Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Justice League: The Villains Journey (comic)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gene Ha, Jim Lee
Collects: Justice League #7-12

If I had reservations after the first volume, they have now turned to outright dismay. Origin stumbled, but it was a game attempt at giving a definitive modern story of the formation of the League. The Villains Journey skips forward five years to the present day of the DCU and it is... a "quality challenged" book.

A regular joe who was caught in the middle of Darkseids attack in Origin - he even wrote a book about the incident - lost his family from some inexplicable disease in the years following. Now he blames the League for it and has decided he'll take them down through the use of spirits and junk. But first, he needs a way to get under their skin, so he captures the League liason - Steve Trevor - and starts knocking over the dominos.

First off, when the liason to your team is the most interesting, relatable character in the book, you are doing it wrong. The first issue of the volume, an interlude before the main arc, revolves around him, giving him the most exploration of any character in the entire first year. It's also the only issue of the twelve to actually try and give some character to the League. How? Through a short flashback sequence. One per member. After a year we barely even know these characters, aside from the fact that they bicker constantly. They're ciphers, serving little purpose other than the fact that we need something to center the plot around. Problem is, if you don't even give a crap about the central players, it's difficult to care about whatever fine mess they find themselves in.

It's difficult to like some of them. So tell me, Wonder Woman; any real reason you had to haul off and beat the shit out of Green Lantern, who was only trying to keep you from walking into an obvious trap without backup? He wasn't even being a dick about it either and she not only knocks him halfway across town, but actually goes after him, sword in hand, so she can presumably carve him up and beat the piss out of him some more. "I don't take pleasure in this" my ass, Wondy.

Then there's Batman, who continues his streak of uselessness in this book. Yet again, he contributes nothing to the fight, doesn't even seem to be respected by his team-mates and is pretty much just there. Had the book opened explaining Batman left the team sometime in the five years gap, I think we'd all be better off. After all, it's clear the creators don't know what to do with him and you have to figure Batman has better things to do than stick around a group that doesn't even seem to respect him.

All of which is to say the book lacks anything resembling character depth. They're all shallow, save maybe Steve Trevor. After thinking on it for a while, I realized the difference between a good comic by Johns and a bad one comes down to its focus. Much of his best work - Teen Titans, JSA, Brightest Day, 52 - was driven, at least in part, by the cast. The big plotlines were there, but Johns spent enough time with the characters themselves that anything they did or trouble they found themselves in had weight.

One of the best volumes of his Teen Titans run - and a favorite of many - is The Future is Now. At that point, we'd spent three volumes with the team and Johns had done enough character work with each for us to invest in them. So we care when they meet their possible future counterparts and find out they're villains. It has meaning. The premise would not have worked if it had been, say, the second story, which is exactly what this book attempts.

Getting back on the topic of The Villains Journey, there are also some noticeable discrepancies. I guess Johns didn't bother reading JLI before he made mention of it here, because not only does he pen a scene where Batman tells Steve Trevor the JLI are basically useless and that he wants them shut down - the exact opposite of how he felt in JLI, where he also encouraged Booster Gold to keep at it - but he kind of misses the fact that the JLI never even had the chance to become an official thing.

It doesn't feel like this team has been together for five years either, no matter what the book says. They don't listen to each other, they don't follow orders, they're often berating each other and they somehow don't know a thing about one another. Yet they've had countless adventures in that span of time. It's a story befitting of a team that just formed, not one that has supposedly kept the entire world safe for five years. It's one of the things that hurts "The Villains Journey" the most; this volume seems like it should be the endgame to, say, the first or second year the team has been together, where they finally put aside their differences and work to become the team they should be.

This all feeds into the biggest problem with the book; The Villains Journey has not earned a single one of its big moments. One instance is the big kiss that made all the headlines - not only is "we're lonely, hey, we should start a relationship" dumb*, but it's another moment ruined by the fact that we have no investment in these characters - and another is the dismissal of Steve Trevor as the League liason after all of a single volume in that role. But my prime example is a scene late in the book, where Green Lantern quits the League - saying he was responsible for the fight with Wonder Woman - so the team has a scapegoat to keep their reputation intact. It's supposed to be an emotional moment and a big deal, but it means absolutely nothing.

Not only is GL's "I started the fight" bit not what happened at all - which should be clear to any eyewitnesses - but we have no reason to care. There's this supposed five year history, but we've seen none of it, leaving us with no real idea of Lanterns experience with the team, what it means to him, how hard a choice this might be for him or how it might affect the team itself. The scene just happens and yet the creators expect it to have an impact; in reality, it just hangs there, lifeless, because it lacks the context to lend it any gravitas.

Honestly, that example is the issue with this comic in a nutshell. For this story to work at all, the book needed a couple of stories after Origin to show some early adventures. Instead, they dropped the origin, threw a five year time skip at us and then expected a plotreliant on events we haven't even seen to have weight.

At least the pacing issues that plagued Origin aren't quite as bad this time.

Making matters worse is the fact that the art is subpar Jim Lee work. Origin had the same problem. It's fairly decent most of the time, but the fact that it's not his best is inescapable. This is Lee's last volume and I hate to say it, but it might be for the best. Lee is amazing when he can take his time, but I think his Justice League run proves he can't hit a monthly deadline anymore without the quality taking a serious hit. It's a damn shame, too.

My Opinion: Skip It

Justice League: The Villains Journey just doesn't work. Most of the problems are avoidable, some are just a consequence of the circumstances and stories placement. Either way, they add up to a whole that just isn't worth the hassle. This book needs to shape up fast. The flagship book of DC's entire line should not be this screwed up.

* I'm probably not telling you anything new here, but starting a relationship based out of sheer loneliness is a recipe for disaster. I like to think Johns is aware of this and that it's a part of his plans for the book, but who knows. As it stands, it's pretty groanworthy; it doesn't help that we have no reason to care. Unless, well, you're a shipper who thought this should have happened long ago, in which case you probably cared before this, quality and sense be damned.

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