Justice League: A Villain's Journey. Unfortunately, this rich characterization struggles to come to the forefront beside a mostly generic Justice League story, and it's for this reason that the book, like the first volume, may still be dismissed as action movie fluff. Neither does it help Justice League be taken seriously that the story mostly turns on the romantic meanderings of the team's sole female member, Wonder Woman.
[Review contains spoilers]
Among the interesting tweaks that Geoff Johns made to the creation of the Justice League in Justice League: Origins is to establish that the Leaguers are reluctant allies more so than friends, and that their partnership is mainly so that each will be treated with less suspicion individually. Five years later, Johns takes this to its inevitable conclusion -- the Leaguers don't all necessarily like or trust one another, but they have pretended to do so in order to protect their collective reputations.
This is a rich and unique conflict; it’s meant that over the five years, the League has had to pretend to a united front, exhaustingly wary of any public hint of discord, else life become difficult for all of them. To that end, the League has largely set itself apart from humanity, refused to take any new members, and lets Steve Trevor's government ARGUS division speak for them, lest their secret be found out. In essence, the Justice League becomes an additional "secret identity" for each of the heroes -- it keeps the world, necessarily but tragically, from learning that the League is actually made of people who have good days and bad days and don't always get it right the first time.
For anyone who's had to hide their foibles, opinions, or "real selves" from family or peers so as to be accepted, the difficulty Johns sets forth here is infinitely relatable, and underscores the importance of bringing back the "secret identity" concept, in total, to the DC New 52.
This is set, however, against the League's conflict with David Graves, a one-time League biographer who believes the League responsible for the death of his family, and so takes an ill-defined vengeance on them with the help of mystically-granted powers. Graves's seemingly limitless powers take whatever form Johns's story needs -- though Graves mainly appears to control a band of fear-inducing wraiths, he can conveniently teleport from scene to scene with ease, and he also manages to take control of every television, cell phone, and computer in the world. All of this before the League learns that Graves was somehow misled about his powers' origins, though Johns doesn't even hint at what the larger scenario might be.
Graves's "broadcast" powers come in to play when he shows the world a fight between Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, destroying the League's clean image. But Graves has not "pushed" the heroes into fighting, as it initially seems; rather he simply seems to take advantage of their fight and displays it. Graves's motivations are as shifting as his powers -- he attacks the League, he wants to break them up, he wants Wonder Woman to undergo some tragedy specifically, he wants the League to help resurrect his family -- and finally, the League handily defeats him without much epilogue.
The upshot of this is a story not terribly different from former League battles against foes like the Key (who even appears here), Dr. Destiny, or the like. Graves is unremarkable himself (though his Jim Lee-created costume is cool in a Frank Langella's Skeletor kind of way), and for a story called "The Villain's Journey," Graves's journey is really beside the point -- this is the League's story, though the narrative only seems to acknowledge this around the edges. Justice League wants very much to be Justice Society, where in stories like Black Reign or Thy Kingdom Come, the plot- and character-conflicts were one and the same; Justice League hasn't captured that smooth duality quite yet.
It's also generally problematic that Villain's Journey turns, essentially, on the problems with having a woman on an all-male team. Trevor has protected the League and buffered them from inquisition largely because of his unrequited affection for Wonder Woman. The other Leaguers understand this, but take advantage of Trevor's services because he's convenient to have around. Ultimately it's Diana's conflicted feelings about Trevor that cause the public falling out with Green Lantern; then, the book's cliffhanger conclusion is a kiss (with no earlier build-up or romantic tension) between Wonder Woman and Superman.
One can extrapolate that if Steve Trevor didn't have feelings for Wonder Woman, and if Wonder Woman hadn't spurned him, Graves wouldn't have been able to use Trevor against the League. The players could as easily have been Green Lantern and UN representative Catherine Cobert or Batman and the Suicide Squad's Amanda Waller (a pairing that should totally happen), but instead the team falls apart because it's their only female member who's wishy-washy about her suitor. In combination with the Superman kiss, Diana emerges as Justice League's go-to romance character, as if the book isn't sure what else to do but punt her between relationships.
Certainly Justice League is good escapist entertainment and the Jim Lee-penned sections are pretty to look at, but it's this general creakiness of the storytelling that makes it hard for me to recommend Justice League unequivocally.
Villain's Journey starts off with a "day in the life" focus on Trevor, and then also a one-shot team-up with Green Arrow. In this chapter, and really throughout the book, Johns offers shout-outs to events in other titles (Batman, Justice League Dark, Justice League International, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, among others), which nicely demonstrates how Justice League functions as the "spine" of the DC New 52. Johns also teases untold battles between the League and villains like Amazon and Weapons Master, a boon to long-time fans because it offers some indication that the classic League stories may still be in play. Best of all, Johns shows that the Martian Manhunter did indeed join the League at some point (even if he later fought them), preserving J'onn's "classic" role in this title.
Often Justice League titles have either told grand stories with the Big Seven or detailed stories with second-tier heroes, but rarely both. Justice League: The Villain's Journey succeeds in giving the Big Seven personality, but loses the grandness in the shuffle. I'll keep rooting for it, though; a Justice League story of the likes of Geoff Johns's JSA: Stealing Thunder would be something to see, indeed.
[Includes original and variant covers/
Tomorrow, the start of a special Collected Editions series, reading Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing collections. See you then!