GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE
 PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


JLA - The Justice League of America

PAGE SIX

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cover by Scot EatonJLA: Superpower 1999 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written by John Arcudi. Pencils by Scot Eaton. Inks by Ray Kryssing.
Colours: John Kalisz. Letters: Ken Lopez. Editor: Peter Tomasi.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

The rise and fall of a new hero who joins the JLA.

One of the nice things about this is that it seems, more or less, like a graphic novel. When mainstream American companies started using the format back in the early 1980s (pioneered by Marvel Comics) it was generally used for stories that, at least nominally, seemed to warrant a prestige format. Over the years that has become less and less, particularly as comics themselves are printed on more expensive paper and with multi-tone colours, narrowing the gap between a "comicbook" and a "graphic novel". Many graphic novels today aren't much more than run-of-the-mill comics, except more expensive.

Though not flawless, Superpower is pleasingly self-contained. It stars the Justice League of America, but a reader isn't expected to have more than a passing familiarity with them. They're no references to previous adventures or asterixs urging the reader to rush out and get some past issue in order for things to make sense. The central character in the story, a novice superhero named Mark Antaeus, is introduced here and exits the stage in these very same pages.

And the story tries to tackle big, weighty ideas involving responsibility and the limits, self-imposed and otherwise, of power.

There's nothing in the material that couldn't be told in regular JLA comics or an annual, there's no "mature readers" material or anything, but at least conceptually it's trying to be a "special" story.

It introduces Mark Antaeus, superpowered guy and do-gooder, who's obsessed with being a superhero, even to the point of having himself surgically augmented to make him a better hero. But this isn't vanity: Antaeus genuinely wants to save lives. Eventually he gets the call to join the JLA (Antaeus so admires Superman he even has a tattoo of Superman's "S" on his back). At first Antaeus, who's as powerful as Superman, seems like a great addition...until he starts wanting to involve them in things outside what the Leaguers see as their mandate. Eventually, the clash between the JLA's necessary pragmatism and Antaeus' unchecked idealism leads to blows...and tragedy.

Antaeus is an intriguing figure, boasting unimpeachable intentions, but driven by a zealotry that hurts himself, and others.

If there's a criticism of Superpower it's that, not unlike a few other high minded comics that come to mind, the themes and ideas outweigh the nitty gritty of storytelling. Superpower can, at times, read almost more like an outline for a story -- a detailed outline, to be sure, but missing some of the little scenes that would make the big scenes seem more natural. Though Antaeus is an intriguing character, he's not always as well realized as a character, his transformation from small town do-gooder to overzealous super-cop with global interests isn't entirely depicted. As well, most of the Leaguers have only a few lines, with only Superman and Green (Kyle) Lantern emerging with any sort of significant roles. In fact, that becomes another problem...it's more about the characters than it is told through them. Marginal characters fare even worse, such as Antaeus' girlfriend. Perhaps writer John Arcudi should've employed a few more thought balloons to put us inside the various characters' heads.

As well, the political issue Antaeus wants to embroil the JLA in remains an "issue", Arcudi failing to make the victims of oppression that have touched Antaeus' heart people instead of statistics.

There are certainly no bad scenes in Superpower, but there are few memorable ones, either. Reflecting back on it, few moments or lines stand out ahead of the others.

The art by Scot Eaton and inker Ray Kryssing is very good and dynamic, but leans a little too much toward the over-muscled style, with a kind of metallic sheen to everyone and everything that maybe adds to the emotional aloofness.

The book has a great "hook" opener, starting the story at the grim but oblique end, then filling in the beginning and middle later, and a strong closing scene. The tackling of weighty ideas is always welcome, and provocative, even if one might quibble here and there. Personally I'd think more of the JLAers than just Green Lantern would be, uh, creeped out by how far Antaeus has modified his body in the pursuit of his superpowered ideal, and would question the ethics of those who helped him do it. It's a good, interesting story but one that maybe doesn't quite match its ambition.

Cover price: $9.25 CDN./$5.95 USA.


JLA/Titans: The Technis Imperative 1999 (SC TPB) 140 pgs.

JLA/Titans - cover by Phil JimenezWritten by Devin Grayson. Illustrated by Phil Jimenez. Story Grayson & Jimenez. Inks by Andy Lanning.
Colours: Jason Wright. Letters: Comicraft. Editor: Eddie Berganza, Frank Berrios.

