Comicscape: Justice League (

By:Joel Rickenbach
Date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Next week’s Justice League #12 marks the first year of DC’s New 52 flagship title. If there was a place DC wanted everyone’s eyeballs focused on, Justice League was it. Naturally, it’s the gateway drug to the rest of their shiny new universe. Do you love the new naive and overconfident Hal Jordan? Then boy do we have a book for you. How about a comically out-of-sync Wonder Woman? No worries, chum, DC provides. Needless to say, there was a lot riding on the success of this retooled Justice League. Not to mention the fact that the previous JLA was mired in choppy storytelling, editorial mandates and controversy for years. It had been a long time since the title was what it always should have been- vital. At the risk of drawing the ire of DC Nation- Marvel got it right. For over the past decade, Marvel’s Avengers books have been the epicenter of their universe. I’m not saying every storyline has been an A+, but the cohesion and must read buzz have always been at a steady clip since Avengers: Disassembled.

It actually started off well for the modern day Justice League. Back in 1997, DC gave the keys to the Ferrari to writer Grant Morrison, artist Howard Porter and inker John Dell. It shot to the top of the sales charts, and re-established DC’s “Super Seven” as the core of the universe. Many consider Morrison’s late 90’s run on the newly branded JLA the best the book has ever been. Once Morrison left, things got a bit dicey. A rotating door of writers took over the book, and it started to lose that precious cohesion. There were definitely some stand out storylines (Mark Waid’s Tower of Babel comes to mind), but as the DC universe trudged towards it’s many “Crisis” crossovers, the JLA started to crumble. Once the dust settled, the architect of the hot button Identity Crisis event, Brad Metlzer, took the reins of a newly invigorated JLA. This wasn’t exactly a day full of balloons and cake, as at least half of the DC faithful hated Identity Crisis, and were not thrilled with Metlzer re-launching their beloved core book (personally- I love Meltzer and all his works). Meltzer’s arc only lasted 12 issues before DC brought in fan favorite Dwayne McDuffie. McDuffie was chugging along until he was abruptly, and controversially, fired by DC for revealing too much of the behind the scenes editorial mandates, and his growing frustration with writing the book, on public message boards. Once again the JLA started to lose their mojo, but lucky for them, DC was about to press the reset button. 

That brings us to DC’s New 52, and their Faberge egg- Justice League. How do you make sure everyone is paying attention to your new cornerstone? By bringing in your go-to writer, Geoff Johns, and legend-in-his-own-time artist, Jim Lee. It worked. Justice League has consistently been one of the top selling, if not the top selling, book(s) of the past year. Now, before we break out the Cristal, the question still remains- is it any good?
Issues #1-#6: Not good. Yup, feel free to break out the torches and pitchforks, but this first story arc is full of clumsy storytelling, over the top dialogue, and characters who are little more than archetypes. Let’s set the stage- the first 6 issues take place 5 years before the rest of the New 52 books. The idea was to show the Justice League before they knew each other, and how they came together as a team. Throw in the old trope that the world doesn’t like or understand them, and we’ve got ourselves a hootenanny. The villain of the piece ends up being Darkseid, but it’s a fleeting, lips barely brushing against each other, kiss. Sure, who wouldn’t want to lead with their big guns, but the manner in which the team comes together, and how they ultimately defeat Darkseid, is so utterly contrived. I find it shocking that DC would want the foundation of their new universe to be something so un-nuanced. I’ll be honest- I’ve never been a big fan of Geoff Johns. I think he has good ideas, but their execution, and the dialogue within, has always left me scratching my head. I understand he gives fans the moments they want to see, but playing to the peanut gallery rarely yields good stories. I truly don’t think dialogue is his strong suit. Whatever gets the story from point A to point B seems to do, yet robs iconic moments of any possibility of being memorable. When Aquaman emerges from the ocean for the first time he says “Who’s in charge here? I vote me.” Picking up in the following issue, Aquaman remarks that he doesn’t see a leader in this gathering of super powers, prompting Batman to say “Then you’re not looking at me.” And after Aquaman gives orders to Green Lantern, he retorts with “Hey, I’m not a fish Aquafresh. Don’t order me around like one.” See what I mean? This is the first meeting of heroes who will one day be a modern day pantheon of gods, as Grant Morrison posited during his run, and we’re getting lame insults and petty infighting. Yes, it’s the small beginnings, but can you imagine, years down the line, after the Justice League have been through hell and back, Aquaman turning to Green Lantern and saying “Remember when we first met, and you said ‘I’m not a fish Aquafresh’?” as opposed to something iconic that still reverberates through the ages?
It’s not all bad, Johns has always done action well. The whole of issue #5 is actually pretty great. It opens with the Flash and Superman trying to outrun Darkseid’s Omega Beams, only to find that they can split, and will keep tracking both of them. It’s tense, well paneled and ends with Superman surprisingly getting run through. Issue #4 may have the finest moment of the run- After Green Lantern asks what Aquaman can “do”, the king of Atlantis unleashes a flurry of Jaws-level sharks at an incoming swarm of Darkseid’s minions. Finally, bombast used to it’s full effect!
Issues #7-#11: Better. A bit rocky for awhile, but better. The story shifts to present day; the Justice League are known and loved the world over, a large part in thanks to a book about them called Gods Among Men, by David Graves. The press swarm everywhere they go, and they even face questions about whether or not they deserve  a spot on the team. From issue #7 on, the book is split into two stories- The main tale eventually gives us the emergence of a new villain, Graves, and the backup story gives us the New 52 origin of Shazam!.


