Review: Justice League United Vol. 1: Justice League Canada hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 09, 2015

Often two, there are -- Justice League books and Justice League spin-off books. In this way, Jeff Lemire's Justice League United Vol. 1: Justice League Canada joins a long, proud tradition of sub-Justice League titles, including Justice League Europe, Extreme Justice (yeah, I said it), Justice League Elite, the New 52 Justice League International, and even some of the second-tier-character Leagues like Gerard Jones's and James Robinson's. These Justice Leagues tended to be not necessarily "cool" but quirky, and away from the iconography of the main Justice League characters, these titles tended to focus on character over action.

Such is the case with United. Lemire assembles a motley crew of heroes but rather immediately demonstrates how they play off one another, and further sets them against an unlikely backdrop but makes that work, too. The team's conversation toward the end as to why exactly they should remain together as a team and what their mission should be is spot-on in the genre of other books of this type. Lemire's run on this title appears to be foreshortened by Convergence, and the next storyline feels more like (welcome) fan-service than one that develops United's tenets, but as always Lemire's work is eminently readable and I'm happily on board for the second volume.

[Review contains spoilers]

Martian Manhunter, Supergirl, Green Arrow, Stargirl, Animal Man, and others are the funny makings for a team. Lemire, however, does well in preserving the best thing to come out of the lackluster last volume of Justice League of America, the Stargirl/Martian Manhunter friendship, and also Lemire has written strong runs of both the Animal Man and Green Arrow titles. In this way, even as the characters are an odd fit, Lemire does not make them strangers to one another. I can't remember ever seeing an Animal Man/Green Arrow team-up before, but the buddy comedy that Lemire develops is a gem, strongly reminiscent of Blue Beetle and Booster Gold. It's the sequence late in the book, however, where Lemire pairs the teammates off into groups of two to reflect on their mid-story defeat, that really sells the book. The emphasis turns to the characters and their talking to one another, not just punching and shooting things, foreshadowing Martian Manhunter's "unity" speech later on.

Lemire subsequently takes largely earthbound heroes Stargirl, Green Arrow, and Animal Man ... and sends them into space. This too might otherwise be a tough sell, but Lemire adapts the characters easily -- Animal Man takes on the powers of alien animals (akin to revelations in the last Animal Man volume) and Stargirl's Cosmic Rod seemingly has some connection to the Rannian zeta beams that transport the characters. United has a lot of moving parts and a lot of characters going in and out -- Ultra the Multi-Alien, the new Lobo, Hawkman, and the Legion of Super-Heroes, to name a few -- and so ultimately a jaunt into the cosmos just feels natural, another ingredient in this melange of disparate DC Comics elements.

Another such element is that the book largely turns on the New 52 introduction of Adam and Alanna Strange. Lemire makes a controversial choice in no longer making Alanna Rannian, such that we lose the "young lovers from different cultures"/Romeo and Juliet aspect of the characters' story. At the same time, one can pretty well predict things are going to go bad when Adam and Alanna get in a zeta beam accident, and sure enough, they can now no longer even occupy the same planet. Lemire gives the Earth-born Alanna a super-suit, and there's some indication that she'll be the League's new "Strange" instead of Adam, a fine and interesting change, though I rather wish Lemire would give Alanna her own finned helmet, too.

Surprisingly, perhaps the least effective part of Lemire's story is his introduction of Cree superhero Equinox. Surely there's value in Lemire bringing diversity to his team, but Equinox Miiyahbin Marten's storyline here remains largely separate from the rest of the team right up until the very end. I was reminded of Lemire's Raven from his recent Teen Titans: Earth One, also of Native American/Canadian descent and who also remains apart from the events, but at least Raven is tangentially related throughout. The first volume of United might for the most part be exactly the same were Equinox lifted out, and that's not a strong beginning for what's meant to be an important character.

I have good faith in Lemire, but I wonder what he'll be able to accomplish with one more volume. I'm thrilled to see Lemire bringing the Legion of Super-Heroes in, but to tell a time-travel tale with the Legion, wrap up the Ultra storyline, deal with Hawkman's inevitable resurrection, and also flesh out Equinox and demonstrate her season-changing powers all in the span of one volume seems a bit much; surely Lemire needs a half-dozen volumes to tell the story he wants to tell. As has been the case before, this seems the start of a strong run, but the shifting winds of event comics and inevitable relaunches appears to have cut it short.

Artist Mike McKone offers good, consistent work throughout the book. I've enjoyed McKone on a number of titles, not in the least Geoff Johns's Teen Titans. McKone's work has at times had a (not terribly bothersome) sameness to it, but with United he seems to have overcome that; McKone's figures have a roundness and naturalness to them here that reminds me to an extent of Phil Hester. Marcelo Maiolo colors most of the book, and these colors are generally fine except when they're not -- when Maiolo uses these stark red-and-white-colored panels, the effect of which worked in I, Vampire but has only been dissonant in Green Arrow, Green Lantern Corps, and now United.

For those who might have been concerned that the New 52 (now in its waning days) would overwrite all the precious eccentricities of the DC Universe, Jeff Lemire's use of Animal Man, Lobo, and Ultra the Multi-Alien in Justice League United Vol. 1: Justice League Canada should demonstrate that there's still a place for DC's offbeat elements (it's not hard to imagine Space Cabbie just around the corner). Lemire's run on United will end before its time (I don't expect he'll be the post-Convergence writer), but if Convergence is to be believed, maybe Lemire's United team will go off to a bottle city somewhere and we'll see them again another time.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketchbook section]

Later this week, a tandem review -- Doug and I talk about Wicked + The Divine. Don't miss it!
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4 comments:

  1. Granted I only flipped through this at a comic store, but I found it incredibly odd that Lemire wrote Animal Man as if he was an entirely different person than in his Animal Man run.

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    1. I felt Lemire's portrayal of Animal Man was pretty consistent; what about it bothered you?

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    2. The pages I read, he seemed to be very jokey and speaking in funny riffs, etc...The way he was in his own comic seemed more depressed / adult / stressed out, not really the happy go lucky fun type.

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    3. Well, I understand that, though Animal Man traditionally is a bit jokey. Having just read Animal Man Vol. 5 before JLU, I felt where Buddy was emotionally at the end of Animal Man coincided well with JLU. And the tragic event that recently affected Animal Man is mentioned in JLU.

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