GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE
 PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


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JLA - The Justice League of America

PAGE TWO

Justice, vols. 1-3 2007-2008 (HC & SC TPB) 128 pages each

coverWritten by Jim Krueger (story Krueger & Ross). Pencil art by Doug Braithwaite. Painted art by Alex Ross.
Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Collecting the 12 issue maxi-series over three volumes (2005-2007).

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: various intros by the creators; character profiles of the heroes and villains (originally presented in the comics).

Justice was an epic maxi-series spread over 12 issues (28 pages of story) and two years (it was published bi-monthly). Photo-realistic artist-painter Alex Ross' name on the bi-line was, as usual, a major selling point. And though with some recent projects, Ross has participated as a co-plotter rather than artist, here he does provide the visuals in collaboration with Doug Braithwaite. Braithwaite has a realist style reminiscent of Ross and provides the pencils, which Ross then paints over. The result is that it looks like Ross' work, right down to the depiction of the heroes (Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, etc. look just like the way Ross envisioned them in previous efforts he illustrated on his own).

Ross is also credited as co-plotter with scripter Jim Krueger (the two having worked together both before and after this project, including subsequently on Project Superpowers for Dynamite Comics).

The idea behind Justice is basically to tell a "retro" epic involving the Justice League of America (as well as many other DC heroes, if only in bit parts and cameos) facing an alliance of their greatest foes, involving provocative themes about power and responsibility. The vision of the JLA here owes as much to the 1960s and 1970s version of them as it does to DC's current "official" post-Crisis continuity (or is it now post-post-post-Crisis?) -- so here Wonder Woman is a founding member of the JLA and a statue of Superman's Kryptonian dad wears the pre-Crisis uniform, yet in other ways it hews more toward DC's post-Crisis revisions, such as by having Plastic Man be a full JLA member, but Elongated Man only a reserve member.

In an introduction, Ross states that the inspiration for the series was very much the old DC Comics cartoon TV series, Challenge of the Super Friends -- which spun out of the original Super Friends, but focusing on the Justice League's on going battle with the League of Doom -- an alliance of their arch foes.

But as much as people of a certain age have a fondness for the innocent simplicity of the Super Friends cartoon...does it really warrant a 340 page fully painted homage?

This isn't like The Watchmen, or Squadron Supreme, or DC: The New Frontier...or even Kingdom Come. Super hero epics with lots of plot threads and characterization that wove together and created graphic "novels". Despite its lengthy page count, Justice is a relatively simple, straight forward plot. And one that seems to recycle ideas used in other works Ross collaborated upon such as beginning the story with a dream of a coming Armageddon associated with the super-heroes -- just as Kingdom Come began. And the somewhat unwieldiness of a story meant to cram in as many heroes as they can kind of anticipated Krueger and Ross' Project Superpowers.

The story is that various villains have prophetic dreams of an Armageddon that they blame on the heroes (why they place the blame there isn't really clear) and they set out to prevent this future from occurring. In that there's a potentially interesting idea: the villains basically acting with, more or less, good intentions. But like so much else here, between the idea and the successful realization of the idea lies a gap. The first few issues have the villains targeting the super heroes, a task made easier by the fact that they've learned their secret identities. And while these attacks are occurring, they are also using their evil geniuses for good, curing the world's ills, and offering people the chance to escape their earthly woes by moving to supposedly Utopian, closed cities run by the villains.

Despite a potentially interesting set up, the first few issues drag a bit simply because there's a lot of heroes, so we get a lot of repetition as first this hero is attacked, then that, then the other.

Things pick up a bit part way through, once the initial strikes are over and the JLA (and various other heroes) start planning on how to strike back.

But there's a lot of muddled story telling -- in a way that reminds me of Krueger and Ross' Project Superpowers. It isn't always clear why things were happening, or what the plan was. Sometimes that's the point, of course -- we aren't supposed to know until later. But other times, it just seem vaguely articulated, or unconvincing. The villains have developed a thought controlling technique, and so the heroes have to develop body armour to protect themselves (allowing Ross to design a bunch of new looks...presumably to justify the action figure line that apparently accompanied the maxi-series). Yet while they're doing this, the JLA send out an unprotected strike team to attack the villains.

Huh?

The Red Tornado is attacked in the sanctity of the JLA satellite, and it's later revealed who betrayed them. But it's hardly presented as an intriguing mystery -- in fact, the revelation is shrugged off in some passing dialogue!

And the notion of the villains discovering the heroes' secret identities isn't exploited much, as sticking with the big action/Super Friends homage, the heroes spend very little time in their civilian identities.

The plot hinges on a lot of supposed twists and double crosses among the villains but a lot of the time I wasn't really sure who was doing what or why, and I'm not sure the creators did either. One chapter ends with Lex Luthor wickedly declaring that "Everything is going so well." after we assumed the JLA had gained the upper hand. Yet in the subsequent chapters, it's not really clear why Lex said that! (And Lex's main gimmick is he has a personal forcefield -- but I though it was Brainiac whose gimmick was a forcefield!?)

Some of the dialogue comes across a bit as non sequiturs, as if some of the bridging dialogue was left out. Krueger makes use of voice overs, telling chapters from different POVs. But you'd be hard pressed to notice a difference in "voice" from when Batman or Captain Marvel or Green Arrow are narrating. And like I have complained about a lot of modern comics, the characterization, instead of making these super beings seem like human beings...just define their personalities exclusively in terms of their super hero identities. So we have scenes of the Elongated Man petulantly jealous of Plastic Man, feeling like a second string hero compared to the A-listers.

Visually, Braithwaite's pencils and Ross' paints work well. Ross' own stuff is photoreferenced, which means he sometimes isn't great depicting unreal environments. Whereas here, Braithwaite's drawing of Aquaman's Atlantis is quite effective, and his action poses a little more dynamic. Though there were a few spots where the visuals were a bit unclear in the fight scenes, where you weren't quite sure what was supposed to be happening. Braithwaite may also bring a slightly more cheesecake tone to the art, with the cut of Wonder Woman's costume a little more sexy (though the story involes Wondy being poisoned and getting sicker -- and uglier -- as the story progresses). And though there aren't as many quirky details as Ross' earliest work used to contain, there are still a few nice touches -- such as Green Arrow having a painting on his wall that would appear to be of Robin Hood's last moments (if you know your Robin Hood legends).

The downside is, well, it is just Alex Ross doing what Alex Ross has been doing for the last few years. I only really got that thrilling tingle that reminded me of when I first saw his art when he tackles characters he hadn't really done before -- panels of the classic Teen Titans, the original Doom Patrol or, in one double page spread, the Legion of Super-Heroes in their circa 1970s costumes are just...cool. Seeing him tackle those characters for the first time kind of makes you wish he had been persuaded to do a whole graphic novel about each team. Instead, they have fairly minor parts, often no more than cameos.

And maybe that remains a problem with Justice -- it just isn't as fresh as it should be. From Ross' art, to various of the plot elements. Even the basic conceit of a massive epic utilizing almost the entirety of the DC Universe is something that has been rendered common place because DC seems to do them every few months!

And not too much effort is made to clarify things for non-fans (the Doom Patrol are often depicted with a variety of glowing green animals -- but nowhere is it explained it's the shape shifting Beast Boy).

Philosophically, everyone saw this as a tribute to a kinder gentler comics era (hence the Super Friends connection) -- some even suggesting it was a direct rebuttal to Brad Meltzer's controversial Identity Crisis (which also involved villains uncovering the heroes' secret identities). But like a lot of modern creators who want to return to the nobler heroism of days of old...their idea of what constitutes "kinder gentler" and mine are rather different. So the story is chock full of fighting and brutality, where Ross himself in an introduction says he wanted to recreate the villains as much darker, more terrifying foes. And in a couple of scenes where Batman does his usual intimidation number, Krueger & Ross explicitly state that Batman isn't bluffing -- that he is fully prepared to torture and kill to obtain his objectives.

That is an homage to comics of yesteryear? That is a refutation of the dark n' gritty nihilism of modern comics?

Unfortunately, when a lot of modern creators wax nostalgic about the comics of their youth, it seems what they want is a simpler, black & white stories and one note characters...but they love the modern era's greater violence and lack of heroic restraint.

Hey, I get it. I mean, someone had to vote for George W. Bush. Twice. But it's just...disappointing.

Anyway, despite its epic length, and the beautiful painted panels, Justice is an uneven effort. It starts out a bit repetitious, picks up in the middle...then starts to get more muddled and confused toward the end. It wants to be the definitive epic, the JLA saga to end all JLA sagas...but its very length works against it (I can think of some vintage stories, like Justice League of America #200, or Justice League of America #210-212 that better seemed like "definitive" epics, but in a fifth of the pages).

There is certainly an enjoyment to the saga, just for the visuals, and the audacious intent, even as it doesn't fully live up to them.


Justice League Adventures: The Magnificent Seven 2004 (SC Digest) 112 pages

coverWriters/artists: various.
Colours: John Kalisz. Letters: Kurt Hathaway.

Reprinting: Justice League Adventures #3, 6, 10-12

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Comics can be an unusual medium in the way it plays back on itself. Take the Justice League -- heroes of a successful comic, they were turned into a successful cartoon TV series...which then inspired DC Comics to come out with another comic based on the cartoon. The result was Justice League Adventures -- a comic, ostensibly aimed at, or at least accessible to, younger readers, appropriating a visual/artistic style evocative of the cartoon and which, though featuring the familiar super heroes, is not really meant to tie-in with the regular DC Comics Universe.

DC Comics was down this route years ago when they produced a spin-off of the popular cartoon series, The Super Friends (which was the Justice League in all but name). And have continued the trend -- after the Justice League cartoon ran its course, there was Justice League Unlimited (which also begat a comic) and even more recently, a new Super Friends comic (taking the old title, but using a modern, cartoony art style).

The difference between the original Super Friends series and the modern Justice League cartoons is that cartoons have become more sophisticated (the animated movie, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, was head and shoulders more sophisticated than any of the live-action Batman movies). Anyway, the point is, cartoons have come a long way from the simplistic Super Friends.

DC released digest-sized collections of the Justice League Adventures comic, the first of which is titled, The Magnificent Seven, after the team's seven regular members of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, J'onn J'onzz, The Flash, Green Lantern -- John Stewart as opposed to Kyle Rayner or Hal Jordan (who hadn't yet been revived at this point anyway) -- and Hawkwoman (but no Hawkman). Why those latter two additions? Presumably network executives were uncomfortable with an all-white League and only one woman...and good for them. DC Comics apparently needed a TV network to shame them into presenting a more inclusive vision of their "world's greatest heroes".

The Atom guest stars in one story, as well.

Each issue is largely self-contained. And though supposedly aimed at kids, there's the question as to how well adults might enjoy them. After all, The Super Friends comic book found itself snagging an older audience who enjoyed its unpretentiousness.

The issues here boast some surprisingly ambitious stories. Even ones that might raise a few political eyebrows. The first and last story both could seem to have metaphorical relevance to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, with the first story, inparticular, seeming to be critical of it (the later story depends entirely on who the reader thinks represents which side). The irony is that both stories were originally published before the war (and the first story, "The Star Lost" (#3), seems suspiciously like a rehash of an earlier graphic novel, JLA: Superpower!)

The stories are marginally more sophisticated than just "kiddie" fair, with some shading to the characters and bad guys who aren't one-dimensional. The strongest story is undoubtedly "Moments" (#11), written by Dan Slott, a head-trippy tale of time travel and time paradoxes that, at its heart, is a very human drama about coming to terms with loss and grief. Actually, it might be a bit too heavy for kids, both in regards to the meta-physics of time travel, and emotionally.

All these stories, with very little tweaking in dialogue and plot development, could have made decent enough stories in the regular JLA comic. And the tell-it-in-one issue plots are certainly appreciated.

The biggest stumbling block is, ironically, the very thing that cements its identification with the TV series: the art.

Drawn in a cartoony manner, the art has the advantage of being clear and comprehensible. I don't think I'm alone in feeling a lot of modern comics artists can be almost overwhelming, cramming lines and detail into their panels, while not necessarily matching the detail with any particular sensitivity to composition and storytelling. But, aesthetically, the art is still problematic. What works in a cartoon begs some embellishment when shifted to comics, just as frequent Super Friends artist Ramona Fradon employed a style that was evocative of the cartoon series, while marrying it with a slightly more sophisticated comic book style (at least, going by a Super Friends comic I have in my collection).

The artists here are arguably restricted by having to conform to a rigid artistic template that might not be their regular styles (though three different artists are involved, the visuals maintain a uniformity). Although one could argue the gulf isn't that wide between the style employed here and some mainstream artists!

The simple art might woo younger readers put off by the over-complexity of a lot of comics, although equally it might turn them off (I seem to recall, in my own childhood, preferring realist artists).

The point of the stories is to present clear, comprehensible stories, and though they succeed reasonably well, I'll admit there were still a few spots where I took a few moments to figure out what was going on (in fact, I'm still not sure what happened to the villain in "Must There be a Martian Manhunter?" (#10)!) Although, if this is aimed at kids, I might've preferred less emphasis on hitting and fighting and more on problem solving. Let's face it, Superman solving the situation by employing an obscure scientific theorem is going to stick with kids a lot longer than Batman using a right hook (I'm not going all Fred Rogers on you, I'm citing my own childhood recollections here). To be fair, a number of the issues had the conflicts resolved more by words than deeds.

Anyway, I can't call this an unqualified success for an adult but it's moderately interesting and somewhat thoughtful. And kids and adults can enjoy the straight forward storytelling, not mired in a hundred continuity points.

Original cover price: $10.75 CDN./ $6.95 USA.




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