Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: Justice League of America: The Rise of Eclipso

Writer Geoff Johns kicked off the latest volume of a Justice League of America title just a few months ago, and while it's still early days, given the commitment he's shown on other titles he really wants to write, I can't imagine this volume won't prove to be much more stable than the last volume, which was probably the most erratic, confused and poorly-managed Justice League title in the franchise's history.

That volume of the JLoA title, you'll recall, began in 2006 and lasted almost exactly five years, finally reaching cancellation with July 2011's issue #60. In that time, the book had four writers: Brad Meltzer (13 issues), Dwayne McDuffie (22), Len Wein (a three-issue fill-in) and James Robinson (24). Its artists were too innumerable to count without spending a very long time doing so, but the "regular", announced and promoted-by-the-company artists included Ed Benes, Mark Bagley and Brett plenty of last-minute fill-ins and unexpected, un-solicited substitutions.

The team roster was in constant flux, rarely lasting longer than an entire story arc, with characters constantly being pulled out of the book due to the circumstances in other books or for entirely inscrutable reasons; cross-overs constantly intruded. Perhaps the best example of how short-lived a team line-up could last on the book was during Robinson's run. In #41, he introduced an 11-member team roster, but within two issues, eight members of the team were gone (Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Green Arrow Oliver Queen, Atom Ray Palmer, The Guardian, Cyborg, Dr. Light, Mon-El and Starfire), and a handful of replacement characters in less demand arrived (Supergirl, Jade, Jesse Quick and Starman).

Justice League of America: The Rise of Eclipso is the final collection of this volume of JLoA, which was canecelled to make way for the new, New 52 Justice League title, Johns's Justice League (the Justice League OF AMERICA title resurfacing a bit later to attach to a JL spin-off). It includes the last seven issues of JLoA, plus an issue of Justice Society of America that serves as an epilogue between the JLoA/JSoA crossover story that Robinson and Bagley created ("The Dark Things," reviewed here).

It's a pretty good example of what was so bad about this volume of the Justice League title, especially after Meltzer left, and scripting duties fell to writers much more at the mercy of a fickle editorial staff than the successful prose novelist and Idenity Crisis writer was.

So first there's that issue of JSoA, drawn by Jesus Merino and Jesse Delperdang. It's an issue-length conversation between Green Lantern Alan Scott and his son Obsidian, in which the former gives the latter a tour of The Emerald City, a Green Lantern construct city on the moon that was a sort of refuge for magical creatures from throughout the DC Universe.

That's followed by "Eclipso Rising" part one, drawn by Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund (Between the two issues, Alan Scott was apparently terribly injured and had his head shaved, so that the guy we see talking to Obsidian in one chapter is next seen looking completely different, hairless and wearing a hospital gown, with only dialogue clues revealing his identity; apparently his injury took place in an issue of JSoA, which was not collected).

The next issue, "Eclipso Rising" part two is devoted mostly to the "Return of Doomsday" crossover storyline from the Superman titles, and features a newer, smarter Doomsday attacking Supergirl and Green Lantern Boodika, who was unwittingly hosting The Cyborg-Superman. It ends with a cliffhanger, in which Supergirl and Batman Dick Grayson find themselves caught between the Cyborg-Superman and Doomsday alone on the Justice League sattelite...but part three of "Eclipso Rising", the next issue collected, skips over that conflict, which was actually resolved in Superman/Batman Annual #5, which is not collected here either (It and "Eclipso Rising" part two are collected in the Return of Doomsday trade, however, which I reveiwed here).

The Booth/Rapmund team makes it through two more issues solo, before two art teams—Daniel Sampere and Wayne Faucher being one, Miguel Sepulveda the other—take over for the fifth chapter. The sixth chapter is all Sampere and Faucher, as is the final issue of the series, a done-in-one story entitled "Adjourned."

So here we have eight issues of a trade, one from a completely different title, one a tie-in to a crossover (complete with a plot that disappears between issues), and four different art teams, each working in very different styles, from Merino's strong, bold, detailed figures to Booth's elongated, stylized, shojo-by-way-of-early Image style to Sepulveda's photoreference-riddled Colorforms style to Sampere's air-brushed Howard Porter art.