Reprinting: Jla/Titans #1-3 (1998-1999) mini-series, plus the lead story from Titans Secret Files #1

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

A strange computer intelligence invades earthís computer systems -- including the JLA moonbase -- causing chaos and destruction, followed by an awesome space probe that swallows the moon itself. Secondary probes kidnap literally everyone who had ever been a Teen Titan. The Justice League wants to destroy the alien machine, but the Titans discover the secret behind it and want to stop it without killing the intelligence behind it (the wherefores I wonít elaborate on, so as not to spoil the plot, though we learn it a third of the way through).

The Technis Imperative is an enjoyable adventure, with the kind of big, earth-shaking concept comics like to indulge in from time to time, given a better-than-average foundation by the emotional-character stuff at the root of the Titansí dilemma. This isnít just about a one-dimensional villain and seeing how quickly the heroes can bust his chops. In fact, thereís plenty of action, but not too much violence which, Iíll admit, is nice.

Itís briskly paced, but the length of the thing is deceptive (the main story was originally published as three double-sized issues). Devin Grayson and Phil Jimenez try to work in everyone who was a Titan, plus most of the other superheroes in DCís canon, and thatís where the size comes in -- just fitting everyone in. If you boil down the plot to what actually happens, the actual twists and turns, even including the character stuff, this story couldíve been told in far fewer pages. I reiterate, though, that that doesnít mean the pacing drags, or that it's boring. The thingís filled with little, strikingly rendered panels and lots of dialogue -- you get your moneyís worth (without it seeming verbose or like theyíre padding).

As an aside, I recently tried the comic The Authority, reading the "Outer Dark" storyline from #9-12, a story with certain (vague) similarities to The Technis Imperative (and a host of other world-shaking comic book stories that come to mind). The Authority is one of those critically acclaimed, "sophisticated" comics...and I actually thought Grayson and Jimenez did a better job of telling a story and just portraying the human condition. So there.

One gets the impression that this is a labour of love for Grayson and Jimenez, that they have a lot of affection for the Titans. On seeing all the obscure Titans assembled, Nightwing comments: ďMan, somebody was thorough.Ē Thereíre some nice scenes (Robin IIIís encounter with one of the probes is amusing) though a mid-story battle between Titans and Leaguers feels forced. Admittedly, though the story remains consistently interesting throughout, the climax doesnít quite generate the edge-of-the-seat tension such a big, semi-apocalyptic story should. You donít really believe anyoneís in genuine danger.

The art by Phil Jimenez is truly...amazing. He has been compared to George Perez in his detailed pictures, his carefully rendered faces and figures. Frankly, after reading this, Iíd argue heís surpassed Perez, managing to incoprorate all of Perezís strengths, but with a little more depth and dimension and atmosphere. And heís well-served by Lanningís inks. There was some disappointment when it was learned Jimenez wouldnít be drawing the regular Titans comic that followed this. You just have to contrast his work with the more cartoony style employed by Mark Buckingham in the brief epilogue to understand why (Buckingham is the regular artist on the Titans). Conversely, Jimenez can almost be overwhelming -- thereís a danger of sensory overload when looking at his stuff, and Iím not sure how well some of his two-page spreads will translate in the less-limber spined medium of a TPB.

The colours are also very effective in sustaining mood. The lettering is more uneven. I loved the decision to try and be expressive with the words, punching dialogue by putting some words in GIANT PRINT, rather than just laying them out mechanically. But sometimes the decisions didnít strike me as the right ones. Itís like hearing an actor putting the emphasis in the wrong place. But thatís only sometimes.

Of course, as usually happens with these kind of mass get-togethers (DC seems to do a couple every year), most of the characters end up in little more than cameos, just uttering a line here and there, or throwing the odd punch. The story is principally about the Titans, moreso than the League, and even then only a few of them have substantial parts. Thereís the same kind of fanboy fun in seeing familiar (and, admittedly for me, not so familiar) faces as was evoked in, say, Kingdom Come. Just donít expect youíre favourite character to necessarily be spotlighted.

The climax gets down to the original Teen Titans of Robin, uh, I mean Nightwing; Kid Flash, uh, I mean Flash; Speedy, uh, I mean Arsenal; Aqualad, uh, I mean Tempest; and Wonder Girl, uh, I mean, Darkstar, uh, I mean Troia, uh, yíknow, Donna Troy. And The Changeling (the former Beast Boy, who dates back as far as the Titans). Sheesh, you need a score card to keep track of whoís who these days! That decision, boiling it down to the original team, is nostalgically effective. Though technically I should be of the The New Teen Titans generation, my affections reside with the earlier team. Of course, using that group doesnít make too much sense, since the climax should more logically involve members of the New Titans.

