Graphic Novel: Justice
by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Doug Braithwaite
DC Comics, 2011
The 12-issue run of DC Comics’ mini-series Justice, which ran from 2005 to 2007 (comic book writers and artists move at a creeping, geriatric pace compared to their industry forebears) has now been collected in one hardcover volume, allowing readers like me to ponder just what significance the thing might have. That it have no significance isn’t contemplated anymore in the comics world: there are hack artists and hack-writers churning out the monthly newsstand stuff, and then there are in-demand fan-favorite creators whose work is discussed by aficionados the world over in terms of its significance to the genre. Fan-favorite comic book artist Alex Ross helped writer Jim Krueger flesh out Justice‘s epic story, he added his painted inks to Doug Braithwaite’s pencils, and he supplied each original issue’s cover – and so Justice must possess significance.
Ross was the artist on Marvel Comics’ much-celebrated four-issue mini-series Marvels and DC’s four-issue mini-series Kingdom Come, and in both cases his speciality is something that only became viable as a phenomenon as the comics-reader demographic grew older: nostalgia. Not nostalgia for an earlier, simpler world, but rather nostalgia for the super-heroes and super-hero comics of that demographic’s youth – Ross did more than any other individual comics creator to bring about an almost fetishistic reverence for the ‘iconic’ in super-hero comics. Marvel Comics, being a newer and more fraught company than DC, briefly indulged in that reverence and then moved on. DC – home to the founding icons of the genre (the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman) – fell for that reverence and fell for it hard.
Justice, being something of a personal pet project for Ross, displays that reverence to such an orgiastic extent that there’s hardly one page of this attractively-produced hardcover collection that will be in the least comprehensible to somebody who hasn’t been avidly reading comics every week for the past forty years.
Let me try to help a bit: the book’s basic plot (which contains more Maguffins than a Scottish family reunion) asks a two-pronged question: what if the world’s worst super-villains somehow learned the secret identities of all the world’s super-heroes and unified to strike at those heroes simultaneously? The villains feature such baddies as Gorilla Grodd, Black Adam, Cheetah, Captain Cold, the Riddler, and Bizarro, and they’re led by Superman’s two deadliest foes: the alien super-android Brainiac, and the human master criminal Lex Luthor. Brainiac and Luthor hatch a scheme to use brainwashing nanites to take control not only of sizeable portions of the world’s population but also many unwitting superheroes, who then turn on their comrades. The book’s scope widens to almost comic proportions in later chapters, but at the onset, those comrades are the Justice League: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, the Atom, Green Arrow, Captain Marvel, etc.
The villains’ victories are swift and savage, but our heroes gradually rally and unite. Ross and Krueger mean to show us what would happen if the entire superhero community were torn by suspicion and mind-controlled spite, and there are many nifty moments of interaction between members of the enormous cast of characters. Our authors clearly know and love these characters thoroughly (and they keep their wits about them – these pages are positively rife with nerdy little comics in-jokes, most especially concentrated around the nanite-resistant body-armors the League members wear at the book’s climax: almost every suit of armor we see has a puckish visual double-meaning).
Here we get Wonder Woman the indefatigable warrior, Captain Marvel the cheery voice of hope, Batman the sharp-tongued and sharp-brained realist (at one point the Atom says “Am I the only one who ever gets tired of saying Batman was right?”), and Superman the embodiment of noble heroism. Ross and Krueger are careful to convey the very purest distillation of all their heroes.
That’s the glory of this Justice collection: this may well be the single most elaborate and large-scale Justice League adventure ever created. But it’s a weakness too: nostalgia is always reductive. In concocting this adventure, Ross and Krueger (but mostly, one suspects, Ross) have gone back to a fairly specific time and concept of DC continuity – this is the DC of the early 1970s, period. The bottle-city of Kandor, the Doom Patrol, the pre-disco Teen Titans, the mini-skirted Supergirl and sequin-satin Batgirl … this is a story frozen in a forty-year-old mold, neither reflecting any of the hundreds of later developments in these characters nor caring about them. This has an undeniable appeal (I myself absolutely dote over these pages, which contain example after example of art and characterization so fantastic I’d have been dumbstruck by it all if I’d encountered it on the spinner-rack of Trow’s General Store when I was a teenager), and that appeal is clearly the marketing thrust of this whole project.
My only guilt in all this guilty pleasure arises from the implication lurking in any project that implies “those were the good ol’ days” for superhero comics. For all the enormous and very successful effort that went into Justice, there’s something just the faintest bit lazy about the assumptions behind these proceedings, something the slightest bit disrespectful to the very genre it’s meaning to honor. The Justice League – and virtually all of the other characters so glowingly featured in these pages – have had many intelligent, interesting incarnations since the days of Denny O’Neil and Eliot S. Maggin, and much as it might pain me to admit it, those days often weren’t all that great. So a little of this kind of thing goes a long way.