This is perhaps the single most confounding comic book collection I have ever read.
It collects the seven issue Savation Run miniseries that ran between November of 2007 and June of 2008, and reading it as it is presented in its current trade collection format, retitled JLA: Salvation Run, is a bit like sifting through a large pile of question marks.
The story itself is fairly straightforward, at least on a plot level. It’s easy to imagine that even a reader largely unfamiliar with the characters, their backstories and their places in the DC Universe at the time could make it through just fine.
I’m not at all sure why any would want to, though, or why DC would want them to. What on earth is the purpose of this comic book series? Why does it exist in this state? Why did DC bother to publish it? What was it supposed to accomplish?
You could ask these questions of any comic, I suppose, but answering them regarding most any other comic is usually pretty straightforward. Not here.
Let’s talk about it, for a few thousand words, after the jump.
Salvation Run was part of DC’s Very Bad Year Or So, the one between the end of 52 and the beginning of Final Crisis, where the company seemed to embrace Marvel’s current strategy of a superhero universe in a perpetual event/crossover story by attempting to link a great deal of their stories together, mostly through weekly series Countdown, but didn’t quite follow through correctly. The various storylines didn’t fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, but were all in the same place, like the jigsaw puzzle still in its box, before assembly. (Metaphors!)
As ultimately pointless as something like World War Hulk or Secret Invasion might be, all of the 500 Marvel comics that tied into them shared something in common (Hulk is wrecking the joint, Skrulls are invading) and resulted in some sort of tangible change, a point B to follow their point A (Hulk’s back on Earth, Norman Osborn got promoted). DC’s crossovers were just a bunch of random events bumping into one another.
If the narrative thrust of the Marvel Universe is a golf ball, being tediously hit from one predictable point to the next, the narrative thrust of the DCU at the same time has been a pinball, thrown randomly and violently from point to point, accompanied by loud noises and bright lights.
What was Salvation Run, exactly? It was a seven-issue series focused on the villains of the DC Universe—in a sense, a spiritual sequel to 2006 miniseries Villains United—and it told the story of how they all went into space for a few weeks and then all came back, to resume doing whatever it was they were doing before they left. So it’s kinda like the comic book equivalent of looking at someone’s vacation photos, only this someone is Captain Cold and his friends.
Countdown devoted a great deal of its page count into leading into Salvation Run, specifically the Trickster/Piper thread involving the pair of rogues running away from the Suicide Squad, who were capturing villains to shoot them into space in Salvation Run. They were suspected of the murder of The Flash IV. So Salvation Run is, if not exactly a sequel, at least a continuation of from the short-lived Flash: Fastest Man Alive series and parts of Countdown.
It also tied into Justice League of America for a few issues. And Catwoman. And Gotham Underground, an eight-issue series that was in part about how the Gotham villains ended up in the seven-part Salvation Run.
None of this is at all important. After all, none of it made it into the trade. In fact, I only mention it now because it’s one of the confusing things about the series. It doesn’t really go anywhere, ending precisely where it began, but it sure took a long time to do so, walking through all these other books on its way to nowhere.
Hardly any of it is reflected by the events within this trade. The book opens with a scene of Amanda Waller and Rick Flagg of the Suicide Squad discussing their silly plan to teleport the world’s worst villains into an uninhabited planet in space—along with their weapons and costumes—to found their own society.
In their discussion, they specifically refer to the events of 52, Amazons Attack and The Flash as the reason supervillains need to be dealt with in this extra-legal way (One would think shooting them each in the back of the head would be more efficient and permanent than going to the trouble of giving them their own planet to destroy, and wouldn’t be all that much more immoral than capturing U.S. citizens and exiling them into space without a trial anyway, but that would make for a pretty dull, repetitive comic).
So DC villains major and minor are exiled via Boom Tube onto what the Waller and Flagg thought was an uninhabitated planet full of whatever resources they’d need to survive. Super-powered bank robbers and Flash-killers The Rogues, mercenaries and assassins like The Body Doubles and the Secret Six, would-be world conquerors like Vandal Savage and Gorilla Grodd, super-thief Catwoman, mass-murderer The Joker and former president of the United States Lex Luthor are among those sent to this mysterious planet.
