With Warren Ellis partly responsible for making superheroes a bit more realistic, and also the brains behind some of the most intelligent science fiction comics around, any new work with his name on carries a weight of high expectation. But how much flexibility can he possibly be allowed to have with DC Comics’ stable of super-folk?
Well, in New Maps of Hell he gives the heroes an edginess beyond what we usually see with these characters. Batman, for example, talks in brief but commanding sentences and has no time for nonsense. Superman, on the other hand, has the slightly cock-sure confidence of an invincible man, which slips through into his Clark Kent persona too. This gives the characters a little more dimension than we’re used to, at least before they get too wrapped up in their superheroics. As we flip around the characters in the first half of this book you get a great feeling that this is different to the usual superhero pulp and, while Ellis has inevitably left his inimitable style all over the characters, that they’re in the hands of someone willing to take them to the limit.
The plot revolves around an ancient malevolent intergalactic intelligence, summoned through the activities of Lex Luthor’s companies. By separating the Justice League’s members and placing them in their own private nightmares, it hopes to test humanity to see if it’s worthy of its presence. If not, it will wipe the planet clean of life as a message of failure to any future civilisations.
Despite the fact that Ellis’s script is sharp and witty, it falls foul of the usual problems associated with this bunch of characters: you can hurt them but only temporarily, and you certainly can’t defeat them. Despite looking marginally vulnerable in the middle of the book, the turn is inevitable and the status quo is maintained. Although far from unexpected, it’s a disappointment, leaving you with a heartfelt desire that DC either let Ellis loose on the characters with an opportunity to determine their fate, or give him licence to invest more time in the work he has full control over, which has ultimately proven to provide more scope for better stories.