EXCL. PREVIEW: Superman Escapes a Black Universe in "Dark Knight III" #5
For those who have followed DC’s promotion of Justice League 3000, this week’s inaugural issue must arrive with something of an asterisk. Announced in June as the latest reunion of Justice League International’s Keith Giffen (plot and breakdowns), J.M. DeMatteis (script) and Kevin Maguire (pencils), within two months the series became an unflattering example of creative-team chaos. In August, artist Howard Porter replaced Maguire, thereby postponing the series’ October debut. According to Maguire, DC apparently wanted something more dark and gritty, which doesn’t quite fit the style we now know as “bwah-ha-ha” — but by the same token, one wonders (as did Maguire) what DC thought it would get from the trio’s collaboration.
Still, to echo Donald Rumsfeld (and, 15 years earlier and more to the point, my entertainment-journalism professor), you review the comic you have, not the comic you wish you had. The first issue of Justice League 3000 reads like an artifact from the mid-1990s, when DC cranked out dystopian-future Elseworld stories fairly regularly; and Porter’s art is emblematic of the issue’s gritty, scratchy tone. This isn’t JLI. It’s not of a piece with Giffen and DeMatteis’ work writing Booster Gold, or even the current Larfleeze. It’s more like the short-lived, Giffen-written Threshold, crossed with an original-variety Marvel 2099 title.
In short, this first issue isn’t bad, just rather frustrating. I suppose the series has potential, and its creative team probably deserves a couple of issues to advance the plot. Regardless, JL3K #1 starts off negative and teases even more. It doesn’t give readers much optimism, outside of a vague sense that at some point, things can only get better.
SPOILERS FOLLOW, of course.
While JL3K is set in the 31st century, it doesn’t appear to be anywhere near the Legion of Super-Heroes’ regular stomping grounds. The first page includes a couple of alien-language signs, but I don’t think they’re in Interlac. (In fact, the one in the middle of the page seems to read “DNA,” which might be a reference to longtime Legion writes Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning; and if you turn the page upside-down and squint a little, the one next to the “Bradbury Seven” caption kind of reads “Maguire.”) Anyway, this is a future where “ten years ago,” a group called “The Five” brought down the intergalactic society called “the Commonwealth,” which one can only assume is comparable to — if not a replacement for — the Legion’s United Planets.
Speaking of which, at this point I feel compelled to mention Giffen and scripters Tom & Mary Bierbaum’s notable “Five Years Later” Legion relaunch of 1989. That also picked up some time after an intergalactic catastrophe. However, it was steeped in existing Legion history, whereas JL3K works hard to establish its new characters and settings.
Those include Ariel Masters, a jaded, hyper-competent fugitive on the run from the Cadmus Project; as well as Cadmus’ twin directors (and current League patrons) Terry and Teri. Of course, Cadmus is a name familiar to DC readers for its cloning capabilities, and apparently it’ll still be going a thousand years from now. Ariel, Terry, and Teri all want to stop The Five (which, before we get much further, doesn’t refer to the League), but Ariel doesn’t want to return to Cadmus and “fix” the Leaguers. Thus, the twins need Ariel alive, at least until they figure out those fixes.
As you might have guessed, Cadmus’ involvement means the Leaguers themselves are clones of the originals — but without some important socializing influences. Superman is a jerk because he was raised without the Kents, and Wonder Woman is a type-A combat factory who’s awfully close to the man-eater of Frank Miller’s All Star Batman & Robin. The Barry Allen clone (drawn and colored like Wally West) uses a personal force field instead of his super-speed aura, while the Hal Jordan clone channels emerald energy through a cloak, not an Oan ring. (By the way, the Green Lantern Corps is hated and feared throughout the universe, which I think is standard for any dystopian DC future.) Like Superman without the Kents, Batman “grew up” not having to get over his parents’ murders; but he seems to be the most well-adjusted of the group, as well as the one who remembers the original League most clearly. Oh, and nobody really likes each other. Barry and Hal say they’re best friends, but they’re not sure if that’s just programming. As the first issue ends, Superman’s ready to throttle Batman, while the rest of the League holds him back.
The issue is structured more for introductions, but (after three pages on Ariel and two on the twins) it uses as a centerpiece the League’s fight with a hive-mind called the Convert. That spans nine pages of dysfunction-highlighting combat, and it’s followed by six dialogue-heavy pages which do their best to emphasize both character bits and exposition. DeMatteis works hard to make the latter seem natural, but the twins’ back and forth especially tends to include items the speakers wouldn’t need to tell each other. A pair of nine-panel pages shows the Leaguers in talking-head mode, speaking to an unseen listener like they’re in a reality show. This works a little better as an infodump, but it’s not clear who’s listening. Still, it may be more excusable in a first issue, particularly a world-building one.
As mentioned above, I’m trying to approach JL3K without comparing it to a hypothetical Maguire version. I may be one of the few people who liked Porter’s work on Grant Morrison’s JLA, and I think it fits what DC apparently wanted from the book. Again, without getting too deep into the merits of Maguire-vs.-Porter, I suspect a Maguire-drawn JL3K would have been more lighthearted (including more peppy dialogue from DeMatteis) than what we have here.
That said, I don’t find much fault with Porter’s storytelling. (Giffen is listed only as “plot,” so I don’t know how much he contributed to the breakdowns.) Porter draws a pretty crowded future, but his figures never get lost in his detailed backgrounds, and he choreographs the fight scenes pretty well. I couldn’t figure out what Wonder Woman did to a bad guy in one particular panel, but other than that Porter (and Giffen, where applicable) did a good job keeping things clear. Like many aspects of this Justice League, Porter’s character designs may be deliberately unappealing, and in that respect, his worst character is Wonder Woman. In a couple of places he draws her bug-eyed and/or practically foaming at the mouth; and regardless of intent, it’s not a good look. Superman also seems to have weird red-on-black eyes, which a) aren’t from heat vision and b) may be a product of Porter’s inking. Porter does better with Ariel and the twins. I’d say this even if Maguire hadn’t been involved, Teri’s expressive face makes her especially reminiscent of a Maguire character. Hi-Fi colored the issue in the sort of muted palette you’d expect from dystopia, but their work didn’t stand out for me one way or the other.
It’s probably fruitless to evaluate this issue in terms of the traditional Justice League setup, because this is expressly not that. (Heck, I’m not sure DC has much interest anymore in an old-school all-star rotating-roster League, but that’s a post for another day.) Part of me thought this series would turn out like Fantastic Four 2099, where a Byrne-era trip through the Negative Zone resulted in carbon-copies of the FF popping out in a future world while the originals went on in the present unawares. However, this isn’t merely an heroic group of Justice Leaguers having to deal with a strange new situation far from home. It’s that plus the dysfunction, plus the backstory of their cloning, plus the Ariel-vs.-the twins subplot, and it’s presented with a minimum of jocularity. Occasionally a bit of the old JLI dialogue rhythms come through, but for the most part JL3K takes itself pretty seriously. I think this could have come out from any other publisher, with all the DC-specific elements disguised thinly, and it wouldn’t have been much different.
Naturally, then, the difference is that these folks are supposed to be the Justice League, or as close as future-tech can get. That means acting like the Leaguers were supposed to act. In other words, this won’t be a series about recruiting future-Hawkman or future-Firestorm. It’ll be about the guy who calls himself Superman learning to act like Superman. That might not be the most original concept, but it’s an optimistic (and not unreasonable) extrapolation of a downbeat first issue. I just wish I didn’t have to make the extrapolation myself.