Review: JSA vs. Kobra trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, September 20, 2010

There's a number of ways in which JSA vs. Kobra marks a return. It is the return of artist Don Kramer to the JSA characters that he drew under writer Geoff Johns. The art gives the miniseries an authenticity that in my opinion the current "split" Justice Society lacks, suggesting the return of the original (JSA-era) Justice Society as well. And it's also the return of Eric Trautmann to the Checkmate characters, tying up some loose ends and addressing some long-simmering issues. All in all, despite some rough patches, that adds up for to me to a book worthy of taking a look.

[Contains spoilers]

Eric Trautmann's work on Checkmate and The Shield has given him a reputation, to me at least, of being a writer whose stories contain political or global undertones. In JSA vs. Kobra, Trautmann examines the underpinnings of terrorism; as he writes through Mr. Terrific in the end, "Suicide bombings, terror weapons, assassinations -- it's all about kicking down the underpinnings of society." Far from costumed goons robbing a bank in Gotham City, Trautmann posits this new iteration of Kobra as the DC Universe's ultimate terrorist cell -- seemingly regular people who might suddenly cause destruction without warning. Worst of all is the Kobra members unwavering faith to their cause, unmatched by the generally agnostic DC heroes and specifically the traditionally atheist Mr. Terrific.

Trautmann wisely builds upon the issues of faith that Terrific faced in JSA: Lost and elsewhere, enhancing just how much this story feels like an original JSA tale. While Terrific and Power Girl take up most of the action, there's scenes for Sand, Jakeem Thunder, and Stargirl, among others. I'm hopeful for good things from Marc Guggenheim's forthcoming Justice Society run, but it seems Eric Trautmann could do a fair job on the title, too.

Mr. Terrific and Kobra Jason Burr are obviously pitted here as foils. Both are brilliant; both came to their current lives from the brink of death; and both are chess-players, planning their moves well in advance -- only Burr represents the faithful, and Mr. Terrific represents the faithless. Burr succeeds through most of the story due to his single-minded devotion to his cause, while Terrific flounders for some time because he can't trust his friends. Burr, as a matter of fact, spends much of the miniseries killing off those who followed his brother's Kobra cult; indeed it's Burr's luxury that the only person he has to have faith in is himself. While Trautmann has a tendency to over-narrate here, letting Burr or Terrific describe the action on almost every page, certainly he believably sets up the two as life-long DC Universe nemeses.

At one point in the story, Terrific prevents the hero Damage from severely beating a suspect, reaffirming "that's not how we do things." While no less true, this sentiment that "heroes don't torture" becomes somewhat old hat at this point, reaffirmed as it's been any number of places including Justice League: Cry for Justice. Whereas Cry ends on a somewhat uncertain note as to whether torture or murder might sometimes be justified, Trautmann here is nicely unequivocal, in that Terrific decides that trust in his friends, reason, and love will guide him against Kobra. If not the most complicated conclusion, it is well in-character for Mr. Terrific and the JSA.

JSA vs. Kobra feels almost pleasantly inevitable, like the intended last chapter of both JSA and Checkmate, in that for a long time Mr. Terrific served as a member of both organizations; some tension regarding this was bound to arise. Indeed, in that the arc of the Checkmate series was always Checkmate's growing acceptance by the superhero community (from Shadowpact to the Outsiders and Nightwing, and finally to DC's Big Three), this final equalizing -- Mr. Terrific learning which side to trust when -- seems perfectly natural. Further, JSA vs. Kobra hinges squarely on Final Crisis: Resist (from the Final Crisis Companion), making the story all the more relevant; for fans, this is really the next volume of the Checkmate series.

Inasmuch as I've sometimes decried DC Comics's miniseries-with-a-purpose, feeling they lead too much into something else without meaning something on their own, JSA vs. Kobra might be too far the other way. This is seemingly the concluding Checkmate story, and all I want is more -- some indication that the Checkmate characters will appear elsewhere, or that Kobra will continue to be a threat, that we'll learn more about Jason Burr -- something other than "this is it." If you have a chance at conventions, please do ask -- JSA vs. Kobra is a spy thriller of the type that seems rare these days at DC, and I'd be eager to see more of the same.

[Contains full covers]

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2 comments:

  1. I was impressed with this way beyond the continuation of Checkmate threads. Trautman goes out of his way to give each JSAer a moment eg. Judomaster actually uses judo on Kobra acolytes.

    I hope the next use of Jason Burr is worthy of the threat that he's been built up as in this book. Trautman so needs a DC centric book to flex his muscles on (not disparaging his work on Shield and Crusaders, but they're so off the radar for most DC fans, they never had a chance).

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  2. And I was under the (perhaps mistaken) impression that Crusaders was an ongoing, but I see now that it's just a six-issue miniseries. I hope Trautmann has something else lined up at DC -- I wouldn't blink at Checkmate or JSA work, given the quality of this book.

    Of the JSA spotlight moments, I appreciated that Sandman got something to do; the sequence at the Rock of Eternity was a little random, but I was glad Jakeem Thunder received some attention, too.

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