Infinite Crisis and the “Old” 52 (Part 3): Day of Vengeance by Bill Willingham
In this third review, I will cover the rest of the issues included in the Day of Vengeance trade paperback. This story is written by Bill Willingham, well-known for Fables, his excellent Vertigo series at DC. These issues are also available on Comixology as Day of Vengeance Issues #1-6. However, as confusing as this sounds, do not read the Day of Vengeance: Infinite Crisis Special, which is included in the Infinite Crisis Companion trade paperback or as a separate issue on Comixology. This “special” issue is meant to be read much later in this long crossover series.
If you buy the trade paperback, you get not only the essay “The Nature of Magic” (described in the previous review), but also an introduction to “The World of Heroes and Sorcerers,” with an overview of what happened in Identity Crisis as well as brief introductions to the main DC magical figures featured in this storyline: Blue Devil, Enchantress, Nightmaster, Nightshade, and Ragman. They do not give an overview of the final member of this team because Detective Chimp, the talking, Sherlock Holmes-like chimpanzee gives his own origin story in one of the included issues.
Here’s a character summary for those who read the issues on Comixology: Blue Devil is the stuntman Daniel Cassidy who was transformed into the Blue Demon when he couldn’t take off the demon costume he was wearing for a movie. Somehow he managed to get the trident of Lucifer, and now as a real demon, he uses the trident for good to banish to Hell those bad demons he finds loose on earth. Enchantress has a confusing backstory as the character June Moone who learned that saying “Enchantress” turned her into this magical being. Enchantress has worked on the Suicide Squad and has played a number of other roles, but she has competing personalities within her, including an evil persona that takes over when she gets close to, possesses, or channels too much magical energy. Nightmaster was a 1960s’ rock singer who was transformed into a magical, chivalrous Knight. He opened a bookstore that eventually morphed into the Oblivion Bar, a gathering place for magicians, sorcerers, and other people and creatures of magic. Nightshade, like Enchantress, has worked on the Suicide Squad along with various heroes in the DC universe. She controls darkness. Ragman is one of my favorite characters. His background is as a replacement for the Jewish golem as a protector of the Jews. Ragman wears the rags of corrupted souls. He gains his power by pulling on the power of these souls, and over the years, no matter how long it takes, by assisting Ragman, these lost souls have a small hope of gaining redemption. The Detective Chimp accidentally gained the power of speech from drinking from a magical river in Florida. He gave up detecting since he couldn’t force his clients to pay the bills (the laws only protect employed human beings, apparently). As a result, he’s spent the last few years in the Oblivion Bar, drinking his troubles away. Willingham fully develops these characters in the course of the six-issue story, and in many ways, he was laying the groundwork for the Shadowpact series that emerged out of Day of Vengeance.
The basic story is that Eclipso has taken over a new body now that he is no longer possessing Superman. For the first time in DC history, that body is a female form, but I will not give away here the secret of this human identity acting as the new vessel for Eclipso. The new design of this female Eclipso is excellent. Eclipso uses her magic and new feminine powers of seduction to persuade and basically control the masculine Spectre, currently without a host to give him a sense of direction and the softening compassion required of such a powerful Spirit of Vengeance. Eclipso convinces the Spectre that to rid Earth of all evil, he should destroy magic in all its forms. As he starts to kill all magical beings and objects on Earth, Shazam, sent by the Wizard Shazam, tries to stop him. Meanwhile, the group I described above, eventually going by the name of Shadowpact, decides to close the Oblivion Bar and go after the Spectre and Eclipso themselves. This story has a real root-for-the-underdogs feels to it.
There are several reasons I like this story. First, I like it because we are shown what vengeance and judgment without compassion look like. The Spectre, before Eclipso gives him the mission of destroying magic, is without a human host and is pure vengeance. As a result, he punishes indiscriminately. He kills a mass murderer, we are told, which is in keeping with his usual duties, but he also kills those who have had affairs outside of marriage and cheated on taxes. He even kills a child who steals “less than six dollars from his mother’s purse” and a girl who “spoke rudely to her father.” Eclipso understates the problem when she asks, “Spectre, darling, I love what you’re doing, but don’t you think it lacks direction?” Unfortunately, her assistance in giving him direction leads him to kill just as many innocents as before, but now he’s killing anyone with magic so that Eclipso, a being of magic him/herself, won’t have any threats left for her/him to deal with.
