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Have they been abandoned?

It’s been more than two months since the release of Justice League of America #8. While Bryan Hitch has crafted an intriguing conflict with excellent characters, his DC You hit has been plagued by delays since its early days (if you remember, issue 5 was so delayed that we ended up getting a filler issue that focused on Martian Manhunter, who has otherwise had nothing to do with Hitch’s League). With such a long wait since the previous installment, I’m sure many of you are wondering–as I was–if this month’s chapter will be able to reignite your imaginations, or if the delay proves too destructive to the book’s momentum for JLA to recover.

You’ve hurt me, Kal-El

This issue delivers on the epic showdown between Superman and Rao that was promised last time. While the two slug it out, Cyborg, Silas, and Anisa Williams (the doctor Batman met at the hospital) work hard on another angle. The team (and Rao) eventually converge on the power plant from way back in issue 1, and the struggle seems near its end, but at a cost the League may not be able to bear.

Still sustained

I’ll save you some suspense: pick this book up. If you haven’t been reading the series, catch up (with the exception of #5–you can take that one or leave it), and then pick this book up. It has some flaws, primarily in the art department, but Hitch delivers quite the payoff for several earlier promises, and after two trips through this one, I’m itching to read the whole series again.

As for those artistic flaws, there are the usual complaints about Hitch: characters just look weird sometimes, including a shot of Wonder Woman that should be amazing but is unfortunately overthrown by her odd-looking face. There are also a few shots of weapons piercing–or not piercing–Rao, where there is no effort made to show that those weapons have broken flesh. You simply see the protruding portion of a weapon drawn on top of Rao or the handle of another cut off–with no transition–where Rao begins. I’ll give that one up to the pressure of delivering an already-delayed book by its new deadline, but it’s still a strangely simplistic visual in the midst of more intricate detail.

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There are (what I perceive to be) a few narrative flaws, as well, around the plan to take down Rao. Hitch uses some short-term flashbacks to let us in on what Batman and Cyborg have been cooking up. While the information is necessary, these flashbacks interrupt the present conflict with Rao, and I found them a bit jarring both times through the story. Flash also ends up back in the present (and in the same location as the rest of the team) at an inconceivably convenient moment. While not jarring, it does feel a bit too easy, and I see no reason why Hitch couldn’t have brought him back earlier in this issue and avoided the risk of making the resolution seem cheap.

I’m going to show you what war with a god really looks like

With my complaints out of the way, I am ready, willing, and able to talk about what works this time around, and since that encompasses almost everything, I’d better get to it before it gets to be my bedtime.

First off, earlier artistic niggles aside, Hitch is a master visual storyteller. The fight between Superman and Rao is the sort of thing that makes me read comics in the first place. If you’ll remember from last time, Clark flew the Cathedral into the moon, and the issue ended. Things pick up there, and quickly escalate (or descend, depending on your point of view) as the two Kryptonians slug it out on their way back down to the planet–through a flaming reentry, clouds, and mountains, ultimately coming to rest in a crater of their own making. All of this is depicted with minimal dialogue–nothing more than grunting noises–as Superman literally brings Rao crashing down to Earth.

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Hitch’s artwork in this several-page sequence is breathtaking, both in its depiction of various settings and in its ability to carry the narrative forward without a word. And once they do touch down, the ensuing beatdown dealt out by Supes feels as enormous as the vast starscapes and landscapes of the previous several pages. Hitch can definitely draw some funky poses at times, and odd facial work has–as previously mentioned–wrecked a number of scenes in past issues; but when Hitch is on, he is on, and the opening scene of this issue might be the most spectacular thing I’ve seen in comics in a while (and that’s taking Jay Fabok’s work on Darkseid War into account). To me, this panel in particular highlights just how good he is–the suggestion of Superman’s punch giving far more artistic impact than would a connecting blow:

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What you choose to draw is just as important as how well you draw it.

Is that what you want your legacy to be?

Far from just an amazing spectacle, the conflict (and outcome–more on that later in the spoiler tags) works so well because Hitch’s Superman has benefited from strong characterization since issue 1. I care about what’s going on, and I thrill at seeing Clark get the upper hand, because Hitch has spent the time to set him up as the sort of pure-good Superman that we’ve come to expect. I’ve no intention of discussing recent films in the comments, but suffice it to say that–after the past week–I was grateful for the opportunity to experience the culmination of such a great characterization of the Man of Steel.

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The rest of the League has less space to shine, as things are fairly frantic once they’re all together, but they still feel unquestionably like themselves. While they have less shared “screen” time this month, I love the idea of Batman and Cyborg working together to figure things out, and the plan they devise seems worthy of their combined skills. Bruce clearly leads in these exchanges, but he clearly has a great deal of respect for Vic, who likewise submits to the Dark Knight’s instructions without pause. Batman would clearly be of little use in a physical confrontation with Rao, but his mind is the sharpest in the universe, and having access to Cyborg’s abilities allow him to maximize his contribution to the battle without having to throw a punch.

Diana and Arthur show up to help Superman with the fisticuffs, and it’s another successful play from Hitch. Wonder Woman–as she does–makes it clear which warrior is the best on the battlefield (spoiler: it’s her), and Aquaman throwing Rao with the trident is a welcome sight (I’ve been wanting to impale and hurl Rao since he first showed up). It is probably worth noting, however, that of all the League’s members, Arthur has probably been the most underused in Hitch’s narrative. He’s had some interesting moments here and there (I’m thinking of the first issue especially), but he’s the hardest to connect with because (I think) he’s probably had less time under the spotlight than his teammates. Nevertheless, he plays his role well in this particular installment, and I’m happy to see him in the fray.

Where the end starts

There is much more that I could say about this book, but I think you get the point: I love it. I’ve been a huge fan of Hitch’s big ideas and strong characters since day one, and this is an excellent way to come back after a delay. I’ll say a bit more in the spoilers, but I hope the message is clear: read this.

Spoiler

He’s dead

This is something we should have seen coming, not only because of the pile of dead Supermen (or Supermans, as one of my children might say) early in JLA #1, but also because of the serious beating Superman’s body takes during the brawl with Rao. His condition worsens as the book goes on, and yet he doesn’t stop throwing himself at the problem.

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As I mentioned earlier in the review, this works because Hitch has established an excellent Superman. When I read this last page, it hurts–not simply because a high-profile character has died, but because I’ve spent six issues experiencing Clark’s irreplaceable value. The death of Superman isn’t what makes me care about Superman; rather, my care for Superman is what gives his death weight.

Recommended if…

  • You’ve been dying to read this book since January.
  • You love amazing, cinematic storytelling.
  • You need a pick-me-up after a rough weekend at the movies.

Overall

A brawl for the ages, strong character work, and the culmination of several of Hitch’s big ideas combine for an impressive return for Justice League of America. If you aren’t reading this series, you should be, and if you are, you know what I’m talking about. I’m thrilled that Hitch will be sticking around after Rebirth, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Score: 9/10