Justice League Of "Meh"
(***WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!***)
When it comes to selling products, including yourself, to other people, making a good first impression is key. Yesterday, we got our first look at the rebooted post-Flashpoint DC Universe with the release of Justice League#1, and let me tell you up front: This book did NOT make a good first impression.
Not to say it was horrible. The book looked good. Jim Lee drew solid versions of Batman and especially GL, while his Supes cut a powerful figure despite the new costume. And Johns wrote competently enough. It was...barely average.
Problem is, when the book in question is DC's intended flagship title written by two of their biggest name creators, as well as the reader's first introduction to a revised continuity that DC is betting all their marbles on, "barely average" doesn't even come close to cutting it. First issues, especially ones with as much riding on them as this one did, need to grab you and hook you in. They need to be special, and distinguish themselves from what has gone on before with both the character and with the genre in general. They need to be creative and original.
Mark Waid's recent Daredevil relaunch is a perfect example of a #1 issue which accomplished all of those things.
And the new Justice League#1 is a perfect example of a #1 which accomplished none of them.
How did the issue fall short? Let me count the ways.
Let's start with the pacing, which could charitably be called "glacial". This thing was more padded than Christine O'Donnell's resume. The first twelve pages was Batman and, six pages in, Green Lantern (Hal) fighting something I presume is a Parademon as well as the Gotham police. That's followed by 2 pages of Bats and Hal engaging in a (figurative) pissing contest, and then 3 pages of them failing to stop the aformentioned Parademon from setting off a bomb in the sewer system and getting away. Then we got 4 pages featuring an un-Cyborged Vic Stone and his daddy issues. Finally, there's 3 pages of Bats and Hal going to Metropolis to look for Superman, only to find on the last page -- Surprise! -- Superman. Better yet, a Superman who hits people first and asks questions later. My hero!
This might have been fine if the book's title had been The Brave And The Bold Starring Batman and Green Lantern, but the book's title was Justice League, and it's supposed to star all 7 of the people on the cover -- and even that's only half the lineup. So by issue's end, only four out of the seven members on the cover, not to mention the fourteen members in total, actually appeared, and only three of those four actually interacted with each other. And of those three, one only appeared on the last page. Holy false advertising, Batman!
To be fair, maybe Flash, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman were too embarrassed to appear after Johns completely threw them all under the bus in the last issue of Flashpoint, which portrayed Barry as a selfish incompetent who carelessly endangered the timestream just to save his mother while depicting Arthur and Diana as being one Barry's-mother-retro-save away from becoming genocidal monsters.
And while I'm mentioning Diana, let me say that her absence, as Brian Snell pointed out, really emphasized how male-dominated this issue was. JL#1 was -- how shall I put it? -- a sausage-fest. The only females to even appear in the book were an unnamed pom-pom girl and the mysterious hooded lady who's supposed to be in all the New 52 books. Together, they appeared in a grand total of 3 panels in a 24-page story. Male-exclusive stories aren't necessarily all bad -- see "Reservoir Dogs" -- but they're not exactly conducive to getting women interested your product. And when the whole stated point of your reboot is to draw in new readers, excluding half your potential readership is, well, counterproductive.
Speaking of counterproductive, let's talk about some of the artistic choices of Lee and colorist Alex Sinclair. I've got no problem with detailed and finely-rendered art. Some of my favorite pencillers include George Perez, John Byrne, and Gary Frank, who specialize in the stuff. But Lee's art was so busy here that it was often difficult to see what the hell was going on. He wasn't helped by Sinclair, whose colors here were extremely dark and muted, with the exception of Supes and also Green Lantern and his constructs. In the case of the latter, the constructs should have stood out in perfect contrast to the dark Gotham, but Lee and Sinclair surrounded them with an array of unnecessary lighting effects so distracting that I had to strain my eyes to make out what the constructs even were.
But the biggest failing of the book? A staggering lack of creativity, particularly by Justice League standards. Look at the League's extensive history, including some of the villains they've faced and the settings they've been placed in over the team's 50+ year history. In terms of sheer creativity and weirdness, their Silver and Bronze Age adventures rivaled those of the Fantastic Four in the same era. Look at some of the creatures that artists Mike Sekowski and Dick Dillin drew over those periods. We had such menaces as Starro the Conqueror, the Appellax Aliens, Despero, Dr. Destiny, Amazo, The Unimaginable, The Warlock of Ys, Korge, the Key, and the Construct, just to name a few. Then in the 80's we had the Giffen League with such colorful characters as Rumaan Harjavti, Manga Khan, and Mr. Nebula. Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Mark Waid continued this tradition in grand style with the Hyperclan, Wonderworld, Julian September, Mageddon the Anti-Sun, and the Cathexis.
The Justice League is at its best when it gets downright weird. Look at the reprint in the recent Justice League 70's Retroactive. The villain of the story was Cary Bates, for heaven's sake!
Now contrast that with Johns/Lee rebooted Justice League. Who is the big bad in this story? Darkseid. Yawn. What's happening next issue? Why, a Superman/ Batman fight! Never seen that before! Except for "Hush". Or the Miller Dark Knight books. Or "Red Son". Or....you get the idea.
Also, look at the conclusion where Bats and GL are in Metropolis to find Superman. Lo and behold, who races by in a red and blue blur and attacks GL? Superman. Johns would have scored at least some creativity points by revealing the blur to be Wonder Woman. Or Bizarro. Or Mxyzptlk. Or...anybody else.
But that's not how Geoff Johns rolls. And that's the problem.
Johns can be a very capable writer. But all-too-frequently in recent years, his work has felt.... rote. By-the-numbers. Formulaic. One of my all-time favorite Batman scenes is in Kevin Smith's Green Arrow run where he's taken Ollie back to the Arrow-Cave and remembers the Arrow-Car. He turns to Ollie and says "My God, man, did you ever have an original thought back then?" If someone in the future were looking at comics circa the 2008-2011 period, he could very well ask the same question of Johns.
And that's not what Justice League needs. For the League to continue to grow, the only direction it should go is forward. Unfortunately, the League stopped really going forward after the Joe Kelly/Doug Mahnke run.
If I had to pick a writer to steward the League into this new era, I'd pick someone with a fresher perspective than Johns. Someone like Nick Spencer or Chris Roberson.
Nothing against Darkseid. He was the big bad in two of my favorite all-time story arcs: the Legion's "Great Darkness Saga" by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen, and JLA's Morrison-penned "Rock of Ages". But let's face it, any new arc that isn't at least as groundbreaking as those two arcs will be viewed as "just another Darkseid story". Unfortunately, that's precisely what I foresee Johns delivering in this arc.
Maybe I'm being premature. Even Giffen/Dematteis and Morrison, as great as they were, didn't really hit their stride until at least the 2nd issues of their relaunches. Maybe Johns should get at least that benefit of the doubt. But not for very long.
You see, reboots and new #1 issues are a double-edged sword. They can provide a perfect jumping-on point.
But they can also be a perfect jumping-OFF point.
Johns, Lee, and DC would do well to remember that.