By: Geoff Johns (story), David Finch (pencils), Richard Friend (inks), Sonia Oback (colors)

The Story: So we have to turn to Lex Luthor for salvation?  Well, beggars can’t be choosers.

The Review: A commenter on my review of last issue pointed out the premise and tone of Forever Evil represents a more sophisticated style of writing than we typically associate with Johns.  I confess that I didn’t give the observation much credit at the time.  A few quotes of evolutionary theory does not a high-concept comic make.  But after reading through this issue, I’m starting to believe that Johns may be at least aiming beyond his usual literalism after all.

Mostly, I see this in his more nuanced approach to the characters.  For my part, I’ve always felt that with few notable exceptions, Johns tended to struggle with antagonists.  Their powers and goals varied, but they didn’t have much of an identity.  Quite often, the more powerful the villain, the less dimensional they became (e.g. Nekron, Krona, Volthoom).  Their characters are subjugated to their roles in providing the heroes something to fight against. Forever Evil’s absence of heroes thus forces Johns to find more specific motivations for the featured villains.

You can see this in the opposition between Luthor and the Syndicate.  His contempt for the “weak-willed” people of the world fits very much in line with their own assessment, both predicated on a strict understanding of natural selection.  Yet Luthor takes just as much offense towards submission to the Syndicate’s rule as he would towards devotion to Superman’s heroism.  In Luthor’s mind, either course demonstrates a resignation to physical superiority he can’t accept for himself or tolerate in others.  His decision to defy the Syndicate is thus not so much a transformation of values as a shift in targets; there is no altruism here, only self-interest.

Among the Syndicate, too, priorities vary.  Some members, like Johnny Quick and Atomica, are committed to evil for its own pleasure (“We waste everyone.  Pure, simple, and exhilarating.”).  Others, like Owlman and Ultraman, have more pragmatic and rational goals, mainly securing the planet under their control as efficiently and quickly as possible.  And for a couple members, like Deathstrom and Power Ring, their stake in the Syndicate remains unclear for now.

This is all colored by the Syndicate’s individual personalities, of course, which displays Johns’ character writing at its most complicated.  Though contemptuous of everyone outside their team (and some within their team), they prove capable of softer sentiments as well.  Ultraman may not stand for direct disobedience (“Tell him to go or I’ll rip out his tongue.”), but towards Johnny and Atomica’s gleeful impulses to play hooky, he can be quite lenient, even understanding: “Unlike us, those two have been apart for too long.  Let them get it out of their system.”  You even see clear signs of tenderness between Superwoman and Owlman, and anxiety over Ultraman’s inevitable discovery of their relationship.  These aren’t incredibly subtle portrayals, but they do make it possible for you to become more invested in the characters.

In terms of plotting, nothing terribly noteworthy happens outside of the Teen Titans’ last stand, which only leads to them getting shunted elsewhere.  And despite the return of two Leaguers at the end of the issue, they reveal nothing we don’t already know (all the better to keep us hanging until next month).  Johns mostly spends his time laying down narrative landmines that he can detonate later or setting up the premises for upcoming tie-ins: Owlman’s protection of Dick Grayson, the mystery of the Syndicate’s hitchhiking prisoner, rebellions from Kahndaq and the Flash’s Rogues.

Finch’s art has gotten smoother and more expressive, but there are visuals that do make you wonder if he thinks them through before sending them off to Friend and Oback for respectable inking and coloring.  Good example: why on Earth would he draw the leader of the police force that arrives at the downed Watchtower to look like Commissioner Gordon?  Does Finch not realize that if he gives a character a caterpillar mustache, big spectacles, and a preppy haircut, we’re going to naturally assume he’s Gordon, only to be shocked senseless when Johnny Quick turns him into a spray of blood?  That is a reeling moment from which you’ll struggle to recover for a while, even after you conclude it has to be a lookalike, not the real thing.  Not cool, Finch.  And what exactly is Atomica doing in Wonder Girl’s mouth?  It looks like she just climbs in for funsies, then climbs right back out without actually accomplishing anything in between.

Conclusion: Johns makes some admirable storytelling choices, but the issue itself is mostly expository with limited impact on the series at hand.  Finch’s art is more than fine, but hampered by confusing visuals.

Grade: B

-Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – What do you suppose is up with Johnny Quick’s conehead?  You practically expect him to start talking about eating chicken embryos and pig flesh and coming from France.

– There’s something creepy about Power Ring’s relationship with Deathstorm, isn’t there?  When the professor touches the stuttering man’s face, you definitely get a vibe of Liberace and Scott Thorson from Behind the Candelabra.