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Brad Meltzer’s Run on Justice League – The Lightning Saga (Review/Retrospective)

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” This week I’ll be taking a look at Brad Meltzer’s impact on the DC universe. This is a crossover with Geoff Johns’ second run on Justice Society of America.

I can’t help but feel like having Brad Meltzer write this Justice League was a huge waste of what could have been a very impressive run. After all, Meltzer is a big novelist, and turning his attention to DC was a big deal at the time. More than that, though, it seemed like a move that could have pushed the Justice League very much to the fore. Imagine a team of DC’s most iconic properties, helmed by a respected and successful author, and sold outside of comic book stores. Imagine the trade paperback possibilities – I imagine there’s potential to get a Brad Meltzer Justice League book into the hands of somebody who has never read comic books before, and that’s got to be a win. Indeed, the book seems to acknowledge that by advertising a foreword by Patton Oswalt on the front page – it screams “mainstream! mainstream!” Unfortunately, though, it’s the only aspect of this crossover that does, leaving me with only a faint taste of what might have been. It’s not that it’s bad – it’s that it could have been so much better.

The whole trinity...

Think about it for a second. You have this big-time writer working on a fairly big book set in your fictional universe. This book features Batman and Superman, the two biggest superheroes in the world, and two icons recognised the world over. It also features a bunch of reasonably recognisable characters like the Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. It seems to me that you’d use the opportunity to tell big and sweeping stories that would be completely accessible to new readers. Instead, Meltzer does a promising enough set up arc with The Tornado’s Path, albeit one with too much heavy reliance on continuity and history, and then ties into a crossover with a bunch of old heroes most people outside of comics don’t know about a third bunch of heroes mot people don’t know, to resurrect a hero that a few people might recognise, but didn’t know was gone.

The Lightning Saga feels like an editorially-mandated book – one written with two key objectives to accomplish. The first is to restore the continuity of the much-tangled Legion of Superheroes, and the second is to resurrect Wally West. Both represents bits of continuity house-keeping that are probably fascinating to the nerdier readers out there, but have very little place in a high-profile relaunch. More than that, Wally would soon be replaced by Barry Allen following Final Crisis, rendering the miniseries’ climax somewhat moot. And DC’s massive relaunch after Flashpoint would arguably have provided a better opportunity to smooth out these problems.

Bruce always was a chessmaster...

It’s a similar problem to the one I had with Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers. I want to read about these big name heroes doing impossibly cool and iconic stuff. I don’t want to read the mundane administrative management of their fictional universe. It’s no wonder that comics have difficulty attracting new readers, because the big titles aren’t accessible. The only way I was able to pick up superhero continuity myself was through careful research and planning. I couldn’t just jump on – which any reader should be able to do with ease. This is a problem with most superhero comics, so it seems unfair to single Meltzer’s Justice League out, but it is nuts that the writer’s short tenure was forced to bow to editorial whim.

Arguably things would get even worse after Meltzer left. He was succeeded by Dwayne McDuffie, who wrote Justice League Unlimited, perhaps the definitive version of DC’s superteam. McDuffie found himself even more tightly bound to the demands of the fictional universe, with certain cast members pushed in and pulled out with little or no notice, and to tip his hat to all manner of pointless and inane events and deadlines. That the man who helped craft one of the best portraits of the group should find his tenure manged so poorly is a massive tragedy, and I suspect that it robbed us of a potentially wonderful run. However, we are not here to discuss McDuffie’s run. We’re here to finish Meltzer’s brief time writing the title.

Pleasing legions of fans...

So, aside from the fundamental editorial mismanagement of the series, how does Meltzer manage? Surprisingly, he does quite well. It’s not a bad read, once you consider all demands made of it – but it isn’t an exceptional read either. Meltzer works quite well with Johns. In fact, I think both writers are quite similar in their approaches to the comic book icons, crafting a decidedly human approach to the icons who occupy the DC pantheon, while still casting them in relatively conventional superhero narratives.

