Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Same Shit, Different Universe: The DC Reboot Goes Live

Justice League #1
by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee

I wasn't going to buy this comic. In fact, when I was in the funnybook store last Wednesday, I gave it a quick flip-through and put it back on the rack. Sure, I'm curious about the DC Reboot (of which this is the very first comic), but not curious enough to buy books I don't think I'm going to enjoy. I'm not generally a fan of either Geoff Johns or Jim Lee, and nothing I saw in my once-over convinced me that I needed to give it a shot. So back on the rack it went.

But then... Then I got into a discussion of the book on-line, started spouting opinions about it, and decided that, if I was gonna do all that, I should buy the damn thing and actually read it. As it turns out, my flip-through gave me a pretty accurate picture of the issue, but since I went and spent four bucks on the thing, I figure I might as well give it a more thorough working-over here.

Not that I hated the book once I read it. To be honest, I thought it was a perfectly okay (but only okay) example of 21st Century super-heroics. It's not something I'd normally spend money on, but in concept, if not execution, I found it to be a good start for a longer, more in-depth look at the Justice League's origins. Which is to say, I had my usual problems with Johns' script and Lee's art, but I liked the ideas quite a bit. This is a raw, new world we're dealing with here, one with lots of room to grow, and that's pretty exciting. In fact... The first page tells us that this story is set "five years ago," but I really wish all the books were going to be set in this era. There's more conflict, and the young heroes have interesting character flaws their more experienced selves will no doubt have shed.

Which brings us to the first DC fanboy bone of contention with the issue. It mostly focuses on the first meeting between Batman and Green Lantern, and they don't get along all that well. Batman is stand-offish, very much the seasoned pro annoyed by an enthusiastic amateur, while Green Lantern is an over-confident jock. This page pretty much sums the relationship up:

And that seems pretty much right on the money to me for these guys at this point in their careers. I mean, my one complaint about this aspect of the issue is that it's too tame. To my eye, it plays out a little too much like a PG-rated version of Frank Miller's All-Star Batman and Robin. PG-rated, and more boring. In comparison to Miller's tongue-planted-firmly-in-the-goddamn-bat-cheek approach, Justice League #1 reads kinda like your dad's super hero comic. Which is something I'd assume that DC would really rather avoid with this youth-oriented reboot. But maybe they made a wise choice there in terms of their current core audience; based on the reviews I've been reading, conflict and character flaws don't fly in the Fanboy Nation.

Neither does the slightest whiff of pacing, apparently. This opening origin story is planned for six chapters, which seems to me ample time to gather the team and get things going. But because this first chapter is mostly set-up, because we don't see the entire Justice League arrayed against Darkseid by the end of issue one, it's been hit with the decompression bat all over the funnybook interweb. But those guys use "decompression" the same way Republicans use "liberal": as a mindless, all-damning short-hand attack. Also like the Republicans, they've turned a perfectly good word describing a valid philosophy into a slur. But I ain't having it! So screw you guys! Is Justice League #1 decompressed? You bet your ass it is! Say it loud! Say it proud!


All that said... While the issue is decompressed, I'd also argue that it's not a very good example of the style. Decompression, as originally defined by Warren Ellis, allows the artwork to breathe, to tell the story in the more cinematic tradition of Japanese manga. It also slows down the pace a bit so that decompressed comics aren't just about getting from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, but also about character and dialogue that are entertaining in their own right, apart from their service to the plot. But those aren't things that Geoff Johns is really very good at.

His dialogue is serviceable, to be sure. Workmanlike, but a bit wooden. While it seldom makes me groan outright, it also never sings, never actually entertains me in and of itself. Likewise, his character work never surprises or delights me. It's not that he's unskilled in that department; in this issue, for instance, he gets across Batman's annoyance and Green Lantern's cockiness without anyone ever actually saying that they are those things. But there's never that moment of sudden revelation with Johns that you get with guys like Morrison or Fraction, that moment where a character is unexpectedly laid bare by a single action or statement. No, Johns is solid, dependable, and ultimately... a little boring when it comes to character and dialogue. And boring's not gonna cut it when you're slowing the pace down specifically so you can focus on those things.

