Originally Posted November 18, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Drew’s blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Justice League, while Drew is hosting the discussion of Batman.
Patrick: At the end of the hardbound collection of the Flash: Rebirth mini-series that brought Barry Allen back as the Flash after a 23 year hiatus, there’s a nice little interview with Geoff Johns. The interviewer tries to probe Johns for information on the story’s crazy science fiction elements and tries to tease out details about where all this is leading, but Johns remains singularly focused on one thing: the character of Barry Allen. Johns’ preferred method of talking about Barry is describing his relationships Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and on and on. It’s a singularly pointed fascination. I wonder if he was already working on rebooting Justice League when he gave that interview, because if the new series is about anything, it’s about the relationships between these superheroes.
I mean that literally: “if the new series is about anything.” So far, all that’s really happened in three issues is a swarm of demonic robots have descended upon Earth and started kidnapping random humans. Beyond that, it’s a series of Batman-meets-Green-Lantern, they-both-meet-Superman, all-three-of-them-meet-The-Flash, etc. stories. There is also an origin story for the Cyborg, but that’s got to be the weakest element of this run so far as it’s your basic 6 Million Dollar Man story. I don’t have a sense of who Victor is, and beyond fatherly love and devotion, I don’t really have a sense of what drives his father to graft all this technology onto his dying son. Luckily, this is this only origin story that is being attempted, as all the other characters appear to be established in their routines, this is just the first time they’ve joined forces.
The New 52 Justice League lacks a compelling narrative. But I don’t necessarily mean that as a negative. These first couple issues aren’t intended to be an exercise in subtly, but a fireworks display with all of DC’s best feet forward. You can see this in the creative team behind the book: writer Geoff Johns is the current Creative Director at DC and artist Jim Lee is a DC mainstay and is credited for the design of the characters in the relaunch. The first issue of Justice League was the first issue of anything from the New 52 was one of only two books released by DC on September 1 (the other being the final issue of Flashpoint – also written by Johns). Each issue is huge (also, $3.99) and packed with big beautiful drawings of our heroes in action. As a result, these books are sleek as hell and loaded with funny and interesting interactions between the characters.
The first couple issues take place “5 Years Ago” (whatever the hell that means), and I’ve read articles that suggest that we’ll only be “5 Years Ago” for the first story arc and then we’re hoping back to present day. While I am enjoying the kinetic power of this series, I would be happy to see it slow down once it settles into present day. It’s funny – I feel like I shouldn’t like this series as much as I do. I’m sure part of what allows me to just have fun with it is that I’m reading other titles with most of these characters that move at a much more deliberate pace and explore their subject matter. Take, for example, the two introduced in issue 3: Aquaman and Wonder Woman. I’m sure a casual reader would have a much colder reaction to them appearing, but I am coming fresh off the Aquaman and Wonder Woman series, which have both been great and painted the characters as dynamic people with real human problems (even if neither of them are totally human) and not just robot murderers. I’m also reading Action Comics, Green Lantern and Batman – and I’d like to be reading the Flash, but let’s pace ourselves, huh? The point is, I have a good sense of who these people are in the world of the New 52 from reading their other books. Justice League is like a bonus.
I don’t think I’d recommend that anyone read just Justice League. But as a playground for all the heroes that are developing elsewhere around the DC Universe, I think it’s doing a good job of staying fun, fast and spectacular. It’s really just page after page of icon heroes in impressively detailed costumes kicking ass, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Plus, every now and then you get a truly visually interesting piece like this one:
Drew: It’s hard for me to say if I am having fun. I think at this point my answer is a “no,” but I’m taking that to mostly mean “not yet.” There are a few things that I like here, but it’s really bogged down by the group origin story. I’ve come to be wary of origin stories, mostly because I see them as being overstuffed — in addition to the often complex origin tale, they’re also tasked with telling a compelling hero vs. villain story (which often means explaining the origin of the villain). The story ends up serving neither of these plots particularly well, and leaves no room for the development and exploration of themes and characters that make superhero comics worth reading. Origin stories can be successful, but usually by dropping the pretense of a big, scary villain in favor of smaller character moments and broader thematic development (Batman: Year One is the gold standard). Unfortunately, Justice League isn’t going that route, and I’m not sure I understand why.
I’m not getting anything out of the fact that these heroes are teaming up for the first time, and other than the constant surprise that Batman doesn’t have superpowers and the general underestimation of just how powerful Superman is (and their kind of boring penchant to fight first, ask questions later), this could just as easily not be an origin story. I don’t know what we’re going to get out of seeing the Justice League’s origin, but I may have to reserve that judgement until the end of this first arc. Right now, though, all of the characters seem to be suffering from sharing the stage — I would say that Flash is the only one yet to have anything resembling a personality — which might just be a symptom of a large ensemble cast. Johns has reserved a little more introduction space for some of the (how should I say…) second-tier characters. While Batman, Green Lantern, and Superman are mashed together in the first issue, followed quickly (ha!) by Flash in the second, much of the third issue is devoted to Wonder Woman on her own. Based solely on the covers of the next two issues, it looks like they will be similarly devoted to introducing Aquaman and Cyborg, respectively.
While giving a good introduction to the team’s not-as-well understood heroes makes a lot of sense, it also gives short shrift to the heroes that drew me to the title in the first place. I can’t think of a single moment in these first two issues where Batman, Superman, or Green Lantern said something that wouldn’t have made just as much sense being said by another character (aside from lines that address their specific powers, obviously). That’s not a good sign, but I recognize that it’s still too early to complain that the character’s aren’t well-developed — heck, all three of these issues have taken place over the course of a few hours, so these characters haven’t had much of a chance to be themselves. It’s not all bad; I think Flash’s comic relief is working, and Wonder Woman’s fish-out-of-water antics are a good take on the character, I just wish we were shown a little motivations behind the actions of the other characters.
I agree that the page you highlighted is stunning, but I really don’t think there’s anything else like it in the first three issues. I’ve always been more impressed by Jim Lee’s clean, crisp images than the imagination of his layouts, and this title largely confirms that perception. Don’t get me wrong — his art is vivid and often gorgeous, but his devotion to clarity often prevents him from embracing the abstract, which is necessary for the kind of image we’re using as an example, a tendency I find all the more frustrating now that I know he’s capable of producing images like the one above.
I anticipate this becoming a title that I really like, but I’m kind of twiddling my thumbs until the characters get their introductions out of the way. I already know Batman doesn’t have powers and that Aquaman is half Atlantean, so I’m not particularly interested in hearing them explain it again, or to see that Green Lantern was kind of surprised when he learned this for the first time. These are all things that have to happen before the story starts, and I’m anxious to get to that point. I have faith that Johns is going somewhere good with this, but I’m finding the ride there a little bumpy.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Justice League of America, Batman, Batman & Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Wonder Woman, Action Comics