With the success of Grant Morrison's JLA in the late 1990s, Justice League comics got serious, a far cry from the Keith Giffen/J. M. DeMatteis Justice League International super-comedy of the 1980s. In between those two extremes, however, had been a short, cogent Justice League run by Dan Jurgens in early 1990s, which combined humor with action and notably connected with the famous "Death of Superman" storyline.
Jurgens therefore approaches the DC New 52 Justice League International: The Signal Masters with some level of experience and prior success, as does artist Aaron Lopresti, who just drew Justice League: Generation Lost, the virtual "old" DC Universe precursor to Justice League International. What humor is contained in International, some might mistake for a lack of sophistication, but indeed the book has a nostalgic charm in the vein of the older Justice League stories. More's the pity that Justice League International is cancelled after the next volume, but hopefully Jurgens will show up elsewhere on the DC Comics line with these characters in tow.
[Review contains spoilers]
As opposed to the DC New 52 Justice League: Origin, in which the Big Seven Justice League meet, coalesce into a team almost immediately, and then take out the New God Darkseid, the Justice League International bicker their way through their first two issues and then ultimately retreat from the earth-churning giant robots they encounter. This doesn't seem much the premise of a super-team to follow, but the appeal of this League's characters -- Booster Gold, Green Lantern Guy Gardner, Fire, Ice, and Rocket Red in the "old" DC Universe's International, among others -- is their status as underdogs; Justice League is the team readers would want to be on, and JLI is the team readers would likely encompass.
The team comes together and defeats the villain Peraxxus in the end, of course; when the U.N. threatens to disband them, the heroes support one another and stay together. This pluck, again not quite the same as what one gets from the Justice League proper, is endearing to the audience.
Jurgens makes a significant decision to not only include Batman in this title, but to lend leader Booster Gold Batman's support. Long-time fans know this is a significant change over International depictions of old, where Batman would barge in, take over, and alienate all of his teammates. At the end of Generation Lost, Booster had earned Batman's trust both by defeating Max Lord and through Booster's secret work preserving the timestream; there's no such reason given here, but Batman's support of Booster again rallies the audience to do the same.
Jurgens's characterization of Batman is milder than most, even than that of Batman's depiction in Scott Snyder's excellent Court of Owls and other DC New 52 titles. When Batman asks Guy Garnder to stay with the team because "helping people is what we do," it seems almost quaint, though this Batman is easier to take than the one in Snyder's story who punches his partner Nightwing to make a point. That Gardner and Batman even coexist in relative peace here at all is an item of interest, given their storied rivalry in the classic International (including Batman's "one punch" knockout of Garder). Though those stories no longer "exist," Jurgens takes how the characters have matured since that time as a launching point for a more mature JLI -- still with some humorous in-fighting, but far less outlandish than the International of old.
Even as the main plot of Signal Masters has the League fighting an alien threat, the book also sees the League's headquarters bombed by an angry militia, though the source of their anger is tougher to define. The group seems to be upset that the U.N. gives the so-called "Hall of Justice" over to the U.N.-sponsored JLI; the group says the Hall is "theirs" and the JLI are "sell-outs." Without some background as to the role of the Hall, the group's claims don't make sense -- the Hall was a Justice League base in the "old" DC Universe, but if that's the same in the DC New 52, why is it abandoned and why do the protestors feel ownership of it? Jurgens would seem to try to parallel any number of real-world protests, from the Occupy Wall Street movement to arguments over what to build in former World Trade Center areas, but this manifests. It comes off as the weakest part of a story that has otherwise good characterization throughout.
For the first time in the DC New 52 collections, it may be come apparent to readers how much has been lost in the relaunching of DC Comics continuity, even if there's been some requisite gain. Fans will remember Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis's I Can’t Believe It's Not the Justice League, a sequel to their classic International stories, in which Booster, Guy, and Fire venture into Hell to save the deceased Ice, including a heart-rending moment when they might have to leave her behind.
The number of issues these characters have appeared in and the amount of continuity baggage they all carry may be daunting to new readers, but it also allows for emotional reading in the amount all the characters care for one another. Jurgens's Leaguers here are friends, and certainly Jurgens is aware of the characters' "old" relationships, but it's not the same as having that history down on the page. This doesn't lessen Signal Masters, but there's an aspect of "getting the band back together" that would have been present in the "old" DC Universe and is not present here.
Justice League International: The Signal Masters succeeds in what it does not try to accomplish. This is not a widescreen action book (though Lopresti is no slouch in the action department, as well as expressive faces in scenes of dialogue) nor is it a story of sure-fire, confident heroes. Rather, the JLI is a ragtag group, not sure what they're doing or if they should even be together, comprised of some familiar faces, and fans of these characters won't be disappointed. Possibly low sales ended Justice League International after the next volume, or possibly DC Comics has other plans for these characters -- hopefully it's the latter (and failing that, a DC New 52 Booster Gold series by Jurgens!).
[Includes original covers, sketchbook section by Lopresti]
From DC New 52 team to DC New 52 team -- coming up, the Collected Editions review of the DC New 52 Stormwatch.