Today, Michael and Spencer are discussing Justice League of America 1, originally released June 17th, 2015.
Michael: I’m having a difficult time managing my expectations with this new direction that DC is putting out. Curiously, I’m being overly optimistic that these new books will be excellent and do away with the New 52ishness of recent memory. Basically, I’m falling for DC’s sales pitch hook, line, and sinker. While Bryan Hitch’s Justice League of America 1 has some trappings of the New 52, I think he’s trying to blaze his own trail with DC’s trademark team.
Superman (as Clark Kent) receives a mysterious invitation from a group in New York called the Infinity Corporation. There, Supes meets the neurotic science man-child Vincent and the more amiable Alexis and sees a whole pile of dead alternate versions of himself. After a series of virtual non-splanations, Vincent informs Superman that he can’t allow himself to die; like ever. If he does it will send a ripple effect across time and space, causing a “universal extinction-level event.” Superman poo-poos this hearsay and flies off to aid his fellow Leaguers who are fighting The Parasite, who the Infinity Corporation let loose from The Maw. Parasite takes down half of the team but Supes, Batman and Cyborg defeat him by overloading his power-sucking taste buds. Meanwhile Aquaman is summoned by a “prophet of the true God,” who appears at the end of the book and claims to be the Kryptonian sun god Rao.
Manhy comic book fans were excited for this book for no other reason than the sales pitch: “Bryan Hitch does the JLA.” My exposure to Hitch is limited, but the chance to see him apply the blockbuster epic-ness he brought to The Ultimates to DC’s big team was hard to pass up. So no surprise here, but Justice League of America 1 is a beautiful book. It’s also quite hefty: 45 pages of story and eight variant covers — seven connected solo shots of each Leaguer another one of those arbitrary “Joker variants” that seems like we’ll keep getting until the NEXT big Joker story.
I’m kind of getting tired of the “superheroes as gods” metaphor but let’s be honest here, Bryan Hitch isn’t going to do “small.” So, here’s some gods stuff: Hitch gives us “Prometheus’ quest for the gods’ fire” in the form of the UN asking Aquaman for a peek at Atlantis’ tech. The Infinity Corporation’s quest to prevent Superman from dying is kind of an inversion of the Christ myth; Vincent says that the only way to save humanity is Superman choosing to NOT sacrifice himself. This one’s a bit of a stretch, but the Infinity Corporation is engaging in that age-old trope of “scientists play God” in a way. “The Stones of Forever” (sorry, “Infinity Stones” was taken) are god-like in the way they provide Vincent “the gift of knowledge;” at the very least they’re Oracle figures. Then at the end of the book we have the arrival of Rao, who will inevitably cause some massive destruction on Earth. Rao vs. the JLA is posed as “the old gods vs the new gods” or as the prophet put it “the true gods replacing the false gods.”
Hitch has been pretty open about the god imagery while promoting Justice League of America, saying that he wanted to forego realism for seamless superhero costumes with “spray-painted muscles.” This is a wise approach and really works for the most part. Superman looks great without the clunky armor detail but Batman might have benefited from a little more “realism” in his design. It’s not a glaring problem but it did make me pause for a second. Hitch’s Batman is in a weird in-between phase of The Dark Knight “armored” Batsuit and the basic cape and tights style of yesteryear; I think the situation would be remedied by going full old-school and slapping some bat-briefs on our boy.
Hitch gives every Leaguer a big cinematic shot that just skirts the line of “over-the-top” but doesn’t cross it. Each of these moments has one of the heroes crossing the panel lines however. It might be just a hand or a foot, but Hitch frequently draws the Leaguers transcending the comic book page by crossing over into other panels. Bryan Hitch wants you to know these characters are larger-than-life gods you guys. GODS!
The plot is a fairly standard for a super-team book: mysterious probably-bad guys are established, send a monster to fight the League, the League barely beats said monster and then another problem is dropped on their door. Earlier I mentioned the New 52-ishness still present in this book — it’s not overt but I get frustrated when my Justice League still feels like a bunch of rookies. Its Parasite guys! He steals your powers! Don’t go jumping in head first without a game plan! n00bs. Superman comes off as a little cold and super-impatient. I mean damn, I know there are a bunch of dead versions of him and even more questions but it felt like at any given moment he was gonna snap Vincent’s neck Man of Steel style (as always, fuck that movie.)
Conversely, I think that the Lois Lane/Clark Kent dynamic was on point; I always enjoy Lois pushing Clark around. ASIDE: I feel like after Lois discovered Clark’s secret identity and married him she toned down the bullying, almost to the point of non-existence. That seems like a missed opportunity, how much more fun would it be to see Lois giving Clark a hard time about not being able to do his Superman-ing while he’s wearing the glasses at the Daily Planet? END OF ASIDE
Overall I’d say that Bryan Hitch delivered what he promised us. I think the prospect of Rao coming to “save” the people of Earth will be interesting; like “New Krytpon,” ya know, but not super bad. Spencer, what did you get from this issue? How come Hal gets transported back to Oa just because he’s unconscious? I feel like that happens a lot in his line of work…Also, I have got to say that I have missed the acronym “JLA” — it flows so much better than “JL.”
