Ask Chris #313: The Devilish Deals Of ‘Underworld Unleashed’
Q: Did anyone actually come out improved from DC's Underworld Unleashed crossover? — @JordanLevells
A: Huh, Underworld Unleashed. There's one I haven't thought about in a while.
This week, though, I actually got a few questions about DC's neon-green, diabolical deal-making crossover, and I think I know the reason why. With Neron showing back up in the pages of Midnighter and Apollo, and with Halloween on the horizon bringing devils and haints to mind, there's no better time to look back on the series where a bunch of heroes and villains literally sold their souls, and nobody actually got what they wanted out of it.
So if the question here is whether any of the characters involved came out improved, by and large, I think I'd have to say that only one or two ended up better for the change. The DC Universe as a whole, however, was certainly a whole lot better.
See, the thing about Underworld Unleashed, is that it's actually rooted in a really, really good idea. With a three-issue core series written by Mark Waid with art by Howard Porter and tie-ins that spread through pretty much every book in the DC Universe, the series hit in 1995, right at the tail end of an era defined by comics going to quite literal extremes. The prevailing idea was that everything old was bad, and as I distinctly remember Wizard magazine putting it when I was reading back then, DC "still had a bunch of characters with names like Captain Boomerang."
And really, this is the same line of thinking that led to Suicide Squad back in the late '80s. Even though DC as a company was making a concerted effort to move away from the apparent goofiness of the Silver Age and into a darker aesthetic, they still had plenty of oddball arch-criminals left over from the days of Comics Code-approved bank robberies, and the influx of new villains that came with consolidating the universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths meant that there was plenty of cannon fodder for John Ostrander, Kim Yale, and Luke McDonnell in a new book where the gimmick was that someone had to die in every single story.
What Waid and Porter set out to do, though, was provide an in-continuity reason for all of those middling, non-threatening supervillains to be updated for the new era.
The catch, of course, is that whether or not this "problem" was actually a problem is pretty debatable. The one thing that Suicide Squad proved, after all, was that there was nothing inherently wrong with the sillier side of villainy that couldn't be fixed by just going in and doing a little character work. By the time that series was over, Captain Boomerang --- who still had the inherent humor of being a guy named Captain Boomerang --- wasn't just a punchline. He was a punchline who could still be threatening when he needed to be.
Putting Wizard and its snarky evaluation aside, though --- because as we all know, snarky evaluations simply have no place at all when we're talking about comics from the '90s --- it's hard to imagine that Mark Waid, of all people, went into this crossover thinking that all of these leftover Silver Age characters were inherently broken. In that respect, you can see where he's coming from in Underworld, with this idea that all they really needed was a fresh coat of paint and a compelling plot thread that could be brought back for drama whenever the next creator needed to.
I mean, for all of Waid's well-known love of classic superheroes and villains, he's not a guy who made his reputation writing about Barry Allen. He (arguably, at least) made his reputation writing a story that was meant to make people think it was about Barry Allen in order to get the biggest possible reaction, while actually being a revival of and new take on a classic Silver Age villain. Keeping that in mind --- and keeping in mind what actually happens to the Flash villains like Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, and yes, Captain Boomerang in Underworld and its aftermath --- it's easy to see why the approach here was meant to be a fresh coat of paint for most of the villains, and an in-continuity reason for more thorough reboots for anyone who needed to be brought more in step with the current line.
Speaking of paint, it's worth noting that the most prominent feature of Underworld, from a visual standpoint anyway, was that this thing was soaked in day-glo green.
Scanned panels --- and presumably digital reproductions, if this thing ever makes it onto Comixology --- don't really do it justice, but the original comics and paperback collection were printed with that extra ink to indicate demonic flames and eldritch power, and I love that about this thing. I mean, it's always nice when a special event has an extra gimmick to help it stand out, but on another level, there's nothing more DC Comics than representing the literal flames of hell in neon green.
So here's the basic idea: A devil --- not the Devil, but we'll get back to that in a second --- scatters a bunch of mystical candles around the DC Universe, and when they're lit, they transport their bearers to Hell so that they can strike a deal at the cost of their soul. Generally speaking, this is targeted towards villains, but there are a handful of heroes who get the offer, too.
