Review: Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen is ostensibly the culmination of James Tynion’s Justice League series-within-a-series, “Legion of Doom,” though that doesn’t really come through till the book’s halfway point. When it does, what’s here gets sharper, but overall the book struggles to overcome its biggest disadvantage — that, like the Justice League Vol. 5: Justice/Doom War that leads in to it, Hell Arisen is a book where not much of import happens and that’s basically just an advertisement for another book that follows it (which leads into something else after that).

As well, though I’ve enjoyed artists Steve Epting and Javier Fernandez on a variety of other books, all the art here is too soft, too inexact, lessening the dose of urgency and seriousness this book desperately needs. We know James Tynion, we know his books, and we know the competence of his writing (which again, I think comes out more in the book’s second half). For a book with a variety of challenges, perhaps an artist with more straightforward drama — a Detective Comics collaborator like Miguel Mendonca or Eddy Barrows — could have benefitted this overall.

[Review contains spoilers]

That the first two chapters of Hell Arisen are its least interesting, and that those two chapters deal with the Year of the Villain “Infected” storyline, is not a coincidence. DC’s choices for the Infected heroes seemed questionable from the outset — characters with endangered or nonexistent series, safe or rife for profile but also with low emotional stakes. They were universally written as over-dark if not whiny, and that continues here — a gone-bad Shazam calling Lex Luthor “baldy” does not a compelling conflict make. And that is indeed half of the first issue and all of the second; to read just half of this book in one sitting (as I did), one wouldn’t be faulted for considering Hell Arisen a miss.

But it is a truism because it’s often true that there’s little that can’t be fixed by a Joker appearance. At the head of the third chapter, Lex calls in the Joker to rescue him from the Infected; the Joker previously abandoned Lex’s Legion of Doom in Tynion’s pages of Justice League. As such, we have something of a reckoning here — a thematic throughway when so much of the “Justice/Doom” storyline has lacked such. And, there’s an impressive standoff when the Joker holds a gun to Lex’s head, and a psychedelic sequence when Lex convinces the Joker to let him do telepathic brain surgery on him. In all of this, Tynion captures the spirit of good modern Lex/Joker team-ups, like Underworld Unleashed or Dave Gibbons' World’s Finest, two villains not so dissimilar as they might originally seem. An added boon: Tynion is working within the threads of his new Batman run, too, giving new character Punchline an early cameo.

A few good elements follow after that. One, that Lex also gets some help from a handful of the villains he powered up during Year of the Villain. Not many of those appear, nor do they interact with Lex in any meaningful way, but still, the events of the past year are at least passingly acknowledged in Hell Arisen, whereas they’re hardly much a topic of Justice/Doom War. Second, both the third and fourth chapters see a role played by ubiquitous Lex sidekick Mercy Graves, who if not her usual take-charge self here at least offers some perspective on the discrepancy between Lex Luthor, foe of metahumans, and Lex Luthor, transformed into a hybrid Martian by cosmic goddess Perpetua.

The latter includes the crowning sequence of Hell Arisen, in which Tynion traces and unifies Lex Luthor’s history from the New 52 all the way to the present. This spans two continuities, yes, two different Supermans, etc., but Tynion elides it to make something consistent and sensible, putting even Lex’s role in Forever Evil into perspective toward ending up at Lex’s current form and goals. That’s fantastic, a culmination of “Year of the Villain” that does indeed feel like a culmination — and which makes me eager to see what happens to Lex after all of this is over and hopeful that Tynion has a hand in it. In this, we do indeed see some reason for Hell Arisen, some purpose for this miniseries that maybe couldn’t otherwise be presented in Justice League proper.

And that’s important, because without at least those Lex Luthor character moments, Hell Arisen might seem skip-able. Over four issues, the only event of any note comes in the very final pages, in which the Batman Who Laughs switches sides to work with Perpetua, replacing Lex. This is nearly nothing — the Batman Who Laughs miniseries was enjoyable, but there’s nothing really to have kept him from working with Perpetua at the same time, nor did the dark Batman’s Infected ever make a dent. Essentially, all of Hell Arisen was to make one tiny change ahead of Dark Nights: Death Metal that could have as easily always been the case; much like Justice/Doom War, Hell Arisen might otherwise seem like an attempt to wring more cash out of those anticipating Death Metal, not a miniseries with real value in and of itself.

Obviously times are tough, and even tougher in the midst of DC corporate shakeups alongside global events. But there’s a bunch too that doesn’t line up between Justice/Doom War and Hell Arisen that gives the sense of only so much care given — the Phantom Stranger is free at the end of Justice/Doom but the Batman Who Laugh’s prisoner in Hell Arisen; the Infected are and are not infected in Justice/Doom, but then are infected and then cured in Hell Arisen, taking place afterward; the Earth is supposedly wrecked at the end of Justice/Doom, ahead of the Justice League’s departure, but the Hall of Justice is shown more normally (even giving tours) in Hell Arisen, despite acknowledgment that the League is gone. As dual lead-ins to Death Metal, Justice/Doom and Hell Arisen ought be seamless, and the fact that they’re not only magnifies their other problems.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen

3.75

Rating

Again, Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen is misguided in a variety of ways, including that at least in the first half, neither art nor conflict seems to try to make for a compelling comic. If you’ve come this far though, in the end, where “Year of the Villain” seems to be treading water as it waits for Dark Nights: Death Metal, there is at least a little payoff and some bright spots to be found. And, the Year of the Villain special is in here, what should have originally been slotted in a Justice League volume or two ago; better late than never.

[Includes original and variant covers, character sketch]

Get the Collected Editions scoop before anyone else -- on Facebook!

2 comments:

  1. I'm glad you did these two back to back. I read them one after the other and I was left with a big sense of "whatever" - we spent months and months seeing Lex's machinations and manipulations, only to have the (unsurprising) betrayal at the last minute to supplant Lex with BWL (which continues to be an idiotic name). Sound and fury, signifying nothing is pretty apt here.

    Like you, the Infected storyline did nothing for me (I'm hoping Supergirl's Infectious trade is better executed than S/B v1), so it's inclusion and conclusion here fell pretty flat. W/o spoiling or spending too much time discussing Death Metal, I'm also struck by how little any of this (Who are the Secret Six, Justice/Doom War, Hell Arisen) mattered to the fundamental plot points of DM (at least through 4 issues and a number of tie-ins).

    ReplyDelete
  2. While overall I liked this book, it's worth mentioning how clunky the collection is. The special that launched YotV AND Hell Arisen that ended it? And are we ever getting the one-shots collected?

    ReplyDelete