This coming together of Batman and one of his more influential antecedents reaches its climax in this issue and there is, in my mind, a fair amount of promise the series now needs to fulfill. So far, we’ve been introduced to the intriguing notion that The Shadow has woven himself into the tapestry of Batman’s personal history as a way of training him up to be his immortal replacement. In The Stag, we’ve also been given a villain whose costume design is genuinely unsettling and whose very nature seems to be up for grabs, a mystery whose answer must surely be revealed in these pages. Last issue left us with several important questions in urgent need of answering. Who is The Stag? Who or what exactly comprises his glowing ‘army’ currently in the process of tearing down Shamba-La, the mystical haven in which The Shadow was born? How will a fatally wounded Batman survive this encounter, much less triumph in it? Will The Shadow and Batman finally reconcile their differences? Which one of them was right about the nature of the universe? Will the Joker start doing something useful? Or meaningful? Will Orlando deploy another plant metaphor? Will the last five months of reading this title have been, after all, worth it?
There really is only one way to find out…
This crossover involving two of the most iconic vigilantes in the history of pulp fiction is drawing to a close and I must say I’ve found the series intriguing and interesting rather than downright exciting. Snyder and Orlando have woven a story that acknowledges Batman’s literary debt to The Shadow, while refusing to smooth over the differences between them. Indeed, their diametrically opposed views on the killing of criminals form the thematic tension at the heart of the story that somehow needs to be resolved if the pair are to succeed in their bid to stop the Stag (along with the Joker) entering Shamba-La, the mystical paradise in which The Shadow was ‘born’. Given how last issue ended, it’s difficult to see how they can complete this particular mission. After all, it’s hard to stop crazed criminals entering a pocket paradise when you’re bleeding out on a slab. Still, this is comics. And there is going to be an issue 6. Let’s keep an open mind, eh?
Well, we’re half way through this pairing of two of popular fiction’s most famous vigilantes (or a quarter of the way through considering the recent announcement of this series’ follow-up mini) and things are heating up nicely. Last issue saw a couple of significant revelations about the nature of The Shadow’s relationship with Batman, and it also left Batman tied up in an underground cavern surrounded by a gathering of his most vicious enemies. (Well, most of them. Where’s Kite Man?) This means we’re probably due a huge fight in this issue, doesn’t it?
Depending on how things turn out with this limited series, it might well be that this issue is seen as a real step up in both impetus and overall quality. It might be that this issue turns out to have significant implications for both Batman and The Shadow for some time to come. At this point, I have no way of knowing for sure. What I do know is that I enjoyed this issue quite a bit more than I did the previous two. Allow me to explain.
In many ways, The Stag is the perfect partner for The Joker. As this issue’s opening couple of pages demonstrate, The Stag has nothing to say beyond his enigmatic catchphrase and The Joker is loquaciousness personified. I know I’ve expressed my disappointment with some of the dialogue in this series, but the introduction of The Joker has seen a marked improvement in its quality. There are still some problems but even the opening pun, weak though it is, is enjoyable. The Joker is, after all, a character you should have fun with if you’re a writer and the Snyder/Orlando combo go to town here and do a pretty decent job of conveying The Joker’s mercurial mania.
The Joker and The Stag, however, are not this issue’s only double act. While you might think that The Batman and The Shadow would be this issue’s other compelling partnership, you’d be mistaken. Batman has The Shadow in chains and imprisoned in an underwater base; he has a brief conversation with him in which The Shadow reveals some interesting information about The Stag (like the fact that he’s descended from Cain – a House of Mystery reference? Hmmm…) and that he’s been ritually murdering ‘good’ people for decades in an effort to get to Shamba-La, the same place in which The Shadow was ‘born’. But Batman doesn’t stick around much after that initial infodump, leaving the Unexpected But Surprisingly Interesting Conversation of The Issue award to go to… The Shadow and Alfred.
Now, this just worked for me. While it is true that Alfred’s tale about his time as an MI6 agent chasing down a fugitive in the Canadian wastes could do with a bit of fleshing out, there is nevertheless a clear sense that Alfred is prepared to accept the more esoteric elements of The Shadow’s story in a way that Batman simply isn’t. Although there is still an occasional niggling problem with the dialogue (“I have never seen pitch as dark as in that place” – black; it really should be pitch as black), there is a gravitas to this section that serves to anchor the book a little more thoroughly in, if not the wider Batman universe, then certainly in the Alfred-Bruce relationship that forms an important pillar of it. That this rather serious conversation is contrasted with The Joker’s more flippant dialogue makes it all the more effective.
When Batman interrupts (almost as if on cue) that conversation, the resultant battle is rather satisfying. Rossmo’s artwork (which hasn’t always impressed this issue) is excellent here, particularly when The Joker starts choking Bats from behind and his vision starts blurring. That confrontation ends badly for Batman and he wakes up bound and surrounded by a rogues’ gallery of his villains.
All this is intercut with that Alfred-Shadow interaction and it is in these pages that the boldness of Snyder and Orlando’s vision for this series is made clear. Now, I know there’s a spoiler warning at the top of this review, and I know that I’ve just told you a fair bit about the plot of this issue, but in the next couple of paragraphs I’m going to get into some nitty-gritty including Easter eggs that have profound implications for the rest of the DC Universe. If you’d rather not read them being imperfectly explored by a raving Englishman, you might be better scrolling down to concluding paragraph, where you’ll find a more general summary of my thoughts. If you’re still here, let’s get stuck in…
During his conversation with Alfred, The Shadow makes clear a number of things that had previously only been hinted at. And goes quite a bit further than that, too. To Alfred’s consternation, The Shadow repeats his claim that he has mentored Batman before. Not only that, but he has done so in a variety of guises. In a way, that he is confiding in Alfred is entirely appropriate. Both of them, it would seem, have adopted a somewhat paternal role to Bruce. The Shadow, however, drops an intriguing and shocking revelation. Bruce is not the only hero whose development and training he has supervised. In a really rather impressive full page, it is revealed that he has trained many other heroes. These include heroes I don’t recognise, but some I do – Green Arrow, Catwoman and the Crimson Fox. Now, that is quite some claim. The notion that The Shadow has been training some of DC’s established heroes to fight against The Stag is, on the one hand, pretty bold and exciting; on the other hand, it does mess about with established continuity to a degree that may well be unacceptable for some.
