“Justice League #23.4: Secret Society” by Geoff Johns, Sterling Gates and Szymon Kudranski differs from the usual Villains Month issue. Instead of being a one-shot set in the present day of New Earth, it begins in the distant past in Earth-3 and advances rapidly through time, ending on plot points leading directly into “Forever Evil” #2. While it’s not crucial to the action of “Forever Evil,” it fleshes out significant backstory, particularly the connective tissue between the “Trinity War” event and “Forever Evil.”
The title and cover are misleading, because “Justice League” #23.4 is about the Secret Society only an abstract sense. The members of the Secret Society on the cover, AMAZO and Copperhead, only rate part of a one-page cameo. Instead, the plot is intensely focused on motivations and thoughts of the man who built the Secret Society, The Outsider. His fate is, for yet unknown reasons, intertwined with Owlman’s, and thus “Justice League” #23.4 is also an incomplete Owlman origin story.
“Justice League” #23.4 relies heavily on the reader having background knowledge of previous storylines. Knowledge of the conclusion of “Trinity War” is a must, and the script also has plot twists that rely on knowledge of Grant Morrison’s Earth-3 stories for their full impact. Johns and Gates show instead of telling, launching the reader straight into the first-person voiceover of the narrator, without even a text box with a date/time stamp. While it’s good that Johns and Sterling plunge the reader directly into the action, the storytelling that follows isn’t skillful enough to ground the reader. Without more exposition as a bridge, the story is unfriendly to the casual or new reader. There is a chain of motivations that the reader must piece together regarding why The Outsider is following Owlman, who is tracking town Talon, who has gone after The Jokester. Finally, The Outsider drops cryptic teasers and only answers some of the questions that he raises, increasing the reader’s confusion about why who did what.
However, Earth-3 is an incomplete reversal. Owlman’s brutal totalitarian has replaced Batman’s guardianship, and The Jokester (the counterpart to The Joker) has become more “heroic” by default in his anarchic defiance of Owlman’s rule. However, the most gruesome act of violence in “Justice League” #23.4 is by the hand of the Jokester, and his gruesome, macabre sense of humor is exactly the same as the Joker’s. Heroes have become villains but the villains are no heroes, leading to an unrelentingly bleak moral landscape.
Kudranski’s style and Kalisz’s colors play this darkness up, resulting in a Gotham that feels like “Sin City” or “V for Vendetta,” but without the unifying stylistic verve and bright spots of sympathetic antiheroes or a coherent moral code. Kudranski’s art is a bad match for “Justice League” #23.4. Johns and Gates’ script aims to create mystery but draw out suspense in a heavy-handed way. The Outsider’s cryptic, confessional voice feels intimate but falls flat in being compelling in its own right.
Kudranski creates well-composed single images, but he is over-fond of close-up, cropped images. Individual panels are striking and mysterious, but his panel and page transitions are weak. While his approach assists in producing disorientation suitable for a dystopian landscape, he risks losing the narrative thread too much. Thus, the flow of action is sacrificed in favor of mood and atmosphere. “Justice League” #23.4 is a good twisted mirror to New Earth but a flawed story.