Today, Taylor and Spencer are discussing Justice League 24, a Forever Evil tie-in, originally released October 23rd, 2013.
Taylor: What makes someone evil? The term is thrown around a lot in the media and it’s gotten to the point where it seems its meaning has become lost, just as we lose our sense of what good beer tastes like after a few or five drinks. We call certain dictators evil and the same goes for terrorists. In the stories we tell one another we talk about super villains and often these individuals are motivated by hate or revenge or the lust for power. We call these people evil and in both cases this is rightly so. But of course, considering someone evil is all a matter of perspective. One man’s terrorist is another man’s martyr; one’s hero is another’s villain. But suppose for a second we existed in a universe where this yin-yang balance didn’t exist. What would it be like? Justice League 24, a tie-in with Forever Evil, attempts to give us this answer and in doing so shows us some really deplorable characters.
In another universe a guy exactly like superman is born to some truly dickish parents. You see, his dad, Jor-Il (not Jor-El mind you), is truly a bad person and so is his wife. As their planet is about to explode they kill a bunch of people to ensure their son’s safe passage from the dying rock. In his spaceship, this would-be superman is bombarded with hateful recordings his entire trip to Earth. Naturally, this makes the baby a huge asshole and as such he turns into Ultraman, an evil version of Superman. Along with his cast of similarly evil anti-heroes, Ultraman begins an oppression of the Earth, which also sees the downfall of the Justice League. All seems lost until Black Adam makes a surprise appearance. But will he be able to overthrow this super evil Ultraman?
Normally I’m a huge fan of alternative universes and/or timelines. The Battle of the Atom taking place in the Marvel Universe is evidence enough of that. I’ve been enjoying that event greatly and it’s been a blast seeing members from various timelines interact with one another. The same is true of those goofy Star Trek episodes where they meet their evil counterparts. Sure, the plots border on shtick but it’s fun to see what an evil Benjamin Sisco would do if he had the chance the kill himself.
That being said, I was expecting great, or perhaps at least entertaining, things from this issue but I was sadly disappointed. I think the reason for this is that Ultraman is just way too unlikable to stomach, even though I suspect the very reason for his creation is so he can be hated by the reader. Writer Geoff Johns goes to great lengths to establish why Ultraman is the way he is, devoting nearly half of the issue to the origin of Ultraman. Turns out that like Superman, Ultraman was born on a dying planet to parents who wanted him to succeed. The crinkle in the story of course is that this planet is populated entirely by assholes and it just so happens that Ultraman’s dad is the biggest asshole of all. He kills some people to assure baby Ultraman’s escape and in the process tells his beloved wife to “shut up and die.” Charming guy.
Now, this part of the issue is actually pretty fun. It’s entertaining to see the antithesis of Jor-El, the benevolent and educated scientist, running amok and dooming his son to a life of evil with an escape pod full of insults. The contrast between the two fathers is sharp and for a character that populates only a few pages, the unrivaled evilness of his ways is hilarious to watch. However, any more of a character like this and he or she needs to be instilled with subsequent motivations for their evil or they run the risk of becoming entirely flat, boring, and totally unlikable.
Thus enters Ultraman in his full-grown glory and he’s so steeped in evil that it robs the character of any agency – he may have started with as a blank slate. Throughout the issue, he makes references to his own evilness and how that makes him a better person than Superman – or any other person he has the fortune of meeting. Ostensibly, the reason he gives for this is that he is a huge Darwinist. To Ultraman, “only the strong survive” and anyone who can’t beat him in a fist fight is a weakling who deserves to die. Apparently, survival of the fittest means being the strongest person around, but it’s not like scientists would have anything to say about that, or evolution itself for that matter. Can humans beat up a gorilla hand to hand? No, but we can outsmart them, and which species has become so powerful we now can eat Doritos any time we want? Right, you know the answer.
The absolute buffoonery of Ultraman’s stance is best exemplified by his bizarre decision to pick on Jimmy, a photographer at the Daily Planet.
It’s a ridiculous exchange and Ultraman’s anger at Jimmy is baseless to the point of being nonsensical. And that’s really why this issue falls flat. Ultraman is supposed to be evil, but his motivations for doing what he does are shallow at best. Just why is he such a complete and absolute void of goodness and just what does he, or his cohorts, get out of it? Normally with evil types, the reader can justify their actions in some way, but in this case there’s really no explaining it. Ultraman is 1000% evil and that thereby makes him the villainiest villain ever, but as it turns out reading about someone that terrible is pretty terrible itself.
