Saturday, April 30, 2011

DC Universe Online Legends Volume 1 - Alternate Universe DC Adventures Begin!

The Good: VERY engaging storyline, Moments of artwork
The Bad: Character development is nonexistent, Inconsistent artwork.
The Basics: In a darkened future, Lex Luthor marshals the surviving super forces to try to save Earth from Brainiac while the story of how the Justice League fell is revealed in the first volume of DC Online Universe Legends!

For comic book enthusiasts, it is very easy to accept altered realities and variations on the popular universes populated by characters they have fallen in love with. With comic book universes, there is some sense to the idea that alternate universe storylines would occur. Fans of super heroes, science fiction and serialized works are often asked to hold on for long amounts of time to see how the characters develop. Considering that popular characters like Superman and Wonder Woman have been around since the 1940s and characters like the X-Men have been around since the 1960s, readers have a long time to develop attachments to characters and have a sense of patience to see how they develop. And in the meantime, they frequently have flights of fancy with those characters that are not, strictly speaking, canon. Some of the greatest graphic novels fall into this non-canonical place, like Kingdom Come (reviewed here!) or DC Elseworlds books like Wonder Woman: Amazonia (reviewed here!). So, it is utterly unsurprising that DC Comics would make a whole, massive yearlong crossover event out of what is clearly an alternate universe storyline. That storyline is DC Universe Online Legends and Volume 1 is soon-to-be-collected as DC Universe Online Legends - Volume 1.

DC Universe Online Legends is based upon a popular multi-player game and in print form it has been released as individual issues every two weeks through 2011 as a major DC Comics event. As such, DC drafted some of its best talent, most noticeably writers Marv Wolfman and Tony Bedard to write the continuing saga. It is worth noting up front that I have never played the multiplayer game upon which this is based and so this is a very pure review of the graphic novel which compiles issues 1 through 12.

Opening with "Legacy," Lex Luthor manages to kill Superman. As his climactic battle comes to an end, he learns that he has trusted in the wrong force to bring his victory about. Having allied himself with Brainiac, Lex Luthor built Exobytes and Enforcers for Brainiac. Using a suit built on Brainiac's Coulan technology, Lex Luthor discovers himself vulnerable to his ally and when Brainiac turns on him, it is only Black Adam's magic that allows him to escape Brainiac's clutches. Retreating, Luthor calls upon the world's surviving metahumans to regroup with him to save the planet.

Chapter two is "Control," and that finds Lex Luthor, Power Girl, Dr. Fate, Mr. Freeze, Solomon Grundy, Black Canary, Blue Beetle, the Atom, Cheetah and a Chinese hero in Luthor's secret bunker while Brainiac's forces strip the world of useful artifacts and technology. With their time running out, Luthor hatches a plan to defeat Brainiac while Brianiac's Exobytes absorb the DNA and powers of Earth's remaining metahumans. While Luthor watches from a safe distance, Black Canary's team heads to Metropolis to get a scan of Brainiac's ship, Mr. Freeze and Dr. Fate try to get a sample Exobyte and the Atom infiltrates one of Luthor's production facilities where Brainiac's Enforcers are being built. While the Atom goes after the ace in the hole, Luthor recalls how Brainiac duped him and thwarted Superman's first attempt to stop Brainiac's invasion when Brainiac abducted the Daily Planet building in Metropolis as a specimen for calibrating his Exobytes against.

The third chapter, "Betrayal" has Power Girl learning that Lex Luthor has successfully killed Superman. Upon learning that, the frail alliance between the surviving heroes and villains is strained, but Luthor pulls his team together by admitting the truth. With the Atom holding the keys to defeating Luthor once the invasion is over, the team prepares to strike Brainiac. Back in the past, Lois Lane discovers the Swan Building has been split in half and the workers at the Daily Planet stand in fear for what is coming from Brainiac.

In "Strike Force," the Justice League attempts to stop Brainiac following the incursion at Metropolis is explored. Superman passionately tries to marshal the forces to rescue Lois, when Brianiac attacks the Watchtower! While the powerhouses of the JLA are taken out by the Exobytes, in the future, Luthor, the Atom and Black Canary launch an attack on Brainiac's mothership while Brianiac's robots lay waste to the others.

