Grumpy Old Fan | Structure, tradition, and Luthor’s League

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Structure, tradition, and Luthor’s League

As discussed here last week, the final page of Forever Evil promised a particular kind of big event as its follow-up. However, the just-concluded miniseries also inflicted more immediate consequences on the Justice League; it’s those I’ll be talking about today.

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I previously mentioned that the New-52 relaunch/reboot didn’t really add a new “structural” feature to the superhero line, in the way that “Flash of Two Worlds” established the Multiverse or Crisis on Infinite Earths facilitated all those legacy heroes. At the time I didn’t really mention the addition (or re-integration) of the WildStorm and Vertigo characters, but I still don’t think that’s as big a deal as the Multiverse or the generational timeline. The difference is that Flashpoint brought in characters mostly to the present-day DC Universe, whereas COIE and (to a lesser extent) the original Multiverse both dealt regularly with larger spans of time. In the latter cases, the superheroes first emerged in the runup to World War II, and those adventures ended up informing their modern-day counterparts. While the New 52 had books like Demon Knights and All Star Western that were set even further in the past, they could only influence the main superhero line obliquely.

I enjoy analyzing the structure of the DCU, but at the same time I’m always a little ambivalent about its existence. A corporately run shared superhero universe has to have some underlying structure, even if it’s just a basic organizational or socio-economic chart. At Marvel, Spider-Man’s failed attempt to join the Fantastic Four, and his longstanding absence from the Avengers, were held up as examples of the character’s unique superheroic setup; he just wasn’t designed to fight the powerhouses that faced the FF or Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Moreover, there are subtle distinctions between the FF’s exploration-based adventures (the Negative Zone, the Mole Man’s realm, Latveria, the Hidden Land) and the Avengers’ more traditional set of super-foes. Disparate characters like Doctor Strange, the Hulk and the X-Men round out Marvel’s lineup.

DC’s structure is easier to see because it’s encapsulated in the Justice League. If you’ve been following this column you know the drill: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman each represent a particular fiefdom within the DCU: utopian Metropolis, gritty Gotham, mythological Olympus, Jet Age Central City, outer space and the ocean depths. There’s a hierarchy as well, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman leading the way.

These structures started out as in-universe expressions of real-world publishing history. The Trinitarians have been published continuously since their respective debuts, so they are at the top of the proverbial pyramid. The successes of the Silver Age then catapulted other characters and teams (like the Flash, GL, the League and the Legion of Super-Heroes) up the charts. Today we take for granted not only that there will be a Justice League and Teen Titans — and perhaps a Birds of Prey and Suicide Squad as well — but that they’ll include familiar core lineups.

The accumulation of all this tradition can be pretty daunting, and at worst it can stifle creative impulses. (This article brings a similar point home nicely, with its image of the Ant-Man movie going from a quirky, unconventional interpretation to “another brick in the wall.”) Clearing the deck for new, ostensibly fresh stories is a big part of the justification for relaunches and reboots generally.

However, the weight of all that tradition — regardless of whether the old stories are still controlling — can butt up against the desire (if not the outright need) for new material. Going back to Marvel for a minute, the “Heroes Reborn” version of Fantastic Four spent most of its 12 issues doing “Stan & Jack’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.” Each issue reintroduced a classic FF element, starting with the Mole Man and working through the Sub-Mariner, the Black Panther, Doctor Doom and the Inhumans, before the big throwdown with Galactus. For the most part these were one- and two-part stories, which seems positively primitive compared with today’s six-issue arcs. Really, the whole thing (plotted by Jim Lee, scripted by Brandon Choi and penciled by Lee and Brett Booth, with Scott Williams and an array of inkers) felt like an abandoned movie or TV adaptation. A less-charitable view might say it was a quick-and-dirty way to lay a basic FF foundation, or even a hollow echo of the original stories; but had “Heroes Reborn” continued, I suspect the creative team would have gone in different directions.

Indeed, from what I remember, none of the other three “HR” titles (produced, by the way, when DC’s editor-in-chief Bob Harras was at Marvel) necessarily followed their predecessors’ leads. The Avengers did fight Loki and Kang, while Captain America gave readers a new Bucky and a white-supremacist foe — oh, and those hideous manboobs — and Iron Man used the Hulk as a supporting character.

