It has been a year since DC revamped their whole line, cancelling all their on-goings and launching 52 new series each with a shiny new “#1.” Okay, technically the first in the line, Justice League #1, was published at the end of August, but I figure it’s appropriate to look back on DC’s flagship book and reflect on that first six-issue arc that served to launch the new DC universe (which is being affectionately referred to as the “DCnU”). Putting Geoff Johns and Jim Lee on the Justice League title just seems like common sense.
Johns has, after all, written pretty much all the characters already, and Jim Lee is respected as one of the greatest artists of his generation. However, Origins is far from the perfect reintroduction to DC’s iconic superheroes. While both writer and artist are doing solid work, there’s a sense that these first six issues are simply trying to do too much.
Over the course of six issues, Johns is certainly ambitious. He plans to reintroduce all seven of the characters to a modern audience. The idea, presumably, is that a reader picking up Justice League might go “hey, this new Superman is cool!” or “I never thought I’d be interested in Aquaman!” While reintroducing the seven lead characters, Johns has to play them against each other, fostering a team dynamic. On top of that, he has to explain how they gelled into a functioning team. He also offers the first glimpse of the evil Darkseid in the DCnU, crafts an origin for Cyborg, and hints at future plot threads.
People say that we live in the era of “decompression”, where writers and artists use six-issue arcs to tell stories that could have been covered in far less years ago. Being entirely honest, I don’t mind the trend. While some decompression is just down to bad pacing, the extra room can also allow for more characterisation and nuance. So, with that in mind, I’m going to make a controversial suggestion. Justice League: Origin should have been twelve issues long.
Of course, there are reasons it couldn’t be twelve issues long. This relaunch is supposed to attract new readers, and jumping into a massive extended story arc might well scare them away. As such, it’s probably best to keep it short and snappy, to make sure it’s as accessible as possible. (Although, to be fair, Scott Snyder’s superior Batman is opening with an extended Court of Owls story arc.) And, these days, it seems unlikely that Jim Lee would be able to draw twelve consecutive issues of a story.
You could have perhaps jumped the main Justice League title into the present-day DCnU and instead featured a twelve-issue miniseries detailing the origin of the team. As such, it would allow Johns and Lee the space to craft their origin, while maximising exposure for the team. While Lee wouldn’t have been able to craft both books, there are any number of qualified artists who could have substituted for him on one or the other. I know that there are practical reasons that would conspire against this, but I can’t help but feel like Origins would have worked much better with more room to breath.
However, in its six-issue form, Origin feels incomplete. If it is arguably a cinematic comic book, it doesn’t have a strong enough three-act structure. It has a solid first act that seems to run for four issues – introducing us to each of the characters in turn, suggesting a deepening mystery, showing us that these individuals might not be finely attuned to working for each other. And then the next two issues feel like the second half of a third act – Darkseid is revealed, the team is suddenly working like a well-oiled machine, the world is saved. There’s an entire middle-section of that plot missing, and it’s arguably the most important section of any Justice League origin story.
We meet six characters with six very different outlooks, all articulated remarkably well by Johns’ characterisation. We see the fundamental difficulties that Batman, Superman, Aquaman and Green Lantern in particular are going to have with working in a team. There’s mistrust, and a certain amount of arrogance. It seems like Aquaman, Superman and Green Lantern each believe they could probably to this alone.
And, then, suddenly, Batman suggests that they need to stop working like individuals, and start to play as a team. “So far it’s been batter up,” he explains, “but we need to stop playing baseball and start playing football. We need to be a team.” Now I’m not up on my American sporting terminology, but he seems to be suggesting that each member stop playing to their own strengths as individuals and instead collaborate.
The problem is that there’s no development. There’s no sense that the characters are learning anything. All it takes is for Batman to suggest this to Hal, and Hal to suggest it to his teammates. There’s no learning curve, no member when Aquaman overcomes his arrogance or Wonder Woman comes to implicitly trust her teammates. On one page they are fighting as a bunch of individuals, and on the next page they are a perfectly-honed machine.
There’s also the fact that it doesn’t feel like a story in its own right. It just feels like six issues of set-up. The major conflict is an invasion of Earth by the New God known as Darkseid. However, it’s just a generic alien invasion, causing massive destruction. New readers will get little or no sense of who or what “Darkseid” actually is. He just seems like a standard alien warlord, rather than the god of tyranny. Of course, Johns is setting up plot threads to pay off down the road, but there’s no sense of closure to the invasion.
We only get a somewhat shallow motive for the invasion, and one that will likely be developed in issues down the line. Wonder Woman demands, “Why are you here?” Darkseid replies, “For her.” Apparently he’s looking for the “daughter of Darkseid.” While I’m glad Johns is setting up a nice long run on Justice League, I can’t help but feel like the whole massive threat in Origin is really rushed. It feels simplistic and shallow, as if it could have been anyone or anything, and not the DC universe’s biggest bad.
And yet, despite these significant flaws, I’m actually cautiously optimistic about the idea of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee working on an extended run of Justice League. After all, the biggest problems with the arc stem from the fact that it tries to fit far too much into a six-issue story, and as a result creates a somewhat shallow epic. I think that, given more freedom to determine the scope and length of their stories, Lee and Johns will be able to tell some definitive Justice League adventures.
They are two talents who, despite the occasional vocal criticism they might attract, sit at the very top of DC’s talent pool. Lee is one of the most respected artists still working today, and Johns has an incredibly ability to see right to the heart of any of DC’s iconic (and even non-iconic) superheroes. You can see traces of Johns’ solid character work scattered throughout the story arc, even if it is undermined by the problems with the format of the story.
Part of me wonders, though, if Jim Lee is struggling under the pressure of making six consecutive one-month deadlines. I believe that the scripts for Justice League were among the first written of the relaunch, if only to give the notorious meticulous artist time to get his work done. (Indeed, I believe the subsequent two issues of Justice League were handled by a fill-in artist.) While Lee was able to slow down the monthly publishing schedule of Batman: Hush or Superman: For Tomorrow, that is not an option here. Perhaps because of that, Lee’s artwork looks just a little bit rougher than it has in recent projects.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although he does, at times, seem to add lines simply to create the illusion of detail. At times, it reminds me of his work on X-Men, which I believe some comic book fans prefer to his more polished recent output. Still, it is Jim Lee artwork, and it has many of the same strengths and weaknesses. For one thing, Jim Lee is just about the only artist who can successfully do justice to Jim Lee’s character designs. He draws fantastic superheroes. However, his panels lack a certain dynamism to them, and frequently appear more like pin-ups than actual story panels.
You can see, at the heart of Justice League, a fundamental shift in the dynamic of the DC universe. Before the reboot, it seemed that the DC characters were somewhat more respected and admired than their counterparts at Marvel. While there were exceptions, superheroes were generally accepted in the DC universe, as opposed to having to deal with the same sort of mistrust and suspicion as the characters at their rival company. Here, Johns dares to sort of reverse that position a bit, illustrating that these characters were once feared by the people they protected.
It’s interesting to see how Johns portrays the team. Grant Morrison argued during his Justice League run that the superheroes represented a sort of modern pantheon, new new gods. While Johns also seems to play with that idea, he also emphasises them as super-humans, the type of heroes who might make the ordinary citizens of the DCnU feel just a little bit redundant. Doctor Stone tells his son, “We’re witnessing the birth of a new race of people. Super-humans. Beings who can fly, tear through buildings and outrun race cars. They will make what you ‘do’ obsolete! Do you understand?”
It does evoke the X-Men just a little bit, with the implication being that mankind is wary of what they suspect might be their replacements. In fact, it’s the opposite side of the coin that Morrison suggested. While Morrison’s Justice League ended with everybody on the planet given superpowers in order to fulfill their potential, with superheroes just the logical expression of mankind’s capacity for greatness, Johns suggests that the heroes remind people of their shortcomings rather than inspiring them to greatness.
And, while people will be far too quick to label this an attempt to produce a “darker and edgier” DCnU, it is worth conceding that Johns anchors this suspicion in the past. This mistrust was unfolding five years ago, when the heroes first emerged. “There was a time when the world didn’t call them its greatest superheroes,” the opening caption tells us as we jump back in time five years. The implication, of course, is that we do now call them “the world’s greatest superheroes.”
