Review: Justice League: Cry for Justice hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Going in to James Robinson's Justice League: Cry for Justice, I knew the most controversial points -- I knew about "the joke" and I knew about this, that, and the other thing in the ending, too. Given the outcry over this book, and then Robinson's Eisner Award nomination for it, I've been looking forward to reading Cry for Justice -- the contrarian in me wonders if it can really be as troubled as many people say, or if there must be some greater point Robinson's trying to make somewhere here. Ultimately, I think I see both sides; Cry for Justice has its difficulties, but I'm still left with some enthusiasm for Robinson's work.

[Contains spoilers (also for Identity Crisis)]

I am hesitant to blame a book's problems on editorial fiat -- a story should rise and fall on its own merits, not on what I imagine went on behind the scenes -- but in Cry for Justice it seems to be the case. Robinson's introduction -- which itself is astounding as a pre-story apology -- suggests Cry for Justice has been in the works since early Countdown to Final Crisis and went through a number of editorially-mandated changes, not the least of which was adding the maiming of Red Arrow Roy Harper, the death of his young daughter Lian, and Green Arrow killing the villain responsible, Prometheus.

I recall that for a couple of years when when interviewers asked then-DC Comics Executive Editor Dan DiDio about "characters to watch," he often said it would be Green Arrow's year, even though nothing overly remarkable happened to Arrow. I'm guessing Green Arrow's new direction as a fugitive has long been in the works, and Cry for Justice ended up the place that direction launched -- it could have been Final Crisis or Blackest Night, but it ended up being here. Robinson seems to confirm this in his introduction when he notes that DC editorial wanted Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy to die in this story, too -- that Editorial mandated the Green Arrow family changes -- but Robinson resisted.

This is to say that while it's still James Robinson's name on the book and he's the writer, I tend to give him a pass around chapter five of this story. The greater problem with Lian's death (than it being overly sensationalist) is that it feels tacked on -- editorially-mandated, and not natural to the story; it's the least emotional part of the book. Robinson never actually has Lian appear in the story, only mentions her, and the final chapter sees Mauro Cascioli's lush, detailed painting replaced with stiff, sketchy art from a substitute; the reader has no sense of Star City's destruction (see Speedy falling down into blank white space) that would create any suspense about Lian's fate.

Compare, for example, Lian's death with the death of Robin's father Jack Drake in Identity Crisis. Writer Brad Meltzer offers scenes both touching and harrowing in the build-up to Drake's murder; Lian's death flops on the page, perhaps because of a last-minute decision to include it. Superboy's death in Infinite Crisis, as well, came an issue before the end and gave the characters and reader a chance to "feel" it. I wouldn't say DC Comics "shouldn't" kill Lian, per se -- in the right writers hands, anything can work for a story -- but a certain hurriedness at the end of this book causes the ending to lack the weight it needed to sell it.

I think Cry for Justice tries to be a kind of spiritual sequel to Identity Crisis. The guilt Atom Ray Palmer feels over the murders his ex-wife committed in Identity Crisis drives his part of the hunt for Prometheus, and throughout the book the reader senses an implicit danger to the families of the heroes and villains, also like Identity Crisis. In a way, Cry for Justice is the modern era Identity Crisis -- whereas the latter focused on the events during the Justice League's Silver Age and ultimately, it wasn't a villain responsible for the murders, the former branches from the recent events of Final Crisis and is the case of an actual villain targeting the heroes' actual cities. Cry for Justice is the fruition of the threat that the heroes feared in Identity Crisis, a threat against their private lives, and to some extent Cry succeeds in this reflection.

Robinson obviously wants to talk about torture with this story, the issue having been in the public consciousness when Robinson wrote Cry for Justice, if less so now. The question is how far the DC Comics heroes can be pushed before they'll resort to torture, given the murders now of both Batman and the Martian Manhunter. Green Lantern's rag-tag Justice League do torture the minor villains, but when it comes down to a 24-esque ticking clock situation -- Prometheus's device is destroying cities and the only way to learn how to stop it might be to torture him -- Green Arrow and the other heroes agree to bargain with the villain, even after Lian's death.

Green Arrow, in fact, never tortures anyone in the story, but later kills Prometheus. Robinson clearly defines the boundaries of a DC Comics superhero here, but then takes it a step further -- Arrow defines what makes a hero in the book, and then chooses to set that aside. That Robinson isn't 100 percent successful goes to the general difficulties of the book -- that Prometheus's murder comes at the end and ultimately leads into a separate Green Arrow story, such that there's no real wrap-up or conclusion, actual or thematic, of the type we saw in Identity Crisis or Infinite Crisis, for instance.

And yet, I can see some reason as to why the Cry for Justice team might be nominated for an Eisner Award. It is beautifully painted for the most part by Mauro Cascioli, and the word balloons lack their usual black outlines perhaps because of the painting -- the book looks visually different than your average comic book. Robinson's dialogue has an unusual stilted timbre (see in Mon-El, too) that might take a while to get used to, but that I found rather beautiful overall, akin to an Aaron Sorkin teleplay. Subject matter aside, Cry is a deceptively tough book just to read; it says "Justice League" on it, but there are complications in the art and words that I think a first-time reader taking a Justice League book off the shelf might not expect, and that are a credit to the book despite its other issues.

I remain fascinated by James Robinson's second career at DC Comics. Whereas the first time around he mostly wrote Starman, this time he's working in the wider DC Universe, with such off-the-wall results -- his Mon-El stories have been a "stranger in a strange land"-type view of the DC Universe, while Cry for Justice has the oddball Congorilla/Starman friendship and shout-outs to everything from Identity Crisis to Hard Traveling Heroes. Robinson's new work has been rough, at times, and controversial, to be sure, but he offers such a unique take on the DC Universe -- in every story, the reader sees things with their head cocked just slightly to the side. Absolutely, Cry for Justice has its problems, but I remain eager to see what Robinson does next.

[Contains full covers, introduction by James Robinson, Faces of Evil: Prometheus special by Sterling Gates, illustrated Who's Who pages by Len Wein and Mark Waid]

I know there were strong feelings about Cry for Justice all around, and I'm curious to hear what others thought -- please chime in at the comments section below. Thanks!
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14 comments:

  1. I'm impressed that giving the book's reputation, you bought and reviewed it anyway. Well done.

    Many things felt off in this book. For example, that the heroes on the ground were so completely helpless against the bombs in their cities but none of them thought of switching cities? It felt contrived. The Flashes could've made that happen. That Prometheus could ever, EVER get the drop on Jay Garrick when the two of them were looking at each other? That didn't feel right.

    The threesome line? Felt off.

    Ray Palmer torturing people? Yup, that felt off, too.

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  2. Once again, CE, you hit the nail on the head. This is the EXACT reaction I had to "Cry for Justice." I just didn't get what people hated about it, but I could see why no one was really in love with it.

    The biggest problem, as you note, is Lian's death. Knowing it was coming, I kept waiting for some cutesy scene or at least some meaningful on-panel presence, but I got nothing; I was expecting something on the level of the brief character sketch "Identity Crisis" gave us for Sue Dibny. Having not read any Green Arrow, I needed a reason to mourn Lian beyond her being a little girl, and I simply didn't get it.

    That said, though, I thought this was an interesting book, more "Casino" than "Goodfellas" - something to appreciate (particularly that lovely art, which sadly dispersed at the tail end) more than enjoy. I liked what Robinson did with the torture angle, though I'm not sure the superhero community would stand by and let it happen; Batman probably would, but Superman wouldn't be keen on it. I reject, however, the choice to have Green Lantern serve as frontman for the pro-torture movement; his work with the Corps (especially his discomfort with the "new laws of Oa") as well as his own troubled past are evidence that he shouldn't have jumped to torture so quickly.

    You're right that the Congorilla/Starman thing was very strange. It didn't really go anywhere, either; it just felt like two characters Robinson wanted to write, so he stuck them in here. That's not a complaint - just a "Huh, that's weird."

    I didn't hate "Cry for Justice," but judging by the bad-to-worse reaction I've heard about "Rise and Fall" I think this is where I'm going to stop. I think that maybe people need to accept that Robinson just isn't as good as he used to be. (I'm currently reading his Starman in Omnibus form; while I'm not enamored with it, I can see where other readers would be.)

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  3. One key to "enjoying" Cry for Justice, if that's your cup of tea, is divorcing yourself for the most part from any other portrayal of Hal Jordan taking place at the same time. As Zach says, Neither Hal's uncertainty over the Guardian's intention to execute Sinestro nor Hal being tortured himself in North Korea (was it?) jibe with Hal's portrayal here.

    At the same time, I do think there's a echo of Hard Traveling Heroes with Hal playing the conservative (in broad strokes) pro-torture role and Ollie playing the liberal anti-torture role, even after Lian is killed. Hal's portrayal doesn't fit current continuity, but it does have precedence, and that's where I think Robinson's work has its own "rise and fall" -- Robinson is grooving to a beat that's nostalgic and at times indeed quite groovy, but it's not the beat everyone else is grooving to, nor even one that anyone else can hear. And that's good, and that's also bad.

    What's notable about the "threesome" line that ryan mentions is that Robinson has Hal end it with "I'd rather be known for flying planes" (or some such). Hal's a playboy, he's historically known as being a playboy, everyone's witnessed Hal the playboy -- but Ollie makes a joke (?), Hal plays along for a beat, and then turns it on its head -- "That's not me, that's just what others think of me." Robinson refuses to play nice -- here Hal isn't a playboy, it's just our own dirty imaginations -- and Robison's refusal to play nice is, again, both endearing and frustrating.

    Cry for Justice is also "interesting" (for better or worse) as a part of the Starman story. As far as Mikaal is concerned, a major supporting cast member does die here, and also Robinson cameos Charity, Bobo Benetti, and the Shade -- even though I think the Shade's ultimate role gets lost in the end as the book turns in service to the Green Arrow title. Cry for Justice is a tough book, but I think a Starman completist has to give it a glance in that Robinson does venture back to Opal in it.

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  4. Your reaction to Cry for Justice was quite like mine, too. Other than editorial interference - I don't know if this collection reprints the entertaining back matter essays Robinson wrote for issues #1-6, but they show his original plans for the team were very different - what really killed this series for me was the deterioration of the artwork in the last few issues.

    It was bad enough when Scott Clark (whose artwork I've hated since his Wildstorm days, and who's unfortunately one of the artists on Brightest Day) drew some pages of issue #5 and made a terrible continuity mistake by showing "Freddie Freeman" where he wasn't suppposed to be, but his work on the last 2 issues managed to be even worse, ruining scenes that could have been memorable.

    This series was much delayed because of its painted artwork, and if it wasn't for the big consequences the story ended up having on other books because of editorial's new plans for Green Arrow, maybe DC could have given Cascioli a few more months for him to finish the last 3 issues.

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  5. I adore James Robinson's writing, but you can sense the editorial tension behind the scenes on this one. It is by no means as bad as everyone described when it was coming out and it isn't a purchase I in any way regret.

    Sadly, I suspect it will ultimately be judged on the quality of the stories that spin out of it. If Green Arrow's new direction turns out to be a valid take that is affectionately received, then the sins of Cry for Justice become far more justifiable. Not much chance of that happening, though.

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  6. Indeed it would have been nice to see Robinson's original essays as shagmu mentions. The introduction is very bizarre -- it's an apology, basically, for the series. And the fact that Robinson wrote the apology, and then DC went ahead and published that apology, possibly speaks well for the company -- they know this is a controversial story, with some warts, and they've put it out there in acknowledgment of those warts and said, "See for yourself." At least that's how I interpret it.

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  7. That doesn't speak well to me, a fan of these characters. You said anything can be done with a great writer, and I believe that as well. But that's not what we got here. We got a bunch of ideas that fell through on EVERY account. What was the point of this story? To show Green Arrow could be driven to kill? Was this a refresher on Ollie's willingness to kill again? Was this just Robinson opportunity to write obscure characters poorly mixed with "branded" heroes? What happened with Ray Palmer? What was the point of all that recruitment when absolutely nothing was accomplished and in Robinson's on JLA book, only the destruction of Star City, Mikaal and the monkey are referenced.

    I can't say I'm disappointed because after an entire issue of literally "Crying for Justice!", my expectations were drastically low. I didn't give any leeway to McDuffie for his Editorial Driven JLA run, so I refuse to do the same with Robinson. His job was to make an entertaining story, and this failed to do so. There's no purpose to this series, and DC's failure to capitalize on what little potential it had makes me even angrier.

    I hate to be *that* fan, but I am. I don't want to hate Robinson, and I won't. But its going to take a lot more than an apology to forgive 6 issues of complete randomness.

    Great review though, very well written as usual. Your sir are a trooper for buying this series.

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  8. Did anyone else get a distinct 1990s vibe from everyone saying "justice" in the first few chapters? Not "Extreme Justice" per se, but there was something that struck me as very nineties about the repeating dialogue, and especially when a character would trail off on one page and the transition dialogue on the next page would be "... Justice." Can't place it; it just said to me "nineties!"

    I totally take your point, Brandan, that between the writer and editorial, the reader is owed at least a story that makes some kind of sense in the end. (But Ray Palmer, I think, gets subsumed into the events of Blackest Night between the end and epilogue of Cry for Justice.) Indeed I was struck today, however true or momentary, by Mark Waid's claim he would stop buying superhero comics.

