September 3, 2011

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Justice League #1: DC's New Direction Just Might Work

DC's Magnificent 7
Written by Geoff Johns
Illustrated by Jim Lee and Scott Williams
DC

They are the World's Finest Heroes.  We know that, but the world at large doesn't--at least not yet.  Watch as a legend is reborn before your eyes, as Geoff Johns takes us backwards in time to a place where Gotham cops want Batman dead, Green Lantern is the Man Without Thinking, and Superman is one unhappy alien.
This is the start of the world of the New 52!
I probably spent more time debating about buying this issue than I did actually reading it, which is a nod both to the speed at which the comic reads and my own annoying penchant for taking too long to make what should be a simple decision.

When I first heard about the not-quite-a-reboot of the DC Universe, I was cautiously optimistic.  I liked the day and date digital idea, I liked trying to bring more readers into comics (fanboys be damned), and I liked the willingness to take a chance on doing something new.  Unfortunately, I was not happy with some of the things I saw at the time, such as the players involved in the reboot.

As the summer progressed, nothing I read about exactly filled me with confidence.  As the creative teams were announced, it showed a disturbing trend to have the same old mediocre writers on board, with artists who probably make the rotting bones of Jack Kirby and Jim Aparo spin like a dynamo.*  There was the whole "Where are the women?" debacle that DC botched and then had to fix.  Not to mention the price ($4 for a virtual comic?  For 52 virtual comics, each?) and some of the conversations.

All in all, I wasn't very hopeful.

So up came D-day (digital day, what were you thinking?), and I had to make a decision.  Would I pass on the new universe entirely?  Wait for the trades?  Rely on the snarkiness of others?  I went back and forth a lot, but in the end, I took the plunge.

And while I still resent the $4 cover price for a digital comic, I'm glad I did.

Justice League 1 is not the most awesome comic ever.  It has several flaws, especially given DC's strange decision not to go with a hard reboot.  But it did several things right along the way, things that I think bode well if they carry on across the line.

We'll look on the bright side of life first:

  • Jim Lee's art is amazing.  I don't know that I appreciated Lee until I picked up Absolute Hush, where I could see it in all its oversized glory.  He's one heck of a good artist, able to take the modern 1990s style as epitomized by Rob Liefield and Todd McFarland and find a way to give it a polish that allows it to stand up with the best of the past masters.  Lee won't be on League forever (my guess is the first, in the past, arc only), but he was just about the perfect choice to kick this one off.
  • Johns writes a capes script that actually has a sense of humor.  If there's one thing that DC has done wrong for so long, it's taking the jokes out of the books.  It's like they determined that only the most dark, brooding heroes could sell.  It was great to see Batman waxing acidly sarcastic while Green Lantern created constructs that show the wonder of the Green Lantern ring, from firemen to a giant safe.  Even a serious moment towards the end reads like the punchline (pun intended) of a joke.  If this is the tone of a good chunk of the new DC Universe, I could get very used to finding a reading home in it.
  • The character voices for Batman and Lantern are pretty good.  I like that Batman is cynical about other heroes five years ago, as long as we progress his development to being friends with the rest of the heroes by the time we go current day.  Sarcastic Bats is good, but "I hate the world" Bats is no fun to read.  It reached its nadir with Rucka, I think.  Green Lantern as basically an overconfident goof when he starts his career was a stroke of genius.  Totally shocked me, given how much Johns loves Hal, and I think that was the point.
  • The reader is given a nice hint of something larger going on, and knowing old DC history won't necessarily help you.  This issue is designed to be a build-up of something larger, with hints of the story layered in the pages of the book, particularly at one point.  I can imagine where things are going, but I don't know for sure, because this is not the same old DC.  The concepts are familiar, true, but the execution could be so much more (or so much less).  I like getting some element of surprise back into my Big Two comics, which I think is one of the keys to making this work.
  • There's a complete story within the larger arc.  While obviously being a setup issue, we get a complete tale here:  Green Lantern and Batman are investigating the same strange alien.  They meet up, decide to (sort-of) team up, and end by looking for a big alien with an "S" on his chest.  That's a good enough Chapter 1 to me.
  • Everything a new reader needs is on the page.  It's hard for me to pretend to be a new reader, but I think Johns did a good job of covering the needed bases for a newbie while not making a long-time reader zone out.

That doesn't mean there aren't issues, however, some of them linked to the good things above:

  • The biggest problem this book has is that it reads fast.  There are a lot of beautiful splash pages by Lee, who is at the top of his game here, inked by the quite complimentary Williams.  But that also means we're at the finish line almost as soon as got there.  I think I would have liked at least one more interlude with a soon-to-be League member, preferably Wonder Woman.
  • There are also a few moments that are essential for a new reader but will be clunky to the ears of the established comic-book geek.  When Batman and Lantern are explaining things to each other (which makes sense in story, by the way, so props to Johns for that), anyone who knows these characters is going to roll their eyes a bit.
  • There is just a hint of a menace only a League can fight.  This issue is just a battle in a larger war, which might turn off some new readers.  I have no real way to judge that.  I'm so used to incremental, trade-style storytelling by now that it didn't bother me one bit.
  • Despite their best efforts, I think DC is still going to get tripped up in continuity.  By not declaring this a hard reboot, it opens all sorts of questions to casual fans of the characters.  Where is Robin (i.e. Dick)?  How do heroes have sidekicks that are already grown up?  Why is Superman so angry, when he's never been angry in any other form of media?  You can say "this is a different world" all you want, but unless you declare it to be completely new (ala Marvel's Ultimate line), which DC has not, there are going to be problems.  As writers and creative ideas start to morph and change, I fear that all the old problems will slip right back in.

Now that may seem like it echoes a lot of the complaints of those who did not like the comic.  To some extent, it does.  I am not a huge fan of Johns, finding his writing quirks to be more annoying than endearing.  However, unlike those who think the above issues are deal-killers, I left my comic experience so invigorated I actually read it three times in a row and went back later to go over certain sections again.

Keep in mind that I am a person who gave up on DC comics awhile ago, reading them only sporadically as I find them at the library.  Now I am actually looking at buying their comics because this change gave me an opening and intrigued me.  I am part of the missing audience they're looking for, and I am, at least for now, wanting back into their world.

There's still a lot of time for DC to mess this up royally.  And I am not setting foot in a comic book store to get physical copies.  However, I liked this issue enough that I'll not only be back for issue two on day-and-date release, I might get a few others the same day they come out as well.  Plus, I'm now considering allotting maybe $10 a month to pick up some more of the new DC once they reduce the price after a month.

Considering that this time a week ago, I wasn't going to spend anything, that's a major accomplishment for Justice League 1.  It not only was a fun story that made me laugh several times, it's got me wanting to buy more.  DC's new direction might just work after all.  After reading Justice League 1, I'm certainly hoping so.

*I do not think that all of the creators involved are bad writers or all the artists are poor choices.  But I think we can all agree that when your lists include names that litter the bargain bins at flea markets, there's a problem.