Marvel's "Dark Reign" storyline has a few major structural problems.
First, there's the sheer inadvisability of following up a year-long storyline about heroes possibly being replaced by evil version of themselves with another year-long storyline about heroes definitely being replaced by evil versions of themselves. Yes, it helps underscore how dire a situation Marvel's heroes have found themselves in, but it also risks boring the audience and also neutering the Skrulls and Thunderbolts by overexposing their central premises.
But the bigger problem is that "Dark Reign" has effectively neutered Marvel's supervillains. Think about it - what have the Dark Avengers done to distinguish themselves from their New and Mighty counterparts? They're still fighting (other) supervillains and saving the world week in and week out. Heck, in some ways, they're actually an improvement on their predecessors. I don't see Norman Osborn throwing American citizens into an extradimensional prison without a trial. At their worst, they seem utterly concerned about containing casualties in their battles, but they don't seem to be racking them up at an unreasonable rate either.
So if the Dark Avengers and the regular Avengers are functionally equivalent, do we really care that the fake Ms. Marvel is a manipulative slut, that Spider-Man has more pills in his system than Anna Nicole Smith, or that the fake Wolverine is a former murderer (albeit one who's killed a lot fewer people than his father)? If anything, their impure motivations make these characters more interesting to read about.
Marvel seems to have belatedly realized this and is allowing a little old school villainy to emerge outside of the core Dark Reign books - the fake Ms. Marvel, for instance, gets to be gloriously evil in her own title even if she's a team player over in Dark Avengers. They've also released several mini-series showcasing their villains at their absolute worst. I'd like to discuss two of those today.
Lethal Legion #1-3
Written by Frank Tieri
Illustrated by Mateus Santolouco
Colored by Chris Sotomayor
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos (#1) and Joe Sabino (#2-3)
Their very names make men tremble - The Grim Reaper! Nekra! The Absorbing Man! Mr. Hyde! Tiger Shark! The Grey Gargoyle! Wonder Man! Together they are the Lethal Legion!
If you are a long-time Marvel reader you've spotted a problem with this premise right away: none of these villains are terribly interesting. The Grim Reaper has a pointlessly convoluted history and is really only useful as a Wonder Man villain. Nekra has spent her entire career subordinated to either the Mandrill or the Reaper. The Absorbing Man has his moments but hasn't really been interesting since the Secret Wars. Tiger Shark and Mr. Hyde are bland, generic characters with no real motivations. The Grey Gargoyle's one shining moment was when Evan Dorkin had him break off his weiner when jerking off. And Wonder Man is a second-string hero who just isn't interesting enough to hold down his own book. Any writer trying to make these characters seem threatening has his work cut out for him.
Frank Tieri certainly gives it the old college try. His conceit is that all of these characters have been wronged by Norman Osborn and have decided that they're not going to be playing by his rules any longer. Their combined might allows them to cut a bloody swath across Manhattan, kidnap Osborn, and drive the Dark Avengers to their knees before they're stopped.
Here's the next problem: this all happenes off-screen. Lethal Legion #1 starts with the Legion behind bars, trying to figure out which one of them betrayed them to Osborn. We get occasional flashbacks to their mad rampage, but for the most part the Legion are presented as broken men prone to panic attacks and catatonic crying jags. We're constantly told these are some of the most dangerous criminals who've ever lived, but we don't actually see them doing anything particularly vile. Only Mateus Santolouco's art manages to make them seem even remotely threatening.
Everything I love and hate about Santolouco's work is on display in this image. The Grim Reaper has a nice solidity to him, but he's placed on a background that's so detailed that he doesn't pop. The basic composition is simple and direct, but the execution is so haphazard that it doesn't control where your eye is being pulled across the page. The solidity of the underdrawing barely pokes through the sloppy, haphazard inking. Some of the nice tonal work in background is undercut by the choice of some chunky, distracting Photoshop brushes. And yet, there's an appealing energy just lurking below the surface - the Reaper's bugged-out eyes and hideous rictus manage to convey the menace that the rest of the picture only hints at. Santolouco clearly has some talent, and could be someone to watch if he can polish his compositional skills.
Here's the twist. It turns out the Lethal Legion was never a real threat - they're really a plot by Norman Orborn and the Grim Reaper to gather all the malcontented supervillains in one place so they can be crushed like a bug. Thematically, this is brilliant. Dramatically, it's a total misfire. You have to believe for a second that the Lethal Legion was an actual menace, and the story structure and ending completely undercut that. What you're left with is a story about losers being losers, with all of the action off-camera. Who wants to read that?
Fortunately, Zodiac is much better.
Written by Joe Casey
Illustrated by Nathan Fox
Colored by Jose Villarubia
Lettered by Albert Deschene
If you thought that the Lethal Legion was a group of losers and has-beens, wait until you see gang Zodiac has put together. The Clown? Manslaughter Marsdale? The Trapster? Whirlwind? At first glance, these jokers couldn't pose a threat to the Great Lakes Avengers. No, scratch that - they couldn't pose a threat to the X-Babies.
Here's what Joe Casey understands that Frank Tieri doesn't: actions speak louder than words. A ten-time loser suddenly becomes a lot more threatening if you actually see him shooting people in the face. A never-was can be terrifying if you're watching him torture an enemy to death. And while folks like the Trapster and the Whirlwind might never give the Avengers or Fantastic Four a run for their money, they can still be a terrifying menace street-level heroes and normal folks.
And the mysterious Zodiac who's put this entire crew together? He's literally a nobody, whose unmasking at the end of the first issue carries no dramtic impact. But when we first see him he's busy slaughtering 100 HAMMER agents, and over the course of the series he recruits a fanatically loyal villain army, beats the Human Torch into a coma, blows up a hospital, reduces lower Manhattan to rubble, and steals a weapon of mass destruction that has the potential to devastate the entire universe. On the cover of the third issue, we see him cavorting in a ruined skyscraper that deliberately mimics the ruins of the World Trade Center. He may be a nobody, but he's a nobody that you should be terrified of.
And this is what Zodiac remembers and Dark Reign and Lethal Legion seems to have forgotten. The villains don't have to win, but they do have to actually be villanous every once in a while. What's the point of pulling the wool over everyone's eyes if you don't get to indulge yourself? Why bother to seize power if you don't actually get to enjoy it? Why take over the system when you can be your own system?
Nathan Fox's art is actually a large part of the book's appeal as well. Like Santolouco, he's got a lot of rough edges but a lot of energy and appeal that makes him worth watching. And like Santolouco, his primary weakness is in composition.
Fox's obvious influence would seem to be Paul Pope - especially in the looseness of his style and the haphazard way he strews details across his image. But Pope's work is deceptive, in that what seems to be random and loose is actually tightly subordinated to the overall composition. Fox doesn't seem to have grasped that yet, and the overproliferation of details on the page above makes it very hard to read even though its basic composition is very simple. The most effective part? The contrast between the very busy panel of Red Ronin wrecking New York and the very empty panel of Zodiac in his clean, crisp, suit.
Anyway, it's a great mini with good writing and art, filled with villains actually being villanous. It's probably the best thing to come out of Dark Reign. I can't wait to see more of these characters in the future. Even, God help me, the Clown.
Thing About My Baby, It Don't Matter If She's Black Or White
So, Nekra. Judging from her depiction in Lethal Legion (and the appearance of her "daughter" in Zodiac), there's no one at Marvel who remembers that she's an albino black woman and not a pale white chick. Which is amazing, because this is the only part of her origin that matters. Well, except for her parents being exposed to radiation. And teaming up with the Mandrill. But you know what I mean.