The point is pretty obvious: Just because you’re starting over doesn’t mean you have to start from the beginning. The New 52 couldn’t do that line-wide, thanks to the Batman and Green Lantern books supposedly keeping their particular histories relatively intact. Still, books like Firestorm and Supergirl kicked off with present-day origin stories. Other titles, including Wonder Woman and The Flash, jumped right into present-day storylines while establishing early on that their characters’ histories (especially as related to their supporting casts) had been rewritten pretty significantly. Action Comics and Justice League’s first arcs were set in the dawn of the modern superhero era of “five or so years ago,” and told the stories of Superman’s first appearances and the League’s founding. Currently in Batman, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are wrapping up the epic “Zero Year,” which borrows from the earliest Bat-stories without specifically retelling them. Heck, in a fit of optimism, DC has even revived Secret Origins as an ongoing series.

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As in any shared universe, all these stories accumulate, either reinforcing the familiar elements or branching out into new ones. However, when the rate of idea generation dips, it can affect the book’s status as well. Compare Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ 19-issue run on Action Comics with the first 20-odd issues (not counting the Shazam-only zero issue) of the current Justice League.  It’s not quite fair, as Morrison, Morales and their colleagues only had to focus on Superman and his supporting cast, while Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Gene Ha and Ivan Reis had six characters with their own series and a seventh whose origin they retold. Nevertheless, there’s a lot more going on in the Action epic than there is in those contemporaneous JLs, mostly because the former dealt with shorter arcs. Justice League’s first six issues described its fight with Darkseid. Issues 7-8 were about housekeeping (looking in on Steve Trevor, wondering whether Green Arrow will join), while issues 9-12 involved the disillusioned David Graves. After two issues where the League fought the Cheetah (and a Cheetah-fied Superman), “Throne of Atlantis” crossed over with Aquaman for three issues. Issue 18 formally introduced the new members who’d been called up in the previous arc, and issues 19-20 helped set up “Trinity War.”

Following Issue 21’s Shazam-only wrap-up (which I suppose also helped set up “TW”) were two installments of “Trinity War” and six issues of Forever Evil supplements. That brings us to the current Issue 30, which finds Luthor and Captain Cold joining a League irrevocably altered by the Crime Syndicate’s invasion. It also brings home the fact that since September, there hasn’t been much of the Justice League in Justice League.

Before then, though, the League wasn’t doing a whole lot in its own book. Outside of the opening Darkseid arc, maybe the Cheetah two-parter, and “Throne of Atlantis,” most of Justice League’s stories have been more about how the team is viewed than they have been about the team actually saving the world. Formed in the “five years ago” period as a response to Darkseid’s invasion, the team apparently stayed pretty static (except for Martian Manhunter’s brief, turbulent membership) until the present day. The Atlantean invasion brought out a slew of new members, the federal government formed a “Justice League of America” as a sort of counterpoint, and the two teams met up with Justice League Dark during “Trinity War.” Regardless, throughout the New 52’s recent history, the Justice League has been viewed with at least some hesitation. Before the JLA, the United Nations put together Justice League International, made up of members whose identities were largely public (and Batman, of course) in order to foster trust amongst the people of the world.

Accordingly, while it’s meant to be ironic, the fact that Lex Luthor is now a Leaguer is probably pretty appropriate in the context of the team’s New 52 history. After all, Luthor (and Batman, of course) did what Superman and pals couldn’t, saving Superman’s life almost as an afterthought. This is a fine setup for the next arc or two — particularly in light of Lex’s new perspective on Batman — but it may mean another several months of a less-than-traditional League, and that has ramifications for the larger shared universe. Whenever the League appears outside of its own title (say, in something like the Superman arc “Doomed”), it’ll be Luthor and company. Again, that’s not necessarily bad, just “off” — in the sense that having the Superior Spider-Man continue as an Avenger was a little off.

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By no means am I suggesting that the Justice League must only be the seven original Silver Agers. I was originally pretty excited for the New 52’s Justice League of America because of its diversity.  Back in the day I appreciated how the post-Crisis On Infinite Earths Justice League (not yet International) included refugees from the Multiverse like Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, and Doctor Fate, as well as COIE product Doctor Light and post-Crisis creation Booster Gold. It was more than a League of the moment, because it represented the possibilities of DC’s reordered superhero line. By contrast, the current League is picking up the pieces from Forever Evil. Batman is compromised, Superman may not be able to serve on a team next to Luthor, Green Lantern (Hal) is off-planet for the foreseeable future, and the next emerald warrior in the League will probably be the new Power Ring. Again, it points to at least a summer’s worth of upheaval for the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes, even before they get into the next cosmos-shattering crossover.

