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Geoff Johns’ Run on Justice League – Throne of Atlantis (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Geoff Johns on Justice League should be one of the defining superhero comic books of the twenty-first century.

After all, Johns has done a lot to define DC over the past decade or so. Johns is one of the defining voices in superhero comics. He has enjoyed long and successful runs on iconic characters. His work sells well and has generally garnered positive reviews over the course of his career. Johns knows how to “centre” a character and to help cut to their core. 52 is generally regarded as a high watermark of twenty-first century DC comics, and Johns is the only one of the four authors still consistently working at DC comics.

Everybody out of the water!

Everybody out of the water!

So putting Geoff Johns on Justice League is a no-brainer. Indeed, many fans had been expecting a high-profile run from Geoff Johns on the title long before the “new 52” relaunch. Given Johns’ successful runs on Action Comics, Green Lantern and The Flash, writing all of these characters together should be a recipe for success. When it was announced that writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee would be handling the relaunched Justice League title, it seemed like a veritable worldbeater of a title.

In sales terms, Johns’ Justice League remains a success. However, it has been less satisfying from a creative standpoint. Artist Jim Lee departed the book after a year – with several fill-in artists along the way. However, even with DC drafting Ivan Reis to replace Lee, Justice League is not as satisfying as it should be. There are lots of reasons for this, but the biggest problem with Johns’ Justice League is that it always seems so fixated on what is happening next that it never appreciates the moment.

She really sweeps him off his feet...

She really sweeps him off his feet…

In many respects, Brian Bendis’ New Avengers is the very clear inspiration for Johns’ work on Justice League. This isn’t the worst idea, given the success of New Avengers. Bendis very cleverly tied New Avengers into the heart of the Marvel universe, creating a sense of continuity whereby New Avengers was the tissue that connected massive crossovers like House of M, Civil War, Secret Invasion or Siege.

While Bendis very clearly had his own ideas about the characters, there was a sense that the book existed in service of these larger events. This very much feels like it is the case with Johns’ Justice League. So much of the book feels like it exists to further editorial agenda or to build hype or momentum, rather than to tell interesting or compelling stories. There’s a sense that Johns is working very hard to make Justice League feel like the “spine” of the new relaunched DC universe.

A cheetah never changes his spots, eh?

A cheetah never changes his spots, eh?

There are quite a few examples. This section of the run opens with kiss between Superman and Wonder Woman, an event which caused no shortage of hype and even launched the Superman/Wonder Woman book. So it’s a plot point and character dynamic that won’t remain native or focal to Justice League for long. It’s not a point introduced because it feels important to Johns’ larger story.

Similarly, Throne of Atlantis exists as a crossover between Justice League and Aquaman. DC does deserve some measure of credit for avoiding large universe-altering crossovers for the first couple of years of the “new 52.” However, they did compensate in a number of ways. Within the Batman line, Scott Snyder’s story arcs typically prompted “tie-ins” from the other books. Outside the Batman line, smaller intertwined crossovers like Rotworld became popular.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Throne of Atlantis is a story told in chapters alternating between Justice League and Aquaman. Much has been made of the similarities between DC’s “new 52” relaunch and the nineties comic book market. For example, Scott Lobdell and Rob Liefeld were among the major contributors to the relaunch; the house art style seems inspired by nineties aesthetics. Similarly, Throne of Atlantis cannot help but evoke the style of crossover that was popularised by the X-Men line from the eighties into the nineties.

The logic behind this sort of crossover makes sense. The idea is that readers following one book will try another and then be convinced to keep following it. It is an effective piece of cross-promotion. More than that, crossing over directly with Aquaman serves as a demonstration of how far the character has come. It validates Johns’ reinvention of the character. Aquaman tying his own book into a crossover that requires the whole Justice League is proof that he’s kind of a big deal.

The sound of thunder...

The sound of thunder…

However, this creates a sense that Justice League is a utilitarian book. It doesn’t exist because there are good stories to be told, it exists to service the wider DC universe. After all, Johns’ opening arc, Origin, served to provide back story for the entire “new 52”, while The Villain’s Journey set various pieces in motion that would become important later on. Throne of Atlantis sets up Superman/Wonder Woman and supports Aquaman. Then the book pushes into Trinity War and then Forever Evil.

This is a relentless pace of hype-building and cross-promotion, one that feels exhausting. Looking at Johns’ first two years of Justice League, it is very hard to find anything that belongs exclusively to the book – something that isn’t building towards something else, or tying into another book, or moving in a very clear direction. There is very little sense of Justice League as a book that could exist independent of the wider DC universe. To be fair, this is a legitimate and logical approach. It just isn’t very satisfying.

