Review: Justice League: Dark Things hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

James Robinson's comics-writing style is evident from the very beginning of Justice League of America: Dark Things, the latest Justice League/Justice Society crossover -- emphasis on the minutia of the characters' lives, to start, and a running meta-commentary on the story through the characters simultaneous narration. It distinguishes the book as distinctly Robinson's, different in presentation from even the most recent JLA/JSA crossover that preceded it -- Geoff Johns and Brad Meltzer's Justice League: The Lightning Saga.

Even doing it "his way," however, Robinson succeeds in accomplishing the kind of epic frenzied four-color tone necessary for this kind of crossover -- more so than I've seen before or expected from Robinson. It rather makes me curious to see if Robinson could go even bigger, to a Blackest Night or Flashpoint level event in the future.

[Contains spoilers]

To be sure, there's too much character narration in Dark Things. The characters often finish each others' thoughts -- not through any telepathy, but because they're thinking the same thing or "kind of" the same thing. This is meant to show some similarity and difference between the characters, and worked in Robinson showing the burgeoning formation of this Justice League last time in Team History. Here, however, it's often distracting, both in trying to determine which narration box color goes with which character (especially with so many characters present), and also in the reader trying to mentally "hear" a sentence composed of four or five different characters' voices.

It works especially well, however, on some very key occasions, and it's why I think what Robinson accomplishes here is ultimately art and not artifice. Though Robinson loses points for resurrecting the old, silly Jade/Donna Troy feud, he humanizes Jade well in showing that in the middle of a battle, Jade is thinking about trivial matters like her old boyfriend's ex, and then scolds herself for thinking so. At another point, Donna gives a possessed Jade some trite words of appeasement, and then chides herself for the triteness.

Another writer would let their superhero speak platitudes as a matter of course, but Robinson both understands the genre and how to subvert it. He's no longer trying to make his characters smarter than they actually are (like Copperhead collecting transistor radios in Starman); rather they speak and act just the same as under another writer, but Robinson lets us hear the thoughts that other writers might keep silent.

It's another credit to Robinson that he writes a considerably interesting story on what's a very tired foundation. For me, seeing the Justice League and Justice Society work together never gets old, but at base this is another "Obsidian goes bad story" like JSA: Darkness Falls and Princes of Darkness before it, not to mention similar stories in Infinity Inc. and iterations of Justice League. I don't much fault Justice Society writer Bill Willingham for walking out on the premise. Combined with the Jade/Donna Troy rivalry, there's an extent to which Robinson's references seem stuck in the Starman-or-older era; this is good, as when Robinson remembers Jade once lead the Blood Pack, but also lessens the overall drama of the book.

Robinson's real success in Dark Things is in the characters themselves. This is a fun Justice League that Robinson has put together (helped immeasurably by the youth and vibrancy of artist Mark Bagley's style). Batman Dick Grayson is friendly, kind, and wonderfully angst-free, a team leader that (for once) the other heroes follow without question. Though I found Robinson's Donna Troy and Jade too angry and uncertain respectively, I like the two individually and I'm glad to see them in a spotlight. Robinson's Starman and Congorilla are likable, wry, and powerful, stealing every scene they're in; I thrilled when Congorilla holds back a dam and becomes a "national hero." And Robinson doesn't ignore the "visiting" Justice Society characters either, writing husband and wife Hourman and Jessie Quick believably concerned for each other in battle without seeming obsessive; he also forwards the Thunder/Mr. America romance begun during Bill Willingham's Justice Society run.

In truth, this is as much a Justice League/Justice Society crossover as it is a a team-up between former Titans and members of Infinity Inc. Dick Grayson has lead nearly half his team before in Titans and Outsiders, and as such this Justice League feels new but also familiar -- in a good way, this time. In contrast to the riotous events in Justice League: Rise and Fall and Identity Crisis, where the "old" League fights as much as they get along, this "new" League virtually grew up together and like one another, and there's a camaraderie here that's been missing in recent iterations of the Titans, the Outsiders, and so on.

(It's also worth noting that Robinson's seven-member Justice League offers a four-three majority of female members. While I'm not going to go look up the definite statistics, this seems to me a better representation of women in the Justice League than normal, especially compared to the Big Seven with one (Wonder) woman only.)

The previous volume, Justice League: Team History, served as a mostly event-driven transition volume from Dwayne McDuffie's Justice League to Robinson's; in this book, Robinson gathers his team together. This "gathering" story, involving the entire Justice Society, is far and away more ambitious than Brad Meltzer's at this title's beginning; even if this isn't quite the traditional Justice League some fans might want, the scope of the story in Justice League: Dark Things is the kind of scope I expect from the Justice League title. It doesn't seem to me Robinson has had the chance to tell his own story yet, still setting up and juggling other writer's plot threads, but this book is good -- better than the volume that preceded it -- and it makes me optimistic for the stories that follow.

