Cripes on Infinite Earths Part 6: The Unholy Three

March 7th, 2012 by | Tags: , , , ,

Guest article by Fletcher “Syrg” Arnett

JSA: The Unholy Three
Written by: Dan Jolley & Tony Harris
Art by: Tony Harris, Ray Snyder, JD Mettler
Focuses on: Every damn hero they could think to cram into it (so, the JSA and change)
Self-contained/Multiple books: Multiple books (is a sequel)
Published in: 2003
Central premise: The Bat, The Clock, and The Super-Man, Clark Kent, have to track down a pair of Soviet KGB agents gone rogue looking for a weapon called “The Trigger”.
Martian Manhunter Out of Fucking Nowhere? Nope.

This is draft number one two three four of this article. Rereading The Unholy Three, I realized something: the first issue is really good (in fact, it contains a scene that my brain had thought was the end of Liberty File), and works even better on a second reading. The second is where all my dislike came from. Let’s get into it and hopefully this isn’t going to lead to me scrapping the whole damn thing again…

We come in on an abandoned theater, where a man is being tortured for information. The place is Berlin, the year is 1948. A second gentleman enters…

…and we’re off.

Meanwhile, in Gotham City, Bruce “The Bat” Wayne is writing in his journal again. He hasn’t felt the need to since the war ended, but his recent activities leave him with few people to talk to, as he begins trying to clean up the eternally-strange streets of Gotham.

This one isn’t nearly as egregious as later examples, but this is where we get the start of Unholy Three shoving in every reference it can to other DC characters. Look at that, we’ve got three villains in passing in one dialogue bubble.

It’s also the scene I mentioned above that I thought closed out Liberty File: after a brief scuffle where Bruce lops off a few of Harvey’s insect-limbs with a kukri to get in closer, we’re treated to the dream The Bat had when he was in the war.

Oh, and we’re also given the smuggest goddamn grin you will ever catch Batman making at a reader. Look at that face.

Returning home, two figures are waiting besides Alfred. One of them is a “General Maitland” (if this is a reference, I could not find to what), and the other is a bumbling country boy known as a “Mr. Kent”. Within hours, Bruce Wayne meets up with Rex “The Clock” Tyler. We learn three things quickly as they catch up: the pair are on active duty once more, Tyler’s chemical corporation is doing research hidden from all but the VERY top officials in the US government on what can harm or kill our boy Kent, and Terry “Mr. Terrific” Sloane works in the same building… and has a serious hate-on for Bruce these days.

With the agents reunited, we get down to briefings. Two KGB agents of top caliber have gone rogue. So skilled that the intelligence available to the US is limited, all we have to go on are codenames and hearsay: a superhuman powerhouse known as Stalnoivolk (“Steelwolf”), and his partner, an interrogator known as the Parasite. Even less is known about the latter, a man who leaves his victims so mangled no autopsy can give a reasonable explanation of what’s happened. The pair are believed to be in Berlin, where a string of hits have occurred on intelligence agents of various branches. All were searching for a weapon, potentially based on stolen research from our own Albert Einstein, known as “the Trigger”. (Don’t blame me for inaccuracy in Einstein being credited first for a-bomb research, it’s how the book describes the scenario.)

I will give them props for that shifting of the timeline based on the last book – if we ended the war via Martian Manhunter utterly annihilating the Nazis in one stroke, the bombs weren’t dropped over a presumably-surrendering Japan, and thus the Manhattan Project is still something considered to be under wraps to most nations. But anyway.

Because of Steelwolf’s superhuman abilities, the command has put the veteran spies underneath the supervision of Clark Kent, the allied Superman. The duo grumble and complain. Kent, however, gets smug as hell.

Look at that shit-eating grin. God damn, Clark.

As the trio are flown to Berlin, we get a bit of downtime, and cover their skillsets. The only new information is our Super-Man’s limits: he lets us in on flight and enhanced senses, while asking everyone else what they can do. A brief cut shows us Parasite taking out another agent on the ground, and eventually the Bat blows up on the rookie, who leaves the plane in a huff, showing that yes, he can indeed fly, and quite a bit faster than the plane. He’ll be the first to arrive at the scene of the crime.

It turns out while in transit, four agents have been taken out. Two of them match the others, two seem a divergence from the pattern. What’s certain is that it basically cinches the Parasite/Steelwolf duo, because at least one would be impossible for Parasite to have done on his own given the method of entry (fingers dug into the very brick wall of a building to climb onto a terrace). Bruce and Rex will look at the other possible-Parasite scene, and Clark’s speed will make it more efficient for him to pick up and pore over the last two forensics reports. The group splits up.

We’re given a flashback here, and find out that Sloane wasn’t picked up for this mission because of how he and Bruce fell out after the war’s end. After a debriefing sometime in 1944, the pair get to talking alone… and apparently, Sloane had taken to setting up booby traps for Bruce. Every time he sees him in-mask, he just thinks of how if he had been a little faster, a little more careful, the Scarecrow’s bullet wouldn’t have ended up in Eva’s chest. He’s taking a job working with Tyler and retiring from active duty “because I don’t want to kill you [Bruce]. I don’t think.”

Meanwhile, Clark Kent gets ogled by the forensics examiner.

So remember the brief montage of the original trio going to town in Cairo in Liberty File, and there being a Master-Blaster style duo where cannonballs were fired? Yeah, that duo was “Whispering Pete and Bob”, and they were arms dealers. (This is all information we’re learning for the first time in this story. They didn’t even have DIALOGUE in the last one.) A strange Japanese pistol round found at the crime scene points to the pair having a hand in it, and so the veterans go looking for them. Kent, meanwhile, promises the lovely Shiera he’ll return later that night for some “enjoyment”.