Obviously, it looks like hell, especially when read in trade format. It's drawn by committee, but not by a committee talented enough to learn to fake one another's style. Despite all 190 pages being scripted by Robinson, it also reads like it was written by committee, with Robinson still affecting the same everyone-narrates-in-their-own-personalized-narration box style established by Meltzer at the book's beginning, and apparently writing around such mandated things as the Doomsday crossover and the JSoA writer's plans for Alan Scott and so on.

If one ignores the visual component of the book—and, if one is in that positionw with a comic book, then the comic book has already failed pretty spectacularly—then the writing isn't all that bad. Robinson is almost aggressive in his name-dropping of obscure characters, so that at times it feels as if he's parodying Roy Thomas and/or his own Starman run and, at other times, like he's co-writing the series with a sentient stack of Who's Who in the DC Universes.

For all of that, and for all the reference to and reliance on older comics and their storylines (particularly in the "Rise of Eclipso" storyline), that is one of the pleasures of shared-universe comics, and while some of the references seem like lilies so gilded their stems can't hold them upright anymore, I must admit I enjoyed seeing Eclipso talk to and about the angel Zauriel, which recalled and connected some favorite series of mine from the 1990s DC: John Ostrander's Spectre and Grant Morrison's JLA (What's weird about the current direction of DC is not that the publisher is so aggressively aping the style and aesthetic of the 1990s, and looking to creators last popular in that decade to refurbish their line for the 21st century, but that they're patterning their line off of the Image and Marvel Comics of the '90s, rather than their own line, which actually featured a lot of quite excellent mature, sophisticated comic books).

The aforementioned JSoA issue is, as I also mentioned afore, just a conversation, but Robinson gives his characters something to do while talking, and varies their conversation between exposition, their feelings, what just happened to them, and what they think, fear and hope might happen next. So it's a conversation issue, but it's not a Brian Michael Bendis conversation issue—it's what comics in which two super-people converse should read like.

"Rise of Eclipso" is, as I mentioned, pretty aggressive in its mining of DCU continuity, picking up on the enmity of the Eclipso character towards God, as he was a fallen angel of sorts, explored in The Spectre and the short-lived 1992 Eclipso series (initially written by Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Flemming, with Flemming finishing up the series sans Giffen), and tying it in to the events of Darkest Night/Brightest Day...after recapping the original, Silver Age origin of Eclipso and referring to the character's recent history in JSA and the post-Identity Crisis DCU (Whew!).

First Eclipso recruits The Shade and a bunch of shadow-powered characters (plus a fake Lovecraftian Elder God named "Syththunu" that is drawn to resemble Cthulhu so much that I don't know why they didn't just use Cthulhu...unless Syththunu is a pre-exisiting DCU analogue...? If so, I've never heard of him). Then Eclipso invades The Emerald City.

A mess of superheroes join the fray, some Eclipsed and some un-Eclipsed, but ultimately it's up to the current Justice League of America and guest-stars Blue Lantern Saint Walker (who likely would have joined the team if the series continued many more issues), The Atom Ray Palmer (ditto...I think), Obsidian and Alan Scott (who, mysteriously, grows all his hair back between issues).

Zauriel, Animal Man, Cyborg, Tasmanian Devil, Dr. Light, Red Tornado, The Bulleteer, The Spectre, Captain Atom, Superboy, Wonder Girl, Knight and Squire, The Guardian, Red Star, The Rocket's a pretty cameo-riffic storyline, all considered. And that's not counting a fantasy sequence in which Eclipso is temporarily trapped remembering a future that didn't actually happen, in which he Eclipsed half the DCU and sicced it on the other, giving Sampere the opportunity to draw pretty much the entire DCU, from everyone appearing in their own titles to most of the major Bat-villains to such relatively obscure characters as The Tattooed Man and Ragman and the first non-cowboy version of The Vigilante.

It's all a lot longer than it needs to be, and it really lacks an emotional core or character arc—beyond the conclusion of Robinson's "Why's Donna Troy so angry all the time?" sub-plot—but, as the best Justice Leauge stories do, it ramps the odds and stakes up to insane levels and then has our heroes pull off an unlikely win, by each doing something only they could do.

