Review: Justice Society: Axis of Evil trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 09, 2011

I didn't like the story choice to split up the Justice Society into two titles, nor was I enthusiastic about either creative team set to take over the books. Justice Society of America: Axis of Evil, however, is fantastic, far exceeding my expectations. It's a Mr. Terrific story, mainly, with less emphasis on the entire team, but this is eminently forgivable since it turns out to be writer Bill Willingham's both first and only solo outing on the book. Whether read as a Mr. Terrific miniseries or a Justice Society special, Axis of Evil is exciting and moving, a sleeper hit -- the best kind.

[Contains spoilers]

The rather run-of-the-mill Nazi-themed villains the Fourth Reich attack the Justice Society, the Justice Society beats them back -- and suddenly, Willingham sends us twenty years into the future, where superheroes live in concentration camps and Mr. Terrific spies for the resistance. The difference between the two eras is striking -- Willingham's villain team in the present are laughable caricatures (like "Doctor Murder"), whereas Willingham and artist Jesus Marino achieve a real atmosphere of horror in placing DC Comics's heroes essentially against the background of the Holocaust.

Willingham's success in this book is all in the details. The five issues of the "Fatherland" storyline give Willingham a lot of space to flesh out Terrific, his Nazi guard Karla Lander, the other captured heroes (many from outside the Justice Society), and this new Reich-controlled world. In a terrible situation, the de-powered heroes are even more heroic -- Batman, and then Blue Beetle both sacrifice their lives without hesitation for the benefit of small gains; in a twisted splash page, true to the characters, Willingham has Batman and the Joker die side-by-side.

The Nazi brutality is shocking -- as when fuhrer "Kid" Karnevil swiftly shoots Karla -- and the compassion Willingham has the characters show all the more touching -- as when afterward Terrific and Obsidian discuss living with the terrible memories of that future, or when Terrific goes to visit young Karla in the present.

Aside from Obsidian's role in the end, "Fatherland" is mostly Mr. Terrific's story. The fantastic cameo-filled escape sequence name-checks scores of DC heroes, but those who get the most screen time include Superman and Batman -- Dr. Mid-Nite, Terrific's best friend, barely even gets a nod in the future. I didn't mind this so much, perhaps because this is the end of Willingham's Justice Society stint -- no danger that the other heroes will always be behind the scenes, just a spotlight on Terrific this time, taking his place in the DC Universe pantheon.

And I like Terrific as a character, liked him in Checkmate (wish we might've seen some Checkmate characters), liked his nobility here with Karla and with Obsidian and in the beating he has to appear to take from Blue Beetle. Though I've balked at Green Lantern and Flash stealing the spotlight from Superman in DC's crossover events, I loved watching Mr. Terrific, essentially, save the entire universe and every other DC hero -- it's not all that often that Terrific gets the spotlight, and I found all of this entirely appropriate for the Justice Society title.

Axis of Evil leads off with a two-part tale of the Justice Society against Legion of Super-Heroes villain Mordru. That story is rather dull, emphasizing the likable new Dr. Fate but not offering much intrigue or suspense. It was, with apologies to Willingham (whose Fables I adore), about what I expected -- even with Shadowpact, Willingham sometimes has a tendency to over-narrate, pit the heroes against repetitive parallel dangers, and drown out the story with too much supernatural verbiage. I found the bland gang of villains in Willingham's previous Justice Society: The Bad Seed too much like his bland gang of villains in Robin: Days of Fire and Madness, and I thought that's where we were headed at the beginning of "Fatherland." Be patient, however, because Willingham's expansive story of the dystopian Fourth Reich future is worth the wait.

Justice Society: Axis of Evil's tale of alternate realities, time travel, and DC heroes coming back from the brink contains shades of JSA: Stealing Thunder and JLA: Rock of Ages, two of my favorite volumes from those two series. I would have, without question, read another Justice Society book by Bill Willingham, and I'm unexpectedly sorry to see him go so soon. This makes Axis of Evil all the more notable of a volume; this is a book I can see myself picking up again for a great go-to, self-contained Justice Society story.

[Contains full covers. Printed on glossy paper.]

We'll follow the Justice Society now over into their Justice League crossover with Dark Things, coming up next.
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2 comments:

  1. Good to know you weren't disappointed by this collection after we raised your expectations back when you reviewed The Bad Seed. I'm a sucker for dystopian alternate futures, and Willingham not only put a great spin on that old premise, but also tied it to his first arc in a masterful way.

    If Willingham had stayed on the book and kept that kind of quality, his run could have been a worthy successor to Johns'. However, according to this interview, the "Dark Things" crossover derailed his plans for the team, prompting him to leave after only 12 issues:

    http://www.newsarama.com/comics/bill-willingham-justice-society-exit-110216.html

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  2. Yeah, I wondered about all the fuss at the time, but I sure get it now. And Willingham's reasons for leaving in that interview made sense to me; the "Obsidian goes bad" plot is *tired.*

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