Sunday, February 10, 2013

New 52 Justice League - Year 1

For decades, one of the flagship titles of +DC Comics has been the Justice League.   The Justice League's book has taken on various forms and titles over the years, but whatever the exact name of the series (Justice League of America, JLA, Justice League International), it has always been a top-seller for DC, and has usually (though not always) featured the heaviest hitters in the DC Universe.  Classically, the Justice League membership includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman.  Each of these characters has historically been a major DC star in his or her own right, so putting them together has always engendered the highest of expectations.  When the book delivers, it is unparalleled in the comic world -- even the Avengers cannot compare.  But when the book doesn't deliver, it has produced some of the most bitter disappointments in the history of comics.

Therefore, when I started collecting comic-books again back in December, it was with a mixture of both excitement and a little concern that I started reading the New 52 Justice League. Would it live up to its vaunted history? Or would it be another New 52 disappointment, as so many other titles have already been (Superman, Action Comics, Hawk and Dove)?  My trepidation was increased when my good friend, +Stuart Johnson, indicated that the title was mediocre.

As with the other New 52 titles, I began buying the series digitally, starting with issue #1 and working forward.  I have now completed the first year (issues 1-12 plus the #0 "origin" issue).  I read a couple of issues each in December and January while I worked on getting myself current with series that were more important to me - Supergirl, Batgirl, and Superman.  After catching up to #16 with all those New 52 titles, I then started to work on Justice League.  What follows will be my review of the series in its first year (issues #1-12 and #0).

From the very start, I was pleased to see that Justice League was living up to its name.  Headed by Geoff Johns (writer) and Jim Lee (artist), the book has fairly blown me away right from the beginning.  The stories have been interesting and fun to read. The plots have made sense (for a change, compared to the impenetrable Gordian knots of Action Comics and Superman). The characterization has been strong.  And although there have been plenty of world-threatening, nail-biting situations, Johns has managed to inject a wonderful note of levity into the series.

Justice League's first year, as with most of the New 52 titles, is divided into two 6-issue story arcs.  I will discuss each one separately below, and then discuss issue #0, and close with my final thoughts.

Story Arc 1: Justice League (issues 1-6)

The first story arc of Justice League takes place 5 years in the "past."  I found this to be slightly confusing at first, as the series of the League's members (e.g., Batman, Superman) all seemed to be taking place in the "present" (thus, though the #1 issues were all published at the same time, they were depicting different eras in the DC timeline).  However, although this "five years ago" setting did confuse me in terms of how the events of the book related to events in other titles within the DC Universe, the story itself was easy to follow and quite enjoyable.  The arc begins before the Justice League even exists. Each hero (other than Cyborg, who is just a normal kid in high school at the start) is on his own, and little by little, the heroes meet each other, starting with Batman and Green Lantern.

Right from the beginning, writer Johns infuses the story, which is of the utmost seriousness (an invasion of Earth by Apokolips, as it turns out), with a wonderful sense of humor.  Perhaps one of the funniest exchanges I have ever read in comics occurs in issue #1, where Green Lantern asks Batman what his super powers are.  "Flight?" asks Lantern, to which Batman answers, "No." "Super strength?" "No."  Then Lantern looks at him and says, "Waiiit a second... your just a guy dressed up like a bat, aren't you?"  I laughed so hard I almost dropped my Nexus 7 tablet.

As the story unfolds, in different cities all around the world, pinging boxes are being set up ("mother boxes" for those who know about New Gods lore), and they keep teleporting (via "boom tubes", again if you know New Gods lore) creatures into our world to attack us (the creatures are Parademons, another item from New Gods lore).  Over time, gradually these attacks draw the heroes together... Batman and Green Lantern are drawn to Superman. Then the Flash joins them.  And finally Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

Along the way, we are treated to the origin of Cyborg, who is fatally wounded by one of the mother boxes, and whose father has to graft him to machinery to save his life.  I had never seen the origin of Cyborg told before, so I really enjoyed this part of the story.  I'm glad they put Cyborg (who used to be a Teen Titan) onto the Justice League.  I've always thought he deserved more attention (I'd love to see him get his own book one day), and Johns and Lee do a great job with his first moments as a hero.