As it turns out, it’s not uninhabited, but is full of traps, deadly predators and killing machines, all operated by Darkseid’s minion Desaad, as a sort of training ground for their troops, the Parademons. This fact is kept kinda sorta secret for a while, but it’s not exactly a mystery, since there are no clues provided, nor any explanation as to who the hell these people are, should you not already be familiar with the Fourth World characters Jack Kirby created for DC.
So, for seven issues, these various villains try to survive, form into two rival groups—one lead by the Joker, the other by Luthor—and cause each other problems while Luthor builds a maguffin machine to return everyone back to Earth.
It’s pretty bad, but more so in an existential way then a failure of craft sort of way. It’s one of the few comic book where the question of “Why is this book at all…?” seem more prominent than “How is this book?”
Let’s start with the title. If the series was released as Salvation Run; why is the trade entitled JLA: Salvation Run? The JLA logo, the one from the Morrison/Waid/Kelly volume of the series, not the current Meltzer/McDuffie one, is very small, about the size of the “S” in Salvation Run, as if the logo designer wasn’t quite sure if it should be there or not, but it’s a pretty big change. Now this will be shelved with JLA books in the library or the bookstore, and show up as a JLA book on sites like Amazon, rather than as its own thing.
So it’s obviously advantageous to brand this book a JLA one, although the thought didn’t occur to DC until after the seventh issue shipped. “JLA” is also an accepted, proven brand name, whereas “Salvation Run” is…well, I don’t know what it is. Even after reading this book, I can’t tell you why it was entitled Salvation Run.
The problem with the “JLA” is that this isn’t a JLA book in the least. I suppose they could have added the pages from Justice League of America that pertained to the Salvation arc—if I recall correctly, it was the back-up in #16, the lead stories in #17 and #18, and all of #19—to justify the “JLA,” but no dice, this is just Salvation Run #1-#7.
The closest it gets to having anything to do with the Justice League is the appearance of Martian Manhunter halfway through, although wasn’t actually on the Justice League at the time the series was published, so it seems to be a bit of stretch.
Almost as confusing to me as the re-titling of the series for the trade were the credits. As a more-or-less standalone miniseries, any deadlines the book faced were self-imposed—if a writer or artist fell behind and an issue had to ship late, it wouldn’t have been as problematic as an issue of an ongoing series shipping late (as so frequently occurs) or of a big, important series like Civil War or Infinite Crisis shipping late and thus spoiling plot points in other books or throwing the schedule out of whack. Because no changes of any real consequence occur by the last issue, there doesn’t seem to have been any reason for making sure it made it to shops in a certain month—no one would have cared what happened in it save the 25,000-30,000 people who were reading it, and it’s probably safe to assume few of them were in much suspense over whether the DCU’s villains would all die in the last issue or not.
And yet the writers change midway through the series, and there’s even some fill-in art.
Bill Willingham writes the first two issues, and Mathew Sturges writes the final five. It’s odd to see the writers change in a miniseries, but perhaps less odd given Willingham and Sturges’ relationship as writing partners (The pair work on Jack of Fables together, Sturges replaced Willingham on Shadowpact and they’ll soon be taking over Justice Society of America as co-writers). Certainly Sturges replacing Willingham here isn’t as suspicious as, say, if Chuck Dixon were called in to write the last two issues of Final Crisis or something.
The art team of Sean Chen and Walden Wong provide the majority of the art, and do a rather fine job of it, but issue five is penciled by Joe Bennett and inked by Belardino Brabo. Their art is fine too, but its presence seems bizarre in a miniseries, and looks more jarring still in a trade.
The next question mark I encountered was the rather random amount of character death. Throughout the course of the series, several villains are either killed or appear to be killed. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given how the cast is chockfull of cannon fodder characters unlikely to be appearing in any DC comics in the near future, and killing off Iron Cross or Hellhound II (whom I thought was already dead) or Thunder and Lightning (ditto) shows how dangerous the planet is and/or how tough and scary the bigger, badder, more likely to appear in film adaptation villains are. Fair enough.
