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Brad Meltzer’s Run on Justice League – The Tornado’s Path (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.

Justice League has always been a bit of a funny little book. The concept is so straight-forward that you’d imagine it would be quite difficult to muck up. After all, it’s a series about DC’s most powerful and iconic heroes teaming up to do impossibly cool stuff and to look good while doing it. DC has been doing this long enough to have an idea of what works on the title and what doesn’t. While Justice League International has its fans, it’s hard to argue that the appeal of the Justice League wasn’t encapsulated by Grant Morrison’s hugely successful nineties run. As such, putting the big characters back on the title shouldn’t seem like a big event of itself – it should be the default setting. So it always seems to me a bit strange when DC relaunch the series with a big name writer and the iconic line-up, only for editorial to inevitably screw things up down the line.

Team photo...

Brad Meltzer is one of those writers who came from outside comics. He’d written Identity Crisis, a crossover that had a massive impact on the wider DC universe, retroactively attacking the wacky Silver Age, and insinuating that the adventures of the superheroes had always been as dark and gritty as they were now, even if we didn’t realise it. The series was divisive, but represented a significant step on the road towards finding a balance between serious peril and light-hearted superhero fun. Geoff Johns wrote the follow-up miniseries Infinite Crisis, and Brad Meltzer was picked to relaunch the Justice League title in the wake of that big event.

The relaunch seems like part of an editorial attempt to place the series at the centre of the DC universe. You can always gauge a writer’s influence by their Justice League line-up. Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns were able to insist on an a-list line-up for their tenure on the title, while James Robinson and Dwayne McDuffie were forced to watch as editorial hijacked their runs and confiscated their characters at short notice, truncating character arcs and basically crippling the book. If you ever needed an argument that a shared universe continuity undermines good writers, Justice League provides a fairly strong case.

Team-up time?

Meltzer was granted a high-profile team. He was allowed the “big three” – Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. He was also afforded the recently-resurrected Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. He had Hawkgirl, and Black Canary, and Green Arrow’s son. That’s not a bad basis for a superhero team. Of course, the writer tempered these more obvious choices with his own relatively “minor” picks, affording a higher profile to characters like Vixen or Black Lightening, giving both a platform to launch them. I’ve always thought that mingling lesser-known heroes with the big names was the best way to promote them, and it’s a strategy that Meltzer adopts.

Like Morrison, Meltzer makes it clear that the Justice League is a high-profile team that affords a status to its members. He plays up the ceremony, with characters handing out certificates to one another, collecting trophies and assigning goofy-sounding “case names” that happen to correspond to the name of the arc. While Morrison argued that the Justice League served as the pantheon of the DC universe, Meltzer instead treats them as standard-bearer. He makes it clear that an invitation to the team denotes a hero of the highest quality.

A straight arrow?

“She’s a Teen Titan,” Bruce dismisses Firehawk. “Not a Leaguer.” Speaking about Firestorm, Bruce soundly trashes the idea that the League should function as some sort of “hero development centre” or anything like that, insisting, “Not until he gets experience. No more tryouts.” It’s an honour to receive an invitation. Of Nightwing, Superman explains, “We should honour him, Bruce.” As an aside, given Geoff Johns’ relaunched Justice League, I found it quite amusing that Cyborg is “an easy yes” for membership.

However, I admit to being somewhat surprised at just how much of a continuity nut Meltzer is. I would have imagined that a run by a successful author from outside the medium would have been written so as to be accessible to non-fans, but The Tornado’s Path is steeped in DC history and continuity, to the point where even I had a bit of bother identifying everybody involved in the scheme. Still, there’s an affection for history there, and Meltzer seems to concede that the Justice League should “feel” natural, rather than functioning a manufactured organisation. After all, all of the big three’s debating and planning turns out to be pointless as the League just sort of forms anyway.

Hawkgirl! Smash!

“So that’s what you settled on?” Bruce asks Black Lightning, as if disappointed that he’s put in long hours on the selection process with Superman and Wonder Woman. “Inviting whoever happened to be there with Amazo and Grundy? Doesn’t that seem a little… simplistic?” In fairness, Meltzer seems to concede, the concept of the Justice League should be simplistic. It’s not rocket science, despite how often DC seems to get it wrong. This is a version of the League steeped in history and tradition. “Starro,” Black Lightning observes. “It always starts with Starro.” Yes, it certainly does.

Of course, Meltzer suggests that the Justice League isn’t really the official body with the paperwork and the satellite and the hall of justice, as much as those things are cool and interesting. To Meltzer, the Justice League is the wider superhero community itself, as if fashioned from the fabric of the shared DC universe. “It always takes a bit to collect the pieces,” Kathy explains, looking at the Red Tornado’s limp form. “And even when there’s no League, the League does it.” Even if they’ve officially disbanded, the community still looks out for its own. They don’t stop being heroes just because they haven’t put the infra-structure in place. It’s a nice idea, and one I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of. What would a Justice Leaguecomic look like without an actual League body in it? I think it would be fascinating to see.

Beyond Mr. Impossible...

