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Geoff Johns’ (and Jim Lee’s) Run on Justice League – The Villain’s Journey (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

This should be the defining Justice League book of the 21st century. Geoff Johns is something of a DC comics super star, a writer who has worked on all manner of major and minor DC characters, and helped shaped the fictional universe for the better part of a decade. Jim Lee defined the look of DC comics, particularly with the revamped “new 52” character designs. He’s a super star artist who produces iconic superhero images. So pairing the two up on DC’s flagship book, relaunched as part of a line-wide initiative, should be something to watch. If Johns can turn Green Lantern into one of DC’s biggest franchises, imagine what he could do here.

However, their first six-issue arc, Origin, seemed troubled. It was a decently entertaining big-budget blockbuster of a comic book arc, but it didn’t really provide a clear vision of these characters and their world. New Frontier, for example, remains a more thoughtful and introspective origin story for the team of DC’s most iconic heroes.

The Villain’s Journey improves a great deal on Origin, but it’s still deeply flawed, with a sense that Johns and Lee are struggling under the weight of having to make these characters “relevant” to the modern world.

He knows how to make an entrance...

He knows how to make an entrance…

In the earlier chapters collected here, it seems like Johns and Lee are trying too hard to emulate The Ultimates. Written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Bryan Hitch a decade ago, The Ultimates took Marvel’s most iconic superheroes and placed them in a modern political context. It was bold and daring stuff, an original look at a familiar concept. It went on to be a major influence on the big-screen Marvel Cinematic Universe. So one can understand why Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, both holding senior positions in DC Entertainment, might want to emulate that book.

The Ultimates was cynical. It explored the ramifications of an all-American team of super-heroes in a politically complex world. It was radical and subversive and brilliant. It remains one of the most accessible and exciting comic books ever published. Anybody looking to start reading comic books would be well-suited to start there. However, there are reasons that Millar’s approach worked for Marvel in 2002, and why the same concept won’t work for DC comics in 2012.

A straight arrow...

A straight arrow…

Quite frankly, it feels old-hat. It was challenging when Millar wrote The Ultimates, because it was completely unlike anything else in comics. Indeed, the work of writers like Mark Millar and Warren Ellis has been picked apart and re-conceptualised and re-imagined quite a bit in the years since. So the “political cynicism” of The Villain’s Journey feels a little bit too outdated. It’s like watching an elderly relative drop words like “radical” into a conversation to try to seem cool.

To be fair, it’s clear that Johns isn’t as cynical about superheroes as Millar was. It’s clear that he firmly believes that superheroes should be figures of fantasy and that they don’t lend themselves to deconstruction or as political commentary. His long list of previous work – including Flash and Booster Gold – supports this. However, much of The Villain’s Journey is dedicated to trying to pick apart the Justice League as a concept, and it’s immediately clear that Johns’ heart simply isn’t in it.

Ghosts of the past...

Ghosts of the past…

His attempts to write criticism of the League falls flat because they are just absurd. It seems like he’s trying to pick apart the idea that superheroes can work best as a political metaphor, but it feels too clumsy. “Why don’t they do your job?” one reporter challenges Steve Trevor after the team becomes popular. “The government’s job. I’m betting the seven of them could put their heads together and fix our economy and balance the budget you guys have blown.”

“None of that’s exactly in their wheelhouse,” Trevor replies, and he’s entirely right. The idea is absurd. However, it would seem a bit disingenuous to assume that because superheroes can’t be used as a metaphor for balancing the budget that comics should remain completely disengaged from reality. What if the reporter had suggested cutting defence spending because of the protection the League offers? What if they were used as a metaphor for the political uncertainty of the War on Terror instead of the fiscal crisis?

A League of their own...

A League of their own…

Indeed, if you want to tell a great superhero story about the fiscal crisis, I’m not sure it’s as ridiculous as Johns suggests. Gail Simone is currently attempting it with The Movement, but I think that superheroes can work well as a metaphor for the establishment. Catching white collar criminals is less glamorous than drug dealers or terrorists, but they cause as much damage and destruction as thieves and vandals.

Grant Morrison using this angle in his Action Comics run, giving us a version of Superman who wasn’t afraid to fight the financial crisis in his own way. Using superheroes as a way to explore the current economic crisis does not mean that we get six issues of Batman sitting behind a desk filing paperwork. (Although, to be honest, I would love to see Batman starring in a House of Cards type show.) Johns’ attempts at smug dismissal don’t resonate.

