When historians look back on this era of comics, they will likely refer to this era as the silver age of female superheroes. The only thing that might keep it from being a golden age would be the fact that Ant Man got a solo movie before Wonder Woman. Shortcomings aside, it's undeniable that female superheroes have risen to prominence during this era.
Carol Danvers became Captain Marvel. Kamala Khan became Ms. Marvel. Harley Quinn became more than an obsessive Joker fangirl. There are still unresolved issues, such as Power Girl's costume and Starfire's sexuality, but there has definitely been progress in the realm of female superheroes. However, the same cannot be said for female villains.
Female villains create a unique set of challenges that cannot be easily resolved with clones, time travel, and skin-tight costumes. All too often, female villains are reduced to typical femme fatales or glorified Bond girls. It's not enough for a female villain to just be a menacing presence with an hourglass figure. To stand out in an era where it's way too easy to undermine female characters, it takes a novel approach.
This is the approach Geoff Johns has set up with Grail, who has been the main catalyst to the events of Darkseid Wars. He has tried to make the fact that she's a woman secondary to the overall story. It's ambitious in that it's one of those feats that isn't usually accomplished outside of a Joss Whedon movie. For it to work, Grail can't just be a female version of Darkseid. Having an hourglass figure and a desire to exterminate all life in the universe just isn't enough. She's has to be different kind of villain with a different set of motivations.
Justice League: Darkseid War Special #1 attempts to shed light on those motivations. What it offers helps move the plot of Darkseid Wars forward, but it does little to make Grail more than Darkseid's evil daughter. She still comes off as the rotten apple of her daddy's eye, in some cases quite literally when omega beams enter the picture, and her story does little to make that more interesting. If anything, it overly simplifies her persona in a way that might as well be ripped from a Superfriends rerun.
That story doesn't try to make excuses for Grail. It doesn't try to make much of a story of it either. Grail is an evil, devious woman who treats inflicting death with the same glee as a child eating a chocolate cake. There was no real progression to this evil. She basically just follows Lady Gaga's message to the letter in that she was born this way. There's never really a sense that she could be anything else.
That's not to say the overall story is bland. If Justice League: Darkseid War Special #1 has an intriguing character, then it's not Grail. It's her mother, Myrina Black. She's the only character whose motivations feel compelling. She's a mother trying to protect her daughter, but she's also a mother fighting a losing battle. Any mother who has dealt with a rebellious teenage girl can empathize. With Grail, though, this battle is taken to an unreasonable extreme.
There's nothing in this story that would make anyone sympathize with Grail. Geoff Johns doesn't try to make her a tragic villain in the tradition of Two-Face, Sinestro, or Joel Shumacher. He only ever reinforces the notion that Grail is just inherently evil and everything she does is intended to make children and puppies cry. To her credit, Myrina Black still tries to love her daughter as any mother would. However, despite what nearly every song by the Beatles may claim, love is simply not enough.
Even if love isn't enough, the greatest strength of the story is that it's told from Myrina Black's perspective. Geoff Johns includes plenty of rich dialog and inner musings that offer insight into Myrina's personality. She's very much an Amazon. She has more warrior spirit in her pinkie than most people not named Bruce Wayne have in their entire bodies. She sets herself apart from Wonder Woman in that her mission as a mother converges with her mission as a warrior. In the end, however, it's a mission that was doomed to fail.
If Myrina Black's perspective is a strength in this story, then Grail's progression is its greatest weakness. There's no real sense that she ever even tried to become more than Darkseid's daughter. There's never a sense that anything Myrina Black did would've had any impact on Grail or how the events of Darkseid Wars played out. Justice League: Darkseid War Special #1 basically amounts to Myrina Black's failed efforts to help her daughter and Grail's utter lack of effort in heeding her mother's help.
It's basically a perfect storm for failed parenting. There's never a sense that a little extra therapy, a little more honesty, and a few more self-help books would've changed the situation. Grail still walked the same path as her father and she did it with a smile. While that might make her the kind of female villain who can take down the Justice League without breaking a sweat, it doesn't make her the kind of character that would be any more compelling than an evil Supergirl.
Grail is still a menacing character with a great deal of potential. Justice League: Darkseid War Special #1 is able to realize some of this potential, but for the most part it just moves the Darkseid War arc forward. It nicely ties in with the events in other books, incorporating ongoing plots involving Jessica Cruz and Steve Trevor into the mix. However, if the purpose of the story was to make Grail a more compelling character, then it came up short.
It didn't fall flat on its face, but it didn't break new ground either. Grail is evil. Grail is her father's daughter. Her mother never stood a chance at helping her. It's a depressing message, but most stories that begin on Apokolips usually are.
Final Score: 5 out of 10