After the Justice League finally assembles, the last issues of this story arc depict an all-out battle between them and the forces of Apocalypse.  Darkseid himself arrives on earth, and the League has to battle the most powerful villain in the DC Universe. Up until this point, the series was outstanding. But I have to admit, the way Johns handled Darkseid was underwhelming.

Why didn't I like how Darkseid was handled?  Well, the primary reason was that he was too quiet.  Old school Darkseid never shut up -- he was always soliloquizing about his power and making bombastic statements.  Who can forget his words to Supergirl in Legion of Super-Heroes #294 circa 1982? "You have much to learn child. For instance this? This is pain.  You should be honored, child. I have not done this with my hands for a millennium. How DeSaad would have loved this.  A shame he is no more. But even he had his limits. As have all. Save I!"  Or how about when the Legion finally defeated him, and the Invisible Kid asked how they would hold him.  Darkseid's response was, "Remember children, the darkness cannot surrender. It is ever on the other side of the dawn. And the instant you gaze at it in fear... your time shall come."

And that, I suppose, was my one real disappointment.  Darkseid was powerful, but silent.  He said nothing. He made no threats. He did not give his classic Darkseid speeches.  After reading a series full of fantastic dialogue and witty repartee among the rest of the characters, Darkseid's relative muteness was quite a let-down.  He also did not seem anywhere near powerful enough, in most of the scenes.  If, before reading this story, I didn't know who Darkseid was, I probably would not have been very impressed with him.

On the other hand, Darkseid's blandness aside (and it is a major flaw), the rest of the story arc was great.  I enjoyed the general story, and I thought it was fitting that Darkseid was the cause of the Justice League's formation. He's an appropriate first, and arch, enemy for them.  By the time the story arc wraps in issue 6, the Justice League has formed, and they are being cheered on by a grateful public, who finally realizes that these super-beings are heroes, and are protecting the world from harm.

Story Arc 2: The Villain's Journey (issues 7-12)

The second story arc takes place in the present -- i.e, 5 years after the first one. Beginning in this issue and continuing through issue #12, Johns presents two stories. The main story is about 20 pages long, covering the activities of the League, and features the art of Gene Ha and Jim Lee.  The second story is about half as long, and features the art of Gary Frank (a huge favorite of mine since his days drawing the Matrix version of Supergirl).

The "lead" story in each issue is about the revenge being planned and then taken on the Justice League by a man named Graves, who is dying of a disease that also killed the rest of his family.  Graves blames the League for this, because his family fell ill right after the League's battles with Darkseid (issues 1-6).  Even though the JL saved his family's life at the time, little by little each one grew ill and died, until only a very sick Graves was left.  Graves, dying, travels to a remote mountain, where he finds what he thinks are gods, but turn out to be spirit-parasites.  He gains some power from them temporarily, and uses that power against the League. Ultimately, there is a huge battle and the League defeats him.

At the same time, there is a thread running through the story about the growing concern and mistrust of the JL by the federal government.  Congress wants someone on the "inside" of the League, which the heroes resist.  The government doesn't trust the heroes with all this power.  So they continue to put pressure on Steve Trevor, the team's liaison, to admit new heroes into the team.  This thread leads to Green Arrow trying to get onto the team in issue #8, and culminates later this month with the creation of a new "Justice League of America."

In the secondary story, orphan Billy Batson is adopted by a foster family whose other children include Mary Bromfield and Freddy Freeman (for those who don't know, these three are traditionally given the SHAZAM! powers and become Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, and Captain Marvel, Jr.).  As Billy struggles to fit in, a mad scientist named Dr. Sivana searches for the final resting place of Black Adam (Captain Marvel's classic enemy). By the end of issue #12, Sivana has found Black Adam, and awakened him, and Billy Batson has ended up in a mysterious underground temple.  The story will then lead us into #0.

Issue #0 - SHAZAM!

