Monday, September 05, 2011

A Study in Justice

I have...things I'd like to say about "Flashpoint" #5, but that can wait. After all, it arrived alongside the brand new "Justice League" #1, our introduction to the New 52 DCU for you.

And I was underwhelmed.

But I'll get there. See, I got this crazy idea about what an introductory story to the Justice League should include, but then realized that it's been an awfully long time since I read any introductory story to the Justice League. But I have a veritable mountain of comics around me, including the first volume of "Showcase Presents: Justice League of America," "JLA: Year One," "Justice League International" Volume 1, "Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare," "JLA: New World Order," and "Justice League of America (vol. 2) #0-1. So I figured I'd take a look through the first issues of each series before ultimately offering my thoughts on the new hotness, to put things in context. Check it out below the fold!

"The Brave and the Bold" #28
Creative Team: Gardner Fox & Mike Sekowski.
Story Pages: 25 (including splash)
Capsule: I suspect you've already read this one, but here goes: when Aquaman learns of the threat posed by an interstellar conquering starfish, he rallies Earth's greatest heroes to combat the menace.
Thoughts: Well, the first point is that this isn't an origin story for the Justice League, despite being their first appearance. Aquaman sends out a Justice League signal on page one, alerting the League of the threat. What's more, the League spends most of the issue split up--Superman and Batman appear, but are busy with other threats, and the rest of the League divides itself to fight Starro's minions. Consequently, we have a chapter where Aquaman summons the team and each of the members is briefly introduced, a chapter where Green Lantern fights solo, a chapter where Martian Manhunter teams with Wonder Woman, a chapter where the Flash fights alone (and meets Snapper Carr), and a final chapter where the strike team (GL, J'onn, Wonder Woman, and Flash--Aquaman is ostensibly there, but essentially disappears) defeats Starro. Overall, it's actually kind of a terrible introduction to the Justice League, unless the intended takeaway is that teamwork is important, but not particularly vital if you've got other things to do. On the other hand, it does three things that I think are really important: it introduces the whole team, including details like Steve Trevor and Hal Jordan's test pilot career; it showcases everyone's abilities, which is related to the previous item--even Superman and Batman's brief appearances show you what they're all about; and it presented a threat that required a team to take it down. The only reason Starro is defeated is because the team was alerted to his presence ahead of time (thanks to Aquaman's abilities), able to split up to take on his minions, and had a range of expertise that put the creature down for good. That seems like a bare minimum expectation for an introductory League story.

"Justice League of America" (vol. 1) #9
Creative Team: Gardner Fox & Mike Sekowski
Story Pages: 26
Capsule: The League's origin--where individual members independently encountered and defeated a set of alien invaders, which ultimately brought them all together--is relayed to Snapper Carr and Green Arrow.
Thoughts: It's another story where the League is mostly working separately, as each Leaguer in turn combats and defeats an elemental alien being. Each Leaguer's story ends with them arriving in North Carolina, where one of the aliens had yet to emerge from its meteor. As each Leaguer lands, they are turned into living wood by the creature's strange radiation. That said, it does something that any team's origin story ought to do: provide a reason for the characters to work together. They were all alerted to the problem separately and defeated their enemies almost simultaneously, leading them to be in the same place at the same time. Except Superman and Batman, who were working together as the pre-existiing World's Finest team, which was frankly a nice touch. It relied a bit less on each Leaguer's particular skills, I think, than the first story, but still managed to make use of just about everyone's powers (and Superman and J'onn's weaknesses), in addition to getting the team to work together to get themselves out of some dire circumstances. It's incredibly contrived, but it's also the kind of story that modern comics would drag out for six months to make it seem less contrived, so there are trade-offs.