My own feelings are mixed. I’m prepared to go with it for now. It does raise the stakes for this series and that’s all to the good. I’m just not sure about how this works out in practice. The Shadow tells Alfred that his plan was to raise an “army” to combat The Stag; in the next breath, though, he reveals that each one of his soldiers has been cut down by The Stag before they could complete their training. With Catwoman and Green Arrow included, though, that claim is demonstrably false. It is, to this reader at any rate, a confusing moment in the comic.
The Shadow then reveals that Batman is his last student, before going on to say that Batman is, in fact, The Stag’s final target. There are, I suppose, objections that could be raised here, not least whether Batman qualifies as a ‘good’ man. Commissioner Gordon’s closing monologue in ‘The Dark Knight’ is echoing in my head at this point, though, and The Shadow makes a valid point that, in giving up a “human life to protect others”, Batman has certainly proven himself to be one of “Gotham’s best”.
But there’s one more revelation. And it’s one that ends the issue. Now normally, I don’t like spoiling issue endings, but I need to here. As The Shadow leaves to go and save Batman, he announces that he had been ‘training’ Batman to become the next Shadow, a claim that is so bold as to be almost ludicrous. Coming hot on the heels of all the other things the Shadow has supposedly done in the background of Batman’s history, this seems overly sensationalistic and almost disrespectful to the character. That said, it does suddenly make this series matter in a way that, say, the Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern series doesn’t.
Where we go from here is unclear. The Shadow will presumably find Batman and rescue him, but, beyond that, I’m not sure. My gut tells me we’re going to end up in Shamba-La by the time issue 6 rolls round and that The Stag’s true nature (and possibly identity) will be revealed at that point. What’s of greater interest now, though, is to what extent The Shadow’s interventions in Batman’s past (and, indeed, in the wider DC Universe) can be regarded as canonical and how exactly his plans for Bruce can be reconciled with what we already know about the character. Getting those answers is something of which I’m much less sure.
In the sense that it has dramatically raised the stakes for Batman and provides some clarity as to what this series is actually about, this issue is an improvement on the first two. That is not to say it is perfect. Rossmo’s art leans towards the sketchy side of things at times and the dialogue, although considerably better, still sometimes lapses into characters talking at rather than to one another with perfectly reasonable questions left unanswered by the people who have the answers but are too enamoured of their own verbal cleverness to give them. That said, some of the dialogue works rather well. The Shadow describing himself as “a glint in the peripheral vison of [Bruce’s] mind’s eye” is rather elegant, for example.
Whether you enjoy this issue will probably depend on how receptive you are to its rather bold central revelations. The plot is more sharply focused than in previous issues and dialogue is, for the most part, clear and accurate and, in some cases, memorable and emotionally engaging. The addition of The Joker is enough to mix things up in terms of plot and action and The Stag remains an enigmatic, interesting villain. In addition, this issue injects a sense of urgency into the narrative and, although the ‘surrounded by villains’ ending might be overkill, the prospect of seeing The Shadow and Batman take them on is appealing. In short, with this issue, this series might just have turned the corner.
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)
The first issue of this DC/Dynamite crossover did a reasonable job of getting our two crime-fighting vigilantes together and presenting the reader with an intriguing if somewhat confusing mystery about just who The Shadow is and why he might have killed Lamont Cranston, a pleasant enough man who turned out to be a descendant of the original Shadow. That issue ended with the revelation that The Shadow is actually Bruce Wayne’s old mentor, Henry Ducard. How will Batman respond to this revelation? And what path will the story take, now that the initial mystery of The Shadow’s identity seems to have been cleared up? Well, there’s only one way to find out…
The first page of this issue poses a number of questions. Why does Bruce not respond to The Shadow telling him that he has been “living in” Ducard and has always “been here… behind [him]”, one of the more startling revisions of Bat-history this tale presents to us? Why does he instead choose to speak in simple accusatory statements? Why does he decide to put his mask on for the soon-coming fight? Protection? The comfort of the familiar? It can’t be either to hide his identity or to frighten The Shadow, can it? The Batman/Shadow fight is pretty engaging. Rossmo’s good at the kind of slightly warped perspectives that in another sort of book would be distracting but here feel appropriate. His Shadow is particularly impressive. Nevertheless, the fight feels a little strained and disjointed and this is due almost entirely to issues with dialogue.
The two characters have a curious conversation in which Batman tries to convince The Shadow (or himself?) that he is the killer of Lamont Cranston and The Shadow tries to convince him otherwise. When the dialogue is reasonably direct, it works pretty well. (The “Only a fool trusts his eyes.”/”I trust my mind.” exchange is particularly tasty, highlighting that, when dealing with a being with the power to ‘cloud men’s minds’, Batman’s mind might be a liability.) When it moves into the realms of more enigmatic pronouncements, it becomes decidedly less successful. “Reason softens you. Time slackens the mind.” is a particularly bemusing example. Even more mystifying is the fact that Batman has run “facial recognition” on The Shadow and found him a “perfect match”. How exactly, given that he is currently fighting a Shadow inhabiting Henry Ducard and the emergence of The Shadow, as far as I understand it, warps the facial features of Cranston anyway? When The Shadow actually tells Batman who’s really killed Cranston (no, not the original – the other one), Batman refuses to believe him, dismissing it as a “convenient alibi” which prompts The Shadow into launching into a potted personal history. This is fine up to a point and we do get the line that Bruce doesn’t really “know what evil lurks in the hearts of men”, a statement with which, given the various traumas that have happened to him in his life, Batman would be entitled to take issue. He doesn’t, though, instead opting to ask how The Shadow knows about him, a question that is really rather redundant given that he’s just watched his former mentor turn into The Shadow just before his eyes.
The conversation ends somewhat inconclusively with Batman vowing to investigate The Shadow’s claims that The Stag is operating in Gotham and killing “the best” of Gotham’s citizens. This is something that those who have read the recent Batman annual will already know. The Stag is a new Orlando/Rossmo creation and seems to have been devised mainly for this series. More of him in a moment. The Shadow disappears pretty much as he did last issue, leaving Batman having to high-tail it back to Gotham and the reader to ponder whether The Shadow’s claim that he “trained [Batman] for years, through Ducard, and [his] other faces” is merely a nice metatextual nod to The Shadow’s formative influence on the character or meant to be taken literally.
