JLA: Riddle of the Beast

JLA: Riddle of the Beast

By Alan Grant & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-84023-449-0 (Softcover) ISBN13: 978-1-5638-9867-9 (hardback)

The Justice League franchise lends itself to a lot of different interpretations, but this peculiar jam-session, taking its lead from the world fantasy boom triggered by the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, is perhaps one of the wildest.

Elfin Robin Drake, son of a dead hero, lives in the idyllic village of Haven and simply wants to marry his sweetheart and live a long life. But when the arachnoid seer The Riddler prophecies the return of The Beast his old life vanishes forever in flame and blood and a sea of devils.

One generation ago a monstrous evil conjured by a wizard nearly destroyed The World and only the entire force of the united Kingdoms and great heroism defeated it. Now those kingdoms are at each other’s throats and Robin must gather and reunite them if they are to have any chance against an evil that apparently cannot die.

JLA: Riddle of the Beast (Hardcover)

This is a rather formulaic saga-quest, given a boost by the character designs of Michael Kaluta, with the painted artwork parcelled out amongst Andrew Robinson, Hermann Mejia, Carl Critchlow, Alex Horley, Liam McCormick Sharpe, Martin T Williams, Glenn Fabry, Doug Alexander Gregory, Rafael Garres, Jon Foster, Saverio Tenuta, Jim Murray, John Watson, Gregg Staples and Simon Davis. Some of Kaluta’s designs are also included at the back.

Although not to everyone’s taste – and certainly not mine – this tale is full of wizards and heroes, and the fantasy analogues of the World’s Greatest Superheroes ranges from inspired to just plain daft, but all concerned give it their creative best and as such tales go it really isn’t as bad as it could be. You could do much worse. Professor Dumbledore’s School for Gifted Mutants; any takers?

© 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: A League of One

JLA: A League of One

By Christopher Moeller (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-575-6

This slight but satisfying fantasy romp is actually a Wonder Woman vehicle with the rest of the World’s Greatest Superheroes reduced to the roles of bit-players and hostages for the body of the action but is still nonetheless a pretty good blend of angst and adventure, and well leavened with some fine tongue-in-cheek comedy touches.

In 1348AD the last Dragon is defeated by Christian Knights and the modern Age of Man begins. But the Queen Wyrm is not dead, and sleeps beneath the Swiss Alps until awakened by Gnomes, whom she subjects to her will as she plans to devastate the Earth.

After a busy tour of duty with her fellow Justice Leaguers, Princess Diana returns to Greece for a break and hears a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi. The mystic seer declares the menace of the last Dragon and warns that it will be defeated by the JLA – but only at the inevitable cost of their lives. Although the Oracle is never wrong, she can be open to interpretation, so if the team only has one member only one member has to die…

Beautifully painted art and a solid, if not too fresh plot makes this a plain-and-simple fun book to read and the themes, light touches and deft avoidance of continuity means that new readers and old fans can enjoy this modern fairy tale equally.

© 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Justice, Volume 3

Justice, Volume 3

By Jim Krueger, Alex Ross & Doug Braithwaite (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-630-6

The Big Finale to the epic battle between the Super Powers of the DC universe reveals the dastardly master-plan of Lex Luthor and the alien computer intelligence Brainiac as the resurgent heroes – each clad in personalised Battle Armour (Gotta Collect ‘Em All!) – go into concerted action to save the world not just from the depredations of the desperate villains but also the now real imminent threat of nuclear destruction.

Thrilling and sumptuously fulfilling it should nevertheless have been with us a lot sooner in this overlong and meanderingly padded tale that comes so close to being great comics but instead looks like a wish list for a toy-factory or DC Direct.

I truly understand that it’s a tough commercial world and that lots of fans love the toys, gadgets, statues and what-nots that are part-and-parcel of modern comics publishing. I just worry that when peripherals begin to dictate the content of your product then you have a product that’s no longer able to sustain itself.

In this case that translates into three superb creators spending a lot of time getting it almost right, but failing to make the kind of magic that inspired them to get into the business in the first place… and surely that’s a long term goal comics can’t afford to lose or forsake?

