Two by Johns

I’ve mentioned superstar DC writer Geoff Johns in other posts, but have yet to address his work directly. Today, August 29, 2012 presents a perfect chance to correct this oversight. Two of his New 52 titles have dropped into my hot little hands, and I’d be a prude not to discuss the supposed smooch-fest that is Justice League 12.

Last week, friends forwarded to me a shot of Superman and Wonder Woman lip-locked, asking my opinion. I realized, “DC wants mainstream news outlets reporting this, and so they are.” But why? People like me would be reading comics if they were printed on toilet paper, and have seen this kiss before. Hell, we’ve even seen the tale in which Princess Diana and Clark spend a thousand years trapped together in a medieval world, in the throws of all-or-nothing passion.

No, it’s everyone else, readers of one or two comics provided they can afford it, who matters to DC in this case. The publisher took a great risk, after all, in relaunching their entire Universe and reestablishing their characters from scratch. The New 52 is a more diverse Universe (so DC announced last November), featuring a fuller spectrum of minority heroes, and a better representation of gay and lesbian characters.

Overall, the New 52 has been a critical and financial success. In seemingly unrelated news, President Obama came forward in unequivocal favor of gay marriage earlier this year. Marvel, DC’s main competitor, snatched some of that spotlight by wedding gay X-Man Northstar to his lover Kyle. DC, not to be outdone by the feats of minor characters, made more noise- I mean news- by saying that one of their MAJOR characters was gay. Um… alright.

What is this in front of me? Is DC trying to assure homophobic readers that their comics are safe? Possibly. As a fan of great stories no matter who’s in them, such cynicism doesn’t interest me. Johns (lest I forget whom this post regards) is an exceptionally thoughtful, not to mention careful, writer. Rather than flip a status quo because it’s in need, like a wool blanket in April, he brings elements into play because he has plans for them.

This kiss heard round the world comes at a time when DC’s icons, Superman especially, face accusations of being shallower than their counterparts from the “Old 52.” Some fans find them less engaging, and less human, in their exploits. And yet, this Justice League tale, drawn by Jim Lee (and nine inkers, which may be a record), presents a young team coping with the stress of public disapproval.

Caught on film fighting each other, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman both take drastic measures to ensure the League’s future. One quits, opting to focus on the cosmic threats that his ring is better suited to handle. The other severs contact with the first and best friend she’s made since leaving Paradise Island, Steve Trevor. As the League’s government liaison, Trevor helped build the heroes’ good reputation.

A recent misadventure, against the villain Graves, leaves him near death. To Wonder Woman’s claims that she’s blinded him to the dangers they face, he says, “I thought you weren’t like everyone else. I thought you didn’t think I was a puppy dog following you around.”

A fairly organic lead-in to Superman and Wonder Woman discussing (by moonlight) how superheroes can share their lives without destroying loved ones. Johns does fine here what he does with excellence elsewhere- make old ideas fresh, familiar poses startling, and comics something to be thrilled at by just about anyone.

Aquaman, strangely enough, is the character most benefiting from Johns’ talent at the moment. The Justice League’s walking sight-gag up until last fall, Atlantean ruler Arthur Curry now stars in a no-nonsense action series that one doesn’t so much read as snort.

Since the first issue, Johns and workhorse artist Ivan Reis have given Aquaman the bold, cinematic treatment he’s lacked for decades. The current issue is the penultimate chapter of a story called “The Others.” In it, Arthur’s wife Mera finally meets the rough and ready squad of adventurers who know her husband better than anyone. No, not the Justice League, but a huntress named Ya’Wara, a hooded soldier called the Prisoner, a Russian spaceman known as Vostok, and the Operative, who could very well have escaped from G.I. Joe.

Together, they battle Aquaman’s nemesis Black Manta for possession of a trident that’s one of several weapons said to have destroyed Atlantis. Like most summaries of Johns’ scripts, however, I come up short in the face of what an addictive reading experience he creates. Reis, a penciller of muscular grace in the John Buscema range, fills his panels with sinewy dynamite. The action unfolds like a legend in the making, and goes by way too fast. To accuse other creators’ work of being a fast read can be insulting. But like literature’s best scribes, Johns writes for himself. In doing so, he manages to never insult us.

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