Sunday, November 28, 2021

On 2002 Elseworlds series JLA: Destiny

1.) I'm not entirely sure how I missed it, but I blame the covers. JLA:Destiny was a four-issue, prestige-format Elseworlds Justice League comic by writer John Arcudi and artist Tom Mandrake that was published in 2002. I did not read it, nor do I remember even being aware of it, back then.

I find this odd for a few reasons.

First, in 2002 I was living in Columbus and visiting The Laughing Ogre religiously each Wednesday, where I looked over the new rack in its entirety, even though I generally already knew what I wanted that would be out on any given week, given the fact that I made a habit of reading the solicitations when they were released each month. I also read Previews on a weekly basis and the comics news sites on a daily basis, and this was when those sites were almost entirely focused on comics to the exclusion of all the other forms of entertainment that now confuse their coverage.

Second, I was a JLA fan. While I didn't read every Elseworlds special with the team's name in the title, I generally at least took notice of any JLA comics' existence. For frame of reference, 2002 was when Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke took over the title from Mark Waid, so while the title was far-ish away from its heights under Grant Morrison, Howard Porter and company, it was still a good two years away from becoming an anthology title, during which time each and every arc read a little like an Elseworlds story, they were all so unmoored from continuity.

Third, I was a Tom Mandrake fan. As I mentioned in the previous post, I had admired Mandrake's art ever since I first encountered it in a 1990 issue of  DC/TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and my esteem for him had only grown after reading he and John Ostrander's excellent The Spectre and, even more in my wheelhouse, JLA spin-off Martian Manhunter, which this series almost immediately followed. 

So a Tom Mandrake-drawn JLA series certainly seems like something I would have wanted to read in 2002 but, like I said, I don't remember even noticing it at the time. 

What can account for this? I don't know, but I'm going to blame the covers. 

That of the first issue is above, here are those for the rest of the series:

As you can see, there is a pretty uniform sense of design to them all: A close-up image of a character's face in a heavily shadowed, background-less space, with an extremely limited color palette. They are striking images, and would have, one imagines, stood out sharply from many of the other superhero comics they would have been sharing shelf space with on the weeks of their release. 

What they don't look like, at all, of course, are JLA covers. None features more than a single character on them, which means one can't tell by looking at them that they are essentially about a team of superheroes, and none save the last features a member of a familiar version of the Justice League, although, because of how stylized the image is, you might not even recognize that as a close-up of Green Lantern Guy Gardner, his ring lighting the Black Mercy flower attached to his chest.

I like each cover well enough individually, but it's not hard to see how poorly they convey the fact that they are JLA comics. If they ever collect the series, and I find it unlikely that they will unless it appears in an Elseworlds: Justice League collection,  one hopes they'll commission a new cover showing either the book's Justice League posing, or engaged in battle with the other team of super-people they spend most of the book fighting.  

2.) There are basically two kinds of Elseworlds stories, and this one is something of a blend of both. The best Elseworlds comics tend to change one thing in a familiar story, and then follow that line of thinking to wherever it leads, crafting a compelling story in the process. This might be, for example, that the rocket that sent Kal-El to Earth was found not by Jon and Martha Kent, but instead by Thomas and Martha Wayne, or that Bruce Wayne was chosen to be Earth's Green Lantern instead of Hal Jordan. Often times it may be a simple change of setting, putting Batman in, say, cowboy times or on a pirate ship, for example.

The other kind generally just scramble things at random; they may still have a premise that boils down into a pithy pitch, but the many changes to the milieu and the characters have more to do with the general preferences of the creators than the nature of the Elseworlds story. These can be fun, even great, but are also sometimes confused, and their quality relies much more on their execution than on the strength of the concept. (Think, for example, Kingdom Come, or the Dark Knight sequels, or Sean Murphy's Batman comics).

There's an easily articulatable, "What If...?" style premise behind Destiny, and its the one that appears on the back cover. The first two lines seem to be the starting point for the plotline, but here's the whole thing: 
A world without Superman. 

A world without Batman.

A world where their absence has had as great an impact as their existences has had in this reality.

A world where the super-criminals are less afraid, more confident, better organized, and more focused.

A contentious, frightening world, where global terrorism masquerades as super-politics.

A world that desperately needs a Justice League of its own.

Or does it? 
Some of what makes the setting of Destiny unique follows from that removal of Superman and Batman from the DC Universe, but much of it just seems scrambled at random. 

For example, Arcudi first has to remove them from the proceedings. This he does by having Jor-El testing the escape rocket himself when Krypton explodes, and, with his wife and infant son thus killed, he takes it to Earth himself. And as for getting rid of Batman, here the mugger murders Martha and Bruce, but Thomas Wayne survives.

Superman and Batman's dads have a great deal of influence over the world of superheroes and the story told in Destiny, but how does the world change without Superman and Batman?

Some characters are completely unchanged, like Wonder Woman and The Flash Wally West (although they dress differently). Some changes follow, like, perhaps, that the alien J'onn J'onnz decides to pose as a human superhero rather than coming out as an alien, perhaps because he doesn't have the example of the alien Superman to follow. Others don't, like Aquaman being a heroin addict working for a foreign leader against the interests of the U.S. 

Much of the state of this world seems to be the way that it is because that's the way Arcudi wants it, though. There is a swathe of minor Golden Age character reintroduced as modern age characters, which I can't really see Superman or Batman having otherwise somehow prevented, and something of a divide between the super-powered and the non-powered  heroes but, again, it's somewhat foggy as to how that follows the absence of the World's Finest. 

