An end of year review. Sort of…
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.
Justice League #2 sees threats multiply and our heroes ask a lot of questions. Are there enough answers to keep this reader hooked? Find out below…
Is there anything more wonderfully clichéd than the sight of a newsreader filling you in on what happened last issue? If you’re a writer, you’ve got to love it, really. You get to infodump straight into the reader’s head without him really noticing. What Bryan Hitch does on page 1 of this issue, though, takes things one step further. When his newsreader starts speaking in red and urges his viewers to “rise up”, I must confess a frisson of fear, the palpable sense of the uncanny, ran through me.
It’s a shame, then, that we don’t see or hear from the possessed anchorman again. There’s simply too much spectacle to take in and epic, giant threats to deal with. Or, more accurately, talk about dealing with. Or, more accurately still, wonder if they can be dealt with in the first place.
I can see what Hitch is driving at here. There are three separate (but apparently linked in ways about which we don’t even have a clue as yet) phenomena that the League is investigating and each one of them needs to be presented in a dramatic, engaging way. Morrison used to do this kind of thing quite often in his run, but he usually managed to at least hint at the ways the different elements of his stories were related. Hitch fails on this score.
What we get are moments of potential drama that are never quite realised. Towards the end of the last issue, both the GLs and the Flash had their powers… interfered with. What’s the effect of that little tension-building device? They get their powers back only to lose them briefly again a few pages later. And then they get them back again. A more pointless sequence of events it is difficult to imagine, although it could have been played for real drama and/or pathos.
The nadir of this section is when Simon Baz returns to consciousness a few moments after his powers were taken from him while he was in the middle of dealing with a tsunami about to hit Hong Kong. When he asks Jessica what happened to the water, she responds with an almost glib “Took care of it.” as if holding back a massive wall of seawater and saving thousands of people were a small thing not worthy of discussion or, for that matter, being drawn in even one panel of this comic book. To say that’s a missed opportunity – particularly given Jessica’s frequently-highlighted insecurity about her status as a Green Lantern – is an understatement. The story is too focused on the big stuff to fully take account of the smaller details that can elevate an issue from just serviceable to truly memorable.
The Flash helps Batman deal with the bio-missile and its flying insectoid payload in Gotham. I’m beginning to think that Tony Daniel really loves the Flash. Once again, he depicts the Flash’s speed with considerable creativity and, once again, I’m genuinely impressed and not a little excited by it. It’s a very nice section.
While Aquaman’s stuck in Atlantis listening to some singing rock sculptures (I kid you not), the rest of the League (without Superman at this point) gather to discuss the crisis, the story slows down and a number of problems present themselves. Firstly, this is a very unsure Justice League. While, in principle, I quite like the idea of the League talking things through, these guys take a relatively long time to come to any decision and seem to be very tentative. To be fair, there’s a lot to talk about: Cyborg’s found objects that are five miles across (remember that detail) buried in the Earth’s outer core; The Flash and the GLs talk about their stolen powers; and Wonder Woman relates her experience with the Russian soldiers. The one thing that isn’t discussed in much detail is the bio-missile in Gotham. This is because the Leaguers don’t need to talk about it, because the Watchtower satellite is about to get hit by one and hundreds more are about to invade the Earth. Nice.
This conference between the League is a good idea, but Hitch manages to present the heroes as being unable to think without speaking first. Everyone asks questions of everyone else and, in the process, pretty much everyone manages to make themselves look almost ludicrously unsure of their abilities and those of their team mates. Could the GLs survive a trip to the Earth’s core? Simon thinks so, but Cyborg disagrees. (There’s probably lots of yellow down there.) Can Jessica “do something remotely with her ring”? (This might be the most inadvertently amusing line of the book.) The League take three pages to realise they might need to get Superman on board, but by then it’s too late because we’ve got an alien invasion to take care of, as, portrayed by a typically impressive piece of Tony Daniel artwork, the Earth is surrounded by a swarm of the bio-missiles last seen chasing down unsuspecting Gothamites.
