Monday, March 04, 2013

Review: Justice League Vol. 1: Origin

One of the ironies of DC Comics' 2011 reboot of their shared-setting's history is that they didn't simply scrap the oft-tweaked 25-year-old continuity in order to start over from scratch. Instead they scrapped that continuity, the knowledge of which was shared between their readers and creators, and replaced it with a new continuity that only the writer of a particular story seemed to know much of anything about.

Justice League, the flagship book of the publisher's "New 52" direction, was the first to be released, and featured a story that was set "Five years ago," back "when the world didn't know what a super hero was." It is also a fairly perfect example of that the trading of a common continuity for a secret one.

There is quite clearly a lot of story that has occurred off-panel before this book begins. History and events of various degrees of importance that the readers aren't privy to are alluded to with various degrees of urgency throughout the first two story arcs, "Origin" and "The Villain's Journey" (More on that second one tomorrow night).

From a new reader's perspective, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of difference between not knowing about Wonder Woman's origin because you never read a particular trade paperback collecting books from the late 1980s (or any of the many re-tellings of the story that have appeared since) and not knowing it because DC never published a version that "counts"; whether you don't know about the first meeting of Barry Allen and Hal Jordan because you didn't read The Flash and Green Lantern: The Brave and The Bold or because there is no story of that meeting any more, the effect is still the same. You still feel like you're walking into a movie that's half over and trying to catch up; the main difference here is there's no other movies you can go back to watch in order to get up to speed.

This title was particularly frustrating when originally released serially, as it was our first glimpse of the new universe, and these all-new versions of the characters, but it was a) set five years in the past of the other 51 books that constituted the new universe and b) was set after all of these heroes already existed (with the exception of Cyborg, the rest of the Justice League members were already active adventurers at the time this book takes place, some of whom have even already met one another).

It took six months for writer Geoff Johns and artists Jim Lee and Scott Williams to tell the story of how the Justice League first came to be, and it was a very, very simple story of seven individuals showing up to the same fight at the same time, with readers joining their stories already in-progress.

In this particular volume, Superman is already wearing his final uniform from the climax of Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and The Men of Steel (so this took place after that story, which ends with people learning what a superhero really is, thanks to Superman and Steel); Green Lantern and Flash have already teamed-up and learned one another's secret identities; Wonder Woman has already come to Man's World and been semi-adopted by military liaison Colonel Steve Trevor and, weirdly, Aquaman is a skit on Conan O'Brien, but, like Batman, no one was sure if he really existed or not (The characterization and the information presented in this story greatly differs from that of these characters' individual books; this Superman isn't the same one in Grant Morrison and company's Action, this Wonder Woman isn't the same one in Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins' Wonder Woman and, strangest of all, this Aquaman isn't the same Aquaman that appeared in Aquaman, which was simultaneously being written by Geoff Johns. One could blame the time difference for some, but not all of that, and it wouldn't excuse "historical" facts that seemingly conflict).

This is the story of Origin.

The Gotham City Police Department is chasing Batman, who is chasing some kind of alien cyborg monster thing (the word "Parademon" is never used, but old DC readers will recognize it as a redesigned version of such). Green Lantern Hal Jordan arrives and the two heroes reluctantly team-up, despite not liking one another.

When Green Lantern's ring tells him that the alien cyborg monster thing is an alien, he and The World's Greatest Detective decide they should go ask Superman about it, as "they say he's an alien." So they fly to Metropolis.

Meanwhile, high school football star Vic Stone wins a big game and college scouts are lined up to meet with him, but his scientist father didn't show up, so he's sad.

In Metropolis, Superman punches out Green Lantern, and then picks a fight with Batman (which Johns and Lee weirdly decide not to show; we get a two-page splash of Superman saying "Your belt's empty, Batman", rather than using any of that comic book real estate to show the reader Superman and Batman meeting and fighting for the very first time).

Green Lantern calls his friend the Flash to help them fight Superman.

The young Stone confronts his father, and they have an argument. Then there are explosions, and an army of those alien cyborg monster things arrive in Metropolis, while Vic explodes in a burst of red light.

Wonder Woman, who is portrayed as Marvel's version of Hercules, cheerfully joins the monster fight. Vic's dad turns him into Cyborg in order to save his life. Then Aquaman joins the fight. Then Cyborg joins the fight.

Then a giant gray guy wearing a football uniform appears in a sideways double-page splash, one that requires the reader to turn the comic book on its side, as if they were looking a centerfold. "I Am Darkseid," he says.

Then Darkseid kicks their asses for a while. Superman gets eye-beamed and kidnapped by a monster. Batman reveals his secret identity to Hal Jordan for some reason, takes off his Batman costume for some other reason, and gets himself captured in order to give Superman a peppy enough pep talk to convince the Man of Steel to get up and help them fight Darkseid.

When they learn that Cyborg is able to control the little boxes that teleport Darkseid and his monster army around (They don't use the words "Mother Boxes" and "Boom Tubes," but, again, those already familiar with all this shit will recognize them as such), he tries to teleport all of the invaders away against their will, but he can't do it.

You can do it, Batman tells him. So he does do it.

And that's pretty much it.

There's a three-page epilogue in which President Bush congratulates them for saving the day, and the seven heroes reluctantly decide to form a team.

The last page features a close-up of a book entitled "Justice League: Gods Among Men" by David Graves. On its cover is a horrible, horrible drawing of this Justice League fighting Starro.

Rounding out the trade is a one-page sequence which was redrawn and re-ran in the recent Justice League of America #1, a nonsenseical back-up story in which a lady named Pandora with face tattoos and magic guns fights The Phantom Stranger about nothing that is explained, a shitty variant cover gallery, a bunch of weird prose pieces premised as secret dossiers and suchlike and costume redesign notes.

