Review: Forever Evil hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Geoff Johns's best DC Comics successes over the past decade or so have been in mega crossover events, and in writing multi-layered portrayals of DC Comics's villains -- most notably Green Lantern's Sinestro, but also Flash's Captain Cold, Superman's General Zod, and others. To that end, the Forever Evil event miniseries plays more to Johns's strengths, and succeeds, better than the recent Flashpoint, at least.

Forever Evil is at its heart a Lex Luthor story, couched as it is in the trappings of the New 52's first big event. Johns writes a controversial Luthor; I applaud some of the chances he takes with the character, even as I view some of them maybe with a little skepticism. Certainly I'm interested to see Johns's Luthor work continue into the pages of Justice League. Arguably Forever Evil might not set the New 52 off in the best direction, but this book itself tells an enjoyable story.

[Review contains spoilers]

Johns begins Forever Evil with the story of a young Luthor trying to save his sister's cat, stuck in a tree; when Luthor tries to grab the panicked cat, it scratches him. The metaphor for how Luthor sees himself, newly released from prison, is obvious: he has only ever tried to defeat Superman to prove to humanity the danger of superheroes and their over-reliance on them, and for that those he's tried to save have punished him. Luthor is not evil here, just misunderstood.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Also in those opening pages, Luthor tries to broker a deal with Thomas Kord's Kord Industries by threatening to throw Kord out of a helicopter and ruin his family. If indeed Luthor's acquisition of the technology benefits humanity in the long run, it's still a hard argument to make that these are the actions of a benevolent hero. These latter actions seem more akin to John Byrne's Luthor, a businessman out for himself above all else; Johns has a bit of Byrne here juxtaposed with the "world's savior" Luthor that was not always the character of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths "Kingpin" Luthor, but instead came out circa the Jeph Loeb/early Smallville era, if I gauge it correctly.

But whether Luthor is lying to himself or to the reader, he makes a wholly valid point to Batman in the book's sixth chapter -- that as the Crime Syndicate, evil doppelgangers of the Justice League, proceed to entirely trash planet Earth, the fault lies with the Justice League for a long series of mistakes that allowed the Syndicate to do so. Therefore, whatever else Luthor may have done, he has actually been right in his warnings all this time. Here Johns shines a light on Luthor just the same as he did for Sinestro before him -- Luthor may be evil, but he isn't wrong per se, and so the reader can no longer dismiss Luthor as "just a villain" despite whatever crazy scheme he might be running.

Johns very deftly fits the creation of a new Bizarro into the story, and Bizarro largely functions here to turn the reader's sympathies toward Luthor; Bizarro is innocent and funny, and the more Luthor gets pulled into his orbit -- from begrudgingly accepting from Bizarro a proffered flower on out -- the more the reader likes Luthor as well. On one hand, one can't help but fall for Luthor and Bizarro's "sweeter" moments; on the other hand, depending on how you like your Luthor, some of Luthor's affection for Bizarro might defy belief.

I was glad, for instance, that the story that Luthor told Bizarro in a pep talk in the fourth chapter ended up being based on lies; the reader wants to see Luthor caring for Bizarro, but only so much. When Bizarro dies, Luthor seems authentically upset, though his claim that Bizarro was "my monster" can equally be interpreted as true familial affection or as Luthor's fastidiousness for every little aspect of his empire. We see Luthor refusing to kill Ultraman in the end, seemingly realizing that heroism comes from intent and not super-abilities; but in the next scene, he squashes the other-universe Atomica to death with his foot.

Still, the impression we get from the end of Forever Evil -- with Luthor now giving over Kord Industries to Kord's son Ted (the pre-Flashpoint Blue Beetle) -- is of a reformed or "good" Lex Luthor (though I half-expect Luthor's got a scheme there). I do find this a little problematic; I think it posits a Lex Luthor a bit like Sinestro, not bad just misunderstood. Except, Sinestro was a Green Lantern drummed out of the Corps because he took excessive measures in hopes of bringing order to his planet; Lex Luthor is a businessman who took one look at Superman and dedicated his life to bringing him down. I am eager to read Johns writing Luthor, and especially Luthor with and against Batman, in Justice League, but I don't quite buy "good Luthor" like I buy "good Sinestro"; to an extent I think Johns is reading some good into the Luthor character that isn't actually there.

The other striking thing about Forever Evil that hums just under the surface is that we come to find Johns is writing a story about our world's Lex Luthor versus an alternate dimension's Alexander Luthor, not so far off from Johns's first big DC Universe crossover, Infinite Crisis. It is to Johns's credit that he manages to make the new Alexander Luthor sufficiently different than the one that came before, though this book's final page revelation of the Anti-Monitor is both engaging and troublesome. Johns has tried to use the Anti-Monitor for a while now, as early as the Sinestro Corps War and into the lead-in to Blackest Night, though nothing seemed to come of the Anti-Monitor's presence so much as his simply appearing for effect (we never knew what brought the Anti-Monitor back, what his goals were, etc.).

