Review: Justice League: Rise and Fall hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 02, 2011

Comics Alliance's Chris Sims rated the third issue of J. T. Krul's Rise of Arsenal as one of their "Worst of the Worst" issues; Savage Critic Brian Hibbs labeled it "the worst comic I have ever read." Though I might not say "absolute worst," I don't disagree with their assessment that some aspects, including the infamous "dead cat incident," are over the top, not to mention some laughably poor drug "lingo."

And yet, if I might be charitable, I didn't feel let down at the end of Justice League: Rise and Fall -- which collects not only the Arsenal miniseries, but also the closing issues of the previous Green Arrow series and a Justice League special -- as much as I did when reading Magog: Lethal Force, for instance, or Superman/Batman: Big Noise. There were parts of this book as a whole, even after two readings, that I found I rather liked

As there are any number of reviews out there that will tell you why you should avoid this book, I'll provide a little contrast by illuminating what I liked -- not, by any stretch, ignoring what's still rough around the edges here -- and then you can make the decision for yourself.

[Contains spoilers]

Mark Waid's JLA: Year One and Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis are two books that most would agree are far away from one another in tone, yet similar in this way: they emphasize the Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Flash Barry Allen, Green Arrow Oliver Queen, and Black Canary Dinah Lance relationship. Both books are about, as Meltzer presented it, the second level of the Justice League, those who do the clean-up after DC Comics's Big Three walk off the stage. Both Year One and Identity Crisis are set in the past (or Hal appears as the Spectre, etc.), however, and the recent Blackest Night crossover focused on Hal and Barry, but not Ollie.

The "Fall of Green Arrow" aspects of this book are a modern-day "second League" story, possibly the first since Green Lantern, Flash, and Green Arrow's respective resurrections. It is far from perfect -- Krul makes Flash Barry Allen terribly unlikeable, a caricature of Geoff Johns's nuanced police scientist -- but the broad strokes are there. I have complained in the past that it was unnecessary for DC to resurrect these old heroes, supplanting their newer counterparts, but the bottom line is you can't tell the same stories with Flash Wally West, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, and Green Arrow Connor Hawke that you can with Barry, Hal, and Ollie. Among them, they created the Justice League together; among them, they were the "hard traveling heroes." The emotions are just plain deeper, and they added a sizzle to Hal and Barry's discovery that Ollie had killed the villain Prometheus, and their attempt to bring him in, that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Further, if Krul's Barry was off, and his Connor Hawke completely mischaracterized (which made ardent Connor fans crazy, no doubt), I thought Krul absolutely nailed Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen's friendship. It's obvious throughout the story that Hal's of two minds about Ollie's guilt; this is the same Green Lantern who himself not only killed his enemy Sinestro in a crazed rage, but was later ready to flip the switch when a (resurrected) Sinestro was sent to death row. When a judge clears Ollie of all charges but exiles him from his home of Star City, Hal is waiting outside to lend his support and wish Ollie well. It's a beautiful couple of pages, and it's why I say if you're a fan of Arsenal Roy Harper, maybe you'll have trouble with this book, but if you're a fan of Green Arrow, this is actually a somewhat promising Green Arrow story.

Second, I thought some of the moral issues in this book were handled well. One thing I liked about the Sacrifice storyline where Wonder Woman killed Max Lord is that Wonder Woman remains unapologetic about the act; maybe she was wrong, but she (and the writers) are sticking to their actions. I don't mind that Superman executed villains in Exile and later renounced the action, but carrying on, I think the "murdering and feeling remorse" storyline is less complicated, asks less from the reader, and has more danger of straying into cliche than a storyline where heroes kill, feel justified, but then have to balance that justification with censure from their colleagues (see, for instance, Bartlet and assassinating a terrorist in West Wing's third season).

