Normally I would never write a column on a reader’s dare, and I’m still not, really, but having a reader and my wife bring up the same criticism in a 24-hour period made me think it was worth a look.
Basically, it was, “try writing a happy column for a change, ya grouch.”
This seemed odd to me. I’m mostly an optimist about comics and I don’t know that I EVER have bought a comic without thinking I was going to at least enjoy it a little. I don’t understand the fans that do that, buy stuff they hate — it certainly seems like the least effective way to actually get comics you like — but never mind that. I don’t think I’m nearly as crabby as other columnists out there on the net, but for me there has been rather more snark and bile than usual, especially things I’ve written about insular, continuity-heavy superhero stories and the fans that love them.
Therefore, this week, a column full of love about insular, continuity-heavy superhero stories I happen to really, really like. Because it CAN be done in such a way as to not hang a huge “Keep Out of Our Clubhouse!” sign on the books for new readers.
But first, as always, a little background.
I never understood what the big hassle was with DC and their multiple-Earth setup for superhero crossovers. I enjoyed that a great deal. First time I encountered it was when I was about eight years old, I think– which would have made it the JLA-JSA crossover of 1969. That was the one in which the Black Canary lost her husband, private eye Larry Lance, and decided to move to Earth-One and hang with our guys, because being around her actual friends and family in her time of bereavement was too painful.
Okay, snark-free, I promised, but even Denny O’Neil says that was not the League’s finest hour, and he WROTE it. Anyway, the point is that I was okay with the parallel-worlds thing. I could follow that part just fine. In fact, I grew to have great affection for the whole idea, the annual JLA-JSA teamings were always a high point for me and one of the few times as a kid I would take a chance on the dreaded “To Be Continued,” simply because I enjoyed them so. Now, I had no idea of the original Golden-Age incarnations of the JSA then, not until they started showing up as reprint backup strips in the current books. I just assumed Earth-2 was a weird parallel world. I think when the light finally dawned was when I found Jules Feiffer’s original The Great Comic Book Heroes at the local library. A fine book, recommended to you all in any case, although you really should try to find the original edition with all the great reprints in the back half.
Chances are you can’t. God bless Fantagraphics for at least getting Feiffer’s hilarious reminiscences of the Golden Age back in print and good on them for doing it…
… although, it’s not quite the same book without the reprints. Man, that book was the mother lode for a young comic-book fan in the 70’s. Origins of pretty much every headliner in the JSA, I think, except Hawkman and the Spectre, and they were at least represented. But I’m getting sidetracked here.
The point is, I enjoyed the JSA a great deal, and their “convoluted” set-up was no impediment to it. Basically, they lived on a different Earth than the Justice League and their guys were older. Some of them were married. How hard is that? I could follow it just fine, at the age of eight. It wasn’t like the JSA guys didn’t LOOK different. Nobody was going to mistake Jay Garrick for Barry Allen. It was exotic and fun, something a little different and weird and, best of all, guaranteed to fire the imagination of a bright kid. What if there really WAS an Earth-2? And what if there was an Earth-2 version of ME but older, someone I could hang with and learn stuff from? Man, that would rock. And this was an idea that really resonated throughout the best JLA-JSA stories, the idea of legacy and the passing of the mantle from the old to the young.
That was the baby that DC threw out with its Crisis bathwater, solving a ‘problem’ that really wasn’t there in the first place. Let’s just own up. It wasn’t readers who were confused by Earth-One and Earth-Two. It was DC staffers. Add to that the fans-turning-pro coming into the business in the 1970’s, most of whom were young and full of ambition and going to by God lead the comics revolution. They had the solution to DC’s stodginess… make the books more like Marvel’s.
Mostly this came out in ‘relevance’ and heroes bickering and longer stories — the hated ‘continued’, something I used to depend on DC NEVER using, suddenly was popping up all over the place — but one of the lesser symptoms of this was that suddenly DC history had to make sense. So no more ‘duplicate’ heroes.
The weird thing about this is that DC editors easily grasped the idea that Power Girl was more interesting than Supergirl, and the Huntress was infinitely more interesting than Batgirl… but they absolutely could not get their heads around the idea that what MADE them interesting was the Golden Age legacy. Helena Bertinelli, angry mob boss daughter, is just kind of a cliche, but Helena Wayne, daughter of the retired Batman, seeking revenge for her murdered mother, the Catwoman, behind her father’s back and without his endoresement… NOW you’re talking. Even the failed “Birds of Prey” TV show understood that idea. They knew which Huntress was the one that was fun to tell stories about.
Since the 70’s DC has tried at various times to make the JSA work in its own series. All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc. both had some good stuff going on in the early part of their respective runs, but the continuity nightmare that the original Crisis inflicted on the books was something they never really got over. And after that the only real answer DC seemed to have for how to use the JSA characters was either “kill them” or “turn them evil.”
The real rehabilitation for the JSA came from one of its darkest moments, oddly enough — the carnage in DC’s “Zero Hour” crossover (bloodshed that was there for no real reason other than to emphasize the seriousness of the goings-on by upping the body-count) gratuitously wiped out the original Atom, Hourman, and Dr. Mid-nite… but in return we got Starman, a book that absolutely understood the power of legacy stories and how the JSA characters were made for that. The Jack Knight Starman character arc was all about what young people can learn from history and from their elders that have gone through the same things before.
I loved Starman from the get-go, but I confess I was really surprised by A) how fans supported it and B) how DC supported it. Because when it started, my first thought was, “Aw, damn, another JSA legacy book that no one will like but geezers like me.” I was delighted to be proved wrong. I was even more delighted to see it issued in its entirety as a series of graphic novels, because, as I’ve said here before, I really do think that’s the wave of the future. That’s how Starman should be read.
