“Justice League” #16 by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis continues the “The Throne of Atlantis” crossover as Aquaman is caught between his two homelands.
The biggest flaw with “Throne of Atlantis” is that for events to escalate further, the plot requires Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to collectively behave in a bone-headed manner, with no thought of diplomacy or broader thinking about containment. While the Justice League isn’t exactly known for stealth or negotiation between warring nations, it is still disappointing to see Batman fail on subtlety and not give Aquaman his chance to talk Orm down. Likewise, Wonder Woman is annoyingly self-righteous when she urges Aquaman to turn his back on family and half his roots.
However, the Boston face-off between Aquaman, Orm, and the Trinity is only half the story. The scenes involving Cyborg, Vulko and Stephen Shin give Cyborg a chance to shine, and Johns leads into the ending cliffhanger from this quieter setting. Still, I found myself skimming these scenes (and re-reading them later), because they couldn’t match the tension, stakes or visuals in Boston. Despite the ineffectual moves of Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman, one after another, there’s no better place to be in the story than on the battle frontier. These crucial moments give Reis space to flex his skills, and his double-page spread of the Atlantean army rising out of the sea gives due weight to the occasion.
As in “Aquaman” #15, Orm still has a cute, cartoonish little-brother quality, but he also has the best lines in “Justice League” #16. When Orm dips his head sideways peers curiously at Batman and asks, “Are you the surface dweller’s king?” I laughed. Only a few pages and minutes later, Orm says “Brother, you are sentenced to the dark waters, as are your allies…may they suffer as the surface will,” and I appreciated Orm’s phrasing and stance, as well as his motivations of duty and justice. Johns’ dialogue and Reis’ body language and use of scale make this combination of dorky and kingly come off without a hitch.
In “Shazam!” backup story by Johns and Gary Frank, there’s two pages with Dr. Sivana making some progress on his quest for more Sins, but the bulk of the story is occupied by the inevitable meetup between Shazam! and Black Adam. Often, these “dark double” type stories are about the hero looking in the mirror into his darker self. Johns plays this first convergence out in a different way, as a coming of age story, with Billy reaching the end of fun and games.
The New 52 incarnation of Billy Batson is a sometimes annoying kid who isn’t exactly a beacon of ethics. However, he is just a kid, so it’s easy to have sympathy for him here as he is assaulted by someone who is a total stranger to him. Johns’ script for this installment emphasizes how young and out of his depth Billy is. Likewise, Frank continues to be good at conveying the sense of a child in an adult body, especially in Shazam!’s gestures and boyish eagerness. When Billy transforms back into his regular body, Frank’s handle on facial emotions and panel-to-panel pacing make the reader share in Billy’s perplexity, panic and fear.
Geoff Johns, Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid and have all done much to revive classic superhero-ing in comics, bringing the joy back. Their collective enthusiasm and success is proof that bright costumes, a moral code and innocence still work as well as ever in the era after “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” Johns in particular has a knack for humanizing very powerful DCU characters while also pitting them against each other. His seemingly effortless humor, combined with the art of Reis and Frank, make “Justice League” #16 a great vehicle for big-time, fun superheroics.