"Justice League" (vol. 1) #1
Creative Team: Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, & Kevin Maguire
Story Pages: 24
Capsule: After the ignominious end of the Detroit League, a new Justice League comes together, somewhat manipulated into forming by Max Lord.
Thoughts: This is definitely a very different League origin, with far more focus on character--and character conflicts. Leaguers unite at the old headquarters, where we're introduced to a brash and arrogant Guy Gardner, Mr. Miracle and his glory-hound agent Oberon, no-nonsense Black Canary, wholesome Captain Marvel, insecure Blue Beetle, brooding J'onn J'onzz, enigmatic Dr. Fate, and Batman. The Leaguers clearly don't get along, and while Batman's presence, authority, and adherence to League tradition is able to keep them in line, they're less the best of the best and more a bunch of unruly children. Despite Batman's reluctance, the team is forced into action when terrorists take the United Nations hostage--and Dr. Light happens to be in the middle of the hostage situation, after receiving a League communicator from a mysterious benefactor. The League takes down the threat--despite Gardner's attitude and Dr. Fate's disappearance--though it turns out that there wasn't much threat at all. What I like about this introduction is how it not only focused on the characters--something the previous two stories only did in the broadest of strokes--but on the characters' relationships and conflicts. There's no reason that so many different people with different priorities and personalities would work together as a seamless team on their first outing, and it shows. Moreover, there's some attention paid to internal conflicts as well--Beetle's desire for the spotlight and Dr. Light's sympathy for the villains especially. It promises a more nuanced, character-driven Justice League--while also setting up long-term conflicts that can drive plot and character development, and giving us a nice action set-piece. At the end of this issue, even though the characters aren't all icons, you know at least a little about who each member is, what they can do, and what their motivation is. That's pretty impressive.

"JLA: Year One" #1
Creative Team: Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn, & Barry Kitson
Story Pages: 41
Capsule: After their first public outing (a slightly altered version of the events in "Justice League of America" #9), the Leaguers struggle with the decision to make the team official.
Thoughts: It's worth noting that "JLA: Year One" was a maxi-series, and thus had a somewhat different set of needs and priorities compared to the issues that kicked off new series. "JLA: Year One" #1 could tell a more compressed story, not having to carry an ongoing series on its back. On the other hand, this issue is particularly significant because of its status as a reboot origin for the League, made necessary after "Crisis" turned Wonder Woman into a newcomer and "Zero Hour" made Batman an urban legend--obviously they couldn't have been involved with the original League, then. In terms of structure, the story falls somewhere between the Giffen/DeMatteis opener and the original origin--mostly solo spotlight stories, but with a particular focus on characterization, relationships, and conflicts. Waid and Augustyn do a great job of showing how inexperienced this team is, while also giving them reasons to stick together--as well as tying it all together with an overarching mystery. By the end of the first issue, we've seen the reasons each character would want to be in the team, we've seen their general motivations and flaws, we've seen how their inexperience hurts their effectiveness, and we've seen that they still make a pretty good team. It's a larger space than the other issues have had, but it's used very efficiently.

"Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare" #1
Creative Team: Mark Waid, Fabian Nicieza, Jeff Johnson, & Darick Robertson
Story Pages: 38
Capsule: In a world where everyone seems to be developing superpowers, the more familiar characters are instead living out mundane lives without costumes or abilities.
Thoughts: This miniseries seems to have served as a kind of test-run for what would become Grant Morrison's epic JLA re-launch the following year, bringing together a team of the "big seven" for the first time in quite awhile. It's a fun story, the old "heroes dreams finally come true--but at what cost?" with a conflict that partially echoes the then-recent "Kingdom Come," but as an introduction to the Justice League, it's pretty terrible. You'd have to have a pretty thorough grasp of the heroes' backgrounds to understand just what's wrong with the world--sure, the fact that Clark Kent doesn't have powers and that Bruce Wayne's parents are still alive would be a tip-off to anyone in this culture that's saturated with their mythologies, but the significance of Arthur Curry working for a tuna manufacturer or Kyle Rayner drawing the "Green Lantern" comic might otherwise be lost. Otherwise, it follows the same general pattern of most of these stories: show the characters coping with some menace alone, eventually bringing them together for the teamwork. Of course, the actual everyone-comes-together bit doesn't happen in this issue; it ends on the World's Finest reuniting, as Batman and Superman are the first to realize that the world's gone wrong. As such, we don't really get to see much of the League in action. I suppose that's acceptable for a three-issue miniseries in an established universe, but it doesn't exactly make for the greatest first issue.

