Elseworlds books were fascinating to me when they first appeared in the early 1990s, and while I didn’t get all of them (mostly because the $4.95 price tag was a bit too much at the time), I got my hands on a fair share, especially a number of the Batman ones (of which there were many) and some of the annuals that appeared in 1994. But by the early 2000s, I wasn’t paying that much attention to what was going on in the DCU beyond a few titles, so JLA: Riddle of the Beast completely passed me by.
I don’t think I would have bought it anyway. It is a full-blown graphic novel and not just a prestige format one-shot, and therefore had a cover price of $14.95, which was still more than I was willing to pay even in 2002 when it came out and I was working a steady job. But for $6.99 on my LCS’ discount trade shelves right when I was about to sit down and read things for #FantasyComicsMonth? Sold!
The story is that of a Hero’s Journey to unite a fallen world in order to save it from a great evil that had once been defeated. We open fifteen years after the death of “The Beast”–Etrigan, The Demon–in Haven, a quiet community that has peacefully thrived since The Beast was defeated. However, The Beast is not dead, and a weird creature named The Riddler summons Robin Drake to his house to give him his quest: unite the world, defeat the beast once and for all.
Doing so is not easy. Haven is destroyed and Robin is up against kingdoms of the realm that have fallen into chaos, such as “City of the Center”; are facing a full-blown invasion, like in “Kryptonia”; are dark places where nobody fears to tread, like “Gotham Crags”; or have cut themselves off completely, like “Amazonia.” Robin soon finds allies in Zatanna, Green Arrow, and Hawkman and Hawkwoman and they go off to these various places to see if they can convince the rulers that The Beast has returned and they must unite at “World’s End” to fight the final battle.
While this preceded the much-lauded Marvel 1603 by about a year, JLA: Riddle of the Beast has that same flavor. It also reminded me of the New Titans annual from 1994, where the team was in a fantasy/pirate world. That annual had its moments and was slightly better than how bad that book had become but is largely forgettable; I remember kind of liking Marvel 1603 but was distracted by the constant need to identify the characters who were versions of regular heroes. That latter problem is one of two things that hamstring this graphic novel. The other is that it’s not long enough.
Alan Grant, whose Batman work I adore, is the writer here and the character designs were by Michael Kaluta. The art is by Many Hands, with someone different drawing each chapter. That works in that different settings get wholly different looks and feels. It doesn’t work in that it can be distracting. I enjoyed the story, even though there were too many moments that felt like “Hey! Kids! Look! It’s Batman and Nightwing!”, but Robin spends so much time finding the various heroes that the final battle feels a bit rushed. This could have very well been a duology or trilogy of graphic novels with a Gathering chapter, a Darkness/Low Point chapter, and a Final Triumph chapter. It’s just too much to fit into the 104 or so pages that Grant gives us because this is a world that would have been fascinating to live in for much longer.
But considering that this might not have sold very well in 2002, I don’t know if DC would have sprug for that.
And the book is still gorgeous and fun to read. Grant knows the characters pretty well and in the case of some of them, does a great job of twisting their personalities or traits to fit his story (Riddler as a weird bug-like creature, Aquaman as Mer-Man from MOTU, sickly king Kal-El of Kryptonia). Plus, he gives us a good combination of Tim Drake and Link for our protagonist. I don’t know if this is something that’s been available digitally at all, so it might just be sitting around on used trades shelves. If you find it, give it a try.
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