Indeed, I quite like the way that Johns’ opening chapter of this volume of Justice Society of America so skilfully mirrored Meltzer’s introduction of his own Justice League, with character carefully selected candidates for membership of the organisation. It’s a nice touch that helps this crossover seem a bit smoother in retrospect – illustrating that the two books were very clearly on the same path. So Meltzer and Johns play remarkably well off each other, producing one of the smoothest inter-title crossovers that I’ve seen in quite a while.

Date with Destiny?

Indeed, one might argue that this is more Johns’ adventure than Meltzer’s. After all, the entire purpose of the crossover is to resurrect Wally West, the character Johns wrote for so long on The Flash, and to restore the continuity of The Legion of Superheroes, the first in a trilogy of books by Johns tackling the characters. (The other two are, of course, Superman & The Legion of Superheroes and Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds.) As such, Meltzer almost feels like a passenger, but you get the sense that he is at least enjoying the ride. After all, The Tornado’s Path illustrated that Meltzer is a fan of his DC continuity.

Indeed, even when free of The Lightning Saga, you can sense Meltzer’s fascination with DC’s long and complex history. While Walls and Monitor Duty are remarkably solid stand-alone character studies, allowing Meltzer to explore some of the diverse character he has brought together, there’s always a sense of history. Indeed, the collection ends with Meltzer’s Justice League #0, a book documenting the “past, present & future”of the League. As you might imagine, it’s steeped in continuity – not only referencing stories that have been told, but various alternate futures.

The weight of the world...

It’s frustrating, because the book really should be more accessible. After all, it seems like Meltzer barely had an opportunity to put his own mark on the title, telling one full story arc, a crossover and a couple of stand-alone tales, none of which really add up to too much in the grand scheme of things. It’s especially frustrating because there are some great ideas in here, some clever takes on existing characters and concepts, but none of them are fully developed or wrapped up. Lex Luthor’s revenge against Black Lightning is one plot thread it might have been nice to see Meltzer close out, or even dealing with the aftermath of Wally West’s return (or the foreshadowing of Barry’s eventual return).

Indeed, Justice League #0 is fascinating not because of the complex continuity involved (tying back to stories like Tower of Babel, Justice League: Detroit and Justice League International), but because it provides an ideological companion to Meltzer’s own Identity Crisis. We see the long and shared history of these characters rendered not as a series of distinct characterisations by multiple teams on multiple books, but as a long-developed character arc. Meltzer suggests, as he did in that miniseries, that the Silver Age was just as dangerous and complex as the modern era of comics, it was just obscured a bit better.

He'd like to come and meet you, but he thinks he'd blow your mind...

I find it fascinating that Meltzer delegates the task of enunciating that idea to Wonder Woman. She’s the one member of the Trinity that Meltzer actually spends relatively little time writing. He has a distinct voice for Superman and for Batman, but Wonder Woman was largely absent from Identity Crisis (save, for some strange reason, a small scene and a reference to her breasts), so it doesn’t feel like the author has put his mark on her in the same way he has for Batman or Superman. Still, it’s Wonder Woman who shatters Bruce’s delusions about the nature of the League. I find it deliciously ironic that Bruce, of all people, should be so overly optimistic and naive, but it fits with Meltzer’s characterisation. “That’s the cost of battle, Bruce,” she suggests. “You of all people know that one. Now, I’m sorry if that ruins the utopia you’ve built up here–“

Meltzer’s characterisation of Wonder Woman (or lack thereof) is a little frustrating because it robs a little bit of narrative power from a later scene, set in the wake of Tower of Babel, where Batman was revealed to have secret plans to take down each of the League members. Both Bruce and Wonder Woman have reversed their positions, with Bruce adopting a more cynical perspective, while Wonder Woman lays into him. Of course, Meltzer characterises this as character development for Bruce, but he can’t seem to be bothered to construct a similar arc for Wonder Woman. “What happened to you, Bruce?” she asks. “Now you’re just a bully. Always something to prove… ever since Jason.”

