Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Villains Take On The Chaotically Neutral Elements In The DC Universe In Villains United!

The Good: Well-written, Interesting characters, Consistently good artwork
The Bad: Oddly limited scope, Requires a number of other volumes to truly appreciate this story, Far too safe (not terribly graphic).
The Basics: Villains United is part of the exciting build-up to Infinite Crisis that worked well for fans of the second-string superheroes in the DC Comics universe.

I wish I could remember what story the Secret Six were in when I first read them. I am sure they were a part of some story that Gail Simone – whose work I generally enjoy – had written. I know, however, that by the time I encountered them in The Black Ring – Volume 2 (reviewed here!), I was not a fan. So, when I finally got my hands on the trade paperback anthology Villains United, my instant reaction was to feel disappointment seeing that it had a lot to do with a changing of the guard within the Secret Six (it may even be the first volume with them considering how the story develops). Whatever the other book was that had the Secret Six in it that I read, though, ruined the “surprise” reversal within Villains United for me, though it actually was not enough (at all!) to spoil the book for me.

In fact, the most pleasant surprise for me, as a fan of the DC Universe’s villains, but not of the Secret Six was that Villains United did not suck. In fact, Gail Simone adds to her record of successes with Villains United. That said, Villains United is one of several components in the Countdown To Infinite Crisis event. For those who are looking to truly enjoy the richness and scope of Infinite Crisis (reviewed here!), Villains United has a thread or two that is utterly pointless, except in the context of that larger event. So, for those who want to enjoy just a single, solid, story, the extradimensional aspects of the story and the exceptionally minor, late-in-the-book subplot involving the appearance of Pariah, are just going to distract readers.

On its own, though, Villains United is a surprisingly compelling story of two groups of villains who come into conflict with one another on the eve of an immense conflagration in the DC Universe.

Lex Luthor is assembling a team, a Society actually. Sending lackeys out to recruit on his behalf, Lex Luthor has created a society democratically led by a council that includes himself, Doctor Psycho, Black Adam, the Calculator, Deathstroke, and Talia Al Ghul. His junior members bring villains like Prometheus, Cicada, the Gentleman Ghost, and Knockout into the Society on the idea that the Society can prevent the Justice League Of America from collectively wiping the memories of the villains. The recruiting effort runs into an unlikely roadblock when Blake, “Catman,” resists joining. When Scandal and Deadshot visit Catman at the Medikwe Game Preserve, they get a completely different response from him.

Joining with the five other people working for the mysterious Mockingbird – Cheshire, Parademon, and Ragdoll – Catman and the Secret Six are captured while trying to hijack the contents of a boat that is supposed to be loaded with Thanagarian weapons. Managing to escape after protracted torture, Luthor’s Society begins to second guess their leader when the Secret Six’s resistance continues to prove more effective than the Society. After Cheshire beds Blake, the Secret Six begins to fall apart and the machinations of Mockingbird slowly come to light.

Villains United is fun because pretty much anything can happen to any of the characters and because they are minor characters and/or villains, it is hard for viewers to empathize with them to the point where they will care who lives or dies, at least at the beginning of the story. Gail Simone, as is characteristic of her writing ability, creates another memorable volume with fun dialogue and some decent initial characterizations. As one who has read other volumes and loathed Ragdoll, I was surprised that Villains United actually gave him a surprisingly compelling backstory and an adversary who was worthwhile for his backstory.

Unfortunately, Simone pulls her punches as the volume goes on. After graphic torture scenes of the Secret Six, Simone has an execution that is handled “off screen,” arguably to make Deadshot seem less villainous. This penchant for not illustrating the murders – as well as leaving Scandal getting stabbed through the arm as a bloodless attack – becomes seriously problematic because it becomes impossible to tell whether or not the characters one is rooting for at that point (yes, Simone gets us rooting for the Secret Six) is actually out of danger. The climactic battle occurs without most of the adversaries being permanently dispatched and that lessens the impact of the book.

That said, what is in the panels is exceptionally and consistently well-rendered. Villains United seems to lessen the power and impact of Black Adam, though it reasserts Lex Luthor as one of the most powerful and smart villains in the DC Universe. Scandal, Cheshire, Knockout and the other female characters look incredible and the rest of the characters are consistently and clearly illustrated. Villains United has a decent sense of movement for the story, though the battles are choppy with frame to frame movement. Even so, the vivid coloring and clear characters are a step above many other graphic novels of the time.

In its trade paperback anthology form, Villains United includes a visual guide to the villains of the DC universe included in the book, as well as a cover gallery of the variant covers to the six books that made up the original limited series this book anthologizes. With both the bonus features and the primary story worthwhile, Villains United is a decent addition to the library of anyone who loves the DC Universe.

For other DC Universe graphic novels that focus on the villains of the DC Universe, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Injustice League
The Flash: Rogues


For other graphic novel reviews, please check out my Graphic Novel Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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