Which brings me to what originally prompted this week’s column in the first place — Geoff Johns and the new JSA. Because Johns is doing essentially the same kind of thing there as Robinson did in Starman, but for some reason critics adore Robinson and pillory Johns.
Fans in general, and this blog in particular, tend to beat on Geoff Johns like a pinata. I don’t exclude myself from this: I’ve been very snide about Green Lantern: Rebirth and the blood-spattered mess that Infinite Crisis became (which was especially graveling to me, because I honestly thought for a week or two there that Johns was going to rectify the mistake of twenty years ago and give us Earth-2 and an isolated JSA again.)
Nevertheless, I confess that I am a huge fan of Johns’ JSA. It’s certainly not for purists — I remember my friend Kurt Mitchell telling me emphatically that JSA certainly isn’t the Justice Society HE remembers, and he’s right, it’s not. Really the spiritual ancestor of the current JSA is the Roy Thomas-John Buscema Avengers. It’s classic old-school super-team soap opera, and either you like that stuff or you don’t.
I happen to like it a lot. But I think that old-school feel hurts the book’s standing among critics (but not readers, apparently — I always find it a bit jarring when I remember that you can make a really good case for this being the single most successful version of the JSA ever, including the original, in terms of the number of issues published and overall sales. A lot of people dig this book.) But it’s not a critical darling.
Except with me. I think Johns is doing some good stuff here and it’s worth a second look. I picked it up out of morbid curiosity, I admit, when “The Return of Hawkman” came out in trade. I wanted to see how anyone could possibly EVER straighten that out.
But oddly enough, it was the first story in that collection that hooked me, “Injustice for All.” A new incarnation of the Injustice Society attacks the JSA in their own headquarters and in their private lives. I’m always a sucker for the villain finding out the secret identity and getting the hero at home, and though I didn’t really know who any of these folks were, the story still worked for me. It was fun. Hell-for-leather, turn-the-dial-to-eleven adventure melodrama is a form, as far as I’m concerned, not a perjorative. I love that stuff. And this book was clearly living right there in the thick of it. But that’s just standard, you can find that lots of places.
Where JSA excels, where it really gets good, is when it remembers it should be about the idea of its own legacy. When it ventures out into the mainstream DCU, or gets involved with company crossovers, it instantly bogs down. (I could really have lived without the various runs at trying to solve the problem of the Hal Jordan Spectre, for instance.) But when it stays in its own little JSA-centric universe, with stories like “Injustice For All” and “Stealing Thunder” and “JSA/JSA,” it is a hoot and a half and no trouble to keep up with, because that’s when Geoff Johns is a little extra-careful to make sure everyone knows who everyone else is. He also does very well writing the actual legacy characters, especially Jakeem Thunder and Stargirl and the new Mr. Terrific. Michael Holt in particular has become a real favorite of mine, there’s a great Doc Savage-esque quality about him, and I don’t care HOW much fun Greg Burgas makes of his mask (which, is, admittedly, kind of dumb-looking.)
The other place JSA works beautifully, and this is something I wish the industry at large would pay more attention to, is as a series of paperback collections. This is a book that really should be read as a series of trades, which is how I read it. Month-to-month I imagine it would be a hard slog for people, there’s too much to keep track of… it’s very densely plotted and a difficult book to sample or jump on in the middle. But as a paperback coming out twice a year? It’s just plain fun. And the beauty of it is that it comes packaged with a little JSA roll call at the front of the book, meaning it’s that animal no one thought was possible — a continuity-heavy project from Geoff Johns that’s new-reader-friendly.
I know this because these books are highly sought after by my students when I bring them to class, and my twelve-year-olds certainly aren’t steeped in Earth-2 lore, or even caught up to speed on current DC except in the vaguest possible way; in fact, they generally aren’t at all interested in anything that’s not manga. But they adore JSA, I think for two reasons… one, it’s continuity-heavy, but in its trade paperback form, it’s still SELF-CONTAINED. So the internal history of the book functions like the internal history of Tolkien’s books or something like that. It’s a deep richly-textured background you have to be initiated into, and work at understanding a little bit, but it doesn’t stop you at the door. The books have stumbled here a little — I think it was an extremely stupid decision to end one on a cliffhanger, and I would like to see much less interaction with the DCU at large — but mostly they work AS books.
The other reason my students love them is because Johns knows the book isn’t supposed to be about a bunch of old folks. It’s supposed to be about what the young folks can learn from the old folks. It’s about legacy. The book really shines in its treatment of the younger characters, Jakeem and Courtney and Kendra, hell, even Pieter Cross and Michael Holt. The riff that has come up in the book over and over, the thing that I have noticed really makes a kid sit up and pay attention, is when the young people have to prove something to the older people, and they succeed. Maybe learning a little something in the process.
That’s the best kind of old-school funnybook writing, if you ask me. I wish Geoff Johns was doing more of THIS kind of comic, and less of the stuff we’ve been seeing lately where it feels like he’s trying to top Identity Crisis for grim and gritty and grown-up. It seems like an odd sort of choice editorially when there’s more real adolescent fun to be had in a book like JSA than a book like Teen Titans, especially when you’d think the Titans were tailor-made for that same legacy approach and they have the same guy writing both books. But JSA gets it right, and for me, at least, the Geoff Johns Titans doesn’t. Certainly the teenagers in JSA are more fun to read about than that morose crew over in Titans. Go figure.
See you next week.
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