I never realised Batman was a Monty Python fan...

I never realised Batman was a Monty Python fan…

To be fair to Johns, there are small moments of character that shine through. After all, Johns has written quite heavily for most of these characters; he has an understanding of how they work and how they interact. For example, the flirtation between Superman and Wonder Woman does allow Johns to explain why Superman doesn’t wear a mask. “I’d rather good people trust me than bad people fear me,” he explains, a nice bit of character work that doesn’t fall into the stereotypical “Clark Kent is the mask” territory.

It also allows Johns to quite effectively underscore one of the smaller recurring character beats of his Justice League run, the question of how these demi-gods and the people they save relate to one another. Johns repeatedly suggests that the public fear superheroes who are disconnected from the real world, while making a point to stress that the members of the Justice League are more a part of that world than people realise.

"Hold on! Bruce here loves Cat-women!"

“Hold on! Bruce here loves Cat-women!”

Asked how he can so effectively keep up a simple pretence, Superman responds, “I don’t think people ever consider that we–“ Wonder Woman finishes the thought for him, “–hide among them?” It is a nice reference to one the great ideas from John Byrne’s controversial Superman reboot, where he suggested that the only reason Luthor had not deduced Superman’s identity was because he couldn’t understand why Superman would pretend to be somebody as unimportant as Clark Kent.

Throne of Atlantis alludes to this quite heavily. Confronting his brother, Orm seems surprised that Arthur has not declared himself king of the surface world. “If you aren’t ruling them… then what have you been doing?” he ponders. When Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman materialise, Orm asks, “Are these three your rulers?” There is a strong anxiety running through Johns’ Justice League about the power held by these individuals, even if this is well-worn ground for superhero comics.

American beauty...

American beauty…

One of the historical issues facing the Justice League – as opposed to The Avengers – is the idea that DC characters are more archetypes than characters. As a rule, the members of the Justice League (with the exception of Batman) are not as flawed or as “human” as their counterparts at Marvel. It seems like one of the objects of the “new 52” has been to correct this issue, to make these characters seem more human and relatable.

The problem is that the power held by these characters makes their screw-ups a bigger deal. When Captain America makes a mistake, a few people die. When a Green Lantern makes a bad call, an entire planet might be lost. This is one of the difficulties with the “new 52.” It has to strike a balance between dysfunctional and complex superheroes, while still created a world where these characters exist as heroic figures.

... and this was the last time that Batman packed a fish-finger sandwich for lunch on his days out with the Justice League.

… and this was the last time that Batman packed a fish-finger sandwich for lunch on his days out with the Justice League.

To be fair to Johns, he does work quite hard to try to turn this difficulty to his advantage. Over the course of his Justice League run, he works hard to reinforce the idea that these characters exist relatively alone and isolated. Their powers and their responsibilities enforce a distance that even Clark Kent’s glasses cannot cross. At the climax of Throne of Atlantis, Aquaman confesses, “I was as happy as you to discover I had a brother, Orm. To feel like I wasn’t so alone. But I am alone. That’s the life of a true leader.”

However, Johns seems to suggest that the Justice League itself exists as a support network, to prevent these characters from ever getting too disconnected or too isolated. The Flash is able to relate to Cyborg as a human being, in a way that a regular human being might not. As they embark on a relationship with each other, Superman and Wonder Woman find a partner strong enough to defend themselves, and experienced enough to understand the life they lead.

Jumping into action...

Jumping into action…

Talking about his sense of isolation, Aquaman reflects that he felt truly alone in the world “until Darkseid came and the Justice League was founded. It gave me a place to go.” Cyborg is dealing with the loss of his humanity by living in the Justice League satellite and watching movies. In a way, this is perhaps Geoff Johns’ Silver Age optimism shining through – the idea that the Justice League is some sort of cool treehouse club for superheroes to just be themselves.

The idea that individual problems become group problems serves as a recurring motif. In Throne of Atlantis, Aquaman discovers that he can count on the Justice League to support him. “Atlantis is my responsibility,” Arthur insists. Batman responds, “But a war with Atlantis isn’t. It’s the responsibility of all of us.” Superman convinces Wonder Woman to let them assist her. “The cheetah is my problem, not yours,” she argues, but Superman suggests that one member’s problems become a group problem.

Flash reaction...

