How do you make a good superhero comic? I mean, besides good writing and good art — I'm talking about the basic genre requirements that your basic cape comic should contain. Just off the top of my head, I'm thinking big ideas, high drama, large-scale action beats and a decent amount of grounding, often through heroes displaying at least the illusion of identifiable human characteristics and there being a tangible threat to regular people. Justice League is not a good superhero comic, but it contains all those genre requirements.
There had been rumors of a Jim Lee/Geoff Johns collabo on a Justice League of America comic for quite some time. That creative team is, quite frankly, a no-brainer — the two hottest established mainstream talents in comics pairing up for what should be a flagship title with all the publisher's most popular characters. My colleague Chris Kiser already used this comparison for something else, but that kind of all-star project begs to be the comics equivalent of Watch the Throne as far as being an obvious recipe for success.
And, yeah, Justice League has been the best-selling book in comics since its debut, as it deserves to be by virtue of good financial decision-making. As far as quality, it's less Watch the Throne and more like Lulu came out two months early.
The first six issues of Justice League detail the origin of the team, which isn't too wrongheaded an idea on paper; origins are often the foundation of the superhero narrative and the Christopher Nolanization of popular culture demands that we know the real-world explanation for every stupid superhero concept. The new origin of the Justice League seems to be this: Parademons are blowing stuff up, superheroes just kind of run into one another, fight some Parademons and then the final boss comes; the superheroes eventually beat it and society decides they're a team. And the superheroes reluctantly play along with the idea.
By contrast, the original 1960s Justice League comics never bothered to detail the team's origin until Justice League of America #9, a self-contained flashback story wherein the individual superheroes realize that they can't stop an alien invasion unless they team up. This isn't to forward a "old comics are better than new comics" mentality, but rather to put it in perspective. Personally, I think that's a good plot to comics ratio. The plot to Justice League of America #9 is about as simplistic as the plot to the first six issues of Justice League, but that old comic book feels dense and weighty due to the compression.
Justice League #1 is decidedly decompressed in service of the visceral appeal of "widescreen" comics. There are big panels and lots of action. The first superheroes we meet are Batman and Green Lantern, characters with huge public profiles thanks to their respective movies (never mind that Dark Knight came out in 2008 and Green Lantern tanked at the box office). Police helicopters chase Batman. Green Lantern conjures giant green trucks and bats and riot cops with his ring. A Parademon blows up some sewers. Superman flies in and, in final splash page glory, seems the prick we'd all be if we had superpowers. So, minus some dickish banter and the introduction of Cyborg, not a lot happens in this opening issue.
Then there's the aforementioned splash:
Forget Starfire in Red Hood & the Outlaws; that has got to be the sluttiest page in comics history — one that wants you to continue reading so bad that it's resorting to stroking a reader's base desires. "Next: Batman vs. Superman." This book may as well be promising full-on penetration.
Which it actually kind of delivers on. Just like how porn emphasizes the sex scenes, Justice League is all about the fight scenes — so much that these six issues amount to one loooong fight scene briefly broken up by some ineffectual drama and full-page shots for whenever a new superhero shows up. The action is a purely Michael Bay take on superheroics, where superpowers aren't for anything but hitting, and a supremely evil character like Darkseid is reduced to a giant that punches people and shoots lasers from his eyes — more the final boss of a video game than a devious mastermind from another world, complete with a strategy for beating him ("We blind him!").
The execution of Darkseid perfectly encapsulates the book's interests: he stomps around, destroys a lot of things and we get a sense of his intentions (something about a missing daughter), but I cannot for the life of me tell you what Darkseid's plan is. It feels like a book plotted with action figures — Wonder Woman and Aquaman murder some Parademons, Green Lantern hits Darkseid with a big green thing and then Darkseid shoots a laser at Superman. Playset sold separately.
Much has been made of Johns' characterization in this series — namely the way that most of the superheroes regard one another with open hostility, even as space-gremins are blowing up the planet and abducting bystanders. You can kind of see the method behind Johns' writing, presenting these superheroes as unseasoned newbies rather than the assured, iconic Super Friends we know today. But the execution completely fails, casting these superheroes as immature, unlikeable characters engaging in sub-Mark Millar verbal sniping, as if Johns was trying to write the DC version of The Ultimates, complete with sloth pacing and "cinematic" grounding.
