Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: Justice League International Vol. 1: The Signal Men

Let's have a quick review of the history of Justice League International before discussing JLI Vol. 1: The Signal Men, the trade paperback collecting the first six issues of the new "New 52" JLI title.

"Justice League International" was the name adopted by the Justice League in very early on in writer Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis' post-Crisis On Infinite Earth revamp of the team, in which they transformed a group of DC's B- and C-List cast (plus Batman) into a popular run of multiple titles, one that lasted a good five years before the pair left and other writers, like Dan Jurgens came aboard. This era of the League, which prominently featured characters like Booster Gold, Fire and Ice and Guy Gardner, lasted up until Grant Morrison, Howard Porter and John Dell's JLA launched in 1997.

Many of the characters bounced around, rarely used, until about 2005 or so, when Blue Beetle, Max Lord and Booster Gold became prominent players in the DC Universe's melodrama in event stories like Infinite Crisis and 52 and their many tie-ins and spin-offs. Guy Gardner and Booster Gold ultimately fared best, with the former becoming a player in Geoff Johns' Green Lantern franchise and the latter getting his own monthly book for the first time since the 1980s.

In 2010, DC launched a year-long bi-weekly series entitled Justice League: Generation Lost that re-teamed many of the JLI characters—Booster, Fire, Ice, Captain Atom and legacy versions of Blue Beetle and Rocket Red—and set them in opposition to their friend-gone-bad Max Lord. When the series reached its conclusion, it did so with a promise of an ongoing JLI book, and the groundwork was certainly carefully and thoroughly laid for one: You don't get a much bigger prologue than a 26-issue one.

The title, like a few other projects announced around the time, didn't appear immediately (Think of the long-promised but mysteriously delayed Batwoman ongoing, or the Tomasi/Gleason run on Batman and Robin, or the long-rumored James Robinson-written Justice Society title). Once DC announced it's "New 52" initiative, it became clear what the hold-up was: Sometime after someone decided to launch a JLI ongoing spinning-out of Generation Lost, someone else decided to reboot the entire line of comics, and it made more sense to hold off on a JLI book until it could be launched along with 51 other books as part of "The New 52."

And thus in September 2011, Justice League International #1 saw print, with writer Dan Jurgens and pencil artist Aaron Lopresti attached.

Of all the New 52 titles I've sampled so far, this one seems the most confused in terms of its mission statement. Six of the nine characters were prominent ones in the late-80s/early-90s iteration of the League and Jurgens created and wrote and drew Booster Gold in 1986, and returned to the character in a 2007-2011 series. Jurgens also wrote and drew much of this cast during an early '90s run on Justice League.

If the goal was a fresh new take on the character and/or concept in order to attract and sustain attention and the new readers that attention would hopefully bring, Jurgens was an odd choice for this particular book. (That said, popular creators of the 1990s seemed a popular place for DC's New 52-involved editors to seek talent, as the presence of Scott Lobdell, Rob Liefeld, Fabian Nicieza and Ron Marz indicated—hey, at least two of those dudes are no longer working on any DC books, 15 months later. Huh).

Then there's Jurgens' approach to the plot and his approach to the characters. The former is completely generic.

This is a superhero comic that could just have easily been written in the 1970s, or 1980s, or 1990s as it could at any point in the last twelve years—all it's missing is thought bubbles, Hostess ads and a more reasonable cover price. This one guy who works for the UN wants the UN to have its own Justice League, answerable to it, unlike the other Justice League, which wouldn't really join the New 52U until it's seventh issue (Remember, Justice League writer Geoff Johns started his run on that title with a six-part origin story set five years in the past; JL wouldn't catch up to the status quo of JLI #1 for months).

Because this U.N.-sanctioned superhero team is a U.N. thing (and how many times have you read a comic about a superhero team dealing with the U.N....six? Twelve? Twelve dozen?), its members are supposed to be from different nations. It takes the guy and three U.N. people four pages to select their team: America's Booster Gold, Brazil's Fire, Norway's Ice, Russia's Red Rocket Gavril Ivanovich (introduced in Generation Lost), Britain's Godiva (a minor character whose origins, like those of Fire and Ice, date back to late-seventies Super Friends and who was a part of The Global Guardians that played into Giffen/DeMatteis' JL run), fictional African nation Zambesi's Vixen and China's August General In Iron (one of the Grant Morrison-created Great Ten hero-team). They would also seek out Guy Gardner, who is reluctant to join but eventually concedes. Batman, a member of the "real" Justice League, invites himself.
(Interesting thing about the splash page that begins the comic? In addition to many characters who were appearing in various New 52 books, it also introduced the New 52 versions of Plastic Man, Congorilla, The Creeper, Metamorpho and B'wanna Beast, none of whom seem redesigned in the least.)

The conflict is this. After the team is hastily assembled and Booster Gold appointed leader (because he understands PR, and the JLI is mainly a PR effort), they go looking for a missing research team and find a giant robot that looks like a mildly tweaked version of Jurgen's Armageddon 2001 villain Monarch.
Several more of these robots appear, and they summon a big, tough alien guy that looks like a minor Jack Kirby creation from a throwaway Fantastic Four story arc.
His name is Peraxxus (the second X is silent, I assume) and his plan is to destroy the earth and strip-mine the rubble for valuable minerals he can sell to other aliens: He's basically a cosmic miner, which may explain why his weapon resembles a pick-axe. The JLI split up into teams, investigate the sites of the various giant robots, fight what look a bit like Moleoids, and then fly into space to beat-up Peraxxus. The "real" Justice League is never heard from, despite the fact that the world is ending and one-seventh of the team is standing right next to Booster Gold and the B-team the whole time.

