Wednesday, February 10, 2021

A bit more on Justice League Unlimited: Hocus Pocus

Justice League Unlimited: Hocus Pocus is the third of DC Comics' recent collections to take its title and most of its content from the 2004-2008 series based on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon series. Each of the collections has been organized around a theme, rather than collecting issues in order, which works just as well, as Justice League Unlimited and its related titles all feature standalone, done-in-one stories that don't need to be read in order. 

The theme for this one is, obviously, magic, and thus each of its half-dozen stories—from Justice League Unlimited #11, #14, #25, #33, #37 and #40—deal with magic in some form or another. Sometimes the threat facing the assembled Leaguers is mystical in nature, sometimes the hero starring in the story is magical, oftentimes both. 

I wasn't a regular reader of the series when it was originally being published, only picking up a copy here or there when I was particularly interested in the characters being featured, and so most of this volume was completely new to me—I had only read issues #11 and #14 previously, because of my fondness for 1990s Aquaman, who the cartoon's version of mirrored,  and Zauriel, who appeared to make his "animated" debut in the latter issue, having never appeared on the TV show proper.

 While I reviewed the collection already at Good Comics For Kids, I wanted to spend a little more time picking at details here.

Justice League #11 (2005) by Adam Beechen, Carlo Barberi, Walden Wong and Heroic Age

1.) Excellent Atlantean world-building... The first issue finds a Justice League contingent consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, Steel and Stargirl visiting Aquaman in Atlantis to celebrate the annual Coronation Day festival. This is Stargirl's first time meeting Aquaman, and it doesn't go well, but fortunately the pair get to bond while stopping a giant monster from destroying Atlantis when it slips free of its magical bonds. Writer Adam Beechen frames the story as a letter being written from Stargirl to her stepdad/sometimes sidekick Pat "Stripesy" Duggan, aka STRIPE (He'll briefly appear in his robot battle suit in a later issue in this collection). 

In the opening sections, Beechen does some interesting world-building regarding Aquaman's kingdom. Atlanteans are all vegetarian, eating only kelp and seaweed, fish being "like those sacred cows in India." (Good! I always think it's super-weird when Aquaman is shown eating fish, as he is so often depicted being able to engage in back-and-forth conversation with them. Human beings have to do some weird acts of cognitive dissonance to get to the point where we've decided that some animals are food animals and some are companion animals, but imagine if we could, like, converse with pigs and cows. Something tells me they wouldn't end up on our plates.)

Light is provided by phosphorescent algae that they coat their buildings in.

As for the individual Atlanteans, they all have short hair (save Aquaman) so it doesn't get in their eyes underwater. Those eyes are large ( the script says but the art doesn't show) so that they can see better in the dim world of the ocean floor, and they are all extremely strong and heavy, the result of evolving to the ocean pressure (That last bit, at least, seems borrowed from Peter David's '90s run on Aquaman). 

2.)...Although it's still not good enough. It's all but impossible to make Atlantis seem like a realistic place...or, at least, I haven't seen a comic book, cartoon or movie achieve it yet. While Beechen admirably put some thought into various aspects of the Atlantis in this comic, the fact remains that it is basically depicted as the surface world, with just some bubbles and fish floating here and there.

Artist Barberi has various characters' hair floating a bit, but just as if there's a gentle wind, not as if they are underwater. The characters all stand, walk and even sit in chairs, rather than float or swim; I think the bit about how heavy Atlanteans was meant to explain why they are all shown standing around rather than floating in the water, but it doesn't explain why the visiting Leaguers walk around, nor does it explain how exactly a dinner party works in Atlantis, with Aquaman and his guests sitting in chairs around a table, upon which seaweed and kelp stay on plates, rather than floating above the plates...which float above the table...

I was also a little disappointed in the technology that Stargirl and company wear. In the third panel of the story, just as she and the other Leaguers step off the Javelin, she mentions "the little doodad that The Atom and Steel came up with that lets us breathe and communicate underwater." 

As you can see above, it just looks like a microphone headset. How it would help them communicate is obvious, but how exactly does it help them breathe? I'm obviously A-OK with the hand-waving explanation of "It's super-science, you wouldn't get it, Caleb," but I wish  Barberi would have gestured in the direction of something that looked more effective, like a clear mask that fit over their noses and mouths, for example. 

