Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
The big new Justice League of America #1 is kind of a mess. It asks a lot of its readers without delivering much right away.
This is something of a mixed result where JLA writer Geoff Johns is concerned. He tends to start well, at least for me. I liked his first issues of Blackest Night and Flashpoint, the introductory volume of Batman Earth One, and his recent work on Green Lantern Simon Baz and the just-concluded “Throne of Atlantis” storyline. However, JLA #1 (drawn by David Finch) either takes a fairly counterintuitive approach to its own premise, or is playing some sort of long game which isn’t readily apparent, and (again) doesn’t quite flow from the book’s Justice League lead-in. More successful is (Justice League of America’s) Vibe #1 (written by Johns and Andrew Kreisberg, pencilled by Pete Woods, and inked by Sean Parsons), which grounds its hero so solidly in League lore it almost overshadows its fellow spinoff.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for JLA #1, Vibe #1, and the conclusion of “Throne of Atlantis” in Justice League #17.
We’ll start with JL #17 (penciled by Ivan Reis, inked by Joe Prado, Oclair Albert and Sean Parsons, with an epilogue penciled by Paul Pelletier), which is basically an extended fight scene upon which is hung the necessary exposition. It’s a nice-looking fight scene, as Reis draws on his crowd-management skills to coordinate both the Leaguers and their reserves (including Firestorm, the new Atom, Hawkman, Zatanna, Vixen, Element Woman and Black Lightning). Even his inset panels are meticulously detailed. The gist of it is that Vulko, Aquaman’s mentor/guardian, engineered the whole thing in order to get Aquaman to become King of Atlantis again. Because this means taking back the throne from his brother Orm (aka Ocean Master), it apparently called for superhero-level carnage. Longtime readers of Johns’ work will recognize Vulko as a relative of Hunter “Zoom” Zolomon from Johns’ Flash run, both motivated by a whatever-it-takes desire to make their heroes the best they can be. Zoom was almost eight years ago, so I don’t begrudge Vulko’s similarity, but it did feel rather familiar.
As such, “Throne” functions essentially as a capper to Johns’ Aquaman-Isn’t-Lame thesis, because it ends with the public blaming the Sea King for the Atlantean attacks. Because that apparently carries over into a distrust of the Justice League generally, Amanda Waller and Steve Trevor draw up their own League, as shown in the early pages of JLA #1. That sequence, previewed already online, similarly reuses Johns’ devil’s-advocate move from Aquaman, with Trevor tossing out reasons why a “Justice League of America” won’t work.
In this case, though, Trevor might be onto something. The new League includes Hawkman, Catwoman, Stargirl, Vibe, Martian Manhunter, Katana, Green Lantern Simon Baz and Green Arrow. We’re told this is a team designed to put a better public face on the Justice League, but only Stargirl seems to have anything approaching a good PR person. Catwoman is a criminal, Katana is an assassin (supposedly rivaling Deathstroke, although I didn’t get that from Katana #1), and Martian Manhunter, Vibe and Simon Baz are relative unknowns. Hilariously, Hawkman’s introduction presents him as a straight-up psychopath, chasing down random muggers for the lulz and passing them off as “alien fugitives.” A few panels in JL #17 show that the League reserves aren’t quite used to working together, and I suspect that’s meant to resonate with the sure-to-clash personalities in the new JLA. Still, settling down to watch a train wreck isn’t the best way to endear readers to your new title.
More pertinent to the story is one of the issue’s big reveals, which is that each member of the new JLA has been matched to his or her counterpart in the regular League: Catwoman to Batman, Martian Manhunter to Superman, etc. “These are the men and women who are going to take down the Justice League,” Waller says; and Steve reminds her “[i]f it ever comes to that.”
So there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, including — most interestingly to me — the emergence of the new Secret Society (of Super-Villains). Not only does it apparently include Amazo’s creator Professor Ivo, presumably he created the Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman robots who hunt a double agent through some lonely woods. This too is a callback to JL #17, which shows the main League expanding, Amanda putting together the JLA’s by-now-ubiquitous headshots, and an unidentified third party recruiting for what I take is the Secret Society.
