Saturday, July 28, 2012

Pre-New 52 review: Justice League of America: Dark Things

Although the trade collection unambiguously declares this a Justice League story, it actually ran in both Justice League of America (#44-48) and Justice Society of America (#41 and #42, preceding the story covered in last night's post by about eight issues), and is very much a JLA/JSA team-up in the tradition of the old, annual convergences of the Satellite Era league and Earth-Two's Justice Society. Although it may not be immediately recognizable as such, given the fact that this version of the Justice League was then fairly new, and made up of characters one wouldn't normally associate with that team: Batman Dick Grayson, Donna Troy, Congorilla and Starman II Mikaal Tomas (with Supergirl, Jesse Quick and Jade joining by the end of this particular story arc, giving this Justice League lieutenant, and mostly female, versions of Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, The Flash and Green Lantern).

Despite spanning seven consecutive issues of two simultaneously published titles, the whole shebang is by the same creative team of writer James Robinson and pencil artist Mark Bagley, seemingly the only pencil artist left in superhero comics capable of drawing at least 22-pages a month. Reading this right after something like JSoA: Monument Point, it seems like a remarkable feat that a monthly (or more) comic book story could have consistent art by the very same artist, and makes the story seem so much better by comparison to...just about every similar trade available.

Just as Blackest Night took its title from Green Lantern Hal Jordan's oath ("In brightest day, in blackest night/No evil shall escape my sight"), the title of this particular story comes from Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott's shorter, less elegant oath ("And I shall shed my light over dark evil, for the dark things cannot stand the light— The Light of the Green Lantern!"). It's a complicated (almost extremely so) affair, in terms of plotting, although, on the most basic level, it's also superhero universe toy box comics at their most fundamental—writers and artists picking whatever toys they want to team up and make fight until all the fights are fought and then the story can end.

There are a lot of characters involved. Beyond the four-to-seven Justice Leaguers, there's the huge roster of the Justice Society (which, when this was published in 2010, still occupied two books); there's villain Felix Faust's hero son Faust, who shows up to play the magic guy role on the team; there's the Shiloh Norman, Seven Soldiers version of Mister Miracle ("I'll be that seventh soldier who'll get you in there," he cheesily tells the six heroes attempting to storm the bad guy stronghold); there's Miss Martian, who is playing the generic psychic role that J'onn J'onnz would normally play, but maybe Robinson wasn't allowed to use the recently resurrected Martian Manhunter yet; and then there's Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, who shows up mainly because he had a relationship with two of the super-ladies involved and...well, that's the only reason I can think of why he's there (Well, actually, he's there on Green Lantern Corps business, since the villain of the piece is linked to Green Lantern history, but he comes solo, sans any partners, which seems off).

The nature of the plot also allows Robinson and Bagley to play with a bunch of other characters, many of whom appear only in one-panel cameos or in short fight sequences, like Etrigan the Demon, The Shade and Klarion the Witch Boy. Reading, I was curious how much of the plotting was actually driven by Robinson simply asking Bagley who he wanted to draw, as he they go pretty damn deep into the DC character catalog, and a Danger Room training sequence at the beginning serves no purpose other than to put a bunch of villains on a page. After the year-long Trinity with Kurt Busiek, this story arc and his short-ish run on JLoA, I'm pretty sure that if Bagley didn't get to draw every single DC character, he at least got to draw his favorite 200 or so.

So, the plot.

Recently resurrected (See Blackest Night) Jade crash-lands on earth, encased in a big green crystal she tells us is actually the Starheart, the source of her father Alan Scott's Green Lantern powers (which DC readers will know, and exposition will remind us, is all of the wild or chaotic "magic" in the DC Universe given form by the order and science-obsessed Guardians of the Universe; a chunk of it was used to make Alan Scott's lantern and ring). The four-man JLA and Etrigan, The Demon converge on the meteorite and fight.

Meanwhile, Alan Scott and his son Obsidian's comatose bodies are drawn to the site, the JSA in pursuit, while Faust arrives to dump info: The Starheart's presence on earth is driving all of the world's magic users and elemental-based super-types crazy, possessing them and causing them to wreck shit ("elemental" is here a broad term, which provides Robinson and Bagley and excuse to pick whoever they want to fight, like the solar-powered Power Girl vs. the solar-powerd Supergirl, for example).

The Starheart ultimately possesses Alan Scott, who then goes to the moon, builds a big citadel out of his Green Lantern energy, which is patrolled by an army of energy constructs, and the score or so of heroes must figure out where he is, storm his castle, subdue his constructs, and figure out how to get the Starheart out of him without killing him. While also fighting seemingly random characters chosen from Who's Who in the DC Universe, like Naiad, Hougan, Blue Devil and so on.

