Tuesday, November 21, 2000

The Mount: Review of JLA/Witchblade, JLA: Heaven's Ladder & JLA: Secret Society of Superheroes Elseworlds

Okay…this month's going to be very eclectic, but it all relates to everything in this issue in some fashion or another. Holidays, friends and family; comics…and all the JLA stuff that was going to come last month that I didn't get to. Some of it might even be funny, some of it touching. So be warned that I'm going to go all over the place.

My parents came for their first visit to my new place and they left without incident, except for their commenting upon two things. The first is my "expanding action figure collection", which is made up of five figures which sit posed on my desk. Not much of a collection and its hardly expanding, since only one of them (an Ollie Queen Green Arrow figure) is new.

The other is the "weird badge" on my leather jacket. My mom thought it was a Wicca religious symbol and my dad asked point blank if I was "dancing naked with witch girls in the woods". (Don't I wish…) Well, it's not that weird…it's a replica of Jack Knight's badge. I have the same style leather jacket as Starman, so I decided to put my replica badge on it. It's a heck of a conversation piece and it gets me faster service in bars and restaurants. I think it's because with the jacket and badge, the wait staff think I'm a Texas Ranger…the special cops, not the baseball team.

My new wonderful comics store is quickly becoming not so wonderful. So far, they have managed to lose my subscription information for three weeks in a row. Luckily, I've been going to the store on Wednesday mornings, so I've been able to get all my regular comics before they sold out.

And speaking of things that have been lost or delayed, I had planned to spend all of last month's "The Mount" talking about all the big JLA stories that were going to come out that month. Well, most of the stories got delayed for a few weeks, well past my deadline date. So now, because I'm a stubborn old cuss of 22 and because most of the stories are of "can't miss" or "can't kiss" quality, I'm going to talk about three new JLA stories; "Heaven's Ladder", "JLA: Witchblade" and the two-part "Secret Society of Super-Heroes".

I know a few people who avoided "JLA: Heaven's Ladder" because of it's unwieldy size and it's $9.95 price tag. These people are VERY unlucky as this is easily the best JLA special written in a long while. Without giving away too much of the story, a group of god-like beings "borrow" numerous planets from the DCU. They plan to use the various religious of all the alien cultures as blueprints for their own Heaven, since the beings (dubbed the Quantum Mechanics by Ray Palmer) function on pure logic and have no ideas of faith. I know that sounds like I've just given away everything, but that's just the plot…not the story. The story is beautiful, as the JLA has to work to help the QM's in their construction all while discussing their own personal beliefs.

The characterization here is great, especially considering the obvious flaw in doing a story about faith in the DCU. That is, how can you do a story about questioning faith in a world where an angel was a JLA member, a civil war in Heaven nearly destroyed Los Angeles and Hell freezes over as the Wrath of God runs wild?

This point is addressed early on, with Plastic Man asserting his own beliefs (Irish Catholic) and asking how the rest of the team can, having known Zauriel, not believe the afterlife isn't all halos and harps. J'onn reminds Plas that Zauriel showed them how they could respect one another's beliefs. This sets the tone for the story, which becomes a "DCU Religion 101" textbook, without seeming like a lecture.

We get a lot of one-on one talks, as the team discusses their ideas of what the afterlife is. Flash asks Aquaman about the Atlantean afterlife. Diana tells Green Lantern about the Ancient Greek ideas of the afterlife as they confront the Khunds, who have a Valhalla-like vision of the world beyond. And in what is easily the best scene in the book, Atom asks Superman what Heaven was like for him when he died. Superman asks "What makes you think I went to heaven.?" Ray gives him a grin and says "Because if you didn't, the rest of us have no hope." And just so you know, this book never does settle the eternal "what religion is Superman/Batman" debates that seem to pop up periodically on numerous comic discussion boards.

My one complaint is that the story is a little slow to start, with 1/3 of the book passing before the story begins in earnest. Not that the whole book isn't wonderful, but it takes us a while to find out what exactly is going on. Though we do get some wonderful splash pages while the plot unfolds, as opposed to "JLA: Witchblade" where we spend most of the time looking at splash pages while we wait for a plot.

