Review: Injustice: Gods Among Us Vol. 1 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The first volume of Injustice: Gods Among Us is not a poorly told tale, especially as a digital comic translated to print and then newly collected in trade form. It's a story, however, that likely won't be palatable to most outside of ardent fans of the Injustice video game, given how dark and joyless the subject matter is.

The greatest importance of Injustice to those outside the video game realm may instead be that it's written by Tom Taylor, who follows James Robinson's much-acclaimed run on the Earth 2 title. I liked the first Earth 2 collection a lot, and so I take very seriously the question of whether Robinson's replacement will be able to do justice to the title or not. Injustice, as a book about an "alternate" DC Universe with an expansive cast, will be many readers' first indication of how Taylor will handle the other title.

The difficulty is in separating Injustice's storytelling from its subject matter. Injustice is a story that, devoid of its video game, would likely cause readers to wonder why DC would deign to publish it. Stories of dystopian futures where Superman wars with Batman are not foreign to the DC Universe and can be quite substantial, but Injustice knocks the heroes down a lot and doesn't do much to pick them back up. Perhaps that changes as the story continues, but it makes this first volume difficult reading.

[Review contains spoilers]

It is to Taylor's credit that he makes us care about these characters from the outset. The "two heartbeats" bit on the second page is rather ingenious, and equally good is his banter between Clark and Lois and then Superman and Batman in about the book's first eight pages. Indeed, were Taylor writing a "regular" DC Universe title like the Superman series, where periods of peril and levity are more even, this might be a good sign that Taylor can write these characters creatively and likably.

Unfortunately, the conceit that Superman ends up killing Lois and his unborn child is so grotesque as to mar much of the rest of the story. I sense this is not Taylor's doing but rather something stemming from the video game itself, so we can't take this as a knock against Taylor; in fact, the second use of "two heartbeats" is a good callback that shows Taylor's control over the situation. However, when we combine Lois's death with Superman and Wonder Woman crippling a protestor, and then the off-the-cuff death of a major Bat-character, Injustice tortures the characters to an extent that Taylor can't make "fun," and that may be his largest failing in this volume.

In contrast, Taylor's biggest win here is his inspired pairing of Green Arrow and Harley Quinn. This Green Arrow is the gruff-but-grandfatherly everyman take from the Kevin Smith and Judd Winick eras, and this makes him a good straight-man to Harley who, despite her role in Lois Lane's murder, comes off as sympathetic after the death of her "puddin'," the Joker. There's great humor in these pages, and Taylor carries the "mustache bit" to score again later; unfortunately, it still comes off as gallows humor -- funny, but not "light" per se -- given what else is happening in the book. Here again, a reader has to distinguish between the story Taylor is telling and how he tells it; the story is depressing, but Taylor demonstrates that he can write good interplay between the characters, which is auspicious for Earth 2.

At the same time, Taylor's Wonder Woman gives one pause for concern. We have seen militaristic depictions of Wonder Woman in Flashpoint and New Frontier, even in Kingdom Come, but it's hard to find anything sympathetic or likable in Taylor's version. At each step, Wonder Woman encourages Superman to become more dictatorial, admitting that she's been "waiting" for Superman to take such actions. What's worse, no sooner has Lois died than Taylor's Wonder Woman begins to think of replacing her as Superman's paramour; Diana even withholds Aquaman's condolences from Superman, seeming to actively scheme to "erase" Lois.

In a story without many female protagonists, and where the impetus of the story is the brutal murder of one of those female protagonists, it's especially disturbing to see Wonder Woman presented as the "succubus" character, perverting Superman's male will with her feminine wiles. A reader could subsequently wonder how Hawkgirl or other female characters might read in Taylor's Earth 2 based on the short shrift they seem to get in Injustice.

Earlier I reviewed the first print collection of DC's digital Arrow comic and I found that book stilted and repetitive, owing to the brief nature of the digital chapters. I'm pleased to see that Injustice reads much better in its translation from digital to a print comic; it's mostly tough to tell where the digital comic breaks between issues (or the breaks come between scenes) such that the story feels more natural than Arrow's done-in-ones. The panel layouts are an obvious grid pattern from stacking digital "frames" atop one another, but some work has been done to bleed the backgrounds together such that the uniformity isn't always so obvious. I had many qualms while reading this book in print, but the digital translation wasn't one of them.

In its setup, Injustice: Gods Among Us isn't largely different from Mark Waid and Alex Ross's Kingdom Come. But whereas Kingdom Come showed the characters trying to set a heroic example in a darker world, Injustice is largely about the heroes behaving badly; it's the effective difference between Superman killing the Joker in Injustice and prosecuting the Joker's killer in Kingdom Come. Injustice, the game, involves the heroes of "our" universe encountering those of this world; granted the game itself relates this, but I rather wish this was the story Tom Taylor was given to tell, such that there'd really be some "good guys" here for the reader to get behind. There's plenty indications here that Taylor knows his craft, which bodes well for Earth 2, but it remains to be seen how much of Injustice's sullenness is inherit and how much of it Taylor may bring with him to the other title.

For an alternate (and more positive) take on Injustice: Gods Among Us Vol. 1, see Todd Allen's review at The Beat.
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  1. Have you seen the "Injustice Reloaded" comic, which photoshops new word bubbles in to make it into a parody? (

    I read a few of the first issues and found it to just be a watered-down "Kingdom Come".

  2. Just a slight correction, Damien Wayne isn't the one who dies, he's the one that kills somebody, I wont spoil who for anybody though.

    1. Typo on my part that I kept meaning to fix; thanks for the reminder. That death you mention was really the nadir of Injustice for me, a moment so dark and kind of pointlessly ironic that I felt the title had hit its lowest point. However, I think that also marked the end of where Taylor had to do things for the sake of the game and not the sake of the story, and I liked Injustice Year One Vol. 2 much better than Vol. 1. I'll have a review of Year Two Vol. 1 coming soon.