A breakout hit...

A breakout hit…

And they are particularly frustrating because we spend so much time with Trevor being characterised as a lame Nick Fury stand-in. He provides oversight from the American government and answers to Congressmen. There’s an interesting conversation where Trevor suggests that the United States government should be afraid of even telling the Justice League that they don’t trust these meta-humans. It’s an interesting point, but it feels a bit hallow.

We know that Johns is bluffing. If the American government did tell the League that they didn’t trust them, it isn’t as if Superman and Green Lantern would storm Washington D.C. It’s a toothless threat, and a shallow attempt to suggest nuance and sophistication. There’s nothing wrong with optimism and hope and trust, but the problem with Johns’ Justice League is that it seems afraid to acknowledge these virtues. You can write a bright and cheerful Justice League, but Johns seems almost afraid to do so.

Stepping up to bat...

Stepping up to bat…

So we get lip-service to cynicism. Johns suggests that the Justice League are reckless. He even casts Batman in the role of “uncool team dad.” He sternly advises Green Lantern, “We could’ve done it cleaner. Less property damage. Less risk.” And yet, despite that warning, the worst thing the Justice League does in The Villain’s Journey is commit a PR error. There are no lives lost because of their recklessness or arrogance or disengagement. Even Graves’ vendetta against them for failing to save his family is portrayed as ridiculous and absurd.

Johns flirts with ideas he’s unwilling or unable to commit to inside the company’s flagship book. There are suggestions that this version of the Justice League might be somehow disconnected from humanity. “They’re polite, if not a bit dismissive, when interacting with any of us down here,” one congressman complains. Does their satellite represent a detachment from humanity? Is it possible that these heroes might be turning into the “Overpeople” from Alan Moore’s wonderful Swamp Thing cameo? Nah, it’s nothing that a nice conversation can’t conveniently solve.

They're trained for this...

They’re trained for this…

And that’s the biggest problem with Johns’ and Lee’s Justice League. Still, there are signs of recovery. I like that the team seems to be working together quite well, and particularly that Johns is suggesting a shared history between several members. There’s a sense that some of these people might even be friends outside of office hours, which does a lot to humanise them as characters. “Got lunch plans?” Bruce texts Clark, as Lois ignores him – suggesting a bromance is brewing.

It is a nice change after The Dark Knight Returns established the pair as reluctant allies rather than true friends. “Superman and I work together outside of this team,” Batman admits at a meeting, laying the groundwork for a relaunched Superman/Batman book. I have to admit, I like a rivalry between Batman and Superman, but it is good to suggest that they are friends and that they don’t secretly hate (or resent) one another or anything as dramatic as that.

Talk about sucking the fun out of everything...

Talk about sucking the fun out of everything…

Similarly, it’s fun to see the Flash and Green Lantern teaming up together. One of the nicer little touches of The Villain’s Journey is the way that Johns contrasts and compares the origins of these characters, suggesting shared common ground or even granting each a little insight as an individual. I like the idea that the Flash and Green Lantern are established as an “opposite attracts” dynamic, with Hal being arrested and Barry being a cop. Barry’s attempt to play “bad cop” is one of the highlights of the book. (I also like the idea that Batman and Superman get on because they can be completely open with one another about who they are.)

I also like the suggestion that Aquaman is angling to be a major player here. Johns is doing a pretty great job with the character in Aquaman, so it’s no surprise that he can handle the character here. Vying for command of the League makes sense, particularly if we’re going to credibly buy him as King of Atlantis. “I lead an entire continent,” he assures Batman. I’m actually quite excited that Justice League will be tying in with Aquaman for Throne of Atlantis.

Still in the shadows...

Still in the shadows…

Similarly, it’s nice to see Johns pushing Cyborg towards the front of the book. There’s some solid character work here, including the none-too-subtle suggestion that Vic might actually be dead, and that the Cyborg might just be a robot making play at being alive. It gives the character a pretty solid existential crisis.

At the same time, there are a few problems. Johns does a good job with Superman, Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman. He is solid enough with Batman. However, he seems to have real problems with Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. That last part is particularly strange, as Johns is largely responsible for the current popularity of the Green Lantern brand. However, as written by Johns in a team dynamic, Green Lantern comes across as the reckless and sexist one.

