Review: Justice Society: The Bad Seed trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 31, 2011

It's been a little more than a year since the last time I read Justice Society, which is surprising given that in its JSA incarnation, at least, this was one of my favorite titles (JSA: Stealing Thunder remains a classic -- and hey, DC, how about a JSA by Geoff Johns omnibus?). But the book's quality lessened in my opinion in Johns's switch from JSA to Justice Society, and my experience with writers Matt Sturges and Bill Willingham's work (Fables notwithstanding) and tepid early reviews of their run on this book made me slow to pick up this newest volume.

[Contains spoilers]

I finally read Justice Society of America: The Bad Seed in the lead-up to the Justice League/Justice Society crossover The Dark Things, and what I found is that I liked Bad Seed better than I thought I would. That Justice Society splits into two titles at the end of this story still seems like one Justice Society title more than DC Comics needs, but the reason for the split actually makes a lot of sense. Willingham and Sturges manage to create warring factions with the Justice Society without making any of the team members caricatures of themselves. I felt Willingham's writerly persona came through perhaps a bit too much, but otherwise Bad Seed is surprisingly compelling.

Where Bad Seed works is in the conspiratorial attack against the Justice Society. The team is targeted by mysterious villains far earlier in the book than they realize, and the true intentions of the bad guys kept me guessing throughout. Mid-way through the book, there's a great sense of locked-room paranoia as the team interrogates one another to find the traitor among them (the tone is good, even if the traitor is obvious). Power Girl, Flash Jay Garrick, Jesse Quick, and others at moments do seem frightened, as if panicked, and this is a great shift for a team that starts the book almost overly self-assured.

Though there are plenty of ways in which the Justice Society fractures in this book, Willingham and Sturges represent the two sides most directly in the conflict between Wildcat and Magog. Magog is a relatively new (and therefore somewhat outcast) militaristic Society member, and Wildcat is the tough-as-nails, often gruff, former-heavyweight senior member -- in short, they're a lot alike. One could argue that Magog is a 1990s comics caricature, and the writers present Wildcat as overzealous in his attacking Magog, but it worked for me; they are enough the same as to convincingly show the Society turning against itself, whereas I didn't think the writers could convince me.

Especially when JSA became Justice Society, Geoff Johns injected a certain Normal Rockwell ethos to the stories; we saw the team help out at a fire station, for instance, and go with Stargirl to the dentist. This is well and good and different from other DC Universe titles, but it seems to stretch suspension of disbelief that an "actual" superhero team could get away with it for long. In that way, the Justice Society's split in this book feels rather natural; Magog expresses the audiences own misgivings about the direction of the Justice Society, and I do appreciate the way this plot puts focus on the title's incongruity.

The writers also consistently remembered that Power Girl is the Justice Society's chairwoman and presented her as in charge, which is a plus; as well, I liked their use of the new Dr. Fate (maybe hearkening to both writers' considerable work writing supernatural characters), and their portrayal of him as an inexperienced but ultra-powerful sorcerer learning the ropes.

Bad Seed's let-down, perhaps, is the villains themselves. The Justice Society fights a random assortment of villains from the silly, like Willingham's Tape Worm, to the powerful Eclipso whom the writers unfortunately also write as silly and cowardly. This "villain blitz" plot seemed cribbed whole cloth from a similar story Willingham wrote in Robin: Days of Fire and Madness, using many of the same villains, and one character even identifies Tape Worm as the villain "who fought Robin." Anyone who read Willingham's Shadowpact: The Pentacle Plot will recognize the team's traitor right away, and Kid Karnevil plus Tape Worm is a bit too much.

I like when writers use reoccurring characters amongst their work -- Greg Rucka does it to good effect between his Huntress, 52, and Question stories -- but Willingham's here seems gratuitous. There's so many more Justice Society-specific villains that this team can fight than Tape Worm, and Kid Karnevil is a rather incongruous choice; as compared to Rucka, Willingham does not seem to be telling large-canvas stories so much as plugging (or reusing) his earlier work, and the instances were so glaring as to take me out of the story.

