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Infinite Crisis: Villains United (Review)

This month I’m taking a look at DC’s massive “Infinite Crisis” Event. Although it was all published in one massive omnibus, I’ll be breaking down the lead-in to the series to tackle each thread individually, culminating in a review of the event itself. Check back for more.

I have to admit that, as a rule, I have a great deal of respect for DC’s massive event-related tie-ins. Rather than typically offering expanded or deleted scenes from the main crossover, the tie-ins to their gigantic crossovers will frequently serve as prologues or epilogues to new concepts and relaunches. With Final Crisis, for example, Legion of Three Worlds served as prelude to a rebooted Legion of Superheroes and Rogues’ Revenge offered something of a hint of Geoff Johns’ return to The Flash. Infinite Crisis: Villains United is no different. While nominally the story of evil Alexander Luthor Jr.’s evil Secret Society, it’s actually something of a stealth pilot for Gail Simone’s Secret Six, introducing the characters and the concepts that would define the series.

Just an average day at the House of Secrets…

The Secret Six, in case anyone is wondering, is a group of six DC supervillains who hang out together. Occasionally they take mercenary jobs, from time-to-time they help each other out, and sometimes they just chill out in each other’s company. The group isn’t exactly known for featuring “big name” villains – so don’t expect characters like the Joker or Two-Face or Sinestro – but instead seems focused around taking various low-tier villains who perhaps haven’t enjoyed as much success as they might, and giving them an opportunity to shine. It’s a nice little concept, and one which makes very good use of the shared universe that these comic book characters inhabit.

The series is charmingly aware of the fact that it’s not necessarily dealing with character who have a lot of name recognition. Mockingbird, the group’s anonymous leader, isn’t exactly sugar-coating it when he remarks, “You are, each of you, useless. You have, with all your talents, all your gifts… accomplished nothing.” When Luthor’s Secret Society faces potential problems with recruiting due to their resistance, he concedes it’s especially embarrassing because “the truth is, most of our number have never even heard of most of the six.”

Luthor deals with a Pariah…

Indeed, the series’ central character is Thomas Blake. He is the Batman villain known as “Catman.” Yep, he’s not exactly going to be headlining the next film, to be honest. The character was introduced in the sixties as a supervillain alternative to Batman. To the extent that he actually had a “Catmobile.” He’s been through various sorts of painful reimaginings since then (including woman beater and serial killer), but ended up as something of a joke.

“I once fought Batman to a standstill,” he explains. “And yet, years later, I was reduced to a weeping mess in my own home by Green Arrow.” In fact, even Dr. Psycho seems to think of Blake as something of a joke, reacting with great offense to the idea Blake would turn down an invitation to join the Society. “What? I can’t go back to my associates and tell them I was turned down by Catman, Blake. Darkseid, maybe. But not a perpetual bile-stained amateur like Catman.”

Na-na-na-na-na, Catman!

And yet, this version of Catman is not to be dismissed. He’s been through “a transformative event.” Talia Al-Ghul, daughter of Ra’s Al-Ghul and mother to Batman’s son, even remarks, “For a moment, he reminded me of a very great man.” The shadow of Batman hangs pretty heavily over the miniseries, even though the character doesn’t appear. Deadshot is terrified at the idea of going to Gotham, “I joined for a piece of Luthor, not the Bat.”

You’ll note, for example, that the Society features two Batman counterparts. There’s obviously Catman, but there’s also Deadshot. Both very mortal men at the peak of their physical ability, but with their own issues. Indeed, Bane would feel right at home, with the character intended as yet another villainous counterpart to the Bat.

Shooting from the wrist…

The Six are defined by the fact that they are relatively small fry in the supervillain world, mere mortals competing against people who can control the weather and grow to huge heights. “I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a while, Deadshot,” the Weather Wizard observes at one point. “You’re good with a gun… but people like Polaris and me? We’re more like gods.” Like Batman, the characters in the group compete with those way out of their league, and rely on their cunning and fortitude to survive. I think that’s a large part of the appeal in the group that Simone has crafted – there’s very much a sense that these six people are fighting against a world far more powerful than they are. It’s easier to root for the little guys.

