Thursday, September 27, 2007

Meltzer's Justice League of America: Now that we've all calmed down, was the comic any good?

This summer, hot off the fun of my "debate" with Douglas Wolk about New Avengers, I asked Andrew Gardner, comic fan and intelligent British guy, to begin an e-mail discussion with me about Brad Meltzer's Justice League run. I thought it might be worth looking back at the series to see what we thought about it, now that all the hysteria and hype and disappointment had worn off. I proposed that we discuss the entire 12-issue run, and eventually post our conversation maybe on But, due to our busy schedules, we never made it past a discussion of the first story arc, "Tornado's Path." Nevertheless, I think we had some interesting things to say about Meltzer's approach, and, for posterity, here's what we wrote:

Andrew Gardner: I really enjoyed [Justice League of America] #0. It looks lovely, the right artists for each era, with a nod to New Frontier at the start. I thought the yesterday/tomorrow pattern worked well, Meltzer setting his stall out early. The yesterday scenes were respectful of comic book history, and mostly felt like a fresh slant on familiar moments in league history. Rather like the logo, where the old seventies design is slightly updated to ensure the JLA letters run vertically. The tomorrow ones were intriguing, although how many come to pass we'll have to wait and see. There's a nod to the Dark Knight Returns in the Andy Kubert page. I notice Meltzer avoids the Morrison era, though. Howard Porter does draw a page, but the backdrop is from the start of the Mark Waid run.

This is obviously the story of the friendships behind the masks, and I thought Meltzer did a good job of portraying a convincing relationship between the big 3. This may not have been the Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman we're used to seeing, but that just added to the feeling that these were the hidden, private moments of great heroes, who can only indulge their friendship in private. Batman in particular feels like he can let loose his emotions in this setting, with the tantrums and tears of the little boy who lost his parents. Wonder Woman, perhaps a little predictably, gets to play mother. Who's Superman? Dependable, trusting, a little po-faced. But that tear of betrayal with the "damn you Bruce", or the sullen look after his death betrays his need for their friendship.

Some of the scenes in #0 worked better than others. Perez is a wonderful artist but struggled with the line "to have a family" (although who wouldn't) whereas Gene Ha does a superlative job conveying the grief on his page, from the fragile rendition of Ma Kent in the first panel to the way Bruce plays with Clark's Basketball trophy in the last panel.

Meltzer obviously got the Justice League of America gig on the back of Identity Crisis's success. I notice in interviews he talks about having planted the seeds of this incarnation of the league in that book, which retrospectively explains the Black Lightning/ Katana scenes in that book, as they seemed incongruous at the time. Meltzer seems comfortable with the pace and stylistic tics in his previous comic work, using a lot of familiar techniques - internal narratives in colour boxes, intercutting of simultaneous events, detailed slow-motion fight scenes, irrelevant subplots and lots.

Of broken.



I don't mind that, although I can sympathise with those who find it hard to take. As long as it services a good story, like I thought it did in Identity Crisis, and then I don't mind. So what happens in "Tornado's Path"?

The set up is ostensibly the Big Three of Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman (or Bruce, Diana and Clark if you prefer) choosing a Justice League line -up after their 'missing year'. This doesn't go to plan as the eventual roster of Hal Jordan, Black Canary, Black Lightning, Hawkgirl, Arsenal, Red Tornado and Vixen comes together by chance to foil a plot orchestrated by nattily dressed Solomon Grundy to take over Red Tornado's robot body, which involves John Smith being tricked into a human body by Felix Faust and his robotic body being spliced with Amazo by Professor Ivo. The Parasite and some minor villains controlled by baby Starros are thrown in for luck and nostalgia and it all ends with a sort of status quo, with Grundy dead (again), Amazo destroyed (again) and Red Tornado in his robot body (again). But surprisingly Vixen proves to be the pivotal route to victory, and Arsenal graduates to become Red Arrow. The League hands out shiny new membership plaques and build a new Hall of Justice in D.C. and a new Satellite in orbit, replete with a holodeck of all things. And Geo-Force turns up, although God knows why.

The pace is certainly slow compared to say, Morrison's JLA #1 or the Griffen/DeMatteus Justice League #1, but there's enough to hold the attention, at least in the first few issues. If all superhero comics were like this it would be pretty grim, but as an exception it's not so bad. Meltzer obviously knows how to write a successful thriller and it's admirable that he hasn't made many concessions to the flying cape genre, while remaining respectful of his antecedents.