Flash reaction…

This is a very effective way of dealing with what might otherwise be a problem with the Justice League title. Emphasising the humanity of the relationships between the heroes allows the book to feel a bit more character-orientated than it might be otherwise. Of course, problems arise when telling this sort of story while using Justice League to drive continuity. In the context of Justice League, without access to Superman’s supporting cast, a relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman makes sense.

However, outside of the context of Justice League, it weakens both characters. There’s a paradox at play. The relationship serves to make Superman feel more human in the context of Justice League – after all, Superman clearly just wants a healthy and loving relationship and has found somebody with whom he can have that. However, it does make him seem more inhuman in the context of his own books – he is dating another god-like figure while still inhabiting a world of powerless humans. It’s a tough balance.

King Arthur...

King Arthur…

Speaking of Wonder Woman, it is interesting to try and reconcile Geoff Johns’ vision of Wonder Woman with the version presented in Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s on-going Wonder Woman book. Azzarello and Chiang effective reinvented Diana, re-building her mythology almost entirely. They gave her a supporting cast of primarily new characters, re-worked her origin, and shifted her world. One of the highlights of the “new 52”, Wonder Woman does not feel like a superhero book.

However, this puts Johns in an awkward position with Justice League. He is writing a very different version of the character, and there’s a sense that he feels the need to build up and define a more traditional approach to Diana than the version available in her own book. So, for example, we get a two-issue story reintroducing iconic Wonder Woman baddie, the Cheetah. This is very much an old-fashioned Wonder Woman character, and the story stresses the traditional back story and origin.

Under the sea, under the sea...

Under the sea, under the sea…

“You are as naive as the day we met,” the Cheetah taunts, as the two argue over humanity’s capacity for goodness. “Humanity are not sheep to shepherd,” the Cheetah advises, making reference to Wonder Woman’s iconic origin as an ambassador to the wider world, to show humanity the way. More than that, there’s a sense that Johns is trying to build up a back story and supporting cast for Wonder Woman that might exist beyond Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman, identifying the Cheetah as “the first friend Diana ever made.”

This feels like conscious world-building for Diana, for material that doesn’t fit within Azzarello’s vision of the character. That is perfectly fine, of course – as long as it leaves Azzarello free to tell the story that he wants to tell. At the same time, Johns does seem a little awkward with Wonder Woman. She is the only character on the team that Johns has not written extensively outside of the main Justice League book. Charles Soule does a much better job with defining “traditional superhero Wonder Woman” in Superman/Wonder Woman, which perhaps gives Johns a bit more freedom.

An explosive entrance...

An explosive entrance…

Johns also includes a number of shout-outs and references to the previous continuity. As soon as it becomes clear that this is an organised attack on the surface world, Aquaman is horrified. “My God, they’re following the Atlantean War Plans,” he utters. “How do you know that?” Batman asks. Aquaman responds, “Because I wrote them.” The way that Aquaman never warned the League, and that his plans are harnessed against them cannot help but evoke Bruce’s character arc in Tower of Babel.

Indeed, Thorn of Atlantis even finds room to make a sly reference to the oft-maligned Wonder Woman story arc Amazons Attack. As the fantastical nation state of one member attacks the United States, Wonder Woman reflects, “If it was the Amazons coming ashore to destroy this city, I’d be fighting against them — instead of fighting my friends.” Given how terrible Amazon Attacks actually was, you would assume that Johns would be the first to want it forgotten – although Wonder Woman’s use of the conditional tense perhaps implies that Amazons Attack has been wiped from continuity.

A beast...

A beast…

Johns’ Justice League is a competent book with some fascinating ideas, but one that suffers from the need to “drive” the wider DC universe. It might nice to have a little time where Johns can just tell enjoyable and engaging stories featuring these iconic characters without a need to push towards another book or another event.

3 Responses

  1. Nice review, as always, but I don’t think Batman’s small cameos in Johns’s other books counts as “extensive” writing. Also, would you please write your reviews of the rest of Johns’s run? I’m curious of what you think of the second half, which is much less world-backbone based.

    • Fair point, Kyle. But I do think this was after Earth One.

      I am hoping to continue the reviews of Johns’ run in March, as part of the lead up to Batman vs. Superman. I’m fonder of the run than most seem to be, even if I’m not entirely convinced by what I’ve read. (But Johns’ Lex on the League is inspired.)

  2. Nice review as always, but I don’t think Batman’s small cameos in Johns’s other work counts as “extensive” writing. ALso, could you please write reviews for the rest of his run? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the more relaxed second half.

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