Friday, September 2, 2011

JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 Review - The Dawn of the New DCU and A Turning Point For Comics


- I don't do a lot of comics reviews here on the ol' blog ... but yes my friends, I am a bonafide comic book fanboy. And I've always had a soft spot for DC Comics in particular. My affinity for DC's characters dates back to early, early childhood, when I'd watch syndicated episodes of Superfriends every day after school. But soon enough, I discovered the comics. Circa the early 90's, during one of the industry's biggest boom periods, I (like many of my generation) was hooked via DC's big-event storylines of the time. The Death of Superman. The breaking of Batman's back by the ubwer-villain Bane. The shocking turn of Green Lantern Hal Jordan to the dark side. While comic shops were rare if not nonexistent in my part of Connecticut, I sought out comics wherever I could find them. For a while, during the height of the boom era, there actually was a huge influx of comics stores, but the surge didn't last very long - by the late 90's, many had closed. During this period, new comic shops kept opening up and then shutting down, seemingly in the blink of an eye. The bubble bursting led comics shops to close, and also causing the industry to crash. The speculator boom led many to believe they could get rich off of comics, and the publishers were happy to feed the collectible market with a nonstop barrage of big events, multiple printings, and all manner of foil-embossed, gatefolded, hologram covers ... the shinier the better. It was a collectors market at that time, not necessarilly a readers market. Hyped-up comics like X-Men #1 sold over a million copies - but only a fraction of purchasers actually *read* the thing. There were lots of comics with flashy art but paper-thin stories. Traditional superhero comics got edgier, flashier - characters died, turned evil, were replaced. Longtime readers were put off, but if you were like me - a kid at the time - it was all sort of awesome. I was eleven years old - I didn't care about the boom or the speculator market. I liked all the shiny foil covers, sure (my copy of Robin #1 was like a piece of valuable treasure - and Batman #500, with the fold-out cover - oh baby) ... but mostly, I loved the stories. The superhero soap operas. The anything-can-happen feel. The sense that all these adventures were taking place in this big, shared universe that I was only just discovering, that I had still only just scratched the surface of.

When I was a kid ... through my teens, and even into college ... my comics fandom was something I pretty much kept to myself. On the rare occasion I met someone else who was into comics, it was like meeting someone who was part of some secret brotherhood. It was this feeling of "oh my god, there are others out there." When I was a college student in Boston, that's when I think the tide began to turn, when comics quietly started to become, dare I say it ... cool.

I partly started to realize this when I first ventured into Newbury Comics in Boston. Newbury Comics is a record store chain in and around Beantown that sells comics alongside CD's, DVD's, T-shirts, toys, posters, and all sorts of other pop-culture stuff. But the stores - especially back then, before they expanded into malls and such - had this too-cool-for-school vibe. You felt badass and rock n' roll just walking into a Newbury Comics. And it was through Newbury that I realized that - wait a sec - comics had become (or had they always been?) rock n' roll. They were counterculture. They were cutting edge. It helped that the early 00's saw an influx of great new writers doing experimental, boundary-pushing work. Suddenly, all the hipster types (and me) were picking up edgy books like Planetary, Preacher, 100 Bullets, and Y: The Last Man. Even mainstream superhero books were getting a kick in the pants thanks to writers like Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, and Jeph Loeb. I was too young to read all the great, literary comics of the mid-80's as they were released, but there was definitely a renaissance in the early 00's. It felt like comics had grown up with me. The comics of the 90's were perfect for twelve year olds. Now, comics had matured as had we. But, there was another factor in comics gaining more and more street-cred and mainstream acceptance: Hollywood. It started, I think, with Kevin Smith. I give Smith credit because movies like Clerks and Mallrats popularized a new kind of geek archtype - the cool geek. The fanboys who made talking comics sound smart and funny and cool. There was that. Then Blade came out. And then ... X-Men. Soon there was Spiderman. Batman Begins. Iron Man. The Dark Knight.

And now here we are, in an age where superhero mythology has truly gone mainstream thanks to the movies. Comic-Con is a mecca not just for nerds, but for all of Hollywood and pop-culture. Hollywood's biggest franchises are comic book adaptations. It's easier than ever to find someone who's read Watchmen or The Walking Dead. Walk into Barnes & Noble, and the shelves are lined with graphic novels and trade paperbacks.

