Saturday, August 11, 2012

I had some issues with Justice Society of America: Supertown

Justice Society of America: Supertown collects the sub-titular story arc from last year's JSoA #44-#49, or the first half of writer Marc Guggenheim's aborted, 12-issue run on the title (I reviewed the second half here).

It is, on balance, a fairly decent collection of comics. Guggenheim had some interesting ideas, including making the Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick the principal character, Alan Scott the main supporting character, and the rest of the team more-or-less the supporting cast. He introduced a DC Universe-style faux city they could call home (Monument Point, an apparently pretty big city just outside Washington D.C.). And he tried tackling the "Society" aspect of the team from a different angle; when this volume of the series launched, Geoff Johns and co-writer Alex Ross looked at "society" as a sort of large, social club and support group, with the many members of the team forming a sort of caste within the DC Universe, while Guggenheim entangled the super-team quite directly with the affairs of their new city and the people who live there, apparently wanting to eventually make the book about the Justice Society as they operate within "society."

He, of course, never quite got there, as the book was apparently quite suddenly canceled...although its too-swift end isn't evident in this, the first chapter.

There's also a pretty cool new freelance supervilain, a Dr. Chaos, who talks like a giggly Warren Ellis character.
And while Scott Kolins' art is perhaps (okay, definitely) over-colored and over-produced, he at least hit his deadlines, so there's a consistent look to the book (in the next volume, he would be replaced by Tom Derenick, whose style wasn't totally incompatible, especially since it was similarly over-colored, but then Jerry Ordway came in, and while he's probably the best of the three, his work looked nothing like theirs).

That said, I had some pretty serious problems with this book, one set of which is political (as in, "Wow, the politics of this comic are pretty fucked up!"), the other set of which are pretty anal-retentive in the way fans of superhero universes (like me) can be, but, well, the comics brought it on themselves.

First, take a look at the panel at the top of the post.

A half-dozen members of the JSA are off to fight a super-powered terrorist, or super-terrorist, who has attacked Monument Point. Lightning, the yellow lady with a mane of cartoon lightning bolts emanating from her, says, "Terrorists? Like real terrorists? Like Al Qaeda-type terrorists?"

Wildcat, the guy dressed like an agry cat, responds, "Are there any other kind?"

And Mr. Terrific, the guy reading some iPads that his floating Phantasm balls are carrying for him, says,
"Actually, yes. But that's not what's important right now...Minutes before he attacked, he released a statement on the Al Jazeera website announcing his intentions."
Let's tear this apart a bit, shall we?

Wildcat, AKA Ted Grant, was probably born sometime in the 1920s, having come of age shortly before World War II (as did Garrick and Scott). He and his fellow founders of the JSA were already old-ass men when Islamic terrorism became a serious concern of governments beyond those of the Middle East in the 1970s. On 9/11, dude would have been somewhere in his eighties. At least. For Wildcat and company, the anarchist bombers of the first two decades of the 1900s would have been just about as relevant as go-to examples of terrorists as those affiliated with Al Qaeda. And these guys have been fighting terrorists for at least seventy years. Is there any other kind? Yeah, fuck you, you dumb comic book! Even if you want to ignore the real world—although referencing Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera is a pretty poor way of ignoring it—there's still the DCU terrorist organization Kobra, whom these guys fought in the previous volume of this series.

And then there's that bit about Al Jazeera. "Minutes before he attacked," Terrific said, "he released a statement on the Al Jazeera website announcing his intentions."

Not to but on; as in he didn't email a statement to the news organization Al Jazeera, to either report on or ignore, but he posted it directly onto their website, as if he was, like, working with them, or at least had a user name and password to post on their site.

Even if the only place you've heard the word "Al Jazeera" before was on Fox and Friends, try this: change the word "Al Jazeera" to "CNN" and see if that sentence makes any sense. Because that's what Al Jazeera is, a news organization akin to CNN (only not as anywhere near as lame), albeit it one with a foreign sounding name. And oh my God, it has the syllable "al" in it, just like "Al Qaeda"...they must be practically the same damn thing, then!

God, what an ignorant fucking panel...

Weirdly, the comic never explains what this super-terrorist, whom we'll eventually learn has been codenamed Scythe, is all about. He just appears in Monument City and starts destroying it. What makes him a "terrorist" instead of a monster or supervillain? What's the difference between Scythe and, say, Doomsday or Solomon Grundy? That he released a statement...?
The JSA never really talk about what's in the statement, although Mr. T is apparently familiar with it and, despite his professed ignorance of it here, Wildcat later expresses familiarity of it, saying only that it was "pro-terrorist" (which is kinda weird, as the definition of terrorism includes the qualification of a goal or purpose to the violence...whether or not it actually makes sense to anyone other than the person committing it).

Wildcat later derisively refers to Scythe as "Bin Laden," and Alan Scott mentions Scythe's "politics", but Guggenheim never explains what the guy has in common with Bin Laden, save the obvious—a desire to attack an American city—or what those "politics" might be.

