Deathmatch: (2) A Thousand Cuts.
by Paul Jenkins and Carlos Magno
collects Deathmatch 5-8
Why I Bought This: A couple years ago Deathmatch #1 was one of the Free Comic Book Day giveaways and it read well enough that I decided that one day I would read the rest of the story, particularly because it was written by Paul Jenkins, who was one of the best Spider-man writers of all time. Cut to a couple months ago, where BAM was selling all three trades that make up the entire miniseries brand new for $4 each and I grabbed them all on the spot.
The Plot: Earth’s major heroes and villains find themselves on an alien prison with no memory of how that got there and forced to battle each other in an arena to the death. Most of the characters are analogs to the major DC and Marvel heroes. In the finale of volume 1 the Lex Luthor analog hacked the prison’s computer to eliminate the guards (constructs of living light) and power dampeners, before being seemingly killed by the Batman analog.
Chapter 5 – So within the prison there has been a mysterious vault that none of other heroes could determine what is inside. Now that prison security is down the heroes open the vault but it is empty. The heroes come up with a quick plan: American Champion (Captain America) will find Manchurian (Reed Richards) to see if they can hack the remaining prison systems to escape. Omni-Engine (Iron Man) and Lightspeed (Flash) will find Manchurian (Superman) to see if his power can bust them all out. The remaining heroes will proceed in search of an exit while keeping an eye out for the three super villains in the prison. Those five heroes end up having to split up down to tunnels. Sol Invictus (Thor) and Minx (Robin) find Melody Tune (no clear analog—she has sonic powers similar to Songbird of the Thunderbolts with both explosive sound attacks and manipulating solid sound energy though she proves to be much more powerful and deadly) tormenting Nephilim (Hulk). She quickly drops both Invictus and Minx and is about to kill Minx when Nephilim recovers enough to hit her with a steel pipe. Meanwhile Lightspeed and Omni Engine find a large black void of negative energy draining part of the prison and then see Meridian getting tossed around. Meridian says he can’t help them escape because he has to try to fight the negative particle creature. Lightspeed tries to contain it and is disintegrated in a scene remiscent of Flash’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Meanwhile Sable (Batman, although female), Dragonfly (Spider-man) and Rat (no clear analog, he’s not even a superhero but rather pseudo pulp hero/detective/spy with no superpowers out to stop conspiracy theories) are walking down the other tunnel when they come across Mr. Chuckles (Joker). Sable immediately takes off after him. Rat then tries to persuade Dragonfly to ignore her and keep going while they have the chance to escape. Back to the first fight Melody Tune’s scream has both Invictus and Nephilim on the defensive (again she’s essentially taking on Thor and Hulk at once and winning) when Minx notices the power is coming back on. Meanwhile in the other tunnel Rat has apparently left without Dragonfly, and Dragonfly has decided to follow but now comes across his own archenemy Cube (no clear analog, probably closest to Venom of Spider-man’s major foes. He has jellyfish powers including detachable tentacles to wrap up his enemies and poison to kill them that he discharges from a large distended jaw), who has killed some hero from India (with no clear analog) off-panel. Meanwhile Sable and Rat find Manchurian alongside the dead body of American Champion, who is working frantically to restore power to the prison. Meanwhile Cube wraps up Dragonfly and opens his mouth of death in preparation of the coup de grace. Just then Manchurian restores power explaining it is the only way to stop the anti-energy creature from killing them all and destroying the universe. Once he does so, prison security drops everyone.
Chapter 6 – Everyone wakes up and compares notes, with tensions running high among the heroes after the deaths of three of their comrades and many dissenting with Manchurian’s choice to repower the prison. Rat and Invictus are sent to the arena to fight. The arena is like the holodeck in Star Trek TNG and selects an environment to even the playing field for each battle: in this case a world in which the sun is dying as Invictus is a sun god so this diminishes his power significantly. Rat gets the drop on him and chokes him to death with barb wire. Next is Melody Tune vs. Minx in a vacuum environment (hence her sound powers lose their range.) Minx lays a beating on Melody but once she’s in too close Melody kisses her and detonates the air in her lungs to carry sound, which kills Minx. As Sable grieves, Dragonfly finds time to confront Meridian as the Luthor analog had claimed Meridian had a secret that relates to why they are all here. In the course of the argument Meridian reveals he knows what the anti-energy creature is and that it is called the Anti-Meridian.
