Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On Justice League: Their Greatest Triumphs

This bargain-priced 170-page, $9.99 trade paperback seems to have been assembled specifically to give retailers something to point anyone interested in DC's premiere super-team because of next month's movie towards.

As a long-time fan of the Justice League, I was pretty curious about its contents, as "greatest hits" collections are almost never actually that. Given that their limited page-count, they are inevitably limited to single-issue stories, and the editors generally stick to in-continuity, relevant stories rather than looking to something from, say, a comic based on a cartoon or in an alternate universe (So I wouldn't expect anything from Justice League Adventures or Justice League Unlimited, or from Adventures in The DC Universe or the Paul Dini/Alex Ross one-shot JLA: Liberty & Justice).

Of course, the sub-title here doesn't necessarily promise the greatest or best stories, but the greatest "triumphs," whatever exactly that might mean (Given that they are limited to one-issue stories, though, it's not like they can actually include their greatest triumphs, as those generally come at the end of stories of some scope and size. I guess they could use the final issues of story arcs like "Rock of Ages"...?).

These sorts of books also generally reveal more about where the publisher's collective head is regarding a franchise: What they consider the best or most important stories, which iterations of the League are the most important or relevant ones, which characters and creators they find important or relevant to the line at the moment. I knew without even cracking it I was probably going to disagree with many of the inclusions.

Looking solely at the table of contents, there are only three distinct teams or "eras" represented: Grant Morrison's "Big Seven Plus" roster (although nothing actually written by Morrison is included), Brad Meltzer's short-lived, one-arc team and Geoff Johns' post-Flashpoint team. To the extent that any earlier iteration of the team exist, it is only in flashback form in the Meltzer-written issue.

The average age of the stories is nine-years-old, with a Mark Waid, Mark Pajarillo and Walden Wong story from 1999 being the oldest, and a Bryan Hitch, Daniel Henriques and Scott Hanna story from 2016 being the most recent. Geoff Johns scripted three of the seven issues, with the four other writers each getting an issue a piece of the remaining ones. Three of the stories are set before Flashpoint, the other four in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe.

What accounts for the selection? The heavy representation of Johns feels slightly icky given his current prominence in the publisher's leadership--President & Chief Creative Officer--so it feels a little like flattering the boss. On the other hand, from what we know of the upcoming movie, it seems to be somewhat inspired by Johns' first Justice League story (which was also the basis of the direct-to-DVD animated film, Justice League: War), and the film's line-up reflects the post-Flashpoint, Geoff Johns inclusion of Cyborg on the team (aside from a weird, seemingly aborted line-up initiated by James Robinson, Cyborg was never on the team until Johns' relaunch).

It's possible the specific stories are included to offer suggestions of villains in the movie, but that actually seems a little unlikely, as in addition to a Parademon or two, these include The White Martians, The Construct, Ocean Master, a couple of cameos by Crime Syndicate of America and whatever the hell was going on in Bryan Hitch's first "Rebirth" Justice League arc.

Here are the comics included within...

Justice League #1
By Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair

This is the 2011 first issue of the previous Justice League series, the official launch of The New 52. Despite having the New 52 version of a Big Seven on the cover--all of whom are appearing in the film, save Green Lantern Hal Jordan--the actual issue just features Batman, Jordan and, on the last page, Superman. A pre-Cyborg Victor Stone makes an appearance (in his origin for the League, Johns tied Cyborg's origin to the invasion of Apokolips and the formation of the team), as does a Parademon or two.

Given the collection's sub-title, it seems like a random choice, with the final issue of the arc seemingly a better one (That at least features the whole roster, as well as Darkseid). Johns and Lee, another DC Comics executive, only collaborated on two story arcs, neither of which is very good, and neither of which was broken into strong individual chapters in such a way that would make the inclusion of any single issue read smoothly all on its own.

So on the one hand, while I totally get why a chapter of this arc is in here--it's Johns and Lee, it's apparently a pretty strong inspiration for the film--it also doesn't make much sense at all to include it here.