I'm as curious as anyone what Johns will do with the Anti-Monitor now, but for a DC Comics making a concerted effort not to tell the exact same stories they used to, bringing back the Anti-Monitor would seem the wrong way to go. And should that figure egging on the Anti-Monitor turn out to be Superboy Prime, then we end up with the Crisis on Infinite Earths/Infinite Crisis sequel that I'm not entirely sure we need.

Still, as a "Lex Luthor versus the world" story, Forever Evil is quite a bit of fun, and neither so dark nor does it try to lift so much as Flashpoint or Blackest Night. Artist David Finch does his usual good thing throughout, and whatever delays the monthly readers had to wait through, they're worth it for the trade reader to have one consistent artist throughout. In the bringing together of an "Injustice League" in these pages, Johns seems to purposefully and amusingly riff on his Justice League: Origin; and of course, any Super Friends fan should be pleased with any book that teams Luthor, Bizarro, Sinestro, Captain Cold, and Black Manta, even without a skull-shaped headquarters. As the first event miniseries of the New 52, Forever Evil is a winner.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Next week, more Swamp Thing, and we're in full Forever Evil mode with Justice League tie-ins. Don't miss it!
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  1. My eyes just keep glazing over whenever I try to read the "Forever Evil" Wikipedia entry, so maybe you can help me out on this. Did the various Justice Leagues really get defeated off-panel, or do we actually see their defeats?

    1. SPOILERS -- Reading between the lines, I take it people are complaining about the League being defeated off-panel? That's not quite accurate. Trinity War ends with the Crime Syndicate arriving, and the League is down but not out necessarily. Forever Evil starts shortly after this, and the League is "missing"; a few chapters in, Batman finally makes it to safety and reports on the League's fate in flashback -- that one of the Syndicate exploded Firestorm and somehow all the League gets stuck in Firestorm's matrix as he re-forms (comics, everyone!).

      So I wouldn't call it off-panel per se, but nor do we get to see their defeats, plural; in flashback we get to see how they were defeated collectively. I can imagine how some readers might have a problem with it; I call it strategic withholding and giving of information to the reader for suspense's sake.

  2. For my money, Forever Evil was the most satisfying event mini series I've read since Final Crisis. Johns just knows how to deliver the big moments and twists you expect from this kind of story, and even though I wasn't originally excited abou the idea of a ragtag team of villains plus Batman being the main characters while the rest of the Justice League gets sidelined, his portrayal of Luthor and Bizarro really won me over.

    Also, while I'm not fond of Johns's habit of ending his events with a teaser of something even bigger yet to come, I can't help being excited about what he's got planned for the Anti-Monitor and Darkseid.

    1. Yeah, Anti-Monitor was kind of a yawner for me (in part because I already knew about it), but Anti-Monitor vs. Darkseid has my attention.

      You've got some high praise there for Forever Evil. For me, FE is a superhero story, Final Crisis is a book, if that makes sense -- however, I agree with you in the sense that I liked FE more than Flashpoint or Blackest Night, so in that way, yes, the best since Final Crisis.

    2. My only problem with Johns stems from his utilization of Batman. I understand that by including the one Leaguer who is considered to be an anti-thesis of Luthor (while Lex believes Superman is stunting humanity, Batman believes he is improving it), a contrast can be made....but Batman was entirely just there for the Nightwing revelation and made to look like a rookie otherwise!

      Johns attempts to make Batman look 'human' (the ring incidents, one where he fails and that other when it is stolen) just made me go...huh? Batman is the master strategist who threads through the worlds of Gods and Monsters and comes out unscratched....and this is not that guy.

      Still, Johns handling of Luthor and other villains (Cold, Sinestro and Manta are all beneficiaries) should be considered revolutionary. One dimensional, mustache-twirling schemers are of the past. Instead there are moments where I feel the hero has been in the wrong instead of the villain.

      For me, Forever Evil is a celebration of the real anti-heroes of the DC universe - the ones who aren't totally gone like the Joker or Braniac, and aren't heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman. And in that, it succeded.

  3. To me, the Luthor-as-Savior Champion-of-normal-humanity aspect of the character is part of the legacy of Kingdom Come more than any other story

    1. Interesting. Not my frame of reference, I guess. Earliest "Lex as hero" I can remember is roundabouts Jeph Loeb/Lex loves Lois/Our Worlds at War-ish era, and some of that I think comes out of Smallville. I hadn't considered Kingdom Come.