Friday, July 27, 2012

Pre-New 52 review: Justice Society of America: Monument Point

This trade paperback collects the final five issues of the relatively short-lived Justice Society of America monthly, which relaunched as such in 2007, replacing the canceled JSA (which lasted 87 issues, from 1999 to 2006).

It was a Geoff Johns/Alex Ross joint, but once they left the book, it rather rapidly fell apart. Perhaps because DC was spreading the franchise too thin, splitting the cast between two JSA books, JSoA and JSA All-Stars, when the JSA aren’t really an X-Men or Avengers-like franchise. Perhaps it was because Johns and Ross are more popular than the JSA. Perhaps it was because once Ross and Jerry Ordway left, the book lacked a consistent, strong, appealing visual identity. Or perhaps because by that point, it was, like most of the DC’s line, dead in the water, a lame duck book awaiting cancellation and relaunch as part of the “New 52” initiative.

At any rate, these five issues are complete fucking mess; confused, inchoate and unpleasant to spend any sustained amount of time around. It’s kind of a shame; I feel bad for writer Marc Guggenheim, who must have inherited something of a mess, and clearly had a unique direction he wanted to go in...and never got the chance to go in (Several sub-plots are simply abandoned in the last issue, when he clearly had to wrap up his run, and all of post-COIE continuity, and a character rather randomly killed off, because, who cares, DC Comics was, at that point, over anyway).

And there are some talented folks involved. Darwyn Cooke delivers a few fine covers, covers which add to the visual cacophony, given how they look nothing at all like any of the art around them.
George Perez and Jerry Ordway provide some fine art, but it clashes horribly with the style of Tom Derenick, who draws a big chunk of the comics in this trade.

And while I generally liked Derenick’s pencils in the past, his art is downright repulsive here; seemingly inked and colored via airbrush. I found it pretty nauseauting, and for the life of me I can’t imagine why series editor Joey Cavalieri thought it would work on different chapters of a story that Ordway was drawing the rest of…unless he too succumbed to the “Aw, fuck it” attitude that clearly infected everyone working for or with the publisher as the “New 52” appeared on the horizon.
(Above: Derenick and Ordway draw JSA members)

I missed the first two-thirds or so of Guggenheim’s run, so I was a little lost at the beginning of things, trying to make sense of the fairly changed status quo.

The cast is still pretty large, and includes Kingdom Come import Lightning, whip-wielding Mr. America, the Kate Spencer version of Manhunter, Bule Devil (?) and completely new-to-me characters The Red Beetle (a woman wearing a red version of Blue Beetle II’s costume); buxom, white-clad healer Ri and Darknight, who looks like Batman without little bat-ears on his cowl.

They’re now based in a fictional city of Monument Point, where The Flash Jay Garrick is the mayor (and usually wearing a suit and tie with a lightning bolt pin on his lapel, without which he would be completely unrecognizable, because hair color and costumes are all any artists do to distinguish super-characters from one another).

And Green Lantern Alan Scott is now wearing a fairly crazy new get-up, which makes him actually resemble a big green lantern.
It took me a bit, but I think I actually kind of love it now.

The book’s fiftieth issue was an oversized anniversary celebration type of issue, divided into different “episodes” for some reason (that seem extra out of place in a trade collection like this, as one of the chapters is further divided into sub-chapters, while the others aren’t), each by a different artist.
The opening one is by Perez, and is a nice distillation of the post-Crisis conception of the Justice Society as the first generation of superheroes, the ones who ultimately inspired the “real” heroes of the DC Universe, the Silver-to-Bronze Age versions of Superman, Batman and their various Justice League peers.

It’s only ten pages long, but it feels longer with Perez’s panel-packed pages, and opens with bits of Superman, Batman and The Flash Barry Allen’s origins, and how they looked to various Society members for an understanding of what a superhero is, exactly, and more and more legacy heroes are introduced throughout the course of the super-short story, from a few pages of a young Hal Jordan fretting over becoming a member of the GLC until he joins Alan Scott on an adventures, to Aquaman climbing out of the ocean for the first time, to a panel of Ronnie Raymond and Courtney Whitmore.
I can see why the existence of a World War II era generation of superheroes preexisting in a fictional world before Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman could be perceived as problematic by some of the higher-ups at DC—it does seem somewhat artificial to give primacy to the also-rans; if Superman is the first superhero in the real world, why can’t he also be the first superhero in the DC Universe?—but it’s impossible to have the Big Three and the more “iconic” (i.e. the ones from Superfriends) versions of Flash and Green Lantern be eternally young and modern and pre-date their Golden Age counterparts without doing something as silly as having multiple versions of the characters on multiple Earths.