"JLA" #1
Creative Team: Grant Morrison & Howard Porter
Story Pages: 22
Capsule: The old League is moving out, the new League is moving in, and a team of alien superheroes has arrived to make them all obsolete.
Thoughts: This issue is packed, and that's both a good and bad thing. On one hand, it's not much more new-reader-friendly than "Midsummer's Nightmare." Everything that happens with the old JLA (represented here by Metamorpho, Obsidian, Nuklon, and Icemaiden) relies on some background knowledge of those characters and what their deal is. The new Leaguers make out a bit better, but the reader is definitely thrown in toward the deep end of the pool. The plot itself is a bit more straightforward, and it does not let up. The Hyperclan show up, renovate the Sahara, execute some criminals, win the public's trust, and find time to destroy the Justice League satellite, and still more goes on. In doing so, it also reveals some of the philosophy behind the League--specifically tackling the "proactive vs. reactive" models of superheroics (and quite a while before either "The Authority" or "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and The American Way?" I might add) and showing the caliber of situation that the League is designed to handle. As a story, as a first issue, it's great about drawing in the reader with action and adventure, and it's decent about developing the characters' relationships and giving almost everyone a chance to shine--even the lame duck League, it's just not particularly new-reader-friendly. Oh, and Aquaman--who's on the cover--doesn't appear at all, which seems like a pretty big knock against it.

"Justice League of America" (vol. 2) #0
Creative Team: Brad Meltzer & "an all-star cast of artists"
Story Pages: 24
Capsule: A series of brief vignettes traces Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman's relationship since the start of the League.
Thoughts: On one hand, this isn't a story about the Justice League; besides the Trinity, the League only appears in brief cameos. On the other hand, this is a story about the League from the perspective of people key to its formation, and more specifically, what the League means to them and what it's become. I don't know that I've read this since it came out, and I honestly thought that it was a really good, really touching book. I think Meltzer had a great handle on what made the Trinity tick, what sorts of tensions would affect their relationship, and the general dynamics of friends forming an organization that ultimately becomes larger than its original founders. The quirks that made Meltzer's writing grate in other places--characters referring to each other only by first names, focusing on character drama and relationships above all else--simply work in this context. It's a shame that the rest of Meltzer's run couldn't be as good as this issue. As an introduction to the Justice League, it's not very good--it requires a whole lot of background knowledge, and as I said, doesn't much involved the Leaguers at all. At least, however, all the characters on the cover appear in the issue, even if the qustion it poses ("Who's In?") isn't answered.

"Justice League of America" (vol. 2) #1
Creative Team: Brad Meltzer and Ed Benes
Story Pages: 38
Capsule: While the Trinity talks about putting the Justice League back together, other heroes find themselves in situations where being alone is a liability.
Thoughts: Aaaaand here's where Meltzer's quirks start grating. Everyone refers to everyone else by first names or unfortunate nicknames ("Reddy"), and if you don't happen to be familiar with all these characters and their relationships to each other and other people, then you could pretty easily get lost. It's a shame, because there's a lot going on here, and some of it is quite ballsy: changing up Red Tornado's status quo, using Black Lightning's ties to Lex Luthor to make him an underworld mole, graduating Roy Harper up to A-level status, introducing Dr. Impossible, and so forth. It's actually a pretty good comic, and it does a good job of exploring the League's family ties, both literal (Roy and Lian, Red Tornado's family) and figurative (Roy's relationship to Black Canary and Green Lantern, the Trinity's relationship to each other and the other heroes). As an introduction to the Justice League, however, all those ties, all that heart, is more than a bit confusing. If you didn't already know Deadman's schtick, or who Felix Faust was, or have memorized key parts of "Who's Who," then you'd be lost. The regular cover for this issue sidesteps the whole "every hero on the cover appears in the issue" expectation I'd have for most Justice League introductions by making it a huge panorama of DC heroes who couldn't possibly all fit on one team (outside of a Justice League Unlimited status quo). The "actual team" cover features characters who showed up in one form or another, except Hawkgirl, who doesn't appear at all, though several of them only appear out-of-costume on the interior. As a kind of summary, it's interesting that this is the most self-conscious of these Justice League introductions, one where people are actively trying to assemble the best team, while the heroes who will eventually make up that team have solo adventures around the sidelines. There's no "heroes' travails bring them together as a team" aspect to this first issue, the way there largely has been for the last ones. There's also no real action set piece, which is unfortunate, though there's plenty of foreshadowing and architecture laid down for a long-term plot. It's not a bad Justice League story, aside from those previously-mentioned quirks and the lack of any action, but it's a really awful introductory issue.

"Justice League" (vol. 2) #1
Creative Team: Geoff Johns & Jim Lee
Story Pages: 24
Capsule: In an age when superhumans are feared and mistrusted by the general public, Batman and Green Lantern cross paths for the first time while fighting an alien menace.
Thoughts: And now, the latest installment, and the issue that launched a new universe. Everyone's been saying that it would have been impossible for this comic to meet the expectations set by all the enormous hype surrounding it, and that may be true. On the other hand, I've read quite a lot of very good Geoff Johns comics, and if this is something he's been working on for months, I would kind of expect it to fall on the high quality end of the Johns storytelling bell curve. I'm not saying it doesn't, but it certainly makes some missteps that could easily have been avoided. I've identified the basic items I would expect in any introduction to the Justice League: it introduces the characters, giving some indication of their abilities and personalities; it brings the whole team together or at least everyone who shows up on the cover, it introduces a conflict, preferably with some action; and it gives the team a reason to get together; the best of these have also explored the relationships between the Leaguers, but that also falls into a couple of the other categories.

So, our story largely centers on Batman chasing a Parademon (apparently) through Gotham while also trying to avoid cops who can't--or don't care to--tell the difference between the two, between any superhumans. There are nice parallels between Batman largely ignoring the "idiot" cops and seeing them as a hindrance to his goals, and then treating the idiot space-cop the same way. On the other hand, it's also nice to see Batman--though he wouldn't admit it--in over his head. I never thought I'd say this about a Geoff Johns comic again, but there's some subtlety at play here. Batman's trying the usual Batman methods on the Parademon--yelling at it, threatening it--but it doesn't work. On my first read, it seemed stupid for the World's Greatest Detective to go along with thoughtless GL's free-association of the Parademon with Superman, but another time through it looks like Batman goes along because he's out of his depth--something that Meltzer explored in "Justice League of America" #0.

I'm also surprised and somewhat impressed with Johns' take on a younger, brasher Green Lantern. I've been reading Johns' Hal Jordan since "Rebirth," and even when he's acting like an ass, it's always seemed like he's supposed to be a likable rogue, the movie-screen rebel who doesn't play by the rules but is clearly the hero. Here, he comes across as a thick-headed arrogant jackass, a trumped-up frat-boy with a magic ring, and it's glorious. It's so nice to see Hal Jordan as something other than the golden boy, something other than the greatest Green Lantern of them all, including the Guardians themselves. Is it subtle? Not in the least--up to and including GL referring to himself in the third person and misusing the phrase "Note to self," and generally acting like he's trying to impress Batman. But it's entertaining nonetheless.

