Justice League 21 / Justice League of America 5

justice league 21 JLA 5

Today, Spencer and Patrick are discussing Justice League 21 and Justice League of America 5, originally released June 26th, 2013. These issues are part of the Trinity War crossover event. Click here for our complete Trinity War coverage.

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Spencer: A team doesn’t become a team just because a group of characters are assembled together. These characters truly become a team when they can put aside their individual goals, combine their distinct talents and work together as a cohesive unit, and doing so usually takes time and practice. Both of Geoff Johns’ Justice League books this week feature groups that are finally learning to be real teams; the real surprise is that the Justice League-proper isn’t one of those groups.

Instead, Justice League devotes its full space to finishing the first storyline of the Shazam! back-up. With Black Adam demanding the power of Shazam, Billy instead shares it with his foster-siblings (and Tawny the tiger), creating a whole family of Shazams. While they combat the Seven Deadly Sins (who have possessed the rotten Mr. Breyer), Billy defeats Black Adam by tricking him into transforming back to his human state; he immediately ages 3000 years, decomposing on the spot. Over in Justice League of America, meanwhile, the Catwoman who “died” turns out to be the Martian Manhunter; thanks to J’onn, Stargirl, and the ever-tenacious Hawkman, the team destroys the Shaggy Man, captures Ivo, and retrieves an undercover A.R.G.U.S. agent. Since the Society’s leader escaped, though, Waller still considers it a failure, but Trevor manages to convince her to allow the team to stay together. It’s no matter; Waller has plans of her own:

the man's dying Amanda, can you give it a rest for a SECOND?!

Man, the more of Waller I read, the more she’s coming across like a complete sociopath. Light is one of her own agents, a man dedicated to her and to America, yet she still feels the need to manipulate and threaten him to get what she wants. I don’t think Amanda Waller can function unless she is in complete, puppet-master style control of a situation. Her inclusion here, though, does make me notice a small thread connecting these two books: despite the real villains being larger-than-life monsters (The Society, Black Adam, etc.), both books feature less noticeable, more human antagonists (Amanda Waller and Mr. Breyer) who, despite that status, might just be more rotten than any of the actual villains.

Still, the main similarity between these issues is that they both feature teams finally coming into their own for the first time. At first it felt a little surprising that this group of young Shazams could work together so well right off the bat, but it actually makes a lot of sense; most of these kids have lived together for years, they’ve bonded, and they already work together and watch out for each other as it is. The real surprise here is that Billy Batson, the boy who pushed his foster-siblings away as much as humanly possible, actually cares about them after all.

Is this the first time you realized that, Billy?

It’s only by admitting—and embracing—the fact that he cares about his new family that Billy is able to save the day, and more importantly, finally find a place where he belongs. It’s an incredibly sweet ending, and while this issue’s got plenty of action and excitement, it’s this sweet tone that truly sets this story apart from Justice League of America.

We can chalk this tone up to several factors. Billy, Mary, Freddy, Pedro, Darla and Eugene are all lively, funny children who allow us to view this story through their lens of childlike wonder. Gary Frank’s artwork, meanwhile, really brings these kids to life; it’s his wonderfully expressive acting that sells the heartlifting, comedic moments so well.

Battle-cry of the wild Shazam

These kinds of moments are sadly absent over in Justice League of America, which relies solely on action and intrigue to sell the story. Don’t get me wrong, it works—this issue was an exciting whirlwind of a read—but as always, I’d love for this book to really dig into its characters more; they all have so much potential.

Still, for now I’m satisfied to simply watch the JLA finally start acting like a team. None of their actions make their supremely stupid decisions from last month’s issue look any smarter, but at least they’ve managed to compensate for them. I was impressed by Hawkman’s tenacity in the face of sure defeat, I was impressed by Stargirl’s battle strategy to defeat the Shaggy Man, and I was impressed that all these characters came together and implemented the plan without a hitch.

Still, while things may be heating up with the Secret Society, and while our characters are finally asserting themselves as forces to be reckoned with, the real conflict of this series appears to be between Steve Trevor and Amanda Waller. Waller wants a team of brainwashed lapdogs ready to take down the League-proper at any moment, while Trevor just wants to help this team be the best they can be. Trevor sees potential in “the world’s most dangerous heroes”, and for the first time, I think I do too.

(Hey, what’s up with that “world’s most dangerous heroes” tagline anyway? What does that even mean?!)

Comparing these two books in the absence of the Justice League-proper has been a fun exercise, and I’m surprised by how much they had in common despite the Shazam Family and the JLA being such drastically different teams. So how do they stack up? Well, Justice League of America is certainly a huge improvement, especially over last month’s issue, but this first Shazam! arc could easily be the best New 52 story that Geoff Johns has put out, and I’d love to see that kind of heart in more of his books from now on.

So Patrick, there was also a Martian Manhunter back-up I failed to mention entirely. There’s still a few missing pieces to put together, but my gut is telling me that Thoth is the Secret Society’s leader: agree or disagree? Besides that, I look forward to seeing if you noticed any connections between these books that I missed. Compare, contrast, and show your work.

