For me, Brad Meltzer’s tenure as writer of Justice League of America (vol. 2, mostly with artists Ed Benes and Sandra Hope) has been fairly uneven. I was very excited after issue #0, but five issues later, not so much. Now we’re eight issues in, all the groundwork has been laid, and once again things are looking up. (For how long, though? For — how — long?)
I’m still not completely on board with Meltzer’s relaunch, but I think I understand it a little better now.
Meltzer seems most comfortable with isolated character moments, so since the zero issue was full of those, I think it’s been his most successful. That’s not exactly a polite way of saying “he peaked early” — just that part of #0′s strength was its ability to suggest the history behind each scene.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that Meltzer’s first full arc would be “examination[s] of identity.” I don’t know how much of a theme ”identity” is, because the notion that (as he puts it) “everyone is trying to figure out who they are” sounds very close to regular character-motivation bits to me. Indeed, “who they are” doesn’t seem to be much of a concern for new members Black Lightning, Vixen, and Hawkgirl. Specifically, although Meltzer says Vixen’s arc involves figuring out how her powers work, it seemed pretty plain to me: she needed her Totem, it had been stolen, and she got it back. It just happened to be part of Red Tomazo, who she happened to disembowel during his fight with the proto-League. Thus, while many of this arc’s characters define themselves at least in part in relation to the Justice League, certainly not all of them do. That makes it harder to see this story as JLA-specific, even though we can see the new team forming on the margins.
Again, it’s not that a character-centered story is inappropriate for a JLA arc, it’s just that I didn’t think a Red Tornado story was the most appropriate (i.e., exciting) way to relaunch the team. In addition to the subject matter, the story’s pacing also made it hard to enjoy from month to month. Now that the whole thing has come out, it no longer looks as much like a Red Tornado story, even if the threat didn’t “go big” like I had hoped. Obviously, the pacing issues also don’t seem as promiinent when all the parts are read together. However, as serialized over several months, “The Tornado’s Path” was a frustrating read, especially for a reader expecting a more traditional JLA story.
Meltzer responded to this criticism by explaining (also in the mothership interview linked above) that the story’s structure inverts the traditional Justice League narrative. Instead of starting with the full team splitting into smaller groups and then coming together at the end, Meltzer shows the smaller groups working independently of each other until their paths ultimately cross. That’s fine; nobody’s wedded to the Gardner Fox model of team adventures anymore. The problem with “The Tornado’s Path” is that all the time it spends initially on the details of those small-group adventures ends up taking the focus off the larger narrative. Villains like Doctor Impossible, Starro, and Trident (not to mention the Geo-Force subplot) are associated with mysteries that will apparently wait until future arcs. It almost goes without saying that connecting the Big Three’s fantasy draft only tangentially to the Red Tomazo story really doesn’t help.
In this regard, both issue #0 and last week’s #7 are good bookends, and in combination they shore up some weaknesses in the central storyline. At the end of #0, I was convinced that this JLA would be an extension of the Big Three. Because the original JLA was designed to promote the Other Five (including Wonder Woman), this would have been a definite shift in emphasis — understandable in light of Infinite Crisis, but a shift nonetheless. However, #7′s specific assertion that the Justice League isn’t about the Big Three puts both #0 and the fantasy-draft scenes in a different light. (It’s suggested further that the draft results would have been different from the eventual team, but that’s been a non-issue for a while.)
In fact, if this first arc is all about “identity,” the fantasy draft takes a little work to fit that particular paradigm. Many characters’ identity concerns are pretty obvious, but it takes Batman’s admission in #7 to show that the fantasy draft manifested the Big Three’s feelings of entitlement. Their identities were wrapped up in the Justice League, and more particularly in the responsibility of a Justice League, perhaps to an extent that they didn’t think it could properly exist on its own. Of course, even under that rationale, those draft scenes still don’t go anywhere, instead padding the story and/or taking pages away from more important plot points. Also, couldn’t Meltzer have used those ubiquitous color-coded captions to make the draft scenes an “offscreen” commentary on, say, a fight scene? That way, he could have had the Big Three debating the merits of Power Girl and Cyborg while Green Lantern and Arsenal actually fought things. Wouldn’t that have made the same point, albeit with less subtlety?
(I still would have loved seeing Wonder Woman at the draft table crushing a can of Tab against her forehead.)
That the eight issues fit together so well is still a surprise to me, considering that I spent the last several months agitated about a padded story that never seemed to go anywhere. However, what came across as meandering then (all those scenes with the Parasite, for example) feels more fleshed-out now. The story still doesn’t have the world-shaking implications common to previous League-formative tales, but in hindsight that’s OK. Meltzer’s League is founded as much through personalities as it is circumstances. It started by making us think it would be a top-down reorganization directed by the Big Three, and not an outside-in origin dictated by a large-scale crisis. However, it turns out to have been a third option — an inside-out affair, sparked by a mystery surrounding a friend. Considering it begins with a funeral of sorts, and ends with hugs all around, it’s the Big Chill of JLA origins.
It’s also an opportunity for Meltzer to unpack various bits of League arcana, with the most prominent being those Certificate of Achievement-style invitations. I don’t describe them that way out of mockery, because I think this is one detail Meltzer is right to highlight. The Justice League, like the Justice Society before it, was created out of a metafictional fan-entitlement impulse (Just imagine…!), and represents the pinnacle of achievement under the rules of its shared universe. Thus, there should be something suitable for framing. Likewise, considering Meltzer’s affection for New Teen Titans, I was halfway expecting Donna Troy to take the new League’s group photo, but having it be “Snapper” Carr is finer still. Vixen talking about electing chairmen, and Black Lightning mentioning the Outsiders to Roy, are more of Meltzer’s own secret handshakes with us fans on the wrong side of our thirties (or worse), and while they sometimes seem gratuitous, I’m a little surprised myself to note that they’re not annoying. Maybe there is an age factor here — I’ve been reading comics for over thirty years, and I wasn’t bothered; but Best Shots reviewer J. Caleb Mozzocco has “only” been reading for twenty and he hated issue #7 like poison.
Indeed, there are some eye-rolling moments. Using both animated-series headquarters, and especially recreating the Hall of Justice in adoring detail, is just a hair on the side of unbearably cute. I understand Meltzer’s rationale for both, and in that light I also understand why the original Secret Sanctuary cave wouldn’t have been appropriate, but it still feels indulgent. (By the way, I thought the All-Star Squadron’s headquarters was in New York, and the JSA’s original brownstone was in Gotham City. Where did Washington, DC come into it?) The whole Red Arrow upgrade feels unnecessary to me, because it makes Roy seem like he’s competing with Connor Hawke for a chance to follow in Dad’s footsteps. I could also have lived without seeing Red Tornado dismembered. In fact, the whole Reddy-having-sex situation can be summed up for me in two words: CREE and PY. (I don’t begrudge him The Sex, but if it’s going to happen, please don’t let him chuckle with the Invisible Man’s “Aheh.” Bad associations there.)
Finally, it looks like there may well be more Big Cosmic Action in the next five issues’ worth of JLA/JSA/LSH than these eight issues gave us. If that forces Meltzer and Geoff Johns to dial back some of the meandering, so much the better. It’s not out of place to put character first in a Justice League story, but at some point you have to give the fightin’ and ‘splodin’ its due.