Last Thursday marked the sixth (!) anniversary of the start of the ‘New 52’ at DC. This was a huge time for comics, setting off (another) round of reboots across various companies and starting DC down a long line of bad decisions, of which they’ve just started to recover frm. But it all began here, with “Justice League” #1. How did this first issue set the tone for the line? Does it hold up? Find out below.
Written by Geoff Johns
Penciled by Jim Lee
Inked by Scott Williams
Colored by Alex Sinclair
Lettered by Patrick Brosseau
Comics superstars Geoff Johns and Jim Lee make history! In a universe where super heroes are strange and new, Batman has discovered a dark evil that requires him to unite the World Greatest Heroes!
When DC decided to make “Justice League” its cornerstone book, the brass made two important decisions that would affect the book’s first year or so: it would start five years in the past, and it would be written and illustrated by, perhaps, the biggest names at the company: Geoff Johns and Jim Lee. This gave extra gravity to the book – only one of two (along with “Flashpoint” #5) DC was releasing that week – and set it up to be the most important with a capital I book DC had published in a very long time.
And then, nothing happened in it.
I’m trying not to be too hyperbolic, but especially looking back on it now, with a fair amount of distance between release, it is astonishing how empty the issue is. We get lots of Parademons, some bickering between Batman and Green Lantern, a few pages of a pre-Cyborg Vic Stone playing football, and one panel of Superman acting extraordinarily out of character. And that’s it.
The issue’s saving grace, in many ways, is Jim Lee’s artwork. Lee is an unquestioned superstar in the business, and his linework has always been intricate and thrilling to see. DC released an “Unwrapped” edition of his “Justice League” work, with just his pencils, and there it is even more obvious just how incredibly talented Lee is. The first half of the issue is Batman and Green Lantern chasing Parademons across the rooftops of Gotham, and Lee’s art establishes every character in unique ways. Never before have Parademons looked so mechanical, nor have Hal’s constructs seemed so technically put together. There might be issue to take with both of those decisions, but Lee leans into them, and makes those decisions work, visually.
There’s always a fair amount of stiffness with his work, but Lee’s storytelling is pretty spot on here. His Batman moves with a nimbleness that threatens to betray his bulk, but it allows the reader – and Hal – to question just how a human being can do all of this, so that is a forgivable choice. Lee is no stranger to drawing Batman or Gotham, so nothing he does with those characters is particularly different than his work in the past.
What Lee does in this issue, and what would become a staple of the New 52 in general, is his overdesign of costumes. Both Hal and Superman have high collars, and every costume seems to be stitched together with the darkest possible thread, making everything look very modular. Some of the best costumes of all time are present in the three heroes present here, and only Batman’s retains what makes the design work. Both Superman and Green Lantern’s costumes lose the alien simplicity and utility that make them so iconic. Instead, they look like Injustice costumes, which sort of speaks to what was wrong with Lee’s designs in the first place.
When the New 52 happened, a lot of continuity needed to be reset or adapted, but a few key pieces were, more or less, kept in tact. Green Lantern and Batman were the two least touched franchises of the ‘New 52,’ and so the need for Hal and Bruce to explain themselves to the other feels unnecessary, especially as readers of a “Justice League” title in 2011 would no doubt be at least vaguely familiar with these characters, as they’ve been in cartoons, in feature films, and in the two most successful DC books of recent memory.Continued below
Hal being surprised by Bruce’s lack of superpowers, or Bruce being incredulous of Hal being one of thousands of Lanterns are fine small character moments, but sadly, that is about all the issue has time for. If those were parts of a larger story, it would be easy to look past those cliched moments, but those are supposed to be the heavy hitter moments in the script, and they just fall flat.
What also falls flat is the interaction with Superman at the end of the issue. He’s barely on the page, but comes off like a bully almost instantly, which is just about the one thing that Superman should never be. The ‘New 52’ really struggled with Superman, more than any other character, and this shows exactly why. Instead of giving him humanity and humility, it doubled down on the god-like power set and let the character slip away from what always made him special. No longer was Clark a Boy Scout; instead, he was a showoff.
So here, him basically saying “Come at me, bro” to Batman after hitting Green Lantern halfway across the city sets a terrible precedent that it would take the line two plus years to eventually address.
Only Cyborg gains any real complexity from his appearances, and that complexity is not particularly nuanced. His strained relationship with his father is nothing particularly new in the comics, but it is given some quickie depth here, and it sets the stage for Vic to become Cyborg in the future. For a new reader, which the ‘New 52’ was always aiming to recruit, Cyborg would be easily the least identifiable character, so it makes sense to give some focus to his backstory. But at the same time, those new readers probably had no idea why their action-packed comic was being interrupted for a deleted “Friday Night Lights” sequence.
While the issue is an above average Jim Lee comic, it is a far below average Geoff Johns comic. Johns books are steeped in lore and heart and character moments, and this is about as light and inconsequential as he gets. Part of me wonders if that is his silent protest against the machinations of the ‘New 52.’ “You want something easy to digest and simple? Take this!”
More than anything, Johns, through his “Green Lantern: Rebirth,” “52,” and “Infinite Crisis” experiments, was the writer at DC who was most dedicated to honoring the past, while building a bridge to the future. This couldn’t be further from his wheelhouse; this is about as ‘salted Earth’ as a DC comic has ever been, and Johns trying to make good on the ideas of a fresh start feels about as sincere as if Lee was trying to ape Darwyn Cooke.
This issue, visually, is so steeped in the 1990s that Lee helped define, but is stuck there storywise, too. Part of the excitement of Image, and particularly Lee’s work at WildStorm, was the idea of reinvention of old tropes into something new. Sure, “WildCATS” was a new comic, but it was playing off of dozens of years of superhero comics, so that there was a tether to the past, even in a brand new work. “Justice League” #1 tries to do the same thing, but removes the tether that can’t really be cut. People aren’t going to suddenly forget who Superman is, so redefining him without real purpose is going to ring hollow.
Because DC was banking on the ‘New 52’ to be their guiding force for the foreseeable future, the errors and missteps of “Justice League” #1 became not just canon, but the standard that was expected for most of the first few years of the line. Bombast over subtlety, costumes over characters, and fresh starts over steeped history became the way that DC did business for most of 2011, 2012, and 2013. Obviously, certain books escaped that, but the tone was set: new was good, old was bad. Scott Snyder was recently on the DC3cast, and he spoke about the challenges of that clean slate, and how his “Batman” #1 featured a few nods to the past, to allow fans to know that he still thought the old stuff ‘mattered.’Continued below
Johns, the guardian of all things legacy and connectivity in the DC Universe, was the least likely culprit to be the one to really force feed his book with mind erasers, but that’s exactly what happened here. “Justice League,” consequently, never reached the heights of the top tier ‘New 52’ books, nor did it violently flame out like some others. It never really took chances, nor did it try anything so unexpected that it became a ‘must-read’ title.
Instead, it took its cues from its debut issue, and simply existed in a weird space between new and old, familiar and unexpected, and managed to tread water for five or so years, until the ‘old’ Johns re-emerged as the ambassador of continuity and legacy, and set DC back to what it has always been: an awkward, lumpy, but heartfelt 80 year story that fed off its past and its future in equal measure. While the ‘Rebirth’ “Justice League” book has not exactly been a resounding success, it also hasn’t been the milquetoast avatar of a broken line, either.
And, I suppose, that’s progress?