"JLA: Witchblade" works about as well as you think such a crossover might. The problem here is that there is no real reason for all these characters to get involved, other than for the sake of a crossover. On the one hand, we have a rebellious, loose cannon female cop with a magic weapon (which rips all her clothes off when it activates and leaves her in nothing but a thin layer of Giger-esque metallic vines (but that's a whole other rant). On the other, we have a team of the world's greatest superheroes. With few exceptions, "loners meet a team" stories don't work very well and JLA: Witchblade is NOT such an exception. I can see a "Batman/Witchblade" or "GL/Witchblade" story being done well, since you'd have common angles to work with there. Picture Sara Pezzini having to go to Gotham for a case and work with Batman. Or Kyle Rayner teaming with a New York cop who has her own "most powerful weapon". As is, this story is a serious mess with lots of bad characterization and stupid logic.

The story opens with Lex Luthor talking to "Mr. Irons", the Lex Luthor of the Witchblade book. Irons offers Lex a chance to study the Witchblade in exchange for his help in retrieving the item. Lex agrees and sends some of his attack robots to attack Sara Pezzini as she is wandering around Gotham, for what reason we never do find out. Wounded, Sara tries to find a place to recover and remembers that Barbara Gordon, whom she met once when their fathers were at a cop convention and kept writing too, lives in Gotham. She collapses on Babs' doorstep, so Barbara teleports her up to the Watchtower so they can take a look at her, without so much as a "what's with the vine bikini?"

Up on the watchtower, J'onn tries to examine Sara's mind and sees her being attacked by the Lexcorp Robots. We cut back to Luthor and Irons talking, where Luthor mentions that Sara was teleported to the JLA Watchtower. Luthor doesn't even blink at this, which strikes me as a bit odd. Even at his most arrogant, Lex would never take the JLA's involvement in anything lightly…

Meanwhile, Barbara finds a fragment of the Witchblade and tries to analyze it on her own as she talks with Batman, J'onn and Aquaman as they observe Sara. In the time that has passed, the Witchblade has formed a cocoon around Sara to heal her. The Witchblade reminds Arthur of something, and he departs for Atlantis to examine the library there as Babs' connection to the Watchtower is cut. Concerned, Batman calls Plastic Man and Huntress to come with him to Oracle's lair.

Yes, kiddies. You heard me right…Batman takes the two most unreliable JLA members with him to go and visit the team's most private member…after himself, of course. He leads them to her front door and then tells them to wait there because "she's obsessive about privacy". Hey, world's greatest detective? Why bother leading them to her building, much less the door to her apartment?

Anyway, they don't get much of look around, as the Witchblade fragment has bonded with Babs, and turned her into a half-spider/half woman "webcrawler". They eventually beat it after the fragment jumps off Babs and bonds to Huntress, who Batman promptly knocks out with a Batarang as she rants about finally having the power to bring down true justice on the evil.

They haul her up to the Watchtower, where the fragment bonds to still comatose Sara, as the rest of the JLA stand around and watch.

Aquaman comes back having discovered where he saw the weapon. It was in a book of Atlantean history, which referred to the Witchblade as "corrupter, possessor, slayer and seducer". Naturally, nobody thinks it odd when Wonder Woman reports that the Witchblade has vanished without a trace, nor do they think to examine her since thus far, the weapon has bonded to every other female member of the team.

We cut back to Irons and Luthor. Luthor notes that the Witchblade only bonds with women, and that it always seeks out the most powerful hosts possible. He says that the Witchblade will no doubt seek to bond with Wonder Woman and that will make it easier to deal with. He bases this on the idea that Wonder Woman will have no idea how to use the weapon. Irons is skeptical, and I've got to agree. Far be it for me to question a fictional genius…but one might argue that getting a sentient magic glove off a woman who is magically empowered herself would be just as difficult, if not more so, than a normal woman. And bare in mind the key word is "sentient", as in the glove will be smart enough to work on it's own, regardless of how the hostess uses it. In fact, from what I recall of the Witchblade, isn't Sara supposed to have almost no control over it?

Anyway, Wonder Woman goes nuts at the UN, thanks to the dark influence of the Witchblade. She starts beating up ambassadors, whose arguments interrupt her speech on the importance of peace (my, how ironic)…and then another group of Lexcorps Robots show up and start blasting the hell out of the place.