If a reader wants to find out what happens next, this story is collected as Justice League Vol. 1: Origin.

JLA #33
By Mark Waid, Mark Pajarillo, Walden Wong and John Kalisz

This one actually kind of baffles me. Waid did have a decently well-written run on JLA, picking up the baton from Grant Morrison at the conclusion of Morrison's World War III arc. Waid's run kicked off with a pretty great, over-sized original graphic novel with Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary (JLA: Heaven's Ladder), and  then ran through issues #43-60 of the ongoing monthly title. Unfortunately, the art was a mess, as he was officially teamed with Hitch, who was unable to ever complete an arc (In that sense, the Waid/Hitch run peaked before it even began, as Heaven's Ladder was the only complete story Hitch managed, start to finish).

Waid was writing JLA stories before his run began though. In addition to scripting the prequel miniseries A Midsummer's Nightmare and then JLA: Year One, he wrote two great, two-issue fill-in arcs during Morrison's run, and returned again for two-issue fill-in stint in 1999, featuring two done-in-one-ish stories that kinda sorta dealt with the "No Man's Land" mega-story in the Batman titles. This was the last Waid-scripted fill-in, and it was penciled by then frequent JLA fill-in artist, Mark Pajarillo.

A follow-up to Morrison's first arc, which had the League re-forming to stave off a White Martian invasion, this issue has Batman assigning then-Leaguers Orion, Big Barda, Steel, Plastic Man and Green Lantern Kyle Rayner to investigate Bruce Wayne (actually a White Martian assuming Wayne's identity), while Superman and Wonder Woman investigate The (or is it "a"...?) Flash, a new version with a new costume who was refusing to reveal his true identity to just about everyone.

This was a fun story in several ways, including Pajarillo's drawings of Orion fighting with the tuxedo he goes undercover in, and one of Plas' skeeviest disguises as an inanimate object, plus an overall weird grouping of heroes interacting in the ways that Morrison's ongoing narrative rarely allowed for. It's still a weird choice for the book, though. Not only do few of these heroes seem to appear in the film, but it ties in to a couple of pretty specific and temporary plot points from other comics.

If DC wanted to choose a Waid-written issue, JLA #50 might have been a good one, as it was a stock-taking issue that transitioned between the arc that had just ended and the one that was beginning (and featured bearded Aquaman; he is clean shaven and short-haired in all of these issues), and aside from a compelling cliffhanger, it had some pretty classic Justice League-ing.
The best done-in-one, fill-in from during Morrison's run, however, was probably JLA #27, by Mark Millar, Pajarillo and Wong.

Essentially an Atom story, it features classic Justice League villain Amazo and the entire Justice League reserves (i.e. everyone that was a Leaguer and was still alive at the time) showing up before it's all over. It's a very clever story, too, harkening back to classic, Silver Age League comics. It feels weird suggesting anyone read a Millar comic in 2017, but this was back in the days when Millar seemed to really want to be a comic book writer, before he realized he could used comics as a stepping stone to Hollywood films, and started turning his Elseworlds pitches into analogue comics to entice filmmakers into adapting them.

Morrison had a lot of great short stories, but these were generally two issues long, rather than a single issue long. The only done-in-one of his I can think of is JLA #5, which was full of guest-stars and had some good Martian Manhunter moments but, for the most part, was a Superman and Tomorrow Woman story. Unfortuantely, Superman was going through his electric phase at that point, so I wonder if it would just confuse and repel readers of this particular trade collection...?

At any rate, I'd recommend one read the entirety of the Morrison run and, once that's finished, check out the Waid run as well...or, at the very least, Heaven's Ladder.

