Grumpy Old Fan | New 52, Prologue: This is the way the world begins
I’m pretty sure every other DC-Comics blogger in the known universe will be doing this, but for me it is an imperative: from now through the end of the month, this space will give short, probably reactionary, and likely ill-considered reviews of all 52 new titles. Not surprisingly, then, this week is all Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1.
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I liked Flashpoint #1 pretty well. I thought it was a promising start to a story that — in a daring departure for a big event — could stand on its own without universe-altering ramifications.
Of course, that was in early May, a lifetime ago.
While Flashpoint #5 finishes that story, it does so in a way that feels maddeningly hollow. Not the epilogue, mind you — that sequence just manages to avoid mawkishness, and is a well-done counterpoint to the end of issue #1. No, my problem with issue #5 (and to a lesser extent with the miniseries generally) is the way in which writer Geoff Johns apparently just decides he needs to wrap things up.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for Flashpoint #5, and later for Justice League #1 …
Naturally, this is similar to one of my complaints about Flashpoint #1: that the issue didn’t end with Barry Allen, the Flash, getting his speed back. I thought that would have given the story a nice shot of momentum, not to mention optimism. However, to paraphrase one of my old writing professors, you don’t review what you would have done, you review what was done.
Accordingly, for a story centered around the Flash, Flashpoint waits until halfway through its last issue before uncorking some real super-speed action. The rest of the time, Flash and his allies try to figure out how to stop this particular version of DC-Earth from destroying itself. This is certainly a noble goal, and well within Johns’ optimistic, altruistic Flash characterization. Issue #3 also explains why Barry doesn’t try to change the past himself (his speed hasn’t fully returned, and it’s not within his power set anyway). However, it means Flashpoint must meander around a scorched Earth for another issue and a half before Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash, reveals the plot’s big secret.
To his credit, Geoff Johns had done a great job building the Reverse-Flash into a formidable, almost terrifying, villain. Able to change anything in history and ignore any negative personal consequences, Zoom has been subtly eating away at Barry’s life until (and I am still not sure of the mechanics) Barry himself inadvertently shattered the timeline. In response — and in the tradition of puzzle-minded Flash stories — one might imagine Barry finding a way to turn Zoom’s own abilities against him, perhaps leaving Zoom in an inescapable time-loop of some sort. Instead, issue #5 finds Barry at Zoom’s mercy, until Batman somehow sneaks up on one of the fastest man alive and stabs him through the chest. If I were more charitably inclined, I would call that ironic; but as written and drawn it seems more like a gratuitous popcorn-movie death, complete with one-liner.
Only then, it seems, do Batman and Flash realize that the key to “saving” the world is for Barry to stop himself from trying to save his mother’s life. Thus, Barry blames himself for the world of Flashpoint, and calls himself “selfish” for the time-trip which empowered Zoom, even though Zoom changed history in the first place by killing Barry’s mother and framing Barry’s father for the murder. Johns gives Barry some degree of closure about his mother’s death, and there is at least a hint that she may even be alive in the New-52 timeline, but the equities still don’t square to me. Barry wasn’t being selfish in trying to correct what a supervillain did, he was trying to restore his own timeline. What’s more, Barry’s Flashpoint time-trip reveals that the New-52 timeline is a product of some other cosmic calamity, which I suppose will be addressed in a future Flash or Justice League story. It could even be next year’s big summer crossover, featuring the end of all the New-52 books….
Anyway, it continues to bug me that Barry’s mother is retroactively doomed, ostensibly so that he can be “more interesting.” I am also bugged by the notion that the big climax of Flashpoint hinges on a previously unseen character (who I guess could be Kismet, the embodiment of the DC Universe, but probably not) and the setup of yet another big-event storyline.
Ultimately, I am disappointed in Flashpoint. Although it stayed largely focused on the Flash/Batman relationship, it digressed into world-building scenes which proved unnecessary. The hints of global collapse in issue #1 soon turned into more direct teases for the various ancillary miniseries, and the time spent anticipating Subject 1/Superman paid off with a few panels of him attacking Aquaman and Wonder Woman. The world of Flashpoint was so far gone that Barry’s inclination towards saving it seemed almost laughable. The miniseries offered no hope that any of Barry’s old JLA colleagues would work together again, and the motley band of superheroes introduced in issue #1 never coalesced into a reasonable replacement. Again, it goes back to the miniseries’ slow, and eventually somewhat arbitrary, pacing; which in turn may well owe a lot to its format.* Since it built to that emotional epilogue, Flashpoint might have made a nifty Brave and the Bold Annual, or even a taut two or three issues — but in the end it succumbed to big-event bloat.
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Similarly, at first I wasn’t overly impressed with Justice League vol. 2 #1 (written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by Jim Lee, inked by Scott Williams, and colored by Alex Sinclair). However, I emphasize “at first.” Overall it’s a decent start for the new League, and an uncomplicated way to attract new (or lapsed) readers.
Most of the issue follows Batman, Green Lantern, and an amped-up Parademon (the Apokoliptian answer to the Super-Skrull?) as they tear through Gotham City, chased initially by the GCPD. After the two heroes find a device the Parademon leaves behind (which I presume is a Mother Box), GL speculates that it’s connected to the Superman who lives in Metropolis. Off they go, in the end giving GL the opportunity to get punched out by the Man of Steel. There’s also an efficient introduction of star athlete Victor Stone, helping his high school run up the score while failing to garner any attention from his dad.
