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Almost Friday

by  in Comic News Comment
Almost Friday

I think all of us that read and collect superhero comics have a few characters that we tend to forgive almost anything, we’ll continue to check in with them no matter what. It’s completely irrational and indefensible, for example, but I find myself very nearly unable to pass up a Batman comic, no matter who’s working on it. If I don’t at least know what’s going on with Batman, then I feel like I’m not reading comics at all. Greg Burgas has talked about feeling the same way about Moon Knight, Bill Reed has admitted to being a sucker for the Mighty Thor, and I suspect even our all-powerful overlord Cronin has a soft spot for the X-Men.

My short-list of those characters is pretty, well, short. Batman. Dr. Strange. That’s it.

But then there’s the B list. These are the books I will drop… but it pains me to do it. Because they’re about the characters that I WANT to like, I’m always rooting for them to succeed, I loved them once and I want them to be wonderful again. Their revivals always get a chance with me; I’ll at least give the first couple of issues a look. When they turn out to be bad I feel vaguely betrayed and bitter, but when they’re great… oh my God, it’s as though the heavens have opened, angels are singing, and a beautiful light shines down upon the entire comics industry, because _________ is finally GOOD again.

Yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh. But tell me you haven’t had that feeling.

The trouble is, no two fans have the same vision of what that greatness is. It usually depends on when you first encountered that particular book or series and fell in love for the first time. “The Golden Age is twelve,” remember.

Which brings me to the Justice League. The League, the League, all the internet this week is abuzz about the new Justice League.

The JLA and I go way back, and God knows we’ve had our ups and downs. As regular readers will remember, my entry point into comics was television. The Adam West Batman and the Filmation cartoons. That was where I first encountered the Justice League, at the age of seven. During the Superman/Aquaman Hour, there were a series of rotating shorts featuring the other DC heroes — Green Lantern, Hawkman, Atom, Flash, the Teen Titans, and the Justice League.

And that essentially formed my core concept of what I thought the League should be. Because the League of the cartoons featured the characters from all the other cartoons, all together. It was the blockbuster event, the place where you could see everyone together. Seeing all your favorites in the same story… that was what the League was FOR.

When I branched out from TV to reading comics, the JLA was one of the first books I sought out. I think my first one was #70, guest-starring the Creeper, and I hung in there pretty regularly with the book for the next few years.

That was an awkward period for the JLA, as it happens– Denny O’Neil and Mike Friedrich were writing some pretty deranged stories, trying to jam ‘relevance’ in with the standard Silver Age DC alien invasion stuff. It was a pretty bad fit. Still, the fun of seeing all the big names together, along with others I didn’t know from TV like Green Arrow and the JSA and Black Canary, was enough to carry me through some pretty bad stories. And I always ponied up for the Giants, the ones reprinting the older stories.

I was a sucker for anything that was a Giant in those days, it was the best bang for the buck… or a quarter, anyway, my allowance in those days.

Where I fell in love, though, was very specific. That was the JLA under Len Wein and Dick Dillin. Elongated Man and Red Tornado joined the League. All sorts of cool guest stars — the Freedom Fighters, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, John Stewart, even the Phantom Stranger dropped by once in a while.

Stories ranged all over the universe. There was a sense of grand adventure to it all, that summer-blockbuster feel that the JLA should have. Plus, Len Wein clearly had great affection for Batman’s character, because he was often the smartest and most badassed guy in the room. Nothing wins over the Bat-fans like watching our guy outclass all the superpowered folks.

That’s MY League. Maybe yours is different. There have been quite a few iterations over the years, and each one has its fans. Maybe yours is this one…

Or this one…

Or this one…

Even this one has its fans…

And so on. But most all of them are based on the idea of getting normally-individual super characters together in one story. The trouble with writing a team book like JLA or Avengers is that the selling point is getting all the big marquee names together; but, as continuity became more and more important over the years, it became harder and harder to actually write interesting stories about the big names, because those plots go in their own individual books. The usual solution is to bring in a second-string team of supporting characters who DON’T have their own book and focus on them. Red Tornado, Elongated Man, Green Arrow, Zatanna… and so on. Almost every incarnation of the League has had its second-stringers. Occasionally, as in the era of the Detroit JLA, the second-stringers even take over the book.

This is always a colossal mistake and sales usually take a hit. What Len Wein understood with the Red Tornado and Elongated Man, and Gerry Conway understood with Firestorm and Zatanna (and failed utterly to understand with JLA Detroit) and Giffen and DeMatteis understood with Beetle and Booster and Oberon, and Grant Morrison understood with Steel and Huntress, and so on, is that the second-string characters work best when they are reacting and playing off the first-string team. That’s what’s fun. They become viewpoint characters for the readers. What’s it LIKE to hang out and have adventures with Batman and Superman and those guys?

Which brings me, finally, to Justice League of America #0 and #1, from Brad Meltzer and Ed Benes and company.

I wasn’t that thrilled with the #0 issue, despite the fact that I’m a sucker for the all-star artist jam idea and the fact that Meltzer is clearly a Wein-Dillin JLA guy, the same as me. The first glimpse of Meltzer’s JLA just seemed like more depressing “Identity Crisis” stuff, revealing all the different ways the Leaguers RELATE to each other. Deep emotions they can’t quite bring themselves to voice. Etc. For this crap I can go home at Thanksgiving and be depressed around my OWN relatives, I don’t need to see it in the JLA.