© 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Justice, Volume 2

Justice, Volume 2

By Jim Krueger, Alex Ross & Doug Braithwaite (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-444-9

Warning: This is the middle part of one long story. It has no beginning and it doesn’t end here.

With the superheroes compromised and defeated, the lesser heroes of the DC Universe come into play as the triumphant villains divvy up their spoils. As the forces of good begin their fight back it becomes increasingly clear that Lex Luthor and Brainiac have their own agenda, and that it doesn’t include their erstwhile allies and pawns. Also, the supremely insane Joker is loose and he’s very unhappy about being excluded from the alliance of villains…

Once again this volume includes additional artwork, illustrated fact-files on the huge cast of characters and some of Doug Braithwaite’s pencilled pages before Alex Ross applied colours. Justice was originally published as a twelve issue maxi-series (this volume collects issue #5-8).

Visually spectacular, in story-terms this overly complex and convoluted tale falls far short of the halcyon material it references, possibly because the target audience is assumed to be too mature for the clear-cut simplicity of those child-friendly days and tales. There’s also a little too much of the Toys, Action Figures and Collectables catalogue about the whole affair, for my liking.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Justice, Volume 1

Justice, Volume 1

By Jim Krueger, Alex Ross & Doug Braithwaite (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-350-3

Set outside of regular DC continuity (which is much easier to do since 52 and Countdown I suppose) this tale begins with dreams of Nuclear Armageddon and the failure of Earth’s heroes to save the world. These dreams plague many of Earth’s super-villains, and overcoming a natural distrust of each other they unite under Lex Luthor to finally overcome their arch-enemies.

Not only do they hunt down and deal with Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League, but they also begin a public charm offensive, whilst changing the world in ways the heroes never have. As the deserts are made to bloom, the crippled cured and the hungry fed, the world is oblivious to the fact that their erstwhile heroes are being brutally murdered…

This first volume also contains additional artwork, illustrated fact-files on the huge cast of characters and some of Doug Braithwaite’s pencilled pages before Alex Ross applied his magic brushes.

Ross’s faux-realist painting style has carved him a unique place in modern comics and led to a number of high-profile successes. This latest project, a twelve issue maxi-series (this volume collects issue #1-4), is a tribute to the big Goodies Vs. Baddies sagas of his own childhood, both in 1970s DC Comics and also the animated Super-Friends and Challenge of the Super-Friends TV shows.

Although a beautiful and visually compelling series it could have greatly benefited from a little of the clear, clean simplicity of those long-ago stories. And while I’m kvetching, I can’t see any benefit to the faithful readership, let alone any new fans, to collect the series into three expensive hardback editions when it could comfortably and handily fit into one. If we keep treating product as artefact we’ll stop being a popular or mass medium and become just another clique market like Collector Plates or Toby Jugs…

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Justice League International: The Secret Gospel of Maxwell Lord

Justice League International: The Secret Gospel of Maxwell Lord 

By Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire, Al Gordon & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-039-9

The follow-up volume (see Vol 1) of the (then) All-New, All-Hilarious Justice League completes the year long story-arc that introduced businessman and 1980’s archetype Max Lord, who reshaped the World’s greatest super-team for his own mysterious purposes.

The stories themselves (Justice League Annual #1 and issues #8-12 of the monthly comic book) are taken from a period when the major comics publishers were first developing the marketing strategies of the “Braided Mega-Crossover Event” – basically a story involving every publication in a company’s output, for a limited time period – so a compilation like this perforce includes adventures that seem confusing because there are “middles” with no beginnings or endings. In this case the problem is deftly solved by inserting (mercifully) brief text pages explaining what’s happened elsewhere. It also doesn’t hurt that being a comedy-adventure, plot isn’t as vital as character and dialogue in this instance.

‘Germ Warfare’ from the annual, is drawn by Bill Willingham and inked by Dennis Janke, P. Craig Russell, Bill Wray, R. Campanella, Bruce Patterson and Dick Giordano. It is an uncharacteristically grim horror tale involving inhuman sacrifice and sentient Germ-warfare. It is followed by ‘A Moving Experience’, where the heroes take possession of their various new UN embassy buildings, possibly one of the funniest single stories in American comic book history.