Chapter 7 – Meridian continues his story: once he was flying in space and found a wormhole. He flew through into a parallel dimension of evil. The shadow creature encountered him and entered his soul. It then drained all of his darkest impulses and emotions to become the Anti-Meridian. Meridian fled back to his home universe but the creature followed. In addition the portal destabilized destroying a galaxy before being stopped by the Earth’s heroes in an event similar to DC’s Crisis known as the Rift wherein Meridian saved the day. He says only Manchurian knew the truth about the Rift Finally, he notes the Anti-Meridian lives backwards so it remembers Meridian’s future and has already shown him its memory of how it will kill Meridian. Dragonfly relates this to the other heroes, many of whom wonder how Manchurian could have kept the truth from them. Omni Engine also flashes back to the Rift and how stopping it fused his nerve endings into a state of constant pain that he never revealed to his teammates. Back to the arena, where Melody kills Nephilim (who is not at full strength due to killing his lover in chapter 1). Next Manchurian narrowly defeats an ancient mystic evil known as the Shadow Runner. At first, Shadow Runner is immune to all of Manchurian’s science but Manchurian sells his soul to the devil that empowers the Runner in order to defeat it, claiming it was the only logical way to win. Finally, we get the final battle between Sable and Mr. Chuckles (who of all the analogs are the closest to pure versions of their archtypes i.e. Batman and Joker). It is written like the final battle between those two would be, Chuckles even confessing he knew Sable’s secret identity all along but never acted on it because it would spoil the fun, except for the time he keyed her faithful butler’s car. Ultimately, Sable is forced to let him fall to his death to advance to the next round. As the remaining heroes are watching the fight (all the arena fights are televised in the prison), Rat finally uncovers the sign language used by the alien known as Glyph, whom has been imprisoned in a glass bowl and quarantined away from all the others since chapter 1. Rat learns that the heroes were not abducted but came here by choice and chose to wipe their memories, with the possible exception of Manchurian at which point an alarm goes off and the prison security kills both Rat and Glyph for “unauthorized recall.”
Chapter 8 – On his way to the arena Meridian tells Dragonfly that when Anti-Meridian showed him the future memory of his own death, it also accidentally showed him a memory of Dragonfly killing the Anti-Meridian. In the arena, Anti-Meridian literally tears Meridian limb from limb. Up next, Sable vs. Omni-Engine. Once inside the arena their memories confirm the heroes voluntarily set this all up. They briefly try to talk and see if they can figure out another option before fighting. Omni-Engine tries to throw the fight, but Sable the detective realizes it. He then tells her of his constant pain since the Rift crisis seven years ago and asks her to put him out of his misery, which she does.
Critical Thoughts: This is a good book. The three volumes together do a good job of telling one finite story, and by making the cast analogs of more famous heroes it gives the story more heft than it would otherwise have as independent comic filled with new characters fighting to the death. Jenkins does a fine job balancing the numerous fight scenes with the overall mystery of what is happening, who is responsible, how they can make the heroes kill each other, and what the end goal of their captors are.
Jenkins is as always a great writer of characters, and he continues that trend here. He draws distinctions among his analogs and how the styles of heroes they represent differ in the many downtime scenes between fights in the prison. I liked the Sable-Chuckles fight in this volume and its look at archenemies. I also think his original characters are quite strong. Rat becomes a key player in volume 1, making his death in this volume one of the most shocking in the series. Melody Tune also comes across as a very dangerous villain.
In this volume my main criticism is once we see in the Sable/Omni Engine fight that it is possible to throw a fight in the arena, it makes Nephilim’s decision to kill his lover in volume 1 inexplicable–and Jenkins uses that scenes as the first major story beat in volume 1.
I mean can also argue that the Holodeck goes beyond evening the field when it depowers heroes like Invictus and Melody and throws them in there with expert hand to hand fighters. But that’s a minor gripe, since despite the name of the book aren’t really the story here.
Grade: I would give this volume an A. When you are reading this story sequentially the mystery is compelling in these chapters, pacing just enough answers with riddles per volume to make this a page-turner. The prison breakout chapter that starts this volume is also one of the most intense and intriguing in the entire series (particularly when you’ve read the build up in volume 1). The series as a whole probably gets a B, as I do have some qualms with one of the final revelations that I don’t want to spoil (which is why I reviewed the middle volume), but overall Jenkins has a written a tight story with lots of twists and turns. I’d certainly recommend picking up the entire series if you get in the same price range I did.