Bursting his bubble...

Bursting his bubble…

Johns’ Hal Jordan is not even “playfully” sexist, as much as one can be “playfully sexist.” He seems to genuinely resent Wonder Woman’s place on the team. “I hate being saved by Wonder Woman,” he admits under the lasso of truth, in a way – it seems to imply – that he doesn’t resent being saved by Superman or Batman. When Barry messes up his “bad cop” routine, Green Lantern isn’t angry at Barry’s poor attempt to intimidate the suspect. He resents having to call Wonder Woman for help. “Great. Now we gotta call her.”

I don’t know if writing Green Lantern in a team setting is forcing Johns to exaggerate these qualities or what, but it is very hard to like his version of Hal Jordan. He implies that Jordan’s attitude here comes from the fact the normally deals with larger threats in outer space. “Being with the League is a vacation compared to my time with the Green Lantern Corps!” he advises Wonder Woman at one point.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Johns’ Wonder Woman is also problematic. To be fair, she’ s a character who has posed a lot of trouble to a lot of writers. Brad Meltzer’s high-profile Justice League also had trouble with her. She’s the only member of the League he hasn’t written for an extended period before, and it shows. There’s also a sense that Johns is having a bit of bother reconciling Brian Azzerallo’s superb Wonder Woman with the demands of a shared universe. The sum of Johns’ take on Wonder Woman as a character seems to amount to little more than: she likes to stab and kill things. Which feels remarkably shallow.

Chasing down the villain “Spore”, Cyborg notes that he is divorced. “And he was abusive,” Cyborg adds. Wonder Woman replies, “Then I’m ready to hit him.” Really? During a brief couple-page crossover with Night of the Owls, Superman notes that the Talons don’t seem to be alive. “They’re monsters then?” Wonder Woman asks. “So no arguments about the sword.” When it comes to Graves, her plan of action is also very reliant on the stabbing. “I’m going to find him — I’m going to cut off his head — and going to bring Steve home.”

Still a little green...

Still a little green…

This feels absurdly one-dimensional, a gross exaggeration from the “Wonder Woman is willing to kill” plot point in Infinite Crisis. Somewhere along the line it seems to have been a bit distorted and became “Wonder Woman likes to kill.” That said, Johns doesn’t seem to have any other character hook for her. One suspects that part of the reason for the big “power couple” union at the end of this book is because Johns really needed another angle for her. “Superman’s girlfriend” is hardly the ideal way to write Wonder Woman, but at least it might add a second dimension to “likes violence.”

Still, there are signs that Johns might be getting a firmer grip on the book. While constant references to other books (like Batman’s name-dropping of “the Others” or Etta Candy’s mention of “Team 7”) are a bit distracting, I like the sense that Johns is giving us a shared superhero history. There are plot points set up here which seem to hint at long-term plotting from Johns. What was the deal with the Martian Manhunter? While the Green Arrow issue is just one big attempt to foreshadow Justice League of America, it does suggest that Johns has a mid- to long-term plan for the book.

Kneel before Graves doesn't have quite the same ring to it...

Kneel before Graves doesn’t have quite the same ring to it…

While Graves is shallow and two-dimensional when he is set up as a tool to deconstruct the Justice League, because Johns clearly doesn’t want to deconstruct the Justice League, there are moments when the character seems to channel some of Johns’ earlier and stronger villains. “I’m helping you,” he assures the team, recalling the characterisation of the Reverse Flash from Johns’ run. He suggests (perhaps even speaking for Johns) that Wonder Woman is a problematic character because she isn’t in touch with humanity. “She needed to experience a human loss,” he tells the team.

That said, the whole thing feels rather shallow. The story with the evil ghosts and “undermining” the Justice League eats up four issues. Grant Morrison’s Justice League could easily have told it in two. It wouldn’t be a problem if Johns used the space well, but we never get a sense that Graves is undermining or exploiting the flaws in the League. Yes, he goes after Steve Trevor. Yes, Wonder Woman beats up Green Lantern. But really, how was the fact that knew the Justice League essential to the plot?

A dead droid...

A dead droid…

How would this story have played out differently if he wasn’t just a crazy bad guy with an axe to grind? Much is made of the fact that he wrote the book on the Justice League, but he doesn’t turn them against one another. He doesn’t come close. When the characters are tormented by their demons at the climax of the story, those demons aren’t relying on Graves’ intimate knowledge of their victims.

