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Grumpy Old Fan | Rating the late

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Rating the late

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this post about two famously-delayed DC miniseries: a family emergency resulted in my very own delay. As it happens, though, Cry For Justice was pushed back one more week.

So here we all are. Flash: Rebirth wrapped up a week after its follow-up, Blackest Night: The Flash. Cry For Justice concluded today, two months into Justice League of America’s post-CFJ storyline.

And that’s pretty much all I want to say about the delays. It’s actually been kind of fun, in a fannish way, trying to put the timeline in order.  “Removing” these miniseries from the normal flow of DC events helped me focus on their merits, and particularly how they developed not so much as “events” but as stories. In this respect Flash: Rebirth faltered down the stretch while CFJ made a good effort to finish strong.

Not that I want to encourage such tardiness, DC….

MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR FLASH: REBIRTH AND JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRY FOR JUSTICE

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Some Big Event miniseries, although steeped in continuity, turn out to be decent standalone stories. Geoff Johns’ and Ethan Van Sciver’s Green Lantern: Rebirth was one of those. However, some end up being mostly frameworks upon which to hang a series of cool moments. Sadly, Johns’ and Van Sciver’s Flash: Rebirth was one of those.

Let’s get the main objection out of the way first: I didn’t like the ending. Specifically, I didn’t like Barry not choosing to restore the proper timeline, in which Professor Zoom never framed his father for killing his mother. I especially didn’t like it because issue #6 opens with Barry and Wally talking about a) using the Cosmic Treadmill to travel to particular times, and b) the fact that history can be changed. Now, there are arguments to be made as to why Barry can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t, undo Zoom’s changes. Maybe it’s Barry’s ethics; maybe it’s Speed Force peculiarities. Whatever it is, though, it’s a tremendous dangling plot thread, and it leaves the rest of the miniseries feeling unfinished. Barry saying “I’m OK” and doing the paperwork to close his mom’s case doesn’t change the fact that his parents are dead when originally they were not (and originally they didn’t need to be). I expect Johns to revisit this at some point in the regular Flash series, but considering that it is such a big part of this story I’d have thought Johns would’ve finished it here.

To be sure, Flash: Rebirth plays with some attractive high-concept ideas: Barry as the new Black Flash (briefly, of course); Professor Zoom bringing him back; and Barry’s relationship to the Speed Force. However, it never pulls those ideas into a satisfying narrative. Although it is very similar structurally to GL: Rebirth, Flash: Rebirth is grounded in a very different set of circumstances. The Silver Age Green Lantern mythology — Hal Jordan as one of thousands of Green Lanterns, patrolling the universe under the guidance of the Guardians of Oa — had been almost completely obliterated in order to focus reader attention on the “torchbearer,” Kyle Rayner. Rebuilding all of that required some heavy-duty plotting and a generous amount of continuity gymnastics. What’s more, depending on your perspective, it might well have been righting a tremendous wrong, perpetrated at the height of the ‘90s “replacement hero” fad and therefore offensive to any reasonable standard of taste. For many fans, the events of GL: Rebirth simply needed to happen, sooner rather than later.

Not so with Flash: Rebirth, which devotes a lot of space (including a major plot point) to justifying Barry’s return. Even Barry wonders why he’s been pulled out of the Speed Force; and while that is a decent way to approach the story, it is diffused by the series’ eventual lack of focus. At first Barry doesn’t know that Zoom pulled him out of the Speed Force. All he knows is that he needs some way to acclimate to these new surroundings. Over the course of the series his questioning turns into acceptance; which again is fine for Barry, but not so good for the reader. It is not enough for Barry to defeat Zoom. It is not even enough for Flash: Rebirth to bring back Max Mercury, make Irey West the new Impulse, give Wally a distinctive costume, and return Jesse Quick’s speed. All of these things are fine in isolation, and I am sure they will provide years’ worth of super-speed enjoyment. At the end of issue #6, though, the reader wants closure which Flash: Rebirth ultimately doesn’t provide.

Instead, F:R flits from bit to bit, pausing for the fanservice — especially with Ethan Van Sciver’s obsessive, careful work helping to put on the brakes — but giving only a panel or a word balloon to explaining plot points like the lab techs’ murder and Max’s return. (This attention deficit may be some kind of embedded commentary, going along with the book’s “need to slow down” message, but I doubt it.) F:R can afford to indulge itself, since Johns will probably have more room to explore all the teases and unanswered questions … but that doesn’t mean it should be so indulgent. Like its GL predecessor, F:R is destined for a long shelf life, and therefore needs to entice readers into future volumes. Unlike GL: Rebirth, though, this miniseries may leave them dazed and confused — and not in a good way. Flash: Rebirth may read better as the first installment in an extended saga, but it risks alienating readers expecting a little more immediate follow-through.

