Sunday, August 1, 1999

James Jesse: The Man Who Sold The World

It was a disaster of biblical proportions. Quite literally. Metahuman villains, newly powered by the demon Neron were spreading chaos on a global scale. The mightiest of all the heroes gathered together, and led by Blue Devil, entered Hell to confront Neron. About half a dozen survived the journey to Neron's lair. But upon entering, all the heroes became possessed by the dark sides of their nature and thus, susceptible to Neron's commands. All the heroes but Captain Marvel, that is. Ordering the other heroes to attack The Big Red Cheese, Neron hoped to enrage him enough to get a handhold on Captain Marvel's very pure soul; an item that would make Neron omnipotent. There was only one man who save the world and maybe the Universe… a man in bright yellow-striped clown pants.

Kind of hard to believe, isn't it? But it happened. For in that instant a sinner turned saint… a sinner named James Jesse. Hand-picked by Neron to be his right hand man, James Jesse had long been an antagonist to the Barry Allen Flash and to Blue Devil. Known for being a master con man and using toys as weapons, James went by the name The Trickster. Neron appreciated James's skills as a con artist, saying they were much alike, in that Neron made promises but never quite gave what was expected, like the Devil in Faust. He even told James that he couldn't refuse any deal that anyone made him.

It was this secret that James exploited to save Captain Marvel, explaining to him his plan to stop Neron. It was then that Captain Marvel asked Neron for a bargain: his soul in exchange for the promise to leave the world alone. True to what he said, Neron was unable to refuse the deal and tried to claim Marvel's soul. But since James was able to stop Captain Marvel from killing the other heroes, his soul was still too pure for Neron to touch. Neron jumped back from the Captain; his hand burned. He was unable to claim his prize and worse still, he was bound by his deal to restore the world as it had been. So in the Earth's darkest hour, it was not the World's Finest who came to the rescue, but an ordinary man in really loud pants…a man who outsmarted the devil.

Now, this really impressed me when I read Underworld Unleashed. Most recent DC crossovers have followed the same three-step formula. Step One: Big bad guy comes out of nowhere and threatens the Earth. Step Two: All the heroes in the DCU get together and unload seven kinds of whoop-ass on the bad guy. Step Three: We all waste 20 bucks collecting all the "special" issues and feel very disappointed. Here, the traditional "let's throw the heavies at the bad guy until he screams for mercy" plan is tried… and fails. It is a fitting end to this story, which was written mainly as a way of giving exposure to some little used characters that the person who beats the devil is a Z-list villain who has often been referred to as a "poor man's Joker". I've been a big fan of Trickster ever since, having always loved heroes and villains who used smarts over strength as well as a fondness for characters with a silly attitude.

With Underworld Unleashed having been very well received by fans and critics alike, a strong future for James Jesse seemed certain, what with his being the narrator for most of the tale. But as James lamented after conning Neron "…I engineered the greatest sting of all time… and nobody saw me do it". Indeed, with the exception of Neron and possibly Captain Marvel, nobody knows that it was the Trickster who saved them all. In an eerie parallel to the DC world, James seems to have been nearly forgotten by comic fans and writers after having made such a great showing in Underworld Unleashed.

In the four years since then, James's appearances have been very few and far between. Aside from a mention in Flash and an issue of Impulse I have yet to track down, James has in fact disappeared off the map. But when James HAS shown up, it has just shown what great potential there is and what a waste it is to keep him in Limbo.

James's most notable recent sighting came in "The Rogues" one-shot during DC's "New Year's Evil" week ; a book that covered the post-UU exploits of Flash's Rogues Gallery. The curtain rises on the just-saved-from-Hell Rogues (Captain Cold, Boomerang, Heatwave, Mirror Master, and Weather Wizard) breaking into the Holy Temple of Meshta in Zhutan. We find that they are at this temple, because The Trickster told them that the temple contains the Sun Disk of Meshta- a large holy object reputed to have great evil-banishing powers. Since the Rogues are all nervous about Neron coming after them again, they figure having the disk will be good protection.

Actually, James is just using the other Rogues as a distraction, for while the Rogues break in, James watches from afar along with a woman named Mindy. In a discussion that sounds like it came from an Indiana Jones movie, James notes the main beliefs of the religion that worships Meshta (Saavistranism) and how he is exploiting them in his plan. In short, the people of Zhutan believe that every thousand years, a child is picked by Meshta to be the Majee: a special agent who observes and judges mankind's progress. If the Majee gives Meshta a good report, then five elemental angels (Yavatis) appear to usher in a new Golden Age of Peace and Enlightenment. (This isn't nearly as hokey as it sounds) Mindy, who is an ex-girlfriend of James', is the mother of the current Majee and is being held prisoner by the Warlord who rules Zhutan. The warlord is using the Majee is a shield against any uprisings by the religious folk of Zhutan who obviously don't want to see their Golden child get hurt.