It's not bad super-comics, really, particularly if you already know and care about a lot of these characters and their histories and relationships, although it's not hard to imagine readers who don't know or care about them finding it impenetrable. There's a Crisis worth of characters in here, and while Robinson manages to utilize most of the Leaguers and the main JSA characters, giving them each something to do specific to their power- or skill-sets, there are a lot of characters who appear for pretty artificial reasons (like Mister Miracle, who is there because of traps, which the omnipotent Starheart set for some reason), and plenty of other characters appear as little more than background noise, with no dialogue, introduction or reason to be there (Basically, all of the JSA All-Stars).

Additionally, Robinson was working in the Meltzer-established mode for this book, in which every character constantly narrates, which means large passages of it read like a Chris Claremont X-Men comic, only instead of thought bubbles, which are of course passe, everyone gets their own narration box, which is "dressed" like them.

Most of the information conveyed is there only to provide color that could just as easily be accomplished through dialogue or implied through action, or is completely useless.

Take, for example, Donna's and Starman's thoughts on fighting Power Girl:
Would putting "Have T--" and "So Fast, C--" in a thought bubble or dialogue balloon really have hurt? Or leaving them out entirely, what would that have lost, exactly? What is gained, by having them there, aside from adding a layer of unnecessary information to a panel?

While that's a cherry-picked example of how useless some of the information Robinson chooses to convey in this manner are, check out these examples, which border on self-parody:
Other than that, though, it's all pretty decent, provided prior familiarity. The story moves along at a fast, occasionally break-neck speed, and the panel lay-outs help keep that pace going; Robinson and Bagley use splash pages right, to emphasize big moments in the story, and find fairly inventive ways to spread images across spreads without wasting all of that space. There are times when the narrative moves left to right across the spread of two pages, instead of staying on a single page before moving to the next.

Bagley's style is about as different from George Perez's as you can get, but, like Perez, he excels at drawing crowds of heroes either standing around or doing heroic things, and he does a pretty fine job at distinguishing characters from one another, no easy feat given the abstraction of his character design (compared to Perez's). A lesser artist, or an artist who simply didn't possess Bagley's particular virtues, could easily have been broken by the story, but he not only survives it, he sells it on every page.

So, where did everybody go from here a few months later, when "The New 52" hit...?

Well, let's see...

JLoA lasted another few story arcs, "Omgea" drawn by Bagley and then artist Brett Booth joined Robinson to finish the book's run with a shitty "Return of Doomsday" tie-in and a "Rise of Eclipso" arc (which I haven't read yet, although it looks like Bagley didn't actually finish drawing it, based on the cover credits). It was relaunched with a new "Year One" type story by Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and Co-Publisher Jim Lee, to massive sales (and thudding critical reception; I read the first four issues, and they were some awful, awful comics).

JSoA lasted two more trades' worth of story arcs, Super Town (which I haven't read yet) and Monument Point (again, discussed last night). It and all of its characters, save Mister Terrific, were wiped out of the DCU, and are just now starting to be reintroduced in the book Earth 2, which sets them in an alternate universe parallel to the DCU, a la the Silver Age/Bronze Age conception of the team.

Robinson was MIA for a bit in the New 52, with DC releasing a Shade series he wrote that seems to be set in...both the pre-reboot DCU and the New 52iverse...? I don't know. Then his Earth 2 debuted, and he also penned the first issue of a Masters of the Universe miniseries for some reason, that DC is publishing for some reason.

Bagley left DC to return to Marvel, where he re-joined Brian Michael Bendis for some boring-looking movie-pitch comic that doesn't seem to play to his strengths, and Avengers Assemble, which probably does, but who knows...$4 for 20-to-22 pages of Bendis and Bagley and a bunch of ads for Spider-Man candy, fishing rods and bedding? No thanks.

Let's end on a positive note though, shall we...?

I like the way Bagley draws Wildcat costume, with droopy ears and whiskers:
Looks a little like he was caught in the rain. Also, it looks hairy, which would probably make for a pretty scary encounter. Like, guy in a cape dressed like a giant bat swooping out of the shadows on you? Yeah, that's scary.

Unshaven guy in a hairy cat suit running out of an alley or jumping off a motorcycle throwing punches at you? That's give-up-a-life-of-crime-immediately terrifying.

At one point in the story, siblings Jade and Obsidian become one being, an unspoken, creepy desire of Obsidian's that tended to radiate off the pages in a lot of their old comics appearances. They look kinda cool like that, though:
Particularly when in action:

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