DC’s 1995 crossover Underworld Unleashed — scripted by Mark Waid, penciled by Howard Porter, and published as a three extra-long monthly issues (though the third issue ran late) – featured no less than Satan as its villain.
Well, not in name. The Satan of Underworld Unleashed was called Neron, owing to one possible interpretation of Revelation’s “666” – which most scholars believe to have been a code, using numbers for letters, for the Roman emperor Nero. Super-hero comics have a long history of using Satan, or other demonic characters, as antagonists (e.g. Marvel’s Mephisto, Superman villains Blaze and Satanus, or Lucifer in Gaiman’s The Sandman). After all, Satan’s an obvious candidate for the ultimate villain, and his historical depictions lend themselves well to the visual flair of super-hero comics. But he’s a hard character to get right, and his great power has proven a challenge for many capable writers. Ambiance is often the difference between a Satan who seems legitimately horrific and a silly cartoonish villain in ridiculous Satanic garb.
Waid’s smart, therefore, in setting the tone right from the start. Five members of the Flash’s rogues gallery, having struck a deal with Neron, strike five different sites, causing explosions. The rogues die, having not thought through their deals with Neron. As the Justice League rushes to deal with the explosion, League member Blue Devil notices that the detonations are evenly spaced – and connects them on a map to form a pentagram.
The sequence is all about ambiance, and Waid’s writing helps set the mood, withholding specifics about who Neron is and letting readers put things together. Visually, the sequence is accentuated by the use of a green, florescent ink, which DC added to all three issues of the mini-series. It’s a gimmick, but it works, making the art feel more otherworldly and the series more special.
The main focus of the first issue is Neron’s recruitment of super-villains. First, he carefully orchestrates, through a wonderfully imaginative set of circumstances that recall the so-called “butterfly effect,” the release of every prisoner at Belle Reve prison, which houses super-powered criminals. The super-villains go on the rampage, killing prison guards. Soon, we learn that Neron has distributed candles to the villains, which transport those who light the candles to Neron’s realm (which is never explicitly called Hell). After the villains squabble, Neron appears and makes his pitch.
Waid’s writing strikes just the right tone: “His voice drips honey and battery acid,” Waid writes after Neron speaks for the first time. Neron offers to upgrade the villains’ powers in exchange for their souls. But true to form, he doesn’t come right out with it. Instead, he manipulates the villains’ emotions, speaking about how the villains have been consistently defeated and “beaten […] down” by the super-heroes. For once, the villains are allowed to feel a little like real people, with their own hopes and dreams – a testament to Waid’s writing.
To help convince the villains, Neron introduces a council of five major villains, who have already taken the deal: the Joker (Batman’s arch-enemy), Lex Luthor (Superman’s arch-enemy), Circe (Wonder Woman’s foe), Abra Kadabra (Flash’s foe), and Dr. Polaris (Green Lantern’s foe). It’s a powerful tactic, using the power of peer pressure; if these top-notch villains had agreed, why shouldn’t the others? But it’s also a way, within the story, of demonstrating Neron’s power: the biggest villains of the DC Universe were already in his thrall.
Neron’s power is underlined with Mongul, the interstellar tyrant and Superman foe, approaches and threatens Neron. Mongul might not be as famous as Lex Luthor, but he’s physically strong enough to take on Superman. Neron beats him easily, then snaps his neck and absorbs his soul. Neron’s dialogue underlines the narrative point:
You are a galactic despot. / A conqueror who has ruled a thousand worlds. / A genocidal savage who has laid waste to ten thousand more. / A gale-force barbarian who has had the pleasure of grinding both Superman and Green Lantern beneath his bootheel. / You are no threat to me.
At the end of the sequence, we see Mongul’s face, screaming, colored in the series’s eerie green ink, in Neron’s eyes – suggesting that his soul, having been absorbed by Neron, is suffering. Within a few pages, the new villain Neron has reduced a powerful villain to this.
Many villains – wisely – aren’t interested, and Neron sends them back to Earth. But others are interested. Neron gives them new powers. He’s also able to reconfigure them in other ways, such as increasing their intelligence. And he sends them out to attack the heroes – as shown in the first month of tie-ins.
This was part of the agenda of the crossover. Fans and creators alike had often lamented the goofiness of many of DC’s villains, many of which had roots in the Silver Age and didn’t seem powerful or frightening enough for then-current super-hero comics. Underworld Unleashed was intended to help fix this. Using a Satan figure, besides making a powerful new villain for the crossover, thus made a lot of sense. Of course, using Neron to reenvision super-villains constituted a deus ex machina – he could basically do anything he wanted. But this is often how Satan is used in other literature, in which he’s able to grant wishes that defy reason. So readers would find it hard to complain. This was Satan, after all. And the issue’s quality, exemplified by Mark Waid’s writing, make it hard to object.