It's just basic superhero comics, with nothing to separate it from any other superhero comic. It's not DC or Jurgens putting their best foot forward. It's just a foot.

As for the characterization, Jurgens goes about it quite strangely. Essentially all of the characters and their relationships remain identical to their pre-New 52 incarnations.

Fire and Ice are still besties (although, for all we know, they just met). No one takes Booster Gold seriously, despite the fact that Batman sees in him something no one else does (Although Batman hasn't teamed up with him extensively as he has in stories from 2006-2010 or so, and he hasn't seen Booster save all of creation*). Guy Gardner and Booster Gold don't get along (although they haven't served on Justice Leagues for years and years; rather, there's an offhand comment about a coupla team-ups). Despite his rough and gruff manner, Guy has a soft spot for Ice, and is in love with her, though the feeling isn't quite mutual (although they haven't served on Justice Leagues for years and years either, nor have they ever been in a relationship; "We had a few dates, Guy," she says. "Don't make more of it than it was").

So basically DC erased all of these characters' past, shared experiences that readers have familiar with, the decades-long history between fans and characters, but continued to present them in the exact same way, replacing that back-story with vague, barely alluded to off-panel events.

I realize that the book is simply trying to square with the approach adopted by the broader DC Universe, but, if that is indeed the case, then perhaps Jurgens could have gone to the trouble of actually reinventing or at least reintroducing these characters? Maybe show us Guy and Ice meeting for the first time, or why Booster and Guy don't get along, or why everyone thinks Booster is a doofus an not a real leader, instead of just telling us that stuff...?

Lopresti's artwork is fine; this book has almost the opposite problem of Demon Knights, as here the art is crisp, clear and easy to read, whereas it's the script that's the problem. It's read-able, obviously, as Jurgens is a pro who has been at this for years, but it's so deeply flawed in conception that it barely matters that it's executed okay.

Take, for example, pages five and seven. The last panel of page 5 shows The Guy and The Woman Who Exists For Him To Have Someone To Talk To walk out of a building to find a crowd chanting, "THIS IS A PUBLIC BUILDING! YOU CAN'T HAVE IT!"
After a one-page digression to a research team disappearing, page seven reveals that the building they are talking about is...The Hall of Justice? What the fuck?

You know the Hall of Justice, right? From the Super Friends cartoon? Brad Meltzer introduced it into the DCU during his excrutiatingly long single story-arc for Justice League of America as the new headquarters of the JLoA.

That was last continuity, though. This is the Hall's very first appearance in the New 52U (I don't rightly know if the New 52 Justice League ever even occupied it; as I said, it would be six more months before Justice League caught up to JLI #1, and I thought the new, five-year-old League had a satellite headquarters.

The crowd sees the building, whatever it is, as special for some reason, a public building that a U.N.-sanctioned sueprhero team should not be allowed to occupy.

Some in the crowd feel so strongly that the building belongs to "the people" that two of them are plotting something. "We came here cuz the U.N. took over the Hall of Justice," a generic-looking white protester tells a generic-looking black protester (they have to look generic so we don't think they are Tea Party members or part of a rightwing fringe group that is afraid the U.N. is going to take over America, otherwise some of DC's readers might get offended, you see. If these guys symbolize anything it's, um, all of DC's readers? "Ignore them," The Guy tells Booster, "They're nothing but a bunch of basement dwellers who spend all day whining on the 'net." And, um, going outside to publicly demonstrate, obviously) .

"It's ours.," the white guy continues, "A symbol! If the people can't have it, no one should."

"Heroes followin' the U.N.'s marching orders?" the black guy says, clenching his fist. "Bunch of sell-outs!"

That night, they return with a bomb and blow up the Hall of Justice.

I honestly have no idea what the fuck this sub-plot is about, as I have no idea what the Hall of Justice is supposed to be in this story. I mean, I know what it is on Super Friends and what it might have been in the old DCU, but in the new one...? I guess it's maybe a monument of some sort, like the Statue of Liberty, or The Lincoln Memorial, and it just happens to look and have the same name as Super Friends HQ for some reason...?

I don't get it. But then, I don't get anything about this title.

Surely some of the New 52 books must be some good, right? So far the only ones I've read and liked have been the ones that mostly ignored the reboot (Green Lantern and Batman comics) or to be so divorced from the DCU they could just as easily be old DUC, New 52 or Elseworlds books (Wonder Woman).

Any suggestions for what to try next...? People seem to like The Flash and the cowboy book, right...?

*Oh, and apparently Booster Gold has seen the Batcave...?
Batman has only been operating for five years now, the GCPD hardly trust him, and he's already let Booster Gold inside the Batcave...?


Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I enjoy more of the "Second Wave" titles, having dropped everything but the Morrison books and Supergirl (one of the only consistent reads of the nu52, I'm enjoying DIAL H, EARTH2, WORLD'S FINEST, and I'll certainly be reading the JSA book.

Aki Alaraatikka said...

Flash. Even if only for the art. The story`s not bad either.

SallyP said...

Well, Booster does get around.

But yes, this book was flawed. And still...I liked it because it was the ONLY place that I could read about characters that I love. Fire, Ice,Godiva and Vixen have all vanished after this ended, and so did Booster, they killed Gavril and with the exception of Guy, nobody else has been seen since.

Which stinks.