Of course, he's also slowing the pace down to allow Jim Lee to strut his stuff. But Lee suffers from what may be the opposite problem: he's all flash. He moves the camera around well, I'll give him that, and he's good at drawing motion. I'm not a fan of his basic drawing style, but that's a matter of personal taste. His panel-to-panel storytelling, however, is a less subjective thing, and leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than take the extra space afforded him to engage in carefully-choreographed chase and fight scenes, or experimenting with his layouts so that the talky bits look more interesting, he just gives us lots of big panels and splash pages with at best generic (and at worst confusing) staging.

In this issue, for instance, there's a scene in which the main bad guy (which appears to be one of Darkseid's Para-Demons) transforms from something humanoid into a four-legged robotic insect thing. Pretty cool, huh? Well, it might be, except that Lee opted not to draw that transformation. One panel, he's a hulking alien dude...

...and the next he's a bug-bot...

click to embiggen

...with only a clumsy line of exposition from Green Lantern to tell us that it's the same guy.

Actually, now that I've scanned that in and seen it blown up... There is a blurry figure over to the right of the panel that has to be the Para-Demon in humanoid form. But he's so small and ill-defined that on the printed page, he blends into the flaming background. There are also some speed lines connected to the bug form, but they don't track back to the humanoid figure, perhaps because once again they disappear into that mess of a background Lee's slapped up there. And still, the only sign of the transformation itself is (maybe?) that bit of armor plate falling to the ground under the bug. So it's not a poor storytelling choice like I thought, but actual piss-poor storytelling itself that's on display here.

And look again at that top picture of the Para-Demon. Could Lee have made that shot of Batman shooting his grappling hook through a guy's leg any less dynamic? I mean, think about that. This is a picture. Of Batman. Shooting his freaking grappling hook. THROUGH! A guy's LEG! But the scene lacks any sense of impact, and is confined to a comparatively small panel. Green Lantern flying a jet made of ring energy over a high school football game, meanwhile, gets half a page and some pretty dynamic camera work. Which makes that a poor storytelling choice coupled with a complete lack of dramatic ability. Kudos!

And then there's stuff like this from a few pages earlier:

click to embiggen ... if you must.

What, exactly, is going on here? Did the still-pursuing cops (who appear and disappear from this sequence with convenient regularity) hit Batman and the Para-Demon with some kind of incendiary grenade? Did Batman set off something from his utility belt? Or did the Para-Demon somehow manage to breathe fire out of his chest instead of his mouth, as we've seen earlier in the issue? I have no freaking idea, because the only set-up we get for that panel is one where the bad guy's eye is glowing. And, hell. The only actual fire in that scene is in the sound effects font. Without that, it would just look like he turned on a spotlight in his chest and forced Batman to recoil from his ambient glow.

Bah, I say! Bah! This is not the kind of art job you turn in on the flagship book of a major publishing initiative.

But I think everything Lee's done here is kind of half-assed. His redesigns on the League characters, for instance, look dated right out of the box. Bryan Hitch's designs on Authority and the Ultimates look more modern, and they're ten years old at this point! But Lee's working from a design aesthetic that's twenty years old, and it doesn't look any better now than it did when he actually was the kind of young turk DC's press has been making him out to be of late. I'm not necessarily against super hero body armor, mind you (except on Superman, who's strangely a lot more bad-ass when he takes bullets to the chest while wearing nothing but a leotard). But Lee's not drawing body armor. He's drawing the same old "painted-on" super hero spandex with some random lines drawn on it to make it look like it's supposed to be armor. But it doesn't. It looks like... spandex with some random lines drawn on it! Seriously! Look at this crap:

click to embiggen

The man's taken a collection of classic costumes with classic lines and made them needlessly busy to no visible good effect. I think I'd have been happier if he'd just started from scratch. I mean, hell. When Ben 10 looks cooler and more modern than you, you've seriously gotta give your role as "face of the youth market" some second thoughts.

Seriously... That's some bad-ass design work!

Of course, that's my biggest problem with the book as a whole: it doesn't take enough chances. It's not crazy, or funny, or weird, or even all that freaking imaginative. Never once did this book "wow" me. There's not a single page, panel, or plot element that excited me. Not a single line of dialogue that earned more than a polite chuckle. I was never more than mildly entertained by it, and that's not a good thing for a book that's supposed to excite interest and launch a massive line-wide reboot. In spite of the new world we're dealing with, and the possibilities it offers, the execution made it feel like bog-standard super hero schlock. Funnybooks as usual. And that's just sad.

Grade: C


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