Today, Drew and Mikyzptlk are discussing Justice League of America 7.4: Black Adam, originally released September 25th, 2013. This issue is part of the Villain’s Month event. Click here for our Villains Month coverage.
Oh, you mean…Black Debbie
Whoa whoa whoa whoa, why is she “Black” Debbie?
No, not in a BAAAD way. It’s just to tell them apart because she’s…black!
Stormy and Sparks, “No Names (Black Debbie)”
Drew: A child, orphaned by crime, vows to strike fear in the hearts of criminals. The last survivor of a race of superpowered aliens is raised in small town Kansas. A regular guy is given super-speed when he is struck by lightening and doused with chemicals. Our favorite superheroes have simple, iconic origins, which make them easy to introduce in film or television, and easy to reintroduce when relaunching an entire comics line. That simplicity is a big selling point for a lot of these characters, but what of those whose history is a bit more complicated? Black Adam has always been a dark reflection of Shazam, but exactly how dark has varied widely over the years, and has offered a great deal more interest than its simple villain-turned-antihero scaffold might suggest. Unfortunately, the New 52 steamrolled all of that history, turning Black Adam back into a straightforward villain. With Justice League of America 7.4: Black Adam, writers Geoff Johns and Sterling Gates work to re-complicate Adam’s story — making him more than just “Black Shazam” — but may go for too much, too soon.
The issue opens with the story of Ibac the First, a barbarian who invaded and ruled Kahndaq 4,000 years ago. Black Adam, champion of Kahndaq, destroyed Ibac’s army, and turned Ibac into stone. In the present day, Ibac the Second, an American-appointed despot, is inspiring protests in Kahndaq, both peaceful and not-so-peaceful. Amon, a Kahndaqi translator, has been drafted by a group of revolutionaries hoping to resurrect the recently-released-but-more-recently-deceased Black Adam to take up their cause. Amon is able to translate the text for the resurrection, but the ceremony is interrupted by Ibac’s forces. Amon dies, but his sister, Adriana, is able to complete the ceremony, successfully resurrecting Black Adam. Adam quickly dispatches Ibac’s forces, then rushes to dispatch Ibac, himself. Just then, Adam receives the “The World Is Ours” text-blast from the Secret Society. His reaction?
As much fun as it was to see Black Adam strangling two kids with his hands, and a third with his foot in Justice League 20 and 21, I’m thrilled to see the return of Kahndaqi freedom-fighter Adam. Of course, that attitude change doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. His “I am not your master. Bow to no one,” feels a little incongruous after his power-hungry introduction in Justice League.
What’s going on here? Why is the characterization so wildly different from what we’ve already seen since the relaunch? To me, it seems like Johns and Gates are attempting to recreate Adam’s pre-relaunch journey from selfish villain to selfless demi-god, but are shortcutting it hardcore. Honestly, the violent libertarian we get here might be my favorite take on the character, but the change in values is totally unearned. Like, I get that he just wanted Billy’s power to better free the world from oppression, but he sure seems capable of unseating oppressors now. At the very least, I don’t understand why he would need to strangle a bunch of kids in the name of freedom when he is already capable of installing freedom virtually anywhere.
To their credit, Johns and Gates aren’t just fast-tracking Adam’s evolution — they’re thoroughly remixing it. The dead translator’s name is Amon — the same name as the nephew Adam killed in his first power-grab. Amon’s sister’s name is Adriana, just like the slave Adam fell in love with pre-relaunch (who also happened to have a brother named Amon). This kind of discursive miss-mash of history — one that attempts to recreate the sensation of thinking about and misremembering details about art that you love — is actually one of my favorite forms of homage. Think what Love means to Beatles fans, or what Morrison’s Batman Epic is to Batman fans. It chews up something we all recognize and spits out something that’s charming in its novelty, but comforting in its familiarity. It lends Adriana’s decision to take up arms a level of significance I’m not entirely sure is earned within the pages here — actually, much of the non-Adam action left me a little cold — but I’m distracted enough by the glimmer of recognition to not mind that much (though it does make me wonder how this issue reads for someone who doesn’t have that history with the character).
So, maybe this issue functions less as a character study and more as a character study study. I’m happy enough with where we get that I’m willing to forgive that how we get there doesn’t totally make sense. Ultimately, it just needed to get us to that last page, where Adam declares his displeasure with the new world order. We’ve seen dissent from Two-Face, Lex Luthor, and the Rogues, but Adam brings some much-needed firepower. Is that enough to get you excited, Mik, or does Adam need more of a motive than “just ’cause”?
Mikyzptlk: Like you Drew, I’m certainly happy to be seeing the return of a morally complex Black Adam. I agree with you that this return may have come a bit too quickly, but I’m also with you in that I’m willing to forgive this because of what we are left with. That said, I think I find Adam’s return to complexity a bit more believable if only because I know what Kahndaq does to the man. At least, I know what it used to do to him in the Pre-52. It’s hard for me to separate what I’ve known of this character with what I know of him in the context of the New 52, but if this issue left me any impression, it’s that I feel that Adam is returning to a path at least somewhat similar to what he was on before the reboot.
Before I get to my point about how I feel that Kahndaq kind of validates Adam’s sudden turn from a straight-up villain to a “protector” in this issue, I’d like to give a brief history lesson of this character. In the Pre-52, Black Adam was Captain Marvel’s enemy for, like, I don’t know, ever. As the years went on, Black Adam grew more complex and grew to new heroic heights. Then, one day, Black Adam became a member of the most august team in the DCU’s history, the Justice Society of America. Shortly after, Black Adam defected from the team in order to depose the dictator of Kahndaq and then take it over. After all of those years of being a villain, Black Adam finally became a hero, only to become a semi-villainous ruler in the blink of an eye.
My point is, Kahndaq makes this guy do some crazy things. Since the history presented to us in this issue was similar to what we’ve seen before, I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t anything that Black Adam wouldn’t do for his ancient home. At the very least, this is my rationale for what was depicted in this issue. Drew, I’m very interested in the question you posed about how the readers who lack the knowledge of the history of this character might feel about this character. If this was the first Black Adam story read by a person, would they even know that this guy was supposed to be a villain? Take a look at how this character is introduced.
Throughout the issue, we are basically told that Black Adam was and is Kahndaq’s greatest hero. When we see him return, he deposes the evil ruler and essentially proclaims that he will not ally himself with the Crime Syndicate. If this was my first introduction to this character, I’d say that Black Adam is, at the very worst, an anti-hero. I’d probably be wondering why the heck he was a spotlight character for something called Villains Month too.
I don’t think is a bad thing necessarily, or something that is worth a negative appraisal, but I do find it odd that Adam’s villainy is pretty much ignored in this issue. The main reason I bring this up though, is that I think that if his recent villainy had been addressed and explored, it could have been used to transition the character into the one we see at this end of the issue. As it is though, this issue accomplishes what it wanted to, and I’m looking forward to seeing the newly complex Black Adam in the stories to come.
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