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!