Today, Michael and Patrick are discussing Justice League of America 1, originally released February 22nd, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Michael: Sometimes I’m a tough customer to please. When it comes to storytelling, I like to get my bearings on the landscape and characters, but I don’t want to be spoon-fed all of the important details. With regards to Justice League of America 1 it nails some subtle world-building but is less successful when handling the stars of the book.
Justice League of America 1 is just like Justice League of America Rebirth 1 — remember the Rebirth one-shots? — but it advances the plot a little more. We get introduced to our cast of characters: Vixen, Black Canary, The Atom, Ray, Killer Frost, Lobo and Batman — who explains why this Justice League is unlike any other Justice League that has ever Justice Leagued. This League exists to show the world that heroes can be humans, as well as gods. It’s a touching sentiment, but one that kind of crashes and burns upon inception. The obvious argument to make here is that Lobo is not human… but I love Lobo and assume everyone else does too, so I won’t focus on that one.
More important than the Lobo argument is the fact that, while human, all of the members of the JLA are super-powered besides Batman. Batman serves as the resident non-powered hero of the team… which is the exact same role that he held on the other Justice League. So unless you are a metahuman, gifted a magic totem or have a genius level intellect you can’t be the kind of hero that the Justice League of America has.
My criticisms of this JLA’s raison d’etre might be petty or severe, but I’m only playing by the rules that Steve Orlando laid out for me. It’s the first issue, meaning that we are getting to know the characters and they are getting to know one another. That being said, some of the dialogue is pretty stiff and expository. Ryan Choi has an entire page where he provides a brief origin story to no one in particular while they are mid-battle. While I’m not fond of the words on that page I do like the imagery that Ivan Reis lays out. One of the Atom’s signature moves is shrinking down and moving between molecules. Reis expresses that action as if The Atom has shrunk down through the gutters and emerged on the other side of the image.
I’m being a Scrooge here with my critiques of a first chapter being “too expository” but the way these characters talk to one another feels unnatural and takes me out of the story. On the surface it’s a pretty by-the-numbers plot: team assembles, not prepared but fights villain, leader falls on his sword for the team. Batman handing himself over felt ham-fisted and unnecessary.
Justice League of America 1 is not all gloom and doom for me, however, as Lobo did not disappoint. I will be honest: Lobo is the number one thing that intrigued me about this book. There is a character that Orlando nails throughout the issue. Every other word that The Main Man says is patented Lobo space-biker slang. He even went so far as to include Lobo’s trademark love and admiration for all dolphins, which was a nice touch.
The main event of Justice League of America 1 is an in-your-face overt classic superhero team origin. Beneath the surface however, there is a subtler plot that expands well-beyond the pages of this book. Initially, I thought that the villain of this book — Lord Havok — was just another run-of-the-mill cosmic conqueror. If you’ve read Multiversity however you eventually recognize him as the Doctor Doom analogue from an alternate Earth.
Along with the recent “Multiplicity” arc of Superman this is the second time we’ve had Multiversity characters cross over into the main continuity of the DCU. Lord Havok’s plan is not that different from Multiplicity’s villain Prophecy: they want to conquer/destroy New Earth because of the threat that looms over the entire Multiverse. Though he’s not named explicitly, DC folks will know that this all has to do with the mysterious machinations of “Mr. Oz” and the overall intersection of Watchmen with the main DCU continuity.
There’s a weird marriage of in-story continuity and in-house marketing going on here. The DC Rebirth Watchmen connection was and continues to be a controversial notion. On the other hand I think it’s awesome that DC is using the vast amount of characters and ideas from Multiversity as a bridge to whatever DC Rebirth ends up being. The fact that it’s not billed as a “DC Rebirth tie-in” makes me respect it all the more. It’s hard to say how much of the Lord Havok stuff is Orlando and how much is DC editorial, but it’s written with a great deal more subtlety than the rest of the book.