I particularly liked the undercutting of the Big 3 playing superhero top trumps (as well as being a loving homage) by having all the action happen elsewhere. Life is what happens while we make plans and all that. He maybe pushes it a little. #1 to #6 takes place over only a few hours, and the Big 3 don't even stand up until #4! This is what they mean by decompression, isn't it? It probably doesn't help that 52 was running concurrently, perhaps posterity will reward Meltzer for sticking to his approach against prevailing trends at D.C.

Where the thriller element fell apart for me was at the most important bit, the end. There are two whodunits in this mystery - who's in and who's the villain. As far as the line-up is concerned, I enjoyed Meltzer toying with reader expectation, using the photo choices as decoys as well as revealing insights into the Big 3. The villains were less satisfying, toppling through the narrative like gaudy dominos until we reach the unsatisfying denouement. Red Tornado's back! Grundy's dead again!

Although this incarnation of Grundy gives the impression of Machiavellian intelligence with his sharp suit and Sisyphus references (most cringe worthy dialogue? Arsenal's retort), I thought he came across as the most over emotional Grundy yet; concocting a desperate scheme to maintain his new found intelligence. "What makes you think I have a heart?" is pure bravado interrupting a desperate barrage of punches no less vicious than those of his previous 'mindless' incarnations.

Some of the themes planted in #0 are nicely developed. The tension between Yesterday and Tomorrow appears everywhere. Like Geoff Johns, Meltzer has the grown up fanboy approach, wanting to remain faithful to the comic heritage he's devoured since childhood, but also wanting to carry the torch. "It's time to move on" says Superman at the end of #0, but the Tornado's Path is constantly tripping over the ghosts of JLA's past, with it's pick-and-mix-from-each-era line-up, classic villains, familiar locations, characters discussing heritage and lessons learnt. Grundy in many ways is the perfect villain for this piece, perpetually reincarnated for our reading pleasure. But whereas the heroes can cherish this endless cycle of rebirth where the very universe shifts from Crisis to Infinite Crisis to accommodate their existence, villains like Grundy and Ivo curse their fate and either fruitlessly attempt to become heroes or plead for their death.

I thought the biggest let down of the series was Ed Benes art. I don't necessarily want to criticise the artist himself, but I don't think it's a good match for Meltzer's words. Benes is an experienced superhero artist, comfortable drawing muscular men and women in tight garish outfits beating seven shades of daylight out of everything in sight. Black Canary's demolition of the Red Tornado clone in #3 demonstrates his familiarity from his Birds of Prey days. It's dynamic and exhilarating, and most of the action scenes benefit from his skill in providing clear sharp detail, and Sandra Hope's flowing inks only enhance the effect. But, as a cursory glance at the Ed Benes website shows, this is an artist whose work can sometimes drift into, lets be frank, superhero soft porn. He also, like many superhero artists, draws identical figures and faces for everyone, relying on the costumes to differentiate the characters. The result gives the impression that we're watching the cast of Baywatch in action, and the acting required by Meltzer's script is beyond them.

Arsenal and Green Lantern's relationship, an interesting one not really examined since the old Green Lantern/Green Arrow issues of Brave and The Bold, suffers from Benes inability to lend their dialogue any emotional weight. There's much made by Meltzer about their generational ties, an important theme in the story, and yes, there's an early reference to Hal being technically younger than Roy in #1, but their identical physiques and facial structures completely undermine the impact of their scenes together. The presentation of the Red Arrow costume in #7 and Hal and Dinah's tears are made laughable by a succession of panels where Roy looks more like he's lost his car keys than embracing his heritage and his future. Meltzer was far better served by Rags Morales in Identity Crisis and Geoff Johns gets great work out of Dave Eaglesham on this front.

Timothy Callahan: So, what's my take on "The Tornado's Path"? I'll add my thoughts by responding to yours, and your main points can be broken down and (over)simplified in this manner:

(1) It's a bit slow and decompressed.
--While the pace felt slow when the story was read in monthly doses, I think it works very well when read as a whole. And you say, "If all superhero comics were like this it would be pretty grim, but as an exception it's not so bad." You seem to be referring to the decompressed pacing, but I would completely agree with your statement if it was relating to the tone of Meltzer's JLA. That was the thing I found to be utterly grim. Perhaps it's Meltzer's attempt to shock us back into an emotional connection with these characters, but I actively disliked the sadistic violence and pain expressed in the "The Tornado's Path." When arms are ripped off and blood spurts across the panel, it's just a big downer for me. To me, it's all part of the unbearably serious, "oh, being a super-hero really hurts!" tone that permeated Identity Crisis. Reading Meltzer's approach to comics is a bit like going to a really cool dentist. No matter how much fun it might seem at times (and Grundy is cool, as are some of Meltzer's pet JLA additions), it still involves discomfort and downright suffering. And, unlike a trip to the dentist, Meltzer's JLA isn't even good for you.

