SPIDER-MANDATE: The Lowe-down on "Secret Wars," Tie-Ins and Stacey Lee
By the time this post goes live, you may be quite sick of hearing about Justice League: Cry For Justice #1. Back on Sunday, I said I didn’t hate it; and I suspect mine was one of the more positive comments. Yes, the script has many questionable moments, including an apparent lack of irony where Hal Jordan and Ray Palmer are concerned. I complained more about the staging of the first scene, which I felt sacrificed common sense for capital-D Drama!. And yes, the idea behind this series was a bit tired fifteen years ago when it was called Extreme Justice.
And yet … it’s movement, you know? It’s light at the end of the tunnel — the hope that almost three years into Justice League of America Volume 2, the book will at last gain its own direction and its own identity, free from crossover intrusions and editorial dictates….
… well, as free as any corporate superhero title could be; especially one designed specifically to use characters who already appear in other books. To me, writing Justice League is sort of like competing on “Iron Chef” — you don’t have total control over all the ingredients; and more likely than not you’ll have to bring new life to old standbys like salmon or Hawkgirl. Accordingly, as Rich Johnston pointed out last week, this has produced a particular cycle of retooling and rebuilding, such that it takes just the right combination of characters and circumstances to keep the League stable.
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Of course, “stability” has historically been a hallmark of the title. Writer Gardner Fox, penciller Mike Sekowsky, and editor Julius Schwartz were together from the team’s debut in The Brave and the Bold #28 (February-March 1960) to Sekowsky’s last issue, June 1968’s Justice League of America #63; and Fox only stayed two more issues after that. Sekowsky’s successor Dick Dillin then penciled the book for the next twelve years until his death in 1980. (His last issue was October 1980’s #183.) Gerry Conway was one of several writers who worked on the title in the early 1970s, but once he got the regular gig with February 1978’s #151, he too stayed for several years, through September 1986’s #254. (He contributed only a plot to #255.)
Subsequent Justice League titles enjoyed their own streaks. Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis became a brand unto themselves over the course of five years of Justice League International antics. Gerard Jones started scripting Giffen’s Justice League Europe plots with May 1990’s #14, became JLE‘s solo writer when Giffen left, and didn’t leave the franchise until August 1996’s Justice League America #113. After that, the Grant Morrison Era of JLA lasted some forty-one issues (give or take a few guest-shots from Mark Waid and Mark Millar), and the Joe Kelly/Doug Mahnke Era lasted thirty-one.
Regardless, for a while the League couldn’t go two years without some tinkering. Late in 1988, by way of celebrating its first two years of success, Justice League International split into two books. About two years after that came the anthology Justice League Quarterly. Another regular title, JL Task Force, was added in 1992 as part of the line-wide revamp which followed Giffen and DeMatteis’ departure. The line was overhauled again in 1994, shuffling creative teams and mission statements in part to accommodate the new “proactive” Extreme Justice. That too only lasted a couple of years; and all three books were canceled in the summer of 1996 in favor of a single League title, Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA.
At that point, things calmed down, and JLA enjoyed just three writers (Morrison, Waid, and Kelly) over its first ninety issues. However, the book then spent its last three years under a series of different, disconnected creative teams, essentially telling the sort of inventory stories which would wind up in the anthology book JLA Classified. (Kurt Busiek and Ron Garney’s “Syndicate Rules” is probably the exception here, since Busiek and Garney were announced as the book’s regular creative team but only produced the one arc.) The last couple of arcs fed into Infinite Crisis, and as such set up the current series.
Since then, Justice League of America vol. 2 has become notorious either for continuing to facilitate other titles’ stories at the expense of its own, and for focusing to an unhealthy degree on Red Tornado when it could tell its own stories. (For what it’s worth, I did like the Vixen-changes-history arc, and I am enjoying the present “Cap’s Kooky Kwartet” phase while it lasts.) Cry For Justice now looks like the latest in a long history of reinventions going back at least to the Detroit League, and including Giffen and DeMatteis’ swan song “Breakdowns,” the “Judgment Day” crossover which killed Ice and led to Extreme Justice, and JLA‘s “Crisis Of Conscience.” I’m not going to say that stability has become boring, but every few years it seems like DC loses its handle on the Justice League.
