Towards a modern superhero canon: JLA/Avengers
What do you do when handed the Holy Grail of mainstream superhero comics? How should you manage the scores of characters and decades of fictional history which it involves? Most importantly, how will you ensure that what makes it into print actually satisfies readers, from easily-overwhelmed rookies to expectation-stuffed fanatics?
Writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez made JLA/Avengers a love story.
Specifically, it’s the story of two star-crossed entities thrown together by fate and destined to enjoy only a short period of bliss. This isn’t mere metaphor either. I’m reluctant to describe just how Busiek and Perez depict it, because while it didn’t exactly creep up on me, it certainly wasn’t something I was expecting.
See, JLA/Avengers begins with a couple of familiar, tradition-oriented issues. Marvel menaces threaten DC locales, and vice versa. Eventually, the Watcher drops by the Watchtower (symmetry!) and sends the JLA on a scavenger hunt for powerful artifacts from both universes. Not long after, Metron performs the same function for the Avengers. This lets the two teams chase each other around their particular Earths, while facilitating a constant stream of mash-up humor. (Marvel’s Hercules can’t understand why Wonder Woman calls him “despoiler of Hippolyta”; the idea of a Flash Museum astounds Quicksilver; and Batman’s takedown of the Punisher is so perfunctory as to be mentioned only in passing.)
These two issues are surely good fun for anyone with even a casual knowledge of the characters, because every page — actually, thanks to Perez, just about every panel — is packed with enough minutiae to keep sharp-eyed readers busy for days. I know significantly less about Marvel than I do DC (shocker!), but I was still entertained. Indeed, these issues are typical inter-company crossover fare: today’s Justice League fights today’s Avengers, with both teams supplemented by fan-favorite former members. Along the way Busiek uses Superman and Captain America as metacommentators, each disgusted at the way the other’s world appears to work. It all comes to a head in the Savage Land, where after another earth-shattering fight, Cap and Batman reveal that (naturally) both teams have been played for suckers by the Grandmaster and Krona. The collected items of power allow the Grandmaster to reshape reality, which is where issue #2 ends…
… and where the love story comes in. The first part of issue #3 describes a series of Justice League/Avengers team-ups, deliberately reminiscent of the Justice League/Justice Society parallel-Earth stories outlawed (at that point, anyway) by Crisis On Infinite Earths. We’ll come back to some other COIE parallels, but for now it’s sufficient to note that issue #3 throws open the floodgates. Not only do the DC/Marvel team-ups go back to the Justice Society and Invaders, but just about every Leaguer and Avenger, living or dead, has at least a cameo. (By the way, in the merged timeline, Hal Jordan is still Green Lantern and Barry Allen is still the Flash. Trust me, in 2003 this was a big deal.) From camouflage-suit Aquaman to ponytailed Zatanna, from HydroBase to the original JLA Satellite, Busiek and Perez spin a nifty alternate history of inter-company cooperation which even accounts for the crossover’s original 1983 plot. This too is blatant fanservice, but by this point the universes have “gotten together” in what one might even call the Biblical sense; and love is all around. It feels so wrong, but oh so right.
Nevertheless, our heroes soon learn the truth. Thanks mostly to storylines of the 1980s and ‘90s, they are destined to live lives punctuated by tragedy — assuming they’re even supposed to be alive. Call it what you will (“a melodramatic look at past melodrama,” for example), but I believe there is a great poignancy in seeing all the excesses of the Modern Age laid out in one grand and devastating spectacle. After all, these characters exist, to a significant extent, in a vacuum which preserves them unblemished for things like toys and movies and Pez dispensers. When issue #3 reveals how things “really are,” it’s a double whammy: not only are these characters confronted with the horrors of their unaltered timelines, but they (and we readers) realize that, at least in this case, they had an innocence to lose.
