DC Comics unveiled the first issue in its “New” DC Universe (DCnU) yesterday, with the release of Justice League #1. Penned by fan-favorite Geoff Johns and featuring art by comics icon Jim Lee, this first installment in “The New 52,” the highly controversial and hotly anticipated reboot of DC Comics’ decades-long continuity, sets the stage for a new origin of one of the oldest superhero pantheons in pop culture. In an era where superheroes are big business, and the vast majority of comic book character introductions are being made via media other than comics, this fresh start has the opportunity to revitalize the DC canon. It has the potential to give a new audience the thrill of experiencing the magic of comics alongside generations of long-time fans who have been glowing in the burgeoning interest and exposure of their favorite stories. Instead of fresh, this first issue feels terribly stale. Comics, courtesy of inventive storytellers like Stan Lee, Frank Miller, and Geoff Johns himself, had been the inspiration for a decade of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. If this one issue is any indication, however, DC would prefer that their movies, cartoons, and video games influence the comics instead.
Admittedly, Marvel Comics has always been my first love. When I first heard about the DCnU, I was excited and intrigued. My favorite characters weren’t the ones being rewritten, re-imagined, and rebooted. Had Marvel announced such a sweeping revision to its stable of characters, I might have joined the protesting throng at San Diego Comic Con this year. But, seeing as how the only corner of the DCU I’ve spent time with over the last year or so has been either in the Batman books or in the MMO world of DC Universe Online, this event felt like a good re-introduction to the characters that birthed the genre over seventy years ago.
So where does it go wrong? The writing is solid: Johns is an accomplished storyteller, and his dialogue is fluid and well-paced. The art is top-notch: Lee is still a master of page composition and dynamic transitions. What makes this issue feel like a cheap “official comic book adaptation” of the new media standard for DC’s superhero universe?
The story opens in Gotham and superheroes — all superheroes — are feared and mistrusted. Seemingly ripped from the climax of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Batman is pursued by the authorities, a “necessary” consequence, he explains, of the world being afraid of them. Even Green Lantern, meeting Batman for the first time, has apparently had his share of “‘conflicts’ with the Air Force out west.” We did the anti-hero thing in the 90’s, and it was revolutionary. Watchmen and Miller’s Dark Knight Returns opened the door and, for a decade-plus, dark-and-violent was in vogue. Nolan’s films were inspired by the comics of this period; the comic book Batman of 2010, by contrast, had been so much a public figure that he incorporated himself. With Hollywood setting the new standard, this Justice League storyline seems to be languidly following a script blueprint that was photocopied from a thermal fax sent circa 1991.
The cosmic threat serious enough to lead to an eventual formation of the greatest superhero team in history appears to be Darkseid, supreme badass Apokoliptian New God created by the legendary Jack Kirby in 1971. That’s all well and exciting, I suppose. But didn’t Grant Morrison just give us one of the best Darkseid/New Gods epics ever in his Final Crisis just a couple years ago? If this New 52 is actually focusing exclusively on the new reared-on-films audience, then I guess that really doesn’t matter.
My final objection to this comic, and perhaps the real reason I sense a complete disregard for the long-time fan whose passion and support of these properties has kept the mythos alive for so long,* is the treatment of its featured characters. A misunderstood Batman with an apparent penchant for “talk[ing] in a deep voice.” The most arrogant, cocksure Hal Jordan I’ve ever seen in print. Christian Bale, meet Ryan Reynolds. And a brief splash-page appearance by Superman to round out the trio of recent Warner Bros. big screen DC properties.
The comic isn’t terrible. It’s decent. What bothers me is not where the story seems to be heading, because it’s standard fare, really, as team books go. What bothers me is the feeling that the true power of comics is being undermined by a new status quo, a media pecking order in which comics don’t get to do what comics can do. What they can really do, distinct from TV shows, movies, or video games. Comics get to be inventive, exciting, and experimental. Comics get to be fun. And if something doesn’t work, wait a few issues and we’ll see something entirely different. Make Robin a girl, have Wonder Woman kill Maxwell Lord, and send a legion of Black Lantern space zombies careening through the galaxy hell-bent on negating all life on Earth. Movies need years, millions of dollars, and, most importantly, great stories and new ideas. DC’s comics should provide those ideas, and that inspiration. Not the other way around.