Justice League Vol. 4: The Grid might properly be called an "Uncollected Editions" column, in that I will mostly focus on the issues collected that precede the "Trinity War" tie-ins -- so, issues #18-20 and not issues #22-23 (issue #21 appears in the Shazam collection). This is ahead of my full-fledged Trinity War review, coming up.
I tend to like the first act of Justice League titles better than the second act. Grant Morrison's JLA was fairly superlative all the way through, but I favor pre-Rock of Ages to post; I dig Steel and Huntress being part of the League, but when I read a Justice League title, I want to read about the Big Seven, not their associates. I pretty well liked the line-up of Brad Meltzer's post-Infinite Crisis Justice League, too, but inevitably around Final Crisis-time most of the big guns bowed out and we were left with the second stringers. Not bad, but not my preference.
Part of this undoubtedly comes from the fact that the Big Seven are so big that their individual titles often take precedence; Batman, for instance, had to leave Meltzer/Dwayne McDuffie's Justice League because of the events of Final Crisis and Batman RIP. I think that's always the way -- a Justice League starts with A-listers to get people reading, and then once the title has its legs, the A-listers go back to their properties and the B-listers come in. Also I think writers sometimes struggle to find conflicts more powerful than the Justice League -- there's less drama in pitting powerhouses like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman against a threat than there is pitting inexperienced heroes against the same. And so the Justice League's first act gives way to its second.
Unfortunately, The Grid marks the same for Geoff Johns's New 52 Justice League, and much too soon for my tastes. Green Lantern has been out for a while and doesn't seem to be coming back, and then additionally it seems we're losing Superman and Flash after Forever Evil. Johns will offer some interesting replacements, but my sense is that's not a Justice League line-up people will want to read long-term. The Grid's three pre-"Trinity War" issues are largely a "junior Justice League" tale, and I found myself feeling a bit like I'd read them before.
[Review contains spoilers]
Undoubtedly Johns has some understanding that he's treading worn ground here, and I half expect that's an attempt to make pre-Flashpoint Justice League fans feel more welcome. I mean, an attack by Despero is quite literally a cross-continuity rite of passage for incoming or outgoing Justice Leagues at this point -- for the ending Justice League International, for the ending JLA title, for the second act of McDuffie's League when James Robinson came on, and so on. Despero here attacks the League with no real purpose other than "revenge," to an extent where it feels like Despero is not so important in this story as what Despero represents is.
I respect that, to an extent; like James Robinson pitted his Justice League against the Crime Syndicate and ultimately proved his League was worthy of the Justice League name, it's not completely wrong for Johns to use Despero as shorthand to Element Woman, Firestorm, and the new Atom as having "made it." The difficulty is in the mixed message -- the three new Leaguers actually get trounced by Despero and are saved by Martian Manhunter, so we don't so much come to respect the new Leaguers as we are, in story, let down by the new Leaguers. I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed to take from a story where the three new Leaguers prove themselves not worthy of being part of the League; compare these issues, for instance, with the JLA one where Green Arrow Connor Hawke beat the Key single-handedly.
Probably the other difficulty is that we understand by the end that the new Atom Rhonda Pineda is a plant by Amanda Waller, and Element Woman is somewhat inscrutable at best and carries the baggage of possibly being a time-displaced Flashpoint character at worst. This leaves Firestorm as the only real perspective character to care about in the issues, even though Johns largely tells the story from the Atom's perspective. If I'm disinclined to read about secondary League characters, I'm even more disinclined to read about ones who won't be sticking around, which I expect is the case with Element Woman and Atom (and even Firestorm doesn't seem to be present post-Forever Evil).
While I'm picking, another problem with the Grid three-parter is that it involves a number of different artists -- I spotted Jesus Saiz, Ivan Reis, and Gene Ha at least. All of these are accomplished artists in their own rights, but I wouldn't say any of them closely resemble one another, so there's a jarring effect as the reader moves from issue to issue.
The first chapter, issue #18, is the one I liked best, a "recruiting day" issue with the requisite "heroes gathering in the meeting room" scene (though again, that this sequence is so familiar is also an argument for its exclusion). Inasmuch as many heroes have not yet interacted in the New 52, it's cool to see Zatanna talking to Black Canary, for instance, or Black Lightning and Blue Devil with Superman. At the same time, that these heroes refuse or are not offered League membership in favor of Element Woman, Firestorm, and the Atom is hard to believe, frankly.
Johns's B-plot to the story is also interesting, though at the same time also evocative of stories past. When new couple Superman and Wonder Woman intercede in a Middle Eastern war, Batman has to have "the talk" with them -- no, not that talk, but the one about how the world might perceive a dating Superman and Wonder Woman as a threat. This leads to revelations about Batman's contingency plans for taking down the other Leaguers, with shades of Mark Waid's Tower of Babel, and also that Superman had entrusted Batman with a Kryptonite ring, a la Dark Knight Over Metropolis (though where in this continuity Superman got a Kryptonite ring, I couldn't say). Johns scores points with his revelation of what can take down Wonder Woman and his non-revelation about what can take down Batman (Joe Chill's gun is my guess, if that makes sense in this continuity), even if the whole thing does seem repetitive.
If, like me, the New 52 Justice League has been hit or miss for you, Justice League Vol. 4: The Grid might feel like a miss. Fortunately, I've been having luck with the odd-numbered Justice League volumes -- I liked Origin and I definitely liked Throne of Atlantis; Trinity War isn't Vol. 5 per se, but I'm optimistic nonetheless. At least, the big guns will be back in action.
[Includes original and variant covers, including Trinity War triptych covers, and sizable script vs. art section]
Up next, the main event -- Trinity War.