REVIEW: Justice League #1

Justice League #1 is a comic with a lot to carry on its shoulders.  Most obviously, and what we’ve heard a lot about, is that this is the book that marks the dawn of a new era for DC Comics.  This week, only two DC comics shipped: Flashpoint #5, the end of old DC, and Justice League #1, the beginning of new DC.  With all of DC’s outreach to new and lapsed readers over the past few months of marketing, this is the comic DC are hoping to use to sell their universe.  This is the first shot, the opening salvo, and this prestiguous position has resulted in making the comic one of the biggest successes of 2011 even before its release, with retailers ordering north of 200,000 copies of the book.

With this aspect of the anticipation of the new Justice League so grand in scope, it’s easy to forget the other, longer-brewing goal this must strive to meet.  It has been many years since Justice League of America has been a comic that has enjoyed particularly noteworthy critical or commercial success, or been anywhere near the centre of the DCU.  I remember Dwayne McDuffie being vocal in his complaints about the comic freewheeling from event tie-in to event tie-in with no chance to build any momentum or identity of its own, and how long has it been since his run on the title?  It’s only got worse since then, with a hodgepodge roster of B-and-C-listers and legacy characters filling out the cast of a comic that has been shunted to the fringes of the DCU.  Meanwhile, over at Marvel, The Avengers has long been a central lynchpin brand that has proven capable of generating impressive sales and sustaining multiple titles each month, and is going to be the basis of what is set to be one of the biggest films of 2012 and one of the biggest superhero movies ever.  Their DC counterparts have sorely needed to play catch-up.

It seems like for years, the rumor has floated around that Geoff Johns and Jim Lee would be teaming up to put together a proper A-list roster with DC’s most iconic heavy hitters, and make the JLA a crown jewel in the DC lineup once more.  And it made sense: DC’s biggest team should be written by its biggest writer and drawn by its biggest artist.  Now, we’re finally getting that long-desired Johns/Lee JLA project, but it’s called Justice League, and it is the bedrock of a relaunched DCU.  Can Justice League #1 possibly live up to all that crushing expectation?

Before I get to tackling that big question, I’ll start by saying this comic looks great.  It’s been a long time since we saw a new comic from Jim Lee, but amidst all the complaints of his tardiness its easy to forget how nice his pages are when we do get them.  Visually, DC’s co-publisher is the perfect choice to brand the new DCU in its first foot forward: presenting a world that’s clean, slick and stylish.  But deserving just as much credit as Jim Lee is colorist Alex Sinclair.  It’s the bright, crisp colors that really make each page pop.  This is a world that is fearful and suspicious of its new protectors, and that is reflected in the color scheme, as the darker palette is almost invaded by bright, dazzling bursts of light whenever the superhumans are around: be it the glowing green of Green Lantern’s constructs, the blinding red of the Parademons’ feiry projections, or the red and blue blur that marks Superman’s entrance.  Batman, meanwhile, seems to always find some shadow to sink into, a moody contrast to the dazzling palette of the rest of the book: a triumph for inker Scott Williams.

In terms of the writing, I had some problems.  I cast my mind back to Grant Morrison’s first issue on Justice League of America.  This too was a new #1, and this was also an attempt to bring DC’s biggest heroes back together after a period of lesser known heroes filling the roster.  But with Morrison’s debut, we were instantly launched into a story epic and ambitious in scope, and concisely (re)introduced to every member of the roster (save for Aquaman, who would show up later) in a manner that efficiently established their respective powers and personalities.  Coming into this new Justice League #1, this was one of the benchmarks I was set to compare the issue to.  The other was some of Geoff Johns’ own famous “chapter ones”.  The Sinestro Corps War Special.  Infinite Crisis #1Blackest Night #1.  If there’s one thing Johns can do really well, it is start an event in a way that really lays out the stakes and scope of the story ahead, while also providing a tether of human drama with fine ensemble work.  And, in my opinion, this is what Justice League needed to be presented as: an event.

We don’t really get that here.  I don’t see this as a major spoiler, as I won’t go into specifics, but all that happens in the issue is that Batman and Green Lantern fight a Parademon, talk for a bit, then meet Superman.  This amount of story would probably fill about 2 pages of an average issue of The Sixth Gun.  I may be misremembering some of the marketing, but didn’t Dan Didio and co. make a big deal out of putting an end to decompression and writing for the trade, and instead providing comics that were full, satisfying experiences on an issue-by-issue basis?  This is a classic case of decompressed storytelling, and new readers might be disappointed to pick up Justice League #1 only to discover that half the characters on that snazzy cover don’t even appear in this issue.  As a typical comic, or even a regular launch of a new volume, the story is fine.  But as the dawn of a new era, it fell short of my expectations.

Setting aside my expectations, however, I can appreciate that the thinking behind Johns’ plotting of this issue is actually pretty sound in its own right.  Johns has said in recent interviews that a major priority for him in writing Justice League was to showcase the distinct personalities of each member, making their group dynamic and interactions a crucial part of the title rather than it simply being plot-driven.  Bearing this in mind, perhaps it makes sense to play it slow and steady with how the characters are introduced over the course of this opening arc.  And it’s also clever when you consider the order of chaacters introduced, as far as appealing to new readers: Batman and Green Lantern are the two characters who have currently ongoing film franchises (one admittedly enjoying more critical acclaim than the other), while Superman has a new movie due in a couple of years.  So, start with the characters fans who have never picked up a DC comic might be most familiar with, and build from there.

With most of the issue devoted to just Batman and Green Lantern, we get plenty of time to get reacquainted with each of them.  Johns gives us a wonderfully badass Batman, brooding and intimidating, but also with a droll, deadpan sense of humor.  So many writers depict Batman as deadly serious, so it’s all the better in the depictions when you get flashes of sarcastic wit behind the straight face.  Green Lantern, meanwhile, has his cocky demeanour heightened and brought to the fore, with his occasional habit of referring to himself in the third person garnering some chuckles.  He’s going to be the hothead of the group, and while some people are complaining about Green Lantern being depicted as too arrogant and stupid, these are largely the same people who were complaining about Green Lantern being dull, stoic and faultless a couple of months ago, and I don’t see a problem with it.  Also, it was a nice touch how some of the mythology of the Green Lantern Corps  was worked into the dialogue, rather than taking it for granted people would know who Green Lantern is.

Superman has less panel time, but there’s some skillful work done at establishing him through how other characters perceive him before he first appears.  It adds a layer of mystery and unpredictability to that most safe and familiar of characters.  And though he’s not Cyborg yet, we do get an intriguing subplot involving Vic Stone.  There’s been some complaints about Cyborg’s place in the Justice League being mainly just to tick the diversity box, that he isn’t a compelling enough character to justify the placement.  Well, it would seem that this opening arc is going to play against the backdrop of something Johns has long been very skilled at: getting to the core of characters and really making us care about them.

So, under the weight of all that expectation, Justice League #1 might not quite match up.  But if you cast aside that expectation, and take it just as a Justice League comic, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee give us a first issue that offers much to like.  I think that a lot of people who picked this up will be back for issue #2.

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