But if the choice is between Superman coming along a generation or two after Green Lantern Alan Scott and Starman or being a 90-year-old himself or banishing a bunch of the DCU’s best characters to a sub-universe, I think the pre-“New 52” way of having generations of superheroes works best. It gives the fictional DCU a longer, deeper, more detailed and exciting fictional history to go along with its fictional locales, and it allows for more characters for writers and artists to play with.

With the “New 52,” the decision seems to have been to wipe out all of the legacy characters (except the Robins, for some reason) and the existence of pretty much any character that might have existed prior to 2007 (Exceptions are seemingly limited to Etrigan The Demon and whoever’s in Demon Knights, and Jonah Hex and a few of the cowboy heroes). The result is DC lost not only a lot of history, but a lot of characters, with most of the JSA ones being recreated as “Ultimate” versions of themselves in an alternate universe (In this book alone, it looks like we’ve lost Cyclone, Courtney “Stargirl” Whitmore, Mr. Terrific II, Dr. Mid-Nite III, Jade, Obsidian, Silver Scarab, Red Beetle, Ri, Darknight, Lightning, Mr. America, Jesse Quick, Manhunter, Atomsmasher, Judomaster II and Citizen Steel. That’s an awful lot of characters, and while many of the original JSA members will likely be recreated in Earth 2—your Spectres and Wildcats and Dr. Fates so on—that seems like an awful lot of characters to lose just so Superman can claim “First!” on the cape and tights look in your fictional universe. I find that aspect of the "New 52" reboot pretty perplexing, as DC and Marvel seem to be transitioning into an IP farm business model, so de-creating a bunch of IPs something the publisher would seek to avoid, rather than leap into).

(Jeez, where was I…? Oh!)

“Episode 2” of issue #50 is drawn by by Freddie Williams II and follows time-traveling villain Per Degaton as he encounters a bigger, badder future version of himself, who repeatedly re-absorbs him from various points in his past adventures, allowing us to see brief appearances by Infnity Inc, the original version of The Crime Syndicate, the villains PD teamed up with in the early bits of All-Star Squadron and so on. That’s followed by a segment drawn by Howard Chaykin, recounting the time the House Un-American Activities Commission called the JSA in during the 1950s to bust their chops, and pretty much force them into early retirement. And for the fourth and final “episode,” Derenick and his new style arrive to bring us up to speed on the new, weird status quo of the JSoA.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the story arc “The Secret History of Monument Point,” in which Mayor Garrick learns there is a big, weird door deep beneath the city, which leads to a big, weird ancient city, which the Society and the Challengers of the Unknown team up to explore, and accidentally unleash a Kirby-esque giant monster god that seems a little too close to Gog, the Kirby-esque giant monster god that Johns and Ross and company pitted the team against in the opening arc of this volume of the title.

Meanwhile, some other villain has made Mr. Terrific dumb, a plotline Mr. T spends a significant amount of time dealing with, until it is simply resolved off-panel in the last issue, because the book was apparently canceled a lot faster than Guggenheim expected (Also going nowhere is a potential romantic arc between Dr. Fate and Lightning, which came on the heels of his rescuing of her from a weird Dr. Fate dimension in the 50th issue).

Derenick draws the first half of “Secret History,” while Jerry Ordway draws the second. Their styles couldn’t be less compatible; I vastly preferred Ordways', which was cleaner, crisper, flatter and more “comic book-y,” and thus vastly more appropriate for the old school heroes of the JSA (Even the newer characters like Stargirl and Terrific have some fairly old-school looking costumes compared to, say, anything Jim Lee has ever designed).
The monster god guy is ultimately only defeated when one of the Society’s most powerful members (Spoiler! It’s Alan!) sacrafices his life to destroy it. That would probably have been a big, dramatic deal…if DC didn’t reboot their universe the following month. Looking at the characters who are in attendance at Alan’s funeral, it appears that Terrific is the only one that still exists at all in the DC Universe—although Jay Garrick and the late Alan Scott have been recreated in a parallel universe within the New 52-iverse’s multiverse.

As for what became of these particular creators, Perez was heavily involved in the New 52, although not used very well—he wrote and provided lay-outs for the rebooted Superman, which didn’t work out so well, and he inked a few issues of the rebooted Green Arrow. He’s now drawing parts of World’s Finest.

Guggenheim and Derenick both seem to be MIA. And Ordway was responsible for helping Dan DiDio introduce a new version of the Challengers of the Unknown in the pages of the new DC Universe Presents title.

No comments: