Conway Shows How It’s Done – Justice League of America (vol 1) 251 Review

Can a well-plotted blast from the past shed light on where the current series is going wrong?

The Justice League of America has been with us in one form or another for over 50 years and I have both loved and been exasperated by the comic book in more or less equal measure ever since I first encountered it many moons ago. The book in its current form, Bryan Hitch’s Justice League, most definitely falls into the ‘exasperation’ category. While I’ll continue to bljustice-league-of-america-v1-251-page-1og it (as soon as I’ve caught up), I thought it might be useful to look at an example of Justice League storytelling from an era when I was buying the book regularly.
Issue 251 of the original run is interesting for a number of reasons. It comes towards the end of long-time writer Gerry Conway’s second stint on the book, although, in fairness, he didn’t leave the book for very long between his first run and his second one. The League featured in this book is effectively Justice League Detroit, although it had been forced to move to the ‘secret sanctuary’ outside Metropolis a few issues ago. The members include established ‘second stringers’ (a term here I’m using to refer to those members who did not have their own books at this point) Martian Manhunter, Zatanna and Elongated Man as well as ‘newcomers’ Vixen, Vibe, Gypsy and Steel. And Batman, who, after last issue’s anniversary original League get-together, has decided to stay on as team leader in order to try and lick the team into shape. As with the forthcoming Justice League of America Rebirth series, Batman’s inclusion may well be down to marketing, but either way it’s a savvy move for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

The book opens with a full-page splash of this issue’s world-threatening menace Despero – an old JLA villain whose appearance here has been trailed and teased for several issues – along with the kind of writing that makes you long for the return of third-person narration in comic books. “Rage seethes inside him, as constant as a heartbeat.” While my inner pedant wants to point out that heartbeats aren’t technically constant, my inner fanboy loves this kind of stuff. Comics are a form of culture open to a range of styles and tones, but the form of grim high melodrama remains one of my favourites. Conway takes time, too, to show us just how grimly driven Despero is at this point. On the second page, he introduces us to The Torq, an amorphous alien entity that has drifted peacefully through the universe observing things and absorbing information. Despero flies his ship right through it and, as Conway’s narrator spells out for us, “a billion years of wonderment are snuffed out in an instant”. This is followed by the almost unbearably clichéd “He has places to go, things to do. People to kill.” But that is, I think, the point. The vengeance that drives Despero is as petty and banal as it is mindlessly destructive.

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See that gooey stuff hanging off Despero’s ship? That’s billion year old proto-matter, that is. That’s going to take an age to clean off.

The book’s title is “Hunters and Prey”, a phrase we’re about to hear and will hear again before the issue is finished. Batman is putting Vibe and Vixen through their paces. Vibe is having a rough time of it, but, as Batman says, “without concentration, you’re not a hunter… you’re prey.” Well, I’m glad that’s clear. It’s difficult to avoid the fact that Batman is making the same mistakes with Vibe as Aquaman made with Steel during the Detroit run – and for much the same reasons. And with much the same results. Vibe doesn’t appreciate the constant lecturing, but the scene does lead to a nice follow-up scene between Vixen and Batman that bears fruit later on. The one difference between Batman and Aquaman would appear to be that Batman is at least willing to listen to criticism.

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“Ridin’ me like your own personal donkey”??? There’s an image it’s going to be difficult to scrub out of my brain…

Batman’s inclusion as team leader makes sense here for a number of reasons. Firstly, the ‘new’ League had been controversial (some of those letters pages in the early Detroit run are well worth a look) and having Bats leading the team raises its profile in a way that having Aquaman leading never really did. Secondly, Batman is the archetypal loner and that instantly guarantees the kind of conflict with the younger more impetuous characters that, indeed, we get here. Thirdly, no one does ‘grim’ quite like Batman and ‘grim’ is what we’re heading towards. The tone of the book begins to change subtly this issue. Batman is both serious and astonishingly competent. And Conway gets the character very well, having written him in his own series in the late 70s and early 80s. Batman’s presence also frees up Martian Manhunter to take more of a mentor role with Gypsy, more of which later. I can remember at the time being rather grateful for the return of Batman to the team. Reading this issue again, I still get that sense that the team just went up a level in quality.

A couple of observations here: nothing like either the introduction of Despero or the character interaction between Vixen, Vibe and Batman has appeared in any of the six issues of Rebirth-era Justice League I’ve read to date. In the Hitch League there doesn’t appear to be much ‘down-time’ and the restricted narrative choices available to current writers preclude something as on-the-nose as the Despero intro. (There are ways around the third person narration taboo, of course, but none of them are quite so… satisfying.) None of Hitch’s villains have yet displayed as much drive and motivation as Despero does in those first two pages. Unlike, say, the Kindred or the Purge, Despero’s motivation is not a mystery here – how his vengeance against a League that no longer exists will play out is, however. And Conway is in no great rush to get to that point. And, yes, that is another way in which this issue differs from the Rebirth ones.

