I was perhaps a little hard on comedian/comics fan Patton Oswalt last week in discussing his not particularly accurate or well-written introduction to Brad Meltzer and company's Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga hardcover. Not that I agree with him that it was a good group of comics, or that Meltzer is a very good comic book writer, or that writing-for-the-trade is a good a thing, or any of the other questionable statements Oswalt made there.
But when I questioned why DC was making a big deal out of Oswalt’s intro on the cover of the book (he got a credit for the intro, but none of the artists involved got cover credits), wondering aloud why he’s someone who’s opinion on comics is worth paying attention to (aside, of course, from the obvious “He’s famous, and not comics-famous, but famous-famous argument), I spoke a little too soon.
It wasn’t until a reader asked just who this Oswalt character is in the comments section that I realized he actually has written some comics before, including a Justice League comic that I liked a lot.
That would be JLA: Welcome to the Working Week, a prestige format one-shot that dropped in 2003, during the first year of Joe Kelly’s run on the parent title.
It may just have been the last good JLA spin-off. After the Morrison relaunch, one-shot specials like this were coming out like clockwork, but as Kelly’s run neared its end, they all but stopped, perhaps in part because the confusion that set in over the whole franchise.
They’ve since re-named and relaunched the monthly JLA comic, and yet it still hasn’t had a stable creative team since Kelly and company left (Meltzer was technically a “regular” writer, but he only stuck around a dozen issues; Dwayne McDuffie is currently the “regular” writer, but he doesn’t even write half an issue’s worth of pages).
Oswalt’s story is set firmly between the “death” of Aquaman during “Our Worlds at War” and the League rejiggering in “The Obsidian Age.”
The team consists of Morrison’s Big Seven line-up, only with Plas in for Aquaman. The real star of the piece is Marlus Randone, a young man from Portland, Oregon who writes and self-publishes a fanzine dealing with superheroes called Save Us!.
When Marlus’ neighborhood is attacked by aliens, he and every civilian there find themselves mass-teleported onto the League’s lunar Watchtower, while the League swoops in to deal with the aliens.
The Leaguers somehow miss Marlus when returning the civilians, and he’s left behind. He spends a whole week as a stowaway on the Watchtower, watching the League from the shadows as they go about their day-to-day work. (Revisiting this after having just read The Lightning Saga collection, I realize that Meltzer’s twelfth issue story “Monitor Duty” was somewhat similar in that it was a day in the life of the League, but Oswalt’s story is obviously much richer in detail, given its size. And the outsider narrator gives the reader a somewhat reliable narrator to listen to, whereas Meltzer’s story had each of the Leaguers take turns thinking out loud for a few panels).
There is an overarching story, involving that horde of aliens, Marlus’ dreams, his past and an alien being named Feast, but mostly the plot seems to serve as an axis on which Oswalt’s observations can revolve around.
He’s quite ably aided and abetted by the art team of Patrick Gleason and Christian Alamy, artists whose style are similar enough to the monthly’s art team of the time, Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen, that one could almost mistake them for one another (Oh, and Gleason and Mahnke are two more names that can be added to the Should Be Drawing JLoA Instead Of Ed Benes list).
Gleason’s style is quite adaptable, being perfect for straightforward superheroics and comedy, and he’s able to pull both off in the same panel. He also provides some pretty complex layouts, many of which are jam-packed with crowds and cameos and background details.
Oswalt’s vision of the League is one I like a lot. It’s seemingly heavily influenced by Morrison’s run, based on not only the characters he uses, but the ways he uses them, and the other stories referenced. His League is a super-professional, well-oiled machine of a team, in which the characters finish each other’s sentences, and they all bark half-orders, status reports and jargon to one another in snatches of dialogue as they go about saving the world.
Because of the nature of the story, we get to see a lot more of their down time than we normally do (Essentially, this is a book about the League’s downtime), and yet its clear that the team is the hub of DC’s superhero universe; they’re who all the other heroes check in with, and they’re expected to be the world’s first line of defense.
And his takes on the individual heroes are all great. I think he nails what’s special about all of them to some degree.
When Marlus first comes across J’onn J’onnz, we see the Martian Manhunter seated in the lotus position, hovering while meditating.