That aside, however, I liked Justice Society: The Bad Seed. It has not the scope of Geoff Johns's JSA: Stealing Thunder, but there's nothing specifically embarrassing, for instance, to be found in this book; artist Jesus Merino remains consistent throughout, with some heavier inks toward the end that makes his work look like Howard Chaykin's (if you like that kind of thing). It might be a while before I pick up this title's spin-off book, JSA: All-Stars, as I'm not a big fan of Freddie Williams's art, but I'm in for Justice Society: Axis of Evil -- in part again because of Justice League: The Dark Things, but I'm looking forward to it more than I thought I would.

[Contains full covers]

What do you think of the new direction for Justice Society? Like it or hate it? Going to keep reading?
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8 comments:

  1. I wasn't expecting to enjoy this for many of the reasons you cited for your own trepidation, but it is a soft triumph by the end. The second Willingham volume "Axis of Evil" is much better, and together the two books make for an epic tale where a clever team faces some very clever villains and fights them with all they have. I'm still looking sideways at JSA All Stars though.

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  2. I think I may have to disagree on a few points here. First, I haven't read the book since Johns left; usually creator departures are a good reason for me to lighten the burden on my pocketbook. But I really liked Johns's "Norman Rockwell" chapters, because that's what the JSA is to me. Let's not forget, time travel or not, more than a few of these guys are pushing 60 or 70. They can't be out fighting the Sinestro Corps or Doomsday or big villains of the week; they have their own villains, but more importantly they're based on traditional American values - which include saving kittens from trees, palling around at the firehouse, and helping Courtney get her braces off (maybe). I think I really appreciate the Rockwell chapters because it's kind of Johns's signature - he does big blockbuster events but every once in a while he does one of those chapters (usually around Courtney Whitmore... hmm...) which makes you pause and realize they're not just superheroes - they're super humans, too.

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  3. I liked Johns's "Norman Rockwell" moments (the firehouse and the dentist) at the time, and Dale Eaglesham's art gave each sequence a mild air of danger that I thought worked well. However, in retrospect, I think Johns emphasized the "human" in these characters better in JSA -- in the Thanksgiving issue, for instance, or Dr. Mid-Nite and Mr. Terrific praying together. The Justice Society sequences were more on the nose -- and maybe there's an extent to which that's better, I'll grant -- but I remember wondering when I was reading Justice Society, "How can Johns sustain this tone in a modern superhero comic?" For better or worse, I think the split of the JSA into two comics is the answer.

    So I see your point and I kind of agree and I'm kind of not sure.

    I liked Freddie Williams's art a lot when he was with Adam Beechen on Robin, but I've soured on it since then. I find his art has become much more distorted -- on Final Crisis: Run!, for instance -- and now I can't seem to ignore that when I look at it.

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  4. This arc wasn't bad, but it was a letdown for me, considering how much I enjoyed Willingham's work on Shadowpact. Most of it is just a setup for Sturges' first JSA All Stars arc.

    I agree with Hix about the Axis of Evil TPB, which Willingham wrote solo. By the time I finished reading it, I was upset that his run had come to such a premature end. I'm glad CE will review it before tackling the Dark Things hardcover.

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  5. I gotta agree with everyone here. I enjoyed this book more than I expected to, which was enhanced by the Axis of Evil book which follows. And I too was sorry to see this run ended.

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  6. Wow -- I had not heard that Justice Society: Axis of Evil had the favor that it does. Will be interested to check this one out.

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  7. A Johns/JSA omnibus would be our only hope for the JSA Our Worlds at War special ever getting reprinted anywhere, after the hyperdeluxe OWAW collection inexplicably left it out...

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  8. I thought there was an important continuity item in that JSA: Our Worlds at War special, but now I can't remember what it was. Maybe it was just the first time Damage fought alongside the JSA, well prior to One Year Later.

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