--So I didn't mind the pacing so much as the relentless severity of each moment of the story. Yet, as painful as it was to read, I did appreciate Meltzer knocking me out of my normal, readerly ambivalence. I appreciate any comic book that can do that. I'm certainly fascinated by Melter's JLA, even if the tone turns me off during "The Tornado's Path." It's brutality (of portentious characters along with acts of violence) gives it that edge, and, yes if all superhero comics were like this, it would be grim indeed.

(2) The two main mysteries don't conclude in a satisfying way.
--I thoroughly enjoyed the use of Grundy in this story, so I can't agree that the mysterious villain turned out to be a disappointment. I not only enjoyed Grundy himself, as portrayed by Melzer, but I enjoyed the abject panic of message board posters who declaimed Meltzer for being the worst writer in the history of the universe for daring to give us an intelligent Grundy. It's not such a sin, especially since James Robinson established Grundy's reborn-with-a-different-mind-each-time history in his Starman series. It's a good use of Grundy, and while it may not have played by the rules of a true whodunit (nobody could have guessed a completely revamped Grundy was behind the whole thing), it works as a shocking reveal, and Meltzer plays it out appropriately.

--The other mystery: "Who will be chosen for the new JLA?" is not so much resolved in an unsatisfying way as completely abandoned with almost a footnote to indicate that it was ever important in the first place. I don't mind that the ending turned out to be that they just chose the group based on who helped out with the Grundy battle, since that's the way JLAs have formed in the past, but I do mind how much time Meltzer spends setting up the whole photo-and-discussion-of-strengths-and-weaknesses thing, only to render all of those pages (and pages and pages) of debate irrelevant by saying, "oh, we'll just go with the random bunch." Meltzer didn't have to spend so much time on those discussions if he just wanted to establish the dynamic between the Big Three (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), so the ultimate effect is that "The Tornado's Path" feels like a story that got derailed along the way. I'm fairly certain that Meltzer planned it all out, and he knew the team was going to be "randomly" formed, but it reads as if he changed his mind halfway through writing it. Here's one of those times where authorial intent doesn't help us in the analysis, because whether he intended it exactly the way it turned out or not, the total abandonment of the premise of the first couple of issues (the premise that this would be a team chosen for a reason) just seems sloppy. And what does Geo-Force have to do with anything? Sloppy.

(3) Even if the series is an attempt to move forward, it hinges too much on a convoluted legacy.
--This is the dilemma of the super-hero comic in the 21st Century. Neither Marvel or DC has a continuity that makes any kind of sense (in the big picture), and yet both companies have fans and creators who are obsessed with continuity, but only the continuity that they, themselves, care about. I'm sure there are people who care about every little continuity detail, but everyone I know seems to be willing to ignore the completely ridiculous things that have happened (the Clone Saga in Spider-Man, the relative ages of various heroes, Maxwell Lord) while expecting writers to adhere to the continuity that they, the readers, care about. Continuity should matter, since it's just internal storytelling consistency on a grand scale, but it can't matter in the Marvel and DC universes because the continuity is already corrupt beyond reason.

--So I don't think Meltzer's JLA is any better or worse at using or abusing continuity than any other comic book on the shelf. It's probably better just to think of this series as Meltzer's All-Star Justice League of America. Because that's basically what it is. It's his version of the Ultimate JLA story. His favorite characters fighting against really cool villains, with some of his favorite DC characters popping up. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that type of approach. It's apparent that Meltzer is a fan of the 1970s to mid 1980s DC Universe, and that's what he draws upon. Taking these characters and trying to make them more "realistic" by making every moment seem utterly serious and important may not work particularly well, but that's Meltzer's approach to fiction, apparently, and it isn't affected by his acknowledgement of the past.

(4) Ed Benes is the wrong artist for this series.
--Yes. Oh so true. First of all, you say "The result gives the impression that we're watching the cast of Baywatch in action, and the acting required by Meltzer's script is beyond them," and that about sums it up. But I'll add, second of all, it's such a strange choice to put an Image-style artist (and Benes, if anything, is a synthesis of Silvestri, Lee, and Liefeld) on a book which requires some serious emoting. Gritted teeth don't allow for much emotional range. It's like putting David Finch on an Avengers story in which the heroes are shown expressing their deepest feelings as they face their own Disassemble-ment (oh, wait, that did happen). If Meltzer is, as he seems to be, attempting to ground the superheroics in a kind of stylized, grim emotional reality, wouldn't a less glossy, less porntastic artist be more appropriate? (The answer is yes, and the proof is Gene Ha in JLA #11)

So after all of this, what's my overall verdict on "The Tornado's Path"? Well, let me evaluate it according to my Seven Standards of Good Comics:

1. Art which helps to tell the story (and does not detract from it or cause unwanted confusion)
--No. The art detracts, and does not add to the quality of the story.