And all this isnít to say that other characters donít get their moments, both Titans and Leaguers, they do -- but often the reader never quite gets inside their heads. Conversely, Batman is prominently featured, and in a good way, portrayed both as a master strategist and as a man of compassion. Too often modern comics featuring Batman have envisioned him as a hard-nosed fascist, devoid of any real humanity. Itís not a pleasant interpretation, and doesnít speak well of the kind of writers who think that thatís a cool character. So Grayson gets kudos for her take on the Dark Knight. Her versions of some other characters Iím not in a position to comment on. Though Iíve fallen back into reading comics, Iím still woefully unfamiliar with the modern DC Universe and the many ways characters have been reinterpreted. Personality-wise, Plastic Man doesnít seem anything like the Plas I used to read about -- but whether that reflects the modern character, or just Graysonís unfamiliarity with him, I donít know. As well, having Orion of the New Gods as a JLA member seems a prosaic use of the character.

The powers of some of the characters seem a bit...extreme, too. I had thought modern comics had wanted to depower heroes like Superman, make them less God-like (somethig I didnít entirely agree with). But here characters like Wonder Woman fly mountain-sized objects through the air without breaking a sweat.

Admittedly, part of the appeal here is nostalgic, re-encountering familiar characters. As such, the story will be a little confusing (at least) for those unfamiliar with the Titans, and even more fun for hardcore fans. Though Iím familiar with aspects of the Titans and have some comics in my collection, Iím a long way from being an expert, with many of the faces meaning nothing to me emotionally.

This is a review of the story as originally serialized in the JLA/Titans mini-series ...and I haven't read the story from The Titans Secret Files.

Cover price:


JLA: Year One 1999 (SC TPB) 300 pgs.

JLA: Year One - cover by Barry KitsonWritten 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)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

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.

This has never happened before...an about face on one of my reviews. Sure, I've reviewed books where, after a second reading, I've liked them a little more -- or a little less -- than my initial reaction. But this is probably my most extreme re-evaluation. The first time I read JLA: Year One, I really didn't much care for it. But this time, well, I actually sort of did.

Of course, my basic assessment remains unchanged. What I felt were weaknesses remain, well, weak. But the second time through, I was more forgiving and actually found it a bit...fun. The problem is that sometimes you read something with great expectations that, if not met, can leave you feeling disappointed and even bitter. The second time, prepared for the short comings, you can enjoy it for what it does have.

I had initially read Year One after reading JLA: The Nail -- the Elseworld story which took the Silver Age JLA and put them in an Apocalyptic tale rife with social relevancy and powerful moments, while still being a fun, fast paced, four colour adventure. As well, the "Year One" title evokes the classic Batman: Year One story. With those classic tales setting the benchmark, Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn's kind of shallow, glib epic was a major disappointment.

The story attempts to re-chronicle the early days of the JLA, sometimes by weaving the story around previously chronicled adventures that, here, occur off stage. In other words, the characters spend some time referring to adventures that aren't actually depicted in these pages. Not only is that frustrating, but it can be confusing since the current DC reality isn't the same as when those adventures originally took place (the membership of the team alone isn't quite the same -- Wonder Woman was part of JLA stories published in the 1960s, but here Black Canary is). So you can't even view Year One as a companion piece to those existing stories (even assuming you had them in your collection, which is doubtful, given that they're decades old) since it isn't the same reality.

The main core of Year One is to explore the interpersonal relations between the various founding leaguers -- Green Lantern, Flash, Black Canary, Aquaman and J'onn J'onzz. At this point in their careers they're callow and new too the whole super hero biz. As well, the saga chronicles their conflict with a sinister, secret organization called Locus that is tied into the League's very first adventure involving alien invaders.

This was also where I had problems. The whole Locus thing is half-heartedly handled at best, with the characters talking about how they really should be investigating Locus...but then never really doing so. In one scene, late in the series, J'onn J'onzz bursts in on Locus H.Q. -- with no explanation for how he found thhe place! Also the character stuff just didn't always work for me. But part of that is because of my Old School sensibilities meeting DC's current universe. Not being that up on DC's current roster of heroes, I was looking forward to this revival of the team from my youth. But the Green Lantern and Aquaman and others here didn't really seem like the personalities I remembered. And attempts at sub-plots, like a burgeoning romance between Flash and Black Canary, are just kind of half-heartedly thrown in. The romance isn't developed and doesn't really go anywhere (as we knew it wouldn't, knowing the future of these characters).