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Justice League: Cry for Justice #1

Justice League: Cry For Justice has almost the opposite problem. It starts from a position of extreme continuity-grounding (which I think is a 10-yard penalty) and ends up being a half-decent superhero story. When CFJ began last July, its parent title Justice League of America was in a holding pattern and its membership was in flux. The notion that CFJ would feature a new team, and one based around the old “proactive superhero” cliché, seemed incredibly lazy; and the initial execution wasn’t much better.

A big part of reading serialized superhero fare is the rush of in-the-moment emotions. Last summer, when CFJ began, it set off some pretty raw reactions, mostly because the team spent an inordinate amount of time posing, talking, and torturing suspects. In hindsight, and specifically in light of writer James Robinson’s current work on JLA (with penciller Mark Bagley, not CFJ’s Mauro Cascioli and his similarly-styled associates), CFJ’s often-stilted drama has become easier to take.

In fact, despite the story being grounded firmly in a very post-Final Crisis, pre-Blackest Night status quo — and also leading pretty clearly into this year’s big Green Arrow arc — Cry For Justice works acceptably well on its own. By the end, our heroes have worked through the blood and angst of the early issues, and have renounced their darker impulses; and the major emotional impact has been confined largely to one Leaguer (guess who). Even an innocent supporting character’s death didn’t seem particularly gratuitous … although the destruction in Star City (already spoiled by recent issues of JLA) and Red Arrow’s maiming might arguably have been enough to send Ollie over the edge.

For those of you who might have bailed out on Cry For Justice a few months ago, the plot essentially goes like this: the supervillain Prometheus quietly puts together a comprehensive plan to torment the world’s superheroes by sending their home cities on one-way trips through time and space. To do this he hires various other villains to steal familiar items of DC technology (the Cosmic Treadmill, the Time Pool, etc.) and/or kidnap assorted scientists. Along the way, the villains kill certain heroes’ family members and friends, which motivates those heroes to seek revenge. Eventually, the heroes of CFJ figure out they’re all after Prometheus, and team up to capture him. However, Prometheus explains that they can’t stop his devices, because each has been rigged to resist any kind of super-tampering. The Leaguers realize that the only way to stop him is to let him go in exchange for defusing the devices, so that’s what they do — but only after Star City has been devastated and Red Arrow’s young daughter has been killed. These personal losses later lead Green Arrow to track down and kill Prometheus.

Accordingly, while I haven’t had a lot of time to process it more completely, Cry For Justice doesn’t really buy into the simple “get the bad guys first” premise which was its initial hook. It becomes a story about inevitability — about how sometimes nothing can (or could have) prevented tragedy; but how the consequences can still be managed. As a result, CFJ steals (perhaps unintentionally) a moment from Watchmen, but comparing the two is pretty pointless: CFJ definitely doesn’t want to be the last superhero story anyone would ever need. Judging by their treatment in the Robinson/Bagley JLA, Robinson also doesn’t want the Justice League to trade too heavily in cynicism, so only Green Arrow must deal directly with the miniseries’ aftermath.

To be sure, Cry For Justice’s closing issue hasn’t made up for the rest of the miniseries’ faults. Robinson’s dialogue is a little too arch, Cascioli’s art is pretty stiff, and characters pop in and out like moles to be whacked. Firestorm is mistakenly drawn as the deceased Ronnie Raymond in at least one issue, I’m still not sure how many Flashes were involved, and Batwoman shows up just long enough to get a participation award. The ending itself is also problematic: just how did Green Arrow got close enough to Prometheus to put an arrow through his skull, when the villain was earlier shown taking out Justice Leaguers left and right?

Still, as reliant as it is on previous stories, and as much as it does to set up both the current JLA run and the aforementioned Team Arrow plot(s), CFJ doesn’t feel transitory. Rather, it describes a somewhat old-fashioned supervillain’s plot; and once that plot has been resolved and the threat neutralized, the story is over. (Said plot might have been thwarted by the JLA’s time-honored “Fox Maneuver” of switching opponents, but that’s probably beside the point.) While many of CFJ’s featured characters are now official Justice Leaguers, the regular JLA title has independently explained why they joined. Even Green Arrow’s current state of mind can be explained pretty simply in upcoming issues of his own arc.

So why read Cry For Justice, when DC has already shown that it can get along with the book being significantly delayed? I think it comes back to the idea of closure. By not just following Prometheus’ plot, but actually getting rid of Prometheus, CFJ lets the reader move on, even if the characters still have unresolved issues. Again, this is the opposite of Flash: Rebirth, where the main character has found peace but the reader may feel otherwise.

It feels very odd to laud Cry For Justice basically for doing something as basic as resolving its major plotlines. I don’t know if CFJ’s early chest-thumping lowered my expectations so significantly, but here we are. Moreover, considering DC’s recent track record of open-ended event miniseries — and especially the notion that this miniseries was playing so heavily with the current DC landscape — its eventual resolution was (this will be a poor choice of phrase) a pleasant surprise. Cry For Justice is far from perfect, but in the end at least it managed to be interesting.

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