The Dark Knight done screwed up! After an over-tired Batman’s dulled judgment cost a nun her life, the government wants answers. But to whom does the Justice League answer, and can their many successes atone for a life-ending failure? These are the questions at the forefront in Justice League #35, as “The People vs. Justice League” continues.
A tired premise poorly applied
I like this book—a lot—so I’d like to get my big complaint out of the way up front: the plot device fueling this entire arc’s tension is well-worn, and—more to the point—poorly set-up. It’s perfectly natural to have stories in which “the people” lose faith in costumed heroes. The very idea of para-law-enforcement law enforcement demands it. Things are great when the heroes perform admirably, but the moment there’s a screw-up—even a small one—everyone loses their minds.
But if you’re writing that story, you have to walk a fine line between how things may go down in reality and how readers interpret things on the page. In the case of this arc in Justice League, the people seem willfully obtuse, and while we all encounter such intellectual impenetrability in the real world (with increasing frequency, it seems), it reads more like a contrivance here. As much as I disliked most of the details in the Batman crossover-event War Games, I actually really liked the big picture: that Batman’s coldness and pride could birth a catastrophe that legitimately calls his mission—or at the very least, his methods—into question. In “The People vs. Justice League,” however, Batman’s pride makes him less effective, but it does not give him agency in the disaster. His self-imposed burden makes sense, but the public mistrust of the League seems silly, especially when there’s video of a terrorist stabbing the nun, and a confession from the same terrorist admitting everything.
The Diana’s in the details
So how could I possibly like this book if I contend that it’s built on a shaky foundation? There are two reasons: details and diversification.
Whereas I liked the idea of War Games, but struggled mightily to read through it, I find myself in the opposite place with this issue of Justice League. The premise bends nearly to the point of breaking with nothing stronger than a stern look, but the actual scripting of the “Nungate” aftermath makes me forget about that fragility rather quickly. The opening scene—though flowing directly out of the premise—features such an impressive showing from Diana that my mind just accepts the premise without trying. If the public distrust is not earned in-universe by the events of the story, it is at least justified by the dialogue that it yields here. Priest and Woods both give us a multidimensional Wonder Woman—one who is compassionate but fierce, self-assured but self-aware. Her heart breaks for the one they could not save, but it does not bleed with unearned guilt. She is truth.
This great character work extends beyond the recognizable Diana to the far-greener Green Lantern Jessica Cruz. Introduced in the wake of Forever Evil, Jess has since been identified almost entirely in relation to her crippling anxiety—first as its helpless victim, and then, as time has gone by, as one struggling to overcome it. But two-issues in to this run, it seems like Priest approached Jessica with one question: who is she? The anxiety is something that she may always struggle against, but no person is merely the sum of her neuroses, and it’s refreshing to see Priest rounding her out without completely eliminating what we know so far. So who is Jess? She’s the kind of person who sings in the bathroom—at least when she thinks she’s alone on the Justice League Watchtower. She’s the kind of person who defaults to (what I assume is) her first language when in the heat of battle. These may seem like tiny things, but every such thing makes her a more complete person. We know who Diana is because we’ve read her small, defining moments over the years. If Jess continues to benefit from sophisticated treatment by skillful writers, we may one day have so clear a picture of her.
There are plenty of other nice moments throughout this issue, mostly because Priest treats his characters like characters instead of devices. I won’t spoil any more of them, though—you should read them for yourself.
I’m grateful for the way that the excellent character-writing saves this book from a shaky premise, but as I said above, it’s not working alone. Almost as critical is that Priest merely frames the narrative with the Nungate fallout. The bulk of the story centers around a new conflict, and aside from it being a fun fight, and one that comes to the League’s attention through a very interesting channel (more on that later), it gives Woods tons of space to churn out page after page of thrilling superheroics. I know some folks wish Justice League would return to the more-detailed, closer-to-realistic style that it had when Jason Fabok was aboard, but I’m loving this just as it is. Fabok’s a beast, and Darkseid War is an amazing set of work that demands repeat engagement; but for me, Justice League has not felt so undeniably comic-booky in a really long time. The layouts are energetic, and the characters are delightfully exaggerated, but it never crosses the line into the distracting territory of someone like Scott Kolins (whose last set of interiors in an issue of Justice League was the disappointing half of a bait-and-switch that featured a stunning Fabok cover as the bait). I think this might be the most fun I’ve had reading this title, and Woods is a huge part of that.
Keeping up with the J’onzzes
One last thing, and maybe it’s not even a thing. Maybe it’s just a passing moment and Priest means to go no further with it. But the League finds out about the monster-of-the-week from a shape-shifting alien who used to work with one John Jones. For those of you who still don’t know what I’m talking about, THAT’S THE FREAKING MARTIAN MANHUNTER. If Priest is going to bring one of my favorite characters into the post-Rebirth landscape in the near future, then I’m going to be doing the whitest, most arrhythmic happy dance you’ve ever seen or imagined. Stay tuned.
- You like books about characters.
- You like a more whimsical, less realistic style of artwork.
- You’ve been looking forward to seeing Jessica Cruz get fleshed out a bit more.
Shaky premise aside, Justice League #35 succeeds by combining rock-solid character writing with bombastic, fantastical cartooning. After a long season of darkness, Justice League is back on track. Go pick up your copy and tell DC “good job.”
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