The action then moves to Margo Lane’s Long Island mansion where both she and Harry Vincent are being told by The Shadow that they could be on The Stag’s hit-list. Neither Lane nor Vincent are particularly impressed with this current iteration of The Shadow and Lane in particular is horrified at The Shadow’s decidedly utilitarian approach to his associates. The Shadow’s response (that “humanity is a luxury [he] can no longer afford”) is not especially reassuring. In the meantime, Batman, deciding to assume that The Shadow is telling the truth, delves further into Lamont Cranston’s murder and discovers that it might be connected to the mysterious death of Barry O’Neill who was murdered (by The Stag, not that Batman knows that) at the end of Orlando’s story in that aforementioned Batman annual. It seems that O’Neill and Cranston were both recipients of a Gotham ‘humane’ award which is given to three deserving recipients each year. The third surviving recipient is none other than… Leslie Thompkins, philanthropist physician and one-time surrogate parent of Bruce Wayne.
Needless to say, Batman hotfoots it to Thompkins’ clinic where he arrives just in time to prevent The Stag from killing her with the ancient dagger used to kill Cranston and O’Neill. The fight is brutal but Thompkins herself intervenes, shooting The Stag in the head. Batman is aghast, but finds out that Thompkins is actually The Shadow in disguise. Another verbal and physical altercation ensues and, when The Shadow reveals that The Stag is seeking Shamba-La, the mystical place where the original Cranston took on the mantle of The Shadow, and needs one more kill to find it, Batman reveals he knows where The Stag is heading. The final page sees The Stag in (presumably) Arkham meeting up with probably the one Batman villain you don’t want an immortal murderer teaming up with. (Hint: It isn’t Kite Man.)
In some respects, this is an improvement on last issue, although the same problems that bedevilled the story then persist here. The principal one is the dialogue. There are some interesting things happening in this story. The contrast between Batman – a victim turned vigilante – and The Shadow – a villain turned vigilante – is potentially very exciting and is rich in dramatic possibilities. The Stag looks phenomenal – a pale-masked killer, horned, androgynous and evidently mystical in origin. Arguably, he’s the most interesting thing about this issue and lends a distinct air of otherworldly menace to the proceedings. But the dialogue too frequently gets in the way.
I’m not going to pretend that writing portentous, symbolically significant dialogue is easy, but when it goes awry the effects can be rather jarring. When Vincent complains to The Shadow that he’s been serving him for eighty years and wants to know when his debt will be paid, The Shadow’s “Your suffering at the yoke of culpability is an instant next to mine” has numerous problems. Firstly, you suffer ‘under’ not ‘at’ a yoke. Secondly, ‘culpability’ means ‘blame’ and feels odd here. A more appropriate word might be ‘guilt’ or ‘penance’. Things would be improved with a ‘but’ between ‘is’ and ‘an’, too. It’s not that the idea behind the dialogue is not appropriate; it’s just that the language used to convey it is simply not precise enough. That said, there are a couple of dialogue triumphs in here, too. Margo Lane’s “You spent us like ammunition” is wonderful. The dialogue isn’t all bad.
There are other issues too, though. If ‘Thompkins’ is really The Shadow in disguise, why is she seen talking into a hand-held voice recorder as if she really is Thompkins when no one else is around? Why, during that conversation with her voice recorder, does she make a reference to The Shadow? What does a surgical assistant making “stubborn mistakes” entail?
That’s not to say that the issue is terrible. It really isn’t. There’s a sense of Batman being on the edge here. This situation has rattled him – to the extent of him objecting when Alfred calls him ‘master’. His desperation when ‘Thompkins’ is threatening to kill The Stag is convincing too. Thompkins shooting The Stag in a Crime Alley clinic is evidently too close to home for him. There are flashes here of that Batman/Shadow contrast I mentioned earlier; Batman certainly seems to be aware of it and desperate to prove that his less lethal methods are superior (both morally and functionally) to The Shadow’s. The problem is that it’s all just a little too melodramatic, a little too emotionally heightened. There was an opportunity for a more emotionally grounded Bruce to contrast with the (perhaps) rattled Batman during the Batcave scene with Alfred, but it just doesn’t quite come off. Batman is a driven, almost obsessive character, of course, but hitting that one note repeatedly is going to get old sooner rather than later.
This series, then, is still not quite the out and out triumph it could be, although there are signs we might get there soon. Rossmo’s art is, if anything, more impressive this time round. That final page is gorgeous, for a start, and The Stag is one of the creepier new characters I’ve seen in quite a while. The plot continues to intrigue and the Batman/Shadow contrast, although not as expertly set up as it could be, is strong enough that this reader is interested in seeing how it plays out. Next issue… well, next issue could be very special. We’ll have to see. For now, this is worth a look.
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)
The idea of a crossover series featuring Batman and The Shadow is, on the surface, a no-brainer. The two characters are both alter egos of extraordinarily rich men who deploy an array of resources – both technological and human – to fight crime. Both operate in the shadows, both routinely break the law, and both struggle with their pasts. And both are multi-media properties who have their roots in the pulp era. While Batman has undoubtedly eclipsed The Shadow in popularity, it’s worth remembering that, in the late 30s, The Shadow was appearing in a range of media (including a radio serial starring Orson Welles) and that Batman co-creator Bill Finger has readily acknowledged The Shadow’s influence on the development of the ‘dark knight’. Batman’s debut story, Finger has also admitted, was heavily influenced by a Shadow tale. With all this in mind, seeing The Shadow and Batman work side by side is an intriguing – if not outright mouth-watering – prospect. But that isn’t what we get…
We start the issue with a short one-page scene featuring a meeting between Bruce Wayne and Henri Ducard which takes place at Ducard’s retreat in the French Alps. This turns out to be a framing sequence as we return to their conversation at the issue’s close. Now, Ducard is an interesting character not least because he has a certain history with Bruce/Batman. Perhaps most famous for being played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, Ducard is a decidedly murky figure who had a hand in training Bruce in his pre-Batman days. Whatever his background, it seems Bruce needs his help in unravelling a particularly difficult mystery. The narrative takes us back a week to show us just what that mystery is.
The next page is mostly a very impressive depiction of Arkham Asylum, leaves swirling atmospherically in front of its wrought iron gates. We are shown an unidentified porter doing his rounds handing out food to some of the more famous inmates, although I’m fairly sure he’s going way beyond asylum regulations in giving, for example, Poison Ivy “deep fried tarantula”. As bizarre as this sequence is, it’s entertaining enough and I must confess I did chuckle at Riley Rossmo’s depiction of Maxi Zeus lighting up a light bulb held between his teeth, presumably in an attempt to exercise (and prove) his ‘divinity’. We follow the porter home where he has a promising phone conversation with the man with whom he had a date the previous night. His ability to acquire exotic meals for homicidal lunatics notwithstanding, our nameless porter seems like a nice guy. He has a cute dog in some kind of wheeled harness, he likes Chinese take-out and he might be about to take the next step in a relationship with someone who obviously finds him pretty great. So, of course, he’s going to die on the next page.
And die he does. Again, the art is impressive with a particular focus on the dropped take-out (some kind of prawn dish, it would seem) which is spattered with blood. The statement “I am an honest signal” appears at the bottom of the page, we turn over and now the apartment is a crime scene crawling with cops, who engage in the kind of banter fictional policemen always seem to use when confronted with violent death. Batman shows up; Renee Montoya gives him the room. And I experience the first jolt of uncertainty. Our dead man is Lamont Cranston. Not only is he the first murder victim in this apartment block (that Batman notes this is a bit weird – does he have a scorebook for this kind of thing?), but he’s bearing the name of The Shadow’s real identity. Which can’t be right, can it? Hmmm.
Then Cranston’s killer (or certainly the man whom Batman believes is Cranston’s killer) turns up, a… ahem… ‘shadowy’ figure in a broad-brimmed hat, and he turns out to be, of course… The Shadow. Oh, there are one or two things to say here. The page in which The Shadow is revealed is awesome. Rossmo’s art is poster-worthy here and Batman’s befuddled expression is a perfect reflection of my own when I read this. The pages leading up to that revelation are less wonderful. It is unusual for me to be quite so conflicted about an artist, but in Riley Rossmo’s case it’s impossible not to be. While some of his art is gloriously atmospheric, some of his more mundane panels are too ragged, too impressionistic to follow clearly. There is, to be fair, a very kinetic feel to the fight between Batman and The Shadow, but Rossmo’s decision to draw The Shadow mostly in silhouette in order to delay the revelation of his identity (and, presumably, highlight the character’s supernatural nature) is undermined, not only by the fact that The Shadow possesses one of the most easily identifiable silhouettes in the whole of pulp fiction, but also because it makes the fight too difficult to follow. I’m still not entirely sure if Batman punched The Shadow in the groin. It kind of looks like he did, but who knows? He’s laughing about it afterwards anyway.
Then… there’s the dialogue.
I must admit I had a mixed reaction on seeing this issue’s cover. On the one hand, it is really rather striking. Perhaps that red is a bit too bright, but seeing two tough and resourceful characters together – and particularly The Shadow with both guns blazing – is, well, pretty cool. On the other hand, there are names on that cover that, perhaps a little unfairly, give me pause, chief among them that of Steve Orlando who shares the writing duties with Scott Snyder. I’m not party to the inner workings of DC’s creative processes, but I strongly suspect that this is Snyder’s overall story and Orlando is mostly responsible for dialogue. It certainly reads like it.
Now, I understand that it’s probably foolish to expect entirely naturalistic dialogue from people who go around at night dressed in capes and cowls, but there’s a trend of heroes speaking about themselves in pompous overblown ways that thoroughly annoys me and Orlando indulges in it here. When The Shadow disappears at the end of his inclusive fight, Batman cries out, “Whoever you are, I hope you’re listening. Bats live in the shadows. I’m coming for you.” This all makes Batman seem remarkably weak – and just a little unhinged. I’d much rather have him realise he’s just been confused by The Shadow’s supernatural ability to cloud men’s minds, but I’m perhaps expecting too much here.
That said, some of the dialogue works considerably better. Renee Montoya’s feels very realistic and the writing team are good at evoking character and background very economically at times. At others, though, characters do speak like they’re refugees from a Victorian melodrama with a tendency to pontificate that is both jarring and faintly ludicrous. This includes a very weird-looking bellhop who reads far too much into a disguised Bruce Wayne’s small talk. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The rest of the issue is taken up with Batman – in a variety of guises, including a version of Matches Malone whose moustache amusingly flies off in the middle of a fight – tracking down members of The Shadow’s network of informants and assistants or, in a couple of cases, their descendants. The Shadow, it seems, operated out of Gotham in the 30s (oddly enough, so did Bat… oh, hang on) but there’s no clue as to how he’s still around now. Batman does manage to penetrate The Shadow’s inner sanctum, however, and finds evidence of his grandfather’s involvement with Cranston in the 30s as well as a clue that leads him back to… Ducard. And we end the issue as we began – with a conversation between Ducard and Bruce Wayne which ends in a manner that I suspect the creative team meant to be shocking and dramatic but I found abrupt, confusing and a little anti-climactic.
So, what to make of all this? I’m honestly not sure. In one sense, this is a better story than I might have expected. Rather than a straightforward team-up between the two characters, Snyder and Orlando have chosen to make The Shadow himself the mystery that Batman is determined to solve. That’s a decision whose boldness I can’t help but admire. The problems I have with this issue lie in its execution. While linking The Shadow to an already established character like Ducard is an interesting move, Orlando’s dialogue and Rossmo’s art are both inconsistent and the plotting is a bit lax at times. We never do see Renee Montoya come back from her cigarette break and, once he’s encountered The Shadow, Batman’s investigation of Cranston’s death seems to exclude co-operation with the GCPD entirely. While it’s nice to see Cranston’s love interest Margo Lane again, she yields up important information surprisingly easily. Perhaps she’s hoping that Batman can save him, but that’s by no means clear from the writing.
While I like the central idea, it’s far too early to tell if this will turn out to be a great story. At this early stage, there’s certainly a lot of potential, although I’m not as confident as I’d like to be that the potential will be fulfilled. The mystery around The Shadow’s identity and his links with Henri Ducard are enough to make me interested in reading the next issue, but some of the inconsistencies in both art and writing make me unsure whether I’ll enjoy it all that much when I do.
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)
Having only recently re-joined the JLA in order to lead it, Batman is about to face as stern a test as you could wish for outside of nine rounds with Darkseid.
It shouldn’t be quite this dangerous to go hunting in Maine, but, when you add in falling satellites to an area already made famous by writers like Stephen King and H P Lovecraft, I guess a few fatalities are only to be expected. We open the issue with a glorious splash page from Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray which is accompanied by the kind of portentous third person narration 80s comics are all about. Of particular note is the sentence “Unseen by the radar of two nations, molten at temperatures hot enough to vaporise flesh and blood, changing direction as if guided by some invisible force, it hurtles to ground in a remote wilderness: the once-elegant remains of the Justice League satellite.” A triumvirate of fronted adjectivals; powerful words like “molten”, “hurtles” and “vaporise”; a colon: this sentence is perhaps the epitome of dramatic comics narration. The art it refers to is luridly, gloriously straightforward; the glowing embers of the wrecked satellite (it’s been in that condition for about twenty issues at this point) smash into the ground sending, in the foreground, trees flying. A bolder opening to a comic it is hard to imagine.
It’s followed by a scene set the next morning in which a hunter (all double chin, moustache, bandana and lifesaver jacket) and his dog are transfixed by some sort of energy beam that renders them a pair of silhouetted skeletons loosely surrounded by a magenta glow. This beam, of course, comes from Despero and it is painful. At one point during his interrogation of the unnamed hunter, Despero bemoans the fact that the man’s “pain and fear” are blocking his thoughts. Best turn off the torture ray then, eh, Despero? You’d have thought so, but, no, it’s just the cue for Despero to take the information he wants (Justice League-specific information) from the man’s mind directly, dissolving his physical form in the process.
This is, to say the least… unsettling. Well, for the reader at least. Despero is just interested in the information and, having determined that the League that sentenced him to Takron-Galtos is gone and that a new League has taken its place, he decides to take his revenge on the newcomers. Because a somewhat unjust revenge is better than no revenge at all, obviously.
At this point, you might expect the narrative to shift to the unwitting objects of Despero’s ire, but you’d be mistaken. Gerry Conway’s got a number of plates a-spinning and, with one eye on a plotline that’s not going to reach its conclusion for another few issues, he teases us with a three page interlude featuring Zatanna, who we last saw naked and strapped to a device that was extracting her DNA in order to pass her powers on to the enigmatic ‘Adam’. In this section, Zatanna manages, despite the pain band around her head making it impossible to focus properly, to get out of bed and walk down a hallway towards a laboratory where Adam is undergoing some sort of process to make him more magically powerful. Zatanna is intercepted by her former tenant Sheri and some other acolytes of Adam, one of whom slams her against the wall thus rendering her, once again, unconscious. The sequence is nicely paced and does a good job of building up a sense of threat for Zatanna personally and the League more generally. Plus, charismatic cult leaders who experiment on themselves are always interesting.
We then get a rather pleasant bit of character interaction between the out-of-costume Batman and Vixen. They’re dining at a swanky restaurant in Gotham and, to be honest, look like a pretty good couple. Mari McCabe has one of the most unique and instantly recognisable hair dos in the whole of the DC universe, but the restaurant’s clientele seems to be rather relaxed about it. The conversation drifts towards Bruce Wayne’s love life and the not especially groundbreaking observation that Batman prevents Bruce from having any kind of stable relationship. When Bruce opines that sometimes he thinks “there’s no Bruce Wayne; only the Batman and his… shadow”, however, the script touches on something approaching profundity – or, at least, it asks interesting questions about the relationship between Wayne and his alter ego that arguably form the core of the character. As potentially interesting as this all is, it’s doomed to be interrupted by the arrival of Despero.
Now, I know I bang on a lot about the joys of third person narration, but there’s an example here of just how effective it can be. The bottom of page eight ends with “And they do forget, for a little while…” and, when we turn the page over, we get the grimly regretful “Such a little while…” over a panel of Mari and Bruce reacting to a sudden rumbling sound. Artists McDonnell and Wray then treat us to a huge explosion in the middle of Central Park (sorry, not Central Park – whatever Central Park is in Gotham. Gotham Park, probably. I don’t know…) which is rather impressive. Then things start to spiral out of control.
I must admit I like the fact that Conway and crew decide to show us Mari and Bruce changing into their costumes on the fly. I like too the inner narration from Mari, reflecting that, yes, the Batman is ‘real’ to Bruce in a way that Bruce Wayne can never be. It’s an effective bit of characterisation.
A quick word on the art – or, more specifically, the colouring by industry stalwart Gene D’Angelo. There’s a wonderfully hellish lurid quality to the art from the moment that Despero hits the park. It’s excellent and the images of Batman and Vixen heading into battle amidst a hail of glowing embers emphasise their heroism. That heroism is even more apparent when Despero emerges from the flames to swat the heroes aside. Batman’s fortunate enough to catch a nearby tree branch, but Vixen has to concentrate to summon the spirit of some kind of bird to carry her to safety. It’s a close run thing, too, as she still ends up in the park’s lake, which is admittedly better than hitting the ground.
The action becomes decidedly surreal at this point as Batman faces Despero alone only to see Despero’s face start to dissolve before his eyes and the familiar Gotham topography transform into a nightmarish world of hellfire-spewing fissures and a demonic mastodon-like creature that makes short work of the Bat. Despero picks up Batman and starts to gloat, gleaning from Batman’s mind that the rest of the League has been summoned before noticing that something else is happening in the detective’s head. He is far too slow to recognise it as an impulse to attack and Batman’s fist connects with Despero’s face in one of the highlight panels of the issue. For a split second, there really does seem to be the possibility that Batman might die, as a decidedly piqued Despero tosses Batman aside and declares he’ll “pluck out [his] eyes… and crush them like eggs beneath [his] feet”. Nice.
Vixen saves Batman by catching Despero off-balance and pushing him into the big column of energy behind him. Job done? Er no. Announcing that he is “no longer… flesh as you know flesh” but instead “energy and hate incarnate”, Despero strides from the light towards a grim-faced Vixen and Batman. The next panel is a full-page splash of a huge explosion over the New York (sorry, Gotham) skyline; the words “I am Despero the reborn!” emerge from the explosion lettered in such a way as to suggest that, wherever you are in the city, you will have heard them quite distinctly. Batman and Vixen are in a lot of trouble.
Where on earth is the rest of the league?
Well, as might be expected, they’ve gathered at the league’s cave-based headquarters, wondering who sent the emergency signal. (No one’s on monitor duty, it would seem.) Vibe thinks it’s all part of yet another training exercise set up by Batman, but the Martian Manhunter points out that Gotham is cut off and that the teleport link to the city is now dead. The league take a ride in a helicopter to find out what’s going on.
Once again, the artwork really comes through here. The panel showing the helicopter approaching a Gotham in flames is impressive: a cordon of ships blockades the harbour; the JLA’s helicopter is in the foreground heading towards the city; a further chopper hovers just ahead of it; the city beyond it is engulfed in flames and explosions. The chopper pilot helpfully explains to the Martian Manhunter that Despero has somehow transformed the citizens of Gotham into demonic creatures. The helicopter drops the League off close to the energy barrier that is keeping Gotham sealed off. The hazy outline of transformed Gothamites can just be seen through the flames.