With the exposition out of the way, we see the Rogues try and make off with the disk when Heatwave notices a carving depicting five men who are controlling the forces of fire, ice, weather, light and curved sticks. (You mean you didn't know that Boomerangs were the Fifth Element?) The Rogues pause long enough to wonder what the heck it means when members of the warlord's army and the Warlord himself burst in and capture the Rogues. The Warlord is about to have them shot when his nephew/adviser tells him of the legend of the Yavatis. He suggests the Rogues might be convincing substitutes for the real thing. With the temple, the Majee and the Yavatis under his command, the Warlord should be able to conquer the entire mountain region.

Trickster and Mindy walk down to the temple and surrender themselves; James reassuring her it's all part of the plan. Once inside the temple, James chants some stuff and the room lights up and a deep booming voice orders the guards to let everyone go. Of course, it's just Pied Piper using a light board and a microphone, but the effect is convincing enough to get the nephew into chanting a real chant that will summon Ahrnyu (Meshta's devil). His body turns into that of a giant snake man and he gets ready to tear everybody in the immediate area to shreds. In a scene that will either make you laugh or groan, depending on how much you love classic Silver Age material, Trickster single-handedly fights Ahrnyu by running around him in mid air (while doing a plug for his Air Jesse shoes) squirting him with seltzer. At the same time, the other Rogues cut down the Sun Disk and use it to protect everyone in the area, albeit after some prodding from Heatwave. After taking several taunting squirts in the face from Trickster, Ahrnyu reveals himself as a masked incarnation of Neron. Neron grabs James and is about to eat him when the Rogues and the Majee attack. Of course the ice and fire guns have no effect upon Neron, but they do keep him distracted long enough for the Majee to summon up an angel of vengeance. After getting cut up pretty badly by the angel, James makes Neron a deal: forget the Majee and the Rogues and he won't die. Neron asks James if he wishes to be forgotten too, to which he responds "Nah. I want you to remember I'm the guy who fed you two plates of crow."

"The Rogues: One Shot" didn't do very well compared to the other New Years Evil one-shots, despite being a rather good story. Admittedly, the story was a little hokey in some place but it was in a good, Silver Age way (like most Waid-written Flash stories). But after that one-shot, James disappeared again despite some major revelations in the end of the book, like the Majee being his son and the notion that he was going to become a full time hero. It looked like James was going to be trapped in Limbo again. That is until the news came out that he would be part of a three-story arc at the conclusion of Devin Grayson's run on Catwoman. Now, I've got to admit that despite loving Grayson's work, I was a little nervous about the announcement. After all, the last second stringer to do a guest shot on Catwoman, Nemesis, got killed. So it was with deep dread that I read through Catwoman 69-71.

To sum up previous issues, after Gotham was sealed off Selina left Gotham for New York and decided to steal the city. She gets a job for a major corporation and through a scam too complex to describe, she manages to cheat on the stock market and makes a few billion dollars for the company. An impressed Board of Directors decides to make her CEO after only a few days on the job. With a company and a new reputation as a master businesswoman, Selina decides to run for mayor of NYC. The local Mafia is not too thrilled about this, since the current mayor is in their pocket (no comments about this suggesting anything about Gulliani). So they hire various assassins (the Body Doubles and Lady Vic among others) to kill Selina Kyle, but Catwoman stops them. It's at this point (the beginning of #69) that Carlino, the head of the Mafioso hires Trickster to find some way to stop Kyle besides killing her.

Now right after reading that I became worried. After all, working for the Mafia to derail an election isn't exactly the type of thing likely to build good karma. And when we last saw James, he was definitely leaning towards the light side of the scales. It seemed to be a complete and total 180 on everything that has been done with the Trickster's character for the last half a decade. My fears turned out to be rather groundless, for as James explains later, he figured his reputation as a con man was too good to give up so he just uses it as one more tool as he does good things while everyone thinks he's a bad guy.

Trickster and Catwoman meet by "accident" on the roof of Selina Kyle's hotel room. Trickster is setting up a spy camera, which Catwoman offers to set up inside the room for him. James turns around to for a second after he hands Catwoman the camera, at which point she disappears. It's not much of a surprise to us, but not much of a surprise to James either, as he responds by grinning and saying "Cute, but predictable".

The next day, we see Trickster moving around New York in a suit. First, James intercepts an S.E.C. (Security Exchange Commission-the guys who regulate the Stock Market) agent who has just frozen the assets of Selina's company so that they can investigate the stock market tampering Selina did. Posing as an old classmate, James switches briefcases with the man after running into him. He then makes several calls to various media whores, spreading a rumor that Selina Kyle is Catwoman. Finally, he goes to Selina's campaign office, which is in total chaos due to the rumors. He introduces himself as James Jesse and tells Selina he knows who is responsible for spreading the rumors and how to find him. The name he gives for the responsible party is "Trickster".