The issue-by-issue plotting features often relatively self-contained stories (though not always) as the League battles a few villains that crop up (some sent by Locus, others not) and plenty of scenes of the characters sitting around, you now, interacting. A few years later, Waid (with Tom Peyer) produced a similar mini-series, Flash and Green Lantern, in which a series of self-contained adventures chronicled the friendship between the Silver Age versions of those characters. In that series, a nice job was done telling interesting, clever adventures while also being rife with characterization. But here, Waid and Augustyn present kind of rudimentary adventures and kind of shallow and repetitive character exploration.

O.K., that's all a recap of what I didn't like about JLA: Year One.

But read a second time, aware of all that, I found myself enjoying it a bit more. Sure it's light-weight and not exactly straining your grey cells in either story or characterization, but it can be fun. Taken as a light, breezy adventure, it's O.K. Despite my above criticism, there are occasional clever twists and interesting character turns and ideas (like Aquaman, new to the surface world, mumbling because sound carries better underwater). The treatment of the characters, once I accepted they weren't really the characters I remembered, was more agreeable (if still thin and repetitious). Along the way there's an entertaining two-parter teaming them up with the Doom Patrol, and there are appearances and cameos from most of DC's heroes over the twelve chapters.

Barry Kitson's art is bright and bold, telling the story with an Old School discipline that's clean and reasonably absorbing.

Like a lot of modern comics, there's little attempt to make the story accessible for novice readers -- since the first and second time I read it, I've picked up on references I didn't get the first time (I didn't know who Maxwell Lord was the first time I read it, though it's not important to the story as he's just in a cameo).

Ultimately, stripped of any expectations or hopes for a literary or sophisticated epic, I found JLA: Year One was a moderately pleasant, fun little read. Although, there's still a question as to whether, at 12 issues (and with the accompanying price tag), "moderately pleasant" is as good as it should've been. For my original review, click here.

This is review of the story originally serialized in the JLA: Year One mini-series.

Cover price: $25.50 CDN./$16.95 USA.


Justice League of America: Zatanna's Search 2004 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.
a.k.a. JLA: Zatanna's Search

cover by Brian BollandWritten by Gardner Fox, with Gerry Conway. Pencils by Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Murphy Anderson, Bob Kane, Carmine Infantino, Romeo Tanghal. Inks by Sid Greene, others.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Julius Schwartz, with E. Neslon Bridwell.

Reprinting: Hawkman #4 (one story from the issue), Detective Comics #336 (the lead Batman story), The Atom #19, Green Lantern #42, Detective Comics #355 (The Elongated Man back up story), Justice League of America #51, and the Zatanna/Zatara story from DC Blue Ribbon Digest #5 (1964-1967, 1980)

Additional notes: intro by Steve Utley; cover gallery.

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

Number of readings: 1

Zatanna's Search is a kind of unusual TPB collection. For one thing, I'm not sure there have been too many DC message boards flooded with calls for a Zatanna TPB. Secondly, for a long time, DC seemed fairly reluctant to release TPBs of older material -- either because such stories were consigned to "post-Crisis" mythology and so regarded as apocryphal, or for some other reasons (albeit that reluctance seemed more to relate to 1970s/early 1980s material than true Silver Age comics). But such a reluctance -- if it existed at all outside of my perceptions -- seems to be lessening.

But the Zatanna's search arc may well lay claim to being one of the first -- maybe even the first -- multi-title company crossover, a precursor to all those "epics" that Marvel and DC churn out every second week these days.

This was at a time shortly after DC had begun reintroducing -- and often reinventing -- many of its older properties. In this case, instead of re-inventing 1940s magician crime fighter Zatara, or relegating him to Earth 2 (as was the case with other Golden Age heroes), writer Gardner Fox and editor Julius Schwartz came up with a novel variation by presenting a second generation hero -- Zatara's daughter, Zatanna (which itself may also have been a first, certainly pre-dating other second generation-ers like the Earth 2 Huntress and Robert Kirkman's Invincible, etc). And her entry into the DC pantheon was peppered gradually through various existing comics.