Superman sees right through her...

In contrast, Meltzer does some solid work with Bruce, similar to what he did with the history of the Justice League writing Identity Crisis. He attempts to contextualise Bruce’s characterisation within the history of the fictional universe. Bruce didn’t act differently at different times because different writers handled him differently, Meltzer suggests – he retroactively grafts a character arc on to the character. In a way, it reminds me of Morrison’s work on Batman, trying to explain away those Silver Age adventures like Robin Dies at Dawn.

Meltzer’s Batman is still a bit of a dick, even if he has pulled back a bit from the extremes during the nineties. Indeed, Meltzer does some solid work piecing the relationship between Bruce and Clark back together, in the wake of the damage Frank Miller did to it in The Dark Knight Returns. There’s still a hint of rivalry there (“how I love proving Clark wrong,” Bruce observes sarcastically at one point), but they are still very dear friends. Indeed, Meltzer flashes back to the aftermath of “that first day.” When Batman is a bit cagey about the League, Superman observes, “At first, I assumed he was just being protective of our friendship.”

Boy are their faces red...

Of course, Batman has had a whole array of different characterisations over the years, and Meltzer (and Johns) use them as a window to explore various views on the DC Universe. An early chapter of The Lightning Saga sees Batman fighting various alternate versions of himself, all darker and edgier. Notable among the different iterations of the Caped Crusader are the Kelley Jones’ Batman: Vampire and Frank Miller’s hulking, older Batman.

That Justice Society issue arguably provides some of Geoff Johns’ best writing of Batman, refuting the idea that (in the wake of Green Lantern: Rebirth), Johns didn’t have a handle on the character. Indeed, Johns pretty heavily references Grant Morrison’s celebrated Arkham Asylum. “I saw you, Batman,” Sandman confesses as if having picked up the best-selling graphic novel. “Torn to shreds inside those walls.” Batman is quick to pick up on who Starman is referencing, another foe from that book. “A Doctor with no face. Starman’s talking about Doctor Destiny.” Johns does a nice job tying together a broad and unlikely amount of DC history, even daring to draw in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, anchoring Dreamgirl to “the Dreaming”from that series.

Stars in their eyes...

Returning to the idea of other versions of Batman, one of the alternate futures visited by Meltzer sees Superman and Wonder Woman reflecting on the aftermath of something quite like The Dark Knight Returns. “He hated me in the end,” Clark muses. Indeed, there are echoes of various alternatives that must be curtailed. As dark as Identity Crisis was, you could sense Meltzer trying to acknowledge the darkness in modern comics to pull back from the abyss. There’s the same sort of idea here, as you can see the writers trying to lighten the DC universe just a little bit – and to acknowledge what it must never be. In The Lightning Saga, Starman admits to visiting the world of Kingdom Come (another future alluded to in Justice League #0). He offers a curt summary, “No one liked each other very much there!” Reviewing the new League with Aquaman, J’onn remarks on their team work, as if to imply they now have something lacking from earlier iterations. He observes, “No infighting, no sniping, no bickering.”

All of these add up to some very interesting mission statements, but they are very unsatisfying as a comic book run. It feels like the start of a manifesto, as if Meltzer was just developing his themes, and never got a chance to follow through. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind picking up Dwayne McDuffie’s run, if I hadn’t heard how terribly he’d been curtailed by editorial. It’s a shame, because the raw material for a great book can be found here. In fact, I’d suggest that Meltzer’s run is as conceptually fascinating as Grant Morrison’s Justice League run, but Meltzer simply doesn’t develop those concepts and ideas well, and is too tied to editorial mandate.

Flight of fancy...

Ah well. It’s an okay run, but the problem is that it should have been something truly special.

If you liked this, you might like our other reviews of Brad Meltzer’s stories featuring the Justice League:

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