Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


JLA: Liberty and Justice

2003 - available in soft cover

Written by Paul Dini. Painted art by Alex Ross. (story Dini & Ross).
Letters: Toss Klein. Editor: Charles Kochman, Joey Cavalieri.

96 pages

Published by DC Comics

Cover price: $9.95 USA / $15.25 CDN.

Superstar comics artist Alex Ross -- whose fully painted, almost photo-realistic artwork first started gaining raves with such mini-series as Marvels and Kingdom Come -- has teamed with writer Paul Dini (involved in the critically acclaimed, adult-friendly cartoon, "Batman: The Animated Series") for a series of annual, treasury-sized graphic novels for DC showcasing that company's key characters (including Superman: Peace on Earth, Batman: War on Crime, etc.) in stories meant to seem more profound than just a fight-the-baddie story. Their collaboration culminates with the final, and longest, in the series, the 96 page JLA: Liberty and Justice.

This focuses on the Justice League of America (more popularly known to Saturday morning cartoon fans as The Super Friends) and features the key Silver Age membership of Wonder Woman, Batman, Green (Hal Jordan) Lantern, the Flash (Barry Allen), Superman, Aquaman and J'onn J'onzz, with the Atom cropping up and other heroes making appearances. Apparently, this line-up is a bit out of continuity: technically these characters weren't all League members at the same time, at least in DC's current version of its characters' history (DC having a tendency to re-invent its "reality" every few years).

The other Dini/Ross books often were presented more like picture books, eschewing word balloons in favour of introspective captions, perhaps better to showcase Ross' art. Here, though there is a heavy reliance on narration by J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, the scenes are also told in conventional comic book format of dialogue and word balloons.

The story has the JLA called in because of a viral outbreak that seems to have wiped out an area of Central Africa. While the team struggles to deal with this unconventional threat, fear and paranoia of the unknown disease -- and distrust of the superheroes' handling of the situation -- unleashes chaos and rioting around the globe.

Liberty and Justice is an interesting idea. By eschewing the usual super-villain formula, Dini and Ross create an unusual story, with the characters struggling to combat a threat that needs more than just a good right hook to vanquish. It's "Outbreak"...with super-heroes as the heroes.

Where the book threatens to break down, however, is in its very desire to be important instead of just telling a taut, atypical suspenser. This is very much a part of the Iconism that has been sweeping comics for the last decade or so. Perhaps as a reaction to the dark n' gritty phase comics went through in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of modern comics emphasize the grandeur of the heroes...sometimes at the expense of the characters' humanity. For the most part, the heroes don't panic, don't argue, don't get flustered or lose their tempers (except Aquaman in one scene...and even he seems fairly controlled) -- things that real people might do in a pressure situation. I'm not saying the Leaguers should snipe and bitch at each other, but a sense that these are real people struggling with a very real threat is kind of muted. J'onn J'onzz narrates...but it's hard to remember that, because the "voice" Dini employs is so depersonal, it's easy to mistake it for a third person narration (a flaw also in the other Dini/Ross book I read). There are some amusing exchanges (like one having fun with the scientific implausibility of super heroic feats, and some cute quips about Batman) but overall, the evocation of bland, clean cut Silver Age heroes is a little too faithful.

The book starts out a bit dry, emphasizing Ross' visuals and J'onn's narration, then improves in the middle as the story becomes a story, emphasizing the characters seeking to understand, and find a cure for, the mysterious virus. But then it starts to peter out toward the end again.

That's because the emphasis shifts from the disease to the "important" topic Dini and Ross want to explore. Throughout the world, people begin panicking -- with too little understanding of the virus, they fear the world is coming to an end, and their paranoia leads them to turn on the super heroes who are trying to save them.

It sounds like a rich topic. But firstly, there's absolutely nothing new here. Using superheroes as a metaphor for those victimized by unthinking prejudice has become so done to death, it's starting to seem like rote rather than artistic inspiration. And here, it just isn't that convincing (a better story is Justice League of America: The Nail). Perhaps Dini and Ross would argue they wanted to deal with mass hysteria...and the "why" is just an excuse.

