Marvel and the Avengers might be getting all the attention right now, but DC is making some major moves to keep up with the competition on the comics front. The DC Universe streaming service just added 20,000 issues from the publisher’s back catalog, finally giving DC fans their version of Marvel Unlimited, and this week sees the release of Year Of The Villain #1 (DC Comics), a 25-cent one-shot setting up a line-wide event that puts the bad guys in power. The general concept is very similar to the Forever Evil crossover from DC’s New 52 era, but a major difference is that the publisher’s line is in a stronger place now than it was five years ago.

DC’s central characters are faring well in their ongoing series, but it also feels like creators are off in their own little corners instead of playing together. Tom King is in his world of superhero trauma with Batman and Heroes In Crisis. Brian Michael Bendis has his Superman territory plus the books of his Wonder Comics imprint. Grant Morrison, G. Willow Wilson, and Kelly Sue DeConnick have started compelling runs on The Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, but we haven’t seen their interpretations of these characters interact with the larger DCU. One of the major reasons why these books are good is because DC is giving creators the freedom to tell distinct stories, but they can only avoid the demands of a shared universe for so long.

Cover by Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion, and FCO Plascencia
Image: DC Comics

These characters all exist together, and superhero comic fans want to see them connect with each other. Darkness is proving very lucrative for DC given that its bestselling books are Batman, The Batman Who Laughs, Doomsday Clock, and Heroes In Crisis, so it makes sense for the publisher to highlight its villains for a big summer story that unites all its properties. The specter of Doomsday Clock looms especially heavy on Year Of The Villain given that the Watchmen-adjacent miniseries takes place in the DCU’s future, and every new event announced by DC comes across as a way to fill a gap left by Doomsday Clock’s long, consistent delays.

Year Of The Villain features three stories: two exploring major ongoing plot threads from the Justice League and one setting up Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s upcoming Event Leviathan miniseries. Having two Justice League tales is redundant, and it’s a missed opportunity to use one of the book’s slots to bring more eyes to a different series. None of these stories are especially accessible to new readers, but these one-shots are made to appeal to established superhero fans rather than bringing in a fresh audience. DC’s Free Comic Book Day issues are intended for the latter, and DC wisely releases Year Of The Villain the same week as FCBD to capitalize on the increased comic shop traffic and cater to both groups.

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On the art front, Year Of The Villain highlights the strength of DC’s artist line-up, which now includes former artists like Jim Cheung and Alex Maleev, whose careers started at DC before they leveled up significantly at Marvel. Cheung’s artwork with colorist Tomeu Morey delivers crisp detail without sacrificing dynamic energy, with a particularly impressive two-page spread establishing the scope of this event on the villain side. Francis Manapul delivers the heroic counterpart to that image in his story with James Tynion IV, but dramatic group shots aren’t enough to overcome the heavy exposition that drags down the momentum of those stories. Scott Snyder and Tynion IV have laid a lot of groundwork to get to this point, and they want you to know just how much, whereas Bendis takes a more active approach, setting up a mystery with a team-up between Batgirl and Green Arrow that goes very wrong. Maleev’s stark, inky artwork is a significant departure from Cheung and Morales, suggesting that there will still be room for stylistic interpretation in this line-wide crossover.

At the end of the day, Year Of The Villain is a damn good value at 25 cents for three new stories, and hopefully DC will continue to put out these annual samplers to promote upcoming titles. Superhero comics are an expensive habit, and these one-shots are a thank-you to the fans who have invested so much in these characters, giving them new stories from high-profile creative teams at an unbeatable price point. Selling these books for 25 cents tells retailers and readers that DC has so much faith in these stories that it is willing to basically give away part of them, and while Year Of The Villain may not be flawless, it’s an enthusiastic, confident step into the future.