GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE
 PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


JLA - The Justice League of America

PAGE FIVE

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cover by Kevin MaguireJustice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare 1996 (SC TPB) 130 pages

Written by Fabian Nicieza, Mark Waid. Pencils by Jeff Johnson, Darick Robertson. Inks by Jon Holdredge, Hanibal Rodriguez.
Colours: Pat Garrahy, John Kalisz. Letters; Ken Lopez. Editor: Ruben Diaz.

Reprinting: the three issue mini-series (1996)

Additional notes: intro by Grant Morrison; character profiles.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Even as I start to write this, I haven't quite decided how to rate A Midsummer's Nightmare. It's certainly not a bad story, but it kind of leaves me ambivalent.

It begins almost like an Elseworlds story -- that is, not adhering to DC Comics' official reality -- presenting an earth where ordinary people are developing super powers at an alarming rate. However, familiar super heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, etc., not only don't have powers, they don't remember having had powers, or secret identities. But this isn't an "Elseworlds" alternate reality. Rather, someone is messing with the nature of reality itself, not to mention the heroes' memories. Soon though, their memories return, and DC's A-list heroes re-unite to set things right.

Part of the impetus behind this mini-series (I believe) was an attempt to return the JLA to its roots of being a gathering of DC's main properties. Throughout the late-1980s and early 1990s, the Justice League (in various incarnations) had been more a group of secondary heroes as DC tried to chart out a new vision of its characters in its post-Crisis reality. By the min-90s, though, clearly it was felt that wasn't working anymore. The League titles were cancelled, then restarted (JLA: New World Order) going back to the basics of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, etc. But before New World Order came this reuniting of those characters.

The problem with having been reading comics for as long as I have, is that you can find yourself constantly aware of echoes of previous tales. Mark Waid's own Kingdom Come is reflected, in a story of escalating numbers of irresponsible, destructive super humans, with the old guard heroes trying to restore balance. The idea of everyone gaining powers, and the benefit/curse that might provide to humanity, was handled much more thoughtfully in X-Men/Alpha Flight: The Gift (reviewed in my X-Men section). Heck, there were even vague similarities to the re-booting of Marvel's The Avengers in the Morgan Conquest, also about the heroes having amnesia -- though the Morgan Conquest came out a few years after this. Viewed in that light, it's not that A Midsummer's Nightmare is terrible, but I've seen it before..sometimes better.

The original mini-series was published as three, double-sized (38 page) issues, but that translates less into a complex saga, than it is simply because of the size of the cast -- not unlike JLA/Titans: The Technis Imperative. There's a certain unavoidable repetition as we see Clark Kent, going about his daily life, unaware he's Superman, followed by Bruce Wayne, followed by Aquaman, etc. There's also a breeziness to the proceedings, not really delving into the heroes' reactions to being shaken from their false lives -- Clark Kent suddenly remembering that he's an alien, Bruce Wayne realizing his parents are dead. The exception being J'onn J'onzz, who is very rudely wakened from his idyllic life, living on Mars with his dead family. Granted, maybe writer's Waid and Nicieza wanted to avoid the repetition to which I alluded -- although there could have been interesting character contrast. Some of the heroes might revel in their dream-lives, where loved ones are alive, and they never donned cape or cowl, while others might be living miserable lives, ecstatic when they remember their true nature.

Still, the early part of the saga is reasonably enjoyable, laying the ground work for the story, but it's the eventual climax that is a bit of a let down -- bland, even slightly forgettable. The exposition, as the villain explains his motive, is a bit unsatisfying, as it hints at future events that would much later arise in the regular JLA comic (not that you need that to follow this story).

The art, likewise, engenders mixed feelings and it shouldn't, because it's reasonably good. Johnson and Robertson trade off pencil chores, with no obvious pattern that I perceived, and though their styles aren't interchangeable (one looks a little like Stuart Immonen, the other like, say, Barry Kitson) it's not jarring. Both are good artists, but I didn't find myself sucked into the story. I couldn't help thinking how much more effective a subdued, realist artist might be -- like, say, the late Curt Swan -- in a story where, at least at the beginning, there's meant to be an eerie, dramatic scene as ordinary people manifest meta-human abilities. But one shouldn't really judge a book on what you'd like, just on what it is. But there's a certain plasticiness to the art, though whether that's the artists fault, or the sheen, slick paper, or the too bright and bold colours, I can't say.

