Review: JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

I've spent the last few reviews in this series pulling apart DC's "Greatest Stories" trades, which centered around a single character (or a legacy character), but now it's time to see these folks in action -- especially with Marvel's "other team" recently debuting in their own movie. Let's join JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told!

I'm not expecting to see Antarctica or Detroit in these pages, nor am I expecting much diversity in the cast. The greatest JLA stories, after all, have almost always included the Big Seven. Ultimately this volume needs to contain stories in which every JLA member plays an important role, in which the team aspect of the group is emphasized. It's especially interesting that this is the only "Greatest Stories" collections which directly invokes continuity by linking the contained stories to "mega-popular hits like Identity Crisis!"

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"Origin" (Justice League of America #200, March 1982): I'm still puzzled at how the editors choose the first story of these volumes. Sometimes it's the first appearance; sometimes it's a terse retelling of that story. Here we have a case of the latter, by Gerry Conway and George Perez. There's nothing wrong with this, but it seems included just so we get some Perez in this volume.

"The Super-Exiles of Earth" (Justice League of America #19, May 1963): The first full story in the volume is better than I was expecting. A lot of Silver Age JLA stories might get a bad rap for being overwrought and a bit improbable, but this one is actually exciting. The JLA are exiled from earth after evil doppelgangers besmirch their good names. I was riveted to find out what was actually going on here, so major kudos to Gardner Fox for a story that's held up for almost 50 years. (I won't spoil it here, of course!) Sadly, Aquaman gets no love here, since he's relegated to a spaceship for the entire story simply because he doesn't have a secret identity; characters keep referring to his absence, which made me think he was going to come back and save the day, but it seems Aquaman's real secret identity is Rodney Dangerfield -- can't get no respect.

"Snapper Carr -- Super Traitor" (Justice League of America #77, December 1969): Dennis O'Neil pens this deceptively strong story in which the JLA is targeted by the mysterious John Dough, champion of the average. The story starts off as extremely dated, with team "mascot" Snapper Carr and Dough swapping 1960s slang, but O'Neil quickly gains control of the story by making Dough an architect of anarchy. The story contains the classic JLA trope of "villain underestimating Batman" (which Grant Morrison later used to great effect in his JLA run), but it never feels hackneyed or implausible -- especially once the truth about John Dough is revealed, a twist O'Neil handles with aplomb. Only two problems occur to me: one, it's extremely bizarre to hear the ultra-liberal Green Arrow quote Ayn Rand on the virtues of individualism; and two, the art by Dick Dillin is merely serviceable until the very end, when his final pencilwork on John Dough bungles the character's visual such that he's almost unrecognizable. Otherwise, a solid tale -- two in a row!

"The Great Identity Crisis" (Justice League of America #122, September 1975): There's no question this story is in the collection as a kind of exclamation, "I got your Identity Crisis right here!" But only superficial similarities persist; we have Dr. Light manipulating the League, but this time it's Light doing the mindwiping, rewiring the Leaguers' brains so that their secret identities get jumbled (i.e., Bruce Wayne thinks he's Oliver Queen, etc.). The "greatest" element here is undoubtedly the moment when Superman emphasizes the necessity of learning each other's alter egos, but this story isn't quite as enjoyable as the prior two; it's a bit muddy, the threat doesn't seem that significant or dangerous, and the resolution is too speedy -- a clever concept by Martin Pasko but without much punch or pizzazz.

"The League that Defeated Itself" (Justice League of America #166-168, May-July 1979): Here we come to the first truly disappointing story in the volume, a Gerry Conway/Dick Dillin tale in which the Secret Society of Super-Villains (The Wizard, Professor Zoom, Star Sapphire, Plantmaster [Jason Woodrue], and Blockbuster) swap brains with the League. As the Mike Tiefenbacher introduction points out, this is the same Secret Society which returns after Identity Crisis to plague our heroes, but the story here is overlong and not especially well-executed. The idea is sound, but the villains are uninspiring, and it's sometimes unclear who's being possessed by whom. Dillin's artwork has by leaps and bounds improved since "Super Traitor," but I would have preferred a bigger threat (where's Lex Luthor in this volume, for example?) to match the "Greatest" banner. Aquaman's presence is actually missed here, especially since Red Tornado essentially plays his role by falling down on the job and incessantly castigating himself for it.

