Monday, April 04, 2016

Review: Superman and Justice League of America Vol. 1

I used to have a great deal of sympathy for Dan Jurgens, who took over DC's Justice League franchise–or at least half of it–after Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis' five-year run as its writers. Not only was their run perhaps the most distinct in the history of Justice League comics, but it proved extremely popular for quite a long time, and they expanded the brand into a multi-book franchise, as Justice League International became Justice League America and Justice League Europe (both of which they wrote), and then there were the annuals and even a quarterly. Not only were they going to be a hard act to follow, but Jurgens had the even more unenviable task of following them after their massive 15-part finale "Breakdowns," which revisited and wrapped up just about every aspect of their run. It was pretty much a textbook example of a run.

In 2016, I feel all the more sympathetic for Jurgens, as his run was soon followed by that of Grant Morrison, who completely redefined the Justice League (and DC super-team comics), for years to come. While Jurgens wasn't the only whose run happened to fall between two of the best (and best-loved) runs on a Justice League comic–Dan Vado, Gerard Jones, Christopher Priest Mark Waidand a few others would follow Jurgens on Justice League America, Justice League International, Justice League Task Force and (sigh) Extreme Justice in the years after the Giffen/DeMatteis run but before the Morrison one, he was the first and definitely most prominent. And he is the first of those writers from the tumultuous years between to have his run finally collected into trade paperback, with Superman and Justice League America Vol. 1.*

So, how does it hold up? Well, clearly DC wasn't taking any chances, then or now. They allowed Jurgens to add Superman to the team, and they're titling this series of collections Superman and Justice League America. That might be in order to differentiate it from the other collections of that decade's Justice League comics, collected under the titles Justice League International (the Giffen/DeMatteis run) and JLA (the Morrison run), but more likely is simply meant to advertise Superman's presence and move books (I do like that new hybrid logo).

The collection begins with 1992's Justice League Spectacular #1, a 48-page special by Jurgens, "Gerry" Jones, Ron Randall, Rick Burchett and Randy Elliot that shows the origin of the two new Justice League squads. A bunch of diplomats are visit Disney World analogue Funny Stuff Park, and The Elongated Man and Sue Dibny are along for security. When they are all taken hostage by the new Royal Flush Gang, the remnants of the disbanded JLI–Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, Green Lantern Guy Gardner, Power Girl and Metamorpho–try to affect a rescue, but are all felled by the surprisingly effective arsenal of the Gang.

Superman is about to fly down to Florida, only to find Batman lurking atop the Daily Planet building (the first of several oddly daylight appearances by Batman in this volume). Superman says that "With the Justice League disbanded I'm next in line to take on The Royal Flush Gang," which I found amusing, the idea that the superheroes have their own little mental charts about which characters fights which villains, and even a descending order of who should fight said villains if the first choice is unavailable.

Batman is there to try and sell Superman on the idea of not only joining the League, but leading it, and Superman refuses, telling Batman he works better alone, another pretty amusing scene, as we get to see the Dark Knight arguing the virtue of teamwork to Superman (ironically, the "loner" Batman has always worked with partners, and, at this point in post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint DC history, was much more involved with the Justice League than Superman ever was), and we get to hear some of Superman's super-arrogant thoughts ("I understand Batman's point, but a group would slow me down! How would some of those nonpowered heroes keep up with me?").

Superman doesn't fare much better than the old ex-Leaguers did, and so Ice uses an unconscious Guy's GL ring to try and call for help. Hal Jordan receives her signal, and picks up a rather a random assortment of heroes–The Flash Wally West, Aquaman, Doctor Light and Crimson Fox–before joining the battle.

By page 48, the day is saved, and the characters all agree that there should be a new Justice League, two in fact. Who ends up on which team is determined by a splash page; Superman ends up leading the team that keeps the core of the JLA. Two new characters would join in short order, the Jurgens-created Maxima (from his work on the Superman comics) and the brand-new Bloodwynd, a mysterious sorcerer with one of the most '90s of superhero names and horribly over-accessorized costume (the colors are bold and striking, and the costume might not be so bad were it not for the goofy spandex non-mask that covers much of his head except his face, but then he's got all this jewelry, including a golden, gem-encrusted band around his thigh, for some reason).

Jurgens, perhaps under the influence of Jones in the first chapter, is seems to be hewing rather closely to what came before, not only in terms of the Justice League America cast–which includes Max Lord and Oberon, so that Superman is the only new official addition until a few issues in–but also in the book's tone. Jurgens and Jones aren't as good at the sitcom pitter-patter between characters, but some effort is made to make the characters and their interactions funny (most effectively, perhaps, when Blue Beetle and Booster Gold get in a fight, and Beetle offers a list of long, elaborate mean names, each of which Booster responds to simply with "Jerk!").

Structurally, these first few issues are full of call-backs to the early issues of the Giffen/DeMatteis team, with Lord trying to manufacture an international incident to force the Justice League back together, the involvement of the Royal Flush Gang (who Booster Gold fought upon joining the League for the first time) and a direct homage to the opening of the Giffen/DeMatteis run on the first page of Jurgens' first issue of Justice League America (Guy sitting at a meeting table, with his foot on the table, thinking about how he's going to lead the new team).