In his introduction, Grant Morrison joins the list of comics pros who, belatedly, criticize the dark n' gritty era comics went through (in the late-'80s, early-'90s) -- a phase he was very much a part of. Morrison, who would start writing the League's regular adventures, heralds this story as a return to glory and nobility. And there's certainly an aspect of that, even as the dark n' gritty lingers, with a scene where J'onn J'onzz's behaves a little ruthlessly, and another character comments, "I thought you were averse to such harshness", to which J'onn responds: "I was." So much for old fashioned values. But that may also be part of the problem. Because the dark n' gritty sometimes gets confused with the human n' vulnerable; is Midsummer's Nightmare a return of old fashioned virtue, or simply a slide into the Iconism that, I think, has hurt some modern comics, where the simple humanity of the heroes is jettisoned as too soap opera-y in favour of pomp and glory chest beating? To be fair, there is some decent character interaction, some witty quips from Green Lantern and the Flash, and Batman is portrayed as more well-rounded figure than he sometimes is these days -- brooding and introverted, but not out right belligerent toward his colleagues. But there's still a sense there's more super than human in these superhuman characters. Morrison also claims the story "explores" "moral and ethical questions"...but the story is actually pretty light-weight, overall. At one point Green Lantern raises an ethical question, briefly, then quickly admits he's only playing Devil's advocate and drops it.

Seeming a little thinly developed for its 114 pages, A Midsummer's Nightmare starts out O.K., boasting a BIG concept premise, and isn't bad, but it ends up a tad bland and not overly involving. Admittedly, it might have read better when first released, if it really was the first major re-teaming of these heroes. But now, with the new JLA comic in full swing, it lacks that novelty.

Cover price: $12.75 CDN./$8.95 USA.


Justice League of America: The Nail 1998 (SC TPB), 150 pgs.
(a.k.a. JLA: The Nail)

JLA: The Nail - cover by Alan Davis / Mark FarmerWritten & illustrated by Alan Davis. Inked by Mark Farmer
Colour: Patricia Mulvihill. Letters: Patricia Prentice. Editor: Peter J. Tomasi.

Reprinting: JLA: The Nail #1-3 (1998 prestige format mini-series)

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

An "Elseworlds" tale (that is: set in an alternate reality, using familiar comic book heroes) that postulates a flat tire (thanks to the eponymous nail) causes Jonathan and Martha Kent to miss baby Kal-El's arrival on earth. Thus, 25 years later, there is no Superman. A Justice League of America comprised of Green Lantern, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, the Atom, Hawkwoman, and J'onn J'onzz, face a world-wide mood of escalating paranoia and bigotry directed at superheroes. Green Lantern, in particular, suspects a hidden conspiracy of far reaching scope and suspiciously familiar alien technology is behind the hate mongering, particularly when they discover many of their own foes are being killed off. But can the Justice League of America uncover the truth before it's too late for themselves...and the world?

JLA: The Nail is a highly entertaining, surprisingly gripping, adventure. Perhaps one of its strongest attributes is how, well, comic booky it seems. It owes a lot in themes and story elements to the X-Men, but also to such previous, seminal works as Batman: The Dark Knight, The Watchmen and Kingdom Come (sometimes it owes a little too much to them). Actually Davis himself had been this route himself, in some Captain Britain stories he did with Alan Moore in the 1980s. But where (some of) those works before (and similar efforts that have come out in the years since) tried to elevate the medium in story and art, Alan Davis seems less ambitious and, as such, less pretentious. Where the Watchmen used a conspiracy-plot as just an excuse for world building, here uncovering the conspiracy really is the thrust of the story. The heroes spend almost all their time in costume, underscoring the no-nonsense, keep to the plot style of storytelling (it's also a bit of a weakness, as the characters lose some of their human element). Perhaps most significantly, it is a story! The plot unfolds, there are genuine twists and turns, with a mystery at its heart -- you don't who-what-why-where-and-how in the first few pages the way you do in some other stories that come to mind.

