Dear Justice League review

As fun as it is to read about the amazing feats of our favorite heroes, we can’t help but have questions about them.  Is Superman always super, or is he capable of messing up?  Does Green Lantern feel constrained in his fashion choices by his limited color palette?  Besides having wings, does Hawkgirl share other… appetites with her avian namesake?  Does Aquaman smell like fish?

All these questions and more are answered in Dear Justice League, the latest delightful release as part of DC Comics’ young readers line.  Written by Michael Northrop, illustrated by Gustavo Duarte, colored by Marcelo Maiolo, and lettered by Wes Abbott, this is a silly, bright, colorful story that’s perfect for readers young and old.

The central conceit, if you can’t already tell, is simple, yet brilliant: the Justice League answer various emails (and letters, in one case), with their young fans asking them for life advice, the opportunity for friendship, or just about silly personal details.  The Leaguers respond in kind and, almost without fail, the results are an absolute joy.  There are nine “chapters,” each titled “Dear ___,” starting with Superman, and then moving on to Hawkgirl, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg, Batman, and finally, Justice League.  While there is an overarching story to tie everything together (involving an invasion of bug creatures from outer space.  So, you know, a typical Tuesday for the League), most of the chapters can be read on their own just fine.

But, really, it’s so much fun that you won’t want to stop at just one.  You just have that option because, you know, it’s a free country and what not.

Starting off with Superman was the right choice, because this chapter gives you a feel for what Northrop and Duarte have in store for the rest of the book.  They highlight Superman’s selfless heroism and his awe-inspiring powers, while still making him come across as relatable and human.  Plus, there’s the whole fact that Superman was kind of the first major superhero, so it’s fitting in that sense too, though I kind of doubt that Northrop was going for any sort of metatextual statement of relevance here.  He probably just wanted to start off with Superman because, hey it’s Superman.

A young fan named Ben Silsby emails the Man of Steel and asks him if he’s always super, or if he ever messes up like we do.  Ben asks because, well, he kind of messed up.

Big time.

The first two pages of the book highlight Duarte’s impeccable skill at drawing some great superhero action, while also demonstrating his fantastic sense of comedy and timing.  I first remember seeing Duarte on the hilarious Bizarro book from a few years back, and his penchant for sight gags and breezy action make him an ideal fit for this kind of story.

We go from the opening page of Superman striking a heroic pose, taking up most of the page while he is shown performing other heroic deeds and feats of strength overlaid around him.  It’s a nice little montage, until we turn the page and see poor little Ben Silsby, decidedly not so super.  See, he’s accidentally run over the garden hose while mowing the lawn, all while the sprinkler was running.  This results in a muddy mess and, well, he wants to know if Superman knows what that feels like.  Over the next 16 pages we see that, yep, even Superman messes up.

What follows is a somewhat Rube Goldbergian sequence of escalating… we’ll call them “inconveniences,” as Superman– distracted by reading his email– accidentally flies into the side of a skyscraper and sets off a domino effect of mishaps around the city.  It’s a really funny sequence, with a window washer falling to the street, his bucket of water almost hitting a lady on the head, a man tripping over a pencil, a bicyclist swerving to avoid hitting him and an oncoming truck, and on and on.  There’s a bit of dialogue here and there, but Northrop mostly steps back to allow Duarte, Maiolo, and Abbott utilize the visual medium to tell the story.  Using facial expressions, exaggerated movements, and sound effects make the action that much funnier, almost like watching a silent film play out on the page.  It also helps punctuate what dialogue is actually present, like when a thankful citizen says “I don’t know how you do it” and Superman simply responds “likewise.”

It all ends with Superman responding to Ben’s email, assuring the exasperated young fan that, yes, even Superman messes up.  All the time.

This sequence sets up the template and formula for each of the proceeding stories, more to give an idea of what to expect with this book than to say “everything is going to follow these exact same beats.”  Hawkgirl’s story, for instance, really sets up the wider alien invasion plot, kicking off with an absolutely brilliant set of splash pages that depict the same action from entirely different angles.  Her email interaction is played more for laughs, as she’s asked if she likes to eat small mammals.

Because that’s what hawks eat, see.