[Contains original and variant cover. Printed on glossy paper.]
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10 comments:

  1. I am enjoying Robinsons writing. I think he is getting better with every single issue. He still makes the characters say or act a bit too cheesy but one can see a clear improvement. I hope he sticks long enough to put his stamp on this book.

    I give this tpb 3 out of 5 stars. fun stuff.

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  2. You can tell how much Robinson genuinely loves the whole DC universe by the way he seeks to include it in his books. The guest stars in this story were unexpected and quite delightful.

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  3. What's your opinion on the art? One of the mains reason why I didn't like the previous volume was the "rushness" style, and also how young Bagley drew the characters.

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  4. I agree Bagley draws the characters "young," though I felt that rather fit with this particular title; these Leaguers *are* young, all sidekicks or second-stringers to the Big Seven, so that worked for me. I do agree that Bagley's art looks "rushed" sometimes -- lack of detail, excessive dark inks -- but I wondered if that was due to constantly-changing inkers rather than the artist himself.

    Hix had a comment here a little while ago before Blogger had some minor hiccups. It read, "You can tell how much Robinson genuinely loves the whole DC universe by the way he seeks to include it in his books. The guest stars in this story were unexpected and quite delightful."

    Hix, which guest stars did you specifically like? I have always appreciated the breadth of the DC Universe that Robinson uses in his work, but I wasn't specifically taken by any of the guest stars here. I rather didn't like seeing Mr. Miracle, Shilo Norman, since the Fourth World New Gods are supposed to be gone after Final Crisis (all, I thought, even Shilo) -- and even then, Robinson only used him for a couple pages, and then he got fried and disappeared. This aspect didn't work for me the way I think it worked for you.

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  5. Like McDuffie before him, Robinson is doing the best he can with what he's got, but I like that he got to pick a line-up full of young analogues of most of the "Big 7". It feels like JLA: The Next Generation, and I like it better than the selection of older, second-tier heroes the book was saddled with before.

    About the inconsistent artwork, the problem is the fact that Bagley got two different inkers on pretty much every issue. Rob Hunter's inks are heavy and add some facial detail, while Norm Rapmund's are sketchier. Bagley's art also tends to suffer when he has to draw 30 pages a month, and he had to draw even more than that during this crossover.

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  6. I know many fans wish Robinson had picked Wally West instead of Jessie Quick as his Flash, but I think there's less of a chance Jessie might get pulled away from him than Wally. Robinson seems to take the interruptions inherit in writing Justice League in stride (see Reign of Doomsday), and I think it helped that he picked Big Seven analogues, but ones unlikely to be needed elsewhere.

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  7. With the gueststars, it was just a pleasure to see someone unexpected appear. As a trade-waiter who still reads new reviews, I'm not often surprised, but this story got me with Faust, Kyle and Shilo.

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  8. Yeah, seeing Kyle was cool, and I'm a long-time Faust fan, too.

    You bring up an interesting question: as a trade-waiter, what events are still surprising any more? What's something that happened that you totally didn't know was coming? I'll have to think on that one a bit.

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  9. Honestly surprises are few and far between for this trade-waiter. About the best it gets is unexpected character appearances, something Robinson delivers regularly. Maybe because he's not the critical darling he used to be, there aren't that many regular reviews of his work to spoil it for me.

    Having said that I'm trying really hard right now to not have War of the Green Lanterns news. It's a losing battle.

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  10. I just finished reading this. Personally, I hated the dialogue; the constant narration, and how the characters are always going "But, yeah, anyway...". A lot of times I felt that with so many characters in this story, some of them were saying things just for the sake of having a "line" in the story. Parts of it reminded me of an 80's story, where the characters say really obvious things, solely to remind the reader about what's going on or what their powers are.

    So, yeah, I'm strongly considering not getting the final two JLA books (Omega and Rise of Eclipso, even though the Eclipso story had my interest), especially since I know it's all wiped out by the Flashpoint reboot. I had high hopes for this JLA series when it started off under Meltzer, but first McDuffie and now Robinson have failed to deliver (for me, at least) any "must read" stories.

    Regarding Hix's comments on War of the Green Lanterns...I don't know how, considering the frequent visits to Comic Book Resources, but I really managed to avoid knowing ANYTHING about that crossover. I broke down and bought the books in hardcover (I've switched from TPB to HC for the final DCU books, to get caught up with Flashpoint and the New 52), but I've got to get through Brightest Day first.

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