    At the point in which Cry for Justice has no end because it's leading in to Green Arrow; Superman: New Krypton Vol. 4 has no end because it's leading in to Last Stand of New Krypton; Brightest Day and Generation Lost will come out in three or four hardcovers; and it looks like the Batman saga is wrapping in a bunch of one-shots (more to buy, rather than wrapping in the actual series) and DC's launching another Batman series in addition to the three it already has, I'm beginning to feel lead around by my nose. I get (inasmuch as I interpret what he means) what Mark Waid is saying.

    This means nothing in terms of this blog, etc. What it does mean is what I've been saying for a while: if DC keeps raising prices and putting out a glut of content, I just have to buy less and be choosier about what I buy. A brand new Batman series by Finch doesn't hold great interest for me, so that's a paperback for the wishlist. The same is already true with the two JSA series. It just has to happen.

    And if I can't get at least a mostly complete story in one book (which you could get in Identity Crisis, for instance), then I'm likely to wait until the whole thing comes out instead of investing in half a story. You know, that's why I stopped collecting in monthly format.

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  9. Personally I was looking forward to this when I saw the preview pages--Mauro CAsieoli's art is beautiful--but then I set it aside after hearing the hoopla.

    That, and seeing as how I grew to love Lian after reading Vol. 1 of The Titans, made me set it aside, but now I'm interested.

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  10. I'm guessing you mean this, Tom: Devin Grayson really endeared Lian to a generation of fans with "Owacle," right?

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  11. I mostly agree with the review here, but overall I really liked Cry for Justice and defend it to a lot of people. This was due to a combination of the amazing art (which, yes, trailed off at the end) and the dialogue, which, though not perfect, was 100x more realistic than a lot of JLA/JSA stuff. For the first time in a long time in a JLA title, the characters seemed like real people to me, and I was concerned about them (anything could happen) and anxious for each issue. Contrast that to what was going on in the regular JLA book at the time (forgettable).

    Lian's death was stupid, but this here is the first review I've seen to point out that part of the trauma of it (to readers) was how tacked-on it was, not just that it happened. Excellent observation. (I also don't like it as from one perspective it continues DC's gutting of '90s & '00s characters ... let's get rid of an interesting Asian Atom in favor of a bland hero; let's get rid of a cool artist GL in favor of the ol' test pilot troupe again; let's get rid of interesting Wally in favor of bland Barry; let's get rid of a single father hero in favor of another grim avenger.) Roy's arm and the other things in the book, I thought were perfectly fine developments, but Lian's death was just odd. Couldn't Roy be going through a similar storyline now over the loss of his arm alone?

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  12. There's a subtlety to Robinson's dialogue that I think understandably gives a lot of readers trouble. I know Superman: Coming of Atlas sounded very tinny to me when I first read it, and then I think I "got" it better the second time around, and that helped me on Cry for Justice. You're right Jesse that it's realistic, or maybe hyper-realistic like Sorkin's writing, which too some like and some don't.

    I'll be curious to read what happens to Roy next in reflection of whether Lian had to die, or if the arm could've been enough.

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  13. Sandor Clegane8/05/2010 05:04:00 PM

    CE - your review of this is both fair and very interesting. Though I must admit - I didn't like CFJ enough to finish it. Despite the fact GA and GL are just about my favorite DC characters. I just didn't care for the pro-active premise, nor how I figured it'd play out. Disaster, of course! I suppose I wasn't too far off with that guess...

    Though I'm pretty non-plussed about killing / not killing Lian or Roy. I know every character has fans, but every one of the main JLAers have their own little families of similar characters, with new ones popping up all the time. We're 20 years into it by now, and...it's more than a little silly. It's like the DCU is waiting for a crossover with South Park, so Jimbo can pick up his rifle and cry, "Thin out their numbers!"

    But as to Robinson's dialogue - I think the problem a lot of readers have is that it's not the standard style they're used to. That whole, postured 1st-person narration plus sarcastic supehero banter thing, which has been in place for decades, really.

    So I give credit to Robinson for at least trying to find his own voice(s). His idiosyncrasies at least makes for some variety in how superheroes talk. Perhaps he's the comics version of Mamet?

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  14. Didn't like it enough to finish it? I'm guessing that's in single issues. I have dropped a single-issue title a time or two (though not, that I can think of, a miniseries), I can't imagine starting a trade and then not working my way through it; it's already "mine," as it were.

    Quite eager for Robinson's next Mon-El volume; I think Mon-El has been the highlight for me, amidst some other good volumes (Brainiac) of New Krypton.

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