The main story starts out very uninspired. The team face off against a throw away villain named Spore. It's essentially filler to show us where the Justice League are as a team, and remind us that they still have their problems, and the government doesn't quite trust them. The problem is, the fight with Spore is more of the same ham-fisted dialogue and superhero posing. Gene Ha handles the art, and while I give all respect to him as an artist, his style if far too murky and too much of a departure from Jim Lee's. Lee's run on Justice League has not been his best work, but it definitely has its moments, and is suited to the blockbuster feel of the book. Issue #8 gives a throw away bit involving Green Arrow trying to join the team. There are a few humorous moments, but it's ultimately just a set up for other New 52 books. What is slowly developing in the background, and really comes to light in issue #9, is the transformation of author David Graves into the Justice League's new foe. It feels a bit disjointed at first, but really starts to come together in issues #10 and #11. Graves blames the Justice League for the death of his wife and children, all of them developing some sort of cancer after Darkseid attacked New York in the book's first arc. This prompted Graves to write his book, Gods Among Men, but as he and his family started to die off, Graves saw the Justice League as something different, and sought real gods to show him the way. He deliciously gets into the heads of the League, leading to a knock-down, drag out fight between Green lantern, Wonder Woman and Superman. He also tortures the Leagues villains to find out what makes each of them tick, which leads the League to realize just how little they know about each other. This story feels far more fleshed out, and is far more interesting, than the initial Darkseid arc. Despite getting a short page count due to the split issues, the ideas here really win out in the end.
The backup story, featuring Billy Batson and the legend of Shazam, is actually the best Justice League has to offer in its first year. Johns really lets the story breathe and develop, instead of tossing the characters right into the action. Billy's perfectly behaved facade is well written, particularly evident when he shows his true colors as a rather horrible kid. Gary Frank's art is fantastic as always. It's well paced, the characters are expressive and his work on the unleashing of Black Adam is sublime.

Geoff Johns really hits his stride with these later issues. Sure, there are still plenty of clunky lines, but his good ideas are starting to take over the show, and that is always when he's at his best. I can honestly say I am excited to read Issue #12 when it hits stands next week. Here's hoping Justice League continues to grow.


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Joel Rickenbach is a curator of cult cinema at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA, and can be heard every week talking film, TV and other geekery on the You’ve got GEEK podcast. Follow him on Twitter and hilarity will no doubt ensue.