‘Justice League’ #1: Chris Sims and Caleb Goellner Go Head-To-Head On DC’s New First Issue
This week, DC Comics kicked off their relaunch with the release of Justice League #1 by Geoff Johns, Jim Lee and Scott Williams, and it's fair to say that it might just be the most anticipated comic of the year. And like any comic with that much anticipation and hype behind it, the end result is bound to be divisive.
That's even the case here at ComicsAlliance! Much like David Uzumeri, Editor Caleb Goellner enjoyed the issue, while Senior Writer Chris Sims was definitely not impressed. That's why today, Chris and Caleb are settling it in a our version of the cage match: The Head-To-Head Review of Justice League #1!Caleb: With a comic as "big" as Justice League #1, your first instinct is often to deliver an initial summary, if not for the benefit of curious friends/family/colleagues, then for yourself. Kind of a "what the hell did I just read?" to process the story you've just absorbed. What was your initial internal and/or external exclamation regarding the first issue of JL?
Chris: I don't think we can print my initial exclamation, Caleb.
Caleb: Are any chatroom friendly acronyms available?
Chris: Ha! No, but the short version is that this comic is just flat-out not very good. And the thing is, it should be. A comic book with this much riding on it, this much promotion, the two creators who are meant to be the top guys in the industry working with the genuinely exciting premise of doing a bold new unshackled story of some of the greatest fictional characters ever? There's no reason it shouldn't be amazing. And yet, what we have here is, as Curt Franklin put it, a comic that reads like it came with an action figure. It's not that there aren't good parts to it, but it's a C- book at best, and as an introduction to the New DC Universe, that doesn't cut it.
Caleb: A few bits of shaky dialogue aside, I actually put it down and said something kooky like, "Not bad!" I may have even swung my elbow. I confess to succumbing to a few of the trappings of writing about comics for a living -- some cynicism, some prejudices -- this was all stuff I tried to shut out of my reading experience.
Chris: Well there's your problem.
Caleb: Truth be told, some of that jaded blogger nonsense may be why I liked it, because I hate Hal Jordan. Not every version, but like, probably 90% of them. So you give me a comic book by Geoff Johns that is basically Batman mocking a totally clueless Hal Jordan for 22 pages? It was worth my day-and-date $3.99. Was this a relaunch? I don't even care. Geoff Johns gave me what I wanted, and I liked Jim Lee's art a lot!
Chris: Yeah, but here's the thing. I don't like Hal Jordan either, and I think the record will show that I'm slightly partial to Batman. But do you really want Justice League #1 to be goofing on a character, instead of giving you a reason to like him? I get that Hal's supposed to be the cocky, overconfident fighter pilot, but playing him as a guy doing pratfalls while Batman preens about how cool he is doesn't make a great story. This should be a comic that shows you why you should love all of these guys without doing it at the expense of the others. Maybe it's just Jim Lee's art that does it, but this feels like the next issue of All Star Batman, a flashback to right before Hal Jordan got stabbed in the throat by a ten year-old painted yellow.
Caleb: As a single issue, you're not fundamentally wrong, but I can see myself liking even Hal by the end of this initial story arc, and that was a good feeling after I finished my initial read.
Chris: But again, I consider that a pretty big problem. This is their shot. This is the issue that they had to make their case, the one they promoted, with the goal being to get people back into stores to buy single issues. And as a 20-page story, it's a complete failure in that respect. What actually happens in this issue?
Caleb: Like I said, Batman makes fun of Hal Jordan. Is it too late to buy five more copies?
Chris: Green Lantern and Batman talk on a rooftop for ten pages, and have a team-up that completely fails to stop a bad guy. We see Vic Stone, but since this is supposed to be our introduction to the character as new readers, we don't really know why we're seeing him, he's just some kid whose dad doesn't come watch his football game. That's his sole contribution to the plot. Then Superman shows up for one page in his Total Justice Action Figure suit, and as Superman's first appearance in the new DC Universe, he punches Green Lantern in the face and smirks at Batman like a Funky Winkerbean character and challenging him to a fight. Oh, and the whole thing is a flashback that takes place five years in the past. And it has a teaser for the next issue promising the fresh, bold, new idea of Superman fighting Batman, because that's something we haven't seen over and over and over again.
