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.

JLA: The Nail

JLA: The Nail 

By Alan Davis & Mark Farmer (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-064-9

Here’s one that’s primarily for the dedicated fans. Produced for DC’s Elseworlds imprint, where major characters and brands are explored and exploited free of the strictures of regular continuity, Alan Davis turned the concept upon itself to create a wonderland for followers of comic minutiae.

His tale, based on the old verse, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost…” (originally penned by George Herbert in 1651 – so don’t tell me comics aren’t educational) asks what would have happened if that rocket from Krypton hadn’t been found by Jonathan and Martha Kent in Smallville.

All those super-menaces would have been defeated by all those other DC champions, but gradually the war would itself have been lost, and the dystopic world we see is nearing its ending when these heroes all come together.

I grew up with this stuff and for people like me it’s all utterly enthralling. There are clever in-jokes, sharp asides for the knowing, and vignettes that hit straight to the part of me that’s still eight years old and wide-eyed. The dialogue is sharp, the plot tension-filled and the action and art is all you could hope for.

And here’s that “but” you’ve been expecting: I tried this out on a couple of interested but non-fanboy, occasional readers. You know the type; they’ve seen Dark Knight, Sandman, Cerebus, Maus, Carl Barks and Alan Moore. Not anti-comics by any means, nor even anti super-heroes. Just not mired in “The Lore”. And they didn’t get it. It was pretty but not engaging, they said.

So I just have to give this a health warning I deeply regret. It’s brilliant and fun and great, but if you not at least passingly familiar with the continuity you might want to leave it until you’ve absorbed a few DC Archive or Showcase editions.

© 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: The Tenth Circle

Jla: The Tenth Circle 

By John Byrne, Chris Claremont & Jerry Ordway (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-913-1

The X-Men team supreme were reunited for this supernatural adventure featuring the ‘world’s greatest superhero’ team. Comic fans love these sorts of stunts.

Sadly the results seldom live up to expectations and the result is a competent if predictable heroes versus vampires yarn most notable as a prequel and introduction to Byrne’s latest attempt to revive his childhood by reinventing the Doom Patrol.

Not for the casual bystander and no way to broaden the appeal or range of the comic experience.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Syndicate Rules

JLA: Syndicate Rules

By Kurt Busiek, Ron Garney & Dan Green (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-127-8

The temptation with big bunches of super-heroes is to lob them into colossal, world-crunching extended mega-epics. It gives everyone a chance to shine and doesn’t diminish their god-like stature when they actually have to work for their inevitable victory. After a while, however, there is a tendency to suffer a kind of Armageddon burn-out.

Collecting issues #107-114 of the monthly comicbook and JLA Secret Files 2004 Syndicate Rules is not a bad saga, as such things go, but it really would benefit from a little softness and reflection in places. When this kind of epic was primarily aimed at a juvenile audience there was undoubtedly a genuine frisson whenever the world/universe/multiverse was imperilled, and could only be fixed by twenty or more buff men and women hitting each other. I suspect that was largely due to most of them being generally indistinguishable in terms of ideology and motivation.

Nowadays it’s imperative that each component steroid-case gets a mandated period of angsty, characterisational strutting, preferably whilst punching something. It’s all just too much.

Case in point: The Crime Syndicate of Amerika – evil antimatter counterparts of the JLA (see JLA: Earth 2 – ISBN 1-84023-169-6) – rule their own world and are bored. They attack the just-as-evil Weaponers of Qward, a super-scientific if moribund galactic Rogue Culture, and are just on the verge of defeating them when a Cosmic Burp rewrites the fabric of the Cosmos in such a way that they can now safely assault our own plus-matter heroes of the JLA.

This has been previously unwise not because of the old blowing-up-on-contact problem usually associated with antimatter but due rather to a cosmic codicil that gave an unbeatable home-ground advantage to whichever team was fighting in its own dimension.

Now that this off-side rule has been removed the Syndicators elect to forget Qward so as to impersonate and destroy their heroic doppelgangers on our Earth. The Qwardians, battered and ticked off, obviously want revenge, and so they decant an old universe-destroying doomsday machine and set off to destroy our Earth – not the Syndicators.

This mix is further enhanced by the now obligatory dissent and distrust among our heroes – you choose exactly who yours are – an infant universe that the JLA are baby-sitting and a sub-dimensional electro-planar realm inhabited by a single – or not – electronic organism.

Unbelievably, the story is not absolutely incomprehensible. Ron Garney works wonders with a cast that includes practically every DC hero, lots of alien civilisations and a crew of villains that are all-but perfect duplicates disguised as the major protagonists. It’s simply that sometimes putting everything into an epic shouldn’t literally be that. Usually one kitchen sink should suffice.

And perhaps temper all that testosterone with a little Prozac, perhaps?

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Earth 2

JLA: Earth 2 

By Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-169-6

One of DC’s most significant core concepts was the multiple Earth/alternate Justice League stories that fired the imaginations of children in the 1960’s. Over the years the company have chopped and changed, tweaking, refining, abolishing, reinstating the concept. In the final analysis, readers of all fiction love the thought of doppelgangers, and counterparts – even evil opposites.

The Crime Syndicate were originally just such a team from an Earth that had reversed the concepts of Law and Justice. On Earth 3 Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman fought for themselves, not for Good. After the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths all those alternates were unmade, but have been creeping back ever since in one form or another.

Comic superstars Morrison and Quitely added their efforts to the confusion with this tales of the first meeting of the two teams. Here the baddies inhabit their own twisted mirror universe of anti-matter – quite literally ‘player on the other side’. When people and artefacts begin ‘leaking’ into each others universes the Justice League must find out why, leading them on a doomed Fool’s Errand to liberate the antimatter Earth.

There are lots of clever touches and beautiful pictures but ultimately this is a silly exercise with little logic to sustain it, innovation to uplift it or drama to carry it. It certainly isn’t a good use of its creator’s great talents. Just one for the dedicated fans I’m afraid.

© 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Pain of the Gods

JLA: Pain of the Gods 

By Chuck Austen & Ron Garney (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-033-6

Getting over a post-celebration hump is always tricky for a long-running comic series. An anniversary or centenary is usually celebrated by some large-scale cosmos-shaking exploit which it’s impossible to top, leading to an anti-climactic “day in the life” venture. In the case of Pain of the Gods – reprinting JLA #101-106 – Chuck Austen and Ron Garney take that hoary tradition, and indeed the equally tired plot of heroes’ soul-searching angst after a failure to succeed, and run with it to produce a stirring and powerful exploration of humanity too often lacking in modern adventure fiction.

Each chapter deals with an emotional crisis affecting an individual Leaguer. Superman, Flash and Green Lantern all fail to save someone, Martian Manhunter is forced to confront the life-long emotional barriers left after the death of his entire species, Wonder Woman faces her own mortality and Batman has to acknowledge that he can’t know and do everything alone.

The entire story can be seen as a post 9/11 treatise on fallibility and post-traumatic distress with superheroes acting as metaphors for Police and Firemen and the sub-plot of a seemingly mundane family seeking redress plays well against the tragic grandeur of the stars. It’s good to see a super hero book that thinks with a heart rather than act with gaudily gloved fists for a change.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.