Friday, December 11, 2009

Being Free Doesn't Make Them Any Better Pt. 1: Justice League of America: Second Coming

Earlier this week, three collections I reserved at my local library became available on the same day. What all three had in common was that they were bad comics I had started reading in comic book format as they were being published, but I quickly abandoned due to their exceptionally poor quality and my desire not to reward the publisher for producing them with my money (even though I felt some need to read them to keep up with the goings-on in the fictional universe in which they’re set).

As I discovered, even getting the comics for free, and reading them in big chunks without a month between every 22 pages to consider their faults didn’t do much of anything to improve their quality.

I’m going to review one of them at probably too-great length each day this weekend.


DC has been publishing Justice League comics for just under 50 years now, and those that they've been publishing since 2006 or so have been the absolute worst. I know that sounds pretty harsh, and some modern readers probably think it insane to say the current volume is worse than the original Silver Age comics with their rudimentary, written-for-kids plots and dialogue, and the stocky, blocky art, but even those comics had a certain degree of professionalism and competence about them, as did any of the previous eras of Justice League comics readers are likely to point to as the nadir of the franchise (the early Extreme Justice run, when DC was trying to turn the Giffen/DeMatteis team into something Rob Liefeld fans might enjoy, or the Detroit League, when stabs at a new generation of heroes replaced the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman).

The current volume was produced from the start by people who just honestly didn't give a shit about what they were doing. Original writer Brad Meltzer may have had some interesting ideas here and there among the professional fan fiction he wrote during his brief run, but there was a very basic, fundamental level of not-caring emanating from the scripts, to the point where the 1939's World's Fair occurred in Washington DC instead of New York City (a fact Meltzer or editors would have known if only from reading the other DC super-comics they were referencing in the story) and the dead character Aquaman was used as a living character, but drawn by the artist to resemble a completely different character (who was alive).

There was a certain level of contempt for the material and the audience expressed by Meltzer and/or his editors that made reading the comics actively unpleasant, a contempt never better evidenced than in the choice of artists on the book, the most regular of which was pencil artist Ed Benes.

I've complained at such great length and detail about how poor Benes' art is that even I'm tired of hearing me do so, but, to quickly recap, Benes is a fairy decent pin-up artist who can draw big, brawny bosomy super-babes in suggestive poses and ridiculously muscled men with painted on costumes, and absolutely nothing else. Those are the only two designs he's capable of, and he has no range at all with them—the women can look sexy, the men angry, and that's about as far as Benes' "acting" skills go. He has no command of mis en scene, page design, panel-to-panel continuity or background. He's pretty much the last artist you'd want on a comic book about a dozen or so superheroes, whether they're actually having big adventures, or just having action-packed conversations like characters in a Brian Michael Bendis comic book.

That only added up to Benes being a poor comic book artist, of course—what was worse was his focus on the sexiness of the handful of female super-characters at the expense of everything else. Often times, he was drawing an entirely different comic story than his writers were writing, and the meaning of scenes was completely changed by the way he staged and rendered them.

Anyway, the Meltzer/Benes Justice League of America comic book of 2006 was a terrible, terrible comic book, and my mind remains boggled that one of the biggest publishers of comic books proudly produced that during a time when comics as entertainment and art have never seemed stronger.

When Meltzer left as planned in the middle of his story, Dwayne McDuffie was brought in, and the quality of the book dipped even further, with even worse fill-in artists (Joe Benitez) and a change of focus away from telling Justice League stories to telling tie-ins to other comics—for a couple months, every issue of JLoA was like a red skies tie-in to something, only instead of acknowledging something important to the DC Universe like Crisis on Infinite Earths, they tied in to Tangent and Salvation Run (itself a Countdown, a prequel in name to Final Crisis).

The fifth collection of the current volume of Justice League of America is entitled The Second Coming. I'm not sure why, beyond the fact that McDuffie quotes lines from William Butler Yeats' poem of that name in the titles of the individual chapters (Oddly, DC is also currently publishing a Batman miniseries titled after a line from the poem—Batman: The Widening Gyre). It could refer to the return of Red Tornado to a body, but as the character himself notes this is like the eighth time he's been reborn in a new body (the second within the first two years of this very series!). It could refer to the return of Amazon, but this is more like his twenty-second coming than his second. Perhaps DC had a big retreat where they all talked about Yeats, and his poetry is just filtering into the comics...?