But some more sizable villains are also killed off, and in such strange, off-handed ways that lack any impact at all—even one-time shock value—because they are never characters in the story. They just randomly appear from nowhere and then die, as if the only reason they were even included in the story was to be killed off. (Of course, all of the characters just randomly appear out of nowhere and disappear; only The Joker and Luthor really get any characterization of any kind, and a large part of that comes from simply being among the oldest, best-known characters in the piece.)
For example, midway through the second issue, the New Teen Titans villain Psimon (revamped in Judd Winick’s Outsiders run around 2004), steps from the crowd and delivers a speech for about three pages, and then The Joker beats him to death with a rock, smashing open his see-through head and squishing his visible brain. Why? I don’t know; I guess to show the readers that The Joker is an insane, evil guy who likes to brutally kill people. Scratching another character off the company’s list of characters—their only real resource—seems like a high cost to illustrate that though.
It gets worse in the fourth issue, when Doom Patrol villain Monsieur Mallah—a gorilla who wears a beret, bandoliers and speaks with a French accent—approaches Gorilla Grodd and asks him to join forces. Grodd’s like, No thanks man, you suck. And then Mallah’s like, You bastard, I’ll kill you! So they fight. And Gorilla Grodd beats Mallah to death, ultimately using Mallah’s boss The Brain (a brain who lives in what looks like an evil gumball machine), killing them both in the process.
Those are some pretty big casualties. Created in 1964 as part of Arnold Drake’s Doom Patrol run, they’ve been part of the DCU off and on since, most recently appearing in Batgirl, Infinite Crisis, Teen Titans and The Outsiders (Both were prominently featured on the Cartoon Network Teen Titans cartoon, and The Brain at least has appeared on Batman: The Brave and The Bold). But again, it’s not so much the fact that they died as much as that they were only included in the story to die in the first place. (Being comic book characters, they’ve died before, and likely will again—Sturges seems to be attempting an homage to their most famous deaths, in Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run, but where Morrison presented it as a humorous scene in a series deconstructing superhero teams, Sturges places it in the middle of a very bloody, very violent scene and plays it completely irony-free. Which can’t be easy to do when the scene involves a talking gorilla professing its love for a disembodied brain).
And then, of course, there’s the death of Martian Manhunter.
Well, I know he doesn’t really die in this series, because I’ve seen him die two other times since—in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis, where his death was reduced to the level of a pure formality that must be enacted as part of a superhero crisis, and in Peter Tomasi’s Final Crisis: Requiem, which essentially restored all the fighting and noble sacrifice and superhero mourning that Morrison seemed to have purposely cut out in his version of the event as part of his experimental, minimalist approach.
Martian Manhuner, like Catwoman, just sort of appears in the middle of the story and meanders around for a while, accomplishing nothing. We learn he was sent there by Batman, disguised through his shape-changing powers as the villain Blockbuster, to keep an eye on them or figure out what the Suicide Squad had in mind for them or whatever.
When he’s discovered, he’s taken down by the various villains, many of whom have fire powers, and fire, we’re reminded, is his only weakness. He’s then kept in a cage with fire bars for a few issues, and when the villains all escape, he’s left there. As Luthor leaves, he detonates some bombs he had left for the Parademons, setting the planet ablaze.
The second to last panel is a longshot of the Manhunter in his little cage, everything around him engulfed in flames. And the very last image of the book is a splash page close up on the Martian Manhunter, his eyes closed, kneeling in his flaming cage, fire filling the background. Captain Cold, who narrates portions of this last issue, just finishes a few pages of discussion about the difference between the good guys and the villains, ending with the statement that “We fight. And we survive.”
So, encountering this book in the wild as it currently exists, unaware of the existence of Final Crisis, the takeaway sure seems to be that the Martian Manhunter died at the end of this story. It sure is an odd note to go out on, especially if Sturges and company didn’t even mean to imply that he dies at the end.
Now, if I divorce the experience of reading this book with what I know about when it was released and what’s been going on in other DC books, what is this a book about, really? That superheroes are a bunch of ineffectual, hypocritical a-holes, and that while supervillains are a bunch of evil, violent a-holes, at least they’re tough-as-nails.
Okay. Um, why is this a story Willingham, Sturges or DC would want to tell, exactly…? That’s the last question mark I’m left with having made it all the way through the book. It certainly doesn’t leave me feeling too terribly enthusiastic about the future of JSoA.