Today, Andy and Spencer are discussing Justice League 44, originally released September 30th, 2015.
Andy: Justice League stories usually come in one of two shapes: seismic clashes between legions of good and evil that change the universe forever, or workplace procedurals driven by quirky-character team ups. Justice League 44 sits firmly in the first category, as Darkseid and Darkseid-wannabe Anti-Monitor punch each other to decide the true big baddie of the DC universe.
Superhero comics traditionally concern themselves with a mythology of duality; good guys vs. bad guys, heroes vs. villains, the matter vs. the anti-matter, and the essential tension of those opposites. This issue centers around a conflict between two of the most evil and powerful entities in existence, with Justice League members scattered and carrying out different duties in their protection of earth: Batman and Green Lantern investigating the origin of Anti-Monitor on the Crime Syndicate’s earth, Superman and Lex Luthor squabbling on Apokolips, and the rest of the league struggling to stop the clashing armies of Anti-Monitor and Darkseid from inadvertently destroying the planet.
In a fight between Darkseid and Anti-Monitor, it’s hard to tell who to root for. With the baddest bad of our universe and the baddest bad of the bad universe fighting the issue has an ambiguous tension here. Either one of them winning would probably be awful for our heroes, so who’s to say that just because Anti-Monitor is from a different universe means he’s worse than Darkseid is? Batman discovers the fundamental difference between our universe and Anti-Monitor’s, as the DC universe was founded on the concept of free will and the Anti-Monitor’s on Anti-Life.
Writer Geoff Johns is doing some serious heavy lifting in this issue, as he reveals the true central conflict at play here between free will and determinism explicitly and thematically. All of the side conflicts are also focused through this theme. Johns exposes us to several fundamental characters to the DC universe rendered near unrecognizable in spirit through a simple change of philosophy.
Jason Fabok sets up the reader to notice and distrust these changes in our heroes’ philosophies with an entire page of the Joker transitioning through a couple panels into Bat-Chair-Man. Johns and Fabok seem to be implying that Joker’s acceptance and embrace of chaos amidst an unjust and random world makes for an all too hearty embrace of the determinism of Anti-Monitor’s world. If there is nothing we can do that will change our fate, laughing is a natural response to the absurdity of the world’s cruel and imperceivable tragedies. In his normal state, Batman is regularly shown contrasting that view. In the face of a random and helpless tragedy (the death of his parents), Bruce Wayne became Batman to change his world. Batman expresses a radical interpretation of free will wherein if you can do something you should because your actions will have an effect.
Both Batman and Superman undergo changes leading up to this issue, which gives them much grander power and the aforementioned shift in their philosophies. The chair gives Batman unlimited empirical knowledge, but from this position the scope of mortal’s free-will is puny and forgettable when contrasted against his newfound god-like omnipotence. Batman discounts Hal Jordan’s merits as a hero, chiding that it’s merely the ring that makes him so. When contrasted with the way Ultraman and the rest of the “heroes” of the parallel universe took their power and privilege as a sign to preside over their planet as dictators, this point in a similar vein, Superman discounts the efforts of Lex Luthor to change his ways and attacks him in a supercharged fervor. Anti-Monitor overpowers the Flash to force him to be the tool with which he murders Darkseid. This disregard for people’s choice is shown to be the greater evil. This evil is not just a powerful enemy who disagrees with you, but a powerful person who disregards your right to choose or change entirely.
Power Ring serves as a reminder that it is possible to resist these urges to abuse the gift of power. Choosing to protect instead of choosing to dominate the weak out of fear or greed is central to Power Ring’s arc, and draws a clear line in the sand between the merit to these philosophies. Geoff Johns is tying all these shifts and developments back to one central argument: free will doesn’t exist in a survival of the fittest because the choice of whether to protect or to dominate is taken away.
Spencer, what do you think the defeat of Darkseid means? I am quite a bit overwhelmed by the scale of these conflicts, how do you feel Jason Fabok is handling them visually?
