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.

JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-305-X

With all the interest generated by DC’s mass crossover event Infinite Crisis, not to mention the continuing popularity of the Justice League Unlimited animated series, it was inevitable that yet another compilation of classic tales would be forthcoming from the burgeoning archives of the “World’s Greatest Superheroes”. Many will quibble with the title of the collection. The tales presented here are without doubt, not the very best examples from the title’s chequered, 46 year history – most of those have already been reprinted – but nonetheless this selection does illustrate why the series has such faithful fans.

The mandatory origin is from 1982, when the first volume of the comic book series reached its 200th issue, with fan favourite artist George Pérez illustrating Gerry Conway’s subtle updating of the legend. Then, “The Super-Exiles of Earth” (Justice League of America #19, 1963) by Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs is a standard high-quality adventure with the heroes forced to leave Earth only to sneak back in their civilian identities – unknown even to each other at this time – and thwart the dastardly Dr Destiny. At tale’s end the Leaguers operate on their own minds to expunge the knowledge of those secret identities.

This twin theme of mind control and secret identity, so pivotal to the Identity Crisis/Infinite Crisis scenarios is again revisited with “Snapper Carr – Super Traitor” (Justice League of America #77, 1969) as Denny O’Neil and Dick Dillin/Joe Giella reflect those troubled flower-power days in a tale of deceit, betrayal and revelation. Civil liberties just didn’t seem to apply to the inside of heads back then.

Justice League of America #122, 1975 provides another adventure of memory manipulation with “The Great Identity Crisis” as scripter Marty Pasko reveals how a master plan of the villainous Dr Light was the reason the heroes finally trusted each other with their civilian secrets. Dillin once again illustrates, with Frank McLaughlin providing the inking. “The League That Defeated Itself” (Justice League of America #166-168, 1979) is a rather mediocre body-swapping yarn featuring the Secret Society of Super Villains, by Conway, Dillin and McLaughlin, but has become the pivotal plot maguffin of the current high-tension JLA continuity. It just shows how a skilful re-interpretation of past tales can be a more effective tool than simply destroying the universe and starting over – and over – and over.

Next up is the first issue of Justice League, an immensely successful re-launch from 1987 that balanced the meta-human thrills with deprecating humour and zingy one-liners to great effect. “Born Again” comes courtesy of Keith Giffin, J M DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire and Terry Austin, who recently revived the whole concept with the series Formerly Known as the Justice League (also available as a graphic novel).

“Star-seed” from JLA Secret Files #1 (1997) was the reincarnation of the last but one team (as of this writing a new regular – 4th? – series is back again). Grant Morrison and Mark Millar reinvigorated the team-concept and Howard Porter and John Dell supplied the art-gloss demanded by modern fans. The plot involves a reinterpretation of the very first adventure wherein a starfish from outer space tries to conquer the world. The last story comes from JLA #61 (2002), courtesy of Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen. In “Two-Minute Warning” we see a snapshot of each member over a crucial, if routine, moment of their lives.

Without this team, this concept, we would arguably not be here now. Stan Lee cites the initial success of the series as the impetus for Marvel’s Fantastic Four. It certainly played a part in cementing superheroes and the comic-book inextricably together in the public consciousness. These yarns are certainly worth reading, and if you’re a newcomer or late returnee drawn in by the current media attention, despite not being the absolute “greatest stories”, they are at least entertaining and thematically relevant. And surely that’s not such a bad thing?

Compilation © 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Trial By Fire

JLA: Trial By Fire 

By Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen
ISBN 1-84023-928-X

More super histrionics featuring the Justice League as an alien telepathic presence apparently subverts the will of the mighty Martian Manhunter, leading to lots of fighting and destruction. The JLA has a long history in all its incarnations of starting strong and losing focus, and for extended periods coasting by on past glories – which usually ends with a desperate rush of ancillary series, a crash, cancellation and a relaunch with major creators. Reading this compilation of issues 84-89 I sense fresh first issues in our immediate future.