Her first appearance is a Hawkman comic, where Hawkman and Hawkgirl inadvertently rescue her from an enchantment gone wrong, and she explains that she is on a quest for her missing father, Zatara. Over the next two and a half years she guest starred with a few other heroes, still searching for her dad. What's curious is to wonder how much was this planned out. It's a question we'll probably never know the answer to as most of the creators involved are dead. It's hard to credit this as a genuine "story arc" all blocked out ahead of time when months would go by between her appearances -- did comics folks really plan arcs beyond next month's deadline back then? Nor did the various adventures really add concrete clues to her greater quest. So it's more likely Zatanna was just a guest star to be thrown in occasionally when Fox had nothing else to do that month. At the same time, just enough attention is paid to continuity that there is cohesion (in her Hawkman appearance she mentions an arch foe of her father's, The Druid -- in the Atom story, she and The Atom fight the Druid). Perhaps most curious is the Batman story here which bears no obvious relation to the Zatanna theme...until the final Justice League of America story in which it is, retroactively, connected!

So we've got a company crossover epic, a second generation hero, and a retcon (a retroactive continuity implant) -- talk about ahead of its time!

And the result...is kind of fun.

To be honest, none of these issues are especially great. Comics back then were often of variable quality, with DC slow to pick up on the more progressive style Marvel was experimenting with. The plots are pretty basic and straightforward, the character/emotion minor to non-existent. The closest we come to a character/soap opera aspect is when, in the Green Lantern story, GL's love Carol asks his alter ego, Hal, for help and he thinks how she never turns to Hal for help, only GL -- but his duty forces him to turn her down. Oh the angst, the anguish! Except...that dilemma takes all of one panel and GL doesn't give it a second thought afterward!

Even the plots don't always hold up to much scrutiny -- exacerbated by the fact that they revolve around magic, meaning there's even less pressure to make sense.

With that being said, they can still be enjoyable page turners, trundling along at a brisk pace. And by being stretched over so long, you can even detect stylistic evolution. Writer Fox had a tendency to saddle his scripts with dense text captions that simply described the action, as if maybe he didn't trust his artists to draw the action clearly. Yet this became less as the '60s wore on, as by the last couple of stories, he's using descriptive captions more sparingly, and demonstrating a lighter touch over all. In fact when I read the collection, Showcase presents the Elongated Man, I remarked that the Elongated Man stories seemed a little more sophisticated, more quirky than a lot of DC's stuff at the time -- in terms of characterization and humour. And re-reading the Elongated Man story here ensconced among these other tales...I think I was right. There's just something a little more savvy about the use of wit, and the portrayal of the Elongated Man's personality. Carmine Infantino's art helps, too. Admittedly, when Infantino inked himself (as he does here) his pencils can be a bit rough -- but his composition is quite stylish with his use of shadows and angles, which maybe further enhances that Elongated Man story.

The art in general represents some of DC's top 1960s contributors, from Murphy Anderson's textured realism on Hawkman, to Gil Kane (moving into his more dynamic phase) inked by Sid Greene on both the Atom and Green Lantern stories, and Mike Sekowsky (also having evolved into a much more quirky, stylish artist, with Greene still on hand to polish things up) on the JLA tale. Probably the weakest is the Batman tale in which long ago Batman creator, Bob Kane, provides the pencils (presumably among his last work on the character). It's not bad for the time, but definitely lacks the sophistication of the other artists.

Sandwiched between a single cover you get a nice glimpse of mid-1960s DC Comics, with a mix of characters still on the stands today, to other characters who, though still familiar, haven't had a monthly comic in years -- certainly not featuring these particular incarnations of the characters. It's in that way it's the most fun, as a chance to flip through a bunch of different titles, but tied together by a nominal theme (too bad Fox and Schwartz hadn't featured Zatanna in more comics, like the Flash). So if you want to read vintage tales of these guys, but aren't sure if your interest would be sustained over a 500 page Showcase collection, this acts as a nice sampler, with the added plus that it does form a story arc.

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity with this collection is that, since the saga revolves around Zatanna's search for the former hero, Zatara -- they might've thought to include a vintage Zatara reprint to kick things off. Still, perhaps they do the next best thing by including a reprint from a decade and half later, as writer Gerry Conway and artists Romeo Tanghal (pencilling) and Vince Colletta (inks) present a ten page origin of Zatara and Zatanna -- actually, it's more Zatara's origin (and even then, doesn't really explain where his magic comes from) but does act as a prologue to Zatanna's search, depicting Zatanna first discovering her father has vanished and vowing to find him.

A fun blast from the past.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$12.95 USA

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