3.) There are some pretty interesting characters chosen to appear in this story.
These include new versions of Midnight, a Golden Age Spirit pastiche created by Jack Cole, reimagined as a paramilitary type with, at least in flashback, a costume that seems to blend those of Batman and Judge Dredd and to have an "M" and skull motif (that's him on the cover of the first issue, and to the right of the above image); The Clock, who Wikipedia says is the first masked crime-fighter to appear in American comics, but here somewhat resembles Deadshot; Mr. Scarlet, the Golden Age Fawcett hero reimagined as a monstrous-looking magician of some sort; Manhunter, the Paul Kirk version in the costume familiar from the Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson comic; Nightshade, the Silver Age Charlton character, here a retired vigilante plagued with apocalyptic visions of the future; Widow, a black warrior woman wearing a fishnet and W-theme, with a huge-ass axe; The Human Bomb, the Golden Age Freedom Fighter who here uses his ability to detonate himself as an incredibly effective terrorist targeting the United States; and Captain Thunder, a black version of Captain Marvel.

Many of these are extremely minor character who have little or nothing to do with the proceedings of the comic itself, but simply fill up the ranks of the super-teams involved. Some don't even have lines, or appear only in brief flashbacks. Still, it's noteworthy to see any attempt at using, say, Midnight or The Clock, who are otherwise mostly just waiting around in the dustier corners of DC's character catalog, waiting for some writer somewhere to remember them. 

4.) This is the story. After his wife and young son are killed in a mugging gone wrong, Thomas Wayne devotes his wealth to the creation of The Justice League of Gotham, which here consists Midnight, The Clock, Nightshade, Mr. Scarlet and Manhunter. After they all but eradicate all crime in Gotham, Wayne realizes the world might benefit from such a team, and he thus creates the Justice League of America which, in the present, includes Midnight, Widow, Marksman, Captain Thunder, Wonder Woman, Triumph, The Flash and The Unknown (the last of whom isn't around long; he seems to bear more in common with The Spectre than Neon The Unknown, but lacks the former's omnipotent powers).

This Justice League is most concerned with the constant attacks by launched from the rogue Middle Eastern state of Kamburu, and it's mysterious shadow leader Khouriga Edjem. In addition to The Human Bomb, Edjem's agents include super-people Black Adam (here a robot built by Dr. Sivana, as is mentioned in passing), Kondor, Aqualord, Wildfire and the vaguely Norse mythological figures, the  Thor-like Thane and a pair of trolls. 

The League has an edge in their battles against this anti-league from former Nightshade's psychically-derived intel, which warns them ahead of time of various attacks. 

Meanwhile, "Lex Luthor", seen in his older, fatter version and here sporting a white beard, giving him a Santa-like appearance, apparently had some sort of change of heart during a terrible accident that badly scarred him. No longer the amoral weapons-developer he once was, he devotes his time and genius to creating inventions of benefit to all mankind....and has his work funded by Wayne. As it turns out, he is not the real Luthor at all, but Jor-El, who gave the real Luthor access to his rocket and knowledge of space travel to get rid of him, and took his place on Earth.

It is this move that inadvertently created "Edjem," however, as the space conqueror Mongul encountered Luthor in space, and then targeted his home world, where he attempted to take over in a, for him, new and novel way, transforming a poor, desert country into a paradise of sort, and then engaging in geo-politics and international terrorism as part of a long-term plan to conquer the world. Wheat harvests are involved, as is the goddam Black Mercy, an Alan Moore invention that DC writer simply can't stop revisiting. 

There are multiple superhero fights and a few out-of-left field revelations, but ultimately Edjem/Mongul is defeated, and Jor-El takes him off into space, to apply super-capital punishment. 

It's fine, but I found myself far more interested in seeing panel-time given to the minor characters than to the pursuits of Batman and Superman's dads. I think Destiny's greatest point of interest today is probably as an early attempt to reckon with real-world terrorism like that of 9/11 in a superhero universe. 

5.) Some of the costume designs are kind of neat. 
I already mentioned the Midnight redesign and that of The Clock and Widow, the latter of whom Wikipedia insists is a new version of the Golden Age character Spider Widow, a Quality Comics character that technically belongs to DC now (That's her above, on the right).
Wonder Woman's costume is of note in that it presages later redesigns for the character. She wears the same red and gold bustier with a W-shape that she usually does, but rather than star-spangled shorts or panties she sports a black pair of tights. She also has long black sleeves under her wristbands, so that it looks like she's wearing a black body-suit under her bustier. 

With the long sleeves, it rather resembles the costume worn by current Wonder Girl Yara Flor in some respects, and it also pre-figured Wonder Woman's brief, New 52 flirtation with black pants. 

For some reason, she doesn't have her lasso in the story. 
The Flash is generally drawn in movement, so that more often than not he appears on the page as multiple images flowing into one another, the character having an almost liquid quality. It's interesting that Mandrake gives Wally his own Flash costume, rather than having him inherit Barry's. Rather than a cowl covering his head, his hair is exposed, and he has a Cyclops-like visor.
I like Captain Thunder's costume okay. It's not as strong as the original Captain Marvel costume, a classic it's hard to compete against, but it's less busy and complicated-looking than the current Captain Marvel Shazam costume. 
I also rather liked Green Lantern's costume, which has a Frank Miller-like quality to it, in how stripped-down to the essentials it is. It's basically just a black body stocking with a huge Green Lantern symbol on it. That's The Clock next to him above, by the way.


Max Cage said...

Good read, thank you!

Michael said...

I really liked this when I read it waaaay back when it came out