Tuesday, March 6, 2012

52 Catch-Up: Justice League #1-6

The biggest problem with Justice League is that it was not the book DC Comics needed to start off The New 52 nor was it the book most readers were expecting. Most of the fans were expecting the Justice League title to start off with a freaking huge end-of-the-world scenario, as the World's Finest heroes unite to save us all. They were not expecting an origin story. Eventually, they got both, but I fear few had the patience to wait for things to build up.

Origin stories and big-team books are the bread and butter of Geoff Johns, who balanced large rosters of heroes and introduced obscure or brand new characters throughout his long run on JSA. Despite working with an active roster of at least a dozen heroes most of the time, Johns somehow found ways to give every single member of the Justice Society a little bit of space and time to grow. He may not have managed it every issue, but he gave everyone a chance to shine once in a while.

Johns manages the same trick here, though it takes him four issues to get all of our major players introduced and teamed-up. As I noted in an earlier review, we only see half the team in Issue #1 and even then Superman only shows up on the last page! It also takes half of the six-issue opening story arc for Victor Stone to be transformed into Cyborg and he adjusts to his newfound powers in record time. This is a pity, because Johns puts a lot of heart and conflict into the scenes between Victor and his scientist father and there is a lot of drama in the conflict between the bright but gifted athlete who seeks his father's respect for his talents and the brilliant scientist who is too obsessed with his work to be a proper father.

Sadly, all of this is scrapped when - in an effort to save his son's life - Victor's dad turns him into a guinea pig and transforms his son into one of the superhumans he finds so fascinating. Does Victor come to forgive his father for what he did? We don't know - Vic is too busy running off to save the day by that point and there's no exploration of the fact that while Vic's finally earned his dad's respect at the story's end, it's only because Vic has become a part of his work. Perhaps this conflict will be explored in future issues? I hope so.

Still, given the limited amount of time he has to work with the more established heroes, Johns does an admirable job of establishing the character's personalities in the midst of the action. Batman is established as a cool and collected but somewhat arrogant. Green Lantern is portrayed as strong-willed and courageous but also hot-headed and quick to anger. The Flash, ironically, is slow to action and a reluctant hero, at best. And Superman - in keeping with Grant Morrison's portrayal of the character in Action Comics - is far less of a Boy Scout than most modern readers may be used too.

With Issue #3, Johns hits his stride and I must confess to liking his portrayal of Wonder Woman here much better than the way she is shown in her new title. This Diana is still new to Man's World, very enthusiastic about everything and completely clueless as to just how terrified most people are to have a sword-wielding amazon in their midst. She is a warrior, yes, but she is also the kind of woman who will stop everything to heed a child's words. Or share an ice cream cone. :)

And yet, despite this bit of humor at the start, she is portrayed as being incredibly capable in a fight and the best pure warrior out of all of the heroes. Which is, to my mind, precisely as it should be. She is an amazon, after all - fighting strange creatures should be second-nature to her and she should be enthusiastic about battle, though she doesn't go out of her way to seek it. And her response to the men around her being surprised at her skill? Picture perfect!

Not surprisingly, given that he's done so much to redefine the character in recent years, Johns gives Aquaman one particularly awesome response to Hal Jordan's question regarding just how a guy who breathes underwater, talks to fish and carries a trident can possibly help them in a fight against alien invaders.

Rule Number One: Do not question the use of a man who can command sharks.

This brings to mind a complaint that was delivered to me by my friend Patrick, whom it should be noted is the son of a United States Air Force Veteran. Patrick was somewhat bothered that, in the first issue, Hal Jordan was basically the comic relief compared to Batman and that - based on what was going on in Green Lantern at the same time - that Hal was basically being portrayed as the most incompetent idiot ever. Even granting that Hal has always been portrayed as quick to act and slow to plan, it still bothered him to think that someone like Hal had ever been allowed into the Air Force... even in a work of fiction!

I see his point. And truth be told, Hal is something of a butt monkey for the first four issues. Apart from Barry Allen's portrayal of being scared to death of doing anything heroic that doesn't involve being in a lab studying a doomsday device, most of the other characters aren't give much in the way of negative traits compared to Hal. Batman and Aquaman are both arrogant and assume they should be leading the team. Diana is naive and a wee bit bloodthirsty. And Superman, in a clear about face from his usual portrayal, is cynical of the military and police. But Hal? Hal's role in the first four issues is basically akin to that of Eric in the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon - he is the comic relief, there to make the other characters look better, except when he is meant to do something heroic to the surprise of everyone.

Then in Issue #5, it changes. And Hal Jordan is suddenly the Hal Jordan I grew up watching on the SuperFriends cartoon. The guy who always saved the day when Superman was down and out. The guy who never gave up, even as he was facing an enemy armed with a weapon specifically designed to destroy him. The man too brave to back down ever. And eventually, the man who comes up with a plan (with some prompting from Batman) to take down Darkseid.

I haven't said anything about Jim Lee's artwork yet and that's because there's so little that I can say. At this point, Lee's style is fairly well established and - like opera - you either hate it or you love it. Me? I love it. Though Lee's visual storytelling falters a bit in Issue #6 (seriously, how did Batman get his cape and cowl back?), Lee's greatest strength is his ability to create poster-worthy splash pages.

I think the ultimate problem with Justice League is that Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, while both fine creators on their own, are ill-suited to partnering with one another. To use a track metaphor, Lee is a sprinter where as Johns is a marathon runner. Lee is always at his best when he's depicting high-action, fast-moving scenes. Johns tries to accommodate him with his scripts here, but the best scenes are the ones where the action slows down and Johns just lets the characters talk. But Johns doesn't have the time to develop the deeper characterizations he became famous for in JSA and Hawkman. And the book suffers a little for it. It isn't bad... but it isn't the home run it should have been.

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