Spencer: You’re right, “JL” really doesn’t work as an acronym, but conversely, “JLA” works better as an acronym than a team name. This is still the New 52’s Justice League proper (or at least some version of it — if not for the line identifying Diana as the current God of War, I’d guess that this story took place sometime during the five year gap before the first and second Justice League story arcs), so there’s not much of a reason for them to be affiliated with America other than to differentiate this from Geoff Johns’ Justice League. Oh well — I guess calling the book Justice League of America is better than calling it Hitch’s Justice League Extravaganza, although that may be more accurate.
Anyway, Michael, you already touched on a lot of the points I wanted to make, and we’re in agreement about all of them, so I’m just going to work my way through a few of the smaller details I wanted to discuss one at a time. First up, it would be criminal to talk about a Bryan Hitch book and not discuss the art in further detail. When I think of “wide-screen storytelling,” Hitch is pretty much the first name that comes to mind, and he absolutely lives up to his reputation here, delivering two double-page spreads within the first twelve pages. Both come at “big,” significant moments, but they’re big in entirely different ways — the first is literally big, a lovingly rendered portrait of Earth’s destruction, while the second is a bit more symbolic, just wide so that it can properly show off the pile of dead Supermen Infinity Co.’s hoarded for themselves.
Both of these spreads are well-timed and well-drawn, but what impresses me more is the restraint Hitch shows throughout the rest of the issue. There are no other spreads after these two, and only two splash pages at the very end of the issue when Rao appears — Hitch knows that “going big” is probably the best weapon in his artistic arsenal, and is smart enough not to use all his ammo too early.
Actually, I’m rather surprised by how subtle Hitch’s storytelling is in general. Despite the freedom granted him from doing both the script and the art, Hitch generally sticks to standard square panels and block layouts, rarely deviating. In fact, there’s only a small handful of moments when panels start slipping out of their grid and into other panels, and it’s usually less for thematic reasons and more to improve the flow of the page. For example, when the UN is addressing Aquaman, there’s one panel that slips down into the one beneath it, but it helps direct the eye to Aquaman’s speech bubble instead of the empty space on the other side of the panel.
This next scene, meanwhile, uses the same technique, but this time with dual purposes.
Again, the panels help direct the eye to Parasite in that final panel instead of the empty space to the right, but it also shows the pull Parasite has on the Flash — it’s so strong it’s pulling the panel right out of its place!
It’s clever stuff, but I assume we all knew going into this book that Hitch’s art was going to be good. The bigger question is, how’s the writing? Story-wise, I think it’s strong. It’s not perfect — the Parasite fight feels like filler, for example — but I’m intrigued by the Rao plot (and all the god-parallels its making, as Michael pointed out), and there’s some clever narrative tricks going on here, such as opening the issue with Rao’s destroying the world and closing it on Rao’s arrival. Full circle, right?
In terms of characterization and dialogue, though, the issue isn’t as strong (barring that transcendent moment between Lois and Clark early in the issue, of course). Hitch seems to have a solid grasp on each Justice Leaguer’s personality, but hasn’t quite nailed down their voices yet. Superman is especially dire at times — Michael already pointed it out, but he’s wildly off-kilter while at the Infinity Corporation, to the point where I was reminded of his recent characterization in Convergence 0 (and believe me, that’s not a good thing). The dialogue during conversations is generally fine, but becomes downright cringeworthy during the Parasite battle, often devolving into long fits of grunting, screaming, and expository self-narration.
Really, a book that’s 50% fight scene with Bryan Hitch on pencils should not have this much copy, and that goes double for when Hitch is also writing the thing. Hitch of all people can trust his art to tell the story for him, and hopefully he’ll gain more confidence in that area as the series progresses.
This is also probably related to Hitch’s relative inexperience as a writer, but there’s this really distracting verbal tic running throughout the issue: the word “damn” and “dammit.” Almost every character says it at least once, and the damns come flying out rapid-fire during the Parasite battle. It would probably make a great drinking game.
Damn is a fun, versatile word, but Hitch really needs to cut down on how much he uses it, or at least settle on just one character who uses the word a lot, cause right now it’s clear that it’s just a tic of Hitch’s that he hasn’t eliminated from his repertoire yet.
This isn’t a perfect book, as the dialogue and characterization took me out of the story more than once, but I’m interested in the story Hitch is telling, and the art is more than worth coming back for a second helping of. If nothing else, Justice League of America should be a nice refuge from the drastic changes of DC YOU and the New 52-ishness of Johns’ Justice League. Justice League of America often feels like it would be right at home in the DC animated universe, and we could always use more books along that line.
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