At any rate, this is also a terrible, terrible comic book.

This is due in large part to the continued presence of Benes, whose deficincies are made so clear in this issue that it's actually kind of hilarious. For example, Red Tornado's significant other Kathy, who is blond, is distinguishable from Black Canary only in that the latter wears fishnet stockings. That's the sort of poor work a reader might expect from Benes as his off-and-on tenure on the book reaches its second year. But the first issue collected here contains this image of Professor Niles Caulder, the elderly, wheelchair bound leader of The Doom Patrol. Benes draws him just like Superman, in a fake beard and wig:

(I know I made fun of that image before, but it still makes me laugh).

Benes hasn’t become any stronger of an artist in the issues collected in this volume than he was in the issues collected in previous volumes (although, according to the credits, he’s now inking his own work). The art is still confoundingly amateurish, with odd panel to panel slip-ups like, say, a mace appearing in and out of Hawkgirl’s hand from panel to panel, and still suffers from Benes’ insistence of reducing everything he an to a picture of a sexy lady. Perhaps the most egregious example in this volume is a two-page spread in #26, in which the entire Justice League squares off against an entire Justice League of alternate versions of themselves. There are over 20 superheroes in action on the page, but Benes draws a super huge close-up of Wonder Woman in the immediate foreground, blocking the bulk of the battle from view.

The art isn’t the only problem with the book, however. Because writer Dwayne McDuffie has been so vocal about his dissatisfaction with the way the book turned out and the constraints put on him during its writing (and by “so vocal” I mean that he talked to anyone about it at all, which is somewhat unusual among Big Two comics writers), I think there’s temptation to forgive him for the lack of quality in the work, to assume he was simply shafted by his editors and by not having a real artistic partner (In addition to doing poor work, Benes had some serious deadline issues for someone who rarely even draws backgrounds—six other pencillers and eight other inkers are needed during this five-issue run).

McDuffie has a few moments of life within these issues—notably the inclusion of The Brown Bomber, a character up for behind-the-scenes consideration for DC’s first black superhero that ultimately evolved into Black Lightning—but the quality of work is overall quite poor.

The story—if it is a story, rather than just five issues of the comic chopped into a unit for collection’s sake—isn’t about anything at all. There’s literally nothing to the book other than familiar characters going through familiar motions to no discernable effect or impact. In short, there aren’t any ideas in the comic; it reads like tiresome pay check-collection on McDuffie’s part.

It’s possible that may be due simply to McDuffie operating in clean-up mode, trying to honor Meltzer’s run by wrapping up all the storyline’s his predecessor left unresolved before doing what he wanted. The arc opens with Red Tornado about to put into another new body, and still struggling with his Am I robot or a man? issues that Meltzer had him dealing with in the first few issues of JLoA. It closes with Vixen getting to the bottom of why her powers aren’t working right anymore, another conflict Meltzer introduced and then abandoned. In between, there’s some talk about the Roy Harper/Hawkgirl relationship Meltzer initiated.

If that is the case, it’s unfortunate it took McDuffie over 100 pages to deal with it in this book.

As for the superheroic stuff, it feels incredibly small, claustrophobic and tired. See all those characters trying to hide their feet on the cover? They and John Henry Irons must pool all their powers and abilities to combat Amazo, an android enemy the League’s been fighting about twice a year since the early sixties. McDuffie doesn’t do anything new or interesting with the character the way, say, Tom Peyer did repeatedly throughout his Hourman, or even Mark Millar did in his one-issue fill-in during Grant Morrison’s run on JLA. It’s just one more the Justice League-battles-a-robot-with-all-their-powers fight, lasting far too many pages.

Once Amazo’s defeated, the League tries to solve Vixen’s power problems, which involve a trip within her magical Tantu totem, where they encounter Anansi the West African spider god who functions as a stand-in for the writer. If there is a hint of freshness to the idea, McDuffie spoils it himself by involving Animal Man, and reminding readers of Grant Morrison’s insertion of the comic book writer into the comic book superhero narrative back in…Jesus, the late eighties? Early ‘90s? (And then again more recently in 52).

McDuffie does do a fairly admirable job of giving each character a moment of some sort, but he’s dealing with so many characters that all they get is a moment—a few pages of narration, a few lines of dialogue, a single scene to shine in, and then they completely disappear.

