DC Comics, 24 pages, $ 3.99
Not counting Wonder Woman’s appearance on the cover and a couple of extras in crowd scenes, there’s exactly one female character in Justice League #1, the flagship book of DC’s big September relaunch, and she’s literally a cheerleader—her speaking part, pointing at the sky: “Look! It’s one of them!”
This is, unmistakably, a comic by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, two of a handful of people who have been steering the publisher’s line of superhero comics for the last 10 years, and whose own creative contributions to the line have tended to be among DC’s most successful in the comic-book market. That, after all, is the reason why Johns and Lee were both awarded with executive positions at DC last year.
Bearing this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that DC’s new direction isn’t that much different from the old direction, in terms of its sensibilities. As far as DC is concerned, the problem of the last few years clearly isn’t that they’ve been doing anything wrong. It’s simply that not enough people have been paying attention to what they’ve been doing. That’s the point Justice League #1 drives home.
It’s not a bad comic. It is, in fact, precisely the kind of comic someone might come up with if you asked them to look at DC’s recent output, sit down at the drawing board and create an introduction to the DC Universe that’s as accessible as possible to people who aren’t regular readers of those superhero comics already.
The story begins with Batman, who’s on the run and chased by Gotham City authorities—just like you may remember him from the end of his last major film, The Dark Knight. Before too long, the Green Lantern shows up: the protagonist of the latest big Hollywood adaptation of a DC Comics property. It’s the first time they meet, so they introduce themselves to each other while fighting a creature that looks like it escaped from a Predator movie. (Or a Transformers one, as one protagonist helpfully notes.) And at the end of this first issue, Batman and the Green Lantern are joined by Superman, who is in line for another Hollywood revamp currently in production.
There are a few lines of unbelievably clunky exposition (“I’m not the only Green Lantern out there. There are thousands of others patrolling the universe. A whole corps—“), and the characters’ rationale for seeking out Superman is borderline idiotic: “Alien… maybe this is all connected to that guy in Metropolis. They say he’s an alien,” says the guy who’s part of a huge, universe-spanning corps of alien space cops. Batman is instantly convinced.
Still, it’s a sensible approach to build this story around these particular three characters, if nothing else. At the time it was written and drawn, the creators had to assume that Green Lantern—the film—was going to be a success, so treating Hal Jordan as the third major character next to household names Batman and Superman was a no-brainer.
The characters seem fresher and younger. Instead of the reverential treatment that’s become the norm, there’s a more eerie and unpredictable edge to them here. Batman clearly hasn’t everything figured out yet; Green Lantern seems like a juvenile chatterbox who’s completely thrilled with his magic ring; and Superman is treated like a loose cannon that nobody quite knows what to make of yet. Those are nice bits.
The storytelling is basic and clear throughout, but still flashy and dynamic, as you’d expect from Jim Lee. The art looks crisp and attractive, with no small thanks to Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair. There’s just enough detail to ground you in the story, but not so much as to overwhelm the action. The dialogue is brief, almost terse, and easy to read and digest. The plot is simple and straightforward, quickly taking you from A to B without dragging its feet.
It’s a very smooth, very easy read, and there’s no point where the comic makes it hard for you to move through the story—a marked improvement in comparison with other recent DC books. In terms of making their particular vision of the DC Universe as accessible as possible, the creators have done their job.
Then again, the notion that it’s a great achievement to have made a comic a casual reader might be able to understand probably says more about DC’s past output than it does about the book at hand. Accessibility is a baseline expectation, not a selling point. DC got people’s attention with its line-wide relaunch, if press coverage and preliminary sales claims are any indication. But to keep those readers coming back will require comics that are more than just plain readable.
And in that department, Justice League #1 doesn’t have much to offer. Its contents may be competent and smooth and flashy, but they’re also invariably derivative and unremarkable. There isn’t a single moment, visual or line of dialogue that sticks with you, or that doesn’t remind you of every run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbuster you’ve ever seen—let alone anything that makes a particularly good case for comics as a storytelling form, for that matter. The characters and their world remain as flat as the paper they’re printed on. It feels like the creators try to convince you that, honest, superhero comics can be a bit like average action flicks, too.
For a cover price of four dollars, that’s an awfully flimsy and unambitious package. Its appeal doesn’t feel as broad as it should, considering the stated goals of the relaunch. Sure, the book does a reasonably good job of introducing the new DC Universe. But is that enough? That new DC Universe doesn’t seem all that different from the old DC Universe, some window-dressing aside. It’s still a wish-fulfillment playground for old white boys, where Wonder Woman’s pants continue to be a hot-button issue. Johns and Lee are doing many things right here—and everything wrong.