I also like the art. Writing about magic gives the artists a fun script to bring to life, with special effects that no movie could duplicate no matter how big its budget. There are large powerful fights between magical powers that are more interesting to me than the usual big battles in superhero comics. Why? Once again, it simply comes down to special effects that look really “cool.” I don’t know how else to describe it. Maybe I just really like trippy light shows.
However, the art is good not merely because of the special effects: The nonverbal body language is fantastic, particularly that of Detective Chimp. The artists — through expressions and body language — effectively create believable visual differences between how a pre-linguistic chimp and a magic, verbal Chimp might hold his body and move his face. It’s absurd to even think about these differences, but the team of artists pulls it off. Detective Chimp is a very believable, very funny, character who is constantly drinking and smoking and making snide comments, because, like any good post-Raymond Chandler detective, he’s down on his luck and has lived a hard life on those mean streets.
Another little artistic treat is our trip to the Oblivion Bar. We are there only briefly where the main Shadowpact characters meet up, but while we are there, the artists fill out the bar with some extra DC characters, many of them very minor. The trade paperback has a bonus section in the back that identifies who all the characters are, so I’ll give you the list here in case you’re interested: Timothy Raven, Jennifer Morgan, Cicada, Arion Lord High Mage of Atlantis, Animal Man, Claw the Unconquered, Vixen, Black Orchid, Deadman, Jason Blood (who turns into the Jack Kirby-created demon Etrigan), Zauriel, El Muerto, Dr. Occult, Andrew Bennett, Mongrel, the Ghost Patrol, Valda the Iron Maiden, Freedom Beast, Corona, Witchfire, and Janissary.
I also like the way the story is told, but to clarify why I like the manner in which the comic is written, I have to call attention to a unique feature of American comics: Since American comics come out on a monthly basis, readers often forget what is going on and need a reminder (or a new reader might have picked up the series after the first issue and not have any idea what’s going on). I think Marvel is smart in often including a summary page at the front of monthly comics to prevent the authors from summarizing the previous story in the course of the current comic. That summary can take up a lot of room in the current installment. But DC mostly follows the practice of not including a summary, and authors have to figure out a clever way to get a character, or use another device, to let readers know what’s going on. If it’s too repetitive, readers will get really annoyed with these summaries, particularly when collected as a trade paperback that can be read in one sitting. So, even though I don’t think writers should have to summarize in the story itself, since DC often makes them do so, I use that requirement as one measure of an author’s creativity, the way a poet might figure out how to use the restrictions expected in a sonnet in a creative manner.
In Day of Vengeance, Bill Willingham decided to use a narrative device that allowed us to get us to know these characters better: While most of each issue is filled with dialogue rather than narration, each character is featured once as the main narrator of a single issue in the story arc. We get to know each member of the Shadowpact; we get to hear how they think and get their perspective on the events going on. Since the same main event is going on throughout the six issues, Willingham lets each character tell us about the events and how he/she views them. The result is that we get better, richer character development of a larger number of characters than a reader often receives in a short, six-issue story. Delivered this way, the plot summary seems incidental. But we don’t mind, because almost everyone loves to hear an event told multiple times by different personalities. That can be interesting and funny. Willingham is certainly not the first to use this narrative device in monthly comics, but I think he does it as well as I’ve ever seen.
This story made me fall in love with the characters, and at some point in the future, I hope to review Willingham’s Shadowpact series that grew out of this book. It had a solid run and is collected in four trade volumes. Those reviews will have to wait, however: The next review in this series of columns will focus on Villains United.
This book does have beautiful artwork! I can’t wait to read the next review, Brad.