All we learn from this comic is that he spent five years in a CIA black prison in Afghanistan and that he was created as a living super-weapon by Nazi scientists in the 1940s. The only things he says in the entire book are:
"I do. I do speak English. Ted."


"All right."

"Stay down. You don't have to die today. My quarrel isn't with you. It's with them...Not your concern. Monument Point never was. In your next life, don't meddle in affairs not your own."
("Next life," huh? Sounds more Hindu or New Age than Islamic, Wildcat).

In other words, this comic book was suggesting he's some sort of Islamic terrorist now simply through word association—Al Jazeera, Al Qaeda, Bin Laden—and that's pretty fucked up.

Okay, now on to the second point.

The story arc opens with Jay Garrick and Alan Scott out to dinner with their practically dialogue-less wives (Scott's wife Molly says, "Where is this coming from, Jay?", and that's it for the female half of their table), with Jay telling Alan he's thinking about retiring from being a superhero, since his successor Flash II Barry Allen is back from the dead and there are so many speedsters around now, who will miss him?
Then the two of them receive some sort of distress call on their "coordinated J.L.A./J.S.A. response system" doohickeys, and meet up with Lightning, Wildcat, Mr. Terrific and Dr. Fate to respond to the already in-progress "terrorist attack" in Monument Point (Wait, if Scythe announced his plan to attack Monument Point ahead of time to or, sigh, on Al Jazeera's website, why weren't any superheroes on site to stop him before he started knocking down buildings and killing folks?)
Within the first seconds of their conflict, which a caption helfpully tells us begins at "10:06 P.M. E.S.T.", three weeks later than five months earlier than two months earlier than whenever (modern super-comics are weird, aren't they?), Scythe tears the throat out of/snaps the neck of Green Lantern Alan Scott (the art's not clear on this), the JSA's most powerful member, mortally wounding him (he pulls through, but at the cost of complete paralysis).

The remaining members of the small JSA contingent fight against Scythe for the next seven-and-a-half hours. It is 5:30 A.M. E.S.T. when Lightning zaps him hard enough with lightning that Dr. Fate can magically bind him in a glowing bubble.

This is extraordinary for several reasons.

First, none of them get their throats torn out or spines broken over the course of 7.5 hours, despite the fact that only three of them have any powers at all. Flash has super-speed, Lightning has lightning and Fate has undefined magical powers, but Wildcat is basically just a retired boxer dressed up like a cat and Mr. Terrific is a really smart guy in really good shape. They all somehow last almost an entire work day against a guy who practically killed Green Lantern in the space of a panel (for a good illustration of how powerful Alan Scott is, he fought some 20 superheroes for a half-dozen or so issues in the JLA/JSA crossover immediately preceding this story arc).

Next, NO ONE ELSE ever bothered to show up to help them fight Scythe, despite the fact that the fight lasted almost eight hours. (That's a very long time. How long? Well, let's put it this way. I have no superpowers, but if I was listening to NPR while writing this post, and I heard Scythe was attacking Washington D.C., I could grab my pants, put on my shoes, hop into my 2002 Buick Century and be there in 6 hours and 54 minutes, according to Google Maps. I'm assuming most DC superheroes have the means to travel about the country faster than I).

Now, that is of course one ongoing problem with shared superhero universe settings. If Superman can fly at super-speed and see and hear everything going on around him (at least in his hemisphere) and is pals with all the other superheroes, shouldn't he constantly be guest-starring in everyone's books all the time? The Flashes—all three of 'em—can be in Gotham City within seconds of an Arkham break out. The Green Lanterns—there's four of those guys on Earth, five if you count Alan Scott!—can similarly travel the country at phenomenal speeds. Hell, the Justice League has a teleportation system, and the DC heroes even have (well, had) a lady who spent most of her waking hours in front of a bunch of computer screens, relaying information to all the superheroes in the world and coordinating their responses to various threats.

Realistically, Batman shouldn't ever have to fight Killer Croc without a Flash, a Green Lantern and Superman or Martian Manhunter spotting him. It's that whole cake issue that Kurt Busiek explained so well.

So in most DC superhero comics, the writer has to sort of ignore these questions, and we readers are more than willing to suspend our disbelief, imagining that Superman was busy in space and The Flash was asleep and Orcale was taking a bath whenever a villain has Batman on the ropes or whatever.

It only really becomes a problem when the writer really pushes the fact that there's a big, huge, public threat going down in the DC Universe that will affect the setting itself (for example, the Justice League had to fight Doomsday at some point before Superman gave his life fighting him, and Superman and other heroes had to at least check in on Gotham City during the year-long "No Man's Land" crisis), while the writer simultaneously emphasizes the fact that the DC Universe is a shared universe full of plenty of other superheroes. And oh boy does Guggenheim do that here. I've got a lot of practice suspending my disbelief, but good God, it's impossible to suspend one's disbelief this hard.

