Monday, 5 March 2012
On Justice League #6, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, & The Authority vol: 1
First, the maths. Of the 23 pages in Justice League # 6, five are taken up by full-page splashes and four by two-sided spreads, meaning that 39% of the issue is taken up by what are effectively story-light pin-ups. Of course, that doesn't mean that the unimaginatively titled Justice League Part Six is doomed by that statistic to be anything other than a masterpiece. The ranks of the super-book's very best comics contain a host of splash-heavy, fight-centric issues. The first Amazing Spider-Man Annual, for example, from March 1963, contained what was then a shocking 6 single-panel pages, with none of them serving as chapter-openers, as was then the custom. But then, The Sinister Six also contained 35 other story-sides which each featured an average of 6 panels of peak-era, if occasionally sketchily-finished, Steve Ditko art matched with the best of Stan Lee's soap-operatic hipsterisms. With the comic already crammed with good-humoured cameo appearances by all of Marvel's other early-sixties headlining superheroes, and with pretty much all of Peter Parker's supporting cast and rogue's gallery on display as well, the then-untypical series of splash pages, totalling just 15% of the book's story-content, supplemented an already incident-dense and smart-minded tale with an eye-catching measure of novelty. Nothing so extravagant and little as powerful had ever appeared in a Marvel Comic before, and the sheer surprise of the annual's tradition-breaking contents counted for a great deal. Ditko's beautifully composed shots of Spider-Man facing down each of the Sinister Six in their turn presented the book's leading super-men as massive, kinetic presences dominating the pages upon which they featured. As such, those 6 almost-posters added to what was, in surely anybody's terms, a 25 cents already well-invested.
By contrast, the seemingly endless parade of largely purposeless splash pages in Justice League #6 don't supplement the experience of reading the comic so much as ineptly constitute it. The issue's plot is both insultingly threadbare and, as Martin Gray has shown in his fine review, often slapdash and indeed nonsensical. Having taken five previous issues to cover the kind of set-up which the likes of Lee and Ditko would've dealt with in perhaps half-a-comic at the most, writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee shamelessly offer the most emaciated of stories combined with the most generic and unrewarding of visual non-experiences. Superheroes punch superbaddy, Superbaddy rages back. Superheroes stab Superbaddie in one eye, and then do it again in the other. Superheroes win the day and receive a Presidential award. Superheroes senselessly bicker as if they were aggressive and low-achieving nine year olds challenged by limited attention spans compounded by regrettably low IQs. Both Johns and Lee have crowed about the New 52 being a line of comics where experimentation, inclusiveness and excellence are the order of the day, but their work here is empty of anything but a purposeful attempt to fulfil the incredibly limited expectations of a narrow niche of adolescent-minded blokes. Those artistically ambitious and socially progressive ideals which were used to help justify last year's DCU reboot are reduced in JL#6 to a sequence of impossibly familiar markers of manliness, as costumed idiots threaten, snarl, tighten buttocks, punch, hurt, growl, win, pose, bitch and wisecrack for no better reason than that's what super-people do.
Perhaps it's unfair to compare Justice League #6 with the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, perhaps there's so many years separating the creation of the two that any form of comparison is inevitably juxtaposing oranges and apples. As such, it might be fairer to compare Johnfirst s and Lee's work with The Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, given that the latter is the book which popularised the very widescreen method of storytelling which has reached its empty-headed nadir in today's Justice League. Those first dozen issues of The Authority might seem at first to be remarkably similar in terms of their form to Johns and Lee's contemporary work, containing as they do a series of double and single-page splashes, but that's as far as any comparison can stretch. As surprising as it might seem to those who can remember the first appearance of The Authority, and who can recall feeling that the book's substance rather than its style was somewhat lacking, Ellis and Hitch's work is far more dense and rewarding than that of Johns and Lee. There's a great deal of wit and cleverness in the first dozen issues of The Authority, combined with a willingness to be playful with the sub-genre's narrative traditions, a strong spine of story-logic, and the presence of admittedly broadly-drawn and yet sympathetic characters who challenge rather than reinforce the standard-issue macho-bias of the super-book. In the Justice League, by way of comparison, one-dimensional costumed boneheads pummel one another and then do it again, and again.
The Authority works as a critique of the super-book every bit as much as it celebrates the same, whereas Justice League #6 mindlessly regurgitates the very sub-genre-killing cliches and indulgences which the work of Ellis and Hitch so successfully challenged. Johns and Lee's take on widescreen is essentially that of Ellis and Hitch's with all of the latter team's intelligence, good humour and measured storytelling removed. Where Hitch presented the reader with huge establishing shots which transmitted a sense of wonder, which were as detailed and imaginative as they were fantastically well-composed, Lee presents knocked-off money-shot after knocked-off money-shot without the slightest sign of knowing that a story can be anything other than a sequence of obsessive fanboy doodles. Johns and Lee use the splash page not as a deliberately-chosen aspect of storytelling so much as a way of adding a maximum of force for a minimum of effort to an entirely predictable and hollow indulgence of a tale. Rather than choreograph a visually compelling fight scene, they produce bloated, static cliches which shriek that something really thrilling and important is happening on the page, when the truth is exactly the opposite. Worse yet, as the scans on this page will show, it's often simply impossible to tell what's happening in terms of a specific narrative rather than those of a general punch-up.
No, it's not that it's impossible to create a fine comic-book from a mass of splash pages and a plot stitched together from nothing but the details of an almighty melee. But Johns has so little story to tell, and he does it with so little humour and subtly too, and Lee is so unconcerned to make that tiny degree of plot clear and meaningful, that all that's left is a mind-deadening, heart-sinking howl of fanboy-pleasing white noise. Justice League #6 is the year's most complacent, exploitative, and joyless superhero comic so far, and that's no little achievement given how generally poor the mass of its competition has been. The innermost circles of the Rump and the next-quarter bean-counters will adore it, no doubt, but then, they would, wouldn't they? Everyone else, and this surely includes most fans of Johns and Lee alike, are going to feel that, at the very least, the creators of Justice League have been, in the immortal words of James Brown, talking loud and saying nothing.