So, despite what cynics might argue, Johns is not trying to create an inherently darker iteration of the DC universe, instead trying to portray how the heroes became the icons of virtue that they are. (Of course, Origin doesn’t really do this, because all our heroes do is really beat up some aliens.) Johns even explicitly references Morrison’s pantheon. “Every civilisation throughout history has had higher beings they aspire to,” David Graves, Johns’ authorial stand-in, comments, seemingly a quote from his book about the Justice League titled Gods Among Us.
Johns also seems to write his characters in a style similar to Morrison’s iconic Justice League. Morrison had a tendency to write his characters in the style of their on-going series, crafting an Aquaman who seemed quite similar to the one being written in his own book by Peter David, for example. Johns seems careful to craft his characters here to reflect the distinctive voices given to them in their on-going solo books. So his Superman sounds like Grant Morrison’s Action Comics proactive social crusader, while the Flash is more of a traditional do-gooder as he appears in Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato’s Flash. It’s a nice touch.
Of course, this is probably helped by the fact that Johns has a huge amount of experience writing these individual characters. For Superman, he wrote a run on Action Comics and Superman: Secret Origin. For Batman, he wrote Batman: Earth One. He had an extended run on The Flash. He wrote Cyborg as part of Teen Titans. He is still writing a celebrated run on Green Lantern. He wrote Aquaman during Brightest Day and is now writing an Aquaman on-going book. Virtually the only one of the group he has little experience writing is Wonder Woman, which as arguably telling – she gets the least definition here.
It is also worth noting that these are clearly intended to be heroes relatively early in their careers, so the personality clash between them feels somewhat more abrasive. I suspect that characters like Superman, Green Lantern, Aquaman and even Batman will settle into more comfortable positions within the group. Within Origins, there’s a very clear friction between the members of the team, many of whom haven’t been superheroes for long.
You can see DC’s attempts to rehabilitate Superman in the pages of Justice League. It’s become a cliché to describe Superman as a big blue boy scout”, and there was a conscious attempt with the relaunch to move away from that characterisation. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics cast the character back in his Golden Age mold, as a social crusader not afraid to fight the system. Johns’ Justice League plays into that characterisation, portraying a Man of Steel who refuses to be a flunky for the status quo.
When the Flash has moral issues with disarming US military choppers, it’s Superman who justifies the act. “You seem like someone who wants to do the right thing,” he tells Barry Allen, “but the same can’t always be said for everyone in positions of authority.” Similarly, Johns portrays a Superman who is more aggressive and adversarial than most readers will be used to. When he suspects that Batman and Green Lantern are behind a terrorist attack on the city, he doesn’t pull any punches and jumps right to a traditional hero-vs-hero fight.
Okay, some of this characterisation is just a bit much, portraying Superman as little more than a thug with superpowers. “Talk, Batman,” he warns the Caped Crusader at one point. “Before I won’t let you.” Only the other hand, it’s refreshing to see a proactive no-nonsense Man of Steel. One of the best moments in the collection feels like payback for various humiliations Batman has inflicted on Superman over the years (defeating him in The Dark Knight Returns or holding his own in Hush, for example). As Batman backs away from Superman, using every resource at his disposal, Superman isn’t fazed and seems almost amused. “Tear gas. Sonic grenades. Tasers. Your belt’s empty, Batman.”
At another point, we get to see Superman singlehandedly taking down an entire army of Darkseid’s parademons. This isn’t a version of the hero who gets easily brushed aside so that his teammates can have something to do. I have to admit that I am broadly in favour of this portrayal of the Man of Steel, putting a bit of mettle back into his character, and moving away from the excessively angsty and internalised version of the character that has grown increasingly common in recent years.
And, to be fair, shifting away from the “boy scout” persona seems like a smart move, because it allows another character to pick up that character dynamic. Here it’s Barry Allen, the Flash, who has arguably been one of the blander characters in the Justice League ensemble. In fitting with the retroactive characterisation that writers have used in the years following his departure, Johns firmly establishes Barry as the heart and conscience of the Justice League.
