Review: Justice Society of America: Supertown trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, December 19, 2011

In its last two volumes before the DC New 52 relaunch, Justice Society of America gets a new writer, Marc Guggenheim, and a new direction -- the signs of a series popular enough that fans have clamored for its inclusion in DC's new line, but not so steady as to have warranted a number of recent creative changes. Justice Society: Supertown is still a little rough around the edges, not exactly at the level where one might hope this book would be, but the finale is quite interesting and definitely left me eager for the next volume.

[Contains spoilers]

Just as Bill Willingham's Justice Society: Axis of Evil was largely a Mr. Terrific story guest-starring the Justice Society, Guggenheim's is really a Golden Age Flash story (Guggenheim also wrote, to much acclaim, the best issues of the otherwise abysmal Flash: The Fastest Man Alive), the story finds Flash Jay Garrick announcing his retirement (fitting, on the eve of the New DC Universe); by the end, however, he gains new purpose as the savior and incoming mayor of new DC locale Monument Point. Jay's journey from irrelevancy to ultimately setting an example of "responsible heroism," plus the upcoming political drama that the ending portends, are all quite engaging and speak good things for the book.

I also appreciated that the master villain in Supertown is one of the senators who forced the Justice Society to retire rather than reveal their identities in the 1950s. Though that story is often referenced, I've never seen it addressed as a plot point even though it's conceivable the government players might still be alive. Supertown also turns on a World War II fight between the Flash and the Golden Age Green Lantern over whether to murder a super-powered Nazi baby, a conflict that has consequences in the present day. Both of these elements make Supertown a story about the Justice Society, rather than just an adventure the Society goes on, and the story is better for it.

Unfortunately, Guggenheim lost me early on with a key element, and it shadows the book just a bit. The Society arrives in Monument Point because of "terrorist" threats made by the villain Scythe (though we never hear these threats nor does Scythe even speak all that much). Teen hero Lightning asks "Terrorists? Like, real terrorists? Like Al Qaeda-type terrorists?" Wildcat retorts, "Are there any other kind?" and Mr. Terrific says, "Actually, yes. But that's not what's important right now."

Fair enough -- the kid is ignorant, Wildcat is characteristically uncouth, and Mr. Terrific corrects them.  But then a page later, Green Lantern makes reference to Scythe's "politics" (quotes Guggenheim's) and adds "and I'm being extremely generous there, I know" -- and mind you, Scythe hasn't said a word yet. After Scythe disables Green Lantern, leaving Wildcat and Lightning to the fight, Wildcat says, "We'll take care of Bin Laden."

Now, it's comics. And I grant that Wildcat is supposed to say insensitive things as part of his "came up before political correctness" ethos. But without the villain of the scene saying a word, Guggenheim implies through jokes and innuendo (and the fact that Scythe, off-screen, apparently makes a statement on Al Jazeera television, though how he does so from Monument Point is tough to say) that Scythe is a Muslim extremest -- in fact, other parts of the story would suggest he's a Nazi, if anything -- when neither has much to do with his goals or character and Scythe might otherwise just be an angry behemoth. It's sloppy writing of the worst kind, in my opinion, because it uses stereotypes instead of characterization, and makes the Justice Society seem old and out of touch at the book's outset.

Guggenheim sets a nice ticking clock in the middle of the story when the Justice Society races (and fails) to prevent Monument Point's mayor's murder, but the villain here, too, is rather ill-defined. Guggenheim makes Dr. Chaos plenty scary, but also somewhat ludicrous. This old man fights the heaviest hitters of the Justice Society -- Hourman and Citizen Steel, for instance -- to a standstill, and Guggenheim never offers a reason why. I appreciate that Guggenheim creates new foes for the Society (I don't need to see the Society fight Icicle or Johnny Sorrow again), but I appreciate the villains making sense (even comic book sense); else it just seems Guggenheim arbitrarily twists the story for the needs of the moment.

Artists Scott Kolins and Mike Norton are each perfectly suited for the Justice Society title, their art more on the sedate side of the spectrum than an Ed Benes or Jim Lee. (Though Kolins offers a butt-shot of Manhunter that I thought there must have been another way to present). Like in the recent Superman/Batman: Worship, both Kolins and Norton's pencils are colored un-inked, giving the book a painted quality that again seems just right for the Golden Age Justice Society. I was glad, however, that Supertown is the penultimate Justice Society book when I saw Kolins's new Green Lantern costume -- it is meant as a shell for the paraplegic Lantern, but he comes off looking more like a Lantern baseball mascot than a superhero.

All of this contributes to Supertown's less than stellar rating; it is good, but I would not call it great. Guggenheim's implied criticism in the book that superheroes never clean up their messes (as the Society prepares, initially, to abandon a decimated Monument Point) is an old chestnut addressed before (and if anyone wouldn't be guilty of it, I'd think it would be the Golden Age heroes), but I like the action it spurs the Flash to, if not the impetus itself.

My hope for the next volume, Monument Point, is an Ex Machina-type political story; to see the Justice Society set themselves up as a real society, with a town of their own, sounds like a fitting closing arc to me.

[Contains original covers. Printed on glossy paper]

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2 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed Supertown. This was Scott Kolins finally getting a handle on his new art style and it turned out great. Mike Attiyah was great on the colors as well. I can understand your disapproval of those few exchanges about Scythe but to me the stars of this story was Flash and Dr. Chaos. Chaos may be the typical hitman for hire villain but his dialogue was fantastic and for me, more than made up for any "politics" played by Guggenheim with the uninteresting Scythe.

    I had completely forgot about this book, so thanks for taking the time to read and review it. I think I'll reread those issues to see if they hold up as well as my memory says it does.

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  2. Figured I couldn't let the Justice Society go to limbo without some recognition. As much as I liked this book, I'll be back again to review Monument Point when it comes out.

    Hey, a book you liked! :-)

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