Roundtable Review | Justice League #1

With DC Comics rebooting its franchise, returning all of its titles to number one and presenting them as the "New 52," our resident geeks at the office have been…intrigued. So intrigued that we're going to review the first issue of every single title. Each week, we'll also have a group discussion about one major title in particular. You can read our interview with artist and co-publisher Jim Lee, and check back on our comics page for more reviews as they come in. And since the whole event kicks off today with the release of Justice League #1, we thought we'd get started.

Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jim Lee

Web Behrens: The brand-new Justice League—no more of America, thankyouverymuch (how long until Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry makes that a campaign issue?)—begins its attempt at renewed cultural relevance with the first chapter of an origin story set five years ago. Intriguingly, the universe that writer Geoff Johns is building here hasn't yet gotten used to the presence of super-powered demi-gods in its midst. The average citizen is understandably wary of them, not being able to yet distinguish between helpful aliens like Superman and ones bent on world domination.

The team of DC's finest has had half a dozen (or so) No. 1 issues in the past, but the hit incarnations always start with the so-called "Big Seven." That really means the Big Five—DC's A-listers Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash—plus Aquaman and Martian Manhunter. This time around, the green-skinned telepath from Mars gets the bum's rush in favor of Cyborg, an African-American hero who used to be in the Teen Titans. In this reboot, he's still just a high-school football hero whose bittersweet superheroic transformation into a 21st-century bionic man still awaits. Here's betting the accident that shatters his human body will have something to do with an alien invasion by the minions of (minor spoiler alert here) none other than Jack Kirby's cosmic über-villain, Darkseid.

Brent DiCrescenzo: I have so many issues (no pun intended) with this. Where do I start? All of the big players of the DCU appear to simultaneously be on page 15 of their Hollywood origin-story reboot scripts. Bruce Wayne is new to the whole Batman routine. He's just meeting Hal Jordan, who has to explain what a Green Lantern is ("Space sector?!"). Hal is shocked that Batman is "just a guy in a bat suit." They both toss witticisms like Spider-Man. Super heroes are being treated as public enemies by the general public, a la Marvel's Civil War. I am not a fan of massive crossovers, but at least in the past the two publishing titans have kept some titles away from them, so that people who just want a simple, well written, one-off story can engage with a comic. I worry that DC is putting its entire company into a Big Crossover Event. Having to read 52 reboots would be a massive drag. And who is that for? Comic fans know all about these characters. That's the biggest complaint with comic-book movies: Hollywood's insistence on telling origins over and over. We know how they got their powers. Just spin a good tale with that character.

I found the art to be awful. This is how awful: When the story jumps to young Cyborg, the football player, I honestly flipped the page thinking it was another one of those Subway advertising inserts. Jim Lee's muscle-scribble style that was so prominent in the '90s is in full effect here, and even a little looser that normal. I don't remember his forms being this...gloopy. Another nitpick: One panel shows a bunch of Green Lantern–created fire trucks spraying Green Lantern created "water" on fires. That's water? Also, Green Lantern isn't even near the scene. Since when can Green Lantern make a fuckton of things that aren't attached to his ring? Ok, I'll go back to being 36 years old now.

But, whatever, this is just Justice League, which I've never read. I've always found the flagship team books to be for little kids. It's such an orgy of superheroes and colorful spandex that it breaks the fourth wall for me. The only narrative to tell when you put Superman and Batman and Flash and Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and He-Man and the Smurfs together is "Holy shit! Big epic fight!" Which is dull and not prone to quality dialogue. So it's no big loss to me if this title blows. Just keep its taint away from Swamp Thing, Animal Man, etc. 

Jonathan Messinger: I'm a little less cheesed off than Brent, but there are major problems with this book, and they begin and mostly end with Geoff Johns. I agree with Brent's complaint about the witticisms—it's precisely the kind of writing that pulls me out of a story. Loads of inorganic humor. And all it does is serve to highlight that we've just been handed an entire book of expository dialogue. "You're the Batman? I'm the Green Lantern! We are superheroes! The world doesn't trust us! We talk like Speak & Spell!"

I'm also a little worried about what this story here means for issues going forward. Will it be explained why, suddenly, Batman, Superman and Green Lantern have gone public? And how is it even coherent that the Green Lantern Corps has been around for eons, and yet suddenly Hal Jordan is the first member anyone on Earth knew about? It would have made more sense to me if this issue was more about the league's formation—which, obviously, it will be eventually—and less about the sudden rise of superheroes. And the notion that Batman and Green Lantern have to explain Superman to each other, and that none of them would be smart enough to recognize that the other one is also fighting bad guys is beyond silly.