We get a quick cut back to the Watchtower, where a recovered Sara suggests that the Witchblade went after Wonder Woman because a pure innocent like Diana would be unable to fight it's dark lure. Kind of a faulty logic since Diana has been seduced by dark powers before and not had any troubles…but I digress. The entire team goes down to New York and get their butts handed to them. Superman is wounded and the Witchblade cuts through Kyle's ring-created armor. Things are looking bad until Sara shows up, tells the Witchblade that it is destined to be with her, and the thing just attaches itself to her and she walks off, ignoring Superman's offer to help her as J'onn says "It is a burden that she must bear alone." The story ends as Babs and Sara get together for lunch and slam GL for "needing to get over himself over the whole "most powerful weapon in the universe thing".

Okay. I have to take exception here. You can have Batman escorting other JLA members to Babs' apartment door. You can have Luthor being arrogant to the point of complete stupidity. You can give me a total one-page sum up ending (The Witchblade goes back to Sara because of some kind of destiny). You can even have Superman backing down and letting a woman walk off with an obviously lethal and evil weapon, making no attempt to try and help her get rid of it. But there is no excuse for Kyle and Wally getting the treatment they do in this story. Kyle spends his screen time in full comic relief mode, joking about Aliens and making remarks about "copyright infringement" when Witchblade refers to itself as the most powerful weapon in the universe. Wally spends most of his time telling Kyle to shut up or freaking out at the drop of a hat just because Superman got hurt.

"The Secret Society of Super-Heroes" is much better. An Elseworlds tale, SS of SH is set in a world where the JLA was founded by Superman in the 1950s. Inspired by his Mason father, who used his order to secretly help people in his town, the "Kryptic Order" works to fight crime and right wrongs secretly, using invisible shields provided by the Amazons. As the story opens, the team has 8 members: an aging Superman, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, Metamorpho, Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) The Atom, The Flash (Wally West) and Plastic Man.

We also see three people whose lives are very soon going to cross that of "The Order". Lois Lane, a tabloid reporter, is investigating various rumors of people with superhuman powers. Bruce Wayne, an FBI profiler who is conducting his own investigation into the disappearances of several people, including his father, who he believes were abducted by aliens. Then there is Bart Allen, a typical teenager with an overly strict father; a police scientist named Barry. Bart recently gained the power of Superspeed and has gained the attentions of Wally West.

In the first part of the story, we learn about the power struggle in the Kryptic Order and how it reacts to the rest of the world. The team is evenly split on the idea of acting openly, with Superman, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl and Metamorpho against and GL, Flash, Atom and Plastic Man being in favor of. We find out soon that with the possible exception of Wally, the heroes who want to start acting openly wish to do so to be rewarded for their efforts. To that end, Wally recruits Bart into the order, so that he may break the tie in the order in their favor.

At the same time, Wayne and Lane team together as they both wind up investigating the same case from different angles: Lane looking for aliens and Wayne investigating missing criminals. We find out through the eyes of one of these criminals that the Order is sending the worst of those they catch into the Phantom Zone, so they may think about their crimes. Through his eyes, we see that the Zone is a Utopia, led by a Martian named J'onn.

In Part two, things come to a head as the order comes to blows, the Order is exposed and Bruce Wayne discovers what happened to his father. I'd say more…but you would really benefit more from reading the story for yourself.

I will say however that the story isn't completely flawless. For one thing, like most Elseworlds, too much is attempted and you are left wanting more of the strange world since things are touched upon and then ignored or barely covered at all. For example, we never do find out why exactly J'onn was put in the Phantom Zone, other than some vague talk of not playing the games of the Order. The Riddler of this world (a serial killer named Marc Question) is only in the the story to give Bruce Wayne something to do at work in the first act and to later deliver a plot point in obligatory fashion. Catwoman appears two pages away from the end for no apparent reason other than "here's another person who is different in this world!" There's also one page that shows Lucius Fox; a successful politican forced out of office for having an affair with a white woman. This has no real relevance to the rest of the story and does nothing, except show that this world is different in ways besides "superheroes work in secret here".

Final Score:
Heaven's Ladder: 9
JLA/Witchblade: 3
Secret Society of Superheroes: 7

As I write this, it's less than a week to American Thanksgiving and it seems that this will be the last issue for the holidays…and more than likely the rest of the year. So until next time, Happy Holidays and Peace on Earth.

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