Or maybe the characterization in Justice League is an attempt to replicate the interaction of 12-year-old boys, presumably the comic's intended audience. Of course Batman is awesome and Green Lantern's a doofus with a ring. Of course Superman shows up, boasts about his superpowers and tries to fight Batman. Of course Aquaman comes in and wants to be the leader of the team. Of course Cyborg is sad because his dad doesn't approve of his actual interests and passions. That's decidedly the perspective of a 12-year old — so much that I thought the last page of Justice League #6 might have been some kids wearing towels for capes playing pretend in a suburban backyard.
Worse than the characterization is the failed attempt at an
y sort of arc for this story. To go back to the team's first origin, in that story a group of superheroes decide to form a team once they realize they can do a lot more good together than separately. In Justice League, seven superheroes accidentally run into one another while punching things, beat the bad guys and get mistaken for a superhero team by the general public. Aquaman and Wonder Woman claim to be too busy for such foolishness, Green Lantern whines about being on a team and few of the other heroes bother to express interest in continuing the collaboration. All of the coherent reasons for sticking together come from Batman, including this gem: "It'll keep the Gotham P.D. Off my back. The Air Force off yours." So, the Justice League united to keep Batman and Green Lantern from being arrested. Super cool heroics, bro.
The closest thing to actual character arcs comes from the Green Lantern/Batman conflict, where they begin the story by bickering, Batman appeals to him to teach a valuable lesson about teamwork and then Green Lantern refuses to learn a valuable lesson about teamwork. That's more depth than Johns gives supposed emotional center Cyborg, who only seems to exist in this story to create a portal to send Darkseid back to Apokalips in Issue #6.
I'd be really curious to find out what the collaboration between Lee and Johns even was. Did they do this Marvel-style and Johns felt the need to gussy up the fighting with sub-Brian Bendis patter? Did Johns bang out some really sparse scripts over a weekend to give Lee lots of cool stuff to draw? I struggled to find at least one interview that detailed what the creative process of Justice League was like for the two men, but every piece I could find was full of puff piece rhetoric about wanting to tell good stories and the challenges in making a more accessible and reader-friendly universe.
Visually, Justice League looks great if you're into Jim Lee. I grew up idolizing the guy's art, so opening up Issue 1 and seeing Batman dodge police gunfire was reminded me of memorizing every panel of X-Men #1 or excitedly reading "Hush" as a teenager. Lee has still got it, and he's capable of very striking images, like the legit-scary face he gives Darkseid or the two-page spread in #2 where Superman breaks through Green Lantern's giant chains. However, there's often a disconnect between his art and his ability to tell a story in sequence where each individual panel looks great (let no one ever say Lee's art isn't dynamic), but the panel to panel storytelling feels disjointed, like a movie with bad editing. Clearly Lee puts more emphasis on the density of his panels (and my, are they dense, sometimes to the point of being confusing) than the how well the panels cut together — a method that then relies on the script to create the connective tissue between the images.
Due to some delays, the last couple of issues feature a crowd of inkers rushing in to carry Jim Lee's pencils like that train of New Yorkers in Spider-Man 2, which, if nothing else, makes us realize how essential inker Scott Williams is to what we identify as Jim Lee art. Lee thankfully penciled the entire series (though I wonder how tight those pencils were in the later issues), but under the different inkers in #5 and #6 the art actually starts to feel like a Jim Lee knockoff.
While the first five issues are padded with textual backmatter (which I skipped, because I don't LARP), Justice League #6 comes with a legit backup story drawn by Carlos D'Anda, following a meeting between The Phantom Stranger and mysterious New 52 apparition Pandora, who looks curiously like Zealot from Lee's WildC.A.T.S. but has abilities that I can only describe as magical gunkata. While these six pages have far more depth than the six issues of content that preceded them, it's still kind of backup story that sets up some future event and has a couple supernatural characters discussing things that only make sense to readers — so, business as usual for comics.
Despite the textual evidence to the contrary, I don't believe Geoff Johns and Jim Lee set out to make an off-putting comic book where "superhero" is a misnomer and the plot is as thin as the pages it's printed on. It seems more to me like the directive they were given was to reverse-engineer previous mega-popular comics (The Ultimates, the past seven years of Avengers) and reconfigure them through big-budget movies (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) to make a new hit superhero comic book that would court the Hollywood blockbuster crowd.
The result is decidedly not the public-courting success DC clearly hoped it would be (but it will be the #1 seller until Jim Lee leaves the book). More interestingly, Justice League is a snapshot of the state of superhero comics in 2012 — there's a lot of sound and fury with pathos in the backseat, very little happens in a given installment save an expression of the writer's love affair with snappy banter, each issue costs four dollars and some of it didn't come out on time.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.