Aquaman’s chapter is much more an adventure story, as he sneaks onto a sub that Black Manta and his crew have commandeered.  After saving the day, he makes his way back to the Hall of Justice and runs into Hawkgirl and Superman on the way to his own quarters.  It’s a detail that’s easy to look over, because it’s just presented as so matter-of-fact, but I love the idea that the League are just kind of hanging out and interacting with each other.  I won’t go into it too much, but I’ve seen a lot of people say that the main distinction between the Avengers and the Justice League is that the former are friends, while the latter are coworkers.  While there’s certainly credence to that, I like seeing the League being friendly with one another, running into each other in the hall, engaging in little in-jokes, and just having a good time being heroes together.

Which, frankly, is what Aquaman’s chapter boils down to: after saving the day, he gets asked by a fan is he smells like fish.  While he isn’t offended by the question, he is curious and even a little self-conscious about it, so he sets off to find an answer.  It’s goofy and a little slight, sure, but that’s what makes it so fun.  Plus, just try to not read Arthur’s dialogue as being delivered by John Dimaggio.  This Aquaman is one “outRAGEous!” away from his Brave and the Bold iteration and I am here for that.

It’s the variety of questions that is the book’s true strength, I think, as you go from a vignette where Wonder Woman reminisces about one of her birthday parties as a child to a story where two rascally youths try to trick the Flash… only to find out that he is truly the Fastest Man alive.  Northrop and Duarte are clearly having a blast with the material, and it even shows in the stories that don’t quite land.

Personally, I found the Green Lantern and Cyborg installments to be the most forgettable, though there’s still some good stuff in the ideas, if not the execution.  Green Lantern Simon Baz is asked if he ever gets sick of wearing the same colors every day, and it’s a cute enough idea.  We see him visit a tailor because, yes, he has tried to incorporate a more diverse palette into his wardrobe, even if  the rest of the League were quick to veto his taste in patterns.  Cyborg’s story, on the other hand, has him interacting with a fan who wants to battle him in their mutual favorite online game.  It’s dismissed pretty quickly after he responds, though, and the rest of his story is devoted to the alien invasion plot that ties the whole book together.  So his section had a bigger impact on the story, but didn’t do very much with the concept, if that makes sense.

And then there’s Batman.  We all love Batman.  Unsurprisingly, his chapter has some of the best gags in the book.  We find out how he likes his grilled cheese, for one, and that he prefers to respond to old-fashioned snail mail as opposed to emails.  The reason?  He likes to include signed photos for his fans.

Photos that warn them to be good citizens… or else.

It’s pretty hysterical, especially as Batman is written as such a stoic, two-fisted hero in the midst of all the zaniness.  His humorless demeanor makes the jokes that much funnier, whether he’s throwing out a potential catchphrase or pulling a Batbrella from out of his utility belt.  Like Aquaman’s lines sounded like something John DiMaggio would have said on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, this Batman reads best in Diedrich Bader’s voice.  I could easily see him not eating nachos.

The final chapter is addressed “Dear Justice League,” and it brings the whole alien invasion plot full circle.  Duarte does a great job of giving each of the Leaguers something to do in the final battle, evoking the classic Justice League of America comics of the Silver Age.  After all, where else are you going to see Green Lantern scooping up a bunch of alien bugs in a giant net, Hawkgirl hitting the invaders with her mace, and Aquaman riding on top of a manta ray that’s flanked by two sharks?  It is absolutely ridiculous and totally amazing.

Shown: absolutely ridiculous and totally amazing

Some character bios and a little activity sheet close out the book proper, with two separate sneak peeks included.  First is a look at next year’s Dear Super-Villains.  It’s from the same creative team and looks to be taking a slightly different approach to the material, so I’m ready for its release in fall 2020.

Then there’s Superman of Smallville from Art Baltazar and Franco, and I’m pretty sure you guys know I’ve already pre-ordered a half dozen copies of this one.  Clark argues with a bunch of cows!  Amazing, and not a bad way to cap off this all around excellent all-ages comic.

Recommended if:

  • You too have wondered if Aquaman smells like sea life.
  • You like some good-natured humor.
  • You have a young reader who wants to get into superhero comics.

Overall: Positively delightful from beginning to end, Dear Justice League is a great comic for readers of all ages.  Young readers will get a kick out of the whole concept of writing to superheroes, and older fans are sure to enjoy the creative scenarios the League find themselves in.  Michael Northrop has a good grasp of these characters and pokes some fun while still being reverent, and Gustavo Duarte, Marcelo Maiolo, and Wes Abbott give the book a strong visual identity.  Buy a copy for yourself and a loved one, because really, this is a comic that has something for everyone.

SCORE: 8.5/10