"Born Again" (Justice League #1, May 1987): With nary a "Bwa-ha-ha" in sight, the first issue of the Giffen/DeMatteis JL (no A) reboot still holds up very well, capturing much of what was best loved about this series -- the off-kilter humor, the brilliant character dynamics, the attention to super-heroics. While I might have chosen the "moving day" issue of JLI to exemplify better the humor present in the series, there isn't much to complain about with this one. It's a great encapsulation of an era much loved despite a concept that could have earned the malignment of the entire fan community. Poking fun at the Justice League? Unthinkable! Yet Giffen and DeMatteis, replete with the exquisite facial expressions rendered by Kevin Maguire, pulled it off. The only bad part about this inclusion is that it'll remind you how there are still a few uncollected volumes out there (a tender subject on this site, I know). [Don't get me started! -- ed]

"Star-Seed" (JLA Secret Files #1, September 1997): Readers of this blog will know I have only good things to say about Grant Morrison, who penned this update on the Starro saga, but despite your knowing I'll glow about this one, here goes. In Morrison's nostalgic-revisionist pattern, the JLA encounters Starro, ostensibly for the first time and against the advice of The Spectre, who would rather see Blue Valley destroyed -- untenable collateral damage in the eyes of the League. The art by Howard Porter recalls the best of the "Big Seven" era, rendering our protagonists as larger than life and rippling with bulging muscles. I'm torn on this story because its apparent weakness is that Batman defuses the threat almost by himself and without much exertion. Yet this is precisely what I've always loved about Morrison's DC work -- his Batman is indomitable and indefatigable. Is it a great JLA story? The way in which they circumvent The Spectre's prohibition is clever and very much worthy of inclusion, but in the final battle it's really a Batman story in which the other Leaguers serve only as (useful) distractions.

"Two-Minute Warning" (JLA #61, February 2002): This Joe Kelly/Doug Mahnke rectifies Morrison's narrowed focus by giving the League a battle they all need to fight (giant sea monsters, and with the JLA sans Aquaman, no less), but I suspect this story is included because it shows all the Leaguers summoned from quotidian peacetime into conflict -- a side we rarely see when the heavyhitters get together. Kelly does well recording each Leaguer's voice outside of character (save Batman, who appropriately never leaves character), and Mahnke's hyper-detailed "ugly art" captures the grotesque nature of the awful beasts and their monstrous leader. Even Plastic Man gets a moment to shine, and the story's conclusion with the Martian Manhunter on monitor duty reminds us of the neverending battle.

Ultimately, I'm a little disappointed we didn't get the original Starro story (though I'll never complain about a Morrison update), simply because it might have showed how much the JLA changed from their inception to the Morrison age. I probably would have replaced the overlong "League that Defeated Itself" with a few shorter and snappier stories, but overall this was an exceptionally exciting volume, with great stories representing each important era of "the Big Seven."

Of special interest to the collection-minded on this site (i.e., all of us), the glue on JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told's binding was particularly weak, falling apart by the time I finished reading the first time. Now the volume resembles a hardcover with a slipcover, the meat of the book having fallen out from between the covers in one brick.

More Greatest Stories reviews: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Flash.

Next time in this series, I'll invoke the name of the wizard and call down the lightning with Shazam!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. See you then!

Coming up next week, the Collected Editions New 52 reviews of Men of War and Batwing.
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1 comment:

  1. I think the late '90s/early '00s era would have been better represented in this collection if they had replaced "Star-Seed" and "Two-Minute Warning" with JLA #6-7, in which the team beats the forces of Heaven and Hell. To me, it's Morrison and Porter at their best, in spite of Electric Superman.

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