Spencer! As you might have guessed, I wasn’t a huge fan of this issue. Did it fare any better with you? Do you think Ultraman is an intriguing character or just an ass? Can a villain be too evil for his or her own good?
Spencer: I think Ultraman could be an intriguing character, but despite all this issue tries to do with him, none of it really works.
In previous continuities, Earth-3 was a world of opposites, a world where Superman was its greatest villain, Lex Luthor its greatest hero, and evil always triumphed. It’s an interesting concept, but Geoff Johns seems to playing his version of Earth-3 as a world of absolute evil, and while that can be a lot of fun, it doesn’t necessarily make for the most compelling characters.
Of course, both of those interpretations are silly in their own way, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Taylor mentioned, the best portions of this issue were the scenes set on Krypton, where Jor-Il and Lora are such terrible people that they cross a line into actual comedy.
Likewise, the issue’s take on baby Kal-Il’s arrival on Earth is another comedic goldmine precisely because it’s so over the top.
On the page prior we see that Jonathan Kent is a deadbeat abusive scumbag and his wife Martha a drug addict, then we cut to this dark reprisal of the typically heartwarming meeting between the Kents and their new child, only now, of course, lil’ Kal is an evil toddler; I must be a terrible person, but I couldn’t help but to laugh when I got to this scene. I can’t get over how he just walks up onto shore and barbeques John’s arm off, speaking in complete, articulate sentences like an adult in a child’s body. In no way can I take any of this seriously, but at least it’s fun, and that sense of fun is unfortunately absent from the rest of the issue, which treats all its events with morbid seriousness.
I realize that the Syndicate’s invasion is a serious, dangerous, thoroughly unfunny situation, but uniformly treating it all with the same grim, humorless tone makes it a slog to get through, and is at odds with the entire ridiculous concept of Earth-3 anyway. Do we really need deep psychological explanations for Ultraman’s evilness when he hails from a universe where everyone’s naturally a gigantic douchebag? Not really.
If anything, Ultraman’s motivations mostly just serve to muddle the character. A common character trait of Superman’s is that he’ll try to do everything himself or throw himself into his teammate’s fights in an attempt to protect them (“Every punch I take is a punch they don’t have to!”), and that makes it even more boggling why Ultraman—who obviously lacks even a shred of Superman’s inherent kindness—keeps the rest of the Crime Syndicate around. I mean, yeah, he needs Superwoman to bear his child (ick), but Power Ring is a coward who can barely use his weapon; what possible reason could he have to allow him to live?! Why did he allow the citizens of his Earth to live—did he consider their cruelty a form of strength? That doesn’t make a ton of sense to me, at least from the version of Ultraman we’ve seen throughout this issue.
There are a few parts of this issue I legitimately, unironically enjoy, though. While it’s only hinted at, it appears that Darkseid may have been responsible for the destruction of both Krypton-3 and Earth-3, and that’s an idea that intrigues me. This issue’s other saving grace is, of course, Ivan Reis’ excellent artwork. Reis’ work is some of the most iconic in DC’s roster, and the man draws both dramatic splashes and 10 panel pages full of exposition with equal aplomb. I’m most impressed by the page where Ultraman arrives at the Daily Planet.
Genetically, Ultraman is Superman, and his uniform and powers are practically identical to Superman’s, so it’s understandable that Jimmy (or the reader) might mistake Ultraman for him, yet Reis—through posture, facial expression, and use of shadow—makes it clear that this is not Superman with only a glance, and that’s impressive.
Ultimately, though, this issue is a let down. Beyond the faults listed above, this issue’s greatest weakness—and Forever Evil’s greatest weakness in general—is simply that the Justice League isn’t around. Without good guys, the evil of the Crime Syndicate is nearly unbearable. As a group of ultimate evil who can’t even stand to be around each other, the Crime Syndicate is an interesting contrast to the fundamental goodness and camaraderie of the Justice League, but that contrast is lost when the League is nowhere to be found (and when the League can barely get along to begin with, but that’s neither here nor there).
I do think that the cover—an homage to Jim Lee’s cover from way back in Issue 1—is pretty rad though.
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