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Her headless ghost screamed foul prophecies for thirteen minutes before it faded.(#6)

Twenty years after DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, both major comic-book companies are engaging in major housecleaning and renovations. DC began theirs with Identity Crisis, and will finish—for the time being—with Infinite Crisis. The six-issue series Day of Vengeance addresses DC's magic-using characters.

Year of Publication: 2005
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artists: Justiniano, Walden Wong, Chris Chuckay, Livesay (#2), Dexter Vines (#3)

The story opens in gothic Arkham Asylum, where Jean Loring has been committed following the events of Identity Crisis. A voice speaks to her. This one comes not from her own madness, but from the demon Eclipso, who finds new life by fusing with the insane woman. In an unusual move, they then seek out the Spectre, the agent of God’s wrath in the DC Universe and someone villains generally work hard to avoid.

The Spectre, it seems, is not himself. Unanchored without a human host, he has become erratic, doling out wildly inappropriate and gruesome punishments. A self-righteous superpower, acting illogically and in violation of his own established guidelines, creates extraordinary danger and the potential for much conflict. DC pushes the character even further.

Under the influence of Eclipso, the Spectre goes on a murderous rampage, convinced that destroying all magic and magical beings will end evil. When DC’s other magical heavy-hitters, the Phantom Stranger and Dr. Fate, get removed from the battle, a team of second-string DC characters-—Enchantress, Ragman, Blue Devil, Nightshade, Nightmaster, Black Alice, and Bobo the Chimp-- launch an assault, fully expecting it to be a suicide mission. The wizard Shazam, meanwhile, directs Captain Marvel to stop the Spectre: if necessary, at the cost of his own life.

I had a number of questions about the set-up. Why, for example, would they put Jean Loring in Arkham Asylum? An insane woman who knows the secret identity of most major superheroes seems a poor choice for incarceration in an institute which holds several major supervillains (with a security system seemingly little better than the average 7-Eleven’s).

As for the Spectre, he is the agent of God’s vengeance, with access to almost limitless power. At other times, DC has equivocated on this, and suggested that the Spectre works for, you know, some other unbelievably powerful being but not, you know, that one. I have to wonder why God or even Some Other Unbelievably Powerful Being would let His/Her/Its/Their personal wrath wander free, knowing the damage it could cause, and especially given that the Spectre has operated under restrictions in the past. We’re not talking about free will or forces of nature here; this is a personal agent of the CEO working on the Company Card. I also had to wonder why he didn’t just wipe out certain weaker beings that were creating trouble for him when he had the opportunity, but I suppose he’s not quite himself.

The plot develops with the usual complications of comic book stories: pitched battles, obvious traps, and surprise developments. It’s clear that the DC Universe will be changed after Infinite Crisis. Identity Crisis showed the darker side to DC’s iconic characters; this tie-in series rearranges the mystic landscape. One major character, several minor ones, and many bystanders die. The events of this story also eliminate a number of magical elements and places. This echoes the original post-Crisis on Infinite Earths comics, which tried to remove some of the sillier elements (I recognize it is problematic to call anything sillier than a talking chimp tactician) and limit the kind of power available to its characters. The widespread existence of magic causes serious plot problems for any story, or should, except it’s one of those things comic book writers ignore when it inconveniences them. Comic-book housecleaning exercises, reboots, and retcons usually try to limit such elements, though they rarely achieve long-term success.

Willingham also adds a number of touches that humanize characters, painted though they are in the broad strokes typical of comics. We get a misread romantic moment with Ragman and the Enchantress: a charming nerd bit involving a character who otherwise seems grim and powerful. We also see the newly-formed supergroup, Shadowpact, sitting down to breakfast. We rarely see the Justice League or the Avengers cooking up and hunkering down to breakfast between battles. Perhaps we should; it’s a nice touch, reminiscent of JLA: Welcome to the Working Week. The comic also features some amusing dialogue between the world-changing battles:

--Oh my--! Dad, did you know there’s a frozen monkey on the couch? And a hooker?
--She’s not a hooker.
--She’s dressed like one.
--I think that’s supposed to be some sort of superhero costume.
--Dad, I’m speechless.
--Good, because we need to have the kind of talk where you listen… They seem to think you were like them. (Pauses) Honey, are you some kind of superhero?(#4)

The scenes involving Black Alice work very well. She introduces elements of the real and the everyday into a fantastic story. I almost wished there hadn’t been an explanation for why the suburbanites didn’t take much notice of Nightshade and Detective Chimp walking by; these things must happen reasonably often in the DC Universe. Some might question the sexualized depictions of the girl. Her everyday garb, granted, resembles that of many contemporary girls, but she receives an especially scanty outfit after she absorbs the Spectre’s power. This is a character so young that Nightshade asks whether she’s old enough to be drinking coffee.

The ending includes a few fascinating panels. The side effects of the Rock of Eternity’s destruction read like something out of China Miéville. Quite grim, really, for DC. Unfortunately, the artwork, inconsistent over the six issues, hits a low point here. They needed the darkness of the opening segment, and instead use a cartoony style that does not suit the subject matter. The final panels also drip cliché as they establish that a new supergroup comic will be with us, post-Infinite Crisis. The ending also sets up for the introduction of a new Blue Beetle. What we don’t see is the end of the Spectre, though Eclipso/Loring has been dispatched—- for now. Stories set in an ongoing shared universe, of course, rarely escape loose ends.

Despite reservations about the conclusion, Day of Vengeance, as multi-character "event comic" series go, proves an enjoyable read. A dying wizard and damaged Golden Age heroes, a grim soul-gatherer and a goth babe, histrionic heroics and self-referential humor, the horrifying death of a grade-schooler with poor timing and the tactical leadership of a simian with a drinking problem: the ability to combine implausible, disparate elements and have them somehow fit is a key aspect of the traditional comic book. Day of Vengeance may not be literature for the ages, but it’s a fair example of why I still enjoy the genre.

In November 2005, DC will release a trade paperback featuring all six issues and three crossover adventures from Superman titles.

A variation of my review appeared at bureau42.

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