Because issue 251 is a character issue. While the Gardner Fox days in which League members would formally pair up to fight disparate threats before coming together to solve the overall ‘case’ are gone, Conway effectively revives the format by having Gypsy and Martian Manhunter informally team up with Gypsy using her camouflage powers to tag along as J’onn tries to get to the bottom of a mystery that was introduced a few issues ago. This is Conway indulging in a slow burn which, while short on plot development (it takes us three pages to find out something that could have  – and nowadays probably would have – been revealed in a handful of panels), is rich in characterisation. The developing friendship between Martian Manhunter and Gypsy is beautifully handled, although the decision to have J’onn narrate this section in character gumshoe-style is a little odd, especially when he drops his John Jones persona once outside the office of the PI he’s nominally working for. His pride at Gypsy taking off on her own, though, is a nice touch. With her mix of vulnerability and trusting nature, it’s hard not to like Gypsy and J’onn, too, comes across as very likeable here. It’s a very effective bit of writing.

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Look, no fingerprints! And for my next trick, I shall be doing my best Philip Marlowe impression during the next section of the book.

And it’s not the only sub-plot in the issue either. Sandwiched in the middle of the J’onn-Gypsy storyline is a sequence that features Zatanna, who has been abducted by the mysterious Adam and subjected to some nude experimentation – complete with conveniently placed restraints to preserve modesty, naturally. Adam is an interesting antagonist, not least because his superpower appears to involve playing on the insecurities of intelligent, well-educated people who, in the mid 80s, find themselves talented in a range of fields but deeply unsure about whether that talent will lead to the kind of material success promoted and glamourized in American culture at the time. In a decidedly weird moment, Zatanna’s erstwhile tenant (who’s been instrumental in capturing Zatanna) delivers pretty much the same ‘hunter/prey’ line as Batman earlier. The difference between the two moments is that Batman wants Vibe to find the strength within himself to be the ‘hunter’, while Adam’s acolytes are looking to Adam to provide the strength they need. Adam is a compelling but decidedly creepy villain. We’ll have to wait a few issues before we get to see him receive his comeuppance, unfortunately.

Steel gets a nice moment of down-time too as he inadvertently displays his strength in front of a date. Then we return to Batman and Vixen with the latter offering the Bat some sympathy and advice. This has been an unusually low-key issue, but by no means a boring or empty one. It is most assuredly not the template for JL issues past or present, but it is the kind of useful one-off issue that allows readers to catch their breath and be reminded that our heroes are not just power sets and costumes but living, breathing characters in their own right. And that that’s why we love them.

When Despero reappears at the end of the issue, touring the wrecked shell of the old JLA satellite, we understand more clearly just what’s at stake. While it seems somewhat perverse to suggest that it’s more than ‘just’ the world, there is an important truth here that, for all its spectacle and threat, the Hitch Justice League has yet to understand: it’s the relationships between characters that are important; it’s the sense of those characters being in danger that at least partly engages us in the story. The Despero arc is a classic, but this issue is in no small part responsible for its success precisely because Conway has taken the time to make us care about the characters who are about to be put through the wringer.

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It occurs to me that I’ve said virtually nothing about the art up to now. Let me rectify that oversight here. Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray are an excellent team. Their style may not be to everyone’s taste, but every so often they pull off something gloriously spectacular. Like here, for example.

Of course, it’s perhaps easier for Conway to do that with those second-stringers than Hitch can with the current League, the members of which all have their own series. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t at least try, though. There are plots within plots here and, although you can argue that this issue is purely a ‘set-up’ story for the big event to come, the sense of a multi-faceted ongoing narrative is actually quite satisfying. Arguably, this is a large part of the appeal of superhero comics. Readers are treated to an unfolding multi-layered narrative in which, when it’s done well, character and plot combine in generally affecting and sometimes unpredictable ways.

It’s that sense of numerous sub-plots moving at different speeds that can give a team book a lot of its richness. That’s certainly the case here. I’m not suggesting that this kind of issue would necessarily work for the modern League – it is pretty much entirely ‘set-up’ for the next few issues – but at least some attention given to meaningful character interaction[1] (and, perhaps more importantly, the development of relationships between team members) and a more considered  approach to plotting would certainly help. Next issue sees things get a lot hairier for the JLA and, for that matter, some random dude out hunting with his dog. See you soon.

[1] I know I’ve not made much of the Batman/Superman/Lois/John interactions in the first Justice League story arc. They are, of course, the exception that proves the rule, although even then, the John “cookie” line notwithstanding, those scenes’ dialogue is a little awkwardly phrased. (Although, to be fair, nowhere near as poor as everyone else’s dialogue in that story.)

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