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Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Trinity War’ is testing the old ways

by  in Comic News Comment

The first part of “Trinity War” (in last week’s Justice League #22) relied rather significantly on the changes the New 52 relaunch facilitated: Superman, Wonder Woman, and Billy Batson/Shazam (hereinafter “Billy/Shazam,” or maybe just “Captain Marvel”) each acted in ways incompatible with long relationships.

In the old days, Superman and Wonder Woman would have been close friends, Superman and Captain Marvel would have had a unique (almost mentor-protegé) relationship, and Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel would at least have had some Greek mythology in common. However, the main conflicts of “TW” Part 1 depended on Wonder Woman being more of a warrior than an ambassador, Superman trusting her hostility, and Billy/Shazam not knowing either of them that well. As such, it appeared to exemplify the freedom a relaunch confers, specifically to ignore the restrictions of previous developments to put these characters quickly on opposing sides.

In other words, one might reasonably have seen Part 1 as a) realizing the New 52 allowed for a particular Shocking Event and b) working backward to create the conditions that would lead to said Event. “Because we can do this, how do we do it?”

To be sure, other forces were at work behind the scenes of JL #22, manipulating at least a couple of players. This story also might have been possible, at least in a broad sense, under the old regimes. After all, writer Geoff Johns famously put the Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman at odds in Infinite Crisis. That required months of steady, dedicated groundwork. Similarly, Johns has spent most of the past two years laying the foundation for “Trinity War,” and spreading that foundation across an array of characters, from new versions of the Atom and Green Lantern to the rebooted Captain Marvel and Doctor Light, and the coupled-up Superman and Wonder Woman. Last week, many of those characters combined with volatile results.

However, this week’s Part 2 (in Justice League of America #6, co-written by Johns and Jeff Lemire) takes a couple of necessary steps back from the brink. It feels very much like the fulfillment of Ye Olde Trope “first they fight, then they team up,” but after decades of Justice League team-ups and crossovers, criticizing such general story structure is almost beside the point. The Shocking Event hasn’t gone away, but at least the aftermath looks more promising.

Before getting further into spoilers, I will say upfront that penciler Ivan Reis, inkers Joe Prado and Oclair Albert, and colorist Rod Reis did a really good job on JL #22. Characters and backgrounds were detailed without being over-rendered (although I wondered if some of the news-clipping headlines were really uncorrected placeholders) and the issue flowed nicely, building suspense as much through layout and pacing as through the script. The 34-page story included two double-page spreads illustrating super-combat, and two other spreads where the panel layout used both pages. There were also three splash pages, two of which were wordless. I felt like the splashes and the double-page spreads were there for emphasis, in a “worth 1,000 words” sense, and as such they didn’t seem showy or gratuitous. (Color was also used well to denote both flashbacks and emotion. For example, when someone was hit by a particular magic weapon, the panel went mostly gray, except for a particular object in red. Indeed, reddish tones dominated the issue, amping up the anxiety level.) Since the whole issue was concerned with getting to a particular tipping point, it was on the artists to do a lot of heavy lifting, and they didn’t disappoint.

Likewise, I thought artist Doug Mahnke and his cadre of inkers (Christian Alamy, Keith Champagne, and Tom Nguyen) were better-suited for the more subdued JLA #6. Mahnke drew a great Wonder Woman in his previous stint on the old JLA, so it’s good that she gets a spotlight in this issue. The issue’s 24 pages feature one double-page spread and two other spreads where the panel layout used both pages. Those latter two were the title page (where the layout featured “roll call” inset panels) and a two-person establishing scene in a laboratory, where each page was dominated by a single character. Accordingly, there was less spectacle and more character work in Part 2, which did a lot to offset both the headed-over-cliff pacing and the reliance on shock in Part 1.

With all that out of the way …

SPOILERS FOLLOW

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Again, if you have fond memories of the pre-New 52 DC Universe, you may well enjoy “Trinity War” a lot less. Much of this comes from the way JL #22 sets the stage. For example, at one point Wonder Woman tells Superman firmly that her rogues gallery isn’t as big as Batman’s or the Flash’s because she “deals with” them — not necessarily by killing them, but still. No doubt this shows how hardcore she is, and gives her credibility with today’s readership, which is ostensibly more demanding when it comes to such matters.

As you might expect, I have a couple of reactions to this. First, Wonder Woman does have a decent-sized rogues gallery, including Cheetah, Dr. Psycho, Circe, Giganta, Veronica Cale and any number of mythological figures. Second, the Golden Age Wonder Woman had her own version of Arkham Asylum, a few decades before everyone’s favorite madhouse debuted. This was Transformation Island, where female supervillains went to get rehabilitated. It involved something called “loving submission,” which may be NSFW, but was definitely “dealing with” her foes. Still, Johns’ portrayal of Wonder Woman in Part 1 seems to leave little room for reform. (Part 2, co-written by Lemire, gets off this track to put Diana in a more investigative frame of mind, as she interrogates Hephaestus and tracks down Justice League Dark.)

In contrast to Diana’s pragmatism, Pandora’s more optimistic view of Superman sparks Part 1’s first big plot point. She’s looking for the Man of Steel because she claims there’s no evil in him — but those of us who remember 1995’s Underworld Unleashed know that writer Mark Waid made Captain Marvel the “purest” superhero. To be fair, that may still come to pass, particularly since Billy/Shazam spends a lot of Part 2 wondering why he needs to stick around. Regardless, given Pandora’s history with the wizard Shazam, and the relative obscurity of the New 52 Shazam, it’s understandable that she’d go for Superman instead. In this respect “Trinity War” benefits from the New 52 setup, but again, it may not go over well with longtime DC readers. (Similarly, they may not enjoy a frustrated Billy/Shazam asking “Who gives a crap?”)

