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October 16, 2018

Exhuming Promethea and The Authority – Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt #1 v Justice League # 24 (comparative review)


Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt #1 v Justice League # 24
DC Comics, March 2017
Writer: Scott Snyder (Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt); Steve Orlando (Justice League #24)

American superhero comic book publisher DC Comics has been spruiking a story called Dark Knights: Metal for several months. One episode in the story, entitled Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt, appears to be something like the top of the mad rainbow arc of a bizarre but engaging story. In the same month, however, DC Comics also released the jarring Justice League of America # 24 , clearly both climax and conclusion to an ongoing storyline, written by Steve Orlando.

World Building v World Bridging

There is a stark difference in marketing approach between the world’s two largest comic book markets, Japan and the United States. In Japan, interactions between characters from different titles but issues from the same publisher is unthinkable: for example, the characters from One Piece will never interact with the characters from Tokyo Ghoul. The publisher, Shonen Jump, would not follow the American tradition of creating some sort of interdimensional gate to enable the two casts to brawl or create friendships, enmity, or doomed romances between two characters from the different stories.

The two major American publishers has no such reservations. Indeed, the degree of interaction is so pronounced that the respective titles of DC Comics and Marvel Comics can no longer exist in isolation: the Marvel Comics’ character Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, for example, recently included other Marvel Comics’ characters to both propel but also be the substance of the storyline. Further, the characters from each title have, since the 1940s in the case of DC Comics, formed groupings, and these groupings have been the subject of their own respective titles (Justice Society of America, The Avengers, and so on).

And then in extension of this, the American publishers frequently – at least annually – launch stories which deliberately hopscotch around various titles. The expectation is a “sampling effect”: readers will become intrigued by or attached to a particular character as a consequence of the exposure through the crossover storyline, and then continue to follow that character’s adventures within that particular title.

Dark Knights: Metal is an evolution of this concept, whereby the publisher repeatedly pushes out first issues rather than tying the stories together within a series or even jumping around between titles. Such is the consumer power of buying the first issue of a publication that Dark Knights: Metal thus far has spawned seven first issues in order to promote sales. But the crossover concept goes much further again in this set of titles. Instead of titles being subject to a crossover, the characters themselves are literally crossed-over. We explain this further, below.

American Tomb Raiders

The American publishers also have no qualms about pillaging the creative crypt. By this we mean the willingness of the editors to integrate interesting concepts from long-ended titles into current titles.

We have pondered this recently in our critique of Doomsday Clock #1-3. But the idea is hardly new. In 2014, for example, writer Keith Giffen absorbed some of the concepts of the 1980s iconic comic book Camelot 3000 into his science fiction superhero comic, JLA 3000 #10.

In both Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt #1 and Justice League # 24, the publisher has done precisely this by adding elements from two titles which had their heyday in the early 2000s, Promethea and The Authority.

Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt #1 does this in an oblique way. It is a mad adventure, entirely reminiscent of the madcap and psychedelic work of Scottish writer Grant Morrison. (Mr Morrison wrote the series Seven Soldiers of Victory for DC Comics from 2005-2006, which also featured a hunt of superheroes, but by sinister magical creatures which ritually raze the Earth every few thousand years).

Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt #1 features a crew of superpowered villains chasing an interdimensional craft called the Ultima Thule, piloted by three superheroes, Cyborg, Raven, and the Flash. In this review we concentrate upon the stars of the title, the villains.

One King, Six Knights

These villains are all parallel universe versions of DC Comics’ premier superhero, Batman. Each revenant version of Batman is integrated with another DC Comics’ character. This is a very novel form of crossover, and we commend writer Scott Snyder for his innovative thinking around this.

So, the players are:

a. The Drowned, incorporating the marine superhero Aquaman;

b. The Dawnbreaker, a bleak version of space policeman Green Lantern (the introductions of both of these characters are the subject of a recent review);

c. the Murder Machine, which is a hybrid of Cyborg and Batman (again, the subject of a recent review);

d. the Red Death, a concept featuring the Batman having subsumed the powers of the speedster superhero, called The Flash (another first issue we reviewed);

e. the Devestator, whereby Batman has seized the godlike abilities of Wonder Woman’s adversary, Ares, God of War;

f. a combination of Superman’s erstwhile murderer, Doomsday, and Batman;

g. and finally, the gang’s leader, the Batman Who Laughs. In this scenario the Batman’s insane nemesis, the Joker, has infected the Batman with the Joker’s homicidal madness. We have expressed our doubts about this character in a previous review and will deal with the character’s origin issue in a future review. This Batman calls the ensemble of parallel universe antagonists, “The Knights”.

The Return of the Carrier

This horrible and corrupted crew, each plucked from a dying universe, are ferried in their transdimensional chase of the Ultima Thule by an enormous vehicle called The Carrier. The Carrier will be familiar to readers of The Authority. The Authority was a title created by English writer Warren Ellis in 1998, and propelled to global attention by Scottish writer Mark Millar. The Authority was an unorthodox superhero team which had no compunction about interfering in global policing and with no respect for the veil of national sovereignty.

