The Martian Manhunter and the Superman Hunter meet on the plains of Mars! J’onn and Lex hold a secret meeting, but why? What could they possibly have to talk about? Find out in Justice League #17!

Snyder’s back (at least for now)

It’s no secret that I’ve been missing Scott Snyder on Justice League for the past month or so. #17 is his first issue (as a scriptwriter) in quite a few, and it’s a breath of fresh air. This is by no means the best issue of Justice League under his guidance, but it is a step up from the last arc and the annual, and it is interesting—and touching—all the same.

Jim Cheung is back, too, and both the composition and aesthetic appeal of his work elevates this issue even further. Even with three different inkers, his work looks consistently good, and I sure hope he’s going to be sticking around for more full issues in the near future.

Common ground

So beyond the encouraging credits, what is there to like here? I’ve been very interested in the relationship between J’onn and Lex since Snyder’s No Justice (his prelude to Justice League, essentially). You have perhaps the most empathetic character in comics paired up with one of the coldest (at least on the surface). So why do these two feel drawn to one another? Snyder answers that question here, and while it ties into some of the revelations provided by the Martian Keep in the last arc, you don’t really need to be up-to-speed to connect to the emotional core of this issue.

Geoff Johns famously made Lex one of the good guys during his New 52 run on this title, and while his original intention might have been to bring Luthor back toward evil, it never came to pass under his watch. Lex continued to appear as a jerkish-yet-well-intended hero in Rebirth, until No Justice saw him leave the light behind. While I don’t love the idea of Lex-the-hero, I enjoyed the intrigue of it immensely. Surely he had ulterior motives, right? Interestingly, Snyder didn’t follow that particular line of thought, instead using the events of No Justice to push Lex back over the line—at least implying that he had been genuine in his pursuit of (some sort of) righteousness.

What we’ve had in Snyder’s Justice League thus far is a return to the cruelty and brutality that we might expect of Luthor. This particular issue, however, shows Snyder at last elaborating on the complexity of the man. It was no inconsequential thing that Lex’s turn was resolved the way that it was. Some of you may not like there being any shred of good in him, but I find the way Snyder handles it here immensely satisfying. I like a purely evil villain now and again, but characters with muddy morality are typically much more compelling investments. And here in Justice League, we have a good balance: Lex is humanized, but never to the degree that we’re tempted to justify his actions. Some of his early formation was foisted upon him by circumstance and a cruel father, but he’s also made his own choices.

Visual clarity

As I reflected on this issue after a few reads, it finally hit me: I think I like Cheung’s work so much because of its clarity. Even in busier panels, he, Morales, and Wong ink everything expertly, so there’s proper emphasis where our eyes are intended to see it:

Colorist Tomeu Morey obviously helps, as the establishing shot above illustrates nicely, but there’s also more consistent line work and clarifying detail on the spire and “mourning” rock-Martian at its base.

Of course, Cheung also achieves this clarity by removing the busyness when it makes sense. Notice the last two panels, and all of the space he leaves Morey for an abstract background, stripping away the tremendous detail of the wider shot in the panel above. The rear shot on J’onn is more about showing us where he is, while the last two are more concerned with how he is. The dialogue is more intimate in those bottom panels, too, and Cheung’s composition takes those verbal queues perfectly.

There are some panels here and there where I don’t think it works quite as well—Lex’s dammit moment later on, for example—but overall, Cheung’s layouts seem to be working at a higher level than what we’ve seen in the last few issues. If Segovia and Sampere were giving us visual prose, Cheung is giving us visual poetry.

Recommended if…

  • You enjoyed Snyder and Cheung’s earlier work on this series.
  • You’re fascinated by a complex Lex Luthor.
  • You’re itching for a more intimate Justice League story after the wider scope of the last arc and annual.

Overall

It isn’t Snyder and Cheung’s best outing, but Justice League #17 is nevertheless an excellent one. An elaboration on the strange relationship between J’onn J’onzz and Lex Luthor, it features the sort of verbal and visual artistry that this book once had, and has desperately needed to recapture. Here’s hoping there’s lots more like this in the future.

SCORE: 8/10