JLA 6

After a bombastic start last week, DC’s latest event sets things to a slow simmer as the Trinity ask the Question: what could make Superman kill?

Trinity War is an interesting event, so far. Unlike Blackest Knight or Flashpoint, it’s not focused on one corner of the DCU. From the teaser images, it seemed like the whole thing could end up being a big brainless fight, but thankfully Johns and Lemire have steered the ship in another direction this week. Instead of played out plot-induced stupidity, Superman steps up as the hero we know him to be and ends the fighting. Coming from the same writer who gave us a similar situation back in Infinite Crisis, it’s a clear statement about who the New 52 Superman is; essentially the same as the preboot Superman, to be precise.

From there, the book shows us two Justice Leagues united, but one in shambles with the loss of their leader (first among equals, though he may be). The interactions between Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are particularly interesting. The three have always been close, but now more than ever, it’s interesting to consider who knows who best.

Unfortunately, with this issue, I do have to agree with the many fans of Wonder Woman who have felt that she’s been reduced the ‘Superman’s girlfriend: Diana Prince’ (THE INITIALS AREN’T EVEN RIGHT, GOD!). I’ve generally felt that, while the possibility always existed,  Johns had been handling the relationship just barely well enough to prevent that kind of degradation (It’s not as though I’ve been reading any Superman books continuously for the past 22 months, unlike a certain amazon whose title never even mentions the Boy Scout). But where Diana could seem determined and compassionate towards Clark, the looming context of their relationship reframes her single-minded determination and leaves this no better than those ugly stories where Batman or Superman go on a rampage after their significant other of the week is injured.

Indeed, Johns and Lemire tries to sneak friendship and familiarity into the trinity’s dialogue, but comes up short, making each of them sound distant, self-involved, and unusually harsh. Wonder Woman, while avoiding the generic warrior woman trap that she often falls into, comes off unnecessarily hawkish, even going so far as to attack an ally and family member for no reason (can you feel my disappointment in this Wonder Woman yet? Good.). Likewise, Batman is the same obnoxious insecure jerk he always seems to be when Johns wants a character to disagree with him. I kind of expect him to start spouting Ayn Rand at any moment for some reason (and we already have someone for that in this comic!). Rounding it out is Superman. Though he’s about as passive as you’ll ever see him, Clark’s guilt reads less like the cold mourning of a man polluted and more like one at the mercy of an overdeveloped superego.

Doug Mahnke’s art doesn’t help matters. While he’s well beloved by many, I’ve always felt that his work is overly anatomical and far too stiff. That stiffness is very present in the scenes I’ve been discussing, and only serves to make each of the characters less sympathetic. While Steve Trevor pulls it off quite nicely, Diana, in particular, suffers under Mahnke’s pen. The sour-looking Wonder Woman we see in this issue just feels like she hates every minute in Man’s world and carries all of that tension in her neck and shoulders. It’s a sad day for Wondie, but rest assured, pretty much everyone gets at least one weird panel (Aquaman looks like his punch is merely a diversion to keep attention off the threat of his DEADLY ATTACK CHIN!) .

One other interesting hiccup in the art arises when Diana pays a visit to a relative. No matter what you think of Mahnke, it’s a fact that he’s a very different artist than Cliff Chang. I have trouble telling if it’s Mahnke or the character design that lets me down, but what I thought to be an interesting take on an Olympian in Wonder Woman’s solo title, looks like a real mess here.

Still, it wouldn’t be at all fair to mention that without pointing out just how many characters Mahnke fits into this issue. The care and attention he puts into rendering each member of the two leagues on the second double splash is pretty amazing, down to clear way that each hero reacts (or doesn’t react) to Superman’s intervention, and the page that follows shows just how talented a storyteller he can be.

Despite the writers’ clear interest in writing their version of the trinity, the mid-level names fare much better this issue. Though I fear she may be overshadowed by the sheer size of this event (no pun intended), Johns is doing some wonderful things with the Atom. Firestorm and Hawkman are also strong, and even Aquaman gets a fun moment, being, perhaps, the only character in the whole issue to convince me that the Justice League members care about each other. In fact, one of the strongest decisions in the whole issue is three measly letters, when J’onn addresses Superman as Kal. For a loose-cannon infiltrator who was booted off the league to be on a first name basis with Superman says something about the Martian Manhunter, and I, for one, like it.

I also think that it’s clever to highlight Diana’s inherent connection to Pandora. Wonder Woman’s never gotten the respect she deserves and that level of closeness to the threat at hand elevates her even beyond her famous colleges.  Her active role in the story helps to give her position credit, especially when Batman’s is the more normally accepted. Even better, Johns and Lemire toy with the reader, giving two different explanations for Superman’s madness, while hinting that may be either, both, or neither. Given that we were there, it seems a slightly odd time for this device to come into play but I’m game to see where it goes and it gives the book a slightly more intellectual bent. I know comics have page constraints but, particularly when they’re going to be long multi-part adventures, it might be use that time on a case with multiple (possibly dead-end) leads.

Johns has always had a talent for writing characters with a military mind-set (his lengthy term on Green Lantern, for example) and, accordingly, Steve Trevor and Amanda Waller continue to be written well. I hope that Waller’s constant worry about the Justice League gets fleshed out a little bit, as she’s starting to get a tad obsessive this issue, but with a temporary peace and Capti- I mean, “Shazam” in her facility she has the potential to be the world’s best hope or the cause of its destruction and I’d love to see her get the time and agency to show us how fascinating that can be.

Our narrator this week isn’t quite as interesting as Madame Xanadu was in Justice League #22, but he does his job. The changed has changed significantly, but, while I’ll miss his original incarnation, I’m starting to see why he’s on the same level as the Phantom Stranger in this continuity. It’s a clever reinvention of an old character, but one that will need to prove that it has legs before the fans accept it.

Overall, I feel like Justice League of America could have been a better issue. It’s not by any means a bad one, but it could have been better. What kept it? Well, while it feels like a lot happened, it’s nothing that we wouldn’t accept it we were quickly told at the beginning of Justice League #23, which I expect is intentional.  The book feels like a bridge to Justice League Dark #22, the third part of Trinity War, more than an equal partner with Justice League. The absence of Andy Clarke only heightens this sense, though I’d understand if someone argued that Doug Mahnke is a bigger name. Clearly the issue had to play within the rules of the event, but when you’re asking people to pick up such a decompressed story, you need to make sure that every issue feels essential, even if it has to be clear without it. That’s a hard task but I know Johns and Lemire have the skill to do it, they just don’t here.

Still, Justice League of America #6 is pretty much an answer to all of the complaints about its sister title from last week, which shows that the writers understand our concerns. I applaud this issue for taking the more interesting, less flashy way of handling the fallout of last issue and I hope that the tension will continue to build and that we won’t be back to square one when Lemire tags off to Johns again in Justice League #23.

Justice League of America #6 doesn’t feel like essential reading, but it indicates a focus on character interaction and smart pacing that should silence at least some of the complaints about Trinity War. Say you’re tired of events all you like, but in this new world DC has created, we need to see how big the Justice League can be, how the trinity interact, what lesser known heroes step up in the face of overwhelming odds. I’m not sure if Trinity War will be all DC has talked it up to be, but the potential is there for this to be something big.

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