Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

A League of Their Own

Posted by Don MacPherson on February 28th, 2013

DC’s decision to cancel mid-level performer Justice League International and replace it with a new title by a high-profile creative team was understandable. The main Justice League title is a top-tier title for the publisher, and with writer Geoff Johns at the helm, Justice League of America is bound to bring in the bucks for DC as well. What surprised by about the move was the decision to launch two spinoffs from the new JLA title in the same month as the first issue (with one spinoff beating the mother title to the stands).

It seems like an unusual move, but I understand it. Those interested in JLA might be more likely to check out Katana and Vibe given the concurrent releases. I thought I’d take a look at all three…

Justice League of America #1
by Geoff Johns & David Finch

As it did with Earth 2, DC has opted for a title for this new series that evokes nostalgia for longtime readers such as myself who delved into super-hero comics by way of the original JLA title of the 1960s-1980s, but like Earth 2, this take on the JLA bears little resemblance to its Silver and Bronze Age namesake. The title actually makes sense in terms of political and governance perspectives, and it reflects what a radically different place the United States is when compared to the state of the union five decades ago. This Justice League is meant to belong to the American government, and it’s meant as a countermeasure. The JLA isn’t a team of heroes. Instead, it’s a weapon of mass destruction meant to be used against a perceived enemy (the unadorned, “real” Justice League). There’s a certain logic to the concept, and the cold, pragmatic tone of the conversation between Amanda Waller and Steve Trevor certainly brings a certain level of drama and tension to the story. But ultimately, this dark take on an iconic super-hero team wasn’t much fun to read. I don’t feel a drive to read the next issue. I don’t have a problem with grim perspectives on the super-hero genre, but this one just wasn’t all that compelling (though Johns’s retooling and reintroduction of the Secret Society concept certainly piqued my interest). I was somewhat intrigued by the different takes on some established DC characters here (especially the mysterious and celebrity-driven Stargirl), but ultimately, characterization isn’t a primary driving force here.

Though I didn’t care for the cold tone of the plot and dialogue here, David Finch’s style certainly suits the darker bent of Justice League of America. He seemed to be channelling Whilce (Wetworks) Portacio at times, and I found his over-rendering of characters’ sinew to be particularly distracting. Take, for example, the fourth panel on the seventh page (part of a double-page spread). Steve Trevor’s forearm looks as though it’s been twisted and wrung like a wet dishcloth. I get that Finch is trying to show us Trevor is a man of action who’s keyed up and ready to react physically in the blink of an eye. But his effort to instill intensity in that character and others robs them of credibility. Furthermore, the main cover artwork (regardless of which flag adorns it) is rather bland. In preview images, I thought it looked OK and evoked memories of American military victory and perseverance, but the final product looks washed out and blah. The negative space is probably meant to make the foreground images pop, but it doesn’t work. This comic book, on the surface, looks empty, even boring. 5/10

Justice League of America’s Vibe #1
By Geoff Johns, Andre Kreisberg, Pete Woods & Sean Parsons

I wasn’t expecting that. (Aside: Just as I finished typing the word “expecting,” the chair I was sitting on broke and I fell. True story.)

Whereas the modern distortion of the Justice League of America didn’t work for me in the previously reviewed title, this reinterpretation of Vibe was much stronger and took me by surprise. While I did read the “Detroit era” of Justice League of America in the mid 1980s, I wasn’t particularly taken with Vibe as a character, but Johns and Kreisberg have stripped the property of the racial and cultural stereotypes that defined it decades ago and built in its stead a character with a compelling motivation and background. I was initially put off by the link to the Darkseid invasion plot from the first story arc of the New 52 Justice League series, the notion of a young man trying to make something of his life to do right by an older brother who inspired him is handled well here, as are the negative familial elements, even if one could argue they border on cliché. I have to admit I was thrilled to see the return of an obscure supporting character from the Justice League Detroit era, and the incorporation of another C-list member of that League team at the end of the issue brought an air of menace and mystery that worked in the context of the title character’s innocence and goodness.

Pete Woods’s work here is almost unrecognizable from his art on Legion Lost and other recent projects, and the answer is clear. The pairing with inker Sean Parsons has made for a different visual result, understandably. It’s a bit too loose at times, but ultimately, I found the art to be attractive. Their take on Parademons was novel while remaining appropriately monstrous and alien in appearance, and they definitely conveyed the title character’s youth clearly. I thought the scope of the A.R.G.U.S. facility in Detroit was convincingly immense, and sure, it was over the top, but it hints at a larger plan for Vibe and a larger plot for this title. 7/10

Katana #1
by Ann Nocenti & Alex Sanchez

The first thing that struck me about this comic book was how distinct it is from most other super-hero fare, from DC or other genre publishers. Alex Sanchez’s style is an unconventional but not inaccessible one. The first page, with its two-thirds splash, immediately reminded me of the work of J.H. (Batwoman) Williams III, but subsequent pages show a stronger Jae (Inhumans) Lee influence. Nevertheless, Sanchez brings a strong and divergent visual “voice” to bear here, and that alone enabled the comic book to hold my attention. Now, his art boasts a slightly surreal tone as well, which could have made it difficult to follow at times if it weren’t for the clarification and direction offered in Nocenti’s narration. The Coil’s unusual approach to swordplay threatened to lose me a bit, but ultimately, the creative team pulls it off and offers a quirky new spin on a martial-arts villain in the process.

Unlike this month’s Vibe debut, Katana boasts no overt connection to the higher-profile book, Justice League of America, which also features this title character. Actually, Nocenti seems to go out of her way to avoid references to the JLA and the Birds of Prey in her script, and it’s a wise choice. Instead, her focus is on Katana’s specific history apart from other costumed figures/warriors, and the result is a thoroughly accessible introduction to the haunted heroine. The writer successfully demonstrates what a tragic and ultimately romantic figure Tatsu is while at the same time conveying a slightly unbalanced quality in the character. The only real problem with the issue is an inherent aspect of the premise. Given her mission and her history, Katana is an unrelatable figure with which the reader can’t possibly connect. Her grief manifests in such an unconventional way that it’s almost impossible to see her as a regular person. I hope Nocenti finds a way to bring her down to earth, to instill some humanity in this driven character. 7/10

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