Secondly, the notion of global panic, of the great unwashed masses running hysterically through the streets seems a bit of a stretch...and even offensive. In the last few years we've seen the terrorist attack on New York, SARS outbreaks in major cities, and a massive blackout that crippled much of Ontario and the eastern United States...and people kept their heads quite nicely, thank you. Where we do see the population losing control -- such as in the race riots America suffered a few years ago -- it tends to swell up from long bubbling frustrations. Or, in other cases, because politicians are deliberately manipulating public perception through misinformation.

In other words, it doesn't happen for nothing.

Analysed too closely, there is a distressingly fascistic streak to Liberty and Justice. The heroes of the piece are the clean-cut super heroes and, behind them, the military pentagon of the United States. The villains? The paranoid public, foreigners, and the liberal media that is feeding their fears. In other words, people, and the media, can't be trusted to do the right thing. Fueling the public's confusion is the fact that the JLA doesn't bother explaining why they are doing what they are doing when they quarantine the viral hot zone. But...why don't they tell anyone? I mean, other than to provide a plot catalyst? Nor is it clear why the League is acting alone anyway -- why Batman, a criminologist, is called in to analyze a micro-biological agent is unclear when there are scientists who specialize in the field.

The message seems to be that the public should not question the League or their actions...ever. The League will do what needs to be done and disseminate whatever information they feel the public needs to know.

Reading this graphic novel, it is hard not to interpret it as an intentional parable endorsing the recent U.S.-led war on Iraq. Faced with a deadly threat, the JLA (ie: America) unilaterally intercedes in an African nation; world opinion turns against them; the superheroes are forced to violate human rights to restore order; in the end, the JLA is vindicated and the global community sheepishly realize they were wrong. Except for the part about the world realizing they were wrong, you can see the potential symbolism (all they needed to complete the parallel was a last act revelation that Superman had actually exaggerated reports about the existence of the virus).

Was that really Dini and Ross' intent? Another Internet reviewer also noted the Iraq metaphor, but figured it was unintentional. And Ross certainly irked the political right a few years ago with his left leaning Uncle Sam comic, so he might not seem the likeliest candidate to endorse a Republican-led war. But even if that metaphor is unintentional, the underlying philosophy remains: don't question authority figures.

Ross' painted art is, of course, quite impressive, but it seems somehow less impressive than when I first came upon it in Kingdom Come. Maybe there is an aspect of novelty to its appeal that becomes dulled over time. And presented in oversized pages, and in big panels on those pages, the photo-realism is muted a bit. The paintings looking more like paintings. As well, the cute extras Ross used to put in his panels (joke celebrity cameoes in crowd scenes) that made the pictures fun to scrutinize, seems absent. It's still darn nice work, don't misunderstand (and his Wonder Woman remains one of the prettiest versions of the character), but maybe without stronger characterization in the writing, it loses its impact. What's the point of painting the characters to look like real people...if they aren't written with as much care? One would also have liked more than a few panels given to characters like Hawkman and the Elongated Man. Superman, Batman, etc. have already received the Ross treatment before; second string heroes not so much. And because Ross' work uses photo references, he's not as strong depicting wholly imaginary situations, such as brief scenes in Aquaman's Atlantis, or the Atom flying through the Flash's bloodstream.

For old time League fans (or Super Friends fans), particularly those who've never seen Ross' work, the book is worth getting, if only for the novelty of seeing these comic book heroes come to painted life on over-sized pages. The very simplicity of the story -- with its de-emphasis on violence (even the disease leaves no fatalities) and super-villains -- makes for an appealing read, particularly as something to show to younger readers. My quibbles about any fascist sub-text, given that they are sub-text -- and interpretative, to boot -- don't entirely sour the book. But for those hoping that 96 pages of Alex Ross' painted art, married with a story intended to seem deep and profound, might have produced a classic tome...Liberty and Justice is more an O.K. novelty, rather than a must-have read.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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