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Patrick: You don’t want want to see my work – I doodle and write Smashing Pumpkins lyrics in the margins and there are Cheeto-y finger prints all over it. Honest to God, I used to have to re-copy my work the way I knew my math teacher would want to see it, because I did so much in my head or in goofy orders. I also make assumptions, and then check to see if those assumptions are correct, which doesn’t make for the clearest thought process. It doesn’t always produce the right answer either, but dammit, knew what I was doing.

It’s neat that we get to compare issues that are both knock-down-drag-out fights. Justice League’s brawl is remarkably more simple than of America’s – I had the hardest time tracking the action in JLA. The battle is just happening on too many different fronts at once, and three panels on a single page will track the three different encounters. It seems like the least efficient way to tell an action story.

Fuzzy man, Star Girl, Maratian Manhunter, Ivo, Chronos, Green Arrow and the other guy

Also, I get a little hung up on the sheer number of characters Johns is injecting into JLA. I’m never quite sure what level of familiarity I’m supposed to have with any of them – like, is it a surprise that Shaggy Man is a robot? And who’s Chronos? And why is that what Dr. Light looks like now. Between re-interpretations, re-inventions and straight-up inventions, I can’t nail down what their fights are supposed to mean.

Conversely, the fight in Shazam! is incredibly clear. I may not be able to track what each member of the Shazam family is up to, but they’re supporting their adopted brother with the superpowers he extends to them. They love him and he loves them – that’s the point of it: it’s emotional support manifesting itself literally as superpowers. There’s no such underlying message behind the teamwork on JLA. The reinvention of Billy Batson’s supporting cast is made all the engaging by the fact that their new relationships are grounded in emotion.

On that subject: my Captain Marvel / Shazam history isn’t great, but I do recognize that Johns is using this mythology the way he always uses any mythology: he’s mining it and expanding it. Mary and Freddie get their names from Mary Batson and Freddie Freeman, old Captain Marvel allies. And Tawny the tiger was some kind of anthropomorphic tiger that fought with Marvel in the 40s and 50s. But there’s more than a little bit of Flashpoint’s S.H.A.Z.A.M., which split the power of Shazam up between six kids (and their tiger). Of course, they they transformed into Shazam (which they called Captain Thunder), they all sorta summoned him together – like Captain Planet. I love that they can all transform into their own version of Shazam, and I just hope that’s a change that sticks in this mythology and isn’t just a one-off thing that Billy won’t ever do again.

It’s also sorta neat that both of these issues find their ultimate resolution in quiet moments, rather than at the end of superpunches. Waller cons Trevor into keeping up with the JLA with some simple reverse psychology and Billy tricks Black Adam into transforming into a 500 year old man by simply talking him into it. I end up complaining an awful lot about how many superhero problems are solved by punching, and it’s a relief to see both of these issues resolved in other ways. I suppose it also helps when the punching looks so good.

Shazam family swarms Black Adam

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For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

22 comments on “Justice League 21 / Justice League of America 5

  1. I can’t blame you for not knowing some of these characters, Patrick; Johns is really throwing in the kitchen sink. Villains like Copperhead and the Signal Man are straight up Z-List, it’s crazy.

    I don’t think the Shaggy Man was a straight-up robot before, but I believe he was some form of mindless artificial life whose only real trait was that he was basically unstoppable; he had enough brute strength to combat the entire Justice League to a standstill and could regenerate from any injury. The League generally dealt with him by sticking him into the Phantom Zone or stranding him on an abandoned moon lightyears away somewhere.

    Chronos, meanwhile, was originally a time-traveling villain–in fact, he was the archenemy of Ray Palmer, the Atom (of course, considering how rarely the Atom had his own series, he generally ended up as a villain for the greater DCU at large). Honestly, he’s probably best known for his role in a two-part episode of “Justice League Unlimited” where he drags the League into the past (where they meet Jonah Hex and his posse) and into the distant future (where they meet Batman Beyond and the JLU of the future). By the end of the story, I believe his ultimate punishment is being eternally stuck in a time-loop with his harsh, vindictive wife.

    You picked up on the SHAZAM! characters better. Mary and Freddy were indeed Captain Marvel’s former side-kicks, and the other kids come from the Flashpoint mini, but the concept of a whole family of Shazams actually comes from the original Golden Age Captain Marvel stories. In those original stories it wasn’t just Billy and Mary and Freddy empowered by Shazam–there was an old uncle, and a fat guy, and a whole fleet of characters who I believe were all related to Billy in some way. This current fleet of Shazam!s is an updating of that concept, just replacing the weirdos from the Golden Age stories with the kids from Flashpoint.

