Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: Justice League Volume 1 Origin by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee (The New 52)

I don't know what there is to say about the New 52. Personally, I haven't been more disinterested an unmoved by current mainstream superhero comics since I was a kid and the combination of the Age of Apocalypse and the Spider-Man Clone Saga made me quit reading superhero comics entirely. Generally speaking, these past couple of years haven't been pretty for Marvel and DC, but DC in particular has really been hitting rock bottom.

Whereas I felt that the era from about 1999-2009 or 2010 was a modern Golden Age for comics, I now believe, with full conviction, that we are now in what I have termed the Stupid Age of Comics. We're at the stage where these corporations are basically just throwing crap at the walls to see if anything will stick. They don't seem to realize that even if something sticks to the wall, it's still crap. There are lots of ideas but so many of them are embarrassingly bad concepts that I honestly don't know how anyone could have thought these were good.

Here are a couple of quick examples of distressingly bad (or downright stupid) ideas just off the top of my head: Spider-Island, Minimum Carnage, Earth One original graphic novels, the Superior Spider-Man, JMS on Superman and Wonder Woman, the New 52, any Jeph Loeb comic, and Before Watchmen. To further hurt matters, DC killed WildStorm and is slowly but surely chopping the balls off Vertigo - both of which are decisions which I assume make tons of financial sense for their parent conglomerate Warner Bros., but absolutely do nothing to help improve the overall quality of the artistic merit of their products. And somehow, DC's still giving work to writers like Scott Lobdell, Fabian Niceza, Dan Jurgens, and Judd Winick. What a stunning lineup of commercially-oriented superhero writers. I don't doubt that there are a lot of people who are enjoying their comics, because somebody out there has to be buying them, or else why would they keep getting work?

But today, I do not come to praise DC, but to bury them, to bury them in an avalanche of hatred, a hate so deep and powerful that no love can ever vanquish it. Just because lots of people apparently like their comics doesn't mean I feel any obligation to feel the same. After reading a number of New 52 comics, I found a couple that were promising (mostly Jeff Lemire's comics, although longtime readers of this blog do know that I have an irrational appreciation and compulsion for everything Peter Milligan touches), a few that were super bland and absolutely the embodiment of middle of the road, and a bunch that were so bad that I put them down and wondered what was the point in living if comics had reached such a low point.

Justice League by Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, et al. is emblematic of the bottom of the barrel. Massively hyped upon release and produced by two of the biggest names in superhero comics, Justice League was supposed to be the flagship DC book. I guess it still is, because it represents everything that's terrible about their approach to comics over the past several years.

Having just read the first hardcover collection of the first 6 issues, I can say, again, with full conviction, that we are living in the Stupid Age of Comics.

Look, if this comic came out in 1993 and I had never read or watched a single Justice League story, ten-year old Dru would probably think this was pure awesome. But I'm not a kid any more and there have been so many amazing Justice League stories over the past 20 years, from Grant Morrison's definitive JLA run, which was worthily followed up by many more fine comics by Mark Waid and Joe Kelly, to a couple of J.M. DeMatteis/Keith Giffen/Kevin Maguire Justice League International throwback miniseries, to the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons. Somewhere in there, Warren Ellis even wrote an Authority-esque Justice League story, a six-issue blast of accessible, cinematic superheroism that still stands leagues above this travesty from Johns and Lee.

I haven't truly enjoyed a Johns comic since the Identity Crisis era. It could be a coincidence or it could be a conspiracy, but ever since he basically became DC's guiding creative force, I haven't liked his work. But I have a lot of fondness for his Avengers run at Marvel, as well as his Flash, JSA, and the early half of his Teen Titans. Those are really fun superhero comics.

However, this Justice League comic is an exercise in cliches. It's got everything from misunderstandings between the heroes (leading to the obligatory hero versus hero fight scenes) to the mysterious cosmic mastermind scheming and plotting behind the scenes (even though it's obvious from the get go that it's Darkseid). It's a story about the team first forming in this softly rebooted universe (is there any other medium where we so readily bandy about terms like "softly rebooted universe?) so Johns takes a "year one" approach to the Justice League's formation. Everything's predictable and you've seen it all before.

Problem is, these are all icons. I believe Morrison himself once stated that the JLA are the pantheon of gods. Everyone knows who these characters are. Go and reread Morrison's first JLA arc, New World Order, where the team gets together to fight the Hyperclan. That's how you do a team origin story. By boiling down each character to his or her essence, everyone gets a chance to shine in Morrison's classic.

Johns chooses to give each character a few "shining moments" by either making them jerks (see Superman and Green Lantern), overly earnest to the point of caricature [see Wonder Woman, Cyborg (yeah, I don't know what he's doing in the Justice League, either - unless this is just one of those equal opportunity race things), and the Flash], or having them basically punch some parademons hella hard (see Aquaman). It all feels very forced and trite.

The dialogue is peppered with predictability and awkward sentimentality (Cyborg's conversations with his father stand out as an egregious example of this) and even the humorous bits are weakened by Jim Lee's art style.

And Jim Lee's art just isn't good. I know he's one of the most popular artists of this generation, but I just don't think his work does any favors for the story. His character designs are terrible, with most characters sporting some sort of bizarre and unattractive collar and lots of weird plating (I assume it's plating - they could just be extraneous lines) on their costumes. I especially hate what he did to Superman - not only is the armor completely pointless for the character, but he took away one of the things that makes Superman look like Superman; Superman should always wear his underwear on the outside of his pants. Without his underwear on the outside, Superman just looks gay. Darkseid, with his bulky armor and constant gritted teeth, looks terrible, too, looking more like a generic He-Man villain than the cosmic despot and embodiment of evil that Jack Kirby surely envisioned.

Also, there's a scene where Lee illustrates a pre-Cyborg Victor Stone playing football. I get that football games must be difficult to draw, but his football scene wasn't convincing at all. It's enough to make you question the physics of his drawings even when he's drawing superhumans flying around punching the hell out of winged alien creatures.

I didn't see the point of this comic at all. Six issues to tell us how the Justice League got together? It's just a story that has no other purpose than the plot it purports to share with readers. How many times have we seen a superteam origin story? How many times have we seen a Justice League origin story? If you're not going to do anything fresh and new, then why even bother making these kinds of comics at all? There's no thematic depth, there's nothing particularly witty or clever in terms of dialogue or overall execution, the character development is shallow and superficial, and it all  focuses extensively on physical action and bombastic explosions. This must be the kind of comic book that Michael Bay reads at night before he decides that he could make a Justice League movie.

There's also an epilogue at the end that's supposed to set up some sort of ongoing plot thread or mystery, but it's so cryptic and relies on the reader having knowledge of other New 52 comics that I can't be bothered to care. I can only hate.

I hate the bland writing. I hate the tasteless character designs. I hate the style-over-substance of the art. I hate the very concept of rebooting the universe and telling yet another tired origin story. I hate that this comic exists and I hate how there are so many people out there who will continue to read, buy, and support comics just like this, thereby ensuring a never-ending production of similar dreck.

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