Initially I thought of it as a second stringer next to its loftier predecessors, but re-reading it, I'm not so sure I'd undersell it that way. A problem with Kingdom Come or The Watchmen is that they seem too invovled in the fictional world of superheroes: Kingdom Come's big "message" is about metahumans growing aloof from normal people -- a kind of non-issue as metahumans don't really exist! As well, modern writers like Alan Moore, James Robinson and Mark Waid almost seem intimidated by superheroes -- intimidated by their own fictional creations (I wonder what Freud would make of that?). Not so Davis. We are meant to identify with the humanity of the costumed heroes, and the biogtry they face evokes real world parallels of prejudice and witch hunts. For all that The Nail is a more colourful, comic booky tale, it's also grounded in a more penetrating, and provocative, reality.

Art-wise, there are elements of Don Newton and Neal Adams (even a hint of George Freeman) in Alan Davis' style. And if his figures aren't quite as limber, he's nonetheless an excellent artist. There's also some nice composition here and there, such as an early two-page splash where we are seeing a crowd cheering a political victory, and as we move from left to right, we subtlely move from cheering, happy crowds...to the more ominous imagery of police in armour. The colouring is nice, if unobtrusive, and there are some clever things done with the lettering that I, at least, had never seen before.

Davis deliberately evokes the structure of early JLA stories: the Justice League uncovers a threat of global proportions, individually they set out to combat it, before uniting in the climax. And for creaky older readers like yours truly, an added bonus is the use of -- what at the time -- were the old fashioned, traditional heroes.  Hal Jordan is Green Lantern; Barry Allen is the Flash. Heck, even a Doom Patrol cameo features the original team. Obviously, re-read a decade later, it's not quite as obviously nostalgic as Hal, Barry, etc. have been returned to active duty in the DCU...but at the time, it was meant to be a Silver Age throw back.

All this nostalgia, though, must be put in perspective: this is a modern tale, with modern, sometimes dark, at times even disturbing, elements. Familiar, potentially even beloved, characters die. Early on, Robin and Batgirl have a particularly grisly demise (albeit off camera) -- though the story justifies such excesses (their deaths have a particular impact on Batman that probably couldn't have been explained any other way).

In the vein of Kingdom Come (and a zillion other DC "mega" events) Alan Davis tries to work in appearances from most of the DC universe into a single story, from the superheroes, to the fantasy, to the SF (though not in a way that should be too confusing for the uninitiated). In some respects, he one-ups that previous effort, by integrating more characters into the actual plot (as opposed to just visual cameos) even if only in bit parts.

There are quibbles: Davis' dialogue gets the job done, and there are a few memorable lines, but it's a bit stiff -- but he's in good company, a lot of the modern "giants" of the comic industry don't always impress me with their ear for speech patterns. There's also a sameness to some Justice Leaguers -- they don't quite seem in character (not that they're flagrantly out of character; it's a nuance thing). Storywise: greater team work in the climax would've been nice, as well as a sense that Batman had more of a plan (after all, the story is structured so that the reader is waiting half the story for the Batman to wade back into the fray). And the cause-and-effect of this alternate reality isn't always logical (if Alec Holland, in a cameo, never became the Swamp Thing, how on earth did Matt Cable meet Abigail Arcane?)

But the various twists work extremely well and, I'll admit, the baddy took me totally by surprise. Actually the twists as to who's behind it all are so intrinsic to the story, that re-reading it again recently, you kind of forget how much the story was counting on misdirecting you -- once you know where it's headed, you can forget that a new reader is supposed to be lured astray by a red herring or two. At the same time, it shows the solid entertainment value of the story. Because it's still enjoyable as a fast-paced, slightly politicized, fantasy adventure even if it no longer works as a puzzle.