Needless to say, flames are something of a problem for the Martian Manhunter, but he overcomes his initial trepidation and gets on with the job of analysing the barrier, determining that it is vibrating at a specific frequency that Vibe can consequently disrupt. The League makes its way through the barrier, fights past a few ‘demons’ and then, just as the Martian Manhunter is pointing out that it’s all been too easy, the heroes come face to face with… Despero.
Now, by the standards of 21st century comic book storytelling, it has arguably taken too long to get to this point, but the comic has been, I think, pretty enjoyable. There’s a lot going on in this issue and pretty much all of it is well-written. There’s a clear sense of building to a climax throughout the issue. Conway gets his Zatanna interlude out of the way quickly before concentrating on a rather affecting bit of character interaction between Batman and Vixen and then moving on to the main plot. The preliminary encounter between Despero, Batman and Vixen is pretty exciting (that punch is wonderful!) and the sight of the pair of Leaguers subdued and imprisoned behind Despero on the final page is chilling in a decidedly gothic manner.
That’s not to say that the issue is perfect. There are one or two minor issues with the art (McDonnell gets Mari and Bruce’s positions confused during the restaurant sequence, for example) and there’s just a little too much recap when the League get together prior to flying out. It’s worth remembering, though, that this is a monthly title and some of the dialogue serves as a useful reminder to some ongoing issues within the League – although they do seem to be way too relaxed about Zatanna not showing up for what could well be this version of the League’s biggest challenge.
On the whole, though, this is an engaging mix of character beats and all-out action. Despero is supremely worthy of the slow introduction he’s had over the last few issues; the ease with which he dispatches Batman and Vixen is thrilling, particularly given that both of them are presented as very proficient in the use of their abilities. That final splash page is mouth-wateringly good, too. All in all, this is an excellent issue from an oft-forgotten era of DC’s flagship team title.
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 blog 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
 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.)
The new league’s first big adventure comes to an end in spectacular – and frustrating – fashion.
So far, this series has been something of a disappointment. Like a jigsaw made up of pieces that seem to come from slightly different puzzles, the opening story arc has been disjointed and awkward to read. The League, too, has been presented in a fragmented way, members acting mostly singly or in pairs and communicating with one another only intermittently. Then there’s the threat – or rather threats – with which the League has been dealing.
Firstly, there’s the Purge, a seemingly infinite number of flying, swarming bio-weapons disgorged from much larger ship-creatures that travel through a wormhole from their destroyed, shattered world to Earth. Green Lanterns Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz have traveled through the aforementioned wormhole to cut off the flow of bio-weaponry at the source while the Flash takes care of the Purge on the ground. So far, an adequate explanation of either what the Purge is or why it’s attacking the Earth has not been forthcoming. We have, however, had hints. Cyborg is connected to them via some sort of frequency he’s detected and… hacked? Subverted? Commandeered? We’re not really told. What we are told is that the Purge has been doing this sort of thing for some time and the Earth is “screwed” if the League don’t thwart their plan to turn human beings into things that aren’t human. This has been happening all over the galaxy, apparently, for, it is implied, a very long time.
Then, there’s the Kindred. The Kindred are four giant humanoid gestalt entities formed from the bodies of normal human beings. The jury is still out on whether those bodies have to be living at the time of their absorption. It’s entirely possible they don’t. These Kindred are getting together for a good old sing-song, a Fab Four if you like, although without, presumably, the side journey into eastern mysticism and mind-altering drugs. (Mind you, if you want mind-altering, you could do a lot worse than this issue, actually.) This singing will, perhaps, stop the Purge. The Kindred have already started singing apparently, but it’s difficult to tell, because although we get to hear what they’re saying to each other, we don’t get anything other than a visual representation of their song. Wonder Woman is currently inside one of the Kindred and the Kindred have also been responsible for siphoning off the heroes’ powers. Or at least some of them. There have been references to “stolen power” from the Kindred, which seem to tie in with some of the JL’s heroes, whose powers have been fluctuating during the story at inopportune times whenever they’ve come into contact with the Kindred. What happens when the Kindred finish their song is unclear; we suspect it might be good, but it’s hard to be sure. On the one hand, they will stop the Purge. On the other hand, they only really seem to care about doing so just before…
The four doomsday devices at the Earth’s core go off.
Four? Yep. That’s where Superman comes in, pushing those big blank balls of nothing from the Earth’s outer core into the Earth’s inner core. These are the same doomsday devices that set off the quakes in the very first issue and set off a quake “off the Richter scale” last issue. We have no idea what’s happening in the rest of the world but the rhetoric is all about the escalation and the JL barely dealt with the last quake. If Superman doesn’t get to those doomsday machines quickly, then… Hang on a moment. Just how fast can Superman move through molten super-heated magma? No, I have no idea either, but it’d be nice to know, wouldn’t it?
Right. That’s three threats that are connected in ways which we understand only imperfectly. The Kindred want to prevent the Purge, but they are also aware of the “breaking of worlds”. Is this some sort of contingency plan to prevent the Purge taking over humanity? If so, who put it there? And why is the prospect of the Purge’s corruption of humanity so terrible that it would necessitate their installation in the first place?
And then there’s Aquaman and his singing crystals. This is where we come in this issue. Aquaman’s listening to the singing crystals and they’re telling him where he should bury them. The problem is Aquaman’s narration is big on certainty but there is just so little to go on. The crystals say he’s “family”. Erm… okay. If there’s some kind of mind-influencing going on then fair enough. If Aquaman’s so freaked out about the end of the world that he’s desperate enough to take a chance on telepathic crystals that no one has paid much attention to before, then again fair enough. But there is no sense from the narration or the art that either interpretation of his actions is appropriate here. He’s just taking a chance on the voices in his head. And that’s… astonishingly weak.
Anyway, Aquaman plants one of his (four – again!) crystals and then heads off to plant the others. As with Superman, the question of just how quickly Aquaman can traverse the planet springs to mind. We are forced to assume it’s not very long.
We then move back to the Kent Farm, where a shaken Cyborg reveals that… somehow… he’s not just in touch with the Purge but controlling it. Why? How? We don’t know. All we know is that Cyborg intercepted a mysterious signal last issue and somehow used it to take control of a bunch of alien creatures he’s only just encountered.
You’ll be hearing that word a lot this review.