As for the make-up of the League visitors, they are basically there because they are powerful, and if the threat is big enough to take out Superman and Wonder Woman, than it's one that Aquaman and Stargirl must take very seriously. I think they are all pretty good choices for characters who could survive underwater easily, too (Steel's super-suit acting like a skin-tight submarine, of course), although in this regard Stargirl seems to be the odd one out. (She explains that her cosmic converter belt protects her from the pressure, although that wouldn't explain why she doesn't float on the sea floor, as she's obviously not as heavy as Steel or as dense as Superman and Wonder Woman). 

I suppose an easier solution would have been to have Doctor Fate or Green Lantern with them, and then Beechen could have used a magic spell or GL's power-ring as an explanation for how the Leaguers could breathe, talk and even walk underwater...

3.) As seen in Metal Men #48, the year before I was born! The particular threat is a giant, humanoid creature named Umbra, and as it's rising from the sea floor, Superman notes, "I've heard of this creature! The Metal Men stopped him once before when he nearly escaped!"

It's an oddly specific statement, specifically since the Metal Men don't appear in this issue...or this comics series...or in the cartoon the comic is based on (At least, not in my memory). I assumed that meant Beechen and Barberi borrowed this particular giant monster from an old Metal Men comic. A quick google reveals that Umbra is the name of a god that Eclipso was trying to revive in1976's  Metal Men #48, but he didn't make the cover, which is dominated by Eclipso and the title characters.  

A shout-out a decades-old story in a comic whose audience consists of kids and new readers might seem odd, but I actually prefer Beechen noting even in an oblique way that he didn't create the character. I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with how often some DC writers use other creators' characters or concepts in such a way that a reader can be lead to believe they are original. 

Justice League #14 (2005) by Adam Beechen, Carlo Barberi, Walden Wong and Heroic Age

4.) Wait, how many trenchcoats does it take to make a brigade...?
This issue actually isn't very good, and rather actively annoyed me in its presentation of Zauriel and Etrigan's equivocal speech at the end, but it is of great interest for several reasons. 

The one thing that Beechen did that I thought was really effective though was handling the exposition through a whispered conversation between Booster Gold and The Flash Wally West. The Leaguers would have a conversation regarding the conflict, and whenever they would mention something that needed explained—Deadman, Limbo, etc—Booster would repeat it in the form of a question, Flash would rattle off the necessary exposition, and Booster would reply, "Oh. Sure."

As for that conflict, The Demons Three have apparently taken over Limbo, bricking off the passages to Heaven and Hell (neither of which is named directly here), leaving the souls of purgatory stuck there. Deadman has possessed Wonder Woman—the event that dominates the cover, even if it's only a couple pages at the beginning of the issue—to ask the League for help. They agree by assembling the "Trenchcoat Brigade," which is another thing Booster asks Flash to explain. 

This is one of those interesting things I was talking about, as the Trenchcoat Brigade hail from the 1990 mature readers Books of Magic series, and would later appear in various Vertigo books. This informal alliance (their name being merely a joking reference made by John Constantine), consisted of Constantine, Dr. Occult, Mister E and The Phantom Stranger. 

The "brigade" that appears in this comic is short on trenchcoats...and original members. Doctor Occult and The Phantom Stranger are the only two who appear, and the Stranger is wearing his traditional formal wear and cape look, not the trenchcoat design he wore in his Vertigo appearances. This line-up is really closer to a Sentinels of Magic/Shadowpact/Justice Leaguer Dark kind of line-up, but I guess Beechen wanted to work in the very unlikely name drop, and so this trenchcoat-light brigade includes Doctor Occult, Doctor Fate, Zatanna, Etrigan The Demon, Zauriel and the Stranger. 

5.) The only reason I bought this single issue 16 years ago. I love the Zauriel character, his introduction to the League in the early issues of Grant Morrison, Howard Porter and John Dell's JLA remains one of my favorite Justice Leaguer stories and, indeed, favorite super-comics in general, and I think he has enormous unrealized potential (although I do think he works best as a team character rather than a solo character). 

