by The Masked Bookwyrm

JLA - The Justice League of America


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Justice League United: Justuce Leage Canada 2015 (SC TPB) 186 pgs.

coverWritten by Jeff Lemire. Pencils by Mike McKone, Jeff Dougherty. Inks by various.
Colours: Marcelo Maiolo, Gabe Eltaeb. Letters: various.

Reprinting: Justice League United #0-4, Justice League United: Future's End #1,Justice League: Future's End #1 (2014)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Apr. 2015

Justice League United is the latest iteration of DC's Justice League franchise.

As I've mentioned before, I don't really read specific series regularly, often just dipping into the Marvel or DC Universe when I pick up a TPB. So my reviews are aimed at people like me -- casual fans wondering if a book makes a good read. As such, I'm not really sure what the background is for this -- if there is a concurrent Justice League of America or other, parent team (the characters make cryptic references to some earlier troubles). As well this is part of DC's "New 52" idea which I guess was another re-boot of their fictional universe which, like previous such reboots, seems a weird mix of established lore and re-invention. The characters already seem well entrenched with an established history, even as a story like this recycles characters and ideas from earlier generations of stories as though brand new.

Oh -- and it's set in Canada. Sort of.

So, anyway, after my long preamble, the story begins with two established (if second string) DC heroes, Animal Man and Star-Girl, attending what seems like a (cheeky) riff on a comic book convention in Toronto, Ontario, Canada -- signing autographs, etc. They are approached by an archaeologist, Adam Strange, who tells them of a weird discovery he and his girl friend, Alanna, made in Northern Ontario. What they find is evidence of an alien out-post that has links back to the planet Rann (and Thanagar) all as part of some genetics experiment that has been hijacked by an evil alien named Byth. Animal Man, Star-Girl, Adam Strange and Alanna, are joined over the course of the story by J'onn J'onzz (The Martian Manhunter), Green Arrow, Supergirl and Hawkman (as well as a new character -- more on her momentarily). The action splitting between battling a monster in Northern Ontario and fighting Byth on a distant satellite over Rann, all part of Byth's plan to create a super being (with Byth allied with DC's resident anti-hero -- here turned mostly villain -- Lobo).

This is then followed by the un-connected two part tale told across two specials; Justice League United: Future's End and Justice League: Future's End.

It's all written by Jeff Lemire, a Canadian comic book writer who writes both mainstream super heroes as well as being known for slightly high brow, literary comics like Essex County. But here he's perfectly comfortable in the role of super hero scribe.

Maybe too comfortable.

Maybe it's just me, but I find a lot of modern comics seem a little too generic -- a little too formulaic. Admittedly, that was probably always the case. But there's less sense of an individual creator's voice in a lot of comics. So the characters talk in that uniformly glib way of modern comics where everything is wry and wisecrack-y. They frequently refer to Star-Girl as a kid, but there was little about her that made her seem any more immature than the others. I'm not saying all the characters are that way: J'onn J'onzz is suitably sombre; Hawkman is typically brutal and wrathful (I've written before about how heartbreaking it is to see how DC has turned a character who once represented intellect and science into a winged thug).

Admittedly, I'm not sure who some of these characters are supposed to be behind their masks. Is Green Arrow supposed to be Oliver Queen? Because he's drawn like Connor (the version of the character in the 1990s). And though he's sarcastic and wisecrack-y -- it doesn't really seem like Oliver-style sarcasm (fuelled by a hot temper and social outrage).

The point being the characters were entertaining, and sometimes witty -- but I didn't find myself especially caring about them, or feeling the scenes were being filtered through their perspectives, nor was I picking up on key team dynamics. All this despite a story that, in theory, should be full of dramatic, character moments (Adam trying to find Alanna; a character sacrificing himself; etc.)

While the plot itself feels kind of thin. Serialized across five issues (it basically has two "first" issues, starting in the #0 issue, with the actual #1 being the second chapter in the saga) it fails to quite become an epic saga, despite the story fracturing so that we are following three or so different threads. There's lots of action, lots of fighting (much of issue #2 is a fight with a big monster) but it still feels small. Particularly when you get to the end and though the villainy is thwarted, it equally doesn't really feel like much has been resolved or settled as though it's all still just being set up for (possible) future stories. There's even a loose logic to why certain super heroes show up for the action (Supergirl was apparently just in the area).

