JLA: Year One 1999 (SC TPB) 300 pgs.
by Mark Waid & Brian Augustyn. Illustrated by Barry Kitson. Inks by
Barry Kitson, Michael Bair (and others),
Colours: Pat Garrahy. Letters: Ken Lopez. Editor: Peter Tomasi.
Reprinting: JLA: Year One #1-12 (1997-1998 maxi-series)
A belated addition to the stories re-inventing DC Comics characters (after a mid-'80s shake-up in which anything published prior to 1985 isn't supposed to have happened), JLA: Year One tells of the early days of the Justice League of America, the founding members being Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Aquaman, J'onn J'onzz, and the Black Canary. For those making comparisons, the original JLA back in the '60s featured Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, J'onn J'onzz, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman. I'd been out of comics for the last few years, so the current "reality" is still a bit new to me. That's one of the reasons I looked forward to this mini-series: it harkened back to the characters with whom I was familiar. Sure, they weren't quite the same, but I was happy to read JLA: Year One in the same way I read JLA: The Nail -- taking it, if necessary, as an Elseworlds tale.
Unfortunately, no matter how I took it, JLA: Year One ended up a disappointment.
Waid & Augustyn seem more interested in the characters than stories, with whole issues rolling by of characters sitting around, talking. The problem is, the characterization is weak. Green Lantern's arrogant, Aquaman's a fish-out-of-water, but there's a sense the writers introduce their version of the characters, then don't know what to do with them, making for a lot of repetitive scenes. A romance is hinted at between Flash and Black Canary (which can't go anywhere, since the future of these characters is known) but it's unconvincing. We're given no hint as to why these two characters might be smitten with each other. Well, other than the fact that writers continually have characters drooling over the Canary, to the point where you think maybe the writers need to take a cold shower.
As well, in Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs' The Comic Book Heroes (1997 ed.) they decry how DC has taken thirtysomething characters like Superman, Green Lantern, and the Flash, and either re-invented, or replaced, them with characters who are "Melrose Place"-style twentysomethings. For readers expecting JLA: Year One to re-visit the more "mature" characters, guess again. Taking advantage of the Year One concept, the characters here are young, inexperienced -- basically the L'ttle Archie version of the Justice League. Classic characters for the new, youth-conscious DC. Unfortunately, that makes the characters petulant and peurile.
They're also pretty glib. Comics benefit from humour, and wisecracking heroes date back decades, but a trend in the last decade (with the likes of Peter David, Devin Grayson, and others) is to go for the one-liner when a little seriousness would be appropriate. The characters smirk and quip even as the world threatens to fall around them, badly undermining any mood.
This also undermines the point of the series. The formation of the League jeopardizes the world-shaking plans of a secret group called Locus. Locus isn't scared of Superman or the Doom Patrol, but they're worried to death about the big, bad, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Unfortunately, at times, the Leaguers seem more like incompetent goofs than the dream-team we're supposed to believe they are.
Plot? Waid & Augustyn seem to believe "action/adventure plot" and "extended fight scene" are synonymous. They ain't. So you wade through lengthy scenes of "characterization" only to wade through lengthy scenes of mindless fisticuffs lacking story.
Being a 12 issue epic, I assumed there'd be various adventures, with Locus a sub-plot coming to the fore in the final few issues. Likewise, I thought JLA: Year One could do what no Justice League story had done before...work in sub-plots showcasing the private lives of the A-list heroes, interweaving stories of Green Lantern and his friends at Ferris Air, The Flash, etc. None of that happens. Locus isn't a subplot, it is the plot. Even then, it progresses poorly (midway through, J'onn J'onzz announces he's been looking into the group -- wouldn't it have been nice to see that investigation for ourselves?).
The art by Barry Kitson is pretty good. A disciplined, unsplashy artist, it's hard to imagine someone disliking his work. Conversely, I wonder if part of my disappointment was due to his kind of passionless style and inexpressive faces. Don't get me wrong, there's more plus than minus to his work. His figures are well-realized and his backgrounds detailed. Sometimes he fails to highlight things properly, though -- I'm not sure anyone unfamiliar with Snapper Carr would realize why he has that nickname.
The highlight was a team up with the original Doom Patrol (#5 and #6). There's more energy to the scripting, with Doom Patrolers Robotman, Negative-Man, and the Chief nicely in character (more so than many of the Leaguers) -- though Elasti-Girl wasn't quite as well realized. There's even some strong character bits: J'onn J'onzz admitting he learned English, in part, watching movies made by former actress Elasti-Girl and is a closet fan, or Negative-Man and Green Lantern, both test pilots, recognizing each other. Issues 5 and 6 are worth getting on their own. Obviously, it's awkward if the high-light is another team, but it did make me kind of wish for a Doom Patrol: Year One mini-series. However, there was an aspect to these stories that was unexpectedly...grisly, involving Locus stealing people's body parts. Everyone gets their parts back in the end, but it was still a bit out of keeping with the series.
There was one sub-plot, with its surprise revelation, that will probably make re-reading interesting as you look for the foreshadowing.
There are technical problems when they try the same trick used in Marvels. Because some of this is familiar ground, instead of re-staging famous JLA adventures, we get snippets refering to them obliquely (think of the play/movie "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead" in which we see "Hamlet" from the P.O.V. of supporting characters). Where this breaks down, aside from the reader not getting the interesting stuff, is, in modern DC reality, those previous adventures haven't taken place. The characters blithely refer to their battle with Starro, for instance, but JLA: Year One can't serve as a companion piece to the story "Starro, the Conquerer" (reprinted in the Super Spectacular) because the membership isn't the same.
As well, this is another story throwing in cameos by just about every DC superhero -- without providing any background. Characters appear, cryptic lines are uttered, and the message is clear: if you aren't "in", DC doesn't want you, you dumb schmuck!!! Whether you're an older or younger reader, the confusion is equally distributed. There were things I found confusing, but reading other commentaries, it's clear that plenty of newer readers were equally stymied. Whatever happened to the days when comics were written to welcome the newcomer? Case in point: in a cameo, Johnny Quick says to Liberty Bell: "If not for me, then for Jesse." My understanding is that Quick and Bell were married, divorced, and had a daughter named Jesse. So what's wrong with rewriting the dialogue to be: "If not for me, then for our daughter, Jesse." With a few extra words, characters and their relationships become crystalized for the novice and everyone can enjoy the story equally.
Admittedly, JLA: Year One is probably better the second time around. The first reading you notice how much it misses your expectations, the second reading, you take it for what it is. But if you really want a great mixing of Silver Age heroes with modern storytelling, with a plot that twists and unfolds and builds to an edge-of-the-seat climax that really makes you believe the world is at stake...check out Justice League of America: The Nail instead.
This is review of the story originally serialized in the JLA: Year One mini-series.
Cover price: $25.50 CDN./$16.95 USA.