Pandemonium! Deathstroke the Terminator has made wreck of the Justice League’s peacekeeping efforts in fictional, sub-Saharan Africa, and to make matters worse, he keeps salting the wound with one savage burn after another. Can the League fix the mess that this book claims they made? Find out in Justice League #43, as “Justice Lost” concludes. SPOILERS AHEAD.
What is Priest’s run on Justice League about? At a high level, it asks the question: given an impossible situation, does the Justice League do more harm than good? To Priest’s credit, he has finally defined the impossible situation with enough clarity for it to stick. Whereas the crises driving the earlier two thirds of this run seemed like contrivances fueled by poorly-written Leaguers, this African incursion actually works at a conceptual level. What if the League is, as Deathstroke claims, saving yesterday’s guerrillas, enabling them to fight another day? What does the League do once the immediate danger to human life has been mitigated? Permanent occupation to force opposing sides to get along?
The opening scene of #43 works in part because of the authenticity of this conflict, but mostly (I think) because it’s Deathstroke dropping the truth bombs. If Priest insists on telling a story that pokes a stick in the eye of our childlike naïveté when it comes to superheroes, I’ll follow him there, but it has to be bang-on; and, before this point, I don’t think it has been. It would have been absolutely catastrophic for this issue if Deathstroke told it like it isn’t the way the muddy middle of this run did, but thankfully for all of us (and Priest, I’m sure), that’s not what happened, and Slade’s charisma makes the ugly truth almost delightful to behold.
Unfortunately, everything starts to fall apart after that. The exploration of Diana’s existential conflict (Goddess of War, mission of peace) muddies the waters, and beyond the surface similarities, I’m not sure what Priest is driving at by comparing Deathstroke to the God of Death (as heavily implied by the way the scenes with Thanatos are intercut with Deathstroke squaring off against the League). Add to that the League’s complicity in giving Red Lion the media circus he desires, and it’s tough to figure out what the point is. Cyborg makes a pretty speech to try to sum it all up, but I’m still not convinced that Priest’s League has ever been guilty of what Cyborg accuses it of: trying to change human nature. We started off with an attempt to save hostages, moved on to saving Baltimore from a dangerous chemical attack, and then finished up with trying to prevent killings around the crash site of the Watchtower. There was no pushing ideologies, no attempt at changing the hearts of warring peoples. It was always just trying to save lives when lives were threatened.
So, in the end, Cyborg’s speech is nice, but it’s responding to a sequence of events that did not happen—to a League that does not exist. Had Priest pursued a much more personal story—one in which some event incited a member of the League to pursue a utopian solution to the conflict in Africa—then I think his story might have worked much better. Give us a compelling reason for a Leaguer to think that’s the right path, have some others see his or her point of view, and the conflict arises naturally. Then the mess in Africa has a proactive cause, and it’s a much clearer object lesson for Cyborg to commandeer.
Loose ends: lunch, and lechery
We get some closure on Baz’s gnawing anxiety about lunch with Clark. Or, at least, we get to see the scene of the lunch, see Baz preemptively storm off, and then learn later that his fear was unfounded. Of greater interest to most readers, we see Cruz head to Wayne Manor to talk about the kiss with Bruce. When she gets there, however, it is Selina that greets her, and it all amounts to a hill of beans. Forced drama, no consequences. Mud.
Overall, I still enjoyed Pete Woods’ artwork on this series. He’s redefined himself since his days on Detective Comics before The New 52, and there’s a clarity to his storytelling now that was lacking then. I wish he could have done more of the issues in this run than he did, but such is the curse of double-shipping books. The artists are important for their storytelling capabilities on each issue—as they should be—but they have no aesthetic ownership over the larger arc.
Where do we go from here?
Honestly, I’m tired. This is the 43rd issue (in a row) of Justice League that I’ve reviewed, and my time covering the book has been marked by unfulfilled hype. I’m ready for Justice League to be exciting again. I’m ready for the cringing to be over. Let’s get the League off-planet and explore the cosmos a bit. Let’s be done with swarms of nameless invaders. Let’s break out some exciting, charismatic villains, new and old. Scott Snyder is a good enough writer to do it, to be sure. And Jorge Jiménez and Jim Cheung are amazingly talented artists who can bring whatever Snyder throws at them to life. Here’s hoping things are on their way up, because if they’re not, I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
- You desperately want to see this run come to an end with at least some small bit of coherence.
Christopher Priest manages to stick the philosophical landing with a little help from Deathstroke, but the conclusion of his run is still fairly unsatisfying. It was a messy path to get to this point, and neither Slade’s verbal savagery nor Cyborg’s eloquent speech can make up for a disappointing run and a muddy final ten pages. Buy this if you’re completing the set; otherwise, don’t.
I love hearing from readers. Leave a comment below, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch. And you can read (and listen!) more of my thoughts on the wider world of comics over at comics-now.com.