Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Death of the Justice League

It’s been done before, better. Much better.


Twenty years ago, Joe Kelly’s “Obsidian Age” arc gave us the death of the Justice League. The six-issue story, building upon many issues that preceded it, showed the Justice League being defeated and killed by another league of super-beings. The story was structured around two intertwined narrative threads that initially alternated issue by issue, odd-even, between the past and the present, with prophecy and the interleaved narrative challenging the reader to guess where things are going, and even where they’ve been. I have written about that story before and won’t try to reproduce here a tally of its merits, or even its faults, which surely exist.


Then today, there was this story, 2022’s Justice League #75, with “Death of the Justice League” emblazoned on the cover. Guess what happens inside? Spoiler alert: It’s the death of the Justice League. The cover needn’t have tipped you off, though, because DC’s promotion of the event has already detailed this, down to the fact that Black Adam would be the one survivor. So as you read, page by page, you know what is coming, exactly. There is no drama on any single panel of the issue. It doesn’t matter if Batman can get to Pariah’s machine to stop it (whatever that machine does). It doesn’t matter if Jon Stewart can summon a ring-powered army. It doesn’t matter if Green Arrow’s arrow does something. He will not be cooking chili as a celebratory dinner. We already know this. There is no drama.


In fact, I was at all points during this issue more certain about how it would end, and what would happen on the next page, than I often was about what was happening on the page I was actually reading. What does Pariah’s machine do? If the Dark Army isn’t fighting as themselves, what does that mean? When someone’s utterance is cut off mid-sentence, what were they trying to say? How can Aquaman and Aquawoman fight Doomsday fist-to-fist? These are details that I wanted to have clarified, but that never were. And they never mattered. Ultimately, Pariah had wave-your-hands-and-it-kills-Superman power. Why? Did he always have that? Did it come from his machine? Did the machine give him that power because Green Arrow failed to stop it? Or did that just not matter? This is the correct answer: None of it mattered. The Dark Army didn’t even actually do anything except fight the heroes to a draw for way too many pages of unimportant busy-ness on the page before someone waving their hands around did the one and only important event in the whole issue, and that was an event that we already knew was going to happen.


It was flimsy story telling that seemed like an imitation of better storytelling with not enough effort to make a pretense of being good storytelling.


Not only is the issue predictable, but so is this: As April 26 goes on, fan and professional reviews will appear online calling this a great issue. It will get ratings of 10/10, 9/10, 8/10, and perhaps 11/10. There will be false claims that this issue had drama and emotion, when it had zero of those. Reviewers will be impressed by the last cast of characters, even though there isn’t a single page worth of those characters exhibiting any personality. This was a visual spectacle, and in that, I will acknowledge the one thing that impressed me as interesting: The deaths of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman visually echoed the death of Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earths. their faces peeling away to bone, in a series of minipanels. The homage is not deep, but this act of borrowing, borrowing though it be, was imaginative.


 “Pop will eat itself.” Andy Warhol said. Food looks a lot better going into the digestive tract than coming out. Anyone looking to have an engaging experience reading about the death of the Justice League today should put down today’s “new” Justice League #75 and pick up 2001-2002’s Obsidian Age. 


I’m more interested in the source of the automatically-positive reviews than in anything Williamson put on the page. I suspect that it’s this: Positive reviews end up with higher click counts, and psychology’s study of classical conditioning tells us that a rewarded behavior will be repeated. Drama has been replaced by the presence of eyeballs on pages. It is mere gaze. Storytelling is dead. And that is the true death of the Justice League. 

20 comments:

  1. Yup! Joshua Williamson has been repeatedly referred to as a superstar writer in recent solicits and I can't for the life of me tell why. I'm excited to see him pick up threads Morrison left behind that have been entirely abandoned, and it feels like he's conversant enough in Morrison nuttiness as well as DC convention to thread the needle a bit...nice to see the Gentry back at it, and exciting to see a payoff to their hand being empty, now finally full of...something.

    But yeah, lot and lots of grand handwaving and arbitrariness to get there. Ultimate, universe-shattering stakes, and yet it feels like mashing together action figures instead of a dramatic, grounded situation of any sort.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Someone pointed out that Williamson had four issues published the same day. I don't know if he's incapable of writing well or isn't trying to write well or if he is trying to write so *much* that *well* has been thrown out the window.

      It doesn't cheer me to see something like The Empty Hand appear as a brawler when The Empty Hand was created as a metaphor for something harmful to comics. It was created as a metaphor for what's wrong that leads to comics like this. The creators who put out this issue are the villains represented by The Empty Hand.

      "Mashing together action figures" is a great way to put it – better writing than appeared anywhere in this issue.

      Delete
    2. Williamson's Robin is excellent, for what it's worth. Reccomend you give it a read some time.

