Review: JSA: Darkness Falls trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

[Our look this week at the last pre-New 52 days of the Justice Society continues today with a trip back to the early days of JSA, with this guest review by Doug Glassman]

I was singing the praises of JSA: Darkness Falls all the way back in 2005 when I wrote for Comixfan . . . a position I originally left because I felt like the only DC reader on a Marvel-centric site. Oh, how the times have changed, although my opinion about the book certainly hasn’t. Perhaps my greatest disappointment with the New 52 is how much of Darkness Falls was written out of continuity, even on Earth-2.

In retrospect, it’s amazing how nearly every story in Geoff Johns’ run on the pre-relaunch title began in this trade. It chronicles Obsidian’s turn to evil, the revamped Injustice Society and the beginning of the fall of Atom Smasher, which would eventually lead to the reintroduction of Black Adam as a major force in the DC Universe. The only major villain missing is Mordru, who was the villain in the previous trade. Like Busiek’s Avengers, Goyer and Johns kept a number of storylines running consecutively, switching between them as new opportunities arise.

This volume sees the classic roster still under construction. Green Lantern Alan Scott, Flash Jay Garrick, Wildcat, Black Canary, Atom Smasher, Star-Spangled Kid, Hawkgirl and Sand are present, but Mr. Terrific and Dr. Mid-Nite are only introduced to the team in this volume. The team already feels more like a family than a team, with Alan as the stern father, Jay as the kindly uncle, and Ted as the feisty grandfather. It’s still strange seeing Jack Knight as an active, almost eager Starman, and his departure from the superhero game is catalogued in his own title. I also lamented the departure of Hippolyta from the title; the team would lack a physically powerful woman until Power Girl joined a few years later.

I consider Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. to be one of the greatest books about a teenage superhero protagonist. Courtney was an absolute brat in the title, but she was sympathetic to some degree as a fish out of water California girl who started trolling her stepfather by dressing up as his dead partner. One of her greatest stresses in life in her series was getting braces, and it’s a character quirk that’s stayed with her. Visually, her costume is actually somewhat conservative for a modern superheroine despite showing off her stomach.

Paul Levitz may have laid on the “heart of the team” role too thickly in JSA: Ghost Stories, but she really is the team’s moral center. The JSA has her around both to train her and, subconsciously, to keep them in check. Despite being based on Johns’ deceased sister, she never comes across as a Mary Sue; instead, she’s kept in check by her flaws.

So now we get to the main reason why I love this trade: Atom Smasher. As a fellow tall, awkward Jewish guy with issues over a lost parent, I identify with him a lot. I lost my father about two years before I read this book for the first time, and when Al loses his mother, I felt his rage. If I could somehow put a heart attack on a crashing plane, I would too, and while I have my own issues with morality in comic book universes, I feel that the team’s mixed feelings over Al’s actions against Extant are well-presented. They know that any murder is morally wrong . . . but why not get rid of an omnicidal maniac instead of a colleague’s mother?

When Al confronts Kobra, the mastermind of the bombing, he nearly crushes him to death, and while, again, I would understand going through with it, Jack Knight talks him down in a fantastic sequence. It becomes stronger if you’ve read Starman and know about the times Jack has killed someone.

Over the course of JSA, Al’s murder of Extant and the reactions to it drive him over the edge, eventually crossing to Black Adam’s side and going to prison voluntarily. He didn’t do this under a magic spell, either. While Brainwave may have ramped up his violent side in Black Reign, his choices up to that point were his own. There’s also his relationship with Stargirl; despite the age disparity, their feelings ring true, and Al’s age would be easy to retcon . . . if either of them still existed.

The art for the titular story is provided by Stephen Sadowski, who has the unenviable task of working with a lot of black ink. He’s a strong enough craftsman to make the action visible, which can be difficult to do; it’s why, as much as I enjoy Peter Snejbjerg’s art, I had some issues with his work on the second half of Starman with the Shade. Sadowski also draws the fun Wildcat-centric “Wild Hunt,” well-known for how an octogenarian superhero defeats the entire Injustice Society. Sadowski’s energy escapes through the page thanks to Wildcat’s excitement.

However, the star of the show is Buzz, who draws “The Hunt for Extant” and provides perhaps the greatest image of Atom Smasher ever drawn. You’ve probably seen it: he’s holding Kobra’s plane aloft, about to crush it, screaming beneath his mask. It’s the main piece of artwork in Atom Smasher’s entries in the DC Comics Encyclopedia and other guidebooks; it’s even on the Atom Smasher Wikipedia page. I don’t even like when he’s drawn with features under his mask, and yet this one image conveys the immense pain he’s feeling. JSA also has a fun little running artistic gag: Atom Smasher’s mask breaks at the exact same point in nearly every battle, letting a little tuft of hair poke out. See if you can spot it when you read the book.

Essentially, JSA: Darkness Falls serves as the title’s Marvel Epic, setting up the future stories and redefining the team. Goyer and Johns provide all of the characters with a strong voice, the plotting moves swiftly, the art is solid and, well, it’s got Atom Smasher and Stargirl, two of DC’s best characters, in starring roles. I may have to draft a petition to secure their return.

[Thanks Doug! Tomorrow we finish Last Days of the Justice Society Week with our review of Power Girl: Old Friends. See you then!]
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