Krul's Green Arrow deals with a little bit of both. In the beginning, Ollie does feel he's done the right thing, even as he knows neither Hal nor Barry, nor his wife Dinah, will approve; it's only after he sees how his actions feed his sidekick Speedy Mia Dearden's bloodlust that he rethinks his actions. Later, a jury clears Ollie due to that same bloodlust, and Ollie fails to stop Arsenal from killing a villain on his own. It's not just that Ollie feels bad; there are real consequences to Prometheus's murder in terms of the actions of those who look up to Ollie, and it's ironic since Ollie gets flak for not being a stalwart mentor (even as we see the pervasiveness of his influence). Krul doesn't treat these matters lightly, and moreover I think he gives them some nuance (especially when Ollie can't stop Roy from killing in front of him).

Not any of this, I'll grant, excuses the excesses of this book, especially in the Arsenal miniseries chapters. Krul shows good attention to detail at times, like remembering Deathstroke's daughter Ravager's relationship with Roy's daughter Lian, killed by Prometheus; but then in comparison, the drug-addled Arsenal manifests a new costume without the writer spending any time on how or why, or on Arsenal's new moniker. As well, a good number of splash pages bear artist Geraldo Borges signature, quite overtly; I'm not used to seeing this, and moreover these pages, with obscenely misshapen facial expressions, aren't near as impressive as the signatures seem to suggest. Often these splash pages are considerably violent, and it suggests a disconnect between artist and reader -- the book is a tragedy, not a Lobo-esque violent comedy, and this blithe glorification-by-signing took me squarely out of the story.

Possibly, Krul is trying to do something here that either doesn't work in serial comics, or doesn't work with today's serial comics audience. Obviously, somewhere down the road, Arsenal will be redeemed, either by Krul in Green Arrow or by new Titans writer Eric Wallace in that book. The "Arsenal" section, though called "Rise of Arsenal," is really about Roy Harper's downfall (just as Green Arrow's "fall" is in many ways his "rise"). But, whereas a two-hour movie might demonstrate Roy's fall and rise all before you leave the theater, Arsenal is about Roy's fall only; it's all about how low can Roy Harper go. Krul, as Chris Sims notes, fails to make Roy sympathetic even when it seems Krul is trying to -- the scene where Roy attacks Mia especially embitters Roy to the reader -- but also, I think, making Roy sympathetic is not what this book is about. That comes later.

And that's where I'm just not sure this approach works; I'm not sure a reader wants to spend money for four months on a book where you pity the protagonist to begin with, hate him in the end, and only read his redemption later on in a different title; with all the other problems these chapters have, I think that's asking too much.

Justice League: Rise and Fall is far from perfect, but it has some nice touches (I continue to like that DC is including previews of new titles at the end of their collections; here, a preview of Krul's new Green Arrow series). I enjoy interplay of the characters this book features, and so far I've liked more stories I've read by J. T. Krul than I have disliked. This will not be a book for everyone, but I had not as much difficulty with it as I'd expected.

[Contains full and variant covers. Printed on glossy paper]

We continue the week with a look at another contentious DC Comics title, Titans: Villains for Hire. See you then!
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9 comments:

  1. The one positive thing I can say about Rise of Arsenal is that the scene where Roy imagines how Lian felt as she died was really effective for me. Actually, there's another one: Arsenal's characterization isn't nearly as cartoonish and annoying as in the current Titans series.

    The Fall of Green Arrow part was a much better read, although I hated that they used Prometheus' murder as an excuse to break up Green Arrow and Black Canary's marriage. I still can't see why some editors said Oliver Queen would become "the most important character in the DC universe" or something like that after this storyline. Nowadays, he seems more marginalized than ever to me.

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  2. As a HUGE GA fan,I snapped this collection up as soon as it was released and having read it over several times I'm still quite torn.

    I believe it's a book of two styles, character play vs. graphic sex and violence.

    I would almost go as far and say that the GA storyline was aimed at a more mature readership (like myself); whereas the Arsenal section appealed more to a younger audience.

    I like the collection, not love it, like it and I really liked the intro to the "Into the Woods" GA collection.