All these moving parts make JLA #1 fairly hard to pin down. It’s a book about what is acknowledged to be a deeply mismatched, dysfunctional team, assembled ostensibly for one public purpose while secretly intended for another, and set to go up against a team of villains for reasons as yet unknown. (Admittedly, that’s a lot deeper than the high-concept storytelling in Johns’ and Jim Lee’s Justice League #1.) David Finch’s art and Sonia Oback (and Jeromy Cox)’s colors combine for a mostly murky, heavy-lined comic that emphasizes the book’s downbeat themes. It’s all a little unnatural, and it makes the characters hard to get into. Perhaps that too is part of the approach, but it’s an odd choice. JLA is clearly meant to work in conjunction with its elder sibling, and I expect it’ll be nicely complementary, but that makes it harder for JLA to stand on its own. It’s like the Avengers/New Avengers situation.
Fortunately, Vibe #1 has the luxury of focusing as much as it needs to on just one character. Five years ago,* Francisco “Cisco” Ramon was a Detroit teenager caught in a Boom Tube from one of Darkseid’s invading Parademons. The Parademon killed his brother Armando and the Boom Tube somehow gave Cisco the power to tap into the Multiverse’s vibratory frequencies. Now, ARGUS agent Dale Gunn has recruited Cisco to be the superhero Vibe, working with the new JLA to guard against interdimensional evil. (And also to take down the Flash, but you don’t get that from Vibe #1.)
Accordingly, Gunn gives Cisco the chance to defeat the Parademon who killed his brother. That seems pretty far-fetched, given the odds that a lone Parademon would be holed up in an abandoned Detroit home after five years in hiding on Earth; but of course it doesn’t matter whether that was the same one, because it was all a setup to get Cisco into the Vibe suit. Otherwise, Cisco’s a pretty appealing character. His family was traumatized by his brother’s death, such that his other brother Dante is a jaded slacker and their dad acts like a recluse. However, Cisco’s got a decent job selling electronics, plans to go to college, and naturally spent his pre-Vibe days stopping street crime with the powers which render him invisible to cameras. Like Simon Baz in Green Lantern, Cisco’s ethnicity is not really emphasized, and certainly not to the point of caricature.
Vibe #1 balances Cisco’s idealism nicely against ARGUS’ pragmatism, and as a bonus includes (in ARGUS’ labs) a number of cameos from the pre-New 52 days. Like Dale Gunn, Prof. Ivo and the Secret Society, these are pleasant reminders that Johns and company haven’t forgotten about the original Justice League of America. Pete Woods, Sean Parsons and colorist Brad Anderson give Vibe an open, inviting feel, almost diametrically opposed to Finch’s JLA. Although Vibe’s recruitment obviously links this book pretty strongly to JLA, it works pretty well as a solo-hero story. There’s also the potential for a separate track of adventures based on Vibe’s specific “interdimensional border-cop” setup. It reminds me of the last Booster Gold series, also co-written initially by Johns, which had Booster traveling through various eras of DC history trying to maintain the timeline. Surely a couple of those folks in ARGUS’ custody will lead Vibe to some familiar (if out-of-continuity) surroundings.
Ultimately, for now I’m going to keep reading both books. While I recognize that the “things will make sense eventually” reaction to JLA #1 is not really healthy, I am curious to see how it all plays out. There’s a strong sense that the book will feel a lot different in a few months, and I am willing to give it time to develop. Vibe is an easier sell, thanks to its open-ended setup and straightforward, effective storytelling. It feels more fully-formed. It probably won’t last as long as JLA, but for now it’s a better time.
* [Haven’t all the New-52 books moved forward a year, or is that just for the Batman titles? And if the latter, wouldn’t that mean the Bat-books are several months ahead of their fellow comics?]