The title seems born of the tensions at the publisher to just keep on doing what they've been doing and a need to try to appeal to the readers of Marvel's various X-books and the blockbuster (but generally terrible) comics that upstart Image Comics produced in its earliest years.
And so the team line-up includes several stalwarts from the late 1980s/early 1990s Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League comics (Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Captain Atom) paired with newcomers Maxima (from Dan Jurgens' run on Justice League America, rather recently repackaged and republished in trade as Superman and Justice League America) and Amazing-Man, a new legacy version of All-Star Squadron character introduced in 1983.
It spins pretty directly out of the pages of the "Judgement Day" crossover (collected in Wonder Woman and Justice League America), with the Justice League splintered into three different teams, each appearing in a different title (Wonder Woman's team would occupy Justice League America, Martian Manhunter's Justice League Task Force and Captain Atom's the poorly-named Extreme Justice).
And yet there was that silly title, one that didn't really reflect the raison d'etre of the superhero team that writer Dan Vado had Captain Atom articulating; rather than being an in-your-face, proactive super-team as is so often attempted by the super-comics publishers, Atom wanted to return to the days of the pre-Satellite Era Justice League, when the team didn't require so much bureaucracy (although even the original Justice League and their precursors the JSA were never short of meetings and organization). It's perhaps worth noting that the name "Extreme Justice" never appears anywhere in the first five issues of the title, other than on the covers; if the heroes ever refer to their team, they use the name "Justice League."
And there's the artwork of pencil artist Marc Campos and inker Ken Branch, in which a reader can find any of the stereotypical sins attributed to 1990s super-comics artwork, from there only being two body types ("superhero" and "superheroine"); questionable anatomy; questionable point-of-view; backgrounds consisting of either empty space, rubble or explosions; screaming mouths filled with saliva; and, every once in a while, a panel like this, where even the questionable anatomy seems to have completely broken down in such a way it seems peculiar that DC Comics would have even published the image.
Anyway, as bad as the book looks, Dan Vado's script isn't actually that bad. I've definitely read worse Justice League stories with less excuses for being as bad as they were.
The reason I picked this up now—in addition to being mildly curious about the entire series, which I just read extremely sporadically back when it was being released, of course—was that this particular issue featured an Alan Scott back-up, and one of some significance. While Alan had previously been de-aged and given a new costume, and he had previously given up his ring and Green Lantern name, this story features the return of his powers and the first time he decided on his new superhero name: Sentinel.
In a theoretical Green Lantern: Sentinel trade collection that doesn't exist but I kinda wish did, this would appear somewhere between the Green Lantern Corps stories and 1998's Green Lantern/Sentinel: Heart of Darkness.
The story, written by R.A. Jones and drawn by Gene Gonzales and Wade Von Grawbadger, finds Alan, in full costume, and his wife Molly at a cemetery, presumably lingering long after the funeral for some of the original Justice Society members killed during Zero Hour: Dr. Mid-Nite, Hourman and The Atom. Alan tells Molly he's going to stay behind to brood a while longer, and once she leaves the dead heroes come to life and attempt to kill Alan, punishing him for being a coward and giving up superhero-ing while they went down fighting.
His power returns, he reburies them and questions whether it was a combination of his power and his own feelings of guilt that resurrected them, and then declares, "I'm starting a new life--reborn by the fires of The Starheart-- --and I will become its-- SENTINEL!", and that last word is all big and green and on fire, like a logo.
It ends with a three-panel sequence in which a sorcerer apparently named Torquemada talks to himself about how he conjured the JSA zombies and how he will need Alan's help against the evil one, and instead of "The End" it ends with "So it begins!"
I...have no idea where. Next issue doesn't feature an Alan Scott story, nor do I think he returns the rest of the year. If you know where it picks up, if it ever does, do be sure to let me know.
The lead Supergirl story is perhaps most notable for its artwork, by one Stuart Immonen, inked by Wade Von Grawbadger. Written by Charles Moore, it features a fairly generic sentient robot alien conqueror type coming to earth to get some rare minerals and stumbling upon Supergirl, whose body he would like to take over as his own. That is because this is one of the confusing Supergirls, the post-Byrne one who is like actually made of protoplasm and has a variety of powers that differ from Superman's (another confusing Supergirl, which is actually maybe the same one with some extra layers of confusing continuity added, appears in Superman 80-Page Giant #2, below).