But I did enjoy Jim Lee's art, certainly more than Brent did. Particularly the contrast of the three characters: Batman's darkness, Green Lantern's otherworldly glow and Superman's schoolboy sheen. But again, Superman's big introductory line: "I don't handle easy." I don't handle easy? Come on. Just typing that makes me laugh out loud.

WB: Lee draws all men with his signature sketchy-yet-perfectly-sculpted physiques. That art doesn't really thrill me—for straight-up superhero art, give me Doug Mahnke. But I can see a geometric beauty to both Lee's heroes and buildings, so I can understand how he became such a giant in this fantasy-driven industry. Readers will still eat this up. 

Meanwhile, I'm not worried about this being a massive crossover. If DC doesn't realize that they should keep these 52 new titles self-contained for now, then they've already fucked up the big reboot. But this is their flagship team title, where the scale of the action naturally tends to seem like those of Big Event crossovers. But it's set five years earlier than most of the rest of the comics coming out in September, so it'll have to be its own story.

By the way, Brent and Jonathan, you know who excels at dialogue and quick character moments amid the action of a big team book? Grant Morrison. We'll always have his '90s run on JLA that first returned the team to a glory it hadn't seen in 15 years. 

BD: This is going off on a tangent, but look at video games as an analogue. Home gaming went from an activity for introverted teenage boys to being an accepted part of American pop culture. Forty-year-olds play videogames. My parents have a Wii. This did not happen by rethinking how the characters in Halo dress, or altering the ethnicity and gender of Metroid and Mario. No, the video game industry reached out to new demographics by making games that were friendly to them, that played in new ways. Not everyone wants to play intense first-person shooters like diehard gamers do. Similarly, I think comic books need to really rethink the kind of stories they tell, the kind of writers they use, the kind of artists they use. DC has done nothing to reach out to a new audience with this. It's not much different than the Marvel Ultimates universe (which, again, was to "reach out to new audiences," but mainly just got a new generation of comic geeks), only they threw out the established universe. 

JM: Right. They don't need to introduce us to Superman, Batman and Green Lantern. They just need to tell a compelling story that doesn't rely on 50 of years of backstory. They went the former route. I don't actually think they're looking for the general public to pick up Hawkman, they're looking for Grant Morrison fans to pick up Hawkman, and the general public to pick up Justice League or Detective Comics or Wonder Woman, etc. But to have done that, they would have had to have broken the mold a bit with this issue, given us something to really talk about, which flat out didn't happen. Right now, I imagine a hundred other critics typing similar complaints.

Also, you're right about team books being more about epic battles than nuanced character arcs, but I've always liked those books, too. So if that's what this was going to be, I'd be all about it. But there's barely a villain here. The villain is essentially something for Batman and Green Lantern to look at while they banter. If you have Jim Lee's big-muscled art and you've made a decision to not have this be about the characters and you're tossing out any restraint, then let loose. Go really, really big. This ended up in the middle somewhere.

But hey, some of the rest of the 51 new books on the upcoming roster looks promising. I will read many more Justice League Dark issues than Justice League, I imagine. 

WB: They're clearly going for new readers and, obviously, younger ones too. Look at how young Superman suddenly looks, not to mention that one of the founding League members is going to be a teenage Cyborg. They're not taking any risks in the storytelling though, that much we all completely agree about.But they didn't intend to reinvent the wheel with their flagship book; the more adventurous stuff will come, story-wise, from titles like Animal Man and, art-wise, from Batwoman.

BD: The characterization seems built off the cinematic versions of the heroes. Green Lantern is more of a sass mouth. There's that line about Batman's affected "deep voice." Marvel's been doing that for years, drawing Tony Stark and Thor to look more like the actors. Hawkeye suddenly looks a lot like Jeremy Renner. But in the DC case, the writing comes off as steered by Hollywood, not just the faces.

I understand I am not the demographic for this comic at all. Even though I am a big comic nerd. The teenager point, Web, sums it up. Comics were becoming a niche market for aging geeks. DC isn't reaching out to new non-comic-reading markets so much as attempting to ignite geekdom in a new generation of children.

Tune in next week when we'll have reviews of the next 13(!) titles.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)