Patrick: My gateway to regularly reading comics was Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern from Rebirth to Blackest Night. That’s a lot of outer space nonsense, to be sure, but the series was so caught up with the spirit of invention and exploration that every new revelation was imbued with so much energy that I was never really overwhelmed with how silly it all was. I’m sensing some of that same untethered enthusiasm in Justice League Unlimted 1, but the connection I’m going to draw is far more literal — both feature the background conflict between the planets Rann and Thanagar. The Rann-Thanagar War is one of those dense hives of modern DC mythology, mired in conflicting histories and muddy storytelling. Hell, I’m not even sure Rann and Thanagar are two separate planets since the New 52 started. In this issue, Jeff Lemire tries to give identity to the characters and concepts that are notoriously bad at sticking to any one.
Hawkman’s prisoner revolt isn’t going as well as he might have hoped. True, his aggression has stolen away Lobo’s attention long enough for some of his compatriots to flee their cells, but it doesn’t look like there’s anywhere for them to go. Plus this.
Before moving on to the meat of the issue, let me point out how well this panel demonstrates what I was talking about in the intro. Our aggressor here is Lobo, a character who’s gotten an overhaul so big, we’re forced to trot out the word “retcon.” Our victim is poor Hawkman (I guess Lemire can’t get enough of doing bad things to Hawkman), and that guy’s history is a big mess of semi-conflicting mythologies (Thanagar + Star Sapphire + whatever Rob Liefeld was writing). Then there’s the action itself — cutting off a hero’s hand — which had me immediately recalling Aquaman losing his hand before the relaunch. Each of these three things — Lobo, Hawkman, losing an arm — are notoriously unstable in the DC Universe, so it must be no coincidence that the rest of the Justice League is back on Earth fighting a monster that compulsively changes the material that its made of.
Ah, yes: back to that. Animal Man, Green Arrow and Adam Strange (who has since stumbled into his classic uniform) are a tad outclassed by the giant matter-shifting monster, so it’s up to Stargirl and Martian Manhunter to save the day. Manhunter attempts to connect to the creature’s mind, but he only gets some hints about the thing’s origin before the unstable nature of his make-up extends to the brain and the connection is severed. Stargirl, meanwhile, discovers that blasts from her staff cause the monster to change, so she cycles through a bunch of different versions before J’onn can just smack the shit out of the wooden form of the monster. The team Justice League Unites again, ready to take down the slowly-reforming beast, only to be FWASHed away to the deserts of Rann.
I’ll admit that I don’t totally have a handle on what’s going on with the galactic stuff in this issue. Strange’s girlfriend, Alanna, makes a horrifying discovery at the end of the issue in the form of a mega-baby, bred to kill, and Manhunter’s telepathic link established that those same aliens created the matter-shifting monster, but the connection between the two is, so far, left up to the reader. Now, to make matters hairier, our heroes are on planet Rann. It’s all question marks, but Lemire at least acknowledges that he knows these are blanks we can’t fill in for ourselves — Lobo says as much to Hawkman before chopping his hand off. In that spirit, I’m going to resolve to be patient, and accept the fact that my background with these characters is only going to make the conclusions I jump to wronger.
I really like Mike McKone’s simpler drawing style. Between the sleek drawings of the characters, the cast and that J.L.U. on the cover, it’s hard not to be reminded of the Justice League animated series. However, there are a few things at odds with McKone’s style that cause a handful of artistic misfires in this issue. First is Marcelo Maiolo’s coloring, which seems to be too eager to express shape and lighting on characters that might have benefited more from flatter coloring. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be the sunlight reflecting off the snow that makes the characters look so strange, but it’s not the most flattering compliment to McKone’s drawings.
Secondly, McKone’s character are all very solid, anchored by thick, dark, clearly defined lines. This makes his depiction of the monster pretty cool when it’s taking the form of water or lightning or hair. There’s a physicality that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Unfortunately, when the thing is an amorphous swirl of chaotic black energy, McKone goes against his instincts and the result looks like an art asset dropped in from another series.
Finally, and most perplexingly, the sound effects frequently get in the way of the action. Did you notice how that SCLUNK obscures Hawkman’s wound in the first image I posted? There’s also a point earlier in the issue when Animal Man channels the power of an electric eel, and McKone does the traditional “draw the animal in red behind Buddy to indicate what power he’s using” trick, but the entire drawing is covered with a KZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT sound effect. For the sake of clarity, let’s lose some of those Zs so we can see what the fuck is going on.
Shelby, my good friend, every time I think about Rann and Thanagar and trying to parse out messy comic book histories, I naturally think of you. Were you at all reminded of our long walks trying to figure out Green Lantern? Do you find any of this spacey stuff intriguing or just frustrating? And hey, was Equinox in this issue for two panels but didn’t do anything? I thought this thing was going to be about Canada…
It’s mostly just my faith in Lemire that keeps most of my frustration at bay; that, and the fact that this is only the first (second) issue, and I know I need to be more patient. I think the key to not being frustrated by all the messy, clunky history we have with these stories is to just not think about it. I can try to reason out the Rann-Thanagar conflict in relation to current, cosmic politics in the New52 universe, or I can just let it ride and enjoy the story as it happens. Honestly, I really hope that is the approach that Lemire takes with this as well. He’s got a lot of baggage associated with these characters, both from New52 shenanigans and old continuity; instead of getting bogged down, I’ve got my fingers crossed he just goes and tells the story he wants to tell. Adam and Alanna’s story is a good example. I did a little research, originally Adam Strange was an archeologist who got zapped to Rann, where he was rescued by and eventually fell in love with Alanna. Here, she’s the one who’s been taken via zap, but she’s human and getting help from a Thanagarian. Lemire is making his own version of their story, much like the way he had the aliens from Animal Man’s origin secretly agents of the Red in disguise.
Murky histories and space plots aside, I really enjoy Lemire’s take on the relationships building between the team members. Buddy and Ollie being buddies is just delightful, especially when you include Ollie’s lack of powers.
Courtney and J’onn have a bright, young student/grumpy but caring mentor thing going on, which is fun as well. I think my favorite part was seeing Adam fail hard at working his jetpack the first time. Not only is it good for a laugh, it makes sense in a realistic way (inasmuch as anything does here). Adam is not a superhero, he’s just a guy. Lemire leads us to believe this is going to be his shining moment as he finds his costume, but there’s no way a regular dude could just strap on a completely new kind of technology and expertly use it immediately.
So, we’ve got the team sans Equinox stuck on Rann, Equinox seemingly stuck in Canada until she figures out she’s a hero, and an impending end-of-the-world scenario unfolding in space. Also an armless Hawkman. There’s a lot going on right here (and a lot of it is pretty weird, even for comic books), but I trust Lemire to spin the story in a way that makes sense. If nothing else, we’ll always have Buddy and Ollie, the Blondie Besties.
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?