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Justice League: The Nail (Review)

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

What would comics look like without Superman? The character is so iconic and influential and omnipresent that it’s a fun thought experiment to take him out of the DC universe and watch the narrative threads unravel. Alan Davis is a pretty incredible artist. He’s done great work with writers like Mike W. Barr (on an underrated Detective Comics run) and Chris Claremont (on Excalibur). However, he may not have been the best choice to write this three-part Justice League of America Elseworld. It’s a great concept, but the execution leaves a little to be desired.

Is somebody missing?

Is somebody missing?

There are – of course – any number of artists who can write good comic books. Darwyn Cooke comes to mind, as does Jack Kirby and even Frank Miller at the height of his popularity. However, writing is not something that anybody can do, and there has been a trend in modern comics of allowing high-profile artists to write high-profile books with a minimum of oversight or engagement. It’s not to suggest that Davis or these artists don’t have the capacity to tell good stories. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that skill needs to be honed before these talents are given high-profile writing assignments.

This trend really began with the artist fad in the nineties, when it seemed like artists like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld were directing the plotting of many of the more popular books at Marvel. More recently, DC comics have come to rely rather heavily on their artistic talent. Tony S. Daniel was drafted in to write the Batman book after Grant Morrison moved on to Batman & Robin. He has remained a major contributor to the “new 52.” Rob Liefeld seemed to be directing a significant portion of the line at one point. This September, Andy Kubert will be writing the high-profile Joker one-shot.

A flying start...

A flying start…

These are all high-profile books. The best artists have a great grasp of storytelling, but that storytelling is best harnessed with a writer who knows what they are doing. The Nail isn’t a bad book, and Alan Davis isn’t a bad writer. However, he is a spectacular artist with a great story hook, one which winds up getting bogged down in contrived and convoluted plotting and structuring. There’s a wealth of great material in The Nail, but the book never feels as good as it should. The ends are a little too frayed, the set-ups a little too contrived, the dialogue a little too forced.

One gets the sense that Alan Davis might have had a great deal of fun had DC paired him with a young writer working at the company in the late nineties. Imagining how Mark Waid or Grant Morrison or Mark Millar might have tightened up the premise and punched up the script is an exciting thought. There’s a reason that Alex Ross is most fondly associated with Kingdom Come or Marvels, because those stories paired an artist with an obvious affection for the source material and some great ideas with two storytellers who know how to make those ingredients work for them.

He's just going through a phase...

He’s just going through a phase…

Still, The Nail is what it is. Speculating about what it might have been is pointless. It’s just a bit frustrating because it comes so very close to greatness, brimming with clever ideas and fantastic concepts, but rather clumsy in execution. What would the DC universe look like without Superman? It’s a wonderful premise, because Superman is so essential to DC. The only character who can rival Superman’s influence is Batman. Even then, Superman has the distinction of really codifying what a superhero is.

We define other heroes by reference to Superman. Batman is a superhero with powers, rather than Superman being a superhero with powers. Superman’s core abilities (flight, speed, strength, invulnerability) represent the most basic superhero power combination. His seal is instantly recognisable across the world. Without Superman, there would be no superheroes. He created the genre, and he remains one of the most significant characters in the comic book medium.

It was always going to end like this...

It was always going to end like this…

He’s one of the few ever-green characters, a character who endured and survived – lasting through the dark days after the Second World War and thriving in the Silver Age. He didn’t need to be reinvented like the Flash or the Green Lantern. He provides a link to DC’s past. He’s a link to the masked adventurers of the thirties and forties, the “costumed Patriots who symbolised the heroic ideal and protected us from the nation’s enemies. But when that enemy was defeated, they remained among us.” And that was in a large part due to Superman.

Davis obviously has a deep affection for the character. And his storytelling sensibilities are anchored in the Silver Age, which probably won’t be a surprise to anybody who fondly recalls his Detective Comics work with Mike W. Barr, which featured brainwashing and giant pool and other gimmicks reimagined for the eighties. Reading The Nail, Davis seems to make the case that Superman, as a character, was most important at the shift away from Silver Age ideals.

I'm detecting a slight Silver Age bias...

I’m detecting a slight Silver Age bias…

It seems like, according to Davis, Superman was most needed at the point where the comic books shifted away from the giddy silliness of the fifties and sixties and into more cynical and grounded concerns. Davis’ character designs are very clearly intended to emulate the Silver Age. Hal Jordan and Barry Allen are Green Lantern and the Flash, despite the fact both were “dead” at the time this comic was published. (In fact, the idea of Hal Jordan leading the Justice League may have seemed absurd to readers familiar with his spectacular fall from grace in Emerald Twilight.)

Star Sapphire wears her (relatively) conservative sixties outfit, and Selina Kyle even dresses up as Batwoman in the gaudy yellow as well. Davis even indulges in a rake of Silver Age nostalgia. The Joker even refers to “Bratgirl and the Boy Blunder.” Early on, we bask in the goofiness of Jimmy Olsen’s absurd transformations. There’s a lot of “supervillain flirts with supervillainess”, lots of cameos from characters most firmly associated with the era, and colourist Patricia Mulvihill opts for a brought colour palette to set the mood for the tale.

I love how batman even sits dramatically during Justice League meetings...

I love how batman even sits dramatically during Justice League meetings…

However, we’re very clearly on the edge of something a bit darker. The Joker takes control of Arkham Asylum and insists that Batman come inside to face him, recalling Grant Morrison’s superb (and haunting) Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. Once inside, things get quite dark, as the Joker uses his new-found power to torture, kill and disfigure Batman’s sidekicks. Catwoman is infuriated. “You sick maniac! They were children.” The confrontation ends with Batman killing the Joker, the only logical conclusion of a confrontation like that, one which symbolises that the part is over.