      The reason for Williamson's hype is less because they want him to be hyped, and more because he's one of the few who can. Over the last few years, Geoff Johns was pushed to the side due to backlash with Doomsday Clock and Justice League's behind-the-scenes, Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, and James Tynion IV all retired from the DCU, Tom King quit anything outside of self-contained books due to the backlash to his Batman run and Heroes in Crisis, and Brian Michael Bendis' contract expired after a financial disappointment of a tenure. Williamson and Tom Taylor are effectively the only writers at DC now who have the name value that can really helm a mainline event, and that's a problem that can't really be fixed with a wave of a magic wand.

      DC itself is in a pretty complicated position now. Dan Didio's ambitious 5G plan, which he'd been trying to pivot the company to since 2018, was thrown out after internal backlash lead to Didio being fired, and restructuring in WB has left the company itself in a very weird position (Jim Lee admitted that DC Comics itself only exists because it's a cheap IP factory). The constant inability to figure out a solution to continuity has led creators to just throw up their hands and give the obviously nonsensical "everything's canon now" answer, which is obviously not exactly easy to work with, and Dark Crisis itself is not some elaborate plan, but Williamson trying to resolve the cobbled together mess Didio left behind.

      Is there a solution? Maybe, but it's not a clear one, or one that can come quickly. So, for now, DC is kinda stuck in that position, and will until things hopefully improve.

      Delete
  2. Couldn't have said it better myself. I give this book merit solely on Rafa Sandoval's art which I am a big fan of, but the writing was absolute trash. I facepalmed while watching Hawkgirl go blow to blow with The Empty Hand. What a load of crap.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The art is certainly immune to the criticism I've offered. I might put some effort into reviewing that and it would be pretty positive. But, yes, Hawkgirl vs. The Empty Hand seems like quite the pointless detail.

      Delete
  3. Not to play Devil's Advocate, but some of your questions (or one of, lol) are answered in the narrative—not that the answers make the story any better, of course. It's specifically said while under the Great Darkness' control/possession, these powerful beings are significantly weaker than they normally would be, which is why they came off as jobbers instead of Big Bads. I suppose this leads to more unanswerable questions though...

    In any case, what a bummer for you to end your hiatus this way, huh? Nevertheless, always glad to see your wise take on comics things. I had enjoyed Joshua Williamson's run on Justice League Incarnate, maybe mostly due to it finally picking up Grant Morrison's threads, so I was really looking forward to this, especially since Brian Michael Bendis' JL run had not been my favorite at all. The art in issue #75 is lovely, and I don't think I hated the overall plot as much as you did (there were some emotional moments with Black Adam that clicked for me), but this is indicative of the state of comics in general. To be clear, this can be said for both Marvel and DC right now. But it's a bummer, especially as a DC fan. Rikdad, we've already discussed in comments on your previous posts what Morrison's departure from comics meant/means. But for me it really signifies the end of an era... with no one to step up to fill the void. I can't recall a time prior to this where there were no up-and-comers of note, exciting young talent ready to become the next big thing. I had high hopes for Williamson, both because of his connection to Morrison (or at least their work) and some decent stuff written so far, but I feel my hopes dashed a bit. I'll give Dark Crisis a fair shot, but yeah, with lowered expectation. They've passed the torch to Williamson as the primary architect of the line, so things will either make or break with him at the helm.

    At least Mark Waid is back writing retro Silver Age (but canon) stories, so it's not all bad. I'd love to know if there's anything in the ongoing DC line that you think is worth checking out. Or anything that you are looking forward to? Has JL #75 put you totally off to Dark Crisis entirely?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have some hopes that PJK and Ram V will keep growing and eventually will manage to fill that void.

      Delete
    2. I was actually going to mention PJK and Ram V as the remaining good ones! lol Mark Russell is basically a bwah bwah ha comedy guy, but he tickles my fancy sometimes too.

      Delete
    3. This is not really a break from my hiatus as an explanation for it. I was already thoroughly put off by Infinite Frontier, which exhibited some problems that didn't even show up in JL #75.

      No, I have no interest in Dark Crisis beyond a sort of spectator-at-a-car-crash sense, which is all that I'm finding with most of the comics that I've picked up in roughly a year now. Action Comics has been the exception.

      There's just too much great reading material, movies, TV, and music to justify much allegiance to something that's subpar.

      And there are 80 years of old comics which include many that are great, countless that are good, and others that have significant sociological interest. I suspect that I'll read few new comics in the year (s?) to come.

      Delete
    4. Could you explain what your larger issues with Infinite Frontier are, exactly?

      Delete
    5. Let me zero in on just a few things.

      Darkseid stands in front of the heroes and describes what his plan is. This is writing for little kids. This is such a poor, hackneyed device that Alan Moore actually makes fun of it near the end of Watchmen, when Veidt seems to have done this, the heroes call him out on it, and Veidt replies, "Dan, I'm not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?" Williamson's Darkseid is just as mindless as a Republic (the producers of Dick Tracy and Lone Ranger reels) serial villain. This is the big evil mastermind of the universe, a god, and he's written like a villain for little kids.

