Underworld Unleashed (1995)
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Howard Porter
Flash rogue Abra Kadabra has gone about recruiting the villains of the DC Universe to serve under Neron, a lord of the underworld. Neron offers these villains new powers and their greatest fantasies if they only give him their souls. Suddenly Metropolis, Gotham, and other cities are beset by villains with an immense level of power. Neron eventually turns his gaze to Belle Reve, the prison for super powered criminals. The Justice Leaguer Blue Devil goes it alone deep into the bowels of Hell to stop this villain and is transformed forever. Eventually, it is up to a group of Earth’s heroes to follow his path and take on Neron.
Underworld Unleashed as a fantastic premise but suffers from an ultimately weak execution. Using a story event to reboot many villains that had become less of a threat in the context of the darker direction the DC Universe had gone. Waid cleverly makes The Trickster his central figure. The Trickster was another longtime enemy of the Flash who’d made a turn towards the straight and narrow around this time. He was still on the fence which gets him included in the villains’ invitations. Through the Trickster, we have a character on the front lines who is skeptical of Neron from the get-go. He gets pulled into Neron’s inner circle reasonably quickly, even helping the villain trick Luthor and sub-faction forming.
There is a lot of redirecting readers to tie-ins instead of telling the story within these pages. That leads to the three issues of the core Underworld Unleashed feeling like large chunks of story are missing. I think it would have benefitted the overall event for characters like Spellbinder not to even be brought up in the main mini-series because we have to read other books to figure out what their deal is. Neron gets no background development other than he is a king of Hell. There’s the sense of a conflict between Neron and two previously introduced diabolic villains Blaze and Satanus, but I inferred I would need to read some other tie-in to understand what that was all about.
The third act twist felt wholly unearned and was the point where my full frustration with this story manifested. Neron hints he is searching for the purest soul on Earth and then just before the whole event ends it is revealed as Captain Marvel. My problem was that in the two lead up issues there was never a hint that Captain Marvel was going to be important in any way. He was there in the big group moments and had a line or two, but Waid never emphasized anything about him. This ends up making it feel like there should have been a character arc for Marvel, but it’s just not there.
Underworld Unleashed is a very beautiful looking three issues for its time. Howard Porter’s art is a product of this era and doesn’t match a DC house style. It is very stylized but looks nice on the page. He’s particularly adept at drawing characters in kinetic ways, infusing the story with momentum and energy. Waid’s writing isn’t bad, he makes each character feel unique, and The Trickster’s POV is a great angle to tell the story from. However, the whole event doesn’t seem to amount to much or have the feeling of a long-lasting effect on the DC Universe as a whole.