To help mix things up, the tie-ins issues featured villains normally associated with different heroes. In theory, these newly enhanced villains might end up returning to these different titles, developing new adversaries to go with their new powers, designs, and in some cases even personalities.
In the second issue, Neron turned to DC’s super-heroes. His first success was Blue Devil, who had actually appeared in the first issue as well and who sold his soul in exchange for the fame and fortune he had lost. He fulfills Neron’s request to destroy an unmanned California power station – which feels wrong, but it’s a small price to pay. Soon, however, his lover dies in a helicopter crash – because the warning lights on some power lines are out. Adding to the irony, Blue Devil discovers that it’s because of this personal loss that the media takes a renewed interest in him. His phone rings off the hook, but all he can do is sit and weep. Such sly double-crosses are common to Satan stories, but Waid does them remarkably well.
Neron also approaches DC’s major heroes. To the Flash – whose monthly title Waid wrote at the time – Neron offers to bring back Barry Allen, Wally West’s predecessor as Flash who was killed during Crisis on Infinite Earths. To Batman, Neron – appearing in the Batcave, as if it’s nothing – offers to bring back Jason Todd, the second Robin who’s death represented Batman’s greatest failure. Both Flash and Batman refuse, but after Batman does, he’s haunted by “the echo of an iron bar caving in what sounds not quite like a pumpkin” – recalling with poetic force the particulars of Jason Todd’s death at the hands of the Joker.
Similarly, Neron approaches Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, manipulating him with the memory of his girlfriend Alex, whom Major Force “carved into pieces” and left in a refrigerator for Kyle to find. Neron materializes a refrigerator, and as Kyle reaches for its handle, he hears “a clawing. / From inside.” Kyle turns on Neron, and Neron beats him handily.
Other heroes also refuse – which we’re told Neron knew they would in advance, although he leaves them with “an open wound. A rattled confidence. A nagging doubt.” But some heroes do accept, including the Ray and (retroactive Justice League founder) Triumph. Hawkman, who had become a combination of all past incarnations of the character, sold his soul to gain dominance over the other souls resident in his body. In a nice turn, the Spectre sold his soul to be free of his human host, Jim Corrigan.
In Neron’s attempted seductions of the heroes, he had alluded to being interested in a more powerful and noble hero than them all. Everyone thought that he was talking about Superman, but no one could find him. Unknown to DC’s other heroes, Superman was in outer space at the time, involved in a storyline called “The Trial of Superman.” The heroes worry that Neron may already have taken Superman captive. Blue Devil uses one of Neron’s magic candles to take a team of heroes to confront Neron in the villain’s realm, setting up the final issue.
A major subplot in the second issue concerned the council of five major villains, seen in the previous issue. In a memorable scene, they share their reasons for selling their souls with one another. Lex Luthor, who had basically been a vegetable in the Superman titles, had been restored to health. Abra Kadabra, who had always used future technology to imitate magic, was given actual magical powers. Hauntingly, Dr. Polaris had always been a separate personality from his alter ego, who was psychologically troubled; Polaris knew this and sold his alter ego’s soul, providing a troubling depiction of what happens when modern psychiatry combines with Medieval Christian mythology.
But the Joker’s rationale was the most memorable: known for his utter insanity, he had sold his soul for a box of cigars, which he reveals proudly. “Cigars?” asks Circe. “You traded your soul for cigars?”
“They’re Cubans!” the Joker responds.
Sadly, these high-profile villains don’t have much to do in the crossover. Its point, after all, was to pump up DC’s overall line of villains, so it made sense to give the other villains a chance to shine. Although these five villains received some upgrades, they weren’t as much in need of improvement. In Underworld Unleashed #2, they conspire against Neron, only to turn on each other – and wind up trapped by Neron in a simulated reality. Once again, Neron’s proved himself the better of even DC’s strongest villains.
Despite the second issue focusing on Neron seducing super-heroes, as opposed to the first issue’s emphasis upon super-villains, the second and final month of tie-ins were virtually indistinguishable from the first. Heroes battled newly upgraded and redesigned villains, and the titles starring those heroes who went to Neron’s realm, at the end of Underworld Unleashed #2, told stories taking place before that issue.