I have argued before that the JLA is a deceptively simple concept — a marketing strategy disguised as a group of all-stars — and one which makes sense only in relation to the rest of DC’s superhero line. Accordingly, in its purest form it is neither a soap opera nor a platform for Gardner-Fox-style formula. Instead, as Giffen and DeMatteis demonstrated so nimbly, it is about relationships: how Green Lantern complements Wonder Woman; what police scientist Barry Allen can teach the World’s Greatest Detective; why a team of powerhouses needs (relatively) lesser lights like the Atom and the Elongated Man.
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And that brings us back to Cry For Justice, which admittedly begins with what looks like a clash of dominant personalities. However, I think Green Lantern’s argument about the meaning of “justice” comes less from his heart of hearts than from writer James Robinson’s need to get the plot going. Sure, we all know that Hal is channeling that part of himself which was open to the Parallax bug, but when he starts parsing the team’s name, it tells me that he doesn’t have much beyond emotion in the way of argument. (By the way, I still can’t get over the stiffness of the figures in that first sequence, never mind the random arrangements in which they’re placed.) In any event, it’s not a debate, just two sides talking at each other, with Ollie as Greek chorus and eventual defector. Maybe we’ll see the main League in these pages again, maybe not.
Regardless, we know already (from, among other things, Robinson’s text pages in CFJ #1 and this week’s editorial from Dan DiDio) that at least some of the CFJ team will be folded into the regular JLA when Robinson takes over the main book sometime down the road. Since I can’t imagine that DC wants the League to be “proactive” on an ongoing basis, the CFJ team must eventually be reconciled with the regular JLA. In the meantime, I expect CFJ to feature a rag-tag group of superheroes tracking down Prometheus (and, if the covers for issue #1 are any indication, most of the Legion of Doom) before realizing ultimately that what they’re doing isn’t the Way We Do Things. Certainly I think someone will throw Parallax and Identity Crisis in Hal’s and Ray’s faces at a dramatically-appropriate moment. (Parallax even got a mention in this week’s World Of New Krypton, co-written by Robinson.) It might sound cathartic at first, but all that crying for justice! just tends to make you hoarse.
If in fact this happens, and the two teams become one happy League, does that make CFJ irrelevant? I’m not sure. However, I don’t think the League benefits from the sort of singular viewpoint that all those “yeah … justice!” panels indicate. The JLA was created out of characters from diverse genres (even if their dialogue all tended to sound the same), and part of the fun of the book was watching those different genre-avatars interact. It works first on that macro-level, before you start sorting out powers and personalities. Titles like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Planetary play with this conceit directly, so why shouldn’t the JLA? Why not emphasize how the pulp-hero Congorilla plays off science-heroes like Green Lantern and the Atom? In this way the “cries for justice” only bring these characters together. I suspect that if CFJ were still an ongoing title, the “proactive” angle (or at least its vengeful aspect) wouldn’t have lasted much past the first story arc.
There is still the possibility that, as per the rumor Rich Johnston reported at the above-referenced link, there will soon be two Justice League books anyway: Robinson’s (presumably with art from Mark Bagley), and a new Justice League of America (vol. 3) written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Jim Lee. The latter would focus on Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and the former would spotlight lesser-known DC heroes like Vixen. Again, I don’t think such compartmentalization is good for the League. The title needs a good mix of characters with their own features and characters whose only home is with the team, just as it needs a good representation of superhero genres and personalities. In any event, I’m not holding my breath for the Johns/Lee book, in large part because it would probably have to wait until Superman is back on Earth and Batman is back from prehistory.
So, once the posturing and self-importance are through, I will continue to hope that the James Robinson I’ve enjoyed these many years will show up again on Justice League of America. I’d like to think he can find a way to balance the Leaguers’ interactions with big-ticket adventures worthy of the team. Otherwise, the next revamp may be closer than we think….