Spencer: Oh man, Fabok knocks this one out of the park (per usual). There’s probably no way to avoid being overwhelmed by this war’s scale, but Fabok keeps every scene clear and detailed, and makes sure all the important players are accounted for even when some of them go long stretches without doing anything. Fabok also seems to intuitively understand the sense of pacing and scale Johns is aiming for.
As always, I’m amazed by the amount of detail Fabok gives Power Ring’s construct; normally a panel with this much detail, with this grand a scale, would be a splash page or even a spread, but as powerful a moment as this is for Jessica, Johns and Fabok realize that it’s insignificant to Darkseid and the Anti-Monitor, and instead save their big show-stopping spreads for the moments that have the most impact on the war itself: Flash’s transformation into Death incarnate (again), and Darkseid’s death.
Fabok’s collaborators also put in fantastic work here. Brad Anderson’s colors can be a bit grim and oppressive, but that’s a perfect fit for the story and art — we should feel like we’re in Hell throughout this war, and Anderson absolutely delivers that sensation. Letterer Rob Leigh also provides much of Justice League 44‘s personality; as overused as I find some of these custom speech balloons, they can still be quite effective when done properly.
Kalibak here is the best example of that. He’s massive and dangerous, and thus, so are his speech balloons; unlike most of the other characters in the issue, both Kalibak and his dialogue break through the panel’s borders, because they just can’t contain him. These particular balloons do a better job of establishing Kalibak’s voice and personality than, say, the black-background-with-white-lettering balloons used for Darkseid and Grail; what’s their dialogue supposed to sound like anyway?
As for Darkseid’s death, well, the possibilities seem almost endless. If we actually had any Fourth World titles running right now I’d hope for an exploration of how Apokolips handles the power vacuum (similar to how Justice League Unlimited handled his death), but considering that this is Justice League, I imagine the fallout will, at least for now, be limited to how Darkseid’s demise affects the League. Despite Darkseid being a persistent threat to the League, I can’t imagine his death will be all that beneficial in the short term, as he was the only thing keeping the Anti-Monitor from turning his undivided attention on the Earth.
That exemplifies perhaps my favorite aspect of this storyline: how insignificant the League has been in this war. Darkseid and the Anti-Monitor’s beef has nothing to do with them, and only Grail seems to care that they’re there at all; it’s an amusing dynamic, and one that fully embodies how far removed these literal “gods” are from even the “godlike” beings of the Justice League. This is also demonstrated by their demeanor; as Andy brought out, Darkseid and the Anti-Monitor have no problem sapping people of their free will and straight-up manipulating them like puppets, which is in clear opposition to everything the League stands for. This starts to change, though, as one-by-one the League starts transforming into gods themselves, and begin to lose their humanity, compassion, and perspective in the process. Something tells me that Johns doesn’t think too highly of the concept of “gods,” and that has me curious to see how Johns will continue to handle their transformation.
Of course, there are downsides to these transformations, too. Over the last 44 issues of Justice League I feel like we’ve spent more time watching the League bicker and argue with one another, be manipulated, turn evil, and be captured than actually watching them save the world, and it definitely hurts the title. The interaction between Mobius-Batman and Green Lantern isn’t all that far off from Bruce and Hal’s animosity way back in the first arc, and the fact that we so rarely get to see these characters interact in a positive light or enjoy any downtime definitely robs their “dark” transformations of a lot of their power.
Likewise, Justice League has been relentlessly grim for just as long. It’s a tone that fits a war between Darkseid and Anti-Monitor, but it’s also one I’m growing a bit tired of. So much of Johns’ writing style revolves around jaw-dropping twists and surprising repurposes of past DC continuity, and I feel like these moments could be a lot more powerful if we were allowed to have a little fun with them every now and then; if nothing else, I’d love to see Fabok get a chance to actually draw one of these characters with a smile. This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate Johns’ twists — Darkseid’s death just about floored me — but I just know that any insane twist Johns conceives of will be accompanied by abject misery and a heaping helping of violence, and that gets exhausting quickly.
Despite my griping, though, this is still one of the stronger issues of Justice League in recent memory. Johns and Fabok manage to balance characterization, bombast and spectacle, and a surprising amount of thematic depth, and it makes for a rather thrilling — albeit oppressively dark — outing.
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?