In the midst of that, we get a brief interlude courtesy of an After-School Special about the true meaning of family. Seriously, the Vic Stone pre-Cyborg interlude is Geoff Johns at his worst in terms of dialogue excesses. "There's nothing Vic Stone loves more than football," proclaims a dialogue caption said by no one in particular, over a panel of a seat reserved, clearly, for Stone's absentee father. Dad didn't come to his football game, he's too busy with his clichés. The whole scene is clunky, played-out, and probably the most predictable thing ever, and it has absolutely no connection to the larger story until the very end, when we see Green Lantern fly overhead. It's a bad scene, and it's worse once you consider the implications. First, it contradicts statements made by others that the Wolfman/Pérez Teen Titans still occurred in some capacity, since Cyborg--a key component of those adventures--didn't exist yet. Second, we have the Justice League, forming around this sequence, prior to Stone's transformation into Cyborg. This means that the League will consist of six powerhouses who have been active for varying amount of times, and one completely green rookie high school student. Stone won't even have the edge that Kyle Rayner did as the rookie member of Morrison's JLA, that his inexperience is balanced by his possession of the most powerful weapon in the universe and the skills to use it. Cyborg is strong, but "super-strength" is a power for over half the League. Anything Cyborg could do with his tech as weapons could be accomplished equally by Green Lantern's ring. Vic won't even get to be the smartest or fastest member of a team with Flash and Batman. By making Cyborg's origin a part of the JLA's origin story, Geoff Johns has set up the team's only black member to be their Green Arrow, to be the character who clearly adds nothing to the team. That would be a bad enough move with any character, but with Cyborg it sets up calls of "Justice League Affirmative Action." It's tone-deaf, and for a "bold new direction," it's tone-deaf in the exact same way that DC has been tone-deaf before.

Much has been made of Superman's appearance at the end, with charges that it's out of character. If we were talking about old-DCU Superman, I'd totally agree. But New 52 Superman is already established as a guy who speaks truth to power and takes the arrogantly powerful down a peg or two. This issue has been all about Green Lantern shooting his mouth off and ending up with egg on his face as a result, and it subtly (there's that word again!) shows that Batman and Superman aren't all that different. Is it the introduction I'd like to see for a new era of Superman? No. But being able to make a joke and take someone down a peg or two shouldn't be banned from Superman's repertoire. This is still "five years ago," so I can accept a Superman who's a little more flippant, a little more...smirky.

But boy, that costume is stupid. It's further stupid that he's apparently been wearing it for five years. Can you see the classic Clark-ripping-his-shirt-open scene happen with this suit? How would he wear that armor under his work clothes? Batman's is no better; I have a hard time imagining how long it would take Bruce to respond to a Bat-Signal when he's got to put on that much armor with that many pieces. These new designs are still, to a one, terrible, heaping unnecessary changes that appear to exist only for the sake of change.

You know what I'm surprised this issue didn't have? The "Coming This Year" page that kicked off Johns' "Justice Society of America," among other comics he's done. It would have been a good way to build interest in the coming issues, even if the first issue wasn't a full story, and I think it would have done quite a bit to assuage readers that no, this reboot was not done spur-of-the-moment, seat-of-the-pants style. Maybe there's a reason for that.

So, back to the categories I set up, how does "Justice League" (vol. 2) #1 stack up? It introduces a conflict of suitable size for the Justice League to unite--Darkseid, namely. It's a sight or two better than the Apellaxian aliens, while also having the same "alien invasion" flavor. It doesn't introduce the whole League--only three and a half members--but it does spend some time characterizing the ones who do appear, though some in broader strokes than others. It's better than some, not as good as others. It's just a shame that it could easily have been "Brave and the Bold featuring Batman and Green Lantern" #1. This is supposed to be a window into the new DCU, both for new readers and old, and to have only a partial story, with only a partial League, seems like a misstep. And much as I enjoyed Green Lantern's portrayal, it was a further misstep to make him the buttmonkey of the first issue (and the team) by having both Batman and Superman demonstrate their badassery by taking him down effortlessly.

It's not a bad issue, and not the worst introduction the League has ever had, but I can't help but think that making this issue double-sized and putting at least the full "League gets together" part of the story into it, would have been a better kickoff.

1 comment:

Anthony Strand said...

I enjoyed this.

That's all.