The Flash establishes himself as the yin to Green Lantern’s yang, repeatedly telling his more arrogant and reckless teammate to tone it down. When Green Lantern keeps making jabs at Batman and Aquaman, the Flash politely whispers, “Be polite, Lantern.”Naturally, the Flash is the only member of the team predisposed towards team-ups, as it’s revealed he actually has a cordial relationship with Green Lantern. The pair are the only two who know each other before the story kicks off, and it seems like the Flash is the one member of this team of gigantic egos who is a genuinely agreeable person. After all, he can get along with Green Lantern.
He even has a strict moral code, and seems to be the one member of the group who is actually bothered by the fact that he’s an illegal vigilante. While the other team members accept that society doesn’t care for them, Barry actually seems sensitive to that fact. He insists, “I never break the law.” It’s telling that Barry Allen is the only secret identity we get to see in operation (save, arguably, that of Vic Stone). Allen is driven by his conscience to do the right thing, trying desperately to solve a cold case despite the fact the system doesn’t care.
Aquaman is, like Superman, a character that DC hopes to rehabilitate with this relaunch. Although the character has enjoyed acclaimed runs in the past, the “New 52” has seen a concentrated push on the character – relaunching his book with the combination of an A-list writer and an A-list artist. The result has been an Aquaman on-going that has sold in the top ten, and it’s a book I’m quite keen to check out.
John is, quite rightly, conscious of Aquaman’s status as a pop culture footnote. The extent to which the general public is aware of Aquaman is as “the dude who talks to fish.” Rather than ignoring the awkward stigma surrounding Arthur Curry, Johns instead decides to acknowledge it – and then to disprove it. “I thought Aquaman was a sketch on Conan O’Brien,” Green Lantern jokes, suggesting that the parody of the character has actual surpassed the original in cultural consciousness. It’s telling that the team’s token jerk, Green Lantern, gives Aquaman an even tougher time than Batman. “So, really,” Hal demands, “what can you do that we can’t?”
And, to be fair to Johns, he does demonstrate it. Not only are we introduced to an Aquaman who seems to have his house in order (ejecting the invading hordes out of the ocean on to the land), but Johns cleverly plays up the regal nature of the character. Aquaman isn’t just some guy who talks to dolphins, he’s a monarch. “So, who’s in charge here?” he asks as he introduces himself to the team. “I vote me.” Johns even demonstrates that “talks to fish” can actually be a fairly potent and powerful ability in the right hands.
Wonder Woman gets the least development here, perhaps not surprisingly. She can be the toughest member of DC’s “trinity” to write, and she was also somewhat sidelined during Brad Meltzer’s Justice League run. Despite, or perhaps because of, the radical overhaul that Diana was receiving in Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman, Johns plays it fairly safe. We get the generic “Wonder Woman as warrior” portrayal we’ve been seeing for quite some time, portraying the character as arguably the most sensitive and yet the most violent of the iconic superheroes.
We also get elements of the “stranger in a strange world” portrayal as well, with Diana musing, “Ice cream is wonderful.” And Johns does give us a small conversation with a young girl that mirrors one of the stronger scenes in the superb animated Wonder Woman film, as Wonder Woman proves to be a strong feminine role model who doesn’t conform to gender archetypes. Although, sadly, Johns omits a scene where Wonder Woman teaches the girl how to fence better than her male friends.
Still, there’s really not too much of Wonder Woman here, save that she’s new to this modern world, is very strong and very tough. (And, according to the supplementary material, willing to kill.) It will be curious to see how Johns develops her in his later work on the title. I suspect that he might not have had time to get completely comfortable with Azzarello’s radical portrayal, and just played it safe with the character. I guess we’ll see in later volumes.
The biggest change from iconic Justice League rosters is the presence of Cyborg in the place of the Martian Manhunter. I actually like the switch, if only because any League featuring the Martian Manhunter automatically made Superman redundant. And it’s nice to see a conscious push for a lesser-known character, especially a minority character. Mainstream comics aren’t nearly diverse enough, and I respect DC’s relaunch for taking a chance on so many African-American characters. (Even though sales data suggests that it’s the fans who aren’t giving them a chance.)