This is not a groundbreaking plot, although the execution is mostly good. (There were a couple of confusing page transitions, a failed moment which might have been another “Batman has to pee” joke, and a panel or two where the Parademon’s transformations weren’t quite clear.) Essentially, from what I gather, the New-52 Justice League’s origin centers around them meeting, and presumably defeating, Darkseid. This is fine, in a serviceable way, mostly because this will be the first time the Leaguers have faced Darkseid. If this were the Brad Meltzer or James Robinson Leagues coming together to fight Darkseid, it would have to be something extra-special (kind of like Morrison and Porter’s classic “Rock Of Ages,” come to think of it). Even when Gerry Conway, Dick Dillin, and George Pérez used the Fourth World for 1980′s JLA/JSA crossover, it was pretty cool, because the Fourth World was still fairly new at that point.
Now, I am far from a new reader, so this next bit might not ring entirely true. However, if this were my first superhero comic book in a while, I think I might be inclined to stick around. Surely not by accident, it features three DC superheroes who are definitely familiar to the general public. It casts one of those heroes (GL) as cocky and makes him something of a comic foil for Batman, but it doesn’t do so at the expense of GL’s dignity. For all intents and purposes, it then uses Victor as a new character with whom new readers can presumably identify. It’s also a fairly-well-told action story which hints at bigger things to come. Obviously the League will fight Darkseid; obviously Vic will see half his body replaced with cybernetic parts; obviously the world will come to trust superheroes, and the Justice League above all.
As a longtime reader who’s seen just about every JLA relaunch**, I liked Johns’ general approach to the characters. Reading the GL/Batman scenes, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Emerald Buffoon in All Star Batman #9, also drawn by Jim Lee and Scott Williams. Naturally GL looked better by comparison here, but I think the JL characterization — new ring-slinger is full of himself, can’t believe someone would do this without powers — stands well on its own. The brief glimpse of fire-engine constructs handling Gotham’s collateral damage was a nice touch, and the kind of crossover detail I expect to see in a Justice League book. (Not to mention GL hitting the Parademon with a fire truck. That definitely appealed to my inner 13-year-old.)
While I’m still somewhat leery about setting Cyborg’s League adventures before his time with the New Teen Titans, I will say that this issue’s scene fits broadly with Vic’s pre-accident history. In NTT vol. 1 #1, we see his frustration at being essentially disqualified from any kind of athletics, thanks to his new abilities; and later we learn how the accident exacerbated a shaky relationship with his dad. It says something, I think, that the story seems to fit better with New Teen Titans continuity than it does with the original Fourth World; but I’m not prepared to grade it on that basis just yet.
Nevertheless, nothing in this issue reassures me that Johns, Lee, and company won’t spend an inordinate amount of time once again wandering from moment to moment before realizing it’s issue #6 and they should probably have an ending. Chasing a Parademon across the rooftops and through the sewers of Gotham is fine for a teaser, especially with Lee’s pencils; but subsequent issues will need to be more substantial. Similarly, while Johns and Lee do well with just Batman and Green Lantern, before too long they’ll have seven regular Leaguers to juggle. There is a lot of detail in Justice League #1 — thanks mostly to Lee and Williams’ intricate work, and Sinclair’s complementary colors — but not a lot of subtlety. As widescreen as the Justice League is supposed to be, its cast sometimes needs a more careful touch. (I did like Johns’ relative lack of first-person narrative captions, because it kept the narrative fairly straightforward.) Indeed, although I liked Brad Meltzer’s first issue (2006’s Justice League of America #0, drawn by a variety of folks including Jim Lee), I had similar concerns about it, and we saw how that turned out.
Mostly, though, I think Justice League #1 should encourage new readers to come back for the rest of the story. I base this largely on my experiences with newspaper comics. If I decide to start reading Dick Tracy (now by Joe Staton and Mike Curtis) on some random weekday, ideally it won’t be too long before I see at least one classic Tracy element: Dick himself, the two-way wrist gizmo, or some misshapen villain. Likewise, if I read a comic called Justice League, I’d like it to feature at least two, and preferably three, characters who don’t normally team up (outside of the League, of course), fighting something only the League could handle. This fits those criteria, plus it includes Johns’ clever take on the GL/Batman relationship, and some fine storytelling (especially with the GL constructs) from Lee. In terms of previous League debuts, it doesn’t have the quirky wit of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire’s Justice League or the scope of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA. However, it is more focused than Meltzer and Ed Benes’ first issue and less scattered than James Robinson and Mark Bagley’s, and it starts playing with the big toys right away. So, good job, Justice League, for starting the New 52 pretty well.
Next week: Action Comics, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batwing, Detective Comics, Green Arrow, Hawk and Dove, Justice League International, Men Of War, OMAC, Static Shock, StormWatch, and Swamp Thing!
* [I do give the main Flashpoint miniseries credit for shipping on time, with no last-minute changes in creative team. I didn’t get ‘em all, but unless I missed hearing about a delay, I think all the tie-in miniseries also shipped on time too. Given DC’s history with delays, that’s worth noting.]
** [By my count, this is the fifth first issue of an ongoing series featuring the main Justice League team: 1960's Justice League of America vol. 1 #1, 1987's Justice League vol. 1 #1, 1996's JLA #1, and 2006's Justice League of America vol. 2 #0. Interestingly enough (to me, anyway), until 2006 each series had spun out of an earlier anthology or miniseries: the originals in The Brave and the Bold, the future JLI in Legends, and the “Magnificent Seven” in Justice League: A Midsummer’s Nightmare. However, it is at least the eighth time the team has been relaunched from the ground up, including the Detroit League (1984), JLI (1987), the Dan Jurgens JLA (1992), the post-Zero Hour JLA (1994), the JLA JLA (1996), the Meltzer League (2006), and the James Robinson League (2009). That’s an average of 3 3/4 years since 1984, so we’ll see if this group can make it to issue #45 relatively intact.]