At first, there's a little reluctance, which lends credence to the idea that there's a difference between the kind of evil perpetrated by people who rob banks with rainbow lasers and, you know, actual Satans, but once they see that Neron has already struck a deal with heavy hitters like Lex Luthor, Circe, Joker, Abra Kadabra, and Dr. Polaris, there are a handful of them that are a little more willing to deal.
Luthor, incidentally, sold his soul to get a young and strong body back, finally ending the mess of having been living in a clone for the past five years or so. The Joker, in one of the better moments of the crossover, sells his soul for a box of cigars.
If we're being reductive, the villains who do sell their souls end up in one of two categories: Bad guys whose existing powers make them slightly more powerful versions of themselves, and people dressed as animals who become half-human, half-whatever animal it is they've been dressing as since 1952. And that, I think, is where Underworld has its biggest failing.
Like I said, it exists to provide an in-continuity reason for that sort of reboot, but in all honesty, that sort of change was happening to a lot of those characters already, just by virtue of DC's tendency to reboot and revitalize whenever things have the slightest whiff of being stale. This was, after all, only a year after Zero Hour, which was meant to clear up the loose ends of Crisis, and clear the way for newer takes on villains. The net effect of getting stories like "Copperhead --- as you've never seen him before!" was pretty cool, but it also ended up being pretty forgettable, and unavoidably made a lot of those reboots feel tied to that very specific time in the mid-'90s.
As for the more notable changes, there were a handful. Blue Devil, who had previously starred in a somewhat short-lived, somewhat light-hearted superhero story about a stuntman who found himself mystically bonded to a high-tech demon costume, was simplified into just being a straight-up demon. At the time, it's one of the most disappointingly dark changes --- the actual price of the deal is that his love interest from his canceled comic dies in a helicopter crash --- but over time, rebranding him as The Fall Guy meets Kolchak actually worked out pretty well. He got a new life as part of Shadowpact, and the working-class-guy-becomes-a-demon aspect of his character made him a pretty good contender to be DC's (bright blue) equivalent of Hellboy.
Batman, of course, rejected the offer --- getting Jason Todd back at the cost of his soul --- but it's worth noting for being one of the best constructed and spookiest scenes of the entire affair.
The most notable change, though, happened well after Underworld Unleashed itself, when it was revealed towards the end of Starman that the original Ragdoll sold his soul to get his youth back, allowing him to resurrect his cult and terrorize Opal City on a grand scale. It's the nice thing about a crossover like this, that there's no set number of Neron's evil deal-making candles, meaning that they could show up years later as part of the fabric of the universe.
Which, in turn, is why the best thing to come out of Underworld Unleashed was Neron himself, and not just because he looks exactly like what you'd get if you designed the devil for a superhero comic in 1995.
His belt has belts!
Like I said before, he's not the Devil --- there are, in fact, two other stand-ins for the devil, Blaze and Satanus, appearing in this story, and there are others throughout the universe. He's just a devil, and honestly, that's something that really appeals to me. Just like the idea that Death is a big enough concept to have multiple forms depending on the situation, having characters who serve as the embodiments of different kinds of capital-E Evil, specifically the Diabolical and/or Demonic brand of Evil, makes a lot of sense.
So if Lucifer is the fallen angel who serves as Hell's jailer, and Blaze and Satanus are into spreading evil across Earth through violence, then Neron is the one who makes deals for souls. He's the guy who shows up at midnight at the crossroads, whose deals never quite turn out the way you want them; the master manipulator who's always one step ahead of everyone else, even when it comes to knowing their own desires.
That aspect, a definitive take on Who He Is and What He Wants, makes him adaptable, and that adaptability makes him a great character. Every character, hero, villain, or otherwise, wants something, and even just tempting them with Neron's offers can make for some really great drama. It's something that Waid himself put to great use when Neron showed up in Flash and undid all the death and destruction he'd caused himself at the price of Wally West and Linda Park's love for each other.
The story had a clever resolution --- Neron ends up poisoned by their love and begs them to take it back --- but more than that, it highlighted Neron's ultimate goals. He just wants everyone to be miserable, which is nebulous enough that you can do pretty much anything with it.