"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Apparently we misunderstood: The New 52 doesn’t refer to the number of titles DC Comics publishes each month but rather the number of times each title changes creative hands. That’s what it seems like sometimes, what with firings by email, quitting on Twitter, rehirings and more. The general impression from behind-the-scenes tales is that the New 52 is in chaos. However, the end product might suggest DC is actually somewhat holding it together.
Creative changes are nothing new; turnover is inevitable. The key is how that turnover is managed. The ideal is to have a long and satisfying run by a cohesive team smoothly transitioning to a new team. Lord knows that doesn’t always happen, and we’ve certainly been hearing about it not happening recently.
With all of the news of creators coming and going, or going before they even get there, it’s easy to get distracted from the results of the finished product. So, I decided to take a look at a sampling of DC’s New 52, from its launch in late summer 2011 to today, and see how the stability of various titles was affected by creative changes. For my survey, I looked at the Justice League family of books, which includes the flagship Justice League, as well as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Arrow and others generally associated with the JLA that haven’t had a big Hollywood movie.
So what are we looking for? The days of a 20-year run, like Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men, are gone. So keeping things realistic, modern readers generally expect a creative team to remain in place for at least one, preferably two or more, story arcs running about four to six issues each. One or two issues by fill-in or guest artists between each story arc are also standard these days. If a book can do that or better, we’re happy. I’ve given each title a letter grade based on the history of creative changes. The grade does not reflect the quality of the creative team’s story, although there is a frequency of well-received books scoring well with notable exceptions. For the sake of sanity, I’m keeping this to writers and pencilers. They tend to be names most readers focus on. But it’s worth noting that many books, even some of the books that graded well on the writer/penciler level, have had multiple inkers come and go. Conversely, it’s also worth nothing that the New 52 has mostly stayed on schedule, a really commendable feat that helps build confidence and show stability.
So putting aside all of the tweets, scrambling press releases and why who left, let’s take a look at the flagship Justice League family of titles.
Justice League: This was pegged as the book that would surely go off the rails but it’s actually done quite well. Geoff Johns has remained the sole writer for the flagship title’s entire duration, with the exception of co-writing one back-up story with Jeff Lemire. Contrary to internet predictions, Jim Lee remained on the title for the first six-issue story, and then after a two-issue break, returned for the four-issue story that followed. Ivan Reis and David Finch jumped in on some pages for the finale. That’s a very stable first year. It’s not been quite as rock solid since. Reis did the three issues of the “Throne of Atlantis” opposite Paul Pelletier, and then we’ve already got another fill-in issue with Jesus Saiz after a two-part fill-in story by Tony Daniel only four months earlier. Not the worst but it just doesn’t feel like Ivan Reis has decisively taken over the book yet. Meanwhile, Gary Frank’s “Shazam” back-up tales have been rock solid, although their occasional disappearance is unfortunate. All in all, not bad at all, and ironically slightly less stable since Jim Lee left, but certainly not the disaster some predicted.
Aquaman: This may be the strongest book in the Justice League family in terms of creative consistency and unity of vision, with the possible exception of The Flash. Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis were at the helm for the first full year without interruption. A fill-in artist didn’t show up until the “Throne of Atlantis” Prologue in Issue 14 by Pete Woods. Then Paul Pelletier, who has a similar style to Reis, took over for the rest of the “Throne of Atlantis” crossover. Ivan Reis moved over to do the Justice League half of the story, so those reading the entire crossover still got Reis and a suitable successor. Impressive and probably about as good as you could do it.
DC Universe Presents: This is tricky because it’s an anthology, so by definition it’s going to have changing creative teams. But it did seem to lose its focus as it went along. Story lengths quickly crept down from five issues to three issues, one-offs or the grab back of stories in the zero issue. Nothing necessarily wrong with that though as that’s kind of the idea of anthologies. Telling of the dwindling interest though, the soon-to-be-released Issue 19 is the series’ last issue. At least there were gorgeous Ryan Sook covers throughout.
The Flash: Francis Manapul and Brian Buccelato have proven an impressive dedication to the Fastest Man Alive. They’ve barely taken a break with only two fill-in issues so far. Marcus To seems to be their go-to guy, who also assisted on Issue 15. Because the Annual was an artist parade but Manapul and Buccelato were still present and it can be excused within the context of the rest of the series, which with Aquaman, has the most solid consistency of the entire Justice League line. Above and beyond.
The Fury of Firestorm: This one was shaky but not the worst thing in the universe. The initial team of co-writers Ethan Van Sciver and Gail Simone and artist Yildiray Cinar only lasted through the first story arc. Joe Harris replaced Simone starting with a two-issue fill-in co-written and drawn by Van Sciver who dropped out halfway through the next story arc. The most consistent part was artist Yildiray Cinar who hung in there like a trooper until the series got a new status quo with writer/artist Dan Jurgens. He will stay with the series until its cancellation with Issue 20. Interesting that the series went from two writers and an artist to one writer/artist.