‘Seeing Red’ is the first of two episodes forming part of the Millennium crossover alluded to above. Broadly, the Guardians of the Universe are attempting to create the next stage of human evolution, and their robotic enemies the Manhunters want to stop them. The heroes of Earth are asked to protect the Chosen Ones, but the robots have sleeper agents hidden among the friends and acquaintances of every hero on the planet. Millennium was DC’s first weekly mini-series, so the monthly schedule of the other titles meant that a huge amount happened in the four weeks between their own tied-in issues: for example…

The Rocket Red attached to the JLI is in fact a Manhunter, who first tries to co-opt then destroy the team with an oil refinery, but by the second part, ‘Soul of the Machine,’ the team are in space attacking the Manhunter home planet as part of a Green Lantern strike force. Nevertheless, the story is surprising coherent, and the all-out action is still well-leavened with superbly banter and hilarity.

The volume ends by resolving all the mysteries of the first year by exposing the secret mastermind behind the League’s reformation. With ‘Constructions!’ and ‘Who is Maxwell Lord?’ the series comes full circle, the whacky humour proves to have been the veneer over a sharp and subtle conspiracy plot worthy of the classic team, the action kicks into high gear and the characters are seen to have evolved from shallow, if competent buffoons into a tightly knit team of world-beating super-stars – but still pretty darned addicted to buffoonery.

Great art, superb action and a light touch mark this series as a lost classic. Read these and agitate for further compilations to be released.

© 1987, 1992 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Justice League: A New Beginning

Justice League: A New Beginning

By Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire, Al Gordon & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0-930289-40-4

When the continuity altering shenanigans of Crisis on Infinite Earths produced such spectacular commercial success, DC felt more than justified in revamping a number of their hoariest icons for their next fifty years of publishing. As well as Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman, the Justice League of America was earmarked for a radical revision.

Editor Andy Helfer assembled plotter Keith Giffen, dialoguer (?) J.M. DeMatteis and neophyte penciller Kevin Maguire to produce an utterly new approach to the superhero monolith: they played them for laughs.

Combining a roster of relative second-stringers Black Canary, Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, Dr, Fate, Guy Gardner/Green Lantern, and Mr. Miracle with heavyweights Batman and Martian Manhunter – as nominal straight-men – and later supplemented by Captain Atom, Booster Gold, Dr. Light, and Rocket Red, they mixed high-speed action with quick-fire humour for a truly revolutionary – and popular – delight.

Introducing the charismatic and manipulative Maxwell Lord, who used his wealth and influence to recreate the super-team, the creators unfolded a mystery that took fully a year to play out. The team passed the time fighting terrorist bombers (#1, ‘Born Again’ inked by Terry Austin), displaced Alien heroes determined to abolish Nuclear weapons (#2-3 ‘Make War No More’ and ‘Meltdown’) and good old fashioned super-creeps like the Royal Flush Gang (#4 ‘Winning Hand’).

‘Gray Life, Gray Dreams’ and ‘Massacre in Gray,’ guest-starring the Creeper, was a supernatural threat dealt with in issues #5-6, and Lord’s scheme bears fruit in #7’s ‘Justice League… International’ as the team achieves the status of a UN agency, with rights privileges and embassies in every corner of the World.

These are wonderfully light yarns full of sharp badinage and genuinely gleeful situations, perfect for the Ghostbusters generation. That the art is still great is no surprise, and the action still engrossing is welcome, but to find that the jokes are still funny is a glorious relief. Track this down and discover even after twenty years why fans still greet each other with the secret mantra “Bwah-Hah- Hah!”

© 1987, 1989 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Year One

JLA: Year One

By Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn & Barry Kitson (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-082-7

If the chop-and-change continuity gymnastics DC have undergone in recent years gives you a headache, but you still love reading excellent super-hero team stories, you could just take my word that this is one of the best of that breed and move on to the next review. If you’re okay with the confusion or still need convincing, though, read on.

