JSA: Strange Adventures
(2004-2005 - six issues, DC Comics)
Writer: Kevin J. Anderson. Pencils/breakdowns: Barry Kitson. Inks/finishes: Gary Erskine.
Strange Adventures is one of the occasional "retro" adventures DC likes to publish involving its original Golden Age heroes, the Justice Society of America (I think the previous one was 1999's Justice Society Returns). Set during the 1940s, this has the heroes taking on a megalomaniac with a flying airship and an army of robots and cyborgs. The other "hook" is that it's written by science fiction novelist Kevin J. Anderson -- not a total stranger to writing comics, but not a frequent contributor either. And the art is by popular, realist artist Barry Kitson.
And despite what I perceived as mainly negative reviews, I wanted to like this -- but honestly, it's not very good at all.
I'm not that familiar with Anderson-the-novelist (I've read stuff by him, but nothing that sticks in my mind) but the dialogue is pretty bad. I don't know if that's just him, or whether he's deliberately "writing down" to his perceived comic book audience, or whether -- to be fair -- he's going for a tongue-in-cheek style that just doesn't quite click. I mean, with characters saying things like "gee" and "golly", you can assume Anderson is deliberately trying to evoke an old comics flavour. But I've read other things where a writer walks the line between tongue-in-cheek homage and serious drama...and succeeds better. And in that vein, Anderson doesn't really evoke his period well. References are made to World War II, but you don't really feel it the way Roy Thomas could make you feel it in his old All-Star Squadron series.
There are some occasional cute quips, particularly involving Wildcat and the Atom, but mostly the dialogue is clunky and clumsy. What's more, it's married to a paper thin plot. Given this was six, over-sized issues (30 pages per issue), it's not exactly rife with twists and turns and sub-plots. Most of the action scenes just repeat themselves as one or more of the JSA get into a fight with the airship and its robotic defenders, then the airship escapes, then a similar fight ensues next issue. Some of the members go off on a mission (in an issue which seemed like the story was finally getting its sea legs and improving), but a character later remarks how they might as well have stayed home for all that they affected events! There could be an interesting side plot, as the villain -- Lord Dynamo -- offers the world the fruits of his genius, if they defer to him and turn over a couple of the heroes' weapons, which could lead to some interesting debates of right and wrong, and whether certain sacrifices are worth the benefit. But it never emerges as a provocative debate, with Dynamo never portrayed as anything more than a one note villain.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the series is a secondary plot in which Johnny Thunder, here a wanna be writer, hooks up with the real life SF writer Jack Williamson. One almost wonders if that was Anderson's motive for writing it -- not because he had much interest in the JSA, but because he was allowed to use Williamson as a major character. But it just seems awkward. Williamson isn't exactly a household name and, at least as portrayed here, doesn't really seem like he was an intriguing figure in his own right (ie: James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, really had worked for the British Secret Service). Presumably Anderson was just a big Williamson fan. As well, using Johnny Thunder as such a pivotal player could be interesting (given he's not usually front and centre in JSA stories), but Johnny was often played as comic relief...here he just comes across as, um, developmentally handicapped! And like the action scenes, the Thunder-Williamson stuff is just repetitious.
And the rest of the JSA don't emerge as much of anything. Anderson does do an interesting idea of pairing up like characters (when often storytelling posits opposites attract), so the team's two pugilists, Wildcat and Atom, pal around, and Green Lantern and Starman tend to hang out. But again, for such a long story...there's little use of characters or personality, with most of the JSA members just there to fill up the backgrounds -- with Anderson even throwing in extraneous characters that weren't regular members, such as Dr. Occult and The Star-Spangled Kid (but both had appeared in the Justice Society Returns, so maybe that was what Anderson had used as his primer). And it's hard to credit a dirigible and few robot henchman are such a threat to a team of some 17 members, including sorcerers and the embodiment of God's wrath!
Barry Kitson's art would normally be seen as a selling point. Admittedly, though I like his clean, realist faces and figures, his art can be a bit stiff, his composition unspectacular. But still, it's better than average. Unfortunately, he more provides layouts, with Gary Erskine doing the finishes, resulting in art that is less than you might anticipate with Kitson's name in the credits.
As much as I'm a casual fan of the traditional JSA, and as much as I wanted to like this given how few projects feature them, even after a second reading I have to say this is pretty missable, suffering from bad dialogue, thin plotting, and little characterization. Maybe squeezed into a one-shot special, it could've been a fun romp, but at 180 pages...?