Green Arrow: Hoo-boy. The first year was a struggle. Writer JT Krul was gone halfway through Issue 3, replaced by Keith Giffen to finish up the opening story arc with artist Dan Jurgens, who got some help from Ignacio Calero on the last issue. The entire creative team was then jettisoned. Writer Ann Nocenti lasted a good ten issues, only interrupted by Judd Winick on the zero issue. She was initially teamed with Harvey Tolibao but he only lasted five issues, broken up by a fill-in issue by Steve Kurth. Freddie E. Williams II jumped in for the next five issues, one of which was the zero issue with Winick. So Nocenti and Williams only had four issues together before they were both gone. The new creative team of Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino have only had two issues but they might finally turn things around. Regardless, three-plus creative teams in a year and a half isn’t good.
The Savage Hawkman: This started off fairly decent with Tony Daniel and Philip Tan putting out the first half dozen issues, with an assist by co-writer James Bonny on the last two. Then it all went kablooie. A Cliff Richards fill-in was then followed by the whole team getting replaced by co-writers Rob Liefeld and Mark Poulton and artist Joe Bennett. Poulton only lasted four issues with Frank Tieri jumping in, and then Liefeld walked out before the last issue of a four-part story. Tieri was replaced by Tom DeFalco, and he and Bennett, who have had one issue so far, will finish off the book, which is cancelled with Issue 20. Similar to The Fury of Firestorm, The artist side of things was actually fairly stable with Joe Bennett holding down the fort since the first story arc but otherwise it’s been a revolving door of writers, artist-turned-writers and co-writers.
Wonder Woman: This started pretty solidly as a Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang book, but as time goes by regular fill-in artist Tony Akins is becoming more like the alternating regular artist. At this point, he’s done just over half the books Chiang has done who nowadays looks to be doing two issues on, two issues off. Still, Azzarello hasn’t missed a beat, and consistently using the same two artists has kept the visuals consistent.
Captain Atom: While this was one of the books to get the ax at the end of the first year of the New 52, we’ve got to hand it to writer J.T. Krul and artist Freddie E. Williams II. They handled thirteen issues in a row. Williams penciled and inked every issue, and occasionally co-wrote with Krul. It’s proof that a consistent creative team by itself isn’t the magic bullet to success, but it’s still an achievement.
Justice League International: The second of the two Justice League books that were canceled at the end of their first year. Dan Jurgens and Aaron Lopresti were consistently there every issue. Marco Castiello filled in on one issue for the epilogue of the first story arc. Then the whole thing was left on a sour note when Geoff Johns and Dan DiDio with artist Jason Fabok showed up to finish off the story. It always feels strange when the primary creative team doesn’t get to wrap things up, and then the executives swoop in.
Mister Terrific: This one is unfortunate. This is the only Justice League series so far that didn’t get to finish its first year. Eric Wallace wrote throughout but artist Gianluca Gugliotta seemed unable to handle doing more than two issues in a row, requiring Scott Clark to jump in last minute on issue #3 and Ollie Nome to handle #6. The series ended with its eighth issue.
Earth 2: This Second Wave title looks to be rock solid so far. James Robinson and Nicola Scott don’t look to be going anywhere. Yildiray Cinar stepped in for two issues and Tomas Giorello handled the zero issue but otherwise steady as she goes (aside from a little assist by Eduardo Pansica on Issue 4). Three fill-in issues in one year is one more than I would ideally like to see but I’ll take it.
Worlds’ Finest: Another Second Wave addition, this has been basically stable around the core of writer Paul Levitz and artists George Pérez and Kevin Maguire, but others like Jerry Ordeway, CAFU and Yildiray Cinar, have shuffled in and out on additional pages. With the most recent issue, Pérez is gone and it’s now just Levitz and Maguire, which might help cement things in place.
Justice League of America, Justice League of America’s Vibe, and Katana: These are Fourth Wave titles that only have two issues released so far. All three titles have maintained their creative teams so far but because they’re so new I’m going to hold off grading them.
The Justice League line ois highlighted by stellar consistency from Aquaman, The Flash, Wonder Woman and Earth 2, but the jumbled messes of Green Arrow, The Savage Hawkman and The Fury of Firestorm weigh it down. Despite a few lead weights, surprisingly the good mostly outweighs the bad. The high profile books have almost all kept their creative teams or made smooth transitions to new ones. There have been some hiccups but overall the line appears stable.
This is better than I expected going into this, which shows that at least through the published books, the New 52 is able to present a finished product that masks some of the behind-the-scenes chaos we’ve been hearing about. It’s also worth noting that the New 52 is made up of six more families or sub-lines, each with their headliners and lower tier books with their own wildly varying track records, so a margin of error in extrapolating this grade across the entirety of the New 52 applies.