the factory.

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  15. Yeah,but the thing being,suppose it just never reached your country,for those of us who are unfortunate enough to live outside the places where all comics reach the stores,like I live in India,you can't order them from international sites

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  16. I think you misunderstood my latest comment, Aaolk, which was meant for the anonymous poster right above. Indeed it must be difficult keeping up with the DC Universe outside DC's distribution zone; I've always marveled, though, at the different collections, sometimes collecting some titles that aren't collected here, that you can find overseas.

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  17. That's true....Gotham used to handle the printing & distribution of the DC & Marvel line in India,and it is through them and them only that I have come to appreciate honest to goodness DC continuity.the editions were not actually what you'd call keeper's stuff,with the size being cut,akin to that of a Dark Horse small trade,like the Sin City out now.the notable stuff,for which I am eternally thankful to editors Sharad devarajan,Suresh Seetharaman,Joshua Silverman & Carl Suecoff are:
    JLA: THE NAIL and ANOTHER NAIL
    BATMAN:LEGACY-only selected parts,basically Detective comics & the conclusion from Robin.
    GREEN LANTERN:DRAGON LORD
    BATMAN:OUTLAWS,BANE OF THE DEMON,HONG KONG
    SUPERMAN:THE ODYSSEY,DISTANT FIRES,WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW
    FANTASTIC FOUR-The MARK WAID/MIKE WIERINGO run
    JLA:The MARK WAID run
    THOR-The DAN JURGENS run
    HULK-The BRUCE JONES run
    ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN,X-MEN & THE ULTIMATES
    NEW AVENGERS
    CONAN by ROY THOMAS & JOHN BUSCEMA
    TARZAN by JOE KUBERT,DUBOIS/MANNING & the later crossovers with PREDATOR,BATMAN,SUPERMAN
    BATMAN:GOTHAM ADVENTURES-The seminal SCOTT PETERSON/TIM LEVINS/TERRY BEATTY run
    WONDER WOMAN-The seldom seen JOHN BYRNE run
    Also,titles barely seen today like X-MEN:THE HIDDEN YEARS,SPIDER-MAN:CHAPTER ONE,STAN LEE'S JUST IMAGINE,SUPERMAN/BATMAN:GENERATIONS were published here.The only drawback remains the size.In this size they published SUPER SPECIALS,something akin to TPBs,for less than 2$ each.

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  18. These are the trades which,in spite of not being available at places,especially online orders from popular portals,somehow I've managed to acquire in India very recently:
    SUPERMAN: ERADICATION,THEY SAVED LUTHOR'S BRAIN,SUPERMAN VS ALIENS,TRANSFORMED!,TILL DEATH DO US PART,PRESIDENT LEX,TRUE BRIT,SECRET IDENTITY
    BATMAN: YEAR TWO,CATACLYSM,NO MAN'S LAND V3 & 4,EVOLUTION,BATMAN/HUNTRESS: CRY FOR BLOOD,ABSOLUTION,FORTUNATE SON,OTHER REALMS,TERROR,NIGHT CRIES,DARK JOKER THE WILD,THE DARK KNIGHT ADVENTURES VOLS 1 & 2,BATMAN BEYOND
    BATGIRL: SILENT RUNNING,FISTS OF FURY
    NIGHTWING: A DARKER SHADE OF JUSTICE
    JLA: RIDDLE OF THE BEAST,SECRET ORIGINS
    FLASH: THE RETURN OF BARRY ALLEN,IMPULSE:RECKLESS YOUTH,DEAD HEAT,RACE AGAINST TIME
    GREEN LANTERN: THE ROAD BACK,NEW JOURNEY OLD PATH,THE POWER OF ION,BROTHER'S KEEPER
    GREEN ARROW: THE LONGBOW HUNTERS
    DOCTOR MID-NITE by MATT WAGNER
    FANBOY by MARK EVANIER & SERGIO ARAGONES
    ENEMY ACE: WAR IDYLL,WAR IN HEAVEN
    THE SPECTRE: CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS,WRATH OF THE SPECTRE
    LEGENDS-THE COLLECTION
    UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED
    EMPIRE by MARK WAID & BARRY KITSON
    BLOOD-A TALE by J M DEMATTEIS & KENT WILLIAMS
    DEAD ENDERS: STEALING THE SUN by ED BRUBAKER & WARREN PLEECE
    BIGG TIME by TY TEMPLETON
    AMERICAN VIRGIN: WET
    VEILS by PAT MCGREAL
    THE AUTHORITY: REVOLUTION BOOK 1
    21 DOWN: THE CONDUIT
    AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: HAPPY BIRTHDAY,SINS PAST
    UNCANNY X-MEN: HOPE,THE DRACO,BRIGHT NEW MOURNING
    X-TREME X-MEN: DESTINY,SCHISM,MEKANIX,GOD LOVES MAN KILLS,INTIFADA,STORM THE ARENA
    CAPTAIN AMERICA: MADBOMB,THE NEW DEAL
    BLACK WIDOW VOL 1: HOMECOMING
    NICK FURY AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. by JIM STERANKO

    A few of them are actually still available in India.As you pointed out,till the stores exhaust their stock,they're still there.I'm proudest about hunting & possessing SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY & EMPIRE-not a DC Universe but something in the line of IRREDEEMABLE...must read.

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