It's an odd little story in which the hero encounters a boy who has a ray gun that dissolves clothing; he attacked a charity fashion show in order to see the models naked and, when Argus intervenes, he evaporates his costume, leaving the hero running away naked on the TV news. From there, he needs to find a new costume, which proves difficult to heroes who aren't secretly billionaires with costume-designing butlers, I guess.
I'm not really familiar with Argus, having never read the Flash Annual that introduced him—but I'd like to! I'd like to read al the Bloodlines annuals! Collect 'em for me, DC!—but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hester's art work here, a much earlier point than I had seen it for the first time previously (his run on Green Arrow). I'm a fan.
Co-written by Steel co-creator Jon Bogdanove and a Judith Kurzer Bogdanove, who I am assuming is his wife, and entitled "Crucible of Freedom," the premise is a perhaps interesting but awfully tricky one to tackle: What if John Henry Irons became steel not in modern day Metropolis, but in the American South in the 1860s? What if he was born a slave on cotton plantation?
It certainly makes for a satisfyingly melodramatic arc, as we see the protagonist and generations of his family subjected to the most terrible evil for pages and pages before Irons eventually dons his armor and liberates the plantation through force, now protected not only from whips but even bullets and cannon balls.
But it also makes for a rather rough read. This is certainly the first time—and perhaps the only time?—I've seen the N-word appear in a DC Comic. And then, of course, there's an awful lot of beatings, whippings and talk of the same, although in comics form they aren't quite as tough to watch as they might be in, say, a film, where you can hear the snap of a whip over and over.
Some of the harshest elements occur off-panel and in the reader's imagination—the villain blinds a black man with a sword for daring to meet his eyes, the evil overseer is murdered with a pitchfork, a wagon full of infants is drowned in a sudden downpour—but it's still awfully rough-going for a mainstream comic book.
In the Bogdanoves' story, John Henry is nursed alongside Arthur Forrest, the scion of the plantation. The two grow up playing as best friends, with Arthur sneaking books to John Henry and teaching him to read, but, as they grow older, they grow apart. Eventually Arthur blames John Henry for his being sent away to a school, and vows revenge; being spurned by a lady who then goes on to have sex with a slave doesn't help dispel his race hatred in the least.
Meanwhile, John Henry grows up to be not only smart, but huge and noble, willing to take the beatings meant for other, weaker slaves regularly. He's also the plantation's blacksmith, and, when the Civil War breaks out, Arthur, who has a life-long interest in tales of medieval chivalry, demands John Henry build him a suit of armor with which he can do battle.
John Henry reluctantly sets to work, coming up with a 19th century version of the familiar Steel armor, complete with a wrist-mounted Gatling gun, but it's sized to fit him, not Arthur. When the slaves rise up, he dons the armor, picks up his hammer and helps fend off the Confederate troops training on the plantation and ultimately confronts Arthur who, in true melodramatic villain fashion, ultimately kills himself while trying to destroy the hero who, of course, is too noble to take his life.
It's all rather compelling, although I was somewhat surprised to see the pencil artist who was given the assignment: Humberto Ramos, a manga-influenced artist who would soon become best-known for his work on Impulse. While the art, inked by seven different artists, is highly readable and flows perfectly fine, Ramos doesn't really imbue it with the gritty, realistic feel the story seems to call for, and his style is often at odds with the subject matter.
The climax, however, the part where the comic becomes a superhero comic again, is handled quite well.
In a neat bit of symmetry, the Bogdanoves link this version of John Henry Irons to the folk hero who inspired the "real" version of the character's name. The story ends with a splash page full of prose text, which includes the lines, "Still others believe...that it was he who, at the age of 65, challenged and beat the infamous 'inky-doo' spike-driving machine that threatened to replace human labor with machinery...striking a fabled last blow for human rights before he died!"
It is one of several possible futures that the text lays out, and, indeed, several of them are interesting enough to at least be suggestive of sequels that never came; would Steel join the forces of the Union in his remarkable armor, or supply them with weapons, and help topple the Confederacy?
I'm personally not crazy about the design of his armor, which, for some reason seems to be more golden than iron or steel. Perhaps it's meant to be made of copper, but the subtlety of metal variations was apparently too much for the coloring of 1994, and thus it looks yellow, which translates too easily to gold in a reader's mind. On the other hand, I suppose the color does contrast sharply with the armor of the normal, non-Elseworlds version of Steel's armor, making it immediately apparent with a glance at the cover that this is meant to be a different version of Steel.