Fortunately, we need only look to the Great White North for a more stable, traditional set of Leaguers.  Justice League United (written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Mike McKone) has been great fun, not least because it’s been free of the dark forces that are shaping the main League. While not as diverse as its predecessor JLA, Stargirl, J’Onn J’Onzz, Animal Man, Green Arrow, Adam Strange and Supergirl (with Hawkman and Equinox on the way) represent a good cross-section of the superhero line. Two now have their own titles, three more (counting J’Onn’s time in Stormwatch) had their books canceled, Stargirl is a holdover from JLA, Adam Strange is making his New 52 debut, and Equinox is completely new. There are three females and four males, although depending on how you count J’Onn there’s only one nonwhite member. When JLA was announced I thought it might eventually be folded into the main Justice League — which would then be called Justice League of America, naturally — and I can’t help but think something similar is in the works down the road.

Maybe if that happens, the main Justice League book can learn something from its spinoffs. Instead of showing why the team deserves to be at the top of the DCU org chart, the book has been preoccupied with how the public sees it.  Other groups are defined by particular traits, like age (the Teen Titans), gender (the Birds of Prey) or circumstances (the Suicide Squad); but the Justice League exists solely to bring together the world’s greatest heroes. That’s meant different things throughout the years, and it’ll continue to evolve along with DC’s superhero line. Indeed, given DC’s current fascination with supervillains, it could be part of what Geoff Johns is doing with Luthor and Captain Cold. While that could be entertaining for a little while, it may not be sustainable.  We’ll see if the weight of tradition proves to be too much for it to bear.


And here is the Futures Index for this week’s issue #4.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Number of deaths: 0 (not counting the “blobs/skeletons” Constantine discusses)
  • Mr. Terrific pages: 4
  • Grifter/OMAC pages: 6 (split into 3 pages for each)
  • Firestorm pages: 6
  • Constantine pages: 4
  • Number of canceled New 52 series represented by those characters: 4
  • Number of Earth-2 refugees seen as such in this issue: 1
  • Number of diabolical schemers in the bodies of little girls: 1
  • Number of diabolical schemers in the bodies of little girls in the series so far: 2

NOTES: Having the New 52 OMAC appear here is a reminder that he and Brother Eye need to be reconciled with the more malignant OMACs of the 30-years-later future. Those nightmare-drones, and the Brother Eye that controlled them, are closer to the kill-all-humans mindset of 2006’s The OMAC Project, which led into Infinite Crisis. In fact, in Infinite Crisis Batman charged Mister Terrific with blowing up Brother Eye, because Terrific was invisible to electronic detection. Something tells me that won’t happen here, and not just because Infinite Crisis already did it. Still, I enjoyed his Steve Jobs act, and whoever wrote that “all about you!” dialogue (I’m guessing Brian Azzarello) probably had a blast.

Otherwise, we got a little more insight into the Firestorm subplot (Ronnie’s bad behavior stems from angst over his mother’s death), a glimpse of Coil and the Key to remind us they were in the book last week, another bit of exposition on the Grifter subplot, and a couple of new developments. It was good to see Earth 2’s Fury (an Amazon co-opted by Apokoliptian forces), both because she provided a tangible link to that series, and her capture offered some insight into the mysterious super-powered kid who’s not Father Time. (Miss Martian, perhaps? She’s probably been seen somewhere already and I missed it.) Constantine standing in a Brainiac-shaped set of crop circles was also a nice cliffhanger.

Still, we’re six issues into the series, which probably means halfway through the first collection, and I’m not sure how I feel about the pace. Futures End isn’t the weekly slaughter-fest in which the FCBD preview reveled, and it’s been expanding its scope pretty steadily; but it’ll need to start paying off soon.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Plastique! Lois Lane! The Masked Superman! Tim Drake fights someone else! And next to the shiny airspeeder … are those Legionnaires? Is one of them Vartox?