2. Art which amplifies and accentuates the themes through visual symbolism
--No. The art is all about surface and neglects subtelties of characterization which would have symbolic meaning.

3. Stories which resolve in some way
--Yes. The story resolves!

4. Main characters who have more than one facet to their personality
--Yes, although the multiple facets themselves aren't very complex. (Red Arrow is cocky AND uncertain; Black Canary is tough AND protective, etc.) Meltzer seems interested in TRYING to add depth of characterization.

5. Something to say about one or more of the Essential Human Ideas (aka themes)
--Yes, although Meltzer seems more concerned with plot developments and individual character moments than he does with expressing a cohesive theme. Yet, I would say the dominant theme of "The Tornado's Path" is "maturity," which we see in Red Arrow's subplot, Geo-Force's subplot (such as it is), and even in the Red Tornado who is forced to grow up and accept the reality of his situation.

6. Narrative consistency (in character, plot, setting, and theme–jumps from one setting to another, for example, should be explained or alluded to)
--Yes. With the major exception of the Geo-Force stuff, everything makes sense in sequence.

7. Something new to say (about the medium, the genre, the characters, or the world)
--Yes, Meltzer has something new to say about the role of the JLA in the DC Universe (though he abandons that idea), and he wants to say something new about Red Tornado's search for humanity and Red Arrow's search for adult acceptance.

Five out of seven "Yesses" does not necessarily make a Good Comic, especially since some of the positives were marginal at best. Yet I would say that, with all of its flaws (the wrong artist, and the grim self-importance of the tone) Melter's first eight Justice League of America issues are, as a whole, examples of Good Comics full of Serious Flaws. The result is never dull, even if the whole thing doesn't quite work.


Anonymous said...

"Meltzer spends setting up the whole photo-and-discussion-of-strengths-and-weaknesses thing, only to render all of those pages (and pages and pages) of debate irrelevant by saying, "oh, we'll just go with the random bunch.""

-The idea behind this point, and perhaps it wasn't conveyed as well as it should have been, was that the JLA is not just the Big 3 with other strategic "powers" hanging around. As they pretentiously sat around choosing the who and debating the why, the Justice League was needed and reformed without them. I think the idea behind the debate scenes juxtaposed with the other members' battles was to get you angry with their pandering and debating while other heroes rose up and fought.

At the end of the story, after then inevitable victory, the league has been born without them and it's the Big 3 themselves who receive the invitations to the new league, which serves to knock them off the "gods among men" pedestal they stood on.

Once their fallibility has been created, it's not so far fetched that they could take orders from their new leader, Canary, and be equals to newcomers like Arsenal.

Just my interpretation, although I absolutely agree that, at least monthly, it was not as clear as it is collected.


Anonymous said...

Incidentally, I completely agree with your assessment of the Geo-Force segments of the story. It went nowhere and had no purpose.

Bad enough it had no payoff in this particular arc, it never paid off by the end of Meltzer's run! He barely appeared in the Lightning Saga arc and had a brief scene with Slade in issue #12. I doubt it will ever be picked up again. WTF? Is he even a member of the league?


Timothy Callahan said...

Nicely argued, RKV. Yeah, that interpretation makes plenty of sense.


RVK: Sounds like a great story but I didn't see it on the page.

tornado's path, to me, felt clunky and violent - the exact opposite of the promises coming out of Infinite Crisis.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree about the violence, JZ. It was excessive and graphic. I certainly don't want to defend the execution of the story.

The reviewer is dead on: tornado's path was very flawed on the page. I imagine the pitch for the arc went something more like my first post. Unfortunately, somewhere amongst arm tearing, booty shots, and random Geo-Force cameos, the message got lost.

That's how many "top 20" books are these days though; an issue is defined by its last page cliffhanger or who died, rather than characterization. What do you think? I'm enjoying the discussion.


Timothy Callahan said...

"the promises coming out of Infinite Crisis"

You mean the promises of a less dour, brighter, less violent, less super-serious DC Universe?

Problem 1: It's tough to trust those promises when they come from a story in which Superboy rips off lots and lots of heads.

Problem 2: We all really WANTED to trust those promises.

Problem 3: They lied.