Having only recently re-joined the JLA in order to lead it, Batman is about to face as stern a test as you could wish for outside of nine rounds with Darkseid.
It shouldn’t be quite this dangerous to go hunting in Maine, but, when you add in falling satellites to an area already made famous by writers like Stephen King and H P Lovecraft, I guess a few fatalities are only to be expected. We open the issue with a glorious splash page from Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray which is accompanied by the kind of portentous third person narration 80s comics are all about. Of particular note is the sentence “Unseen by the radar of two nations, molten at temperatures hot enough to vaporise flesh and blood, changing direction as if guided by some invisible force, it hurtles to ground in a remote wilderness: the once-elegant remains of the Justice League satellite.” A triumvirate of fronted adjectivals; powerful words like “molten”, “hurtles” and “vaporise”; a colon: this sentence is perhaps the epitome of dramatic comics narration. The art it refers to is luridly, gloriously straightforward; the glowing embers of the wrecked satellite (it’s been in that condition for about twenty issues at this point) smash into the ground sending, in the foreground, trees flying. A bolder opening to a comic it is hard to imagine.
It’s followed by a scene set the next morning in which a hunter (all double chin, moustache, bandana and lifesaver jacket) and his dog are transfixed by some sort of energy beam that renders them a pair of silhouetted skeletons loosely surrounded by a magenta glow. This beam, of course, comes from Despero and it is painful. At one point during his interrogation of the unnamed hunter, Despero bemoans the fact that the man’s “pain and fear” are blocking his thoughts. Best turn off the torture ray then, eh, Despero? You’d have thought so, but, no, it’s just the cue for Despero to take the information he wants (Justice League-specific information) from the man’s mind directly, dissolving his physical form in the process.
This is, to say the least… unsettling. Well, for the reader at least. Despero is just interested in the information and, having determined that the League that sentenced him to Takron-Galtos is gone and that a new League has taken its place, he decides to take his revenge on the newcomers. Because a somewhat unjust revenge is better than no revenge at all, obviously.
At this point, you might expect the narrative to shift to the unwitting objects of Despero’s ire, but you’d be mistaken. Gerry Conway’s got a number of plates a-spinning and, with one eye on a plotline that’s not going to reach its conclusion for another few issues, he teases us with a three page interlude featuring Zatanna, who we last saw naked and strapped to a device that was extracting her DNA in order to pass her powers on to the enigmatic ‘Adam’. In this section, Zatanna manages, despite the pain band around her head making it impossible to focus properly, to get out of bed and walk down a hallway towards a laboratory where Adam is undergoing some sort of process to make him more magically powerful. Zatanna is intercepted by her former tenant Sheri and some other acolytes of Adam, one of whom slams her against the wall thus rendering her, once again, unconscious. The sequence is nicely paced and does a good job of building up a sense of threat for Zatanna personally and the League more generally. Plus, charismatic cult leaders who experiment on themselves are always interesting.
We then get a rather pleasant bit of character interaction between the out-of-costume Batman and Vixen. They’re dining at a swanky restaurant in Gotham and, to be honest, look like a pretty good couple. Mari McCabe has one of the most unique and instantly recognisable hair dos in the whole of the DC universe, but the restaurant’s clientele seems to be rather relaxed about it. The conversation drifts towards Bruce Wayne’s love life and the not especially groundbreaking observation that Batman prevents Bruce from having any kind of stable relationship. When Bruce opines that sometimes he thinks “there’s no Bruce Wayne; only the Batman and his… shadow”, however, the script touches on something approaching profundity – or, at least, it asks interesting questions about the relationship between Wayne and his alter ego that arguably form the core of the character. As potentially interesting as this all is, it’s doomed to be interrupted by the arrival of Despero.
Now, I know I bang on a lot about the joys of third person narration, but there’s an example here of just how effective it can be. The bottom of page eight ends with “And they do forget, for a little while…” and, when we turn the page over, we get the grimly regretful “Such a little while…” over a panel of Mari and Bruce reacting to a sudden rumbling sound. Artists McDonnell and Wray then treat us to a huge explosion in the middle of Central Park (sorry, not Central Park – whatever Central Park is in Gotham. Gotham Park, probably. I don’t know…) which is rather impressive. Then things start to spiral out of control.
I must admit I like the fact that Conway and crew decide to show us Mari and Bruce changing into their costumes on the fly. I like too the inner narration from Mari, reflecting that, yes, the Batman is ‘real’ to Bruce in a way that Bruce Wayne can never be. It’s an effective bit of characterisation.