Chapter five, "Three Minutes," the Justice League of America Watchtower is overrun by the Exobytes, forcing the superheroes to withdraw before the asphyxiate. In the future, Luthor leads Black Canary and a wounded Atom into the heart of Brainiac's mothership, where they find the Yellow Lantern rings they need to defeat Brainiac! And Brainiac's ability to compromise Earth's defenses is explored when it is revealed how his forces overran the Watchtower!

The sixth chapter is "Downfall" and it opens with Brainiac using the exploding wreckage of the Watchtower as a weapon to destroy the Justice League! In the process, how Lex Luthor was wounded and became dependent upon the power suit is revealed. In the darkened future, Luthor, Atom and Black Canary load up with their Yellow Lantern rings and go on the offensive, not realizing that Brainiac has some surprises of his own!

Chapter seven, "Meanwhile" fills in the blanks on Batman in the darkened future.  Struck down by the Joker, Batman is left for dead until his remains are rescued by forced loyal to Luthor.  Batman escapes to Superman's Fortress Of Solitude where he concocts a plan to save the future, by sending Exobytes into the past to give humans metahuman powers, so they might resist.  But Luthor has a plan of his own and as Brainiac's forces turn toward Batman, Luthor stands to become Earth's savior!

The “Reconstruction” chapter happens entirely in the backstory time period, when the wounded Lex Luthor is saved by Brainiac. Crippled in the wake of the Watchtower’s destruction, Luthor is made into a cyborg and given access to Brainiac’s trophy room.

In "Anarchy At Arkham," Superman's recklessness begins to show as he becomes more and more upset over Lois missing, raids LexCorp. Live Wire attacks SuperGirl as a test for Brainiac to recalibrate his Exobytes for Kryptonians. Luthor restores the Daily Planet and in the process becomes a hero.

"Facts" finds Superman bitten by a modified Exobyte and worried. With Lois, Perry White and Jimmy Olson showing signs of mutations, Lex Luthor calls out Superman and the Justice League.

"Lost" has Lex Luthor enlisting the altered humans to form a new league - Luthor's Legion - as he discredits Superman. And at the climax, Luthor learns the truth he has only suspected before now about Clark Kent . . .

The volume concludes with Lex Luthor learning Clark Kent's metahuman identity and realizing that his plan may not achieve the goals that he desired.  Knowing Lois Lane will hate him for killing Superman, Lex Luthor works to save Superman, at least from himself.

Right off the bat, DC Online Universe Legends is engaging and it is cleverly written by two people who both know the universe they are playing in and have a sense of irony about it. So, for example, Luthor's escape pod in the first chapter sets up his story as one remarkably similar to that of Superman's exodus from the exploding Krypton. Visually, the gag works and readers who know and love the DC Universe will appreciate that type of parallel. It also sets the story up to be an appropriately epic plotline.

The book moves at a pretty incredible pace, but it is intensely focused on the plot, with pretty much no character development. So, for example, Power Girl falls in line with Luthor, even after realizing he killed Superman. There's no sense of catharsis and the fact that Palmer (the Atom) cedes control to Luthor is somewhat disappointing. Moreover, Lex Luthor does not seem more intelligent in this book, just the guy who has more information than the rest.

The artwork is of variable quality. While Luthor seems more stylized in his power suit, the artwork is consistent enough to make it clear that his left eye is now artificial and the characters are recognizable. But the artwork is occasionally glossed over and is not as deep or impressive as it could be. So, for example, in chapter four when the Justice League moves to deal with the Enforcers, Wonder Woman's costume lacks details and Superman appears more like Superboy in his face.

Unfortunately, what starts as a very engaging read becomes a little less compelling as it progresses.  In chapter seven, a whole load of "heroes" are introduced who have been given super powers through a choice.  This is part of the video games mechanic and the way it pops up in the book feels inorganic.

Ultimately, Volume 1 is two stories, one racing toward the beginning, the other exploring the consequences of Luthor's bad deal with Brainiac. There is enough to get one excited about where the story will go, despite it feeling like exactly what it is: a superhero story.

For other DC Universe graphic novels, please check out my reviews of:
Identity Crisis
Brightest Day Vol. 1


For other book reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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