McDuffie’s Justice League appears as alien and remote as Morrison’s did, but not because they’re written that way, simply because McDuffie can’t find room for them all in the storyline. That may be in part due to a lack of ambition—should it take 20 superheroes and three issues to fight Amazo?

The sad part is that this is apparently the best part of McDuffie’s run on the title. The previous issues were the ones in which a co-writer was called in to help him handle the tie-ins to Salvation Run and Tangent, and the ones that follow this will deal with the since aborted attempt to integrate the Milestone Universe into the DC Universe for some reason, to reconcile the title with the changes of Final Crisis (in which Hawkgirl died, but then editorial told McDuffie she was still alive after an issue in which her death is being mourned had already been written and drawn, and to deal with the fall-out of the Justice League: Cry for Justice miniseries, which was so late it had yet to begin while McDuffie was writing its aftermath.

This then represents McDuffie at his least interfered with, and—even if you ignore the inappropriate, amateurish art completely—the results were terrible.

It’s really a shame. McDuffie’s a pretty talented writer, and as his work just prior for Marvel Comics proved, he’s adept at marrying big, crazy cosmic superhero adventure with lighthearted humor and solid character work. He should have been perfect for JLoA, but…well, whatever went wrong, to whatever degree he or whoever else was responsible, the comic books that resulted were shockingly bad.


snell said...

You know, McDuffie liked to complain very loudly about how he got stuck with a modern day version of "Cap's Kooky Quartet." As I recall, Stan and Roy ran with the Cap's Kooky Quartet concept, having a blast and telling some fun stories while developing some hitherto unknown characters.

McDuffie wrote stories that were thinly disguised whines about not being able to use Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman; Roy wrote the Kree/Skrull War.

Hdefined said...

"The current volume was produced from the start by people who just honestly didn't give a shit about what they were doing."

What a baseless, petty accusation, as if you're fit to judge how much love and effort are put into a book.

"There was a certain level of contempt for the material and the audience expressed by Meltzer and/or his editors that made reading the comics actively unpleasant, a contempt never better evidenced than in the choice of artists on the book, the most regular of which was pencil artist Ed Benes."

Wow, more petty accusations. Where's your evidence, Caleb? "Oh, they hired Ed Benes, an artist I don't like." Yes, because they did something you didn't care for, they obviously had contempt for their entire audience.

Get over yourself.

Michael Hoskin said...

>Roy wrote the Kree/Skrull War.

Which had Thor, Cap & Iron Man. Not sure what point you're making.

snell said...

For the first four issues of the Kree/Skrull War, the Avengers line-up consisted of Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Clint Barton Goliath. No Cap, Thor, or Iron Man.

For a number of years, Thomas was actually forbidden to use the Big Three, except for special occasions.

LurkerWithout said...

"Get over yourself."

@Hdefined: Why the fuck do you keep coming back here? You seem to hold Caleb in contempt for everything he writes and yet you KEEP READING IT. There are like a bazillion other comics blogs that you could read. And maybe where you wouldn't be looked at like a fucking troll...

caleb said...

You know, McDuffie liked to complain very loudly about how he got stuck with a modern day version of "Cap's Kooky Quartet."...McDuffie wrote stories that were thinly disguised whines about not being able to use Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman

It's weird because this volume had the Trinity, two Green Lanterns, Hawkgirl, the Flash..and it was still terrible. Maybe he had plans for those characters and was upset he wouldn't get to use those plans, but for this brief period when he had all the Leaguers, he didn't do much with them.

What a baseless, petty accusation, as if you're fit to judge how much love and effort are put into a book...Wow, more petty accusations. Where's your evidence, Caleb?

What's with the crusade to have me moderate comments are not allow comments at all, man?

The evidence is the book itself and the 2,000 words I wrote about it. I don't have intercepted emails or tape-recorded conversations to share with you. I think it's clear from the work that there was a whole lot of not-giving-a-shit. You disagree. Who cares?

The problem with Benes isn't that I don't like him, it's that he's no good. Quality isn't a purely subjective thing.

Michael Hoskin said...

>For the first four issues of the Kree/Skrull War, the Avengers line-up consisted of Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Clint Barton Goliath. No Cap, Thor, or Iron Man.

Although he did use the Big Three in the issue immediately prior to the Kree-Skrull War.

>For a number of years, Thomas was actually forbidden to use the Big Three, except for special occasions.

