Review: Justice League Vol. 2: The Villain's Journey hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 31, 2013

In examining the emotional dilemmas of a young Justice League, Geoff Johns succeeds with 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/

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4 comments:

  1. Brilliant review, as always. I felt like the PR for this run gave too much emphasis on the villain and not enough on the relationships, which you deftly point out are much more central (it's disappointing, though, that a lot of these occur off-panel, as with GL and Flash). And it's a shame that Wonder Woman gets caught in the middle of so much of this, because it's really not her fault; after reading her "I love everyone" claim in Azzarello's title (that issue may not be in a trade yet), I thought it was much more a question of Steve reading too much into it. (In fact, "I love everyone" seemed like a way to address the disparity between Azzarello's more confident loner WW and the naive puppy-lovestruck relationship with Steve in Johns's book).

    Question on the back-ups: How are they collected in here? I'm sure that some of them are preserved (probably the ones illustrated by Carlos D'Anda, like the one with Steve and Green Arrow), but the conspicuous absence of Shazam! from your review makes me wonder where those will be collected.

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  2. I think this arc needed one or two more issues to explore Graves' impact on the team's public image and develop Superman and Wonder Woman's platonic relationship before turning it into a full-blown romance, but I guess four issues was all Jim Lee could muster. And since his art is the big draw for me, I was disappointed to see it suffer under 9 inkers with very different styles on the last issue.

    @Zach King, I believe the Shazam back-ups will get a separate collection along with the main story from Justice League #0. Johns and Frank have to wrap up that strip sometime this year, since the world is clamoring for the sequel to their smash hit Batman: Earth One.

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  3. I had the same problems that you did with the villian, David Graves. Issue #12 felt particularly anticlimactic for me. I had to go back and re-read because I thought I had missed something (which I hadn't, that was "it").

    I like the idea of Superman and Wonder Woman as an item, because I think it could be an interesting angle for both characters, but here it was poorly executed. Also, I'm worried that in the future, some writer will get lazy and revert back to the status quo of Lois and Superman (Lobdell's already hinting at in Superman), meaning that "the kiss" is nothing more than a big publicity stunt (which, to be fair, we've all suspected that that's what it was from the beginning).

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  4. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea that the League doesn't really like or trust each other. I'll definitely give it a chance, but that seems wrong to me. For anyone who's reading single issues, are they working toward that trust, or is this version of the League always going operate that way?

    In my chronological reading of DC comics I just finished Justice League: Pain of the Gods. It was a decent story, but the best part was that each of them realized their limitations, and the others helped prop up whoever was having trouble. I prefer a League that works like that, but I'll give this new version a shot.

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