Today, Patrick and Spencer are discussing Justice League 29, originally released April 16th, 2014.
Patrick: Here’s a little bit of a confession: I don’t know why we make fun of people who use Internet Explorer. I think most of us use Chrome or Safari to navigate the internet, and I know a lot of smart, young, web-savvy types that will also use Firefox in a pinch. But IE? You might as well be my grandmother at that point. The browser is so closely associated with disinterested or novice internet use that it’s sorta become shorthand for “the person using this product doesn’t know anything about technology.” I’m sure that’s unfair, and I’d be willing to wager that most of the bugs and clumsy UIs that drove us all away from IE in the first place have been worked out and it’s a totally serviceable browser. Still though. Fucking n00bs, right? As Geoff Johns decides that technology vs. humanity has always been a theme of Forever Evil, the solutions feel less logical and reasoned and more magical. If the story is trying to convince me that it’s in anyway tech savvy, Justice League 29 is not putting forth the most compelling argument.
The issue starts with introductions: Cyborg, meet the Metal Men. Metal Men, meet Cyborg. The newly reconstituted Metal Men seem like they might be a little too surly to take orders from Cyborg, but as soon as they’re made aware of the stakes — i.e., the world — they all snap into formation. That flip is actually my favorite set of panels in the issue, even if there’s too much copy crowding some excellent nonverbal storytelling.
Each one holds him or herself slightly differently, and the posture and facial expressions communicate more that the mounds of text ever could. Gold’s statement “This is what we were built for” couldn’t be more accurate. It’s true in-world, but it’s even truer in the meta-narrative of Forever Evil: these characters are being re-introduced into the New 52 for the sole purpose of providing back-up to Cyborg as he takes on Grid. Issue 28 had their goofy introduction, and this is their call to action. It might be a little too neat — I’m still not totally clear on all of their personalities or abilities — but, whatever, they’re here and they’re ready to put this Evil shit to bed.
Cyborg calls Grid out for a final showdown at the Watchtower’s crash site, because: dramatic. The rest of the Syndicate is busy (and/or dead), so Grid takes the bait himself, meeting Cyborg for a little one-on-one robot punching. Or so he thought! The Metal Men swing into action, overwhelming Grid. In turn, the villain summons some Secret Society goons, and the balance swings back in… it doesn’t really matter who’s favor. All that matters is Grid and Cyborg are back to one-on-one. They take their conflict into “the digital world,” where Grid taunts Cyborg for relying on his human side, but it turns out that Cyborg’s transitional state between technology and man gives him the leg up in that digital world. He cuts Grid’s connection to… everything (?), positioning the resistance to take down the Syndicate once and for all.
The scene inside the digital world is pretty damn silly, and it’s clear that neither Johns nor artist Doug Mahnke are as comfortable staging a robot battle there. Maybe it’s a little bit like the end of the third Matrix movie, and whatever’s actually happening to these characters is just a series of 1s and 0s flying around, but dramatizing it basically looks like magic. Cyborg isn’t able to fry Grid’s internet connection for any tangible or demonstrable reason, he’s just a “better” robot. Or a better human? Look, it doesn’t really matter. There’s a lot of handwaving and blah-blah-blahing so Mahnke can get around to drawing the iconic Superman-ripping-off-his-shirt-to-reveal-the-S-under-it pose on Cyborg. The results are appropriately horrifying.
I do really like this image: and it embraces a repeated history of mutilating the fuck out of this character as justification for turning him into two different kinds of robo-men. But again, I don’t see how the human flesh gives him an edge over Grid, either inside the “digital world” or outside of it. Grid makes a point of mentioning how he’s just out to feel something, and that makes him obviously envious of both Cyborg and the Metal Men, but it’s another piece of this Forever Evil puzzle that just doesn’t totally line up. I mean, Data adopts a kitten — Grid couldn’t try something like that?
Further, wouldn’t it behoove the heroes to help Grid feel something? Maybe then he’d stop his murderous rampage (what with guilt and all).
Ultimately, the technology part of this story feels too alien. There’s a point where Cyborg says that Grid has “taken over everything tied to the net.” Come on, outside of 1995 Sandra Bullock movies, we don’t refer to it as “the net.” Cyborg is supposed to be a) a teenager and b) a half-a-robot — surely, he’d be using more familiar or more descriptive language, right? I normally snort at technobabble in fiction, but if there was ever a place where it would have been in appropriate, it would be in a conversation between robots about another robot. Even the non-tech science issues seem poorly researched: Mercury mentions that he’s the only metal that’s a liquid at room temperature, but like… doesn’t Gold also appear to be liquid in a lot of these panels? And how is Lead able to turn himself into a ball? Is he liquid too?
I don’t know Spencer, I can see where the last couple issues are turning taking the shape of a successful Cyborg 2.0 origin story, but the dressing around it is thematically inconsistent and has sort of a tenuous grasp on logic. But then again: that’s Forever Evil for you. Oh and did our heroes ever luck out when Grid summoned the only three telepaths in the DC universe for back-up?