In the crossover’s third issue, the heroes who have traveled to Neron’s realm have to battle their way through it, confronting legions of demons. They become demoralized before being corrupted by the realm’s sinister influences. Only Captain Marvel seems immune. As he demands to know Superman’s whereabouts from Neron, we’re told that Neron’s goal isn’t Superman at all: it’s the innocent Captain Marvel’s soul that Neron wants. When Captain Marvel transforms back into his alter ego, the child Billy Batson, the thunderbolt that accompanies the transformation wakes the other heroes up, and they begin to fight Neron.
Throughout the series, the story frequently uses the Trickster, a low-level Flash villain, as an audience identification figure. The Trickster thus narrates the villains’ meeting with Neron, in the first issue. He rejects Neron’s offer but remains in Neron’s realm. In the second issue, he talks privately with Neron, while the five high-profile villains plot and turn against each other. Despite the Trickster’s low profile, Neron seems to respect him. And the Trickster seems to understand Neron – because, of course, this Satan is a trickster figure, fulfilling his contracts but in undesirable ways.
At this climactic point in the crossover, the Trickster’s role in the plot becomes clear. He tells Captain Marvel to offer his soul to Neron, which Captain Marvel prompty does. But because Captain Marvel does so selflessly, Neron can’t touch the hero’s soul – and seems to explode as a result. The heroes quickly return to Earth. Neron’s defeat also seems to invalidate his deals with everyone else, so they get to keep their new powers – along with their souls. But the final page hints at Neron’s return.
It’s a disappointing conclusion. That a soul offered selflessly somehow would keep the Devil from sealing the deal, or somehow defeat him in the manner seen here, is something of a cliché in these stories. Its depiction isn’t up to the standard of the rest of the mini-series, in which ambiance and smart writing is able to sell what might otherwise seem like a hackneyed plot.
Except for the ending, Neron comes across as a real threat – and a significant addition to DC’s roster of villains himself. The tone of the series is more spooky than ugly. There’s real horror here, but it’s all filtered through the light-hearted super-hero milieu.
This tone isn’t only one of the keys to the mini-series working creatively. It’s also one of the keys to understanding its place in comics history.
Underworld Unleashed was offered in 1995, the year following Marvels, the work that brought reconstructionism, and its unapologetic return to bright super-heroics, into the mainstream. At the time, the success of Marvels was often attributed to Alex Ross’s art, and no one knew that it would come to be seen as inaugurating a new mode of super-hero comics that would eventually become as dominant as revisionism had been before it. In the year after Underworld Unleashed, Mark Waid and Alex Ross would work together on Kingdom Come, which (as previously discussed) was a transitional work showing strong elements of both revisionism and reconstructionism. By the end of 1996, Grant Morrison’s light-hearted JLA – penciled by Underworld Unleashed penciler Howard Porter – had launched as a top-seller, and its continuing success exerted a profound gravity, helping to make reconstructionism the dominant mode in American super-hero comics.
Underworld Unleashed thus occurred in this transitional period. In its original conception, Underworld Unleashed was a lot darker than the version that saw print. Satan and Hell obviously lent themselves to such a dark treatment, as did the corruption of some of DC’s super-heroes. But of course, the purpose of the crossover was to revitalize DC’s super-villains, making them more up to date. This meant making them more powerful, but it also meant making them more menacing – and more in line with the darker tone of contemporary super-hero stories. In its conception, Underworld Unleashed was a revisionist project.
Initially, Mark Waid went along with this, proposing new takes on various villains that would make them darker and more violent – some gratuitously so. But as he continued work on the crossover, Waid had second thoughts. This wasn’t what he loved about super-hero stories, and his heart wasn’t in it. In fact, Waid was already effectively telling fun, reconstructionist stories in Flash, which had been a much more realistic title before his tenure. But Waid’s Flash seemed more like he was following his own instincts and personal disposition than a reconstructionist manifesto like Marvels (or Morrison’s later JLA). Waid had initially thought he was up to the task of “updating” the DC Universe’s villains, only to realize that his heart wasn’t in it. There was nothing wrong with the Silver Age, with all its silliness, that needed “updating.” And there was nothing “mature” about gratuitous violence.
Waid was able to complete the crossover – and infused it with some smart and literary writing that would have made any revisionist proud. But the villains were generally made more powerful without becoming twisted and violent in gratuitously dark ways. And the mini-series itself, while at times horrific, balanced this with a bright super-hero tone.
Waid was still working through these same tensions, when he wrote Kingdom Come. But the battle between tones or modes, which is at the heart of that classic story, began in Underworld Unleashed.
Part of why Underworld Unleashed comes off as light as it does can be attributed to Howard Porter’s art – which would soon have that same effect on Grant Morrison’s JLA.
To both of these later works, Underworld Unleashed may be seen as a kind of ur-text, as a prototype, successful in its own right but also illustrative of this transitional moment in super-hero history.