And yet ... comic books - particularly the superhero books - have not necessarilly been in a boom period. Manga, certain graphic novels ... there've been some pockets of mainstream success. But comic shops are now rarer than ever. And monthly sales of ongoing comics are lower than ever. The publishing industry in general is in a state of flux, with Borders going out of business, and the transition to digital creating an uncertain and volatile marketplace. But most of all, the people who are buying monthly comics are getting older. I am probably part of the last generation that really got onboard with mainstream superhero comics. And the response from DC and Marvel has traditionally been ... milk the existing readers for all they're worth. But that strategy only goes so far. Event fatigue sets in. Longtime readers see the same characters die, come back to life, change costumes, get married, have their origin retold so many times that it all becomes numbing. The nature of ongoing comics is that the stories are cyclical ... but that only works if you constantly bring in new generations of readers. And the younger generation has not embraced comics. I partly blame that on things like inaccessiblity and lack of a proper push for new readers. Most superhero comics of the last ten years are not written for kids or even teens, but for an insular group of longtime readers. And even the older generation - for most, comics are too expensive, too impenetrable and confusing, too difficult to find. So ... what is to be done? It might sound crazy given that superheroes in general are nwo more popular than ever. But we are at a point where the question had to be asked -- How does the great American artform of comics - and especially superhero comics - survive?

Well, DC has decided that drastic change is necessary. Beginning this week, the DC Comics Universe as we've known it is no more. It's all going back to square one, with DC rebooting its entire line of comics - launching 52 new issue #1's throughout September. Long running titles like Action and Detective are being restarted with new #1's. There will be a diverse array of genres represented in the new 52 - horror comics, war comics, fantasy comics, and sci-fi comics. But many of the 52 will be DC's bread and butter - superheroes. Now, superheroes tend to accumulate lots of confusing backstory and convoluted continuity as the years go by, so to that end, DC is attempting to simplify its characters and its universe. In the new DCU, the Age of Superheroes - kicked off by the arrival of Superman in the public eye - is now only five years old. So most of DC's new #1's will tell stories of heroes who are relatively fresh on the scene and inexperienced. Two key comics will be set in the past, laying the groundwork for the rest. In Action Comics, written by Grant Morrison, we'll see the story of Superman's public debut, and see the earliest days of his superhero career. In JUSTICE LEAGUE, written by Geoff Johns (DC's Chief Creative Office, and the company's highest-profile writer of the last ten years), we'll see how DC's biggest heroes first met and formed the world's greatest superteam. Justice League marks the first of the new 52 to be released. This past week, DC released only two comics. FLASHPOINT #5, which closed the book on the old universe, and Justice League #1, which kicks things off for the new DC.

So ... how is JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 ...? To be honest, it's a bit hard to judge on its own merits. The story is clearly only Chapter 1 of a much larger saga. It focuses, mainly, on two characters - Batman and Green Lantern. But very quickly, we see some of the foundations of the early days of this new DCU. For one, when we first meet Batman, he's an outlaw - even as he pursues an alien monster across the rooftops of Gotham, he himself is being pursued by heavily-armed policemen. But, rest assured - personality-wise, this is the same Bruce Wayne that comic fans have read about for years. Greener, maybe, less omniscient. But he's still a grim crusader with little patience for flashy heroes like Green Lantern, and yep, he's still uber-paranoid when it comes to dealing with people with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. Meanwhile, this version of Green Lantern is a little bit of the Hal Jordan from the comics, and a little of Ryan Reynold's version from the recent movie. He's overconfident, and he has swagger to burn. The pairing of Hal and Bruce makes for some fun banter, and a couple of memorable moments between them. A highlight? Bruce actually steals Hal's ring in a show of one-upsmanship - showing that even without powers, he can still get a leg up on his superpowered ally.

Overall though, there's a bare minimum of plot here. Hal and Bruce meet while pursuing a mysterious alien creature. They argue and banter. They get the first hints of the new apocalyptic threat they face (a threat that will be quite familiar to those who know the the comics or cartoons). We get some brief interludes with Vic Stone - the man who will eventually become the hero known as Cyborg and who is being set up as a potential League member. But mostly, Batman and GL feel each other out. And eventually, they run into Superman - who's now wearing his new Jim Lee-designed duds.

