The start of the New 52 included a lot of criticism. One of the most heavily criticized titles was DC Comics’ flagship title Justice League written by Geoff Johns and initially penciled by Jim Lee. It’s fair to say that the opening arc of that title was not very good in the way the pacing was overly slow, the characters voices were ill-defined, and the conflict amounted to little more than a big punching contest. But mediocre comics happen from great creators all the time. It’s hard to avoid. What was most problematic was that this served as a sign of the confused mess that the initial launch of the New 52 was.
No one, not even the writers it seemed, knew what was in continuity or how much these iconic characters would retain of their classic voices. If Origin, the opening arc of Justice League, was supposed to be an indicator of things to come then things were looking rough indeed. I still found things to like in that opening arc. Some of the humor was well-placed and the art by Jim Lee, while not to my personal taste, was a perfect fit for the title’s bombast. Then the second arc occurred and it seemed as if my worst fears were confirmed. The infighting that had made the Justice League of the first arc somewhat hard to bear was cranked up and we had heroes fighting heroes, taking snide potshots, and acting like they hadn’t spent five years on the same team.
The third major arc, the Throne of Atlantis crossover with Aquaman, was better thanks to a combination of Ivan Reis’ pencils and a clearer idea of what Geoff Johns was aiming for. Heroes were starting to come together under adversity without argument as happens when Cyborg assembles a sort of reserve class of Justice Leaguers to deal with the threat of Atlantis. The conflict still centered around pitting heroes against heroes to an extent but it was handled as if there was a rich history between the characters that informed their behavior. Not long after that, the scourge of Trinity War and the company-wide crossover event Forever Evil that followed it struck. Heroes were back to fighting heroes rather than villains, behaving in ways that made them appear petty rather than heroic as they split off into factions only to be cast aside in favor of a villain-centric storyline.
Forever Evil has problems but that doesn’t mean there weren’t bright spots in the tie-in materials. Justice League did a series of “feature” issues about the event’s villains, the Crime Syndicate, and depicted them as the warped versions of the Justice League that they are. Only they weren’t just evil opposites of the Justice League, they also contained heightened versions of their worst traits: the infighting, the general distrust, and the willingness to choose the violent option first. It was as if Geoff Johns had heard the complaints and was addressing them by portraying even worse versions of the characters that were cartoonishly evil.
This cartoonish evil included elements like Ultraman, Superman’s evil analog, snorting Kryptonite like cocaine and breaking Jimmy Olsen’s hand in one of his many brutalizations of beloved characters. With this heightened sense of bad, there needed to be a heightened sense of good and this is where Justice League really started to turn around. The ultimate good came in the form of the Metal Men, their origin retold for the New 52 in a way that emphasized their heroism and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. That first Metal Men story may be my favorite issue of Geoff John’s Justice League. From their introduction, the Metal Men are brought back in to action to help defeat the Crime Syndicate and heighten the juxtaposition between pure good and pure evil.
After Forever Evil wrapped up, the title kept going strong. New members joined the Justice League and brought an interesting dynamic to the team. The first being Power Ring, a young woman with a serious trauma who was chosen by the eponymous power ring for its ability to control her through fear. Her story of joining the League involves the team having to help her face and overcome her fears to the point that she is able and willing to join the team in order to fight for the greater good. The other new member was perhaps the most perfect addition Johns could have added on: Lex Luthor.
Having Lex Luthor, a “reformed” supervillain, forcibly join the team after saving the world in Forever Evil finally provided a reason for the Justice League to have some internal strife. Some characters aren’t as trusting of Luthor’s stated goals of redeeming himself and that is a proper source of conflict that doesn’t feel contrived. From there, we transition into the current arc The Amazo Virus in which the country is being ravaged by a virus accidentally released from Lex Luthor’s lab. More than half the Justice League is down, putting the focus on Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Lex Luthor. And where I’d expect infighting to take over the book as character argue over how Luthor is to blame for the epidemic, there isn’t. It’s simply heroes being heroes, joining together in a time of need for the greater good.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Justice League has done a complete about-face from being one of the lesser titles of the New 52 to being a shining beacon of what can be done with these characters by putting them in new and interesting situations. If you aren’t reading Justice League or you lapsed after a certain point, I’d implore you to give it another shot because the heroes are finally acting like heroes.