Current Reviews


JLA #85

Posted: Wednesday, September 3, 2003
By: David Kozlowski

“Trial By Fire” (part 2)

Writer: Joe Kelly
Artists: Doug Mahnke(p), Tom Nguyen(i)

Publisher: DC Comics

A telepath is controlling the minds of terrorists around the world, compelling them to throw down their arms. Clearly the JLA must stop this! Wha? Why is the JLA on a mission to stop a peace-loving psychic? Because war makes the world go round, I guess. The trail takes our heroes to the mountains of Nepal where they meet up with an old adversary, someone who might just hold the key to the whole mystery.

This isn’t the JLA I grew up with; I don’t recognize any of these characters even though they’re essentially the same folks that have been working together the last twenty plus years (and then some). Writer Joe Kelly has written an entirely new dynamic in this modern-day JLA and it’s a mixed bag. While his characterizations are pretty successful his storytelling is, unfortunately, confusing and not particularly accessible to new readers. The visuals by Doug Mahnke and Dustin Nguyen are similarly hot and cold. Rather a harsh way to start off a review, I know.

Joe Kelly has been at the JLA helm long enough to establish his true voice, as opposed to the heavy-handed, DC editorial influence applied during last years’ ill-advised “Obsidian Age” saga. On the positive side Kelly has established a more organizational and military feel in the League, which works quite well. Batman is clearly the boss – he leads through intimidation and reptile coolness while Superman is relegated to a subordinate role – yet this is a most vibrant and compelling Superman than in any DC comic today. Kelly is also effective with Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash and the other minor cast members. Unfortunately J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, has become a little too human; ironically, absent of his omniscient, detached personality I find him far less interesting.

But it’s Joe Kelly’s jagged storytelling and inconsistent pacing that’s dragging JLA into mediocrity. This is the second part of “Trial by Fire”, but for some reason the title page and credits are on the last page of the comic, so if you’re just picking this book up there’s no way to know you’re in the middle of an arc. Kelly opens the story at a café in The Middle East where the leaders of Palestine and Israel are sipping tea together and discussing peace initiatives like old friends while Flash, Major Disaster and Faith look on in disbelief – but it takes Kelly half the issue to kind of explain why this is significant. Next we jump to the Adirondack Mountains in Virginia where Manhunter, Superman and Wonder Woman discuss the danger posed by a mysterious telepath who's causing terrorists and criminals worldwide to renounce violence – this is a bad thing? But then Kelly skips around half a dozen locations on earth and the moon without a single explanatory caption. One scene depicts Green Lantern speaking with the Manitou (the wannabe Apache Chief character no one can explain to me), both are clearly on the JLA Watchtower but the suddenly scene shifts to a group shot outdoors where it’s snowing and no one’s wearing breathing apparatuses, so I guess we’re not on the moon anymore.

Regarding the art, either you love Doug Mahnke or you hate him. That’s the impression I get from various boards and reviews on the Web. I like his style, but I don’t think it fits the JLA. He’s definitely reined in his extreme figure drawing style, first seen in the “Obsidian Age” days, though many of the characters are still quite exaggerated (see Flash and Green Lantern). Manhke would be ideal for a run on Green Lantern, where his science fiction and horror influences could be turned loose – anytime he gets to show off John Stewart’s power ring the results are always surprising and interesting. Inker Dustin Nguyen likes to pour on the black, but he’s got a fine touch with his linework, I’d like to see his inks separate from Mahnke’s pencils just to see which is the dominant influence.

Final Word:
If you haven’t read the previous issue of “Trial by Fire” then you’ll be lost, lost, lost. I’m starting to appreciate Marvel’s opening page summaries – it’s definitely needed here. JLA is lacking direction; it’s just one confusing or pointless mission after another. There’s no ongoing subtext or any apparent plan for the future. If you enjoy watching DC’s top heroes running around punching stuff or making grandstanding political speeches, then Joe Kelly’s take will entertain you. The personalities of the various heroes are definitely unique, quite apart from the way they’ve acted in the past and the art will certainly keep your eyes moving. JLA has become just another average comic book and that’s not good enough.

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