Justice League of America #1 #0
By Brad Meltzer, Eric Wight, Ed Benes, Alex Sinclair, and a whole bunch of artists

Huh. That's weird. The table of contents refers to this as Justice League of America #1, the first chapter of Brad Meltzer, Ed Benes and company's "The Tornado's Path" story arc, but it's actually JLoA #0. This was the start of prose novelist-turned-terrible-comics writer Brad Meltzer's run on the newly relaunched JLoA in 2006. Following the events of Infinite Crisis, this over-sized issue was mainly a vehicle for an exploration of Justice League history, as revised on the fly by Meltzer, although because it was coming off of a cosmic, continuity rejiggering, this time there was at least an in-universe explanation for the changes (Those in his Identity Crisis, on the other hand, were just mistakes).

Among those changes was to reinstate Wonder Woman as an original member of the Justice League of America--following Crisis On Infinite Earths, Black Canary II was a founding member in Wondy's stead, as Wonder Woman was being introduced into the DCU for the first time in the then-new continuity--and this issue was basically Meltzer having the "Trinity" of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman getting together to discuss who should be on the new Justice League of America line-up, flashing back to various meetings between the three at various points in DC history as it existed at that point and, oddly, a few glimpses into future meetings of the three.

It is mainly noteworthy for all the great artists involved. Ed Benes, who would be Meltzer's main pencil artist for the remainder of the writer's short, 12-issue run, drew many of the modern day scenes, and Eric Wight drew many of the earliest past scenes, with an all-star roster drawing everything in between. Among the artists were those who had worked on previous runs of Justice League comics before, including Kevin Maguire, Dan Jurgens, Howard Porter and George Perez.

In that respect, it is probably a good issue to include in here. If you want to find out what happens following this story, and I wouldn't recommend it, you can check out Justice League of America Vol. 1: The Tornado's Path. In retrospect, the most interesting thing Meltzer brought to the franchise was including new blood in the form of Black Lightning, Hawkgirl and Arsenal-turned-Red Arrow Roy Harper, but the line-up Meltzer spent 12 issues gradually assembling would begin being dismantled almost immediately.

This volume of the League book ultimately lasted five years and 60-issues, and featured work from talented writers like the late, great Dwayne McDuffie and James Robinson, but it was a complete mess, and perhaps the nadir of League history. (Seriously; I'll reread the Detroit Era and Extreme Justice before looking at these comics again.)

Justice League #16
By Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Rod Reis

This is a particularly perplexing inclusion, as it is the third chapter of the six-part Justice League/Aquaman crossover "Throne of Atlantis," and, as such, doesn't really stand on its own at all. The basic story is that Aquaman's evil brother Orm, AKA "Oceanmaster," is leading the armies of Atlantis against the United States and the Justice League, and Aquaman is caught in the middle. In this particular chapter, he fights Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, while Cyborg is trying to sort everything else out elsewhere.

"Throne" was a pretty decent story, maybe the best of Johns' run, and Reis' pencil art was pretty great, but as just a single chapter, this is kind of a pointless read as anything other than perhaps an enticement to buy the trade it is collected in (Actually, this story appears in two different trades, both of which reprint the entire thing, which I imagine must have been awfully fucking frustrating for anyone following both of the Johns-written series in trade; Justice League Vol. 3: Throne of Atlantis and Aquaman Vol. 3: Throne of Atlantis). It does feature characters that appear in the film, so I guess there is that.

Justice League #29
By Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke, Keith Champagne, Christian Alamy and Rod Reis

This is the final inclusion from Johns' Justice League, a 2015 issue tie-in to that year's Forever Evil event series, which was also written by Johns. It has a rather striking cover, featuring the Metal Men appearing in the shapes of the Justice Leaguers, but little else to recommend it. It is basically a Cyborg solo story, and sees Vic recruiting Doc Magnus and The Metal Men to help him take on The Grid, the evil version of Cyborg that was colluding with the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3.

If you read this and find yourself dying to know what happens next (and I can't imagine you will), then it is included in context in Justice League Vol. 5: Forever Heroes, and you'll probably also want to check out the poorly-drawn Forever Evil collection.

JLA #107
By Kurt Busiek, Ron Garney, Dan Green and David Baron

So, if you had asked me at the time who should follow Mark Waid on JLA, I would have told you that Kurt Busiek would have been the ideal choice. Instead, DC chose Joe Kelly, a writer who wouldn't have even been on my radar at the time, but who nevertheless turned out a remarkably strong 30-issue run on JLA, which then continued into his Justice League Elite book and then returned for a single issue of JLA before reaching its conclusion. That was probably the last high-quality run on a League book until...well, I don't think anyone's matched it since, actually.

For whatever reason, DC de-emphasized the importance of JLA around 2004, perhaps because they were focused on Identity Crisis and the ramp-up to Infinite Crisis. The result was about two years in which the book became an anthology series, with different arcs by different creators, few of which had anything to do with one another, let alone with the DC Universe at large: Denny O'Neil and Tan Eng Huat did a forgettable two-parter; John Byrne, Chris Claremont and Jerry Ordway did a barely readable seven-part storyline that included a soft reboot of the Doom Patrol; Chuck Austen and Ron Garney did a series of solo stories which kind of defeated the purpose of the book (all of these character already had at least one solo book at the time, after all, with the exception of Martian Manhunter) and then there was "Syndicate Rules," of which this is the first chapter.

If anyone was still paying attention to JLA, they would have been rewarded with this eight-part story written by Busiek (finally!) and penciled by Garney, featuring a rematch with the Crime Syndicate, the first since Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely reintroduced them in their original graphic novel JLA: Earth-2. Entitled "Maintenance Day," it featured what was left of the Big Seven version of the League, which now included Green Lantern Jon Stewart in for Kyle Rayner and The Atom apparently out of his self-enforced semi-retirement.

While the storyline would eventually grow pretty epic in scope, this first issue is kind of a low-key start, a day-in-the-life type of story in which the impatient Flash Wally West and Martian Manhunter perform a series of tasks needed to keep the Justice League's lunar Watchtower in working order. This includes a conflict with The Construct.

It was a strong enough story arc that it became all the more depressing that the JLA/Avengers writer never had a proper run on JLA, but he would kinda sorta get his chance a few years later with the weekly Trinity series. To read all of "Syndicate Rules," you can try to track down the out-of-print JLA: Syndicate Rules trade or JLA Vol. 9, which includes it along with Geoff Johns and Allen Heinberg's Identity Crisis tie-in, "Crisis of Conscience."

Justice League: Rebirth #1
By Bryan Hitch, Daniel Henriques, Scott Hanna and Alex Sinclair

No, I don't know why these books aren't presented in anything approaching chronological order, but instead keep jumping back and forth.

After his poor showing as the pencil artist during Mark Waid's run on JLA, and a rather poor showing as a writer/artist on his own book entitled Justice League of America (which he hadn't yet finished when this series launched), Bryan Hitch got another crack at the League with the relaunched, "Rebirth" version of the title. The line-up was essentially the same as it was when Johns and Lee relaunched the rebooted League in 2011, only instead of one Green Lantern in Hal Jordan, they now had two Green Lanterns in new, Johns-created characters Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz. Oh, and instead of New 52 Superman, they now had pre-Flashpoint, post-Convergence Superman. What his deal was would eventually all get ironed out in the Superman books, but, at this point, much of the character's interactions with his teammates were colored in distrust, as they didn't know who exactly he was or understand what the fuck was going on with Superman continuity (Join the club, Justice League!).

As with all of Hitch's League writing to date, I read this--three times now!--and couldn't really tell you what happened in it, or why. It's all apocalyptic, wide-screen, disaster picture stuff, but it is also strangely boring, lifeless and unsubstantial. If you read the chapter and find yourself intrigued, however, you can see how it all plays out in the pages of Justice League Vol. 1: The Extinction Machines.


Benjamin McDowell said...

FYI, January solicits were released yesterday!

Caleb said...

I saw that. I should have a post on DC's sometime today, and one on Marvel's sometime tomorrow, if I am not knocked off schedule.