Aside from his new additions, Jurgens doesn't mess with any of the characters who were in the book before he arrived too drastically. Fire tries out a few new costumes and Guy's three-issue miniseries that gives him his first post-GL costume and Sinestro's ring occurs off-panel during these issues, but for the most part the characters only get one additional concern or characteristic a piece–Ice is infatuated with Superman, Blue Beetle is suspicious of Bloodwynd, etc. It's not until Vado and other writers take over the various League books that these poor bastards start really feeling the effects of the the prevalent trends of 1990s super-comics, with Booster getting dark and a dumb new costume, Ice going bad and dying and so on. At least in these earliest issues of Jurgens' time on the book–#61-68, so a volume two might be able to finish off his run with #69-#78–the book is pretty carefully calibrated to give a slightly more Jurgens-ized version of what came before.

The writer/artist–Rick Burchett and a few others handle the "finishes" of Jurgens art–also has a great interest in wider Justice League history, finding ways to fit elements of it in wherever he can, and establishing this post-Crisis League as the inheritors, worthy or not, of the original League.

So the very first villain they face is a new version of Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky's Weapons Master (who fought the nascent League in a pre-Justice League of America issue of The Brave and the Bold in 1960), and the cover of his first issue of JLA is an homage to 1960's Justice League of America.

Their next major opponent is Starslayer, who directly references his past encounter with the original League, and The Atom Ray Palmer shows up for a few issues, considering joining the Justice League, but ultimately being chased away by Guy (You might try Justice League Europe, Ray; your former colleagues Hal, Arthur and Ralph are all on that Team).

This is Jurgens at perhaps the height of his popularity–the next few issues of the series will feature the League fighting Doomsday and mourning the loss of Superman–and his art is a rather strong selling point. Jurgens' figure work is strong, and he does a particularly fine job on Batman, in whose two appearances, as well as Beetle, who is usually posed in Spider-Man-esque, bug-like postures, and Guy, who he gives a sharp, mean face that conveys the fairly one-dimensional take on the character given here. The women are mostly interchangeable save for their hair and clothes (and Maxima is a head taller than everyone else).

I'm glad DC finally collected these comics, and I sincerely hope they finish off Jurgens' run in a volume 2 and/or 3 (Not sure if they will collect the 1992 annual, part of that summer's "Eclipso: The Darkness Within" crossover, as all Jurgens provided was the cover), although as the series progresses, Superman and Justice League America will seem a less and less apt title.

As I said, the next two issues feature the League fighting (and failing to stop) Doomsday while the eventual killer of Superman rampages towards Metropolis and then this badly hurt League mourning Superman. Then there's an issue introducing a new team to take over while these guys recover–Wonder Woman! Black Condor II! The Ray II! Agent Liberty!. And then Superman is out for the rest of the run, which features the "Destiny's Hand" arc (the League vs. an evil version of the Satellite Era League) and the two-part origin/explanation of Bloodwynd, which you've likely already heard spoiled, whether you read it or not. So Superman and Justice League America Vol. 2 is going to be very light on the Superman, and heavy on the Justice League America.

*But hopefully not the last! Jurgen's JLA was maybe the more important of the two, but the Gerard Jones-written Justice League Europe, which was being published simultaneously, was the better of them. I would hope that Christopher Priest and Mark Waid's run on Justice League Task Force gets considered at some point. After about a year or so as a sort of anthology book with a rotating cast and rotating writers, Waid and Priest stabilized the book to feature a regular cast telling a single, often quite good ongoing storyline. The premise, Martian Manhunter training young heroes The Ray, Gypsy and Mystek, plus Triumph and L-Ron-in-Despero's boy (don't ask), somewhat pre-figured that of the Young Justice TV show (at least broadly).


Jacob T. Levy said...

Agreed about JLE and JLTF.

Destiny's Hand was by far the highlight of the Jurgens run, which in retrospect looks like foreshadowing for later events good (Morrison) and bad (Johns/ Didio's fetishization of the Satellite Era).

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

That Bloodwynd was actually another character who I assume named himself makes it even more ridiculous. I loved Priest on Task Force and I've always given some love toward Triumph.
I'm glad Priest is back at DC and I hope DC is throwing buckets of money at him.

Jer said...

Its funny - at the time I absolutely hated the Jurgens Justice League run and I dropped the book around the time of the Death of Superman. Years later I finished the run out of quarter boxes and re-read it and couldn't figure out why I had hated it so much. I think the tone shift from the Giffen/DeMattias League to this one was probably the explanation - because the book definitely takes on a more traditional superteam feel than what Giffen and DeMattias were doing.

A quick check at Amazon says that volume 2 is due out in September and will include issues 69 - 77. Dan Vado takes over at 78, so I guess that makes sense. I have also discovered that the Len Strazewski/Mike Parobeck Justice Society of America book from 1992 is being collected and released in November. And a 400 page "Volume 1" of "The Flash by Mark Waid" is coming in September as well. In the last few years DC has been going back to the vault for reprints, so I'm hoping this is working out for them and we'll see some more classic runs brought back into print.

SallyP said...

God, I loved these... and still do, for that matter. It'd practically kill to have JLI Quarterly and Green Lantern Quarterly back again.

David page said...

It still annoys me we didn't get a trade of breakdowns