Speaking of Billy/Shazam’s relative obscurity, the League in this issue acts like they’ve barely heard of him, but I got the impression that he was part of the “Grid’s” list of potential reserves. This issue pretty clearly takes place after the events of the all-Shazam! #21, which means that the rest of the “Shazam!” backups happened more or less concurrently with League arcs like “The Villain’s Journey” and “Throne of Atlantis,” which seems to make those earlier mentions/cameos into mistakes.

For that matter, while Billy/Shazam may not be as unblemished in the New 52, he still comes across fairly sympathetically in Part 1. He flies to Kahndaq to scatter Black Adam’s ashes across the sands of his homeland, which is a good thought. However, it violates international law, and the Justice League takes it upon themselves to bring him back. That, in turn, brings in the JLA, tasked with getting the main League out of trouble. Mix in a couple of outside complications and you’ve got a big superhero fight.

Part 2 could easily have gone much darker, with a possessed Superman lashing out at the JLA (and the JL too, maybe) and everything descending into chaos. Instead, Superman pulls himself together and surrenders. Considering that he spent a good bit of Part 1 all fire-eyed, this is a welcome development, as are the eight pages the JL and JLA spend trying to figure out calmly what’s going on. Those scenes make JLA #6 a good tonic for the craziness of JL #22. They are not without flaws, including yet another “any superhero scientist can do an autopsy” scene, but at least they’re giving the reader time to breathe.

Indeed, Part 2 contains some intriguing mysteries. The first could simply be a mistake: Hephaestus tells Wonder Woman that Pandora found her “box” outside his temple, but we know from Pandora #1 that she found it in the woods, 8,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Perhaps more importantly, though, Hephaestus reveals the Greek gods didn’t make Pandora’s box, and that “[n]o one knows where it came from. … Zeus [and the other gods] used Pandora to open [the box] because even they were scared of [it].”

So where’d it come from? As Rich Johnston points out, Vibe notices “something beyond our world” when he tries to disrupt the Flash’s connection to the Speed Force. Given the Flash’s traditional ability to travel between parallel universes by adjusting his vibratory frequency, it’s not much of a stretch to start thinking about other Earths. Combine that with Volthoom — an evil deity from the evil universe of Earth-3 — showing up in Johns’ final Green Lantern arc, and the rumors of Earth-3’s Crime Syndicate playing a part in Forever Evil, and it starts to look like an invasion from another reality. Johnston thinks the Outsider (the Secret Society of Super-Villains’ mysterious leader) is actually the Earth-3 Alfred Pennyworth, since waaay back in 1964, Alfred was killed and revived as a villain with that name.

Of course, an Alfred-less Outsider also appeared in Flashpoint’s altered timeline, and the one in “Trinity War” seems a lot closer to that guy than he does to a diabolical butler, regardless of how hypercompetent Alfred is in any reality. Regardless, it makes sense that Earth-3 is some cosmic wellspring — wrongspring? — of everything that’s bad, and between Volthoom and Pandora’s box, it keeps creeping into the main-line universe. I wouldn’t be surprised if the various Leagues ended up having to fight their way off Earth-3 while Forever Evil rages across the rest of the superhero line. (In Madame Xanadu’s apocalyptic JL #22 vision, Batman talks about having to “escape” and “save him” — perhaps a newly evil Billy/Shazam?)

But see, all that’s informed by my pre-New 52 knowledge. It is getting tricky to chart a course between those kinds of expectations and the possibilities the relaunch offers. Naturally, Johns and his colleagues come to these characters with decades’ worth of their own fannish desires. However, apparently they’re also guided by the need to create something new, and specifically something which doesn’t feel predictable or familiar. They risk alienating longtime readers, but they’re probably used to that by now.

Ironically, there’s a lot in these two parts of “Trinity War” which does feel familiar. It’s only been a few years since the Crime Syndicate fought the Justice League, but they’re the kind of high-stakes foes you expect the League to face. If future installments of “Trinity War” find three sets of Leaguers recombining into smaller squads to tackle specific missions, and/or switching opponents to take advantage of particular strengths and weaknesses, I won’t be disappointed.

However, the rules have changed. Our predictions don’t necessarily come out of a well-used knowledge base. “Trinity War” Part 1 showed what can happen when the old ways no longer hold true. While it created tension quite well, its plot didn’t flow organically from what we knew about (even the New-52 versions of) the characters. In showing these characters trying to act more rationally, Part 2 chose wisely. Regardless of background, characterization shouldn’t depend on prior knowledge.

I just realized I haven’t mentioned the new version of the Question, who serves mostly to tie various scenes together (and who only starts to drive the plot at the end of Part 2), but he embodies the “deductive” side of this crossover. So much has been focused on who would win in a fight (not least because of the rationale behind the JLA) that it’s nice to have an entire issue devoted to looking at what’s really going on.

This may be Lemire’s influence, because Part 2 feels less busy than Part 1 did, even accounting for Part 1’s breakneck pace. At the risk of overgeneralizing, a lot of Johns-driven crossovers are high-concept (an evil Green Lantern Corps! An evil Superboy! Intergalactic zombies! A demented alternate timeline!), and they tend to revolve around big dogpile-style fights.

There’s certainly room for “Trinity War” to end up like that. Maybe not this time, though. Maybe the rules really have changed.