Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

The Magic Is Gone

Posted by Don MacPherson on March 23rd, 2012

Justice League #7
“The Villain’s Journey, Prologue”
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gene Ha
Colors: Art Lyon
Letters: Patrick Brosseau

“Shazam!”
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Nick J. Napolitano

Cover artists: Jim Lee & Scott Williams (regular)/Gary Frank (variant)
Editor: Brian Cunningham
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99 US (regular)/$4.99 (digital combo pack)

The good news is this is the first issue of this series to deliver enough content to merit the $3.99 US cover price. With the main story and the backup, it finally feels as though we’re getting value for that extra dollar. Furthermore, writer Geoff Johns offers an unexpected story in the main piece, distinguishing this incarnation of the title team from past iterations of the super-hero group. But for every strength to be found in this issue, there seems to be an element that’s irksome and detracts from the reader’s enjoyment. And most of those elements are to be found in the thoroughly wrong-headed reinvention of the Shazam! property in the backup feature.

Shazam!: I’m discussing the backup story first because… well, there’s just so much to say. I suppose I ought to start on a positive note. One has to give Johns and DC credit for including this 12-page backup in a comic that boasts a 22-page main feature. There’s definitely value to be had in this $3.99 comic, created by some of the publisher’s most sought-after talent. Furthermore, setting aside the traditions and the appeal of the core premise, I think it’s fair to say Johns offers some clever ideas in this story, not the least of which is the notion of “mystical abduction,” riffing on alien abduction. From there, though, everything goes rather wrong.

Johns introduces us to a puffed-up Dr. Sivana who seems more like pre-New 52 Lex Luthor than the snivelling evil genius with the overbite we’ve come to know over the years. The writer also introduces us to Bratty Billy Batson, a thoroughly unlikeable interpretation of the character. Furthermore, the hook for the story seems to be that “magic is coming back.” It’s a puzzling approach to the character if he’s going to remain in the larger context of the DC Universe; we’ve seen plenty of magic in various New 52 titles, notably Justice League Dark.

Gary Frank’s artwork is impressive, as always. He brings meticulous detail to the visuals, but more importantly, his characters are thoroughly expressive. Given the dark, horror riff at play in Johns’ story, fear and nerves imprinted on the characters’ faces makes sense. Mind you, he captures some positive energy as well. The couple interested in adopting Billy later in the segment exude kindness and caring; it’s nice to be reminded Frank can convey more than anger and cynicism. But as strong as Frank’s efforts are, they seem like a poor fit for the world of Shazam! Oh sure, it fits the darker tone Johns instills in it here, but then, that’s not really Shazam!, is it?

The focus here is on modernizing the Shazam! legend. Johns seems to have decided that a negative, harsher tone is called for in order to do so. Even the new Shazam! logo looks darker and slightly grittier. It’s ironic that while the characters and the narration refer to the return of magic (literally) in this story, Johns seems to have stripped the property of its magic, figuratively. Maybe he’s planning a bait-and-switch. Maybe when the magic comes back, a brighter, more wondrous tone will come with it. But that’s not the vibe opening episode is giving off.

Justice League: Unlike the backup feature, the main story is a much more pleasing prospect. The tone and plot isn’t at all what I expected from the second story arc, and while it’s not perfect, it approaches the Justice League from a much different perspective. More importantly, it directs our attention on a supporting character that’s never been all that interesting in the past. Furthermore, the unconventional choice of Gene Ha to follow fan-favorite artist Jim Lee during his hiatus is a welcome change of pace, as his less traditional super-hero genre style suits the more mature and refined elements in the plot.

The central plot — about a villain in the making, striving to take down the Justice League — isn’t all that interesting, to be honest. The story and the new, unknown antagonist come off as rather generic in tone. Fortunately, the character-driven stuff and subplots are far more engaging. Johns explores the Justice League as a force for political change, not only in America but the world over. Yes, the notion boasts a strong Authority riff, but it’s not often we see DC casting its more marketable icons in such socio-political roles. I also appreciated the contrast between the public’s perception of the team as a group of friends who always know what to do and the reality of the in-fighting and improvisation that make up their everyday interactions and activities.

There are a number of problems with the story. One is the vagueness about when the story is set. We know the first story arc was set five years ago, six months after Superman’s debut in the New 52 continuity, but in this new story arc, the team is much more established, with its satellite headquarters, government liaison agency. It seems as though the series hasn’t “caught up” with the rest of the New 52 line, but the heroes also don’t seem as young as they did in the first arc. (Update: I see now Page One has a caption indicating this story is set in the present day, so I’m wrong about the vagueness of when the story takes place. Still, these characters hardly seem as though they’ve been working together for five years.)

Furthermore, the Sylvester/Tweety riff in the Batman/Green Lantern dynamic is irksome, as is GL’s chauvinism and immaturity (hitting on a divorcee in the middle of a battle makes him seem like quite the ass). Finally, A.R.G.U.S., the military/political organization designed to bridge the gap between the Justice League and the U.S. government, is far too reminiscent of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., and the similarities are even more prominent when one considers the timing (the imminent arrival of the Avengers movie, in which S.H.I.E.L.D. plays a prominent role). DC already has any number of government agencies connected to superhumans, so it begs the question: why create another?

Gene Ha’s art on this story looks like a cross between the styles of Richard (Hellboy: House of the Living Dead) Corben Chris (Tom Strong) Sprouse. There’s a mix blend of realism and dark surrealism to his visuals here. The impish creatures the heroes fight early in the story look like something out of a Sam Kieth comic (specifically, The Maxx), and though I like the bizarre designs, they’re also a bit familiar and even generic in tone. The most important contribution Ha makes to the story is his portrayal of Steve Trevor. He manages to make him look appropriately stoic while still allowing him to be emotive without resorting to exaggeration.

Ultimately, this story isn’t a Justice League yarn, but rather an examination of Steve Trevor. I’ve never much cared for the character in the past (save for perhaps Nathan Fillion’s portrayal in the animated Wonder Woman direct-to-DVD movie from a few years back). But Johns offers up a radically different interpretation of Trevor. He’s brilliant, he’s determined, he’s tough and he’s privately melancholy. He stands out as the most “together” person in the story, but he’s also the most broken and conflicted. Johns delivers a strong character study, one that’s so strong I hope we get to see a lot more of the character beyond this new story arc. 6/10

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One Response to “The Magic Is Gone”

  1. Chain Reactions | Justice League #7 | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    [...] Don MacPherson, Eye on Comics: “The central plot — about a villain in the making, striving to take down the Justice League — isn’t all that interesting, to be honest. The story and the new, unknown antagonist come off as rather generic in tone. Fortunately, the character-driven stuff and subplots are far more engaging. Johns explores the Justice League as a force for political change, not only in America but the world over. Yes, the notion boasts a strong Authority riff, but it’s not often we see DC casting its more marketable icons in such socio-political roles. I also appreciated the contrast between the public’s perception of the team as a group of friends who always know what to do and the reality of the in-fighting and improvisation that make up their everyday interactions and activities.” [...]