So I bought this in part just to see the character again, who at that point had long been out of the pages of Justice League comics (he disappeared from the team along with much of the line-up when Morrison handed the baton to writer Mark Waid in 2000), and in part just to see what he might look like when put into the context of the Bruce Timm design-inspired universe of DC's animated universe. 

As  you can see, cover artist Kelsey Shannon's design for the character on the cover is inspired by his original look, as he's wearing what he was wearing upon arriving on Earth from heaven in JLA #6 and #7. Inside, he's dressed in his superhero "costume," the armor he acquired in the pages of 1998's JLA: Paradise Lost, the not-very-good miniseries that is notable for being written by one pre-Ultimate X-Men Mark Millar, who would go on to some fame and riches for writing many, many very popular, usually awful comics*. 

That armor was white and gold, and covered in various sigils. As you can see from the image above, for his appearances in the Justice League Unlimited comic, Barberi basically just scrubbed his suit of sigils and excess filigree, and gave it a very clean look. That is, I imagine, just how he would have appeared on the cartoon, had he done so: There was no way that all those fussy design elements would have translated to animation, nor seemed to fit in with the sleek and simplified look of all the other heroes' costumes. 

As for Etrigan, his was a familiar face in DC's animated universe, and his design was thus fairly well-established before this issue came out. Barberi retained his thick, short, stocky, ape-lie appearance, including the fact that he sometimes rests  with his knuckles on the ground. 

Justice League #25 (2006) by Adam Beechen, Rick Burchett and Heroic Age

6.) Scary stuff.
Maybe the best single issue in the collection is Justice League #25, in which Beechen is joined by Rick Burchett, whose figures are a bit slimmer looking than Barberi's wider, more muscular heroes (the above cover is by neither artist, however; Ty Templeton drew that).  

The script sure gives him a lot of cool stuff to draw, however.

The story is a pretty simple one starring Blue Devil. He's among a team of Leaguers helping address a burning building, and is hurt when his infernal appearance frightens a little boy. He has a long-ish talk with Doctor Fate about how his origin and how he wishes he wasn't so scary-looking, even if it meant relinquishing his powers, when the pair of them are summoned to address a bigger crisis: Doctor Destiny has used his dream powers to take over a city with an army of nightmares. 

The above page shows the heroes teleporting into a street filled with such monsters, and the next five pages feature Blue Devil trident-ing his way through swarms of similarly designed scary-but-not-too-scary-for-a-kids-comic monsters. It's a really bravura sequence, and one of those that, after reading, I felt like standing up and applauding the artist.

Justice League #33 (2007) By Jason Hall, Carlo Barberi, Bob Petrecca and Heroic Age

7.) The Crimson Avenger?!
According to his Wikipedia page, The Crimson Avenger appeared on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon repeatedly in brief, usually dialogue-less cameos, but I'll be honest, I don't remember seeing him in the show at all. That's why I was so surprised to see him turning up here, which makes this one of only two comics I can think of that I've read in which the original Crimson Avenger stars (the other was from a one-shot the title of which escapes me; but he receives a vision of Superman fighting Doomsday, in some weird-ass way to keep the Avenger's then in-continuity status as DC's first superhero but also, have Superman inspiring him; anyone remember what comic that was? It was either a Secret Files & Origins or an 80-Page Giant, I think). 

In this issue, written by Jason Hall, he and Stargirl are set-up as foils for one another, each complaining about the other in ways that seem particularly mean and, well, nasty, particularly on the part of Stargirl, since she's insulting an honest-to-God senior citizen (although the Avenger seems more like someone in his sixties than his nineties here). 

The issue is particularly cameo-heavy, with the two heroes working mostly with characters from the JSA—Sand, Hourman, Doctor Mid-Nite, Mister Terrific, Atomsmasher—to the extent that it seems like the JSA is another little league within the League. 

The version of the character on Ty Templeton's cover wears a tie, but the one in Barberi's interiors wears an ascot. He wields a pair of "pea-shooters out of some old black & white movie not  even worth colorizing," in Stargirl's words,  but rather than a pair of pistols, Barberi draws his guns as some sort of high-tech blasters, and the few times we see them being used, they seem to shoot some kind of laser beams rather than bullets, although that could just be the way in which they are rendered and colored (their sound effect is "BLAM! BLAM!", which is the sort of sound one would expect from a standard gun).