Arguably the one plot thread from Origin that works best is the origin of Vic Stone as Cyborg. It’s a clear and logical progression from all-star athlete to superhero, and he arguably has a clearer emotional arc than his colleagues. That said, it does feel a bit awkward that Johns falls back on the same “Batman has to convince Vic how awesome he is” scene that he used during Flashpoint. Still, it’s good to see some dynamism in DC’s line-up, and to see a character bumped up from the Teen Titans to the Justice League.
This brings us to the last two of the seven, and Johns does well to link Batman and Green Lantern so thoroughly. Both characters pretty much survived the reboot intact. Indeed, Johns’ Green Lantern reads like there never was a reboot, while Batman is in the same status quo more or less, with changes explained in-story. As such, it feels strangely appropriate that the opening issue sees the pair of them meeting and “collecting” the other iconic heroes that make up the team.
It’s frequently argued that Johns can’t write Batman. This argument, it seems, is based off the fact that Johns has repeatedly used Bruce as a foil for Hal and the Green Lantern characters. I’d respectfully disagree. While Johns doesn’t necessarily write the kind of Batman you’d associate with the Justice League book, I think his portrayal fits. After all, using a hero who dwells in shadow as a foil for one whose power is based on light just seems like good plotting.
Johns’ Batman is decidedly human, in contrast to his peers. Morrison (and many other writers) tend to over-compensate for Batman’s humanity by allowing him to constantly steal focus and prove how incredibly tough and bad-ass he is. Johns consciously avoids that trope, opting instead to embrace and accept that Batman isn’t ever going to be a literal “big hitter” of the group, at least physically. For Johns, Batman’s biggest asset is that weakness – the fact that he can’t go toe-to-toe with Superman and Darkseid. It forces Bruce to think laterally, and to use his head.
It’s Batman who refuses to get caught up in the hero-fighting-hero antics of the first few chapters. Green Lantern and Superman are both strong enough to believe that they can quickly subdue the other, but Batman is smart enough to realise that this will cause more harm than good. “Both of you, hold on–!” Batman demands. At one point, the Flash asks the recurring question, “What can you do?” Batman replies, “I can keep us on point.”
It’s Batman who realises that they need to work as a team (which really shouldn’t take too much brains), but also who realises that the team needs Superman back on the board and is willing to risk his own life to recover the Man of Steel. A lot of people argue that Johns’ Batman never gets big moments, but that ignores the fact that Bruce is defined by his humanity. He’s the first hero to make a trusting gesture, unmasking in front of Hal Jordan.
Johns is also keen to showcase Batman as a detective. It seems that Bruce is always watching and observing his fellow heroes. For example, he deduces the nature of Green Lantern’s ring – “I don’t see any buttons so I’m guessing it works off concentration.” Similarly, Bruce also correctly guesses the nature of Barry Allen’s employment – “You sound like a cop.” Okay, none of these are shocking revelations, since we already know all this, but it’s nice that Johns includes that aspect of Batman’s personality.
He also makes some sound, but incorrect, observations about Superman. “Where do you hide?” Bruce wonders. “You don’t wear a mask so apparently you have no identity to protect.” That’s an interesting and telling remark. That’s part of the reason I suspect that Lex Luthor has never come after Clark Kent or devoted any serious effort to discover Superman’s civilian identity – because it never occurs to Luthor in all his arrogance that Clark has a secret identity. It also opens up, rather subtly, that whole “is it really Superman or Clark Kent or Kal-El” debate.
At the same time, Johns’ Batman, like the rest of his cast, is more than a little flawed. While characters like Aquaman and Superman suffer from arrogance, Bruce is slightly scary. “The world’s afraid of us,” he advises Hal at one point. “You say that like it’s a good thing,” Hal responds. “It’s necessary,” Bruce suggests. Batman begins the arc immensely paranoid and clearly more than a little uncomfortable with his new super-powered playmates. Despite the fact he suggests organising into a team, Bruce initially seems like the member least likely to play well with others.