And… we don’t get to see the League clear the Watchtower. I’m a sci-fi fan of a certain age. The words “Hull breach on Deck Four” are almost guaranteed to get me salivating, but, for crying out loud, you’ve got to follow up on it somehow. Instead, most of the League depart by teleporter, leaving Cyborg to deal with the attack off panel. I get that Hitch is invested in the idea of single League members dealing with parts of a larger threat – or, more accurately, series of threats – but those resolutions should at least be shown.
Instead, we get… Atlantis, again. Aquaman, singing stones, a helpful guard who tells him they’re called Zodiac Crystals and are from a museum – clearly a place Aquaman has never visited, even on one of those rainy (choppy?) Monday afternoons when you’re bored and there’s nothing else to do, but pack a lunchbox of soggy sandwiches and wander around the local public amenities for a bit. We do get to see a development, though. The possessed people are merging together and forming a giant, humanoid, glowing creature. Hurrah for giant, humanoid, glowing creatures! I knew the comic was missing something and giant, humanoid, glowing creatures, in lieu of a plot that actually hangs together, must be it!
Sorry about that. The comic ends with a conversation. Admittedly, it is reasonably well-scripted – and the last line is a great one – but, even so. This is an issue in which talking has been favoured over meaningful action time and time again. Not that that’s necessarily a terrible thing, but, in this case, the talking has either been poorly constructed or conceived. Or comprises none-too-subtle infodumps, the rather groovy infodump on the first page excepted.
The art can’t be faulted. Daniel’s doing his best here and his Superman is absolutely awesome, but his artwork can’t disguise the fact that there have been some curious storytelling decisions here. The story can perhaps best be summed up as “The League tries to work things out. And hasn’t succeeded by the time the story ends.” There is a balance to be struck, of course. We’re only on part 2 of a multi-part story, and I’m not suggesting that Hitch should play all his cards at once, but we need more than what we’re getting here. A beautifully drawn, but nevertheless slightly disappointing issue.
In which Bryan Hitch starts his run proper on the Justice League and tells a story which is big on spectacle, but short on detail. Does that matter? Let’s find out.
I just might be in love with Tony Daniel’s artwork. Issue 1 of the Justice League opens with a glorious splash page of Wonder Woman diving downwards through the air while flak and missiles explode all around her. It is magnificent and I would quite like it to be a framed poster on my wall. Turn over the page and we’re treated to a double page spread of Diana landing, wielding her lightning bolt against a bunch of Russian soldiers and tanks. Once again, it is impressive stuff with bodies and hardware being tossed around like toys in a show of strength that rather belies her declaration that she is “on a mission of peace”.
This, I think, is the first slight problem with the issue. In these pages and the ones that follow, Diana attacks the Russians in devastating fashion, but, aside from a general lecture about peace and the various things to which human beings devote themselves that prevents it (including “border disputes”), there is no clear context for her actions. Is this a reference to the current crisis in the Crimea and Ukraine or something else? We only see the Russians, not who they’re fighting or, for that matter, any civilians that might be caught in the crossfire. If Diana thinks that attacking random Russian battle groups is the way to bring peace to man’s world, she might want to take a few lessons in politics first. In a sense it doesn’t matter, but fiction tends to be more successful when it is grounded in a believable world. When a huge earthquake shakes the area (wherever it is), a Russian soldier accuses Wonder Woman of having “killed [them] all”, rather implying that, when she tossed a bunch of tanks up in the air a few pages earlier, somehow none of the tank crew were killed in the process. The story’s too busy moving to care about such issues, but the dialogue raises them anyway, leading to a slightly jarring reading experience.
