Shiny Shelf

Justice League #1

By Bruce Kent on 02 September 2011

In April, this must have seemed like the best idea in the world. A comic that features the Christian Bale Batman meeting the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern, you know, that guy from the biggest movie of the summer. And it’s got Wonder Woman, star of that new hit TV show. And teasing the new Superman costume from next summer’s blockbuster, ‘Man of Steel’.

All of those guys together! Looking like they do in the movies. And more! Imagine if the next Nolan film had Batman chasing through Gotham when suddenly … Green Lantern arrives, wouldn’t that be awesome?! Can you imagine that curveball?!

Except … the ‘Green Lantern’ movie bombed, the ‘Wonder Woman’ series wasn’t picked up.

So ‘Justice League’ #1 arrives at the battlefield but the heavy artillery didn’t soften up the opposition first. In a comic … well, to a fanboy it’s just ‘Brave and the Bold’, innit? To one of these famous ‘new readers’ … well, ‘Batman meets some guy from a trailer I think I saw’ is not exactly a reason to cross the threshold of the local comic shop.

Will existing comics fans who’ve drifted away from DC give it a try? I dunno, did they drift away because the problem with DC was ‘it needs more Batman and Geoff Johns’ take on Green Lantern?’. And, put simply, the reason the Nolan films work is precisely because they’re not like the ‘Green Lantern’ movie and so, no, having Green Lantern show up is a terrible idea. And so ‘Justice League’ #1 comes across like the prologue of a novelization of a terrible, terrible movie.

The first American comic I ever saw was an issue of the Justice League. I opened it to a double page poster of the Justice League. A huge number of superheroes, and I recognised perhaps three of them – Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman. And the idea that Batman and Superman and all these other dozens of people were all in the same place was very exciting. I bought it because of that.

Back at home, I looked at the green people and exotic costumes and thought ‘do they all have their own comics, too?’. I tried to guess what they could all do, what their powers were. That woman looks like a cross between Batman and Catwoman. That guy has a helmet like Mercury. Oh wait, there’s Robin. But he’s old. Wait … there are two Supermans, and one of them is old, too. A lot of the heroes had older versions there … so were they meeting themselves from the future?

So I read the comic. No … the older versions were from the Justice Society. They lived on a parallel world where there had been superheroes fighting in World War II. And the letters page at the back explained that the comics had been running so long that they’d eventually decided that the early stories took place on Earth-2, the newer ones on Earth-1. And I came away thrilled, and wanting to read a lot more comics. Think of the possibilities.

And that was day one, based on one comic.

Now, I might be a weirdo. But there are plenty of young weirdos looking for escapism. And they want something to get into, a big map to explore. The plan to deliver thrills to a mass audience is a good one, the heart’s in the right place, but this ‘from the makers of the ‘Green Lantern’ movie’ approach means they’ve stripped it so far down to the basics that it’s very difficult to care about any of it.

In an effort not to alienate with elaborate backstory… well, there’s not much frontstory, either. There’s no attempt to tell us who Batman or Green Lantern are, or hint at their secret identities or the men behind the masks. They communicate in a sort of stilted videogame ‘play a sound clip when you reach a checkpoint’ way. Is this because we’re meant to know all the interesting stuff because we’ve seen the movies?

The most fundamental problem with ‘Justice League’ #1 is this: it takes three or four minutes to read. It’s an extraordinarily quick experience, there are no big events. Batman chases a monster that old fans will recognise, but all new readers are told is that it’s an alien. He meets Green Lantern. You then cut away to what to new readers must look like some random interlude involving an African-American college football player. Then, last page, Batman and Green Lantern meet Superman.

That’s it. We’re getting something that is in no way a satisfying experience. It’s not a standalone issue, it’s not a self-contained first chapter, it’s barely a teaser scene. There’s no need to read it again. Oh, and half the characters on the cover aren’t even mentioned, let alone seen. It’s an event comic where you might as well wait for the trade paperback. If new readers do show up at comics shops (on the back of a unicorn, presumably), and buy it … well, will they really be that hooked?

And it costs $4. $4 is not a lot of money intrinsically, but for a few minutes’ diversion, it’s a terrible deal. We live in the world of Amazon Marketplace. You can buy ‘Iron Man’ on DVD for a dollar and shipping. Let’s assume this story arc lasts six issues. That’s $24. That’s ‘Iron Man’ on DVD and a DVD player. Or a whole season or two of any TV show you care to mention. Yeah, this is aimed at kids who’ll drop $50 on a video game. But that game will be immersive for weeks. And then they can trade it in and get their next game for $30. Or swap it with a friend’s game. Try doing that with an e-comic.

There are comics that are great value for three or four dollars, that take a while to read, then you’ll want to re-read them straight away, and again a few months down the line. Ten years ago, Grant Morrison saw the ‘Spider-Man’ movie and said that it had taken forty years for cinema to catch up with comics, so he now saw his job as making comics that were forty years ahead of current cinema.

And ‘Justice League’ so needs to be that comic, something that is more immersive, more intense, more elaborate, more rewarding than the Nolan Batman films, let alone the Green Lantern one. It should suck up time, seem like this amazing, intense hit of some whole new thing. It should make you go ‘wow … I had no idea’. It should feel like going through the stargate at the end of ‘2001′… not like the beginning where it takes half an hour for a guy in a suit to walk through a door.

The problem with comics is best summed up by the feature at the back showing us a Superman costume sketch and excitedly telling us that the cape is part of the armour now … the costume was not the problem with Superman, it wasn’t even the problem with Wonder Woman.

Look… Superman is either a great, iconic character who it’s worth telling stories about (and I believe this with all my heart, I think Superman is wonderful), or he’s not. If he’s not, the problem is far more fundamental than how he tucks in his cape.

The immediate problem with Superman is that every year for ten years, now, the people publishing it relaunch Superman, excitedly telling us they’re going to spend a year ‘grounding’ the character, because they’ve not concentrated on his human side … then halfway through, they’ll panic and start telling generic stories, spiking anything that looks controversial.

Then six months later, they’ll relaunch him again, saying that he’s going to be an aloof alien. Endless messing with a status quo that is, by now, so scuffed that it’s hard to remember what it was. Endlessly obscuring the central appeal of the character – that he will always do the right thing and he will never, ever let you down.

Superman is, basically, Jesus done properly, not Apollo from ‘The Authority’ done badly.

‘Justice League’ #1 is a comic made by people who live and breathe comics, trying to work out what someone with no relationship to comics would like. The effect is a bit like when your aunt buys you a Christmas present… you can sort of see why she got it you, the thought processes behind the choice, but it’s never quite anything you’d actually want.

There’s nothing, at all, for existing comics fans, beyond some nice Jim Lee artwork that’s basically just like all the other Jim Lee artwork in other books that you never really got that into because a few pretty pictures aren’t enough. There will be some great comics in ‘the New 52′, and they’ll be great because the writers and artists are talented people, not because the editors have mandated that they start with issue 1 and give everyone padded costumes.

It’s a shame that DC have launched with what is surely the most slick, generic title in the range. ‘Justice League’ is a comic launched into a marketplace that, essentially, doesn’t exist – people wowed by the ‘Green Lantern’ movie and hungry for more.

DC only released three books this week. The first, ‘Flashpoint’ #5 sets up the second, ‘Justice League’ #1. In one of the more staggeringly cruel twists of fate, the third comic is a reprint of Paul Dini’s ‘Mad Love’. That, my friend, is a comic that would get a non-comics fan into comics. Buy that instead, if you haven’t already. Hell, buy it again and give it to someone you think would like it.

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By Bruce Kent

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