Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Or: “How I Learned to Quit Worrying and
Love Like Injustice: Gods Among Us.”
Knowing me as well as I do, I would have expected to absolutely hate Injustice: Gods Among Us, the digital-first comic based on the fighting game from the makers of Mortal Kombat, written by Tom Taylor and drawn by some eight different artists. It’s newly available in a hardcover collection of the first six issues that bears the tagline “The World-Wide #1 Bestselling Comic,” which I found dubious without qualification. (The whole world? Even counting Japan, where they have the One Piece and what do the kids read these days, the Naruto?)
Why would I expect not to like it? Well, a couple of reasons.
The costuming is pretty extreme. I was aesthetically offended by many of the New 52 costumes, which in general seem to be a compromise between the characters’ most popular outfits, whatever was in style at Image in 1992 and something that a Hollywood costuming department might put together for a live-action superhero movie or television series. Injustice took many of those designs even further, so that its Flash, for example, was wearing at least as much padding as NFL Super Pro.
The proceedings, particularly at the beginning, are extremely grim, making your average New 52 title look like a Silver Age relic. (Confidential to the spoiler-sensitive: The rest of this review will contain spoilers.) The Joker and Harley Quinn murder Jimmy Olsen, kidnap a pregnant Lois Lane, trick Superman into killing his own wife and unborn child, and then blow up Metropolis with a nuclear weapon. In retaliation, Superman shoves his hand through The Joker’s chest, killing him.
There are so many familiar elements to the plot that a well-versed DC reader could make quite a game out of “Spot the Influence,” with a little Superman: King of the World here and a touch of Reign of the Supermen there, a hint of Tower of Babel hither, and just a dab of Identity Crisis yon. But the major influence in undoubtedly Kingdom Come, from which Injustice borrows the Joker-kills-Lois plot point and the Superman and Wonder Woman vs. Batman conflict that drives the series; by the end of the first volume, Batman and Superman have divided the superhero community rather neatly into two camps, and end up with many of the allies they had in Kingdom Come.
And the art is just awful. There are certainly some talented pencilers drawing the series, including familiar names like Mike S. Miller and Tom Derenick, but with eight different artists and four different colorists on just six issues, no two scenes look much alike at all. Aside from the vacillating quality, the art styles change, and the designs change: Costumes, hair colors, size, shape — every aspect of the artwork is completely amorphous, and if one ends up enjoying the comic, it’s likely to be despite the artwork, rather than because of it.
And yet I did enjoy it. As I said when I briefly discussed the first issue a couple of months ago, that was mostly due to Taylor’s sharp writing and surprisingly light touch when it came do dialogue. There’s a lot of sturm und drang, and certainly the book has its Grand Guignol moments, but Taylor manages to write some pretty funny dialogue between those scenes.
As to the things I don’t like — well, I found myself excusing them while reading.
The costuming ain’t pretty, but this is essentially what DC used to call an Elseworlds book or, before that, an Imaginary Story, so it hardly matters if the characters are dressing so radically different (in some cases, their designs are closer to their originals than the New 52 versions are, as with Green Arrow and Black Canary).
As for the level of gore and violence, it may be over the top — did Lois really have to be pregnant at the time Superman killed her? — but then, they had to put Superman through an emotional meat-grinder if they were going to get him to the point where he and Batman would eventually go at it like Liu Kang and Sub-Zero (those are guys from Mortal Kombat right? The ’90s were a long time ago).
And while some of the plotting is eerily similar to that of Kingdom Come, right down to Wonder Woman seeking to take Lois’ place in Superman’s bed, as she and Ares puts it in a conversation at one point, well, this isn’t an original comic, but a comic based on a video game based on the comics, so its lack of originality isn’t as galling as it might be were Injustice not based on a video game based on DC Comics.
And, finally, the art: OK, I got nothing. Eight different artists working in their own styles and apparently without model sheets is kind of crazy. Some artistic changes work better than others, as there are little vignettes and shorter stories within the over-arching conflict and the character drama it drives, but it would be nice if there was some basic level of comptency regarding things like the color of Wonder Woman’s pants, the size of her chest (big, giant or ridiculous), what Batman’s cowl looks like, how huge Superman’s S-shield is and so forth, you know?
The plot? After The Joker and Harley physically destroy Metropolis and emotionally destroy Superman, Superman kills The Joker and decides to reveal his secret identity to the world (he won’t be needing it any longer) and declare a worldwide cease-fire: no more war, or nations will have to answer to him and his Justice League.
He’s supported by Wonder Woman and most of the other Justice Leaguers, including Green Lantern Hal Jordan, The Flash, Cyborg, Hawkgirl, Shazam and, rather randomly, Raven. Batman and Green Arrow keep their distance (the latter kidnapping Harley and keeping her imprisoned in his Arrow Cave to protect her from Superman), but conflict is inevitable.
First, the League comes into conflict with Aquaman and Atlantis, and, when they start emptying Arkham of its inmates to move them somewhere more secure, Batman and Nightwing find themselves at odds with Superman (Robin Damian Wayne joins with Superman’s side).
By the end of the first volume, Nightwing is dead while Batman is all but forced to take Superman down, teaming with Catwoman to gather a group of like-minded, more street-level allies.
To my surprise, not only could I not put down the book, I ended up being rather sorely disappointed when I hit the last page and realized I’d have to wait a few months for the second volume.
Taylor seems to know, like and write all of the characters extremely well. While Superman eventually goes off the deep end, in the first chapter Taylor pens a nice scene between Superman and Lois, and he does keep trying to invent ways to push Superman into bad-guy territory (even after all that happened to him, he suffers more threats and attacks on people close to him).
He also writes a very good Green Arrow Oliver Queen and Harley Quinn; the latter might not look much like any previous version of herself (her costume here consists mainly of a pair of panties and a vest), but she’s genuinely funny, and Taylor portrays the pair as if they were in a screwball comedy. But with, you know, masks and fights.
Even the characters who stick mostly in the background, like Flash, Cyborg and Green Lantern, have little moments that show them struggling with whether following Superman is the right thing to do or not.
In a lot of ways, this is an extremely dark, extremely ugly comic book. But there’s a bright, twinkling wit that shines through. Wherever and however this prequel to the video game ends up, I’m extremely interested to see where its writer ends up, and if DC will eventually offer him a better vehicle for his skills, preferably one with a single talented artist.
Yes, I know he’s taking over Earth 2, penciled by Nicola Scott, one of DC’s better artists at the moment, but, oddly enough, that book set on a parallel Earth seems even more like an Elseworlds or Imaginary Story than Injustice does.