The focus shifts to Beijing (oh, so now you’re going to tell us where we are, Mr Hitch) where the two Green Lanterns, Jessica and Simon are doing their best to keep the city from collapsing, shoring up buildings with green… stuff. Then it’s off to New York, where Cyborg stops a subway train from crashing into some cars that have fallen through earthquake-generated gaps in the tunnel roof to land on the tracks below. This is all pretty good, actually. We get a clear idea of how widespread the earthquake problem is and we get to see the League members in full-on hero mode, saving lives and, to some extent, property. One of the best sequences, though, is Flash’s intervention in San Francisco in which his speed is emphasised by the simple but very effective image of a falling bottle of water. This is all engaging enough – in a visual as well as emotional way. After all, if the idea of specially powered superbeings putting their lives on the line to save people doesn’t grab you by the heartstrings, why are you reading superhero comics to begin with?
But, we’re already halfway through the comic and we’re not really progressing that much, particularly when we move to Atlantis to see Aquaman trying to deal with the earthquake (seaquake?) that’s taking place there. It’s only when we shift back to the two GLs who are now trying their best to save Hong Kong from a huge tidal wave, that things begin to get more interesting. Some of the civilians seem possessed by a strange power (complete with glowing red eyes) and, chanting something about “stolen light” and “our light” they somehow siphon off the Green Lanterns’ emerald energy. We see Jessica and Simon falling towards the sea and then we’re back with Wonder Woman and things get… weirder.
Again, the idea of things being “stolen” comes into play as the Russian soldiers (most of whom are, I’m going to assume, dead) lurch forward, eyes glowing, talking about “stolen power”. The same is true of Flash in San Diego; this time it’s stolen speed.
Then things get weirder still, when it turns out that a giant alien bio-mechanical missile has landed in Gotham City and begins to release hundreds of smaller creatures that seem intent on attacking the populace. While Batman is typically efficient, the story doesn’t hang around too long, as we move back to Atlantis where, once again, people are being possessed and talking about “stolen words” this time. What does any of it mean?
At this point, we don’t know and, in a sense, we don’t need to know. This is the first issue, after all. When we move back to Eastern Europe (finally!) and find Wonder Woman trying to tackle a horde of (possibly) undead soldiers who are moving through the air like a shoal of fatigues-wearing fish, we find out (because the aforementioned soldiers are helpfully telling us) that something called ‘The Awakening’ has started and that something called ‘The Kindred’ is coming. There’s also a reference to Diana’s ongoing search for her true origins as one of them calls her a “pretender god”. All intriguing stuff, but, while Daniel’s artwork portrays Diana beautifully, her speech essentially consists of the kind of posturing that, without some clear context, sounds quite hollow. “The Kindred? Well hear me now, Kindred. I have friends. And we’re coming for you.” Apart from the fact that that’s the second time in a few short pages that we’ve heard a member of the JL refer to the other members as “friends” (awww), the dialogue is mostly remarkable for its macho stupidity. While it’s understandable for Diana to react to the Kindred (whatever they are) as if they’re hostile, there’s still so much mystery here that it seems foolish for her to leap to conclusions like this. As a way to end the issue it works well enough, I suppose, but it leaves more questions than it answers and also leaves a slightly unsettling feeling in this reader’s mind at any rate. There are some pretty big assumptions being made here, and, as we all know, if you assume you just make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’. (Yeah, one of the worst sales managers I’ve ever encountered taught me that a long time ago. Never mind, eh?)
As a spectacle, Justice League issue 1 delivers. Tony Daniel’s artwork is impressively kinetic and his character work is phenomenal. As a story, the issue is a little more difficult to assess. While the feeling of worldwide catastrophe is successfully conveyed, by having the JL essentially deal with issues on their own, the story goes round in circles a little as Hitch tries to give each hero his or her time in the spotlight. Consequently, we’re actually not that far along by the time we get to the end of the issue. Numerous concepts have been introduced – the Kindred, the invading bug-missile, the earthquakes – but there’s no clear indication of how they’re connected to each other. Perhaps things will get better in future issues. This one, though, is a spectacular introduction to the series, which, despite some high concept stuff, falls short of being genuinely engaging.
Roll on, issue 2.