    Last thought...

    Why isn't there a Green Arrow film? Surely Oliver Queen is one of the best characters to explore through film, and with the past success of Robin Hood films, surely it's a no-brainer to create a GA film???

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  3. I agree it seems at times like this is two separate books by two separate writers; it's interesting that Krul wrote both the very good and the very bad. I'll be curious to see how Into the Woods holds up.

    I think Green Arrow is a pretty strong character on Smallville, too; it does make a Green Arrow movie seem like a worthwhile endeavor.

    @shagmu - I didn't like the marriage from the beginning because I knew somewhere down the line, some writer was going to break it up; it was inevitable. These are two characters that are too viable as separate properties to be married and not have the opportunity for romantic plotlines in their own titles. It's like Catwoman's pregnancy or New Krypton; I much prefer storylines that turn on character actions (like Green Arrow killing Prometheus) than transparent "big changes" that never last.

    Were the editors talking about the new Green Arrow series, the forest, and etc.? I had thought this was in the planning for a while but never quite manifested, and I don't know if the current iteration is the form they original planned. Or maybe they thought Rise and Fall would catch on stronger, like Amazons Attack.

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  4. Just out of curiosity, between this and Cry For Justice, is there a coherent and well-thought-out plan for the Arrow family? I didn't read either as the reviews didn't seem to warrant it, but from what plot synopses I saw, the whole thing seemed a bit haphazard.

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  5. That's a hard question in part because I think we're still in the middle of this storyline (and I haven't yet read Green Arrow: Into the Woods, for instance). Cry for Justice and Rise and Fall do line up pretty well in tone and such, despite having two different authors (James Robinson and Krul); there's also some parts James Robinson writes in Justice League of America: Team History.

    I don't mind the title-hopping and some repeating scenes between the various books, but then again I like that kind of thing. Between the end of Rise and Fall and Into the Woods is a minor jaunt over to Brightest Day, too, which I know isn't for everyone.

    If I had to guess, I think this is an exercise in culling the "Arrow Family" back down to just Green Arrow (no Speedy, no Connor, no Arsenal, no Black Canary). I liked Judd Winick's run, personally, but I also like what I've read of Mike Grell's -- what Krul writes is definitely the loner urban hunter Oliver Queen.

    Hope that helps.

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  6. I just read that the Rise of Arsenal storyline won a PRISM award for its "accurate portrayal of mental health/drug issues".

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  7. It did ...

    http://dcu.blog.dccomics.com/2011/05/02/dc-comics-recipients-of-two-prism-awards/

    ... which is kind of hard to believe, considering everyone seems to agree that Arsenal's drug language in the book is pretty hokey, and that the drug's he's taking don't generally do what they appear to in the book.

    But I'll be the first to say that sometimes books mean different things to different people, and that some people can get something out of a book that others don't. Cry for Justice was nominated for (won?) an Eisner and that surprised a lot of people, but I rather dug where I perceived Robinson was going with it.

    So, to an extent I'm glad Rise of Arsenal won that PRISM award. If we think DC was off the wall with this, someone out there didn't, and that suggests the state of things is not as bad as we sometimes think it is.

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  8. The thing about giving Green Arrow and Black Canary different love interests is that we know they'll never last, because they're meant for each other. That's why their marriage worked for me, and I think they could star in separate titles without necessarily breaking up.

    I think it was Dan DiDio and Ian Sattler who spent over a year promising big things for Green Arrow. Maybe the storyline about the JLA hunting for him was originally supposed to be a lot longer and full of tie-ins, but since Cry for Justice suffered a lot of delays and ended up finishing its run right before Brightest Day, the Fall of Green Arrow arc was shortened to a two-parter.

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  9. Poor Green Arrow and Black Canary. shagmu's right that they can never really be with someone else, because the writers will always bring them back together; but they can never be together, because the writers will always split them up. Tough to be a romantically-entangled superhero in today's world.

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