Now here’s an instructive comparison. Two miniseries with the same concept, an all-powerful demon-god sending his unstoppable agents to destroy the world. Superheroes rise up to oppose him. One worked beautifully. One sucked.
In 1992’s four-issue Armageddon: Inferno by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell, the demon Abraxis transforms sixteen mortals into his agents and scatters them across time to create gates that will let him enter and occupy Earth’s time-space continuum. The time traveler Waverrider recruits heroes to stop him, but they fail. Finally, in a Hail, Mary play, Waverider pulls the Justice Society out of the interdimensional limbo in which DC had trapped them six years earlier, consigns Abraxis agents there and with the JSA pitching in, the demon falls (this led to a short-lived JSA series in the early 1990s.
In The Justice Society Returns, Stalker — a sword-and-sorcery hero from Bronze Age — is dedicated to freeing himself from the god of war who controls his soul by wiping out war, which he’s learned requires wiping out all life. Having elevated himself to godhood since his series, he materializes on Earth in the 1940s (individual issues used 1940s comics title: All Star Comics, More Fun Comics, Adventure Comics, etc.)and recruits a half-dozen Nazis to begin annihilating us. The JSA fights back and eventually destroys the Nazis, then their master.
The difference between the two is instructive. In Armageddon, the biggest problem is its simply too crowded. Four issues, sixteen Abraxis agents, and several heroes to fight each one. Armageddon Inferno gives Abraxis’ agents characterization but in a good way. When each agent first appears, they announce themselves — “I’m Pete Best, the Beatles’ original drummer! I missed out on their fame, but now I’ll be a god king!” (Ostrander did not actually use Pete Best) — but as the story is hardly character-centric, what’s the point? It’s not enough to deepen them, it’s just a distraction.
In Justice Society Returns, we have 11 issues and one villain per issue. The villains don’t get much characterization (and don’t really need it) but what they do get is effective. Equally important, the heroes get some space for characterization; it doesn’t always work (I have some problems with how they wrote the Golden-Age Atom) but it mostly does.
A second problem is that in Armageddon: Inferno the villains are invincible. The heroes can’t do a damn thing to them, which makes the whole thing feel pointless: endless efforts to hurt entities who can’t be harmed. Plus the use of non-super characters such as Enemy Ace seems even more pointless when Superman can’t make a dent in them. In Justice Society Returns, Stalker’s agents can be defeated and destroyed, which makes a big difference.
The end result? Like I said, one succeeds, the other doesn’t. Both books led to a Justice Society ongoing series, which is something I’ll discuss in a future post.
First cover by Michael Netzer, second by Dave Johnson; all rights remain with current holder. #SFWApro