Here’s how Oswalt-through-Marlus describes him: “If Superman is Elvis, than this is Dylan. When you’re a kid, you’re all for the spitcurl. But by the time you hit college, you’re forehead all the way. That thinker’s skull, on top of a linebacker’s bod… Like if Socrates played for the Steelers… For every time the world’s been saved in the sunshine by Superman… …it’s been saved in the shadows by this guy.”
His views on Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all hew pretty close to the modern day standard, although he notably sums up Batman’s position in the League and superhero community perfectly with this one sentence: “Everyone’s always pissed at Batman.”
The Flash and Green Lantern (still Kyle Rayner at this point) are the playful rivals that Morrison set them up as during his run; the two “normal” guys on the team that readers can relate to. Theirs was one of the few relationships in the millennial Justice League that seemed like a real one, and it was too bad when Kyle was switched out for John Stewart (Not because I dislike Stewart, but no one seems to have done anything interesting with him that they couldn’t have done with Kyle).
Plastic Man is similarly played the way Morrison reintroduced him—as the “wacky” superhero. Oswalt seems to be reaching for something to say about the character, as Marlus says, “What’s Plastic Man’s deal, anyway? Does he fight crime, or just react to it?”
But the scene spotlighting Plas is fantastic.
I mean, look at this:
Keith Giffen’s Ambush Bug and Heckler, throwing a kegger with Plas? Of course they’re all pals! Man, that sure does fire the imagination. That’s the kind of story I wanted to see in the wasted, now-cancelled JLA: Classified.
In fact, this isn't the only time Plas an Ambush Bug shared a panel. A.B. was on Plas' "Justice League of Anarchy," which appeared in just one panel of 2001's Justice Leagues: Justice League of Amazons #1:
Anyway, Plas and pals are throwing a big party. The guest-list for which is somewhat…off. Like, I have a hard time believing Ganthet, Animal Man or Batgirl would be interested in attending, but Gleason’s double-page spread is a fun one to pore over to look for cameos.
Let’s see, you’ve got some JLI era Leaguers…
The Inferior Five and someone who looks an awful lot like Bueno Excelente from Hitman…
and Hitman’s Baytor…
(Gleason was apparently a fan of the series. Earlier in the issue, Batman’s shown getting in someone’s face in front of Noonan’s….)
While the party’s going on, Superman, Batman, J’onn, Flash and GL huddle in the locker room, with Superman saying “It’s not my scene,” Batman responding “Not mine, either,” and GL pointing out that the fact neither of them party is the one thing they have in common. (“And the under-wear-on-the-outside-thing,” Flash adds).
Our hero Marlus passes out in Aquaman’s pool room, and flashes back to an Aquaman scene. He recalls the time he saw Aquaman bust some scuba gear-wearing, jet ski-riding kidnappers who had captured a mermaid.
This is the Peter David/Morrison Aquaman, by the way: Hook-handed, bearded and bad-ass. We watch him bust the bad guys siccing a horde of crabs on their leader while passively staring down her harpoon gun.
And Marlus narrates:“Rivers must be to Aquaman what dark alleys are to the Batman… getaway routes for the bad guys from the surface world, secret traveling networks for whatever evil lurks and plots in the deep… A king is a king in every corner of his kingdom… And when he’s not in his kingdom? He’s still a king.”
And when the League ultimately triumphs over Feast, the villain says, “I’m saddened your sea king isn’t here, giving Marlus the opportunity to declare in the last panel of this sequence:
Re-reading this for, like, the fifth time, I realized I think I would have preferred to have read a hardcover collection of Oswalt’s run on JLoA with a short prose introduction by Brad Meltzer.
I’m not sure if Oswalt could have turned out a solid 12- or more issue run, or if this one-shot amounted to everything he had to say about the Justice League, but he’s certainly written more good League stories than Meltzer has at this point, with far fewer tries.
And, because it was Sally’s comment that ultimately reminded me that the Patton Oswalt who wrote that intro and hyped up Secret Invasion recently is the same one who wrote Welcome to the Working Week, here’s an image of one of her favorite things, as drawn by Gleason and Alamy in the book: