Thursday, December 17, 2009

Being Free Doesn't Make Them Any Better Pt. 4: Justice League of America: When Worlds Collide

Justice League of America: When Worlds Collide is the final collection of writer Dwayne McDuffie’s short, ill-fated run on the Justice League title, and it probably represents his best work.

It would be something of a stretch to call it “good,” but, taken in an isolated chunk like this instead of doled out chapter-by-chapter, a month between each, the book’s strange, fluid relationship with the DC Universe it was supposedly set in is no longer such an obstacle.

There is a noticeably dramatic derailing of the overall story that the collection represents, however, when halfway through the book McDuffie stops telling the story he was telling in the previous chapter to spend 22 pages shedding half of his cast, before picking up with the story right where it left off before the bizarre interruption.

It’s easy to see how that could have ruined the book as a monthly, but as a collection it’s just this really weird passage and, oddly enough, once it’s ended and McDuffie has lost access to most of the characters he began his run with—hell, most of the characters this story arc began with—the book actually improves immensely.

Fans certainly complained when all the “big guns” left the line-up, and the Justice League roster dwindled to just Vixen, Green Lantern John Stewart, Dr. Light II, Firestorm II and Zatanna, but that’s a more manageable group of characters, and McDuffie’s writing suddenly felt more focused and comfortable. In the previous story arcs, in the beginning of this story arc, he simply seemed to have too many superheroes on the page at any given time, and thus had a hard time writing them convincingly.

But by the end of this volume, McDuffie was seemingly doing his best JLoA scripting to date—and then he got yanked off the title (If I’m recalling correctly, there was even some confusion over whether or not he scripted this final issues, as DC’s solicitations for JLoA were often off; according to the credits here, he did).

This volume takes its title from a mid-nineties crossover between the Milestone Universe and the Superman franchise, which is apropos, given that the subject here is a crossover between the Milestone Universe characters and the Justice League.

As one of the progenitors of the Milestone Universe and the then-current writer of JLoA, McDuffie was obviously the man for the job, although I’m sure JLoA readers at the time, already sick of the title becoming a place where other books had their storylines pushed, may not have welcomed the crossover all that enthusiastically. It’s also odd that the premise involved the merging of the two universes, the DCU and the Milestone Universe, under very particular circumstances—this was published just a few years after the multiverse rejiggering of Infnite Crisis/52, and concurrently with the mutliverse re-rejiggering of Final Crisis…seems like a more organized DC Universe might have simply included the merging of the Milestone Earth with the DC’s “New Earth” in one of those cosmology reboots.

Sloppy editing and poor-to-decent writing may be chronic problems for JLoA, but it’s still the art that remains the book’s biggest problem. This collection includes seven issues (JLoA #27-#34, excepting #29, a “Faces of Evil” fill-in by Len Wein and CrissCross which at least looks relevant), and yet there are six (6) different pencillers and twelve (12) different inkers. For seven issues. Published over the course of eight months.

It looks about what you’d expect it to look like. The book’s “regular” pencil artist Ed Benes seems slightly improved here over his work in the previous volume (and doesn’t seem to be actively working against McDuffie the way he did during their first arc together), but that could simply be the influence of one or more of his inkers—he clicks better with some than he does with others, I suppose. (This probably isn’t on Benes, but it would have been nice if they redesigned the Milestone costumes to make some of them look less mid-nineties. There are some terrible, terrible looks among the Milestone set, and they seem out of place both in the year 2009 and the DC Universe in general).

The pencil artists are all of varying skill levels and styles, but Rags Morales contributes almost two entire issues to the collection, which coincides with the improvement of the writing. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the characters start to have facial expressions when Morales is drawing them…?

Having finally tied up the loose ends that previous writer Brad Meltzer left for him to deal with, McDuffie is able to move on to something new-ish here, although new is sort of relative. The story is a fairly standard superhero team-up one, what with the misunderstanding and the fighting.

Dr. Light II comes home from a hard day’s work at S.T.A.R. Labs to find the superhero team The Shadow Cabinet waiting for her. This Milestone team consists of Icon, Hardware and a half-dozen superheroes with terrible names and costumes, none of whom I had ever heard of before (DC should give this Twilight guy his own book, though…I bet the accidental sales that title alone would generate would make it worthwhile).

They are on a secret mission that involves breaking in to the Justice League satellite and stealing the mortal remains of Dr. Light I. The mission is so secret, they can’t tell the League about, and so fighting ensues. (And, oddly, it lasts a few pages, despite the fact that either The Flash or Green Lantern could have taken out everyone who isn’t Icon in about a second or two). Hawkman and Shadow Thief get involved.

Then, suddenly, Justice League #31! Black Canary calls Hal Jordan and her husband Green Arrow into a meeting, punches her husband and calls them both faggots (I’m paraphrasing) for some reason (In the original issue, there was a little yellow box saying that this issue was set after Justice League: Cry For Justice, a miniseries that hadn’t even begun when this was published as a monthly. Here, nothing). Then Hal mentions that the Martian Manhunter and Batman are dead, which is kinda weird, since I just saw Batman 12 pages ago and he looked fine.

Between the chapters of this collection, apparently all of Final Crisis and at least the first two issues of Justice League: Cry For Justice happened. Oh, and the start of World of New Krypton too. I could kind of make sense of this while reading, because I blog about this crap every day, but it’s gotta read weird to someone picking it up cold.

Anyway, this issue consists of 22-pages of people quitting left and right—including Oliver Queen, who wasn’t even on the team! The excuses for most of them are vague and nonsensical, amounting to “I can’t be on the League anymore, because of the events of my own book and/or an upcoming crossover series.”

McDuffie handles most of it pretty well—beyond the weird bit of spousal abuse and calling Hal and Ollie gay—although there’s not even room for some of them to be explained away. Black Lightning, a character who just joined the Justice League within the past few years (just three story arcs ago, at the pace the title moves) after hanging around the DCU being one of its most eligible black superheroes for about 30 years, gets a three-sentence send-off—he left the League to lead the Outsiders, because “it was one of Batman’s last requests.”

That interruption over, the cast has been whittled down to a more manageable five characters, and McDuffie picks up where he left off with the Shadow Thief and Milestone characters. These last few chapters are I think the zenith of his run, featuring solid art by Rags Morales for the first two-ish and a Benes-free final issue by Adrian Syaf, Eddy Barrows and five different inkers (Jesus), nicely written, individual characters with dynamic relationships to one another, and a serious, League-level threat that, for the first time in the book’s 34-issue run, actually seems like something the Justice League might need to spend it’s time on.

It was kind of weird reading these final few issues in December of 2009 though, after McDuffie has left the book, and he’s made so many details about how frustrating his experience on the book actually was (editors snatching away characters mid-story and scenes being re-written after the art was finished are clear on the printed page, so one can only imagine how much worse it must have been behind the scenes).

I still don’t understand why continuity between this book and the rest of the DCU was enforced so rigidly. It’s generally assumed that the books aren’t occurring in real time, and DC’s usual policy is to just have readers and writers slot the stories together once they’re finished—if continuity is being enforced at all (For example, there have been at least two completely different Jokers in Grant Morrison’s Batman writing and Paul Dini’s). It’s especially problematic here, because Final Crisis’s rejiggering of the mutliverse renders the conflict that it bisected here irrelevant. Whatever the state of the DCU and Milestone Universe at the beginning of the arc, Final Crisis would have completely changed it when it occurred, despite the fact that the second half of the arc proceeds as if Final Crisis didn’t re-re-recreate the multiverse. (Did I lose you? I lost myself in there somewhere…)

Anyway, by the end of the volume, the Justice League is John Stewart, Dr. Light,Vixen, Zatanna and Firestorm…although they’re hanging out with Hardware and Icon…and a Bruce Wayne from a different dimension where he went to see a cowboy movie instead of a Zorro movie the night his parents were killed and ended up a gun-toting vigilante named Paladin. All three are in the position heroes usually find themselves in when someone on the team says, “Hey, we worked pretty well together, would you consider joining the team?”

Having a Justice League led by Icon, who is basically Superman only black, might have lead to some interesting, exciting stories. Instead, McDuffie was off the book, Len Wein and another small army of pencillers and inkers came in to fill the pages for three months, and James Robinson and Mark Bagley finally came in to fill the void.

They’ve done three issues so far—each full of little more than the few remaining Leaguers getting the holy hell beat out of them and/or threatened with sexual violence.

So far at least, the quality of the book seems to have turned around—it was practically unreadable due to poor writing and bad art, now it’s practically unreadable due solely to repulsive content.


Anonymous said...

Um, if you read the text-filled epilogue with Icon, Superman, and Dharma, you can see a hand waving attempt to say "Final Crisis damaged the Milestone U, but Dharma used the opportunity of Final Crisis to merge it with the DCU."

There's still a sense of frustration from McDuffie in these issues, specifically with the Paladin character. He's there to seemingly say "DC won't let me use Batman cause he's dead? Frick that, I'll just make up a Batman variant and use him."

Hyle Russell said...

Black Canary calls Hal Jordan and her husband Green Arrow into a meeting

I completely misinterpreted that sentence as "Hal Jordan and her husband Green Arrow," yet for some reason I didn't bat an eye.

Patrick C said...

I don't remember which issue it was, but I was really thrown when we saw Flash running around WHILE HE WAS TRAPPED IN TWILIGHT. We see Flash running around, and then he escapes from inside Twilight a few pages later. That's when I felt that the editor/artist/whoever cared less about the book than I did. Not sure why that one tiny (in the grand scheme of things) mistake set me off so much, but that was the closest I came to canceling JLA.

I wonder if that was fixed for the collection. I don't have my issues in front of me, so I can't say for sure which issue it was in.

Caleb said...

Um, if you read the text-filled epilogue with Icon, Superman, and Dharma, you can see a hand waving attempt to say "Final Crisis damaged the Milestone U, but Dharma used the opportunity of Final Crisis to merge it with the DCU."

Yeah, there is a panel saying that the Milestone Universe was destroyed by the energy released by Darkseid's death, and that Dharma was only able to save it by grafting it onto the DCU, but...I don't really get it. The multiversal shifting that went on during Final Crisis should have been beyond the control of Dharma, but then, I don't have any idea who he is or what his deal is.

I don't remember which issue it was, but I was really thrown when we saw Flash running around WHILE HE WAS TRAPPED IN TWILIGHT. We see Flash running around, and then he escapes from inside Twilight a few pages later.

Oh yeah! Let me go check...

No, they didn't fix that. Flash disappears into Twilight in the middle of one issue, and doesn't come out of him until the next issue, but there are at least three panels in which Benes draws the Flash standing around with the other heroes on the Watchtower when he's supposed to be inside Twilight.


My favorite example of that sort of thing is a panel where the Trinity are all sitting around an empty table, staring down at nothing, and Superman's like, "Hey, look, what's that?"and there's nothing there.

Then in the next panel, Batman is suddenly holding a big flashing red button.

I don't think the editors had much time to check for that sort of thing, since they were apparently all tied up by trying to find enough inkers to finish Benes' artwork each issue.

esteban138 said...

I'm pretty sure Dini just resolved the two Joker problem in an issue of Gotham City Sirens... I didn't actually read it, but apparently the Morrison Joker has been established as the real Joker and the more traditional Joker that was showing up at the same was a former henchman who was obsessed with replacing the boss.

...Kind of like Xorn in reverse.