Justice League #5

Justice League #5

D

I’m not sure what the problem is anymore. I’ve read a lot of Geoff Johns comics that I like a lot. I don’t have any strong feelings about Jim Lee’s art. I love the Justice League, I love the Fourth World, I love the idea of Cyborg being on the League.

But I do not love this comic. In fact, this comic is pretty awful.

I’ve been mostly down on Justice League since the beginning, but at least I could see the appeal. It has been, as I mentioned once before, a big dumb Michael Bay action movie, with all the slim characterization, bad dialogue, and big widescreen action sequences that would entail. But — and maybe I’m giving Michael Bay too much credit here — I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect even big dumb brain candy to make sense. And Justice League #5 does not make sense.

It starts off well enough, actually, with the League recovering from Darkseid’s appearance last issue. I like that the Flash is the only one left standing, and he and Superman have a nice sequence trying to outrace the Omega Effect. Darkseid comes off as suitably menacing, and a lot of that is due to his complete, stoic silence, and the heroes’ inability to even get near him. I didn’t even hate his redesign in this issue. Flash gets in a great moment of outsmarting the Omega Effect, though Superman doesn’t fare as well. Green Lantern’s brash egotism is the deepest and most consistent characterization we’ve gotten this whole story, and I like that Hal finally comes around to having some positive qualities in this issue –fearlessness, self-sacrifice — that still make sense given his status as a big-headed jerk.

But then Darkseid wipes the floor with him, continuing the theme of “Hal gets knocked down a peg” that started back in issue #1, and we are then treated to the dumbest scene in recent comics memory. The rest of the League vanishes suddenly and without warning, so Batman can express a little sympathy for Green Lantern. They are, after all, just normal guys with weapons, and that’s actually a fairly good detail to pick up on.

And then Batman unmasks. In fact, he unmasks so far that he peels off his bat-emblem, which apparently was just a decal to begin with. Batman unmasks, revealing what ought to be one of the most closely-guarded secrets in the DCU to a guy who has shown himself to be dense and mouthy to a fault, who already revealed that Batman has no powers to the rest of the League, who blurted out the Flash’s first name in issue #2, and he does it for no good reason.

Now, I know why Batman unmasks, it’s because he wants the Parademons to take him, because they’ve been capturing humans since issue #2. The only reason I actually know that is because I flipped back through the rest of the series, because in a comic where Superman finds it necessary to say “his [Darkseid's] beams are locked in on us,” in a series of panels that have already clearly shown that those beams are locked in, no one felt it necessary to remind the readers of a throwaway plot detail from three issues ago. The fact that the Parademons just took away Superman, who is not a normal human, makes Batman’s apparent reasoning here even more suspect. Hence, no good reason.

But before he leaves, Batman drops what may turn out to be the worst line of dialogue in 2012: “We need to stop playing baseball and start playing football. We need to be a team.”

I scarcely know where to begin. It may just be my personal preference not to see Batman using oblique sports metaphors, especially after he just explained the urgency of the situation, but it does seem a little out of character. That aside, I was under the impression that there were teams in baseball as well as football, and that the team aspect of baseball would be particularly salient when playing defense, as the League clearly is. But the absolute worst part of this line is that immediately after stressing the importance of teamwork, Batman leaves. He goes off on his own, telling Green Lantern to keep the team alive until he gets back — because Hal had been doing such a bang-up job until then — because apparently Batman’s idea of teamwork and leadership (he declared himself de facto leader last issue) is delegation and abdication.

So GL goes back to the rest of the team, and tries to repeat Batman’s pep talk, including the bit about football. This could be a great moment, maybe even a stunning bit of foresight on Batman’s part, since the team just gained a new member whose defining characteristic so far is that he loves football. Obviously, this is Cyborg’s time to shine!

Or it’s time for Green Lantern to suggest the same plan that Aquaman outlined at the beginning of last issue, and for Cyborg to continue expressing confusion about what happened to him.

If you squint, you can see the story that Geoff Johns is trying to tell. He’s trying to focus on character moments, on the rocky relationships between these powerhouse characters coming together for the first time amidst conflict and chaos. It’s just a shame that the two modes of characterization here are “jerk” (Aquaman, Batman), “doofus” (Wonder Woman, Superman, Cyborg), or “doofy jerk” (Green Lantern). Flash is about the most level-headed member of the team, and even most of his dialogue is bickering with Green Lantern. Johns is trying to do here what Giffen and DeMatteis did with their inaugural Justice League arc, or Meltzer with his in Justice League of America. The problem is with the other half of the story, involving the world-shattering threat from Darkseid. There’s a reason that Giffen and DeMatteis’s first villains were a group of terrorist suicide bombers, and Meltzer’s first villain was a table. Starting off with the world-ending threat requires that one or the other focal point gets shoved to one side.

This first arc of Justice League is beginning to feel a lot like “Hush,” and not just because of the Jim Lee art. There are a whole lot of concepts thrown in here — the origin of the Justice League, the origin of Cyborg, the introduction of the Fourth World characters, the first meetings of each of the individual Leaguers except Flash and Green Lantern, and so forth, but there’s not a whole lot of thought into making it all fit together in a coherent fashion. Now, Batman’s on Apokolips, in what should be the start of the second or third act, but there’s only one issue left to tell this story, and so the necessary next steps — finding Superman, learning what Darkseid’s deal is, getting the team back in one place, beating Darkseid and driving off the Parademons, at a bare minimum — are going to be rushed and anticlimactic. And so the inaugural arc of the flagship title, the book meant to introduce us to the new DCU and its foundational characters, becomes this poorly-paced story filled with unlikable people, only half of whom get anything resembling character development. Not exactly starting off on the right foot.

I don’t think I could finish this review without discussing the art, or the book’s status as the first issue in the entire New 52 to miss its scheduled ship date. I don’t want to lay the blame for that on Jim Lee’s shoulders, but he has a history of being less than punctual, and Geoff Johns’ other book is on-time. I don’t actually have much problem with Lee’s art; it’s generally pretty dynamic and well-rendered, and the scenes of Flash outracing Darkseid’s eye-beams is done quite well. There are definitely some problems, like characters who disappear for no discernible reason or the panels where Green Lantern’s whole face is cross-hatched. I can’t help but wonder if the book might have been on-time if Lee (or perhaps the staff of four inkers) just drew half as many lines.

That is, I suppose, the saving grace of this whole storyline. For all the sense it doesn’t make, for all the time it spends on retreading ground over and over, for all the time it feels like “Batman and Green Lantern and their Amazing Friends,” Jim Lee’s a pretty good artist, and the book looks pretty good as a result. I just wish that there was a pretty good story and pretty good characters to go along with it.

tags: geoff johns, jim lee, justice league

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