Bryan Hitch carries on his affair with the Justice League. Is it true love? Will it last? Or will it end messily? Who knows? But here’s how we start phase two…
Justice League: Rebirth is mostly about Superman. The opening four pages are narrated by him and, to be honest, those opening four pages are pretty impressive. If it’s one thing that Hitch does well (and, to be fair, he does a lot more than just one thing well), it’s… epic. As the Rebirth Superman (who is actually the pre-Flashpoint Superman after the New 52 Superman died) declaims his monologue, Hitch gives us scenes of an alien creature invading a city and of people running around in panic before Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and the Flash show up to repel the invading monsters, which look a bit like giant flying leeches. Honestly, it is pretty damn good. Hitch has always done epic visuals astonishingly well and his work here, though not quite matching his stuff on The Authority or The Ultimates, nevertheless does the trick of taking our breath away. It’s a fairly obvious point to make, but these pages have an undeniably filmic quality and it is very easy to imagine them forming the storyboard for the opening of a Justice League film that is probably going to end up being directed by Michael Bay.
As the JL members try to deal with the situation, the widescreen action is intercut with slower character interaction – either Superman and Lois talking through the issue of whether he should help out the JL or a flashback scene on the Watchtower in which the JL members try to get their heads round ‘their’ Superman’s death. And that is pretty good, actually. This structure is fairly straightforward but the contrast works well and there’s a genuine sense of increasing threat, as the giant crab/shrimp thing sends out its drones to enslave unsuspecting civilians and gather them into itself.
There’s a quick scene featuring the two Green Lanterns that foreshadows events in the new series proper and then we follow the JL into the belly (or, more accurately, brain) of the beast. Again, this is done fairly well. Some of the dialogue is a little banal, but every so often Hitch provides a zinger. (Batman’s “We’re going to find its brain, and negotiate the terms of its surrender.” is a great example.) Tension is increased as Aquaman is subjected to a telepathic assault that handily fills him in on what the creature wants and what it’s called (a Reaper, apparently), and then the creature responds to the team’s intrusion with a wave of smaller drone-squids. Although Flash’s “Action scene, people!” is annoying, this section as a whole is pretty exciting. The GLs arrive but it’s clear their presence isn’t going to be enough to turn the tide. This is, obviously, a job for…
I must confess that Superman’s arrival did cause my heart to leap and a big grin to spread across my face. We knew it was coming, but Hitch draws the man of steel perfectly here, smashing through the creature’s body and blasting away with his heat vision. Hurrah for Superman! There’s a nice pic that seems to consciously ape that moment that ends the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer, in which all the characters are in action in the same shot, facing the same way, working in unison. What the hell. It works.
So, too, does the page on which the JL, having broken the Reaper’s hold on the populace, warn the creature that the Earth is protected in a manner that strongly echoes the Doctor’s speech at the end of the Doctor Who episode ‘The Eleventh Hour’, the story that introduced Matt Smith as the Doctor. Not that I object to that, particularly. It is pretty cool.
The final page is a splash page as predictable as it is dramatic and the issue leaves the reader (well, this one at any rate) with a building sense of excitement for the rest of the series.
As a primer to the new series, Justice League Rebirth does its job pretty well. The plot is coherent and exciting; the character stuff mostly works, too. It reinforces the notion of the JL as global protectors and it also introduces the idea of the team working against external planetary-level threats reasonably well. All good.
The problems? The main problem is that, its portentous final words (helpfully relayed by Aquaman) notwithstanding, the main threat of the issue is not really fully explained. We’re still not entirely sure just what the Reaper wanted with the Earth’s population, and there’s a missed opportunity here to make the threat more specific and, potentially, more terrifying. I’m not going to quibble too much about that, though. It was great seeing the characters work together and it was especially great seeing Superman (re)join the League. The dialogue could arguably have been a bit snappier, but I’m prepared to give it a pass on this occasion and declare this issue a (slightly qualified) success. So far, this stage of the Hitch-JL love affair is off to a steady and intermittently exciting start.