Review: Justice League of America Vol. 1: The Extremists (Rebirth) trade paperback

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Among the best parts of Steve Orlando's Rebirth Justice League of America Vol. 1: The Extremists are the characters. I'd have never thought I'd see a comic where the 1990s Lobo was mentoring Atom Ryan Choi, but it's here and it works. In the tradition of Batwoman in the Rebirth Detective Comics, it's also refreshing to have another team book where Batman's colleagues, namely Vixen and Black Canary, question his motives and tell him off. And though Orlando's populist Justice League doesn't feel new so much as another in a long string of attempts of this type, there is an extent to which this particular kind of Justice League feels particularly relevant and welcome in this day and age.

But as with Justice League of America: Road to Rebirth, Orlando just can't quite seem to get this off the ground. While I don't think the "of America" moniker necessarily requires nationalism, it's an ill fit that Orlando's first storyline involves the League in a military conflict in a foreign land, and indeed the political story Orlando tries to tell ends up naive. Even the second, more home-based story Orlando spins has a never-fully-explained international bent; sure, we live in a global village, but I don't always understand Orlando's story decisions, and moreover, these proceedings as a whole just aren't that interesting.

As I mentioned recently, the big mandate for Justice League of America is to follow up on the Atom Ray Palmer story teased in DC Universe: Rebirth, and it doesn't yet feel to me like Justice League of America is doing much more than biding its time until we get there.

[Review contains spoilers]

When we talk about a Justice League "of the people," it might conceivably fall under that rubric that this League enters the nation of Kravia, newly under the thumb of multiversal dictator Lord Havok, and backs a people's revolution to depose Havok. Given the presence of Havok, the traditional League might simply have taken the fight to him, where the difference is this League buffets the people instead. Again, that's workable -- and evokes perhaps the difference between the Justice League and Batman's original Outsiders, for instance -- though it's also clearly a construction. The traditional League might have fought Havok instead, but under certain writers, the traditional League too might have backed the people; Orlando's Ray and Vixen suggest a distinction for the JLA in that they "look [the people] in the eye, without masks," but a seven-member League of at least Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg has a majority non-mask-wearing make-up, too. The concept of Orlando's "grassroots" League is a good one, but it's only as different from the other League as Orlando pretends that it is.

And in a large respect where this falls apart is in just how simplistically Orlando deals with it. Though by force, Havok becomes the duly elected ruler of Kravia. As far as the story shows us, the League ducks into a bar and supports Bogna, the first rebel they meet, through unseating Havok, at which point the gathered crowd declares Bogna their ruler and she mandates a new constitution and decisions made by "community." Vixen promises the JLA will support Kravia's "independence." Because of how clearly Orlando works in metaphor here, we know reality is rarely this simple. In the conflict between police and military that Orlando sets up early in the story, who now wins? What of the Kravian citizens who did support Havok? How will other rebel groups of equal claim be treated by Bogna? And what are the limits of the JLA's support for Bogna -- how long, what if Bogna becomes a dictator, etc.?

Orlando wants to show us a League doing things differently, but what we end up with is a League -- though diverse in make-up -- that effectively does things the same as the other League, and whose answers are progressive only in response to the most reductive of storylines. Later, when the League has removed a weapons dealer that provided revenue for an impoverished Pennsylvania town, their solution is for Vixen to open a nonprofit in the town and for Bruce Wayne to follow. That's workable too given the conceits of fictional characters with unlimited funds, but it undercuts the seriousness of what Orlando seems to be trying to set up here. Despite the book's internal aesthetic, all of this is pretty standard DC Comics fare; I was excited early in the book for Orlando to do something different, like when one of Havok's Extremists seems to betray him and it looks like Havok might have actually teamed up with the League, but in the end all of these stories unfold about as one might expect.

As with Justice League of America: Road to Rebirth, the book also suffers in a variety of the little details. Orlando seems to labor under the impression that there have been incarnations of the League in this continuity other than the "Big Seven," which there have not been — Vixen kids Batman that "there's never been a Justice League you didn't end up fighting" and Ryan Choi thinks about Atom Ray Palmer's League, both of which are nonsense statements post-Flashpoint. See also many references to Happy Harbor as a former superhero base when it never was. And Orlando depicts the weapons dealer based in Pennsylvania as an ancient Greek general for no reason ever explained, and so equally the League suits up in armor also for no good reason (besides, of course, the purely visual needs of the story). To these ends, there were various points I found myself putting down this book, simply confused as to what it was Orlando was doing or talking about.

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At the head of the Rebirth issue (though unfortunately reprinted in both Road to Rebirth and here), Batman tells the reader, "You can come out. You don't have to hide" and in the first issue, Vixen affirms that it's time to show people that "they're heard." Those are fine sentiments and they launch Justice League of America Vol. 1: The Extremists beautifully. Orlando's League represents one of the most diverse Leagues yet, and in part I'd like to see them achieve greater things than what's in this book simply so that the profile of this League continues to rise. At the same time, there's clearly still work to be done; a variant cover by Eric Basaldua for that same first issue offers the women of the League in anatomically questionable poses, undermining the very message this book tries to send. Justice League of America has the right idea, but it's not there yet.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Justice League of America Vol. 1: The Extremists
Author Rating
3 (out of 5)
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