JLA 1

Way back on August 31st 2011, DC Comics published two comics that would change their brand forever: Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1. This was the beginning of the New 52, and, though there is a strong argument to be made that much has been mishandled and much has been lost in the change, it’s hard to not see Justice League #1 as the dawning of a new era. Almost a year and a half later, we now look at Geoff Johns’ new title, Justice League of America.

Exploiting the tension between the clearly international nature of the world’s greatest heroes and their patriotic past, JLA follows a new team of heroes established by the U.S. government. Republicans, rejoice; the premier superhero team is finally competing in the free market (and will likely be better than their government sponsored counterpart). Set up by Amanda “the column” Waller, this Justice League will exist as an answer to the proliferation of meta-human threats and the possibility of the Justice League turning against America’s best interests.

I haven’t been fully on board with Johns’ flagship title but I stuck it out through the first eight issues, returning for the Sword of Atlantis cross-over. In that time I was sorely disappointed. Johns is an interesting figure in comic book history. One of his first published works in a DC comic book wasn’t a story but rather a letter to the editor suggesting that Superboy, Kon-El should be cloned half from Superman and half from Lex Luthor. Fast forward several years and you’ll find that Johns came to many people’s attention when he was allowed to headline Teen Titans volume 3, a book that returned Kon-El to the spotlight. Despite his presence in the sleeper hit, Young Justice, Johns reinvented Conner, giving him a new look, a new attitude (or lack thereof, depending on your view), and; unsurprisingly; a new backstory that would stick with him, becoming the central theme of Johns’ stint with the character in Adventure Comics.

Geoff Johns is, in my mind, the prime example of an interesting trend in modern comics: the ascended fan. Johns has a quality of fan fiction about him, I mean, his rise to fame is largely based on the idea of other color lanterns, and, as a child of the early nineties, I can tell you with certainty that that is not an idea of astonishing originality. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that Johns gets results. He writes engaging, satisfying stories, and while he may not always be the smartest writer on the shelf, he understands the fan mentality and knows what we want, deep down.

That’s why it was so frustrating to read Justice League. Removing the closeness and history that has often been such a crucial element of Justice League stories, Johns proceeded to write a mindless, charmless origin for the League, clashing against the new continuity at every turn, even, apparently, his own! (I’m still waiting for an explanation of how Hal Jordan was managing to be the JL’s Green Lantern with all that was going on in his ongoing.)

The most interesting element of the ‘modern day’ JL stories, was the struggle of Colonel Steve Trevor. Wisely, Johns uses this as a grounding point for the JLA series. Trevor is a likeable, relatable character with his own problems and thoughts. He’s not a work of literary genius, but he’s not a cipher by any means. This presents us with a lead to follow, even though the team is not much of a team yet.

Trevor’s faith in the true Justice League mirrors the likely feelings of the reader but his realistic decent into acceptance eases us into the concept, not ignoring but savoring its flaws.

Structurally, the book is kind of a mess. Despite the clear framing device of Steve and Amanda’s bickering, the vignettes of the various team members makes this feel more like a prologue than a first issue. Some of them are distinctly better than others but they do their job and they do give us a whole lot of information.

Hawkman’s section gets across the bare bones of the character, but it doesn’t make me terribly excited about his involvement. Though Johns, a fan of the character (he’d have to be to have sorted out all of his history), and hides it beneath a rather clever use of the character’s foggy past, this Hawkman is a violent, morally questionable brute. Though he’s always leaned that way a bit, it would have been nice to see Johns play with his expertise as an archeologist or his conservative inclinations. I’m still hopeful that we’ll get some good stories out of his interactions with Green Arrow.

Katana gets a decent introduction. Those unfamiliar with her character, or at least the New 52 incarnation, will come away with enough information to follow along. My personal worry is that there’s not enough there to support an ongoing and her JLA appearances, I mean, how much mileage can you get out of American samurai-yakuza drama, we have Kill Bill for that.

Vibe probably comes out of this issue the most improved in my mind. The origin and nature of his powers is cleverly reworked into the new continuity and we manage to get a look at him in action, as well as his supporting cast. If Johns was looking to build excitement for Justice League of America’s Vibe #1, the poorly but obligatorily named ongoing for the character, he’s doing as good a job as could be expected. More important than anything else, Vibe’s segment shows us that he can be the heart of this team. An eighteen year old Latino kid with a close family and interesting powers who’s actually a really good guy, Vibe is just what the New 52 has been missing. (Also, Dante Ramon is a sexy name).

Johns also takes this opportunity to return to writing Stargirl, a personal favorite of his. While I haven’t read his work on JSA or Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., it seems like Johns is taking a different approach with the character. Given how close she is to him, I take this as a good thing. Like Vibe, she seems a good change from the grittier heroes on the team, and she too comes with some natural storytelling potential, or at least this snippet leads me to believe so.