It’s interesting that Davis chooses to inflict this psychological torture on Bruce Wayne. Batman was the character most impacted by the shift towards cynicism in modern comic books. The Dark Knight Returns postulated a world where the death of Robin had made Bruce insane. Later, DC made that somewhat literal with A Death in the Family. Batgirl herself was crippled in The Killing Joke. Batman became more brooding, more sinister, more isolated in the wake of a string of nineties events that probably should have driven him around the bend.

A wing and prayer...

A wing and prayer…

Here, Davis suggests the death of Robin and the loss of Batgirl wouldn’t make Bruce more ruthless or cause him to lose touch with his humanity. Instead, those losses break Bruce. They drive him inside himself, past the point of no return. Bruce realises that he can’t live for vengeance. He needs to fight for hope. It’s a nice character beat which touches on Grant Morrison’s approach to the character, and his conscious attempt to move away from “grimdark” Batman.

(That said, as an example of how Davis has good ideas but stumbles on the execution, the scene where Catwoman tries to stir Bruce to action by dressing in Robin’s old costume is more creepy than touching – not least of which because I can’t figure out if Davis is riffing on The Seduction of the Innocent by having Bruce’s lover cosplay as his teen sidekick. When the pair do passionately kiss later on, Davis takes her out of Robin’s short-shorts, so there is some very weird symbolism at play here.)

Yellow did look so good on him...

Yellow did look so good on him…

It’s appropriate then, with Alan Davis suggesting that Superman’s absence would make the transition from the Silver Age into the nihilistic nineties all the more painful, that The Nail casts Jimmy Olsen as the villain of the piece. Olsen is seething with all the pent-up entitled and resentful bitterness of an over-eager fanboy. “Seems like anyone can be your side-kick, except Jimmy,” he goads Batman. “You thought Elastic Lad was a joke. Let’s see who has the last laugh.” He’s the Silver Age gone sour, grown up into a spiteful young adult with a teen temper tantrum that threatens to destroy the world.

Without the fun of the Silver Age Superman, the absurd goofiness and optimistic world view that he represented (even in the midst of “super-dickery”), this is what you end up with. A twisted a gnarled a vicious attempt at “grim ‘n’ gritty” (but really just bitter adolescent) power fantasies. “We should have been friends,” Jimmy Olsen confesses to Kal-El at the climax of the story, and it’s clear that Davis is using Superman as a stand-in for the invulnerable, silly and quite charming ideals of the Silver Age.

Cutting a dashing figure...

Cutting a dashing figure…

During the nineties, I suspect that quite a few fans wished that the goofiness of the Silver Age would just go away so that comics could go about “growing up” into a collection of grim nihilistic nonsense. Comics is serious business and all that. Superman is perhaps the very embodiment of the optimistic spirit of the Silver Age, dressed in bright primary colours, practically invulnerable and absolutely moral.

(Again, Davis’ good ideas hit a bit of a stumbling block in execution. We discover that Kal-El has been living a peaceful life in an Amish community, where he was taught not to interfere with the outside world. It’s an interesting hook, until Jimmy Olsen conveniently vapourises the guy’s Amish parents, provoking a typical superhero blowout. At which point the dead parents are forgotten when Supes hooks up with the Kents.

Talk about a smackdown...

Talk about a smackdown…

It might have been more effective to have Superman uphold his adoptive parents’ ideals, and simply withstand an endure Jimmy Olsen’s childish tantrum. After all, Olsen’s power was fading anyway, and he dies of natural causes. As such, Superman’s ability to take his punishment and his abuse, and to simply endure by virtue of being Superman might have offered a particularly inspiring take on the character. It would also work better if we knew his adoptive parents as more than a superhero origin waiting to happen.)

Davis also hits upon the idea that Superman is, despite his origin, the most “human” of superheroes. Without him, the Justice League is defined as a bunch of outsiders and freaks. Aquaman and Wonder Woman are ambassadors, Hawkgirl and the Martian Manhunter are aliens, Batman is thought to be a demon, Flash is a freak and Green Lantern is an ubermensch enforcing alien law on Earth. Superman, despite being an alien, is somehow able to transcend that and assure the people of the world that he is one of them. He is the team’s humanity.

Under the sea...

Under the sea…

It’s not a radical idea, but Davis handles it reasonably well, putting an emphasis on the public’s xenophobia, and fear of anything deemed “alien.” It’s telling that the threat here is ultimately Kryptonian in nature, and Jimmy Olsen is genetically engineered into “a true Kryptonian… with the power and knowledge to rebuild Krypton here on Earth.” The implication is that Superman’s not a “true” Kryptonian. He’s more human than alien. When Jimmy finally meets him, he doesn’t understand how somebody with Superman’s power could not want to conquer the world. “Aw, c’mon, Kal… This primitive species is unworthy of your emotional affiliation.”

Perhaps the key is in the way that Superman shows his true face to the people of Earth. He walks amongst them as Clark Kent, hidden behind glasses, but Clark’s experience of humanity (something the other mask-less members of the League like Aquaman or Wonder Woman cannot emulate) bleeds through into Superman. His face assures people that they can trust him. Indeed, Wonder Woman explicitly argues that the Legue needs a more human face. “But masked anonymity can be used to characterise us as vigilantes and monsters. It is not enough for us to vanquish evil. We must be untainted symbols of good to inspire humanity.”

Ghul-ish intent...

Ghul-ish intent…

The Nail is packed with great ideas about what makes Superman so important and so essential to the DC universe, but it suffers from a lack of clarity, and its somewhat muddled storytelling structure. Davis has some pretty great ideas, but the execution is awkward and lacking in finesse. The Nail could have been a classic Justice League or Superman story. Instead, it feels like a half-formed one.

 

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