Review: Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Unfortunately I was disappointed in Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis. While the concluding chapter of writer Geoff Johns' run on Justice Society (collected in the middle of this volume) represents well what made this series unique, the actual titular story spends too much time setting up future comics to satisfy. I adore that Johns teams with comics legend Jerry Ordway for this Captain Marvel-centered tale, but frankly Black Adam and Isis reads more like issues of Power of Shazam than Justice Society.

[Contains spoilers for Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis]

I'm not the first to criticize Geoff Johns for writing stories that amount, ultimately, just to lead-ins to other stories. Certainly this criticism has been leveled at Justice League: The Lightning Saga and Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, each of which lead to Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds -- but I felt these at least were solid stories on their own. The three-part "Black Adam and Isis" story collected here leaves open so many questions, surely to be answered in another comics, as to be almost completely unreadable on its own. From the mysterious stranger on the subway platform, to the Rock of Finality and hints of a greater villain, to the Wizard Shazam's strange anger at the end, Black Adam asks more and more, but provides no answers. This close to the end of Geoff Johns' run on Justice Society, I understand and appreciate his wanting to revisit Black Adam, but not at the cost of making the Justice Society secondary characters in their own series.

Still, Johns continues to make Black Adam a compelling character. In Black Adam: The Dark Age, the reader saw Adam try and fail to resurrect his lost love Isis; now, finally sucessful, Adam must balance his love for Isis with his increasing discomfort in Isis's new, violent ways. Adam once again snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, and Johns convincingly demonstrates Adam's uncertainty. In his final issues, Johns parallels Adam and Isis's failed relationship with the equally star-crossed Stargirl and Captain Marvel; theirs was an interesting sub-plot early in Justice Society's predecessor, JSA, and I enjoyed that Marvel finally revealed to the Justice Society his secret identity, even if it didn't lead to rejoining the team.

Would that the entire book were more like "Black Adam Ruined My Birthday," Johns' closing Justice Society story. Justice Society, even more than JSA, has been as much about superheroics as about the quiet moments that happen in between world-conquering villains. I mentioned before the Norman Rockwell-esque Justice Society charity event, and we've also seen them sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, and here, celebrate Stargirl's birthday and take a trip to the dentist. There's few superheroes, and especially superhero teams, that can pull off such unironic Americana, and Johns (with artist Dale Eaglesham) deserves considerable credit for it. I don't imagine that we'll see a title with as much hopefulness any time soon.

We all know Johns holds a special place for Stargirl Courtney Whitmore, but indeed Courtney is Johns' legacy in the Justice Society. Over numerous storylines since JSA began in 1999, the character has shown natural growth from a flip teenager to a model for the new young Society members to follow. Fans of this modern incarnation of the Justice Society couldn't imagine the team without Stargirl -- it's simultaneously hard to believe and no suprise that the character is at this point more than ten years old -- and "Black Adam Ruined My Birthday" works because the characters acknowledging Stargirl as a "core" member of the Justice Society feels fitting both within the story and from the readers' perspective as well.

Jerry Ordway both contributes to Johns' revisiting the pages of Ordway's Power of Shazam, and takes over writing and drawing chores in two transitional issues before the new Justice Society team arrives. No doubt it's as much a thrill to see Ordway drawing the Captain Marvel characters again as it is to see him drawing Infinity Inc. in this two-parter, but the story decidedly suffers from repetitious dialogue and silly misunderstandings between the characters. I enjoyed seeing the Justice Society interact with the new Crispus Allen Spectre, but the confusing motivations and overblown speech of the story's villain made the end feel like every bit the (well-illustrated) fill-in it was.

Black Adam and Isis begins and ends with hints of fractures with the Justice Society team. As the Justice Society often appears in idealized situations, it's easy to think of them as a team without problems; on one hand, I appreciate a team that doesn't have bickering infighting like the Teen Titans, but on the other hand, likely that's not "realistic" from a story perspective. In the middle of this book, the Justice Society has twenty members, and certainly it feels like a lot, but I'm not convinced that the solution is to have a both a "gentle" and "extreme" Justice Society as Hawkman suggests in the beginning, a la the Justice League's former Extreme Justice.

I judge, I know, without having read the stories to follow, but as Geoff Johns departs, I may find myself setting this title aside as well. It's hard to believe that more than ten years ago, JSA began in the spirit of Grant Morrison's JLA, written by James Robinson part-way through his acclaimed run on Starman, and Geoff Johns was a relative unknown. Morrison's still around, as is Robinson, though much is different about the landscape of the DC Universe. I'm thankful for the last ten years that cemented the Justice Society's place in the DC Universe, but as when Greg Rucka left Gotham Central, possibly DC should have let Justice Society end rather than fade off poorly like so many other series have when their leading writers leave (Birds of Prey and Teen Titans immediately come to mind); here's hoping the next writers can follow the example that Johns set.

[Contains full and variant covers]
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