DC published the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics in the 1940s. They were the first super-hero team in comics. In 1960 the publisher revived the concept as the Justice League of America, eventually reintroducing their JSA ‘ancestors’ as the heroes of an alternative Earth. By 1985 the continuity was overcrowded with heroic multiples which the editorial Powers-That-Be deemed too confusing, and a deterrent to new readers, resulting in the maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths, the events of which led to a winnowing and restructuring of the DC universe.

With all the best bits from stories past (for which one could read ‘least charming or daft’) having now occurred on one Earth, and with many major heroes re-launched (Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash etc.), one of the newest curses to readers – and writers – was keeping definitive track of what was now DC ‘History’ and what had never actually happened. Thus the twelve issue maxi-series JLA: Year One presented the absolute, definitive, real story of the Justice League, the World’s Greatest Superheroes.

Of course since Infinite Crisis and the subsequent publishing extravaganzas such as 52 and Countdown it’s not strictly true anymore. Still. Again…

None of which impacts upon the superb quality of the tale told. Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn and artist Barry Kitson produced a superb version of the team’s earliest days. It’s set “ten years ago”, when an alien invasion initially brings Flash, Green Lantern, Black Canary (daughter of the JSA heroine), Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter together to save the Earth from colonisation.

The main action occurs after that victory, as the heroes – novices all – decide to band together as a team. The story of their bonding and feuding, under the extended threat of rogue geneticists who plan to remake the planet, the mystery of who is actually bankrolling their team, as well as the usual everyday threats in a superhero’s life, is both enchanting and gripping.

In-the-know fans will delight at the clever incorporation of classic comics moments, in-jokes and guest-shots from beloved contemporaneous heroes and villains such as the Blackhawks, Doom Patrol, original Blue Beetle and such, but the creators never forget their new audience and nothing is unclear for first-timers to the concept.

The finale is a fanboy’s action-packed dream as every hero on Earth unites to combat an all-out, alien invasion when their first foes return and even succeed in taking our planet! Of course the JLA save the day again in glorious style. The brilliantly addictive plot, superb dialogue and wonderfully underplayed art suck the reader into an enthralling climax that makes you proud to be human – or at least terrestrially based.

When it’s done right there’s nothing wrong with being made – and allowed to be feel – ten years old again.

© 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: World Without a Justice League

JLA: World Without a Justice League 

By Bob Harras, Tom Derenick & Dan Green (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-335-1

A somewhat lacklustre end to what was a fine series of super-hero adventures as, in the throes of the Infinite Crisis and still reeling from the Identity Crisis storyline, the remnants of the splintered super-hero team and a few former members more or less reunite to stop old foe the Key, who has evolved into a psionic mass-murderer.

Further complicating the mess is the escape of Envy, the demonic incarnation of one of the Original Seven Deadly Sins from its eternal captivity. Bob Harras, Tom Derenick and Dan Green do their best, but the heavy-handed shoehorning of the overweening Crisis segments destroy the narrative flow, and any casual reader who just picks this book is just inviting a migraine if they haven’t read the other books too.

An inauspicious end to a great run, and poor use of some talented people and great characters but the “automatic rewind/reset” of Infinite Crisis and the ‘One Year Later’ relaunches should soon make this a distant memory.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Another Nail

JLA: Another Nail 

By Alan Davis & Mark Farmer (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-944-1

Potentially bewildering sequel to Davis’s fan friendly tale of a DC universe in which Superman did not figure. This time the heroes – including the better late than never Man of Steel – must fight off an invasion of demons, ghosts and monsters. And they’re just the prologue to a multiversal threat that is going to end all creation!

All the non-stop action and mayhem is instigated by the evil and patently demented New God Darkseid, when his war with the Gods of New Genesis goes badly and he triggers his ultimate Doomsday device.

This sequel opens almost immediately after the close of its predecessor, so fanboy or not, don’t even attempt to try this on its own unless you can be satisfied with the absolutely glorious pictures alone. Also you would be doing yourself and Mr Davis a great disservice. This is a nostalgia lover’s dream, if you have the necessary backgrounding.

If you are an experienced and dedicated comics fan this is a total joy. Davis’s love for the characters and situations is apparent so that exuberance carries through every meticulously hero-crammed panel. If you’re a casual reader or first timer however, it must be like sticking your face into a jet engine running on overdrive. You have been warned.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.