A quick word on the art – or, more specifically, the colouring by industry stalwart Gene D’Angelo. There’s a wonderfully hellish lurid quality to the art from the moment that Despero hits the park. It’s excellent and the images of Batman and Vixen heading into battle amidst a hail of glowing embers emphasise their heroism. That heroism is even more apparent when Despero emerges from the flames to swat the heroes aside. Batman’s fortunate enough to catch a nearby tree branch, but Vixen has to concentrate to summon the spirit of some kind of bird to carry her to safety. It’s a close run thing, too, as she still ends up in the park’s lake, which is admittedly better than hitting the ground.
The action becomes decidedly surreal at this point as Batman faces Despero alone only to see Despero’s face start to dissolve before his eyes and the familiar Gotham topography transform into a nightmarish world of hellfire-spewing fissures and a demonic mastodon-like creature that makes short work of the Bat. Despero picks up Batman and starts to gloat, gleaning from Batman’s mind that the rest of the League has been summoned before noticing that something else is happening in the detective’s head. He is far too slow to recognise it as an impulse to attack and Batman’s fist connects with Despero’s face in one of the highlight panels of the issue. For a split second, there really does seem to be the possibility that Batman might die, as a decidedly piqued Despero tosses Batman aside and declares he’ll “pluck out [his] eyes… and crush them like eggs beneath [his] feet”. Nice.
Vixen saves Batman by catching Despero off-balance and pushing him into the big column of energy behind him. Job done? Er no. Announcing that he is “no longer… flesh as you know flesh” but instead “energy and hate incarnate”, Despero strides from the light towards a grim-faced Vixen and Batman. The next panel is a full-page splash of a huge explosion over the New York (sorry, Gotham) skyline; the words “I am Despero the reborn!” emerge from the explosion lettered in such a way as to suggest that, wherever you are in the city, you will have heard them quite distinctly. Batman and Vixen are in a lot of trouble.
Where on earth is the rest of the league?
Well, as might be expected, they’ve gathered at the league’s cave-based headquarters, wondering who sent the emergency signal. (No one’s on monitor duty, it would seem.) Vibe thinks it’s all part of yet another training exercise set up by Batman, but the Martian Manhunter points out that Gotham is cut off and that the teleport link to the city is now dead. The league take a ride in a helicopter to find out what’s going on.
Once again, the artwork really comes through here. The panel showing the helicopter approaching a Gotham in flames is impressive: a cordon of ships blockades the harbour; the JLA’s helicopter is in the foreground heading towards the city; a further chopper hovers just ahead of it; the city beyond it is engulfed in flames and explosions. The chopper pilot helpfully explains to the Martian Manhunter that Despero has somehow transformed the citizens of Gotham into demonic creatures. The helicopter drops the League off close to the energy barrier that is keeping Gotham sealed off. The hazy outline of transformed Gothamites can just be seen through the flames.
Needless to say, flames are something of a problem for the Martian Manhunter, but he overcomes his initial trepidation and gets on with the job of analysing the barrier, determining that it is vibrating at a specific frequency that Vibe can consequently disrupt. The League makes its way through the barrier, fights past a few ‘demons’ and then, just as the Martian Manhunter is pointing out that it’s all been too easy, the heroes come face to face with… Despero.
Now, by the standards of 21st century comic book storytelling, it has arguably taken too long to get to this point, but the comic has been, I think, pretty enjoyable. There’s a lot going on in this issue and pretty much all of it is well-written. There’s a clear sense of building to a climax throughout the issue. Conway gets his Zatanna interlude out of the way quickly before concentrating on a rather affecting bit of character interaction between Batman and Vixen and then moving on to the main plot. The preliminary encounter between Despero, Batman and Vixen is pretty exciting (that punch is wonderful!) and the sight of the pair of Leaguers subdued and imprisoned behind Despero on the final page is chilling in a decidedly gothic manner.
That’s not to say that the issue is perfect. There are one or two minor issues with the art (McDonnell gets Mari and Bruce’s positions confused during the restaurant sequence, for example) and there’s just a little too much recap when the League get together prior to flying out. It’s worth remembering, though, that this is a monthly title and some of the dialogue serves as a useful reminder to some ongoing issues within the League – although they do seem to be way too relaxed about Zatanna not showing up for what could well be this version of the League’s biggest challenge.
On the whole, though, this is an engaging mix of character beats and all-out action. Despero is supremely worthy of the slow introduction he’s had over the last few issues; the ease with which he dispatches Batman and Vixen is thrilling, particularly given that both of them are presented as very proficient in the use of their abilities. That final splash page is mouth-wateringly good, too. All in all, this is an excellent issue from an oft-forgotten era of DC’s flagship team title.