    • It’s interesting to me to see those Flashpointisms incorporated in main New 52 continuity. The end of Flashpoint shows Pandora merging these various realities, so every character very well could have been anything when we came back in Justice League 1. I made the point in my conversation with Drew about Justice League 1-3 that Johns seemed to want to quickly establish Batman and Green Lantern as not-at-all their Flashpoint counterparts – pretty strongly pushing away from the idea that Flashpoint “happened” or that the versions of the characters therein hold any water. Shazam (now, two fucking years later) suggests that not every experiment from Flashpoint produced results they wanted to ignore.

      I don’t know if there’s more of this that we can point to. I’ve thought that Wonder Woman is a bit more of a classic warrior in the N52, just as she is as the leader of the World Conquering Amazons in FP. Similarly, it seems like Aquaman’s dickish tendencies have more in common with his Emperor Aquaman persona from FP than from his previous incarnations. Also, I suspect that there’s a little bit of Citizen Cold in the current Captain Cold, but I might say that because Booch and Manapul characterize everyone so sympathetically.

      • I’ve always thought that about Aquaman since his N52 incarnation. Like, he was never quite the dick before, even when he was a dick in the 90’s and had every reason to be. So, I always assumed that some of the Flashpoint stuff was somehow sinking into his new persona.

        P.S. Aquatic pun unintended, but maintained for posterity.

    • I was sorta familiar with Copperhead, but only because I remember him as the point of color in those huge spreads of Black Lanterns. That’s right: that’s what passes for “familiar” these days.

      • Copperhead’s main claim-to-fame is his appearances on the “Justice League” animated series, but even on there he was basically portrayed as weak and a bit of a sniveling coward (picture Dr. Smith from Lost in Space in a giant snake suit), so it doesn’t appear to have done the character much good in the greater scheme of things.

  2. Patrick, I like your read that Waller convinced Trevor to stay on the JLA with reverse-psychology. It’s interesting, and it’s very in character for her, but it is a much more subtle form of manipulation than I’m used to seeing from the New 52 incarnation of Waller.

    Honestly, I kind of read that scene straight: that Waller wanted to scrap and replace the current JLA, and that Trevor stuck up for them. When Waller said “too easy”, I just figured that she had some other plan up her sleeve that would make the JLA roster irrelevant (that I would assume would include Dr. Light).

    I do think your read is more interesting, Patrick, but I wonder why Waller feels the need to manipulate Trevor like that at all. Obviously he was against the JLA (or at least some of its roster) at first, but I think that after this battle he had already grown attached to them team and wanted to continue working with them. It felt unnecessary for Waller to try to convince him further, but then again, I suppose that’s never stopped her before (poor Dr. Light)

  3. Seriously though, guys, to y’all think Thoth is the leader of the Secret Society? The timing for his introduction and the fact that the Society’s leader seems intimately acquainted with J’onn PLUS can block his telepathy all seem to point to Thoth, but I’m not sure how Thoth would have watched his world die as well, unless it’s all from a metaphorical standpoint.

    • I haven’t thought that, but he certainly could be. That character was pretty freaky (and messed up in the head), so I’m not sure if he’d even be capable of leading a team like the society. Then again, it’s comics, so anything is possible.

      • Jeez man, who knows? We know so little about the Secret Society of Villains (or whatever they’re called – why not go with Midnight Society?). They’re ONLY featured in this 5-issue series that has it damn hands full introducing a team of dozen superheroes (some of whom need more-or-less complete introductions to the N52 – like Vibe and Stargirl). Plus the series spends most of it’s time dicking around with Waller. The point is, I don’t have any idea what those guys are up to or what their goals could possibly be. Frankly, I don’t even know if they’re going to be part of this Trinity War or what. Speculating on who their leader is is like 10 steps beyond my understanding at the moment.

        • I wouldn’t put it past her. God, Waller is quickly becoming one of the most despicable characters in the entire DCU.

          I do think that a lot would’ve had to happen to Thoth during those five years to pump him up into the kind of guy that the Society’s leader seems to be, but I dunno, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Society’s mysterious connection to J’onn is revealed the same exact issue that Thoth debuts.

          Or maybe Thoth is the mystery man that the Leader’s talking to at the end of the issue?

  4. Oh Shazam. It’s easily one of the best things to come out of the N52. It’s kind of shocking to see these 2 issues compared to each other. One is full of heart, while the other is much more cold and militaristic. I enjoyed both issues, but Shaz-I mean, Justice League made me absolutely giddy. The “Uh…Get him?” line made me laugh out loud and jump up and down in my chair a bit. Fortunately, I was alone at the time so nobody saw that.

    Oh, and the Tawky Tawny bit? Fantastic. I can’t wait for the solo Shazam series!

      • I don’t think so, but it does seem like an inevitability. I wonder how many JL books will come back in October, what with the “Death of the Justice League” and all. Man, those October solicits are going to have some juicy tidbits in them.

        • You know, I was just thinking about how I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this story nearly as much if it weren’t a backup — or, at least, I wouldn’t have been nearly as forgiving with how long this has taken. OR, maybe I’m a little happier with John’s “only one thing can happen per episode” rule when the episodes are shorter. At any rate, I’m not entirely sure I’d like this as much as a standalone series.

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