As with the other titles in the +DC Comics New 52, Justice League, for its 1-year anniversary, put out a "zeroth" issue.  The #0 issues of each title reveal an origin or backstory of the characters in the current series.  In this case, Justice League #0 tells the origin of Captain Marvel, who gains his powers from the ancient wizard Shazam, by saying the wizard's name.  Billy Batson, the teenager we have been following for about 6 months now (see above), finally meets the wizard, and is told to speak the magic word - SHAZAM! When he does, a bolt of lightning and a crack of thunder transform him from a teenage boy into a grown man (Captain Marvel) with power to rival Superman.  The interesting wrinkle to Captain Marvel has always been, though, that although he has the body of a man, his mind is still that of a teenage boy.  In that sense, he has more in common with the Teen Titans than with the Justice League.

Overall, this was a good issue.  Gary Frank's art, as usual, is fantastic. He has always been very talented at showing subtle changes to facial expressions, and he continues to shine in that area.  His Captain Marvel looks great, and I like the updated costume (though I'm not sure where I stand on the new hood, which makes his cape look more like a cloak).

The story was good, although there were a couple of elements I didn't love.  For example, it has always been the case that the meaning of the word SHAZAM! is told during his origin story (which has been told and re-told many times since before +DC Comics even owned the character).  The acronym means: The wisdom of Solomon; the strength of Hercules; the stamina of Atlas; the power of Zeus; the courage of Achilles; and the speed of Mercury.  I don't understand how Geoff Johns could have spent an entire issue re-telling the origin of SHAZAM!/Captain Marvel and not explain what the word means (without that, it's just a nonsense word).  Similarly, although they show the seven deadly sins, the sins are not named.  Presumably these will come out in later issues (the back-up story already hints at that), but the seven deadly sins, like the meaning of the word SHAZAM!, are so tied up with this character's origin that I don't see how you can feel like you've re-told it properly without explaining those to the reader, at least (if not, yet, to the character).

That said, I found the actual story to be mostly satisfying. Billy Batson, once possessed of the SHAZAM! powers, is very entertaining. He acts like the unruly teenager he's been all along, but yet we still see the purity of heart there, as he rescues a strange woman from a mugger, and also worries that he might have hit the mugger "too hard" (he really does over-do it).  But we also see his mischievous side, when the woman asks how she can thank him and he asks her for money, or when he suggests to Freddy Freeman (who is still presumably the future Captain Marvel, Jr., although we will have to wait and see on that one) that they can use Billy's seeming-adult status to buy beer.

One thing that was glaringly left out, however, was any instruction by the old wizad Shazam as to just exactly how Billy is supposed to revert back to normal.  In the past, he has been able to change back and forth via the magic lightning. Will he be able to do so, or is he going to be "stuck" as Captain Marvel for a while? I hope he can change back, because I think the character will lose a lot without the Billy Batson side of things.

Overall, this was a good issue, although not as well done as Jerry Ordway's retelling of the origin 20+ years ago.  I suppose they felt they had to "update" it, but I'm not sure the elements they left out did anything to serve that purpose. Rather, they probably left new readers confused.

Reflections on the first year

Overall, I have been very pleased with Justice League.  Geoff Johns has done a spectacular job with perhaps the most difficult book to write in the DC Universe.  It can't be easy to keep up with what is going on in 6 other books, and to write in-character dialogue for seven of the most important characters in DC.  Given how difficult it has been for people even on single-character books (like Superman) to do a consistent job with characterization, Johns' work has been impeccable on this series.  Each character acts the way he (or she) should -- frequently, more so in Justice League than they do in their own books (again, see, for reference, Superman).

Similarly, Jim Lee has done an outstanding job.  I know he has been a fan favorite for many years, but he's honestly never been one of mine, in part because, at least back in the day, I always thought his faces looked the same for everyone.  But at least so far in this series, he has done a good job making everyone's face distinctive and keeping them all with their classical looks while still making them looking younger and "updated."  His backgrounds and "SFX" elements are first rate.

The series overall has been excellent.  Out of all the titles that I've started reading in the New 52, one of the only ones that has delivered issue after issue, and has never disappointed, has been Justice League.  It's got some of the best writing and art of any title I've tried.  And so, I expect to be with Justice League for the long haul.  Here, finally, like Batgirl, is a series that is truly enjoyable, and is one of the rare gems of The New 52.

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