The final story, "Adjourned", is by far the best in the book. It consists mostly of the final version of the League—Batman Dick Grayson, Supergirl, Donna Troy, Jade, Starman, Jesse Quick and Congorilla—all deciding to quite the League simultaneously. Each state their reasons for doing so, while, along the way, recounting some of their most recent, off-panel adventures.

In a way, it reads like Robinson simply using up some story ideas he thought of but never got to use, although they might also have been plots he brainstormed but didn't think worth pursuing for the space of a story arc. These give the artist—Sampere, who lucks into the pretty sweet gig of drawing the last Justice League comic of the DCU before the New 52 U replaced it—the chance to go nuts drawing scores of heroes and villains over a few huge splash pages between the regular, grid pages of the Leaguers giving their various reasons for quitting.

These include a robot war in which this League—plus Cyborg—must defeat every robot on earth, which old League villain The Construct has possessed (Mr. Atom, The Duke of Oil, G.I. Robots, Bozo The Iron Man, Gonzo The Mechanical Bastard, etc); the "Saturn-Thanagar War", in which they teamed up with Jemm, Son of Saturn to repel the Thanagarians from invading our solar system; and the self-explanatory "Battle for Gem World."

Robinson clearly knew what was happening to the DCU and the DC line as he was scripting this issue, as Donna Troy's last lines include these:
I want them to forget. Me, anyway. I want the world to forget Donna Troy ever existed. I'm certainly going to do my best to disappear.
Dick, meanwhile, seems to be speaking for Robinson when he says "the next incarnation of the JLA can be someone else's problem" and, of course, "It's been a blast...but all things must end."


So, where are they now...?

—Well, after this series ended, Robinson's next major release was his Shade maxi-series, which was apparetnly still set in the old DCU, but was released during The New 52 roll-out. His next ongoing monthly was Earth 2, in which he reintrouced DC's Golden Age heroes as contemporary heroes in their own alternate universe. Nicola Scott was the aritst he was working with on that one.

—Brett Booth was the artist for Teen Titans, which he may have left JLoA to begin work on.

—Miguel Sepulveda moved to StormWatch, a decent enough book which he ruined (in my opinion).

—Sampere...I don't know. Have we seen Sampere again...?


And the characters? Well, I haven't been reading much of The New 52, or even following the goings-on all that closely, so correct me if I'm wrong or ignorant.

—Dick Grayson gave up being the Batman of Gotham City in order to become Nightwing again, getting a new costume and his own Nightwing title again after a few years without one.

—Supergirl was re-introduced (agian) in her own title, Supergirl.

—Donna Troy has apparently been erased from DC continuity. As far as I know, the same goes for Jade and Obsidian and Jesse Quick; as the adult children of Golden Age heroes, those three shouldn't really be able to exist in the current New 52U.

—I don't think Starman Mikaal has appeared in the New 52 U at all, although he was one of the many guest-stars in Robinson's The Shade.

—I don't think Congorilla has appeared at all, save for a cameo in a big group shot of random superheroes in Justice League International #1.

—I've heard there is a scientist named Ray Palmer in the DCU, and workimg with SHADE (the SHIELD analogue organization Frankenstein works for, not the James Robinson-adopted shadow villain), but he's not The Atom.

—Blue Lantern Saint Walker still exists, and he and other Blue Lanterns have appeared in the Green Lantern titles (New Guardians, mostly).

—Eclipso still exists, and has appeared in various forms in various titles, apparently building towards...something.

—The Spectre still exists, and on the main Earth of The New 52U, rather than Earth-2, where the majority of Golden Age-derived charaters who aren't Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman were exiled to. I believe he's appeared in Phantom Stranger.


Nick Ahlhelm said...

The Eclipso storyline in New 52 lead in to the final issues of Sword of Sorcery. Eclipso is the big bad of Amethyst now.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

There's a female Atom in the new DCU. Team 7 (already cancelled before #3 came out), which I didn't buy, had Eclipso in the first (only?) story arc. The book concept was a covert team going on missions. From what I know, the team included Deathstroke, Dinah & Larry Lance, I think Steve Trevor, and other names I've forgotten. If the stories (including the Eclipso one) happened somewhere between the 5 year gap of the two Justice League arcs, or when, I don't know.

colton said...

Daniel Sampere is the current artist on Batgirl, but will be moving on soon to be the artist on the Pandora book that is coming out soon.