The two characters interrupt a spell that Morgaine Le Fey is attempting to restore her son's eternal youth, when something goes wrong, and...

8.) Freaky Friday Wednesday. 
...they swap bodies, Freaky Friday-style! There are some amusing moments to this, of course, the first of which is when they try to figure out how to wear one's regular clothes, but a pretty uncomfortable question comes up immediately, given that unlike Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster (or Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan), they are members of the opposite sex. 

So, um, how does the Crimson Avenger go a week or so without seeing teenage Stargirl's naked body, given that we see them change clothes repeatedly? I...don't know, but I was surprised to see Hall mention the dilemma pretty directly in one scene, when Avenger-in-Stargirl's body is shown wearing a cheerleading outfit in a girls locker room with a few other cheerleaders, covering her eyes and saying, "Uh... I'll just change at home,:

This, of course, elides the fact that Avenger-in-Stargirl's body must have changed into that cheerleading outfit herself.

As one might expect, both characters learn a lesson from their experience, and are much nicer to one another at the end, with Avenger offering to buy Stargirl a malted and her asking him if that's anything like a frappuccino. 

Justice League Unlimited #37 (2007) by Matt Wayne, Min S. Ku, Jeff Albrecht and Heroic Age

9.) Ha ha, classic Spectre! The next issue features a familiar-ish story line: The Spectre Force has been separated from its host/conscience, John Corrigan, and is on a rampage, seeking to lethally punish all the criminals it can. 

On the opening splash page, he's gigantic, and is leading over the prison wall at Balckgate, grabbing handfuls of convicts to wreak vengeance upon.

Writer Matt Wayne and pencil artist Min S. Ku have The Spectre going old school on his victims, which turns out to be a good way to murder people in a kid's comic, given its cartoonishness: He transforms them into fish, and starts fishing for them with a fishing rod. 

When League heavy-hitters Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter and Superman attack, he makes short work of them, turning Superman into glass and shattering his jaw ("A 'glass jaw' indeed, Superman") and the other two into candles. He then picks up one of the convicts-turned-fish when a crackling frying pan appears in his other hand. 

Deadman, Batman, Hawkgirl, Doctor Fate and Rama Kushna eventually save the day, reuniting The Spectre with Corrigan—just as he has turned another bunch of convicts into balloons and made a pin appear in his other hand—and undoing all his damage. 

This is my favorite way to depict The Spectre and his acts of vengeance, as semi-cartoony, sometimes ironic bits of weirdo body horror. 

Justice League Unlimited #40 (2008) by Ben McCool, Dario Brizuela and Heroic Age

10.) It's a tuxedo or nothing, in my book. The final issue in the collection rather randomly features Green Lantern Alan Scott among a group of Justice Leaguers that Doctor Fate, Zatanna and Flash call in to help him deal with some strange thefts of shadows in Central City. The most likely suspect for thievery involving shadows is, of course, Shadow Thief, but he has a new, magical partner: The Warlock of Ys. At this point, the comic becomes a kinda sorta re-telling of the first Zatanna story from the late 1960s, but what really struck me was how shabbily Zatara is dressed. 

Rather than a sharp tuxedo, he appeared to be dressed a bit more like a ringmaster. In addition to a top hat, ascot and coat, he had a checkered vest, and what look like baggy brown khakis in his first appearance. When he appears later, his pants are the same color as his coat at least, but still, he doesn't look nearly fancy enough for my tastes. 

*While his Paradise Lost wasn't that good, and a disappointment to Young Caleb, who was a fan of many of DC's previous comics featuring angelic and demonic characters and, of course, of JLA and Zauriel, I think Millar's best comics work seems to be his earliest work for DC, although his earliest Marvel work also had a great deal of promise, and some great ideas here and there (enough that they built the Marvel Cinematic Universe on bits of foundation he laid). The more popular Millar got, though, the worse his comics got. I suspect there are a couple of obvious factors at play here, but I think one is that Millar is a writer who needs an editor, and preferably one who can push back against some of his worst impulses and help reign them in if it better serves the characters or story to do so. "Reigning in" isn't exactly Millar's strong point, after all.

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