So I was going to skip #1. I had tried the zero issue, grieved a bit that this time was not the angel-chorus “It’s GOOD again!” experience that the first issue of the Morrison League was, or the Giffen-DeMatteis League was, and moved on. Maybe next time.

But then I heard that #1 spent a lot of time on the Red Tornado, and Kathy Sutton.

And I fell for it. Justice League of America #106, the one where the Red Tornado joins the League, is one of my favorite JLA issues — hell, one of my favorite comics — ever.

When I had occasion last year to list my ten favorite single issues of all time, here is what I had to say about it:

I bought this off the stands as a youth and read it to death. More than any other book on my list, it exemplifies how I think a newsstand comic should work: Done in one. Story picks up threads from previous adventures but at no point did it lose me or go over my head. Clear dialogue with snap and humor. Three-act structure with a clever twist at the end. And it fulfills my additional requirements for a good JLA story — the heroes should work together and we should get to see a lot of them together at once. This particular tale cast the Tornado as a nerdy outsider, which I always was a sucker for, being one myself, and the way he kept thinking the League wouldn’t ever come through for him and then they did… man, I ate that up. It also introduced Kathy Sutton, and though there was romance there what struck me about her was that she was NICE, she was the only person that was nice to the Tornado, people SHOULD be nice to each other. Even if the person is a humaniform robot. A point the story came back to more than once. Wein was at the top of his game and the art from Dick Dillin was a beautiful thing. To this day he is THE Justice League artist for me.

Looking at the Meltzer-Benes Justice League of America #1, it’s pretty obvious they loved that issue and that take on the Red Tornado as much as I did. I should have swooned over this book. They should have had me at hello.

And yet… they didn’t.

I wanted to love it. There was a lot of good stuff in there. But as Dashiell Hammett once snarled at Lillian Hellman about one of her plays, “It’s not bad. It’s worse than bad. It’s ALMOST good.”

That kind of sums up Brad Meltzer’s comics work for me. I ALMOST liked “Archer’s Quest.” I ALMOST liked Identity Crisis. And I ALMOST liked this new first issue of the Justice League. But “almost” doesn’t do it.

First of all, I have to give Meltzer his props. He gets a lot of things right. His mix of A-list characters and B-list characters looks good, there’s a fair number of different story possibilities there. His basic sense of how these people interact is okay, and he seems interested in restoring the idea that the Leaguers aren’t just teammates or members of an organization, they’re actually friends. I liked getting the extra background on Red Tornado and Kathy Sutton, and I was okay with the shameless tugging on my heartstrings there because I’m really a sentimental sap– yeah, I admit it. All that was fine.

The art I did not care for. That put me off quite a bit. I have liked Benes’ work other places, notably Birds of Prey, but here it looked very 90’s Image-y, especially the scritchy-scratchy inking style. Not my thing at all. That wouldn’t have killed the book for me, though; I’m a story guy. I can live with art that’s not to my taste. But what I kept wondering, all the time I was reading it, was Why is this book so totally aimed at guys like me?

It’s a number-one issue, the fresh start of a new series. A book that by all rights should be one of THE gateway books into the DCU. And yet it’s completely off-putting, steeped in past stories, full of cameos and pointless name-checking, and the big reveal of the villains and the twist at the end is completely confusing to anyone without a near-eidetic memory for DC lore.

Sure, I got it, I knew who everyone was. But I’m forty-four years old, I’ve been reading this stuff for thirty-five YEARS. It’s an introductory issue, the start of something great, supposedly… and yet, where was the introduction?

Missing in action as far as I could tell. Half the time there’s not even a name given for the people talking. I’m not suggesting we go back to the days of captions like “Clark (Superman) Kent…” but surely there’s some kind of happy medium between that and these confusing, color-coded, internal-narrative blocks of text switching from one character to another. A page that’s a huge pull-back-and-reveal moment does no damn good, it has no impact at all, if we don’t know who we’re looking at.

And the book was full of those. I don’t think it even occurred to Brad Meltzer that this might be the first issue of the JLA for somebody. For anyone not familiar with the individual histories of: Red Tornado, the Metal Men, Deadman, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books, Vixen and the Detroit League, Green Arrow and Speedy-now-Arsenal and Black Canary, among others, not to mention all the fallout from Infinite Crisis… for anyone who doesn’t know ALL ABOUT those things, the book was damned near impenetrable. What the hell’s the rationale behind putting out a #1 issue of a book that feels like #498 of a series you aren’t buying? How is that a good jumping-on point?

I have snarled elsewhere about how much I hate decompressed comics and treating individual issues as short chapters in a long book, and there’s lots of that here as well. It seems as though, instead of actually having an adventure, everyone sits around and talks about adventures they had in other comics. This is extremely annoying, especially, I imagine, to someone who didn’t read any of those other comics. But this issue does do a lot of what I liked in the original Red Tornado issue I was talking about above, #106. There’s a defined arc to the book, it builds to a solid emotional payoff, it sets up the story for the next issue… Like I said. It’s ALMOST good.

But not quite. No one who reads this new JLA book is going to get the jolt I — or, apparently, Brad Meltzer — did off the old satellite-era, Wein-Dillin League. That’s a shame. Because it’s obvious to me that’s what Meltzer’s going for and that’s a JLA I’d love to read. But this isn’t it. No angel chorus this time.

Still, I’m rooting for them. And down the line, I’ll probably be checking in with the JLA again. Because, like I said, I WANT to love them. Maybe next time I will.

See you next week.

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