Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chronic Review: Justice League of America # 42

Justice League of America # 42
DC Comics

Script: James Robinson
Pencils: Mark Bagley
30 pages for $3.99

Last week was devoted to experimenting with books that smelled faintly of excrement to see what was actually inside. I ended up choosing three Marvel books for that exercise, and in full disclosure there was nothing conscious or intentional about that.

I tend to read a good deal more Marvel than DC, although I don't consider myself a "Marvel" guy. Like many of you, I tend to follow particular writers rather than slavishly stick to a corporate brand. So this week I'll be profiling comics published by DC, because I don't really have my thumb on the DC pulse. This fact came into play quite often as I twirled through the latest adventure of "The World's Greatest Superheroes!"

To begin with, I really like James Robinson, or I guess to be more accurate, I REALLY liked his run on Starman. What he did with Starman was take everything silly, overly macho, simple, and boring about superheroes and throw them in the trash. Starman was more about Jack Knight than his alter ego, and maybe more about Opal City than just Jack. That comic was deep and poignant, and like any great story made you feel as though you were privy to the most intimate details of a living, breathing world.

So I was particularly interested in seeing how Mr. Robinson might tackle something like the Justice League, which doesn't seem like a good fit for his best attributes as I understand them. This is a tent pole action book with a catalog of over-the-top characters. Maybe that's why he took the book, as a change of pace, a place to flex his artistic muscle and maybe add a bit of his sophistication to a lowest common denominator affair. I don't really know why was offered the book or accepted it, but I was intrigued enough by the prospect to choose this as my first book for "DC week."

The story opens with the Shade (I guess he didn't leave Opal City behind after all) offering Green Arrow a trip into the same sort of "Moment of Trepidation" cave that Yoda pushed Luke into during Empire Strikes Back. Which isn't exactly a new idea, but one that can still pay off if you're clever about it. My issue was that I had no clue about how the Shade got involved at all, or what Green Arrow's motivations are for wanting to do such a thing.

To be fair, I'm jumping in smack in the middle of an arc, not at the beginning. But this is part of why we have difficulty bringing in new readers; it was difficult for me to feel invested in this decision of Ollie's to brave the "dragon" cave.

We then cut to the Justice League pounding the crap out of Atlas. And this is the sort of thing that bores me to tears, but what Robinson does to add depth is give access to the team members internal monologues as they fight. Batman is thinking about how strange it is to be giving orders to Green Lantern. Green Lantern is thinking about how strange it is to take orders from a Batman, particularly one he can sort of tolerate. Starfire is thinking about Dick. (insert joke here)

The point is that here is where the Robinson influence will show through; he just can't help but get at the core of the people he's writing about, and god bless him for that. It was an interesting flair that made a mindless battle into something that reveals character.

The question then becomes; what caused Atlas to go ape shit? The answer is connected to a strange device that can manipulate strong emotions with a simple touch. One of these devices is stored at S.T.A.R. labs, our next cut scene, where more super-powered over emotional people pound the crap out of each other. Again, I'm a bit lost here, because I don't know who these characters are, or their connection (if any) to the Justice League. I'm lost.

We then segue into the Watchtower, where The Atom declares that this device that makes people go bat-shit psycho is based on "New Genesis" technology. This obviously means something to the League...but it meant nothing to me. I was more interested in the side conversation (more Robinsonian bread and butter) between Hal Jordan and the Canary about Green Arrow. But again, the problem is that an obviously distressed Canary tells Hal about what happened with Roy and Star City.....and I don't know any of that. So it just lands flat.

Meanwhile, outside of the main meeting room we see Cyborg working on his computer while the head of Red Tornado tries to converse with him from behind. This was my favorite moment in the story, because we find out that Tornado's poor head had been sitting around fully conscious with his speech capacity turned off. So he's been sitting there absorbing everything, but everyone has been treating him like a paper weight because he couldn't talk and they weren't recognizing his sentience.

So Cyborg took the time to get him talking again, and is working on building him a new, supposedly indestructible body. And this is the humanizing stuff that Robinson does so well. Cyborg's research turns up another "crazy machine" in the Justice League archives, and alerts the team that the device was stored on Blackhawk Island.

So the next step is for the team to zip over there, where they find another group of super-powered people I don't recognize knocking the stuffing out of each other. And while that's going on at Blackhawk island, some of those big bads that were fighting at S.T.A.R. labs teleport onto the now empty Watchtower to do God knows what. Except the Watchtower isn't completely empty, because Ollie ends up stepping out of his Empire Strikes Back trepidation and directly into this new danger. Cue hijinx for next issue!

It's hard for me to grade this, because there's so much that is lost on me. I can definitely detect all the best humanizing elements of Robinson's writing in this "blockbuster" type story, and I think it works. My guess is that long time DC/Justice League readers are being polarized by this; some will embrace the Starmanization of their action book, and some will wonder who wussified it. But at least they'll understand it.

It's very possible that if I got the full ramifications of what was going on with Green Arrow, or if I could absorb the impact of what "New Genesis" tech implies, I might think this was the height of drama. But alas, I cannot.

Were I new reader, I don't think I would be intrigued enough by this to want to suffer through it further or backtrack. I think I'd find something else that I could pick up from the beginning. And I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with DC or Robinson taking the approach that they did. At this point, the hard core folks are your last vestige, and this is what I'm assuming they want. I think it's well written, but it was not written to invite me in. I'm not crying about it, I'm just sayin'.

Oh, by the way.....Mark Bagley rules. One of the best pure comic book style comic book artists that ever lived. And he does it on time, like a goddamned professional. I wish there were more Mark Bagleys in this world.

- Ryan

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