A controversial member, and another with an underperforming series, Catwoman seems, surprisingly enough, in better hands under Johns’ pen. While her sex appeal is clearly a factor there’s no sex on the roof moments. The classic Catwoman virtues of fun and independence are strongly hinted at and Johns does an impressive job of rendering her banter. It’s far from perfect but good news for Selina is good news for me.

While Green Lantern and Green Arrow basically get references to Johns’ previous work with them, he does give us one interesting scene with the Martian Manhunter. Though I haven’t kept up with Stormwatch, I’ve appreciated the effort to put J’onn in his rightful place among the heavy hitters of the Justice League that have been evident since Blackest Night and into the New 52. Still, this is hardly “the heart of the Justice League”. It’s my sincere hope that this ‘badass’ phase is just that because when you’ve got the powers of Batman, Superman, Plastic Man, and Professor X. you don’t need to act badass; you are badass.

There’s little more to this issue than that and a hint of the threat to come. Johns has made his rep on reinventing things people have written off as too ridiculous for the modern age and it seems that he’s back to that well with a vengeance. Without feeling for a moment campy, he introduces Katar Hol of Thanagar, a woman who talks to a sword, and a Justice League of America at war with some old school villains. The flip side of that coin is that, like much of the New 52, it’s almost oppressively moody and dark.

Johns has always been part of that group of writers who seemed upset by the Iron Age excesses of the 90s, seeking to return to the glory days of Sprang and Schwartz. It’s unsurprising that he casts Steve Trevor as a man fighting against Amanda Waller’s relentless ‘pragmatism’. Don’t expect me to be shocked if Waller’s turns out to be a strawman argument that needs to be defeated in order for this team to thrive or the ‘real’ Justice League defeats them. That gives me hope that this won’t be all gritty and depressing, but if Johns doesn’t make a change quickly this book could easily become a fine example of the things he’s often rebelled against.

David Finch, familiar to readers of this blog from his work on Detective Comics, turns in a rather impressive debut here. At least on this issue, his strength is clearly storytelling. The Catwoman sequence, in particular, jumps out at me in this regard. Throughout the book, Finch shows that he can direct attention where it needs to go and create moments of simulated motion without slowing to a halt. He’s also quite adept at rendering faces, making Steve and Amanda’s argument visually interesting and distinct from panel to panel.

Finch also manages to do justice to the numerous settings and tones contained within the issue, opening the book with a shadowy noir-esque atmosphere, bending his style slightly to ease readers of Katana’s ongoing into this story, and giving Stargirl a brighter; more bubbly look.

That said, these subtle adjustments don’t change the fact that the book lives in a world of dull greys and off-whites. That’s not necessarily Finch’s fault but he and Johns played a part in it. Finch also has some decidedly weak panels, often clustered together. One page includes a row of faces, each of which looks at least slightly off.

Finch also shares his colleges’ issues with drawing women. While Sonia Obeck and Jeromy Cox, the colorists and, likely, editorial had their parts to play, the first large panel of Catwoman is simply not up to snuff. A ridiculous arrangement of an excellent costume, grey skin, over definition of Selina’s ‘cat’ features, and frankly enormous legs do not make for the best introduction to a character. It’s clear that Finch is capable of drawing women in a stronger fashion; Selina looks much better once she gets those goggles off, and Stargirl is very well drawn. Indeed, there’s even one panel of Stargirl where Finch displays that rarest represented of comic artist skills: a basic knowledge of how the human breast works. Alas, as nice as it is to see a somewhat more realistic bosom in comics, neither floating nor heaving, it’s still far too big for Stargirl. To be honest, with those hips, you’re looking at the body type for Catwoman, and that’s after I suspend disbelief for her sex symbol status. Actually, Johns has assembled a team of rather petite women. I mean the biggest boobs on the team probably belong to Hawkman. I wish I could say that this would be a step forward, but, while Finch doesn’t make any huge mistakes, he’s not correcting that drifting course of comic book art any. (Also, his Wonder Woman has cold, dead eyes)

All in all, Justice League of America is a much stronger premier than its sister title. Groundwork is laid for the future and we walk away with a sense of nearly the whole team. Johns delivers a read unlike much of his body of work, but, as ever, doesn’t give a reader enough in this one sitting to know for certain what to expect. Finch seems a good choice on the art and promises that a more serious Justice League will have the look we would expect. Though it has its problems, a sense of breadth, some clever character building, and an emotional backbone make this the book the New 52 has been needing since its inception. Let’s hope that it doesn’t disappoint in the coming months.

P.S. This new League seems rather concerned with the state of New York, especially considering its traitorous cry of “EXCELSIOR”.

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