Ruminating on this story a few days after first reading it, its full impact finally hit me. The story was inspired by the old verse about how, for want of a nail, a kingdom was lost -- how little things can have unforseen impact. Alan Davis has subtly accomplished that with JLA: The Nail. In learning the identity of the evil mastermind, and recalling his/her nickname, we see the true impact of "the nail" is not on the world, as we first assume, but on an individual, and it is that individual who impacts upon the world. It took a bit for that to sink in (although it's expressed in some climactic dialogue, and I'm sure most readers picked up on it instantly) but once it did, it gave the story an added poignancy.

In a way, JLA: The Nail does something I'd like to see more of. Comics have evolved over the years (though not as much as we're supposed to believe), with better colour and, at times, more sophisticated stories, but no longer featuring the characters and milieu I grew up with, so it's nice to see an attempt to marry the new with the old (not that The Nail is literally a Silver Age story, what with no Superman and other changes, but it evokes them in many ways -- and, to be honest, I didn't miss Supes much, being a character who's fine on his own, but often seems too much of a pompous stuffed-shirt in team ups). Exploiting the Elseworlds banner, DC could revisit some of its own past continuity that is no longer supposed to exist: a Teen Titans story set in the hippy era, a Justice Society tale inspired by the comics published in the '70s, etc.

Six years later, Davis did a sequel...Another Nail.

This is a review of the version serialized in the JLA: The Nail mini-series

Cover price: $19.50 CDN./$12.95 USA


cover by Howard PorterJLA: New World Order 1997 (SC TPB) 96 pages

Written by Grant Morrison. Pencils by Howard Porter. Inks by John Dell.
Colours: Pat Garrahy. Letters: Ken Lopez. Editor: Ruben Diaz.

Reprinting: JLA #1-4 (1997) - plus covers, brief character bios.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

The recently reformed core team of the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, J'onn J'onzz, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman) must confront the Hyperclan. They are a team of super powered aliens who arrive on earth, ostensibly to help humanity by fighting crime, irrigating deserts, etc. They quickly eclipse the JLA, winning the affection of humanity, but they hide a sinister agenda.

The JLA had gone through many incarnations by this point, and this, the start of their current series, was an attempt to bring the team back to its roots of using DC Comics' A-list heroes battling global menaces (a move begun in Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare).

The result is a genuinely enjoyable romp.

Grant Morrison is one of those critically acclaimed comics writers whose fans like to praise for his sophistication and edge. Whatever. Little of that is in evidence here (if, indeed, it exist in his other work). Instead, what we get is a doggedly traditional, doggedly unpretentious JLA adventure...and that's meant as a compliment! New World Order isn't particularly sophisticated, or ground breaking, but it's a fast-paced, colourful tale that, if not exactly smart, isn't exactly dumb either.

There's certainly room for deeper contemplations, as the JLA find themselves marginalized by a public eager to embrace the Hyperclan, and their public criticisms of the new team are dismissed as sour grapes. But Morrison doesn't really stick with anything long, toying only briefly with the paranoia, the ostracization Alan Davis employed so well in JLA: The Nail (published a year later) before moving on to big fight scenes and world domination agendas. But as a page-turner, as an adventure, the story is old fashioned fun. There's a fair use of the various characters, some decent dialogue and witty lines, and some nice plot twists that keep the story interesting (though one of the revelations will come out of nowhere if you aren't already familiar a bit with the DC Universe).

However there's another twist, involving J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, that seems awkward. It's not simply that it isn't foreshadowed but, flipping back through the book, I'm not sure it even works. As well, though Morrison seems comfortable with many of the characters, and can play up their strengths (Batman as the strategist, etc.), this isn't really a character story. He's concerned mainly with keeping the action moving. This is particularly unfortunate in the climax which is mainly just a big free-for-all. There's also an awkward scene where the Hyperclan execute some criminals and Superman warns he won't let it happen again. Uh, since when did Superman feel a stern warning was sufficient punishment for murder? Presumably Morrison, who was one of those "edgy" British writers that came to American comics in the late '80s as part of the "dark 'n gritty" phase the industry was going through, felt he needed to throw in something like that just so his fans wouldn't think he'd gone soft. But it's a scene that is awkward from a character point of view (though it contains a gag in that the executed villains look like characters from rival Marvel Comics).