He also seems more than a little possessive. Unlike the Flash, Bruce seems to have no moral doubts about what he is doing – he appears to believe completely in his own authority. He’s almost ready to divide up the United States among his fellow superheroes. “Gotham’s mine,” he tells Green Lantern. “Coast City’s yours.” At the same time, Bruce is also acutely aware of how ridiculous all this is, seemingly more self-aware than most his fellow heroes. “Wearing a Batsuit is normal?” Hal asks him at one point. “No, it’s insane,”Bruce confesses. It seems unlikely that anybody else on the team would admit the the insanity of their situation.
As with the rest of his work, Johns continues to develop Bruce as a foil for Hal. Indeed, he acknowledges that both are living in the shadow of dead parents, trying to live up. Bruce compensated by being icnreasingly dark and serious, while Hal simply refused to grow up. It’s a nice point of reference. There is, of course, another similarity that Johns explicitly raises as well. “We’re just somewhat… alike,” Bruce remarks. “We’re alongside an alien, an Amazon, a human lightning bolt, a cyborg and an Aquaman. As far as I can tell, you and I are the only normal people here.”
Hal Jordan is probably the character on the roster that Johns has written most. Perhaps as a result of that, Hal is the character that Johns feels least afraid to portray as juvenile and immature. At this point in the book, Johns’ Green Lantern seems almost singularly unsuited to the role of hero. He seems to be cruising for a fight. He’s ready to fight Batman (even though Batman is smart enough not to engage him) and is over-confident and over-eager to take on Superman.
He’s shallow, with his dialogue consisting of clichés like “Green Lantern’s got this” and “we’ve got this”, is if consciously trying to spark a bad meme. Nobody on the team takes him especially seriously. Even his one friend, Barry Allen, seems to spend most of his time trying to temper Hal’s arrogant outbursts. When Batman scoffs at him, Hal gets very insecure. “I’m serious,” he whines. It seems like Hal is easily the shallowest of the bunch. He appears to live on a diet of pop culture. At one point, he wonders if Darkseid is a band. He compares the parademons to Transformers. Yet, he doesn’t know who Bruce Wayne is. (Which would be akin to not knowing Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet or Bill Gates.)
Possessing a somewhat depressing inferiority complex, Hal’s desperate to impress and to prove himself deserving of the ring. “Whoa!” Barry gasps at one point. “Superman uses that truck like a baseball bat.” Hal immediately insists, “I can do that too. See?” When he accidentally brushes against Wonder Woman’s lasso, he confesses, “Most of what I do is about trying to impress people.”It’s easy to see this version of Hal Jordan as an earlier iteration of Johns’ take on the character, a hero who could easily fall victim to Parallax and succumb to a massive fall from grace. And yet, he’s still heroic. He still wants to do good, and is still willing to die to save lives.
It’s arguably Hal Jordan how has the other, much smaller, character arc over the six issues. He learns that he can’t do everything himself, and that he needs to depend on his fellow heroes. It’s not the strongest or most consistent of character arcs, and it could have been fleshed out considerably, but it is there. I can’t help but wonder if Johns might have been better suited if he had room to plot arcs for each of his major characters, rather than simply introducing and establishing them. After all, the wonderful thing about origin stories is that they’re one of the few stories where you can affect genuine change to an established comic book property.
Origin is more than a bit disappointing. It’s not that it’s a weak story, it’s that it’s a weak story with some great ingredients. While Johns gives each character big moment while defining their personality, he never really gels them together. Characters like Vic Stone, Hal Jordan and Bruce Wayne arguably all get relatively small character arcs, but that leaves four members of the team who do nothing but standing around and looking cool.
Sadly, Origin is far from the ideal Justice League origin story. Indeed, I’d advise new readers to pick up Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontierfor a much stronger story that manages to bring an ensemble together without sacrificing plotting or character arcs. It’s a damn shame, because Johns and Lee are two of the strongest craftsmen working in comics, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been excited to check out their collaboration.
Still, there is hope for the future. Johns is a strong character writer, and I’m sure that he’ll work much better when he’s crafting “present day” stories using the characters, without the burden of having to introduce them all, establish the League, establish the threat, build the world and give Vic Stone an origin story. I’ll be hanging around, but I just hope it gets better.
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