© 2004 DC Comics

Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 3

Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 3 

By Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-946-8

I’m going to “cop a plea” on this book. Like any other comic book geek who grew up in the 1960’s and early 1970’s I was captivated by gaudy costumes and the outrageous battles to save the city, the country, the world, the universe, the multiverse, et al, ad nauseam. I loved all this stuff. I loved the funny animals, the comedies, suspense and horror stories, the Sci-Fi. Newspaper strips, Annuals, Albums, American, British, whatever. I even liked the romance stories which usually demanded a much higher standard of drawing than all other types of comic strip.

In regard to comic material from this period I cannot declare myself an impartial critic. That counts doubly so for the Julie Schwartz edited Justice League of America and its annual summer tradition of teaming up with its progenitor organisation, the Justice Society of America. If that sounds a tad confusing there are many places to look for clarifying details. If you’re interested in superheroes and their histories you’ll even enjoy the search. But this is not the place for that.

This volume reprints get-togethers from 1971 through 1974, tightly plotted tales comfortably rendered by the tragically under-rated Dick Dillin, although perhaps sometimes uncomfortably scripted in the vernacular of the day (“Right on brother,” says one white superhero to another white superhero!). There are adventures featuring inter-dimensional alien symbiotes and swamp monster Solomon Grundy (JLA #91-92), evil geniuses and the time-marooned team of 1940’s superheroes called the Seven Soldiers of Victory (JLA #100-102), an accidental detour to a parallel Earth where the Nazis won the second World War and the meeting with yet another team of 1940’s characters, the Freedom Fighters (JLA#107-108), and a genuinely poignant tale of good intentions gone awry featuring the Golden Age Sandman (JLA# 114).

In terms of “super” genre the writing consists of two bunches of heroes who get together to deal with extra-extraordinary problems. In hindsight, it’s obviously also about sales and the attempted revival of more super characters during a period of intense sales rivalry between DC Comics and Marvel. But for those who love costume heroes, who crave these carefully constructed modern mythologies and care, it is simply a grand parade of simple action, great causes and momentous victories.

I love ‘em, not because they’re the best of their kind, but because I did then and they haven’t changed even if I have. Do you fancy trying to find your Inner Kid again?

© 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2004 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis 

By Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales & Michael Bair

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-34576-126-X

For such an impressive and far-reaching comics event, this collection is quite a slim and swift read. Whilst the comic drove the narrative forward in the manner of a whodunit, most of the character by-play and the ripples of the bare events related could only be experienced in the (inter-linked) individual issues of the involved titles. When this is all absorbed week-by-week, month-by-month, the cumulative effect is both bewildering and engrossing, but such an experience could not be duplicated in traditional publishing.

The plot involves DC heroes re-assessing their careers whilst hunting down the murderer of the wife of second-string hero/detective, Elongated Man. As the investigation proceeds, heroes and villains confront many of their bedrock principles such as tactics, allegiances and even the modern validity of that genre staple, the Secret Identity. The dialogue is memorable and the artwork magnificent and the aftershocks of revelation did indeed live up to their hype. How sad then than this “core” book feels like a rushed “Readers Digest” edition, whilst many of the key moments are scattered in a dozen other (unrelated) collections.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Crisis of Conscience

JLA: Crisis of Conscience

By Geoff Johns, Allan Heinberg, Chris Batista & Mark Farmer

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-279-7

Following on from the events of Identity Crisis, which revealed that some members of the JLA used inhumane, if not illegal, mind altering methods on their defeated foes, the once heroic team was divided and in turmoil. Not only had the erring heroes monkeyed with the villains’ minds, they had also tinkered with the brains of fellow heroes who objected to the measure.

Now those guilt-racked heroes are reaping the consequences as the villains return, with restored faculties and murderous intent, seeking their own kind of justice. So do Batman and Catwoman, who now also know what was done to them. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason has all but destroyed the League, and now they face destruction for their mistake. And who hates them enough, and is powerful enough, to have restored those doctored memories in the first place?

Although convoluted and a little histrionic in places, there’s still plenty of action and intrigue for super-hero lovers to enjoy here, but casual readers might be well advised to re-read Identity Crisis first.

This story first appeared in the monthly JLA comic, issues #115-119.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.