Speaking of which, the art by Jim Lee is pretty great. It's always a treat to see a Lee-drawn comic. He's got the ability to make old-school superheroes look new-school cool. I'm mostly just worried that his new costume designs will look silly when drawn by anyone else but him. His Batman and Green Lantern are pretty similar to the classic designs, but his Superman is already rubbing me the wrong way. I'm fine with Supes ditching the classic red trunks, but there's something about his new V-neck collar / cape combo that looks kind of lame, in my opinion. It's not terrible, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see the Superman costume eventually revert back to something more akin to the classic threads.

To the comic's credit, it's 100% accessible and essentially baggage free. Anyone can jump right in and get onboard. For a kid just joining the party, I could see how John's handling of Batman and Green Lantern's first-ever meeting might have a certain wow-factor. Afterall, if you only know these characters from the movies, the idea of them meeting and sharing an adventure might end up being fairly mind-blowing. For most comics fans though, the issue will have something of a been-there, done-that feel. I know I was a bit frustrated that, well, so little actually *happened* in the issue. I hope that the pace picks up a bit in subsequent issues, and that we start getting more complete stories with each installment. This felt like a very quick, all-too-brief prologue to a story that will hopefully soon become much bigger and much more epic. For those expecting this one to have the widescreen, big-event feel of Grant Morrison's classic, action-packed Justice League run in the 90's, they may come away disappointed with this Issue #1. This is a very deliberate, very carefully set up comic. But there is reason to give Johns the benefit of the doubt. Afterall, he's best known for his action-packed epics like Blackest Night - I assume it's only a matter of time before business picks up and $%&# gets real.

Personally, I'm eager to get the origin stories over with and get to the good stuff. I'm not as interested in all the new universe-building as I am in just seeing some good stories being told. I'm also a little nervous that the DCnU could quickly become unwieldy and confusing. Early indications, for example, are that while some characters will experience drastic changes from the old universe, others - like Batman - will have their histories mostly intact. But if that's the case, then how does Batman's established history - which includes three separate Robins and a twelve-year-old son - possibly fit into a five year timeline? Again, if the stories are great, most of us will be less hung up on these sorts of details. But if the quality is uneven, I'll begin to wonder if DC made a mistake by not either a.) doing a cleaner, more all-inclusive reboot, or b.) just keeping continuity intact and employing some other tactic to create a good jumping-on point for new readers.

But if the New 52 can attract new readers, then you know what? - I'm all for it. Like I said, if nothing else, Justice League #1 makes for a pretty ideal starting point for a new reader. And I haven't even mentioned the fact that, starting this week, all DC Comics will be available day-and-date digitally. That means that you don't even need to find a comic shop if you want to check out the new comics. You can simply download new issues digitally to your iPad or tablet or PC. And man, I think reading comics on an iPad or other tablet could really be the wave of the future. The colors are vivid and eye-popping. The books are easy to scroll through and enjoy. And the comics are right there at the touch of a button. You don't have to worry about the issues selling out or about venturing into a comics shop or about where to store all those monthly issues in your cramped apartment. I'm not sure if, personally, I'm going to transition to digital just yet. But I think it's only a matter of time before a majority of my comics purchases are, in fact, digitally done.

So, is this the beginning of a new dawn for superhero comics? Will YOU be trying out one of DC's new 52? Like I said, Justice League is a solid jumping-on point. But if you've got more eclectic taste, then hey, you might want to hold out for Jeff Lemire's Animal Man #1, or Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing #1, or the continuing adventures of Wild West outlaw Jonah Hex in Weird Western Tales #1. You may want to jump onboard with Action Comics or Batman or Nightwing or Birds of Prey. There are a lot of options, and it seems like, to DC's credit, they're keeping each new book fairly self-contained, at least for the moment. And look, I'm not trying to imply that superhero comics are the only genre that the medium has to offer. I know plenty of people who would prefer sticking to non-superhero fare like The Walking Dead, Locke & Key, or Fables. And I'll admit, mroe and more that is the kind of stuff that I'm drawn to in the comics world. But here we are, we've got kids and people of all ages into superheroes thanks to movies and whatnot. Why shouldn't they also love the comics - where budgets are unlimited and anything can happen - where stories are limited only by imagination? Purely from a fan perspective, I'm curious to see what Johns and Lee - a veritable writer/artist dream team - can do with the Justice League, and how their run will compare to others that have come before. From a larger perspective, I'm curious to see what happens from here with comics. Is this the moment where the people who love the movies or cartoons or videogames get hooked? I, for one, hope so.

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