The ghosts themselves never really feel thematically relevant. Are they supposed to be a metaphor for the old continuity? Literal ghosts of the past? Are Superman and Batman breaking free from these visions supposed to represent the way that the “DCnU” has broken free of the constraints of past continuity? It’s never made clear, and as a result it just feels like a story about the Justice League beating up ghosts which goes on an issue or two too long.

One bad experience Mars their relationship...

One bad experience Mars their relationship…

Johns does need to up his game. Justice League needs some bigger and more impressive foes, and some better hooks. It would be a much stronger book if Johns dropped the half-hearted cynicism and just embraced the idea of cool people hanging out together and having fun doing impossible things. All this stuff about PR and congress meetings feels too trite and too tired at this point, not least of which because Johns seems about convinced of it as the reader.

Jim Lee didn’t stay around too long. This collection marks the end of his collaboration with Johns on the title, and he couldn’t even manage twelve consecutive issues. Still, it’s nice that the superstar artist could help launch the title, with his commitments to other aspects of DC comics. It still feels like a bit of a waste of his talents. Outside of drawing Darkseid in Origin, there’s no real epic conflict here, no grand villain, no jaw-dropping spectacle.

Heavy lifting...

Heavy lifting…

Unlike, say, Jeph Loeb’s Hush, there’s nothing in this run of issues which demanded artwork from one of the defining comic book artists of his generation. Since Lee is unlikely to return to the book in the near future, it seems like a waste of what should have been one of the defining creative partnerships of the “new 52.” When you compare the work that Johns and Lee did on Justice League to the skill of Snyder and Capullo and BatmanJustice League looks even more unimpressive.

Still, it’s getting better, I suppose.

5 Responses

  1. True: extremely underwhelming. It seemed like they were trying to mimic The Ultimates without really knowing what made that series so good.
    I also never understood Johns’ appeal; he is a decent writer, but has done nothing to convince me that he should be DC’s number 1 guy. I don’t understand why he is considered so great.

    • I actually like Johns. I think he gets superhero narratives in a very formulaic sort of way – he understands the story mechanics of conventional superhero stories. He knows this type of story quite well – or he seems to, on his good days. I love his Green Lantern and his first Flash run, even if I can agree that he has had some misfires along the way. (His second Flash run is the most obvious, and arguably his second JSA run.) It’s easy for other writers to build off his template or to continue in his vein or to play into his over-arching plot. He’s also quite good across the board. His work on Action Comics, Booster Gold or even Hawkman might not have been exceptional, but he can writer across a broad variety of characters in the universe, which should – in theory – make him a good fit for Justice League.

      There are stronger writers out there, but I think Johns is ideally suited to rise to the top. Morrison has stronger ideas, but we know that other writers stumble trying to understand Morrison’s plans, let alone play into them. Snyder is very good at a particular type of superhero story, but I’m not convinced he’s good at archetypal or broad DC stuff. Brian Azzarello works best left alone to his own devices. There are lots of great younger talent, but I think that directing a shared universe requires a different skillset than writing a comic, if that makes sense.

      • Darren, I think if you generally like Johns, this book gets much better. I don’t know if you’ve reviewed Aquaman yet, but Throne of Atlantis is a 180 in quality.

        Geoff Johns definitely has a lot of strengths that make him perfect for writing DC superheroes. He can boil them down to basic themes and metaphors, which makes them easy to identify with. His characters will generally always have something interesting going on, and his villains are outstanding (Sinestro, Flash Rogues). He often lacks subtlety, but honestly that’s okay in a genre where we have villains called Dr. Doom.

        So with that said Justice League should be an ideal book for him, where he can do bombastic blockbusters with good character moments…kind of like Joss Whedon’s Avengers, but in a serial narrative. That’s why the first year of JL disappointed me greatly. But I’m more optimistic now.

  2. Yeah, “Throne of Atlantis” is the turning point of the run so far.

    The second year of John’s League is definitely stronger and it’s been firing on all cylinders as we’re knee deep in “Trinity War”.

    • I’m kinda looking forward to Trinity War, if only because it’s been so long since DC have done a big event. I’m not a huge fan of large-scale events, and I think they over-saturate the market, but I like that DC have been restricting that since the relaunch. If we have to have events, I prefer something on the scale of Night of the Owls or the Wrath of the First Lantern.

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