It helps that Simone manages to characterise each of her leads relatively well and efficiently. Although the space is somewhat minimal, she sketches out each character in significant detail, giving us insights and motivations. Some characters are completely beyond redemption, while others are strangely sympathetic. I like the combination of Ragdoll and Parademon, the two quirkiest of the group, who have struck up a very strange and unique bond by virtue of being outsiders. Scandal Savage is dealing with her father, while Deadshot is perhaps more noble than he lets on and Thomas Blake… well… “You want to be one of them,” Cheshire suggests, “The ‘heroes’.”As Simone points out, the heroes are so morally compromised that there really isn’t too big a distance between them and Blake (at least).

Villains galore!

In fact, aside from the eponymous six, the miniseries does a very good job of illustrating how a group of supervillains might work. The supervillain team-up is one of those fictional constructs I find absolutely fascinating, because it’s so ridiculously unlikely based on sheer group dynamics. The idea that a bunch of meglomaniacs could function well enough together to organise is incredibly counter-intuitive, yet it’s a regular trope in comic books and fiction. It’s fascinating. Simone, in fairness to her, recognises the inherent instability of such a group.

“Do you realise, Doctor,” Luthor asks rhetorically at one point, “that over a third of the most promising recruits for what we’re trying to accomplish have at least an aggressive, sometimes psychotic reaction to authority figures of all kinds? How will they respond if we become that authority?” In fact, the strike on Arkham is explained as a diversionary tactic, rather than a recruitment drive, because Luthor realises that most of Gotham’s resident psychotics aren’t exactly team-orientated individuals. “Arkham was always intended to be a distraction. Most of those ‘people’ would be unmanageable in our organisation.”

Cheaper by the half-dozen?

Simone does well to pitch the Secret Society as an actual Society, rather than an “anti-Justice League.” She has her character pitch it as something like an evil union, a response to the events of Identity Crisis, where the superheroes were revealed to have mind-wiped several major supervillains during the Silver Age. This acts as a lightening rod, and actually makes sense within the context of the story. “So it’s protection?” one recruit asks. “Against what those bastards did to Doctor Light?” It’s telling that the supervillains of Infinite Crisis are far more organised than the heroes. While Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman fight, Luthor has found a way to pull his bad guys together.

In fact, Villains United seems almost to serve as a line in the sand for DC’s supervillain community, an attempt to pull several character back from the abyss that they are staring into. It seems like a conscious attempt to acknowledge that there are limits to which particular villains can be pushed, without becoming completely unsalvageable. “I’m a liar,” Luthor confesses at one point, “Not a childkiller.” Doctor Light, the supervillain rapist, is treated as a pariah by his fellow villains, only tolerated because of his symbolic importance.

I’m not sure what the secret is…

The series is just a little bit too caught up in continuity, with various character never properly introduced, and key players being treated as if the audience should already know them. The events of the miniseries do tie in rather directly with Infinite Crisis, which is – I suppose – to be expected. (Even if I preferred the looser tie-ins to Final Crisis, for example.) These are small problems, and I look forward to when the series gets the opportunity to stand on its own two feet.

With Simone’s Secret Six ending, I have to confess I’m disappointed a nice omnibus collection hasn’t been announced, like that for Geoff Johns’ Flash or James Robinson’s Starman. The only way to read it in trades at the moment is with these very silly paperbacks, which is a bit nuts – especially given the critical praise that the run has received. If anyone from DC is reading this, go on – give us a nice hardcover collection for the book shelves. Please?

They live in a house, a very big house in the country…

I’ve always admired the way that DC makes a point to use events to let writers tell their own stories, and it’ great that Infinite Crisis served as a launching pad for Secret Six. In fact, along with 52, it might be one of the best legacies of the event. (And the event’s indirect legacies include Paul Dini on Detective Comics, Grant Morrison on Batman and Richard Donner and Geoff Johns on Action Comics.) I think that Villains United illustrates the potential that occasionally stems from these gigantic crossovers.

You might be interested in our other reviews relating to Infinite Crisis:

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