      The Flashpoint Thomas Wayne has spent his entire printed existence being remorseless, a killer, and then suddenly for no reason and with no development, turns good and sappily smiles and "tells" the not-present Bruce, "You are always Batman" and becomes good. It was like he suddenly had a brain transplant after a few seconds of looking at pictures.

      IC #2, Thomas Wayne: "I don't think we had one of you in my reality."
      IC #5, Superwoman: "I don't think we had one of you on my world."
      At least vary the word order slightly.

      Roy Harper's ongoing struggle vs. the mind control of the ring has nothing remotely interesting going on. He puts it on and the ring is winning. Then he musters up will and his good side is winning. Then the ring is winning. Then his good side is winning. No inner conflict, no inner dynamics, just this featureless see-saw. This, with a character who was used over 50 years ago to show the struggle between his better spirits and an addictive substance. There are whole novels out there that explore inner struggle, with more to say about it than fit into fifty comic books, and this series builds a major subplot around it but has nothing to say about what's going on.

      There's just no interest in the characters. It's noise for the sake of noise. Cliches, a desire to follow some predictable story arc, and sudden, forced actions that make the events in that arc roll out on schedule.

      In a nutshell, this is what comics were like in the early 1980s. Some great, groundbreaking work in the mid-1980s into the early 1990s showed how the comics could develop, advance. This sort of work takes those advances, balls them up, throws them into the trash, and gives us Scooby Doo-level writing. Williamson may as well have Fred and Velma pull a mask off of Darkseid while he gripes about the kids stopping him, because that is the kind of depth we get here, and nothing more.

      Delete
    6. Hn, I was assuming you were referring to the overall line, not the mini-series. Damn marketing!

      Anyway, I'm compelled to agree, but the problem is, IMO, the DC is pushed into a corner. I actually did an essay on that front, so here it is.

      https://www.reddit.com/r/DCcomics/comments/unrxab/an_analysis_of_dcs_current_continuity_and_the/

      What do you think?

      Delete
    7. I agree that what you describe is a problem, but it's far from the greatest problem. For example, when Darkseid stands before a crowd of heroes and describes his plan, that's just terrible writing and what continuity is, was, or will be has nothing to do with that. No establishment of continuity or lack thereof makes that good writing.

      Having two characters reuse the same line of dialogue three issues apart just indicates to me that the writer isn't even taking his own writing seriously enough to remember that the line of dialogue was already used.

      If there were some clever, interesting, nonlinear writing going on, that might be possible without frustrating the readers. Or it might be a flaw, but still very much less than the flaw we have now, which is that the writing is not good on any level. It seems to be incredibly rushed and is certainly full of cliches and formulas.

      Delete
  4. Also, the state of comics "journalism" and review sites. Don't get me started. Sheesh. :-(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As I just posted on CBR, the first three reviews that I sampled all gave positive star-ratings, and included a 9/10 and 5/5. I'd say that those reviewers have tarnished themselves by saying so. Anyone saying that this is the best that comics can get is part of the reason why there aren't more good comics, and should be ashamed.

      Delete
  5. Rikdad -- Great to see this post. If I had to guess, the idea here is to make a DC event more accessible, less dense. Yes, that was very much the approach of some major DC and Marvel events and storylines from decades past -- whether it was the plot-driven stories seen so much in the late 1970s and early 1980s, or in the midst of the big-selling 1990s era. The late Martin Pasko, my favorite lettercol writer of 50 years ago, wrote numerous DC Present Superman team-up stories in the late 1970s in which the characters just went from place to place, threat to threat, without a lot of deeper meaning. And a lot of Chuck Dixon Detective Comics stories (and some of the Batman events of the '80s) were instantly forgettable, but yet entertaining enough in the 15 minutes it took to read them. Perhaps the folks running DC now are more interested in the "action figures" approach than the rich themes approach at this point in time, when Supes and Bats and the rest are most valuable as intellectual property. I say this because Williamson can be a strong writer, as per much of his run on The Flash and his current stint on Robin. Perhaps he's been asked to write something on the opposite end of the spectrum from Final Crisis, even if ironically he is utilizing Morrison's characters and concepts in ways they haven't been since GM's major DC runs ended?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Typo alert; I meant "some of the Batman events of the '90s," as in Contagion and Legacy and Cataclysm.

      Delete
  6. Sometimes to get to Wally World you need to take a bad trip. Let's hope the end justify the mediocre journey so far.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I picked up JLA#75 on a whim. Read it and immediately regretted it. Won't pay more to read more. Seems like DC has really been on a decline, no more Morrison, I don't even know if Geoff Johns has anymore input into anything. Guess I'll take a few years off and see if anyting improves from word of mouth.

    ReplyDelete