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Absolute Justice

They’ve lost their power. And I’m not talking about magic genie-rings or batarangs. I’m speaking about their real power. You don’t need them anymore.

– Lex Luthor discusses superheroes

Are superheroes redundant? In many ways, they’ve formed the basis of an American mythology in the twentieth century – many fo the classical superheroes represent a pantheon of gods not unlike the Greek or the Roman conception of the same. This is particularly true of DC’s panel of major superheroes, who may as well sit atop Olympus looking down on humanity. However, the past few decades haven’t necessarily been kind to the notion of the superhero – increasingly deconstructed and darkened and shaded and compromised beyond any similarity to their original status – and you’d be forgiven for wondering whether the genre has passed its sell-by date. This is the question at the core of Justice, the twelve-part maxi-series by Alex Ross and Jim Kreuger.

A league of their own?

The core premise of the series has the world’s supervillians turning over a new leaf. These doctors and scientists and strange men with freeze guns decide to use their powers for good. Instead of evil robots, they build replacement limbs for landmine victims. Instead of fear toxins, they cure blindness. Instead of engaging in countless pointless superhero battles, they create an oasis in the middle of the desert. At the sametime, a mysterious force strikes at the heart of the Justice League, tearing it apart from the inside out. And so we begin.

Of course, Justice is both more and less than the sum of its parts. In the supplemental material collected here, Alex Ross suggests it is “a love letter to a fictional universe, attempting to do justice to its inspiration”. It is, on one level, unashamed hackery. Ross and Kreuger are having such fun playing with all their favourite toys (just try to name all the characters appearing in the novel, it’ll take you years) that you can almost forgive the series its success. It devolves into a jumbled mess in its third act, seemingly unable to balance all the characters it needs to, but by then the story has made its point.

It’s interesting how the two giants of comic books – Marvel and DC – have approached the subject of recrafting their own comprehensive mythologies. Marvel, for example, created the “Ultimate” line – effectively starting with a blank slate and telling the myth anew. Of course, the problem with a simple reimagining and reproduction is that it often duplicates the errors of what it is attempting to streamline. So, over a decade, Marvel has built up a second comic book universe that is now almost as muddled and complicated as the original stories it was attempting to retell.

On the other hand, DC has launched the “All-Star” line. It hasn’t quite taken off in the same way as the “Ultimate” line, but that’s arguable because it’s a different beast. There’s no worries about continuity or convoluted decades of plotting or origins in this line of publishing. Instead, the goal of the line is to simply allow writers to craft a single story which captures the essence of the characters without the burden of continuity. Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman does this for the big blue boyscout, perfectly condensing the core of the character into twelve issues. Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman? Notsomuch.

Why do I bring this up? Because although Justice does not officially bear the title, it may as well be All-Star Justice League. It attempts to offer the myth of the Justice League from scratch, drawing from a million-and-one different directions – not just the continuity-heavy comics. The collection of bad guys assembled will instantly call to mind the “Legion of Doom” from the campy seventies cartoon Super Friends (itself namechecked by the Joker at one point). Superman references the interview with Lois from Richard Donner’s Superman. Batman calls Alfred “old friend”, which calls to mind “old chum”. This is a composite version of the characters, one built from their massive impact on collective pop consciousness and condensed down into a single twelve-issue series.

Brainiac's insurance premiums were about to go through the roof...

Don’t you want to see me fly her?

We’re not kids any more. We have things to do.

– Hal and Jim Jordan put away childish things

Have we outgrown superheroes? Is the concept an inherently childish fantasy which has passed its sell-by date? Kreuger and Ross both accept the question as valid, and seem to offer a knowing shrug in response. These superheroes, they suggest, are a childish fantasy that we allow ourselves – a part of our consciousness which, I suppose, never really grows up. Sure, they’re silly and inherently inconsequential, but they only truly become pointless when we try (and fail) to render them somehow more mature and grown up.

Ross is a fan of this conception of superheroes, having worked with Mark Waid on Kingdom Come, a reaction to the false maturity the genre attempted to inject into itself during the grim and gritty nineties (an era know to fans of the medium as the dark age). Attempts to “grow up” comics only really serve to make them seem more immature. There is some comfort to be had in the idea that they accept their inherent irrelevence and hokeyness – and maybe even that they embrace it.

The series’ response to the threat rendered against the superheroes (and many of these threats are insideous), is simple: protect them with armour. “Some of it will be alien,” Dr. Magnus explains, “some mythic, and some organic.” Perhaps that is what protects them in our popular consciousness as well. The allure of the alien, the leagcy of the mythic and the organic knot which ties it all together.

Hal was seeing red...