Morrison uses the common comics technique of "borrowing" titles for each issue, this time from sci-fi movies. As I get older I've begun to fine the technique a bit cutesy and annoying (and artistically stagnant) but there's actually a cute pay off in the title of the final issue.

And though the story's decidedly entertaining, it probably reads better as a collected "graphic novel" than as something that was serialized over four issues.

Artist Howard Porter's figures are a bit flat and angular, vaguely evocative (I stress only vaguely) of a poor man's Jack Kirby, or an early Keith Giffen. And they're given a kind of metallic sheen by John Dell's inks (a style that seems popular these days in other JLA stories, like Superpower). But once you get used to it, the art's fairly appealing, telling the story with robust enthusiasm and vivid colours -- though there were some action scenes that were a bit confusing.

All in all, New World Order fiddles away most of its opportunities for insightful observations or deeper sophistication, but as a well paced, larger-than-life, ocassionally clever action-adventure, it delivers the goods quite nicely. Good fun.

Cover price: $8.50 CDN./$5.95 USA.


Justice League of America Super Spectacular, No. 1, 1975 issue 1999 (SC) 96 pgs.
(a.k.a. Justice League of America 100-Page Super Spectacular

JLA Super Spectacular - cover by Mike Collins / John StokesWritten by Gardner Fox, John Broome, Elliot S! Maggin. Art by Carmine Infantino & Murphy Anderson; Irwin Hansen/C. Infantino/Arthur F. Peddy (with Bernard Sachs)/Alex Toth; Murphy Anderson; Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs. Colour/letters/editors: various.

Reprinting: Mystery in Space #75 (1962), All-Star Comics #41 (1948), Detective Comics #432 (Atom back-up) (1973), Brave and the Bold #28 (1960)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

One of a number of mags DC has been releasing, reprinting (mainly) Silver-Age material as a homage to the days when they used to do these kind of giant reprint comics regularly (hence the fictional No. 1, 1975 label) -- others in the series have included a "lost" Green Lantern Annual, etc. A bit of a hybrid, it's not quite a true TPB, but it's published on quality paper with stiffer-than-usual covers and is often placed with the graphic novels in comic stores.

This "100 page Super Spectacular" was a pleasant read, casting you back to a more innocent, purer type of comic book. The selections are a bit odd, though, for a Justice League comic.

"Starro the Conquerer" (Fox/Sekowsky/Sachs) is the exception: an obvious choice, being the first appearance of the League from Brave and the Bold (though not their origin, which would come later) and introduces sidekick Snapper Carr. It's cute, with some old-fashioned outlandishness in the form of a giant, spacefaring starfish. It even provides a bit of a mystery question part way through. Though for League fans, Superman and Batman have only cameos.

The other stories are less League-centric.

"The Planet That Came to a Standstill" (Fox/Infantino/Anderson) is more space hero Adam Strange's story (from Mystery in Space) with the League supporting players. One of the best of the stories here, it's imaginative with a reasonably twisty plot -- its hard to imagine a modern comic fitting this much into a single issue. And Infantino's art is wonderfully embellished by Anderson's inks.

"The Case of the Patriotic Crimes" (Broome/etc.) is a Justice Society tale (the precursor of the League) from All-Star Comics. It may not be great, but it's still fun, with the Society taking on their arch-foes, the In-Justice Society. There's silliness, but it's engaging silliness: like a costumed character dropping her diary -- I mean, why would she bring her diary with her? -- which is crucial to the plot.

"Suddenly...the Witness Vanishes" (Maggin/Anderson) is an eight-page solo Atom story from Detective Comics, with the shrinking hero getting involved in time travel. From a few years later than the others, it benefits from a (slightly) more mature style and Anderson's solid pencils and inks. Another of my favourites in this collection (of course, I have fond memories of Atom back-up stories from my childhood, so I may be biased).

The collection also includes a Justice Society spread (by Anderson, I think) and a mock letters page. All in all, a fun romp through bygone days.

Cover price: $9.50 CDN./$5.95 USA

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