Caleb: I liked the Total Justice action figures, man.
Chris: That does not surprise me.
Caleb: Or do you remember them this way?
Chris: I only had the Flash.
Caleb: Is that what this is about? A deep resentment of not having the full line? D-did you w-want Flash to appear in issue #1?
Chris: Yes! I wanted the Justice League to show up in Justice League #1, instead of just having half of them chat about what their powers are. I think that's actually pretty reasonable.
Caleb: Again, I don't think you're wrong about that, but I can't see that happening in 22 pages. Not in today's more cinematic style. Because even one of my favorite Justice League gatherings -- the animated one -- took like two episodes
Chris: Really? Because Grant Morrison and Howard Porter did it in JLA #1. J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire did it in Justice League #1. Hell, Brad Meltzer had everyone in his Justice League of America #1, and that's about the only thing he did right.
Caleb: Sure, but you're taking for granted that those characters already had a continuity. They already existed. If DC wants to reach out to a new audience, they've got to play things more like a TV season, because that's the pacing non-comic book fans know. At least, to some extent.
Chris: These characters already exist! This comic isn't for aliens, Caleb. It's for the millions (and millions) of people who saw The Dark Knight and the Green Lantern movie and the Superman Movie and played Arkham Asylum on their XBoxes and watched Justice League Unlimited.
Caleb: You take that back about Green Lantern right now
Chris: And even if it was meant to be a full, ground-up reintroduction, saying that you can't introduce characters, and a conflict in a single issue is just ridiculous. I can show you a hundred comics that do that very thing.
Caleb: I don't argue the fundamental powers of the comic book medium in that respect, but my expectations were such that I didn't expect more than a stepping stone, and I think, as stepping stones go, JL delivers. If you think about it, it stars the three guys that do have movies: Batman, Green Lantern, and Supes, in that order, no less. You go to Toys 'R Us right now, those are the three dudes with updated Total Justice sculpts
Chris: I'll admit that I'm probably not being fair to the comic, because I'm talking about what it isn't instead of what it is, but at the same time, it's hard not to judge this thing on what they told us it was going to be. This might be a fine introduction to Batman, Green Lantern and High School Football Star Vic Stone, but it's definitely not a great introduction to the people on the cover, or why they're together, or the universe it's supposed to be getting us to want to read more about.
Caleb: Okay, well we've established where we stand on our expectations vs. what we thought delivered/fell short. Was there anything you thought it did well? Or any ways it might appeal to a new reader?
Chris: Like I said, there were definitely some strong points. I initially completely hated the scene where Batman takes Hal Jordan's ring away from him because it completely throws Hal under the bus -- really, the first thing the New DCU establishes is that it's super easy to take a Green Lantern ring away from him -- but when I went through it again, the page before really sold me on it. When Green Lantern is freaking out about Batman not having any powers, Jim Lee draws Batman with this little smile, and that changes the whole thing. It changes Batman, too -- he's a little more lighthearted, which is something we've needed to see for a while now.
Caleb: I thought you might dig that. I was pretty keen on Green Lantern wearing his heart on his sleeve. I know I said I hate Hal Jordan, but him meeting Batman and just blabbing about his whole life? It seemed to fit. "You're Real?! Well, okay. Here's my life story." And Batman being totally unimpressed by the idea of a whole army of Hal Jordans was music to my brain
Chris: I actually thought that, unsurprisingly, Johns did a fantastic job writing Green Lantern actually using the ring. On the cover, Jim Lee draws him with this ridiculous ton of guns that he's making, and I hate that so much -- there's no excuse for having something as fantastic as a ring that can make anything you can imagine and having your character create somethign as mundane and ordinary as a gun. But in the interiors, Johns has him making giant firetrucks, a safe to protect them from an explosion, a SWAT team to protect them from a hail of bullets. It's really imaginative, and does a great job showing you right away what this guy can do and why it's cool.
Caleb: I want that Hal Jordan action figure. I tried to take in this comic in stages.
Chris: Anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance?
Caleb: "What would my 9-year-old self think?" "What would my 15-year-old self think?" 19, 21, and so on. If you stripped away some of your baggage -- the kind all long-time comic fans have -- do you think you'd feel the same overall?
Chris: You mean the baggage where I don't expect comics to read like the first five minutes of a screenplay?
Caleb: If we've got to phrase it that way, then sure.
Chris: Well, here's the thing: When I was a kid, I was a lot like the audience that I think DC is trying to reach. I was aware of characters like Batman and Superman because I watched the TV shows and movies about them. But the comics I read, the ones that made me a fan to the point where my life pretty much revolves around them today, were all pretty dense stories. Part of that was coming up in the '80s and '90s, but the stories I tended to gravitate to were these more condensed peices that gave you a whole story at one shot. Even when I was a teenager in the late '90s, the comics I was reading were written as these complete chapters to overarching stories -- Mark Waid's Flash, James Robinson's Starman.
Chris: Even the X-Men comics I got, which were as soap operatic and tooth-gritting, pouch-laden '90s stereotypical as they come, were super-dense, with twice as many characters as this story. I was talking to Chad Bowers about this earlier -- Look at Claremont and Lee's X-Men #1. It's got two teams of heroes and a villain, introduced through action that shows you what their powers are and how they relate to each other in this rapid-fire style. Looking back, it's not a fantastic piece of writing and Lee's a far better artist today from a technical standpoint, but it does what it set out to do, and that thing sold six million copies. Admittedly, that was to a million people who bought six copies each, but still. I'm not saying I wouldn't have liked Justice League #1, when I was a kid, because I probably would've. But it could've been a better comic that my 12 year-old self would've liked just as much.
Caleb: For me, and maybe this is apathy or age or whatever talking, but when you say the first issue read like the first five minutes of a screenplay, I agree, but in this instance, rather than sneering at it like I expected to, I kind of said, "What the hell, let's see what they do." I mean, I'm the kind of guy who thinks maybe he'd prefer to just read OGNs and TPBs. One of the reasons I'm so drawn to digital is that I don't really love periodical stories, so maybe I'm too patient here
Chris: That's the thing. If you want to see what they're doing in a screenplay, you just have to watch. You get it all at once. Same with OGNs. With this, all we have is one issue, and I think as a single unit of storytelling, it's pretty bad. And again: This whole New 52 initiative isn't meant to sell paperbacks, at least not primarily. It's meant to sell single issue comic books. This is the format they've chosen to hitch their wagon to for the time being, and it's what I think we have to judge it on.
Caleb: What would you like to see in the next issue?
Chris: Batman not punching Superman. The rest of the cast showing up. Being able to tell what the threat that was going to bring them together was because it's shown to me, not just told by a pretty awful redesign of a parademon and knowing what it was going to be because I already know who Darkseid is.
Caleb: I kind of expect you won't get what you want until at least issue 3, which will only serve to scribe another dark chapter in your book of Batmanology.
Chris: How about you, Caleb? I think it's pretty clear that I didn't like it, but there were parts I enjoyed. Was there anything you didn't? Or something that I might've missed that really sold you on it?
Caleb: I think I just enjoyed the overall energy. The comic felt modern to me in a way that a lot of other DC titles didn't, or never have, and I don't mean that in a "The '90s were modern" way. I could almost hear the comics' score, which rarely happens to me when I read. Don't get me wrong, I think there was a lot of dumb in the issue. Green Lantern was super dumb, and Superman's closing line did not impress me -- or the fact that he attacked someone.
Chris: As his first act.
Caleb: Throwing the first punch? Not even the Power Rangers do that. I hope more context will soften the bits that irked me. But one thing I don't mind? The costumes. Superman looks fine. I see the way a lot of my friends freak out over Supes and I'm like, "Psshhhhhh, It's fine!"
Chris: That's a whole other article we can argue in.
Caleb: Yeah, you won't find me defending The Red Hood's pocket salami or Harley Quinn's Hatchet Man tramp stamp, but Superman looks fine -- good even. So does Batman. GL looks sharp, and I don't even mind Wonder Woman's look depending on the artist. These costumes mean a lot to some people -- and that's a good thing, but I think the new JL looks are fun and true to the spirit of the characters, for the most part.
Chris: It really bothered me -- and I realize even as I say this that it's way out of proportion -- that the sketches in the back refer to Superman's "underwear" and how it's a big deal that it's gone. It just smacks of giving in to the jokes in a transparent, trying-too-hard effort to be cooler for the kids of today. They might as well have given him a backwards baseball cap to go with his popped collar.
Caleb: ... I actually kind of like the collars. It's probably the action figure collector inside, but I think the looks are mostly fun (Okay, The Flash's boots and stuff are dumb).
Chris: I don't really dislike Jim Lee's art, and like I said, you can see that he's one of the few guys who hit it so big in the '90s that consistently worked very, very hard to improve himself. He's consistently dynamic and can pull off some great subtlety, like Batman's small smile in this issue. But as a costume designer, he does not appeal to me at all.
Caleb: I just noticed something in this comic.
Chris: That I was right?
Caleb: No, that Cyborg plays for the "Titans." Is that oldschool DCU lore?
Chris: No idea.
Caleb: Every time I dig into Cyborg's old origin, I cringe. He's one of the bright spots here, despite the jock with an absent dad cliche. Daddy issues are kind of universal, though, so I'm trying not to judge it. As it stands, I like Vic. He's not a whiner. I just wish he could wear a suit or armor instead of getting half his body blown up or whatever's about to go down
Chris: You don't consider pass-agg voicemails to be whining?
Caleb: Not when he's standing under a "Hustle, Hit, Never Quit" banner. If there's one thing my year of 9th grade football/wrestling taught me, it's that locker room slogans are the only slogans
Chris: So let's get to the closing arguments, Caleb. Sum it all up: Why is this a good comic?
Caleb: Justice League #1 wrangles DC's arguably three currently most visible superheroes in multimedia for an opening chapter that balances action, humor and drama. It's definitely not a done-in-one, but it piques reader curiosity and, love it or hate it, you'll want to read the next one if you pick it up. What about you, what's your takeaway?
Chris: Despite all the promise of "uncharted waters" and the boldness of the line-wide relaunch, there's nothing new here. It's the same drawn-out pacing that doesn't even bother to involve half the characters on the cover, the same execution that tells instead of showing, the same heroes-punch-heroes setup with cheap, manufactured conflicts that are based on the characters being egomaniacal jerks, with every indication that we'll be getting more of the same. In other words, DC's finally catching up to what Marvel did with the Ultimate line ten years ago, only without the benefit of being fresh with it. It should've been spectacular, but despite a few bright spots, it's barely even average.
Caleb: I think I need to send somebody a few Total Justice Figures. Maybe I'm being too easy on this new chapter in comics history, but since DC's already gotten the public's attention, I'll be passing this comic on to the half a dozen friends or so I have who don't already love comics. It may not be perfect, but it's starting a conversation that the industry -- and its fans -- has never needed to have more. If they hate it, that's okay. I'll hand them some Fantagraphics books. "So this Jason guy draws dogs?" is a question I'm always ready to answer.
Chris: You could try handing them a good, accessible super-hero comic too, you know. Jack Staff, Love & Capes, even Invincible.
Caleb: Do any of those have dogs? I kid, I kid.
You've heard the arguments, now tell us what you think of DC's Justice League #1!