Underworld Unleashed was one of those trades that I went into completely blind. I didn’t recognize the main villain on the cover, nor did I have any indication of what the story arc would be. I opened this book utterly unaware of what I was about to read, and as it turns out, that was for the best.
The premise is laid out quite nicely. Neron, a villain who is also referred to as the devil himself, summons heroes and villains alike to hell, in order to offer them a deal: their heart’s desire in exchange for their souls.
He makes a pretty compelling offer.
Unsurprisingly, many agree to these terms, selling their souls for the strength and power they’ve always desired. We learn all of this through Trickster, a B-level villain from the olden days who serves as a sort of narrator for this story.
As the story progresses, we see a number of characters battling the disasters than have sprung up on Earth as a result of Neron’s interference, as well as a group of Justice League members going into Hell itself. Their journey is all to save Superman, whom Neron claims to have captured. As the man of steel hasn’t been seen for some time, it is accepted that Neron must have him, and our heroes set out to save him in any way possible.
The explanation given is that Neron wants a soul that is completely pure, as it gives him the greatest power. After all, who’s soul is purer than Superman’s?
At this point I was already hooked on the story, but then something surprising happened. It turns out, Superman’s was not the soul Neron wanted; it was Captain Marvel’s.
I love me some Billy Batson, so I was thrilled to see him taking center stage in a story for a change. In most of these crossover stories I’ve read he may make an appearance, but it’s never anything beyond making an innocent remark along the lines of, “Holy moley!” For once Captain Marvel’s power and, more importantly, his innocence come into play. I was excited to see his strengths serve a larger purpose in the story than they usually do. So many comics plant one of the “trinity” at their forefront that it was refreshing to see a less-publicized character take center stage.
The fact that it was Captain Marvel was just icing on the cake.
The status quo is returned by the end of the trade, with Neron being defeated (at least for now). This story was far more entertaining than I would have thought had I read a description beforehand. A great number of classic DC villains make an appearance here, including Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, and Gorilla Grodd. Seeing such characters and actually knowing who they are made me grateful for having read the Golden and Silver Age comics on “the shelf”. These characters may not play huge roles today, but they were significant enough when comics were still a new artform, and they helped shape so many future DC characters. It’s nice to see that writers and artists haven’t completely forgotten them, and while they may not be the primary villains in a story, their inclusion remains significant.
The artwork and overall story were excellent, and yet one rather random and innocuous detail stood out to me while reading: The brief yet powerful appearance of the Joker.
Joker pops up early in the story, as a sort of lapdog for Neron (along with Lex Luthor and a few other villains) who traded in his soul for his heart’s desire. Trickster has already seen Neron himself as well as every other villain helping him, and remains fairly nonplussed by their appearances. He is only thrown off when he sees Joker sitting before him:
Tricker’s brief account of Joker is enough to solidify him as one of the most insane, formidable foes in the DC universe. Trickster has just faced Neron, Gorilla Grodd, and Lex Luthor among others, yet it is the clown prince of crime who leaves him feeling nervous. I love the line, “When villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories.” It not only fits Joker perfectly, but it shows what an extended reach he has within this world. Even villains he has never directly dealt with are scared of him. He’s not a man to be taken lightly, even in the shadow of the devil himself.
This brief aside would have been more than enough to detail Joker’s character for the sake of the story, yet the comic does us one better. After a brief conversation, Joker reveals what he asked for in exchange for his soul.
I couldn’t help it, I absolutely loved this scene. It highlights the Joker’s personality so perfectly, emphasizing his absurd behavior and the fact that he never truly seems to be after anything in particular: wealth, power, glory; they’re all second-string to whatever whim might float into his mind at a given moment. Although these scenes don’t directly play into the overall story, they help round out the narrative, allowing brief cameos from a variety of villains while also showing just how far-reaching Neron’s grasp is.
I’m not generally a fan of brief crossover events such as this, but I actually found this story to be thoroughly entertaining. The artwork is beautifully rendered, and the story had enough detail and obscure character appearances to keep me interested. Had another creative team been in charge of this storyline, I could easily have glossed over it, finding nothing memorable or remarkable within its pages. Instead, I’m left eagerly wondering if I’ll encounter Neron again on “the shelf”, along with all of the classic Golden Age characters included in this story.