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Point/Counterpoint: ‘Justice League’ Shines with Strong Characters

A few months back, I wrote an article analyzing Geoff Johns’s writing style that described his general approach as “Johnsian Literalism,” a single-minded focus on theme where every plot point, supporting character and antagonist in a superhero story is extension of that character’s core concept. I added that it looked like Justice League might be Johns flexing his muscles in a different direction, and with the conclusion of the first arc, it looks like I was right.

In Justice League, Johns has made a deliberate decision to mix up his formula and switch up his style, eschewing continuity puzzlework and relentlessly thematic stories for a character-driven book focusing on the personal relationships, friendships, enmities and alliances of these god-men and god-women. It’s not about an idea; it’s about people.In the first arc of the comic, Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Cyborg join together to fight an invasion from Apokolips, during which Darkseid shows up personally. Batman finds out from Steppenwolf and Desaad that Darkseid is looking for his daughter, who is apparently on Earth. And in terms of the overall plot of the arc… that’s about everything that happens.

But those plot points aren’t the story Johns is telling. They’re simply tools that help him explore the real story: the people. This is a totally new origin for the Justice League in a totally new DC Universe with fully reimagined heroes who serve as the focus of the story. This is Geoff Johns writing character-first, instead of theme-first, and it’s very interesting.

With the New 52, Johns is both no longer master and also no longer slave to seventy years of continuity. His writing career prior to this was focused largely at DC Comics, consisting of stories built from seeds planted by other writers over years of history. But while using the vast history of the DC Universe started out as Johns’s greatest strength, over time it began to overwhelm his writing, which is why seeing him try something new in Justice League is so refreshing.

Johns discussed the shift in his approach during an interview with Ain’t It Cool News:

To write a book, like Justice League or Aquaman or Green Lantern and be able to tell my own story and not worry about the constraints of past stories is new to me… I wanted to make sure it was all about character first and personalities, because there’s nothing more fun than watching Batman and Green Lantern trying to do something together… I wanted to make it all about the character interactions and relationships. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that the plots, the stories and the adventures they were facing were massive, so I’m trying to take a completely different tone to all my books and add more humor than usual. There’s a lot of humor in JUSTICE LEAGUE, and AQUAMAN and GREEN LANTERN. So I wanted to change how I wrote, so for me, this is a big, big challenge. A massive challenge and a big departure from what I usually do.

The members of the Justice League are a little younger in the relaunched book, and a little skewed from their previous incarnations. They’re all distrustful of authority, and they all start out hounded: Batman by the GCPD, Green Lantern by the Air Force, Flash by the cops at his own job, Aquaman by Atlantis, Wonder Woman by military handlers, Superman by Lex Luthor and the military, Cyborg by his own father.

They all agree to stick with the Justice League because the team’s public face ultimately legitimizes them. By working together once in a while, characters like Batman can leverage that participation into a blank check for their solo adventures. On a macroscale, Justice League is the story of the birth of the concept of the superhero, evolving from masked men and vigilantes.

On a microscale, though, what it’s really about is how these seven people relate to each other, and why they work well together. That’s why Johns introduces them one-by-one rather than bringing the whole team together at the beginning. We all know the Justice League is going to beat Darkseid, but we don’t know how Batman and Aquaman are going to clash over leadership. We know the world will come to love and accept them, but we don’t know how the relationship between Cyborg and his hard-to-please father will develop.

That character work is where Johns really shines, with each hero’s personality incredibly clearly defined, even when you apply Plinkett test and try to describe them without referring to their backstory, role in the plot or appearance. Superman’s cocky, headstrong and driven to do what’s right no matter who stands in his way. Batman’s a distrustful, altruistic loner with a sardonic wit. Aquaman’s a macho outcast and natural leader; Green Lantern’s an eager-to-impress horndog. Flash is by-the-books, responsible and has respect for the law. Wonder Woman has a joie de guerre and is in awe of everything around her. Cyborg is struggling with his own body and earning his father’s pride.

This all comes together in a scene in the fifth issue, where on a single page Superman and the Flash discuss (and take action on) the role of authority and whether to retaliate against the military, Hal Jordan reveals way more about his own need for approval than he ever wanted anyone to know thanks to Wonder Woman’s lasso, and all of this actually makes Batman crack up mid-fight. The characters are ricocheting and reflecting off each other in new and interesting patterns, and it’s this chaotic froth of relationships that makes the core of the book, not trying to figure out who Darkseid’s daughter is.

Justice League is a book where the external conflicts exist to facilitate the character work, rather than the other way around, a book that dispenses with Johnsian literalism in favor of humanism. In short, Justice League is a totally new direction for Geoff Johns, and I can’t wait to see where it takes one of the biggest writers in the business and his comics.

Read Chris Sims’s counterpoint.

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