Meltzer continues his work on the reconstruction of the DC universe in the wake of events like Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, a clear attempt to move the heroes back towards being heroes – rather than being a bunch of paranoid and selfish jerks with their own agendas. In particular, Batman seems to be the character who has undergone the greatest amount of “softening”, as Grant Morrison’s run on Batman tried to pull him back from the “extreme” characterisation of the nineties, as a “psychotic loner.” There were definite elements of that attempt to mellow Batman in Identity Crisis, as Meltzer portrayed the character divorced from his fellow heroes, but as a loving father to Tim Drake.

Here we see Meltzer’s continued softening of the character. Indeed, Superman makes a telling observation about Batman’s desire to include Captain Marvel in the League, commenting, “Bruce won’t say it, but I can see from the way he’s staring at the photo. He wants the Captain because he’s good. Not just a good fighter. Truly good.” Indeed, it seems like Superman has a very close relationship and understanding of Bruce, itself a fascinating attempt to pull back from the mutual dislike that Frank Miller established in The Dark Knight Returns and which bled into regular comics. “Bruce set this up?” Black Lightning asks as he tours the trophy room. “He’s starting to get sentimental.” Superman replies by pointing out Bruce keeps a giant coin in the Batcave, acknowledging he has always been sentimental. Indeed, he has already framed his invitation to join the team.

Photo ops...

That said, there are still elements of mistrust. After all, Meltzer doesn’t want to completely remove the drama from the major superheroes, but just pull it back from the edge of the abyss. “Bruce, do you realise that every person we look at, the only consideration you weigh is whether you personally trust them?” Superman points out, prompting an acerbic response from Bruce, “And that’s any different from Diana voting for who we need tactically… or you voting for who you think is nice?” Bruce might be far more trusting than he once was, but that doesn’t mean the three can’t see each other’s flaws – but this time they try to balance them.

Still, Meltzer does latch on to one interesting piece of characterisation established by Geoff Johns in Green Lantern: Rebirth – specifically the rivalry between Bruce and Hal. “Why didn’t they send Hal for me?” Bruce asks on receiving his invitation. Black Lightning replies, “Truthfully…? Because they wanted you to say yes.” When Superman and Wonder Woman point out that Hal is their friend, Bruce rather bitterly clarifies, “He was our friend.”

Continuity corner!

I’ve actually liked that revision to their relationship as a nice bit of character logic from Johns. After all, Bruce and Hal are diametrically opposed. Both are mere mortals, human beings without any inherent superpowers. However, Hal became a superhero through “being chosen”, while Batman had to work hard and train for years before he was ready. It’s rare that Bruce Wayne seems less of an entitled individual than another superhero, but  can see why he might mistrust Hal. And, of course, there’s the wonderful “fear” thing. I also like how Batman discusses Kyle and John as suitable replacements, but doesn’t mention Guy.

Still, beyond the superb characterisation and solid conceptual grounding, I admit that I’m less certain of Meltzer’s League. As I alluded to above, I tend to dislike continuity-for-the-sake-of-continuity, and this book feels like that at times. After all, The Tornado’s Path sees the team facing a gauntlet of old foes in a scheme to take control of the Red Tornado’s body. It’s a good idea, and there are some great concepts there, but Meltzer seems to be trying to fit in as many old villains as possible, without pausing to identify or explain them. The reveal of the ultimate villain is more than a bit clumsy, and it seems like we’re being treated to a familiar fight against Amazo towards the end.

The winds of change...

Meltzer repeatedly uses old comic book images. At times, he gets artist Ed Benes to channel that sort of Silver Age style, but he does also use actual images from those classic comic books. I don’t mind too much, but I’ve always felt that history should serve the story being told and vice versa. It seems counter-intuitive to relaunch a flagship title with a successful author and then trap it inside such a rigid continuity. It might have been nice to set up the villains before revealing them, or to flesh them out a bit, rather than introducing them as “it’s Amazo! you know Amazo!” Something similar to how Geoff Johns handles established villains in his work on titles like The Flash or Green Lantern.

Meltzer’s continuity isn’t all bad. After all, the series makes sense as a continuation of his themes from Identity Crisis, and Red Arrow’s character arc is flashed out with cleverly-positioned flashback panels, so that everything necessary to follow the plot can be deduced from the book. There’s no sense that a new reader is missing a key part of Red Arrow’s arc because they lack an intimate knowledge of DC’s massive shared history, which is where I think continuity becomes cumbersome.

Inviting trouble...

Still, there are some clever uses of old concepts. I particularly like the kind of noir supervillain sub-culture the author crafts both here and in Identity Crisis, with villains using their powers for banal evil – the Parasite charging to “power down” villains, for example. In a sequence that perhaps inspired one of the nicer scenes in The Dark Knight, Black Lightning observes that his contact is “one of Bruce’s lunatics” who “used to be addicted to Scarecrow gas.” Stuff like that is clever enough to keep me reading.

I enjoyed Brad Meltzer’s Justice League, even if I wasn’t convinced by the author’s heavy reliance on continuity. Given that his next arc involves The Legion of Superheroes, I should probably be worried.

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

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