Batman finally gets to do something, boom-tubing with Cyborg to where the Flash is being swarmed by more Purge critters as the four Kindred continue their song nearby. Wonder Woman, of course, is also present inside one of the Kindred. There is yet another page of ambiguous dialogue before she is ejected from inside the Kindred’s body with a promise that, when she works out who she is, then she “will understand”. While this is undoubtedly a reference to the events of Wonder Woman’s own series, the Kindred’s pronouncements are simply too elliptical to have any sort of dramatic weight. As readers, we need to understand things now – not at some unspecified point in the future. If all Wonder Woman is going to do is have a largely pointless conversation consisting of threats, vague but portentous declarations, and a promise that things will be explained later, then what was the point of putting her in there in the first place?
The following page features perhaps the single most representative panel of the entire issue. Four JL-ers – The Flash, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg – standing around talking to each other, watching events unfold around them, doing nothing. The two TV reporters at the bottom of the page only make things worse. “Where are the Justice League?” Well, four of them are in a field somewhere watching the end of the world. Nice.
The following conversation between the heroes highlights the crushing silliness of the last few issues. It is worth reproducing in its full glory below.
Batman’s point is not coincidental. Why hasn’t the League tried to work out what the Kindred want? We’re five issues in and even now it’s not clear. Where does Wonder Woman get her really rather incredible – and not particularly well thought out – insight about the Kindred and their relationship to the League from? Most incredible of all, though, is the Flash’s sudden revelation that all he has to do to regain his speed is… take it back. Somehow. No ruby slippers to click together, no magic words to say – just a look of determination and a snatch of macho dialogue. Will to power in its purest form. Who needs silly things like plot devices and challenges for the hero?
What follows is nonsensical plot point after nonsensical plot point: the Flash takes his speed back, the most iconic female superhero in the world reduced to the role of cheerleader as he does so; Cyborg continues to exercise his unexplained ability to control the Purge and directs them at the Kindred; Aquaman swims; Superman pushes; Wonder Woman finally does something useful although with still no clear idea that it will be the right thing to do (“think” doesn’t cut it); Simon and Jessica siphon off the Purge from their ruined world, forming a construct tube to funnel them through the wormhole and onto the Kindred. That last bit is actually pretty cool, but, as has been the case throughout this series to date, the wow factor is diminished considerably when the reader isn’t entirely sure what’s going on or why what’s going on matters.
The fast intercutting between characters is meant to provide that sense of breathless desperation that would be entirely appropriate to the finale of a five-part world-threatening epic if the build-up to it hadn’t been so appallingly mismanaged. As it is, we’re left with Superman not having the strength to push the final ball-of-apocalyptic-nothingness into the Earth’s inner core (oh, no!) while Aquaman races to bury his final zodiac crystal in the “final corner of the Earth”, a ‘corner’ which is, appropriately enough, right where the Kindred are.
Aquaman saves the world (a good job, because Superman’s failed at this point – not that anyone else knows that yet) – and the Kindred think they get to finish their song. Batman, not being that much of a music lover apparently, has other ideas. To be (maybe too) fair, the final confrontation between the League and the Kindred is pretty dramatic. Batman’s point that the Kindred are made up of people and thus those people need to be saved is an entirely valid one. For the first time in the five issue run, it is made clear that the crystals are also dedicated to stopping the Kindred – providing a counter-song to what the Kindred are doing. That the reader still doesn’t have a clear idea of what the Kindred are trying to achieve renders the whole things less tense and involving than it should be, but Hitch and Daniel together do provide one of the best pages of storytelling I’ve seen in a long while.
Yep. This page is rather special…
A shame then that it’s followed up by a page in which Batman says the worst piece of dialogue in the issue (and that’s saying something) and a double page spread in which Superman unleashes and (somehow) directs the power of an omni-directional doomsday device that can apparently destroy an entire planet at the Kindred, freeing all the people within without killing a single one of them.
Well, you either buy that or you don’t. One of the problems with the entire story is the way the focus has shifted away from the JL protecting civilians in the first couple of issues to dealing with the Kindred and the Purge in the later ones. Rather belatedly, they remember those civilians. “There still may be casualties,” says Flash. May be? Do you think? But, you know what? The final page shows that the League don’t really care too much about that. The Flash flirts with Jessica, Superman and Batman have a conversation that just reinforces the sense that they really didn’t know what they’ve just been dealing with and we end on a nice shot of Lois and John wearing Superman’s cape about them waiting for him to return which, in a better-told story, might have some emotional resonance but here just feels completely superfluous.
So, what to make of all this? It’s clear that Hitch has a long game in play, but it’s equally clear that he hasn’t plotted it sufficiently well to tell a good story while holding enough information back to lead up to the big reveal. I get the impression that he’s aiming for a Hickman style run, but his command of contextual detail is sadly lacking and the story feels far too detached from the wider DCU to have the kind of impact of, say, Hickman’s Avengers run prior to Secret Wars. For an action comic, the League spend a lot of time standing around telling people what they don’t know. Action without context or with barely articulated purpose makes for poor storytelling which is, the impressive artwork notwithstanding, pretty much what we’ve got here.
The frustrating thing is that this could have been better. The notion that the Kindred can affect the entire universe is intriguing, but their background and purpose need to be much better defined than what we get here. Questions that aren’t even asked but desperately need to be addressed include: Who are the Kindred and what is their connection to the JL’s powers? Who put the extinction machines in the Earth’s core? How long have they been there? Why are they there? Are such machines in place in other planets in case the Kindred visit them? What is the Purge? What does it want? How does turning the population into something ‘not human’ disrupt the Kindred from doing… whatever it is they’re doing? What are the Zodiac Crystals? How do they work?
Perhaps more importantly, though, who thought it was a good idea to give DC’s flagship team to a relatively unproven writer with a grand vision but an insufficiently clear idea of how to bring it about?
In which our heroes continue to do pretty much all the things they were doing last issue. No, really.
We start this issue with our rookie GLs who are still trying to prevent alien space critters (the Purge) travelling through a wormhole towards Earth. And already on the first page we have a curious conversation in which Simon (sort of) admonishes Jessica for (sort of) suggesting that the Flash isn’t up to his self-appointed job of clearing the Earth of the aforementioned critters before (sort of) agreeing with her that they do indeed need to keep the wormhole clear of them. Simon realises the broken planet below is somehow producing the Purge and goes down to investigate leaving Jessica (lest we forget a rookie GL who still doesn’t have full control over her construct-building abilities) to deal with the remaining Purge creatures. While I understand that Hitch is going for the ‘one hero demonstrating her heroism against a swarm of smaller creatures’ approach, this requires a suspension of disbelief that’s difficult to pull off.