I can’t tell where I stand on Ivan Reis’ Batman. He does this peculiar thing with the shadows over Batman’s cowl that makes his pupils these glowing orbs of judgement. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else do that before. I think I like it? It certainly makes him stand out.
Patrick! Am I being too hard on the whole of Justice League of America 1? How do you feel about the team thus far? Am I correct in saying that everyone loves Lobo? Could you make out any more Marvel analogues from the “Extremists”? I think the purple guy in the cape is Magneto and there’s another guy that’s basically Doctor Octopus except his tentacles are his hair…
Patrick: I mean, is it possible that they’re mostly Spider-Man villain analogues? There’s a goblin-y looking guy that rides around on a flying bat, a bare chested hunter and wizardy guy with an amorphous head that could basically be Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter and Mysterio. And that big dumb yellow guy could be Abomination or something (which I recognize is a Hulk villain, and kind of ruins my Spider-Man analogy, but who cares?).
I don’t think you’re being too hard on this issue, Michael. If anything, I think you’re being too forgiving of the thing’s obvious flaws. Don’t get me wrong — I can see why. Orlando is laying out some breadcrumbs that trace back to the fundamental questions about this new DC Universe. And if there’s one thing I know about fundamental questions about the universe, it’s that we badly want answers to them. This is one of those mythology-first issues that places the uber-narrative above any moment-to-moment storytelling. Y’know, it’s that criticism we throw at universe-architects like Jonathan Hickman or Grant Morrison. The difference being that both Hickman and Morrison have emotional or psychological or psychedelic spices to add to their mythology stew. By comparison, Orlando’s stew is expository to the point of being statistical.
Michael already pointed out that lumpy Atom sequence, but I’d argue that attempts to shade any of these characters also fall flat. Like, what’s up with Don’t-Call-Me-Killer Frost’s arc in this issue? She reminds Ryan that she’s still a scientist and then does some science, all without threat of failure or even any real pushback from Choi.
Vixen, Ray and Black Canary don’t get any room to develop in this issue, which is totally fine. It’s a team book and not everyone is going to be featured in a meaningful way. But that does mean that we have to find our emotional anchors somewhere and it’s obviously not in Frost or Atom. So what are we hanging on to? Lobo? Orlando is effectively borrowing on our affinity for notoriously annoying 90s pastiche, which in and of itself is not a crime. The bigger bummer is that the way forward through Rebirth’s mythology-heavy JLA series needs to be guided by “our affinity for annoying 90s pastiche.” The future of DC is its past. So even on a mythological level, this ends up being a pretty big disappointment for me.
Oh and there is some crazy shit happening in the lettering in this issue. Sometimes the different colored speech balloons add a little bit of character to the page — such as Frost’s lightly blue-tinted balloons or Havoc’s black balloons with red outlines — but the rules are not super consistent. There’s one scene where JLA are all connected via whatever ear-piece communication all superheroes are always equipped with, and a whole new set of rules is introduced. Over the radio — but only over the radio — Batman’s balloons are gray, Ray’s are black with yellow letters, and Vixen’s are orange.
At least… I’m assuming that orange balloon is Vixen’s… Ryan responds to that ballon by addressing the speaker as “Vixen,” so I’m not even sure why it’d need to be color-coded in the first place. Plus, this is the only page that uses this technique on this scale. There are two other times where Ray’s dialogue appears in this color scheme — once earlier in the issue, which is presented just like this with the tail-less radio balloons, and a second time later when it’s a narration box. Come to think of it, Ray’s “I can do that” is the only narration in the issue, which leads me to believe that it was a mistake, and should have been a radio balloon in the first place.
Regardless, the page above is a perfect representation of what I find so frustrating in this series. That page layout may put all the heroes on display, but it’s shit at communicating any information about the story they’re involved in. Maybe that’s enough for the fans that just want to see Vixen and Lobo and Batman and Atom on a team together, but a reader like me needs a goddamn story.
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