Spencer: They sure did, but considering that Grid always seems to summon this same small handful of villains (did he pull these guys straight from their battle with the Rogues?), the odds were in their favor from the very start. I’m more interested in how the Metal Men took down the rest of the villains — one of them, Shimmer, specifically has the ability to transmutate elements, which sounds like it would be an absolute nightmare for the Metal Men, but apparently she didn’t give them any trouble? I get that this is ultimately an issue about Cyborg, but man, talk about a missed opportunity.
Anyway Patrick, correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the feeling that you found this issue both amusing and frustrating, and I’ll second that thought. The final battle between Cyborg and Grid is more concerned with creating a satisfying emotional climax than making sure the narrative actually makes sense, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing — shows like Doctor Who have made that style work for ages — but it’s a fine line to walk. If the emotional climax doesn’t pay off, fans won’t be forgiving of the narrative gaps, and unfortunately, I can’t quite call this climax a success.
It’s a shame, because I feel like the Cyborg storyline is this close to not only working, but shining. Johns has obviously been building to this moment since the beginning of Justice League, starting with Victor’s origin in the first arc, then focusing on whether he’s even human (or alive) at all in the Graves story, followed by his charming heart-to-heart with Barry about feeling out of place and his dilemma about whether or not to replace his lungs with cybernetics during the “Throne of Atlantis” storyline. There’s a nice, subtle progression in Victor’s feelings here, but the problem is, we haven’t addressed this plot in over a year; I’d basically forgotten about a lot of these developments, so getting a resolution to them wasn’t anywhere near as powerful as it should’ve been.
Cyborg’s emotional climax also suffers a bit from the fact that Johns hasn’t given the character the strongest voice. Don’t get me wrong, I love that Johns has turned Vic into a heavy-hitter, and I love how Johns has expanded his power-set, but somehow he’s made Vic’s personality remarkably bland. I don’t get it — Marv Wolfman’s Cyborg was filled to the breaking point with repressed rage and self-loathing, his speech peppered with slang and nicknames, and the Cyborg of the animated series was one of the cartoon’s most bombastic characters, but under Johns’ pen, Vic’s dialogue just has absolutely zero distinguishing characteristics.
In this image Vic is explaining the events of Forever Evil to the Metal Men, but the dialogue is so generic that it might as well be coming from an omniscient narrator. Later on in the story Vic declares, “You mistake my reluctance to have a normal life with some kind of self-ostracization”, which is one of the clunkiest lines of dialogue I’ve ever read. It seems like Johns came up with a great concept for his reinvention of Cyborg, but never fully defined the character behind the concept; 90% of the time he feels like the League’s computer, and that’s entirely contradictory to the value that Johns tries to give Vic’s humanity in this issue.
Speaking of which, I also don’t get how Cyborg’s humanity makes him better — there’s no reason for it to give him a leg up in the Digital World, and the implication that it gives him his morality is false, since the Metal Men are quite moral without being human.
Unfortunately, there’s just as much about Grid that never quite adds up. In general, I don’t get why he’s such a tremendous douchebag. Why is he working with the Syndicate? Why does every attempt he makes to feel emotion emulate villains? Why does he have such a passionate hatred for Victor — and he definitely hates Vic, considering how much time he spends taunting him, so how exactly doesn’t he feel emotion?
Meanwhile, Vic’s entirely wrong here; the Metal Men’s “humanity” didn’t come from their hopes and dreams, they simply sprang to life with fully-formed personalities for some unexplained reason. If anything, this issue seems to be implying that the Metal Men are inherently good and that Grid is inherently bad, and that’s all there is to it. This reading is the only way I can really make sense out of Grid’s actions, which again, is a shame, because I love the idea of Grid being Cyborg’s evil counterpart, but it’s another strong concept that doesn’t quite make sense in execution.
Despite my negative ramblings here, I actually enjoyed quite a bit of this issue. Patrick, I know you have a lot of problems with the Metal Men — and I fully intend to address them in the comments — but their presence is like a breath of fresh air amongst the cloud of grim smog that is Forever Evil. While I appreciate the way Forever Evil has been exploring the morality of villains, there’s just something so incredibly appealing about the straightforward heroism of Cyborg and the Metal Men. Doug Mahnke’s art, meanwhile, is just as appealing.
Just check out how engrossing and cinematic Grid’s arrival at Happy Harbor is. Mahnke brings the scene to life so vividly that I can actually hear the sound of Grid landing in the second panel, even without any sound effects — in fact, the sound effects in the final panel are the only sour note on the entire page. His gift for facial expressions is also especially on point this issue, bringing Cyborg’s feelings to life in a way that the writing never quite does.
This was far from a perfect issue, but I still had a good time with it. The lighter, more heroic tone and the comic relief were much needed, and I appreciate the concepts Johns filled the issue with, even if they all fell apart the moment I poked at them. If only things lined up a little better — if only the execution matched the scope — this issue could have been something to write home about.
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