But that’s okay, because we shift back to the Kents’ farm where… Cyborg is doing pretty much exactly the same thing. Except this time Cyborg, through the wonderful power of technology, gets to find out what’s going on. This being the Justice League, though, does he tell Batman (and us) straight away? No. Of course not. Instead, he simply tells Batman that the entire planet is “screwed” and we return to the four Kindred who are standing facing out to, I assume, the four compass points and speaking cryptically to themselves. Or possibly to Wonder Woman who’s still trapped inside one of them, not that you’d know that at the moment.
What the Kindred are saying is potentially interesting. Their presence on the Earth has significance for the whole universe, not just the planet. There is reference to the breaking of worlds (presumably the doomsday – no, not him – devices buried deep under the Earth’s crust) and there is reference to the song the Kindred must sing “before this planet shatters”. There is no indication that singing the song will save the Earth either. Interestingly, the Kindred view the JL as their protectors.
I wonder if the JL see things the same way…
Aquaman’s still under the sea. Well, that makes sense, I suppose, but it’s the only thing in this section that does. Aquaman’s function here is to gather up the zodiac stones, singing (not that anyone else can hear them) crystal artefacts from some time in Atlantis’ distant past. The problem with this section is that Aquaman is receiving instructions from a song (the same song the Kindred want to sing?) that only he can hear. Having surrendered any scepticism or critical thinking in service to the plot, Aquaman just does what the song tells him. Aquaman asks, “Why can I hear it, understand it?” This is not only a reasonable question for the character to ask, but an absolutely vital one for the reader to get answers to. So, obviously, we don’t.
And Hitch’s script makes things worse. You can get away with a fair amount of ropey plotting if your actual writing is entertaining and interesting. “They can fix it. The crystals. They can fix the world!” fails on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to start. While the fragmented language is probably meant to convey excitement, it simply comes across as incoherent. Using a word like ‘fix’ instead of something like ‘mend’ or ‘repair’ (or, even better, ‘restore’) means an opportunity to lend this dramatic moment some gravitas has been passed up, if not actively undermined. And are we really meant to believe that a bunch of obscure crystal statues that we’ve never heard of before is somehow meant to provide the solution to a problem that threatens to destroy the whole world and this failsafe relies on Aquaman obeying voices in his head?
Never mind. At Clark and Lois’ farm, Batman continues to not do very much while Cyborg explains the plot. Sort of. Well, not very much at all, actually. We finally get confirmation that the wormhole-traversing space critters are the Purge and that their purpose is to transform humanity into something “not human”. That, according to Cyborg, is the “important bit” – so important he can’t actually explain it properly. The quake things are a failsafe to destroy the world. How this is related to the Purge, the Kindred or anything else that’s happening in this comic remains maddeningly unclear.
If you, like me, at this point want to screw the comic up into a ball and launch it at the nearest unsuspecting family member, you might be advised to go ahead and do so now. Who knows what you might be tempted to do once you’ve read the next section. Superman is at the Earth’s core being rubbish. But that’s okay, because the creative team are also being rubbish. Apparently, the best way to portray ancient prehistoric doomsday devices implanted in the Earth’s outer core is… not to bother. Superman’s efforts to stop the quake-inducing devices are meeting with failure, but not as much failure as that displayed by Hitch’s imagination. Because these epic potentially planet-fracturing machines are, apparently, big balls of blanks space. When Hitch ends this page on the word ‘nothing’, he is being surprisingly and horrifyingly honest. ‘Nothing’ is what this page has been, in the end, all about.
Then we’re back with Batman and Lois who, almost as if she knows her husband’s in the process of failing his big JL Rebirth audition deep below her feet, tries to convince Batman not to give up on Clark. (That said, I’d love to know what his other plan would have been!)
The Flash, meanwhile, is single-handedly defeating the Purge when he comes across the four Kindred staring up into space, their mouths still resolutely shut. (Maybe they’re just waiting for that big intro.) Once again, he finds his speed stolen, though. We finally get some Diana inside one of the Kindred. It’s always nice to see Diana, but it would be nicer to get some answers, or at least more solid hints to them. We get more grand verbiage instead – “The Eternal Return”; reclaiming “stolen power”; “we are a memory of so long ago”. It’s clear at this point that Hitch is building up to something big, but it’s equally clear that that something big is not going to be revealed – or even clarified – any time soon. If the entire run of the JL so far is simply set-up for something else, then Hitch (and, by extension, DC itself) is expecting readers to take an awful lot on trust. At this point, I just don’t know that I can give it.
At the Earth’s core, Superman hits on the idea of pushing the doomsday device into the Earth’s inner core, despite the toll it’s taking on his body. His heroism would be impressive if we had a clear idea of what he was actually doing, but we don’t. Jesus Merino’s art is good (as it has been all issue, to be fair) but can’t really disguise that there are some pretty significant problems here. It’s notable, for example, that the only time the doomsday device gains any sense of detail is when it’s being collapsed by the pressure at the Earth’s core. Superman realizes he’s going to have to destroy the other three devices to make sure the Earth is saved. Well, at least they’ll be easy to spot. There can’t be that many spheres of nothingness down there, can there?
We lurch and stumble towards the end of the issue with Diana ranting and threatening, the Flash falling and failing, Batman deciding that now would be a good time to get Lois and John somewhere else, Cyborg having some sort of fit and, finally, Simon and Jessica on the alien half-planet being confronted with a horde of aliens that all look suspiciously like Cyborg. Which should be a cool way to end the issue, but instead feels like yet another curveball thrown at us to fool us into thinking that something exciting might be going on. And, as any baseball fan will tell you, if all you throw is curveballs, eventually you’re going to be found out.
To say this issue is frustrating would be an understatement. The big questions have (mostly) still not been answered and, while the League members have moments of individual heroism, the whole story is too disjointed to provide the context necessary to make that heroism really stand out. The only possible exception to this is Superman who does, to be fair, seem to be facing a genuine challenge. The cover by Fernando Paserin and Brad Anderson is actually pretty awesome. The problem is that it portrays a unified League that simply doesn’t appear in the comic. There’s still too much fragmentation of focus, too many ‘massive’ threats that the League members are facing singly or in pairs instead of doing what most people have probably bought this book for in the first place – coming together to pool their talents and resources against a formidable, credible foe. Perhaps that’ll come next issue. Who knows? In the meantime, this issue continues to present a messy, somewhat incoherent storyline that remains big on spectacle but frustratingly short on explanation.