Later on, yes - Cap was still part of the team when Thomas took over from Stan. And he did manage to get the Big Three into the title fairly regularly. But really, I think what makes his situation different from McDuffie's is that he had Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Quicksilver, Hawkeye, Hercules, Hank Pym & Wasp all to himeslf, no coordination with other books required. McDuffie did not have exclusive control over the Trinity or people like Hawkgirl and Black Canary - that's where the problems began.

John Foley said...

As much as it pains me to admit it, Hdefined does have a little bit of a point (though, naturally, it's couched in the most trollerific language possible). None of us can truly tell whether or not the authors cared about their audience. I would have said there was a pronounced lack of due diligence on their part (particularly Meltzer's), but I wouldn't presume to say that they literally didn't give a shit.

thokstar said...

To be fair, even in these issues the editorial interference is notable: McDuffie is writing his C or D plots instead of the A or B plots he had in mind. For example he planned on keeping Red Tornado in the computer for a year longer, but was asked to take him out sooner so we could have a mini with Red Familio. Similarly, he lost control of the Despero/Per Degaton/Ultra-Humanite plot he wanted to do because Johns dealt with it first in Booster Gold.

Now granted, McDuffie probably could have done a better job communicating with his fellow DC writers so he would have a better idea of what was coming and so he would have more of a lead time to deal with surprises. But McDuffie probably reasonably thought that his editors might actually do their jobs well.

Hyle said...

McDuffie is a damn fine Justice League writer. His work on JLU proves that, and I felt his run on the book was a huge step up from Meltzer (at least as far as characterization and dialogue goes). So why was his run the drizzling shits? Because the year-and-a-half Mexican dinner special that was Countdown through Final Crisis cut through the bowels of the entire DCU, and Justice League ended up with the majority of the crap.

Look at the two most successful incarnations of the Justice League prior to the current team. Giffen didn't have the benefit of the big name characters, true, but he had the luxury of only having to deal with the occasional crossover. He could tell his own storylines while retaining his core stable of B-Listers(Booster, Beetle, Guy, Ice, Max, etc.). It was the first time that the Justice League allowed actual character growth and progression instead of just being the big team-up book, and that's why it worked.

While Morrison did have to deal with changes in the DCU during his run (Electric Superman being the biggest example), he never had to alter his planned direction. He could tell his ambitious storylines from start to finish without having to break for, say, Genesis.

McDuffie got the worst of both worlds: A lame-duck roster and endless crossovers. What's worse, he was following a very weak relaunch and had to pick up the pieces that Meltzer left him. His first arc was nothing more than a prelude to Salvation Run (and a tie-in to the Green Arrow/Black Canary wedding), then came the Tangent garbage, the Final Crisis tie-in, and then endless questions about who was or wasn't dead (or who was only presumed dead so they could in fact die a few months later), coupled with the juggling act of trying to repair Meltzer's bungles. The only storyline that I feel genuinely came from McDuffie was the Milestone business.

Of course, seeing as how James Robinson is part of the DC Comics "clique" (along with Johns and Morrison), I doubt his run will have the same problems. Being inside the club allows you freedom from editorial mucking, and being outside... well, that leaves you something that looks like Dwayne McDuffie's Justice League.

Carl Walker said...

Actually, I always thought the problem was supposed to be that Meltzer cared too much, in his own way. As for Benes, well, we know what he cares about.

John Foley said...

Carl Walker-
Hey that's the thread where the girl called me a filthy rapist! Awesome.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Made the mistake of clicking on the Benes link. Ew.

You're telling me that talking about your experience as an author gets you fired, but making money drawing porn of the *very same characters* you're being paid to portray in super-hero comics doesn't?

On the "didn't care" charge, gotta side with Caleb. "Careful" and "careless" are perfectly good words in a critics' dictionary You also see works described as "lovingly crafted" or "labors of love" or "just cashing a paycheck," or authors described as clearly passionate about the work. It's absolutely standard for critics (and readers/ viewers) to make inferences about the creators' emotional investments in the works being created, on the evidence of the work itself. There's no illegitimate psychologizing involved.

And, on the basis of the available evidence, neither Meltzer nor Benes cared about trying to do even minimially competent or faithful work.

Tony said...

I hate to side with the trolls, but I agree there's no evidence that Meltzer or Benes "didn't care" about what they were doing. I'm sure they were thrilled.

Stick to the work. The ad hominem stuff doesn't help the medium.

LurkerWithout said...

Comics blogs "help" the medium? Thats an interesting view to have...