In many ways, the series is an exploration of the relationship between heroes and villains. It suggests the inherent similarity – “every villian is the hero of their own story,” as the supplementary material suggests – but also the fundamental differences. It is not the actions which define character – the villains may heal the sick, create food and fight poverty, but they are still villains. The difference, Ross and Kreuger suggest, is something far more fundamental: it’s the core of their character. “I just wanted the money,” Capatain Cold confesses when confronted. The whole operation is put at risk because Scarecrow “wanted to get tricky” while playing with the heroes. On the other hand, as Captain Marvel watches Dr. Sirvana tortured, he observes “this is my greatest enemy. I could not bear to see him like this.”

The story, interestingly enough, sets itself up as a commentary of the trials and tribulations of this particular set of characters during “the dark age”, if you’ll indulge my pretention in using that term. Situations strangely mirror the pitfalls that befell (at least some of) this set of characters during that period. The grim-and-gritty long-haired-and-bearded hook-for-a-hand Aquaman that populated the Peter David run in his own comic (and Grant Morrison’s run on Justice League) resulted from his failure to protect his son from Black Manta. Here, the drama plays itself out again, as Black Manta steals Arthur Jnr. History repeats itself. How things might have been. As a side note, Ross seems to acknowledge that Aquaman has arguably had a tougher time than most of his counterparts – he hasn’t always had the best stories or been properly used by his writers. As if to comment on this, Dr. Caulder observes that, “He really is a man of untapped potential.”

Eye see you...

There are also some obcious reflections in the story of Green Lantern pesented here. Again, the nineties were not kind to Hal Jordan. The destruction of his city as a consequence of a thorwaway plot during the whole Death of Superman dealio left him scarred, to the point where he attempted to use his ring to rebuild the city from scratch (it’s no coincidence he does the same here). When he was told that this was not allowed, he went on a rampage, killing his former friends as a genocidal madman named Parallax. Recently, he was returned to the mainstream DC Universe in the miniseries Green Lantern: Rebirth, as a symbol that this era of darkness was over. Accounting for his genocidal actions, it was suggested that he had been “infected” by fear.

Here Hal find himself trapped inside his own ring, building his own city to live in, but unable to embue his creations with free will or anything like it. He is sternly warned of the dangers of a world “you try to remake with your own will”. He’s “beyond the capacity to panic or be afraid. And that’s not a good thing.” There’s a grim irony when, as the only hero immune to the parasites infecting the other League members, we’re assured that “Hal Jordan’s the only one of the League that needn’t be concerned about contamination.”

It’s a fun and well-constructed story – at least for the first two thirds. The problem is that it just descends into a huge and complicated fight scene in the last few chapters – and, with so many characters to keep track of, it isn’t necessarily the easiest to follow. That said, the series’ hokeyness is endearing. Despite the presence of “bubble cities” and microscopic worms and Aquaman riding a sea horse, it never really feels particularly corny. Ross and Kreuger seem to have set out to demonstrate that the weird and surreal aspects of the fifties and sixties do not go hand-in-hand with poor storytelling. It’s stunning how well they can use these Silver Age story concepts.

In many ways, the story works much better as a concept than it does as an actual narrative. It’s a fun exploration of superheroes and the weird balance of silliness and seriousness with which we treat them. The story doesn’t always work on its own merits – in fact, if falls down on it’s own problems – but it has enough ideas and insight to carry it across the finish line.

Alex Ross provides the art here. I realise he’s pretty take-him or leave-him, but I adore his stunning watercolours (which really look so much better on page than on screen). He does suffer from oversaturation (providing alternative covers for this, that and the other, month after month), but his artwork is beautiful and justifies the oversized format. It’s great fun to look for all the detail and easter eggs in his scenes (particularly his fight scenes), although I’ll accept that his work sometimes borders on cluttered or “too busy”.

Justice is good. It’s a lot better as a concept than it is in execution, but it’s bristling with smart ideas and witty observations. It’s pretty much comic book nostalgia printed on oversized pages and served in a snazzy slipcase, so if that’s what you’re looking for it should suit your purpose. It isn’t an instant classic, though – I think it’s just too messy – but it’s still mostly great fun.

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2 Responses

  1. Hal certainly saw a darker turn the past twenty years. It’s no wonder some opted to use other Lanterns for the film, but Jordan won out.

    • Yep, I think he’s finally back on track. I think that the wonderful thing about DC is that so many of their characters are wonderful metaphors for the genre – they all carry the same sorts of scars of the medium as it has gone up and down and tastes have fluctuated. Marvel don’t have that, really. Wolverine is still as popular (or at least as prolific) as he was during the grim and gritty era, rather than standing as a stand-in for it.

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