Sometime later, Catwoman shows up at the bar where she finds Trickster. She starts beating him up and asks, "How did you know?" He says he doesn't know what she is talking about and asks if he's upset that he mentioned her in the rumors. Catwoman goes with this suggestion, accepting that Trickster didn't discover her secret identity and it was just a coincidence that he decided to use a "Selina Kyle is Catwoman" rumor to cause a scandal that would force her to stop running for mayor. She completely forgets about one thing though: why would Trickster finger himself in the first place? Because he told Selina Kyle who started the rumors, but not Catwoman. So the fact that it was Catwoman who came after him told him one of two things: either Catwoman worked for Kyle… or was Kyle.

Catwoman goes to Carlino and tells him to call off the other assassins and hired villains and SHE'LL kill Selina Kyle for him. One well-placed whip crack later, he agrees. As she's leaving the hideaway she runs into Trickster. She tells him he might as well go since the contract on Kyle is all hers now. Trickster agrees to go since he has found something more profitable than discrediting Kyle anyway. He shows Catwoman the papers he took from the briefcase of the S.E.C agent. It turns out the agent who froze Selina's assets used paperwork that would allow the funds to be redirected anywhere if it was found that she had done something illegal like insider trading. After a brief struggle, Trickster suggests they work together and split the funds for the assassination job and the thievery 50/50. Catwoman reluctantly agrees, as she tries to figure out a way to lose Trickster, get the papers and fake her death.

To stall for time, she leads Trickster into a fight with the Mafia, claiming that Kyle is in with them and that they might be able to find something suggesting where she is hiding. Trickster, of course, doesn't buy this, asking why the Mafia would have a hit on someone they are protecting. But he is distracted long enough in the fight, for Catwoman to "find" two fake ID's that belong to Kyle and to find out the frequent hangouts of those identities. She suggests they split up and each cover one of the ID's. James disguises himself as a photographer and goes to an Italian restaurant that "Alida Bennet" frequents. He spots her easily (it's Selina in a blond wig) and he tries to get her to come with him by threatening her with a gun built into a camera. They get into a fight during which Selina steals the envelope with the papers that James is carrying on him. The chef/owner and his son break up the fight, asking why James is trying to kidnap the woman. James tries to explain his actions by saying the woman is a crook. The owner says this is impossible, since the woman is his daughter. Apologizing profusely, James leaves the café. A relived Selina removes her wig and pays the owner for playing his part well. She goes off, changes into her costume and opens the envelope that holds her money… to find a note written in purple crayon that reads "BAD KITTY".

Catwoman tracks Trickster down. She tries to take the real envelope from him, but it turns out he has several on him. He offers to play Three-Card Monte for the papers, but Catwoman just whips the three envelopes out if his hand. Trickster says he's disappointed that with all her reputation and all the bragging Catwoman has done to Carlino, that she's going to settle for stealing Selina Kyle's bank account. He also says that Carlino is very upset that Catwoman hasn't killed Kyle yet and that he is going to do the hit himself at her bank the next morning, figuring that Kyle will be there trying to stop her accounts from being liquidated. Trickster then escapes, noting that he still has the paperwork. This puts Catwoman in quite a bind. She can show up at the bank as Kyle and try to save her money from Trickster. Or she can show up as Catwoman and salvage her reputation as a master criminal by somehow killing Kyle.

Catwoman chooses to save her reputation. Finding a body that looks a lot like her (usually you don't see morgue break-ins outside of a Vertigo book), she dresses it in her clothes, throws it over the side of the building and shows Carlino and his gang that Selina Kyle is dead. Tipped off by Catwoman, the police show up just as Selina sees Trickster walking out of the bank, holding a bank-book. She jumps down to confront him and the two get caught in a cop/mob firefight. Barely escaping into a dark alley, Trickster says he admires the scam although he'd rather not think about how she got the body. Catwoman starts to ask what he is talking about, when he tells her how he figured out she was Selina Kyle. (Basically a combination of them having the same body language and the fact that he isn't a complete idiot) He also explains to her how he's stopped stealing for himself and how he didn't take her money, but funneled into charity. He then hands her the book, noting that he was going to give it to a wildlife foundation but that he finally decided on giving it to Gotham Relief. With tears in her eyes, Selina kisses James and they both go their separate ways.

A marvelous story arc, although a bit convoluted, this story was everything I've been wanting to see since Underworld Unleashed. I was a bit worried about the story while reading it, because it makes no sense unless James knows or suspects Selina Kyle is Catwoman. But once you get to the final chapter and find that is the case, you realize how really wonderful the story is. Hopefully James will poke his head up somewhere else soon. In fact, it's pretty much a given. After all, for a man who can contest with Catwoman, think faster than the Flash and then out deal the devil, it is very difficult to sit idle. In fact, rumors already are circulating that Trickster will have big parts in the upcoming "Hell on Earth" story line and possibly even the conclusion of No Man's Land.

Well, I for one cannot wait to see Jesse James: The Man Who Sold The World again.