This is the point where there is a comedy “fight scene” between Whispering Pete/Hourman and Bob/Batman. It is basically what you would expect except this time, the cannon is replaced with a very large, supposed-to-be-mounted minigun. Whispering Pete is carrying this when he enters, obviously, because of a reason I will let him tell you.

If there is any more to that story, I don’t want to know it, because that brings a smile to my face every damn time.

Super-Man comes in for a last-second assist, bending Whispering Pete’s minigun in half. It provides Bob with a very good reason to sell out Parasite, and the trio head for the rogue agents’ lair.

Oh, wait. Make that “rogue agent’s lair”. Steelwolf has been dead longer than the team have been reunited, and apparently the Parasite can absorb metahuman powers as well as memories. (At this point every Superman fan with casual knowledge of the character is going “well duhhhh”.) Discovered, the ex-KGB throws caution to the wind, discarding his human disguise, spitting acid into Kent’s face, and starting a massive ruckus. What follows is, like the original book, a beautifully-composed final fight scene where the trio toss every trick in their books at him to try and take down the biggest monster in the room.

Bleeding profusely and just sick of this crap, Parasite finally begins sputtering in rage. He has no idea why he’s being attacked, and tells the team they have no idea who they’re working for. Bruce’s journal reappears for the first time in ages to narrate what happens next: “I’ll never know if he might have said more, because suddenly the air filled with the sound of mortar cracking and metal rending, and we looked up…”

The Parasite is very clearly finished after this last blow. Kent begins blubbering about how he panicked, and the veterans console him. “Sometimes it just… happens this way.” The case closed, if not solved, they flee before the German army comes down on the scene of the catastrophe.

Two days later, a call catches the team at their safehouse as they’re preparing to return home. The coroner has found a body embedded into a canalway’s wall, time of death placed at the day prior. Something is still amiss in Berlin, and they’re not getting out of the country until they can determine it. Kent asks if he can take a walk, no more than an hour, and gets his time off. Bruce and Rex admit to themselves: green or not, the kid did pretty well in charge.

Kent, however, has not taken a walk. He’s headed out to visit Shiera, and this is where the twist hits. I’m just going to let you read the conclusion of the first issue.

So let’s recap the bombshell here. This is pretty much the high point of the story, and why I said it works great on a re-read, because you can line up a lot of loose ends with this information. When we had the four agents dead earlier, two of those were by Zod’s hand when he left the plane (and thus why they didn’t match up with the Parasite killings). He went from sulking to agreeable about collecting the reports so he could remove mention of any evidence that might have pointed towards himself at those scenes. Finally, when Parasite mentioned not knowing “who they were in bed with” and his confusion, well. When your boss kicks in the door and tries to kill you alongside two mooks you’ve never met, you’ll be shaken too. Zod has been playing every damn person for a fool the entire book, and if you’re aware of that, the clues all add up pretty smoothly.

The second issue puts a bad taste in my mouth, however, because most of it is a cameo-filled fight scene. The first book has some twists and intrigue to it, and the second I can sum up in two lines: “Zod hoodwinks his partners to finally find the Trigger. 40 pages of fight scene ensue when they discover the deception.” I really cannot add more to it than this, so I’ll just cover the small details.

The Trigger is a device that would send a pulse through the planet’s crust. Anywhere this hit a refined radioactive substance (ie, nuclear power plants or any kind of silo) would cause it to react like an H-bomb detonated from the material. Zod wants it to blackmail the world into ceasing nuclear research, given that it’s the lone weakness anyone has discovered for him.

Zod’s final undoing comes (in part) from Bruce reacting to Zod going rogue by calling in every agent anywhere near Russia, because, and here’s a shock, the trigger is at a Russian nuclear station known as Chernobyl. This is where my gripe about cameos earlier really kicks in because aside from Starman and The Flash, everyone one of these people gets in one hit and is either incapacitated and killed.

The Sloane/Wayne plot wraps up when Sloane refuses to let his research (a formula that can mimic Zod’s powers) go without coming along for the ride. Wayne jams the likely-toxic syringe into himself and tells him “Well, guess what – I’m your test subject, because if it goes wrong, there’s nobody you’d want dead more than me.” Sloane refuses to let him succumb to the pain and die, and Wayne beats the hell out of Zod before Starman locks him in the now-melting-down reactor core and shoves it into space.

In the end, Bruce is some sort of superhuman now, forever altered by the formula coursing through his veins. Every official seems somewhat relieved at the death of “Super-Man”, since not a damn person knew what he was, where he came from, or what to do with him. I don’t know, most of the whole second issue and the conclusion just… it throws me off, and no matter how many times I try, I can’t elaborate on why. A lot of the rewrites come from trying to figure out how to cover this, and if anyone feels I’ve done it an injustice here, I want you to call me on it and tell me your side of the story. Maybe I can figure out what’s bugging me if someone else puts it into their own words as a positive.

The next Elseworld we cover is going to be something different, and much more interesting to look at based on the current state of the Bat-family… it’s almost “what if Batman, Incorporated went horribly awry?”. But before that, I’m going to try and talk Gavok into letting me take a brief digression into a miniseries I seem to be alone in enjoying…

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2 comments to “Cripes on Infinite Earths Part 6: The Unholy Three”

  1. I actually didn’t hate Trouble! It wasn’t the best thing, but it was fun enough.

  2. The scene with The Bat and Dent isn’t actually the first major reference in the issue. The man being tortured in the abandoned theater is “Mr. Hawkins,” a reference to Sandman-sidekick Sand/Sandy. Oddly enough, one of Sand’s big character beats in JSA was being abducted and bound in a theater by Johnny Sorrow.