This one cover from the gallery is quite striking when viewed today:
That was released on a comic that came out 18 months ago, and seems to suggest a Justice League consisting of not only the seven heroes from Origin, but also Deadman, Element Woman, Firestorm, Mera, Hawkman, a male Atom and a goatee-rocking Green Arrow. That hasn't happened yet, although two of those characters have appeared in JLoA #1; when an Atom does show up in Justice League, it looks like it will be a new, female version, and that Green Arrow doesn't look a bit like the New 52 Green Arrow (Also: Wonder Woman was still wearing pants at that point).

Weird piece of art, really, and perhaps one more piece of evidence that this whole reboot was planned about as meticulously and far in advance as you've planned what you'll be having for dinner tomorrow night.

It's difficult to judge the quality of the content of this trade without comparing it to other Justice League origin stories, and, by that metric, it ranks among the worst (Brad Meltzer, Ed Benes and company's Justice League of America Vol. 1: The Tornado's Path being its only real competition).

Very little of any real significance occurs, and there's little more to it than a gradually increasing pile of action figures on a child's playroom floor. We get no sense of who or what Darkseid is, and even the Justice Leaguers are blandly defined as violent, paranoid, unlikeable jerks.

And that's what I found most surprising about the endeavor. Rather than boil the characters down to their essences, the way that, say, Paul Dini and Johns' sometimes collaborator Alex Ross had done in books like JLA: Liberty and Justice or Justice, Johns seems to be attempting to reinvent the DC stalwarts as Silver Age Marvel characters with a grimmer,'90s Marvel edge

So no team-up can proceed without first having a fight, and all fighting will be intense and brutal. I've expressed surprise over this aspect of the New 52 before, but re-reading the entire first story in one sitting, it is genuinely shocking how violent the Justice League is in response to Darkseid's army.

Superman tears off their wings and limbs and decapitates them—"C'mon...That's it. Smile for me," he taunts them before smashing them into gory pieces.

Wonder Woman and Aquaman have generally been shown as warriors willing to take the lives of foes (at least during the past few decades), so it's less shocking to see Wonder Woman wading into battle strangling foes with her lariat and severing limbs with a sword, but it's still weird to see her going for deathblows as a first resort.

Aquaman first appears after impaling a monster, summons giant sharks to eat a half dozen more, and then shoves his trident into another's head.

Even The Flash Barry Allen resorts to deadly force, vibrating through a monster and letting the eyebeam that is chasing him strike the monster, essentially using a Parademon as an inhuman shield.
During the battle with Darkseid, Aquaman and Wonder Woman put out his eyes. Flash throws Aquaman at Darkseid's face, Aquaman he shoving his trident into one of the bad guy's eyes. Wonder Woman puts her sword sword into the other.

In fact, flipping through this again, I think Batman may be the only member of the team to not take the life of any of their foes, foes who, it should be noted, aren't out for blood themselves, but are intent on capturing humans and super-humans alive.

If this is some of Johns' worst writing, playing directly against his greatest strengths (super-familiarity with DC history, the ability to project and sell his own hero-worship of the characters) and into his worst tendencies (over-the-top violence, creating something new), it's not Jim Lee's best either.

Seeing Lee draw the biggest stars in the DC constellation isn't quite as exciting here as it might have been, after we've already seen his Batman, Superman and All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy addition to all of the design work he put into the DCU Online game, which translated the characters into his style (For the New 52, he re-designed these characters).

I was amused to see him referred to as "godly" in a blurb used on the cover of the trade paperback, and I suppose it's worth noting his work gets less and less divine throughout this volume, apparently as deadlines loom. There is an over-reliance on splash pages that was annoying in the comic books, where fans were paying about 20-cents per page, but it doesn't read all that great in trade.

Johns was clearly trying to provide big, poster-worthy moments for Lee to draw throughout the book, but because everything is treated that big—Batman jumping from one rooftop to the next, Superman confronting Batman, Aquaman standing on a dock, etc—none of them have that much impact. By volume's end, it was the reading equivalent of watching an action movie with the volume turned up way too loud.

Things don't get any better in the second volume.


Akilles said...

Damn, that`s some smart writing. From you.

Anonymous said...

Only money DC is likely to see from me this decade will be for DeMattis / Giffen-era JLA/JLE collections. And prob'ly the Shade: The Changing Man library. Man, those were some fun, crazy, unpredictable comix. Still are.

I wonder if (not when) DC editorial will ever speculate on whether they lost their way? Because they've certainly lost a great deal of their hardcore readership over the last decade of grimderpness.

Matt Galvin said...

While I think the New 52 was definitely rushed, I do not think that Justice League Volume one was as bad as you thought. The art by Jim Lee was pretty great and sure the origin isn't very deep. It's just the old aliens attack and the team is formed (it reminded me of the JL cartoon which had the team coming together under an alien attack as well). But I thought it was fun and fresh. The point of the new 52 is to bring in a new audience. Comic books are dying and had been bogged down with years of continuity. DC found a way to try and get new readers and still keep the aspects of things you liked about the old characters while updating some outdated things. Really its the same characters you loved just with new paint and a little more violent cause well that's what sells. DC is a company they need to make money to exist and New 52 worked and sold really well (I think JL was the highest selling issue one that year!) So it just sounds like you want your old continuity and bitter but I'm telling you the new stuff aint bad and in reality isn't much different. So cheer up.

bad wolf said...

My biggest question from this arc is still: was this Johns' idea for the Justice League movie? And would it have worked better or worse there?

d said...

As someone who's been reading Justice League pretty faithfully since 1977 I have no hesitation in declaring this the worst JLA story ever. And I bought the Detroit League years off the rack.