The team could be brutal. Under Mr Miller’s pen, the team invade Jakarta and machine-gun the upper echelon of the Indonesian Government in retaliation for genocide in East Timor. With Mr Ellis at the helm, The Authority interfered in a parallel earth and submerged the entire Italian peninsula in an effort to wipe out a highly malevolent alien-human hybrid race. The credo of The Authority was “There has to be a world worth saving”, and indeed the tombstone epitaph of The Authority’s first leader, Jenny Sparks, was, “Bugger this. I want a better world.” (We will analyse the geopolitical significance of The Authority another time, but we note that the last time we wrote about The Authority was in respect of Mr Ellis’ latest superhero project for DC Comics, The Wildstorm.)

The Authority used the Carrier as a headquarters, as a refuge for the oppressed, and as a mechanism to traverse the multiverse. The Carrier is a shiftship, a conveyance capable of navigating an in-between place called the Bleed. It is described in The Authority as fifty miles long and powered by a harnessed and benign baby universe.

Within Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt #1, the Carrier is enslaved by The Devestator, who cruelly whips the sentient baby universe into submission, scoffing at its cries for mercy.

The Carrier’s appearance is a surprise within this story. The Batman Who Laughs alludes to the Carrier’s history: “We shall show them a darker authority,” the character ruminates to his subordinates during the chase of the Ultima Thule.

Interestingly, given the Carrier’s original crew consisted of super-powered altruistic zealots, some of the Knights are uncertain in their mission. One, The Drowned, openly wonders whether their present task is appropriate to their cause. She is threatened by the Devestator, but in turn she rebuts him, affirming her commitment to burn the multiverse to save her world. Here, The Drowned’s passion does not seem too far removed from that of The Authority’s willingness to drown millions in order to protect their own world.

And then, upon boarding the Ultima Thule, the Red Death is somehow turned by The Flash. Recovering from his subversion into a villain, the Red Death (suddenly and improbably garbed in gold) engages in Thermopylaean rearguard action, saving Cyborg, The Flash, and Raven from death. The Batman Who Laughs predicted the Red Death’s failure to conform, because he is only “half” Bruce Wayne. And with that, the Red Death is horribly murdered. It is very unclear what has happened in that sequence.

Some of the story is equally baffling. The conclusion of the issue sees the return of the themes from the 1999 crossover event, JLApe: Gorilla Warfare!, a weird storyline involving DC Comics’ superheroes as monkeys, and it appears to us to have been mucked out of the very bottom of Mr Morrison’s kaleidoscopic brain.

But the crazed dynamism of the story is otherwise captivating. On the whole, Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt #1 is a fast-paced, fun lark.

The Corpse of Promethea

We have already mentioned Doomsday Clock, and DC Comics’ commercial decision to integrate British writer Alan Moore’s magnum opus comic book, Watchmen, into its default continuity, with the only mitigating factor to this being that to date it has been done well.

Having opened the coffin to steal the body of Mr Moore’s primary comic book legacy, DC Comics plainly decided to do the same thing to Mr Moore’s other very remarkable work, Promethea. Given the title character of one of Mr Moore’s most interesting works has been dumped in a comic which could have been written as a fifteen year old’s high school fiction essay, the move seems entirely spiteful.

Promethea is a marvellously deep text masquerading as a superhero comic. It explores occult and tarot mysticism, Kabbalah spiritual symbology, Jungian themes, all underpinned by Hermetic Qabalah.

The title character is an dream-like icon, resident in an ethereal place called The Immateria. Promethea appears on Earth from generation to generation, manifesting in different ways and with different hosts, to fight demons and sorcerers and, during World War One, to provide solace to dying soldiers in the trenches of Flanders. Towards the end of the original series, Promethea transforms into the Whore of Babylon, dressed in scarlet, a benign force bringing about the Apocalypse. But the Apocalypse is not catastrophic – instead it is the wondrous blurring of lines between reality, the subconscious world, and the afterlife. Published from 1999 to 2005, it is a fin de siècle work in the most obvious sense of the term.

To have this character and her story plonked into a battle between a wicked fairy (the Queen of Fables, a forgettable Justice League villain from the mid-2000s) and lowbrow superhero characters such as Lobo and the reformed villain Killer Frost seems to us to be akin to using a baroque marble fountain as a urinal. It is also interesting that Promethea is not depicted in her scarlet Whore of Babylon attire. Perhaps DC Comics’ editorial team formed the view that this would offend the sensibilities of the readership.

The artist of the Promethea series, JH Williams III, has recently been reported as lacking any knowledge of Promethea’s redeployment into DC Comics’ mainstream continuity. Further, he says, “I can’t in good conscience condone this happening in any form at all.”

Our colourful conclusion

Using elements of The Authority in Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt #1 and Promethea in Justice League of America #24 is part of DC Comics’ efforts to stir all of the paints together and hope that the colours don’t turn out grey. In Dark Knights: The Wild Hunt #1, this has been successful. The addition of the Carrier and the allusions to The Authority’s ethos are subtle and add wry and even clever sparkle to the story. But in Justice League of America #24, the use of Promethea in such a manner is entirely reminiscent of a brown smear.

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