Scott and Garrick learn about the Scythe attack via a JLA/JSA communicator that they mention was designed by Batman, right? So where exactly were the Justice League? Where was Batman? Where was the rest of the JSA? (Mr. America and Dr. Mid-Nite appear in later issues; Power Girl, Citizen Steel and the rest of the "JSA All-Stars" don't show up until the last issue of this story arc).

As the fight goes on for a few pages, Lightning asks, "Who the hell is this guy?" Mr. Terrific replies, "Oracle's never heard of him," implying that he's just called Oracle, who responded with, um, "Sorry bro; I've never heard of him," and hung up rather than sending in her own personal strikeforce of superheroes,
or any of the Bat-people she knows so well.

And just a few pages prior to that, Garrick was introduced as the "third fastest" man, after Barry Allen and Wally West, and said he was thinking of retiring, since there are so many other speedsters no one would even miss him. Where on Earth were Barry and Wally and all those other speedsters, then? (On that point, it may have been that Guggenheim was purposefully contradicting what Garrick said with the reality of the situation—that is, that he was still needed, since obviously Barry and Wally and Jesse Quick and Kid Flash and Impulse II didn't show up to the fight but Garrick did, but it still doesn't explain why those characters didn't while also cueing the reader to think about it).

Essentially Guggenheim repeatedly reminds us that this is a world full of superheroes and, for some reason, none of 'em much care about Monument Point and/or the fate of a half-dozen of their peers (Especially weird? Alan Scott is almost killed, and his superhero son Obsidian, his superhero daughter Jade and the four dudes calling themselves "Green Lantern" never show up to lend a hand...although Obsidian does come looking for revenge after the fact. Similarly, Lightning's dad is also superheroes, and her father even lives in the next town over, as is explicitly mentioned in a later chapter, but he never comes to help his daughter fight for her life...?)

A reader can rationalize these few heroes standing up against an unstoppable villain all by themselves for a while, but for seven-and-a-half hours? In all that time, no other superhero cares to stop by and lend a hand? In all that time, none of the assembled JSA members call for back-up? Bullshit.

In the next issue, Superman does finally arrive, at "7:30 AM EST, TODAY". Or, in other words, nine-and-a-half hours after a super-powered terrorist began attacking a major American city and attempting to kill the JSA.

"I was with the League actually," Superman tells Lightning, "Dealing with an incursion from Dimension-3181...I'm sorry I wasn't here to stop this." So that's something. Of course, it's an issue too late (that explanation would have come one month after reading this serially, as it was originally published), and only goes so far in explaining where all of the other superheroes in the world were. And "The League" was, of course, at that point not Every Other Superhero In The World, but just these guys:
So, like I said, bullshit.

After that first issue though, the weird politics and poorly formulated aspects of the plot (like, if that fight lasted one hour instead of seven-and-a-half, nothing would have changed saved how hard it was to swallow it really going down like that), it's not a half-bad read.


Oh, and this collection contains the story where in Alan Scott adopts his new Green Lantern costume, which is green and white instead of green and red and purple and gold, and makes him look like an actual green lantern with arms and legs and a head and a cape.
It's a super-goofy costume, but I like it. Alan Scott is technically made out of pure energy now, so the fact that he could have his neck broken at all is kind of impossible. The in-story rationalization is that Alan is using SO much willpower containing the power of the Starheart (explored in JLoA: Dark Things) that he doesn't have enough left over to convert his broken bones and damaged nerves into energy enough to repair 'em or whatever.

So the new costume, which looks kind stiff and has, like, a lantern handle connecting to his head, is apparently to keep his head and neck immobile. (Although I imagine the real reason is they just wanted to change his costume). Anyway, Alan Scott dies in the next storyline anyway, taking his new costume with him, and then DC rebooted the DC Universe so that he never existed at all anyway, but there's a guy named Alan Scott who is also Green Lantern in a neighboring parallel universe. And that guy's gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But I probably won't read about that for a few more months.


Unknown said...

That´s totally right. Ever since I was a child I have hated JLA because of logic. If Superman is Superman I don´t think it would be even the need for other superheroes except for the "year one" in which all of them meet, then I guess the DCU would become a complete utopia and the rest of the members would give Supes full power. :/

Anonymous said...

Your rant on modern-day JSA makes me uber-nostalgic for the All-Star Squadron. Tarantula & Firebrand duking it out over Starman's gravity rod atop the perisphere! The schizoid Dr. Fate delving into the Spectre to try & save him from his own mind! Amazing Man getting miffed at Hitler during the Olympics for refusing to shake a black man's hand! Earth-2 Robotman and his metallic mullet-tail!

I loved the constant calamity caused by so many characters. Almost every issue was chock-full of backstory & more about the disparate histories of the cast (and, by proxy, the vibrantly huge WWII DCU) than the villain-of-the-week... who was usually either the Ultra-Humanite or, y'know, Nabu. With almost zero hamhanded polemicizing! And the art was invariably rock-solid.