It’s Not a Perfect World
On the heels of the successful Elseworlds mini-series, JSA: The Justice Files, DC has released a two-issue sequel entitled JSA: The Unholy 3, and it is one of the unexpected pleasures of the early 2003 comic year. The first series showed the adventures of more realistic versions of Batman, Hourman, Dr. Mid-Nite and Mr. Terrific fighting Nazi agents, including Scarecrow and the Joker. It was one of the better entries in the DC Elseworlds series, which presents stories outside regular DC continuity. This new series actually exceeds the quality of the first and provides an excellent story with terrific art.
The sequel begins a few years later, the characters are a little older. The war is over but the age of heroes is still underway. However, someone has been killing the super-agents in a quest to obtain something called “The Trigger”. Batman and Hourman are reactivated and ordered to find this killer and are saddled with a new recruit, Superman. It should come as no surprise that this Superman is not all that he seems. The revelation of his true identity at the end of the first issue leads directly into the chaos and violence of the second issue. Despite what they think, the real killer is not caught and agents keep dying. We learn that the one behind all of this is Superman himself who wants to destroy “The Trigger”, a weapon that would release a massive amount of radiation and the only thing on Earth that can kill him. What then ensues is a super-powered battle royal as all of the ‘alternate’ versions of the JSA attempt to stop the rogue agent. In the end, Batman finally manages to stop Superman and nearly ends up paying the ultimate price himself.
Elseworlds series tends to be a hit or miss. Some of them are truly excellent ways of reimaging old characters and concepts, and others just don’t work. These two series are examples of ones that do work by taking some of the best parts of the existing concepts and presenting them in a different way. The Justice Files were grounded even more firmly in reality than this one (bearing some resemblance to Marvel’s recent Ultimate titles) as The Unholy 3 brings more super-powered characters into the mix. It is the joy of seeing the familiar in these new characters while also watching them act differently that makes this series. It is interesting to see new versions of Sandman, Green Lantern, Starman, Hawkman, the Atom and (of all things) the Red Tornado, and this adds a lot of the punch to the series. But it is the battle royal of the second issue that provides much of the action and thrills as Superman goes rogue and nearly destroys the JSA single-handedly. It is a question that many fans have asked over the years, “Why doesn’t someone like Superman just take over the world?” Here, we see what happens when he tries to do just that.
While this is an interesting question, and one that has been asked before, in The Unholy 3 the question is more, “How do you stop Superman from taking over the world?” Through it all, we see the basic underlying concept of what really made superheroes popular and from which they have strayed in recent years: morality. These characters are not above killing in the right circumstances, but they do so out of necessity, not because it is expedient or easy. With the great power at their disposal, they choose not to take over the world but help to destroy the greater evils around them and are prepared to sacrifice their own lives without a second thought. That is one of the definitions of true heroes and remains as true today as it did thirty, 40 or 50 years ago. Killing is easy. Sacrifice, especially personal sacrifice done without thought of one’s own life or limb, is much harder, and is the essence of what superheroes USED to mean. Try to find that example in comics today and you will be hard pressed to do so. The Unholy 3 is an exciting, thrilling ride through an altered version of DC’s superheroes but, strangely enough, it shows them as more heroic than their ‘real’ counterparts have been for some time. If it stumbles, it is only through its similarity in some ways to James Robinson’s excellent The Golden Age (which EVERYONE should read) from several years ago which touched upon several of the same themes but was a much more traditional version of the caped heroes. Robinson’s series also ended in a royal rumble featuring a veritable army of super-powered heroes fighting a character who was very similar to Superman. Still, The Unholy 3 is unique enough to stand on its own and earn an honored place on any comic fans bookshelf.
Is it for general readers? Not so much, as the casual reader will not pick up on many of the nuances and inside concepts. The revelation at the end of the first issue as to Superman’s true identity means little to anyone not familiar with the Superman mythos. When he says his true name, the casual reader is likely to say, “So? What does that mean?” To the comic fan, it is a chilling and heart stopping moment.
The end of the second issue sets up the possibility of another series which, one hopes, will appear soon, but it has to be wondered how The Unholy 3 can be topped. But, It will be interesting to see them try!