Of course, no idealized alternate timeline can sustain itself forever. In an especially ironic speech, Hal Jordan — who tried to do just this thing ‘way back in DC’s Big Event of 1994 — argues against reshaping the timeline to erase all of its blemishes. “The reality we saw [is] the truth,” he declares. “It’s the one we’re pledged to protect … not to play God with.” (Speaking of playing God, Hal-as-Spectre helps bookend the series.) Accordingly, Busiek walks a fine line between condemnation of cheap serial drama and acceptance of corporate control, settling apparently for recognition (and perhaps some resignation) that this is how these characters have paid for their continued existence. It’s not exactly “sold my soul to the company store,” since the merged timeline threatens both Earths, but it is something of a Buzz Lightyear nervous-breakdown moment.
It also sets up issue #4’s big blowout mega-fight scene, which features scores of characters (including even more permutations of costumes and/or powers) fighting equal numbers of supervillains. Here the only rule is that anything goes, and so here JLA/Avengers devotes page upon page to more in-jokes: the Golden Age Flash socking the Red Skull, Mar-Vell and Fawcett/DC’s Captain Marvel switching foes, Batman versus Batroc, etc. It may all be on the level of the best HeroClix game ever, but let’s be honest: if you’re reading a team-up between the Justice League and the Avengers, somewhere in your secret heart of hearts don’t you want to see Wonder Woman smashing Norse giants or the Wasp zapping the Queen Bee? George Perez is at his most meticulous, choreographing the action so that no panel feels particularly cluttered and everything zips along. To me, Perez does crowd scenes so well because his figures have a natural sense of movement and place. Maybe a John Byrne or an Alan Davis could have handled these pages, but I doubt they would have flowed as smoothly.
Likewise, in the interests of keeping things moving, Busiek and Perez don’t devote a whole lot of ink to explaining just how these tag-teams happen, choosing instead to show that they can. This may sound like a cop-out, and under different circumstances it might have been. For JLA/Avengers, though, it is a Solomonic solution, cutting through the knots of accessibility and fan expectations simply by focusing on the good parts. It’s a love story, after all; concerned more with passion than with process.
Speaking of which, I mentioned Crisis On Infinite Earths earlier, because there are a few deliberate nods to the miniseries which forever associated Perez with crowd scenes. In both miniseries Krona is involved (as he was in the creation of DC’s original Multiverse), the evil Crime Syndicate is killed early on (compare with the opening pages of COIE #1), and of course there are parallel Earths and lots of crowds. Both miniseries also start out hewing to Gardner Fox’s basic Justice League story structure: splitting into small squads before coming together at the end. However, with Crisis the message was “no one is exempt.” Here, it’s a much more benign, almost Little League-esque “everyone plays.”
Thus, while JLA/Avengers does contain a certain amount of process, it’s couched in nods to formulae made famous by Gardner Fox, John Broome, and Stan Lee. Captain America and Superman bicker because they are so strongly connected to their incompatible universes. Iron Man remarks that Silver-Age-DC-style science wouldn’t work “back home.” Busiek has a lot of fun with the union of DC’s fantasy and Marvel’s realism, driving home the point that the two realms can’t be together for long while getting considerable mileage out of their interactions.
All of this may suggest that JLA/Avengers is exclusively for the longtime fan. I suspect us lifers probably do get the most out of something like the all-too-brief Hawkeye/Black Canary romance. Nevertheless, the trivia doesn’t overwhelm the story. Instead, even the Parade of Tragedy serves the authors’ message: what happens to these characters isn’t as important as who they are.
See, JLA/Avengers is primarily concerned with imagination — and specifically, giving the reader a framework to just imagine! the team-ups and face-offs Busiek and Perez might somehow have missed. Ultimately, JLA/Avengers was always going to be about the fans, so why not let the fans fill in any blanks? In an era where pros and fans alike expect everything to be spelled out, a big story like this one doesn’t often place such trust in its readers. JLA/Avengers makes the most of its unique opportunity, because its creators recognize how rare such opportunities are.
Nevertheless, what burns hottest burns fastest. The lovers finally part, and the two teams salute each other as the dimensional boundaries go back up. They may never meet again, but their brief courtship made many happy memories.
JLA/Avengers (serialized in four issues, September 2003-March 2004) was written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by George Perez, colored by Tom Smith, lettered by Richard Starkings, and edited by Tom Brevoort, Mike Carlin, and Dan Raspler.