Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Justice League: Origin (comic)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Jim Lee
Collects: Justice League #1-6

If nothing else, DC Comics New 52 initiative was ballsy. They wiped out most of their continuity - Batman and Green Lantern are two of the very few exceptions - and relaunched the entire line, simultaneously going day and date digital with every book at a time when the industry had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. The first book - the one to set the stage for this bold new DC Universe - was to be Justice League, by superstar creators Geoff Johns and Jim Lee. Could you have possibly announced a better team than that to try and get fans on board? But with that announcement came a lot of hype; and hype breeds high expectations.

If you're going to enjoy this book, you need to throw the hype out. Temper your expectations somewhat. The new Justice League is a pretty decent book, but make no mistake, as far as this first volume goes, neither Johns or Lee are bringing their A game.

This go around, we sadly get lesser Geoff Johns. You know the one. Strained, goofy dialogue, baffling story decisions, ridiculous amounts of hyper violence, no subtlety and a lack of depth to the story. The one that feels like he's trying too hard. It's the opposite of the guy who wrote Teen Titans; one of the two or three legitimately great runs with the book. It's always disappointing because I know he can do better.

From beginning to end, there are things that stick out as being off. Darkseid is the main villain, but he only shows up near the end to wreck the League a bit before being shuffled off through a Boom Tube back to where he came, screaming a hammy "I WILL RETUUUURN". Hell, what's to stop him from opening another Boom Tube and picking up where he left off? They shove him back to Apokolips and the fight is just over, as if there's suddenly no way any other Parademons could get to Earth and open another gateway. We barely know why he even attacked; Darkseid himself doesn't say more than three lines in the entire thing and the only clue we get is some minor henchmen babbling about looking for his daughter.

Then there's Batman. Johns had no idea what to do with him in this comic. It's painfully obvious. He contributes little past banter and it feels almost as though Johns felt like he needed to try to crowbar Batman into the climax somewhere. What I refer to comes two thirds of the way through the book; Batman peels off his chest emblem - because that makes total sense, right? - takes off his mask, reveals his name to Green Lantern out in the middle of the street*, gives him a pep talk and is then carted off by a Parademon through the Boom Tube to get Superman. Spoiler alert: When we see him in the next issue, he accomplishes nothing. The Superman thing just kind of resolves itself.

For a character who is in almost every scene, no one else feels as though they're just there as much as Batman. I don't want to make direct comparisons - it often feels unfair to do so - yet it's hard not to note that this stands in stark contrast to the Batman from Grant Morrisons JLA, whose intellect and resourcefulness was as big an asset to the team as any of his super powered colleagues. Here, the Batman we get seems as though he has almost nothing to add to the proceedings.

The rosters a plus, at least. It's about as iconic as it gets. Each of the key members you expect is accounted for** plus Cyborg, who has finally moved upwards into the big leagues. Only problem is that we don't even get to see them all until the fourth issue. This is not a huge problem in itself - I sort of like the idea of a member joining on to the merry band each issue - but it becomes one when you realize there's barely enough story here to fill four issues alone. When people complain about decompression, this is the kind of book they have in mind.

As if to put a cherry on top, the usual hyperviolence - which is beginning to become a trademark of Johns - is present. It doesn't quite reach the completely unnecesary extremes of early Brightest Day issues, but our heroes seem a little too quick to go with mutilation. Sure, the Parademons are invading aliens, but it still feels wrong to see Superman just grab some wreckage, take a swing and end up lopping an arm off. Sames goes for some of the Aquaman stuff.

All this said, the book is still a fun enough, turn-off-your-brain romp if you're willing to let dialogue like "you're the worlds greatest super-humans" slide.

The B story of the book is the origin of Cyborg. While it occasionally stumbles into some hammy territory - Victor catches a pass in front of the American flag, because of course he does - it's a fairly solid retelling that doesn't screw much with what worked. I'm actually pretty happy about Cyborg joining the League - for real this time - so the page time devoted to him is encouraging. He's the one member of the cast who needs the origin retelling, anyways; it's been thirty years since the glory days of the New Teen Titans and he's the one member newer fans are least likely to be familiar with. Everyone knows the origin of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Cyborg? Not so much.

As I mentioned earlier, Jim Lee is not on his A game either. This is, unfortunately, something I should have expected. The New 52 had meant to stop the overabundance of late books, to the point where DC took a hardline stance against pushing just about anything back more than three weeks. Jim Lee did some flat out amazing artwork for All Star Batman and Robin - easily the best in his career - but that book was always late, to the point where a total of ten issues have been released to date, ten years after it started. Justice League had to be monthly. There was no way his work wouldn't suffer.

Luckily, even a rushed Jim Lee puts out some pretty decent work. His style is still in full effect, so if you like Jim Lee's work you'll probably like this too. Just don't go in expecting something on par with ASB&R or even the work he did on Hush and you'll be fine.

Lastly, I'd hate to forget to mention the backmatter. This volume has a bunch of supplemental material ranging from the typical concept art to the more uncommon items like classified interviews and forewords to fictional in-universe books. Hardly essential by any means, but it does help flesh out the new DC Universe in a way Geoff Johns neglected to spend much time doing in the main story.

My Opinion: Try It

I didn't want to come off as if I hated this book or were looking to disparage it. However, as the first book in the New 52, DC positioned it as the flagship title and de facto introduction to the new universe. "Decent" isn't quite good enough for that. Of course, I'm also a guy who has been reading for a while, so I may have different expectations. It may work far better for that mythical Unicorn we call the "new reader". Don't go in expecting dynamite in a dust jacket and you may have a pretty good time.

* It is, granted, not exactly populated at the moment and the area is a total war zone. Even so, he took his damn mask off and announced his name out in the open. It's almost hard to believe someone wrote that and thought it was a good idea. It doesn't help that I'm not even the least bit sure what he was planning or why he needed to remove his cowl and emblem to do it. Whatever Johns was going for here is lost in the details or just never made it to the page.

** The Martian Manhunter is the exception. It seems like a glaring omission - the guy is a League founder in almost every prior incarnation - but there's always been an odd overlap of power sets with Superman. Much as they try to play up the other powers, it's still fact that he has most every power Superman has plus others. He's arguably more powerful than Superman. It's not hard to see why they'd decide to replace him in the early going with Cyborg. Besides, I'd wager money that he joins the group in the future.

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