The main "new" idea here is the introduction of a new super heroine -- one of only a handful of Native Indian super heroes and possibly DC's first-ever Canadian super hero (if you don't count villainess turned anti-heroine Plastique). I think she's called Equinox -- but even by the end of these five issues I'm not sure that name is used. Nor is she given much explanation, nor has much relevance to the plot! Basically we cut between the main story threads with the JLU and a First Nation teen, Miiyahbin, who wanders about, apparently has some hereditary destiny to battle evil (kind of reminiscent of Alpha Flight's Shaman) and eventually hooks up with them.

The problem I have reviewing this is I didn't dislike it -- not at all. It's just that it feels a bit vague and unformed. The story just there to justify the action scenes, without the action scenes being anything unique or special. And, as I say, feeling like you get to the end of five issues and it all feels like, well, what it is: the opening story for an on-going series, rather than a story for itself (despite stretched over half-a-year).

Then we get to the Future's End story and, again, I'm entirely ignorant of its greater significance. It's a story that jumps ahead 5 years and I'm not sure if it's just mean to be a "what if...?" story (a kind of apocryphal Elseworlds) or whether we are supposed to assume the next five years of comics really are going to build to this. That latter explanation seems kind of unsustainable, given writers and editors -- and readers -- will come and go inbetween. Yet comics have clearly fallen in love with this idea of teasing a story by filling in the background afterward (like DC's One Year Later concept). But as such it's a story with a lot of cryptic references to events that haven't (yet) happened, and is mainly just a two-issue action set piece involving various heroes uniting to stop a prison break from a super-villain gulag on Mars.

The art is good throughout, though even it strikes me as suffering from a certain uniformity. I assume when DC instigated its "New 52" overhaul it handed the artistic design reins to one artist, as the suits tend to all look the same (including Superman and Batman who aren't here) -- a lot of geometric lines across the costumes as though implying maybe armour, or just weird seams. And here the colour schemes are pretty uniform: half the characters dress in blue & white (looking less like a team of individual heroes and more like a team with a common costume, like The Fantastic Four). McKone's art on the main story arc is good and attractive, with clean, well rendered figures and environments -- reminding me a bit of someone like Michael Lark. Though there can be a bit of an inexpressiveness to the faces -- as though the characters themselves are rarely taking the events that seriously. Dougherty on The Future's End story lacks some of McKone's elegance, but also presents well-rendered figures. So, art-wise, nothing to overly complain about.

What's funny about DC's whole "New 52" idea (which I thought was being marketed as a chance for "new" ideas) is how much recycling is involved. Characters "introduced" here like Byth and Ultra, The Multi-Alien, date back to the 1960s. Yet without much sense they've been enriched or made more sophisticated for modern readers. While you can't read Future's End, with its super villain gulag, and not be reminded of Kingdom Come.

Since I'm Canadian, I'll take a moment to comment upon this being Justice League Canada (technically Justice League United, but the implication is the team will remain based in Canada). I don't know if DC was leaning that way or whether Lemire, having landed the gig, subtly suggested it might be a nice idea (and if so, give him The Order of Canada!) Because if the former, it doesn't really seem very Canadian -- most of the heroes are established Americans (like Marvel's Omega Flight) and much of the story tales place in outer space -- but if the latter, then it's nice that he would make the case that there's no reason Canada couldn't make a good base of operations. (Funnily, I've idly thought how certain established heroes -- like J'onn J'onzz specifically -- could be refashioned as Canadian since they weren't technically American; being an alien, a writer could easily have J'onn move to Canada and become Canadian super hero).

As mentioned, Lemire introduces Equinox as a Canadian super hero and, interestingly enough, seems to imply Adam Strange is now Canadian (when the character previously had been American). The more surprising change is making girlfriend Alanna Canadian (and black) when previously she had been from the planet Rann. I don't object to the colour change, but as much as I'm all for more Canadiana, I do feel changing her planet of origin kind of dramatically alters the function of the character.

So I get to the end of this trying to figure put what to say. I certainly didn't dislike this. It clips along, the dialogue is suitably amusing, the visuals pleasing. But maybe the problem is that, despite being the start of a new team, the introduction of new heroes, and, paradoxically, book-ended by a story showing their possible life five years down the line, it didn't really excite me about following the next adventures. And I think that's because there was too much sense that that's what it was all about -- trying to tease me into reading subsequent stories. But really, the best way to get me to keep reading is to tell a great story, here, now. Not to promise the great stories are to come.

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