Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen #3
Lex Luthor is on the ropes! Ambushed by the Batman Who Laugh's army of infected heroes, he's moments away from meeting his end...
...when Lex's ace in the hole makes his timely arrival!
Making a violent escape, the dastardly duo make their way to the Joker's hideout (with Lex at gunpoint), where Joker's new Girl Friday, Punchline, has Mercy held hostage. Joker's gambit backfires, though, as he didn't reckon on Lex's new powers more than evening the odds! Lex, of course, had ulterior motives of his own - inside Joker's twisted brain holds the secret to the Batman Who Laugh's infection of the heroes.
Lex peels his way through Joker's twisted mental landscape for the Clown Prince of Crime's secrets. But will they be enough to turn the tide against the Batman Who Laughs? Or will Lex have to come up with another backup plan?
There’s a really fascinating meta-commentary given by writer James Tynion IV in the third issue of Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen. Joker tells it best:
Tynion seems to be telling readers that he is all too aware just how far off the reservation all of this “Year of the Villain”/Apex Lex/Perpetua stuff has gone. Familiar faces are no longer familiar – namely, Lex, but of course every infected hero as well. Get too far removed from your lane, the Joker seems to be saying, and you’re no longer you. No longer familiar. Maybe it’s a subtle jab at editorial, or a message to irate fans who just want the garden-variety versions of the heroes and villains back. Either way, Tynion seems to be implicitly allaying fears of these vocal fans by saying, Yes, I’m aware that maybe we’ve pushed things too far. I hear you.
But that sentiment doesn’t stop Tynion from leaning full-tilt into the lunacy, though. Hell Arisen #3, the penultimate issue of the series, is largely a calm before the storm, the final (?) confrontation between the forces of Perpetua and the armies of the Dark Multiverse next month. The inclusion of the Joker is more than welcome, a reminder of his special loathing for the Batman Who Laughs (again, perhaps a surrogate for readers who are sick of this overexposed character?). Although, all things being equal, calling this the penultimate chapter of a story that started way back in 2017 with Dark Knights: Metal, segued through thirty-nine issues of Justice League and several other miniseries only to be revealed as not over yet once Dark Knights: Death Metal kicks off in May – might be a little premature.
This issue heavily hinges on the always-tenuous partnership between Lex Luthor and the Joker. Theirs is a relationship that stretches back decades in real time, but has had to be re-imagined several times over in modern times to accommodate a major shift in one character or the other’s status quo. Which brings us to this issue, in which the Joker (back to a more relative normal after a decade and change spent in a weird Morrisonian evolutionary state as a chittering serial killer archetype and then strapping his severed face to his skull with a belt) is deeply uncomfortable with Lex’s ascension at Perpetua’s side, claiming he’s lost the plot of his own story. And maybe he’s right to think that, although it wasn’t that long ago that Lex was actively trying to be an honest-to-gods hero with a Superman S-shield on his armor and everything. In comics, these things tend to be both arbitrary and cyclical.
The dynamic between these two villains is always interesting. They both have one another’s number, two alpha males always eyeing each other warily but at the same time understanding that they make a powerful pair. Or that one can help the other get something he wants. Lex understands the Joker’s usefulness lies in his lack of predictability but is always watching him out of the corner of his eye. Joker, in his own warped way, respects Lex’s capacity for cruelty even as he’d gladly slit his throat at a moment’s notice if the whim struck him. Chaos and order. Yin and yang. The gold standards of DC villainy.
Therefore, seeing their dynamic disrupted by Perpetua turning Lex into a super-demigod but also her supplicant is deeply upsetting to Joker, ostensibly because it redefines his role in their relationship – and the Joker really, really dislikes change. This much is evident by his reaction to the mere mention of the Batman Who Laughs: “We don’t talk about him.” The BWL not only rankles the Joker’s sense of self by usurping his identity and mixing it with with Batman’s, but he also undermines his perceived natural order of things just by existing. In that way, Joker may be the most self-aware character in the entire DCU when it comes to the BWL.
This issue also sees the full debut of Punchline, the Joker’s new galpal and heir apparent in his orbit to Harley Quinn. Speculators have driven the after-market value of this issue up over ten times more than its cover price based on it being her first appearance. It’s therefore amusing that she doesn’t exactly do anything this issue that couldn’t be accomplished by a run-of-the-mill henchman. Hardly an auspicious debut.
The remainder of the issue revolves around the BWL’s plans and schemes, which still haven’t been revealed in full but now involve his capture of Nix Uotan, the last Monitor. It’s worth noting that last issue it was shown that BWL had captured Phantom Stranger; he’s clearly punching up. He alludes to some larger plans and even invokes the word “crisis,” so next issue will surely be the full charge-ahead to Death Metal.
The art is split this issue between Steve Epting and Javier Fernandez. These two have very different styles, and unfortunately that means the artistic flow of this issue doesn’t hit the highs of previous issues that were just drawn by Epting. Fernandez has a bit of a more frenetic, scratchy style, whereas Epting is all about a very smooth line. Colorist Nick Filardi tries to hold it all together, but his colors don’t mesh well with Fernandez’s pencils. The result is an issue that simply isn’t cohesive in the art department.
All things taken equally, Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen #3 isn't a bad comic per se. But it is a step back from the slam-bang fisticuffs of previous installments. There's some great interplay between Joker and Lex, and the table is set for the (supposedly) final throwdown with the Batman Who Laughs. It's a table-setting issue, which is fine, but it is dragged down by inconsistent art.
Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen #3 (of 4): Say Hi To the Bad Guy
Writing - 8/108/10
Storyline - 7/107/10
Art - 6/106/10
Color - 6/106/10
Cover Art - 8/108/10
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