How Not to Relaunch a Universe:

A Negative Review of Justice League #1

How bad is Justice League #1, written by Geoff Johns and penciled by Jim Lee? It’s virtually a road map for how not to write super-hero comics.

Justice League #1 (2001)The most obvious problem is that nothing happens. For $3.99 ($4.99 if you buy it with the digital version), what you get is Batman meeting Green Lantern, then the two meeting Superman as the big climax.

Other than that, there’s a vague and not-very-compelling alien menace and a brief, cliche-ridden introduction of the future Cyborg. Neither of which mean anything to the newcomer to whom this new DC Universe is supposed to appeal.

We can certainly argue about the merits and problems of decompression generally. It’s probably not the best way to go when you’re supposedly trying to appeal to new readers and give them value for their money, because you want them to come back and spend more money.

Even decompressed, it’s possible to tell a complete story, one also part of a larger one. That’s not something this issue cares to do.

But the deeper problem is that what is here is incompetently done.

During the issue’s opening fight between Batman and Gotham’s cops, we get a double-page splash of him jumping while under fire from helicopters. Then we get this:

Justice League #1, top of page 4Batman’s supposed to be executing a flip in the first panel, although you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s been blown back by something, causing him to slide backwards into a pipe.

In the second panel, Batman apparently has an awful lot of rockets stuffed under his palms. Since when does Batman have those?

from Justice League #1, page 4They’re never shown again, even though the very next panel shows both Batman and the helicopters, along with the inexplicable sound effect “BWOOOOFFF.” But the helicopters must be sufficiently distracted, because Batman is free to resume his pursuit of the weird guy he’s apparently chasing while under fire.

Batman stops the fleeing villain, demanding to know what he was doing at the docks. Regular DC readers will identify the villain as vaguely looking like one of Darkseid’s Parademons, but this won’t help new readers.

Then the Parademon explodes, blowing Batman back. Or he seems to, because he gets right up and fights Batman. So maybe he just explodes with light. But Batman and the Parademon seems to be burning as they fight in the explosion’s wake. So who knows what this explosion is. It’s certainly not explained later in this issue.

from Justice League #1Then Green Lantern arrives, slamming a fire truck into the we-don’t-yet-know-it’s-a-Parademon. Batman jumps or falls back (it’s unclear), as if he’s in danger. Why does Green Lantern do this when he sees two people fighting? I don’t know, but he must do it all the time. He’s certainly not trying to hit only the Parademon, because he doesn’t recognize Batman (whom he’s never met before). It’s confusing as hell.

And… wait, Batman’s on a roof?

from Justice League #1, page 7When Batman snagged the Parademon, and they fell onto a surface, with buildings rising in the background. I guess readers are supposed to notice the sculpture on the extreme side of that panel, because it’s virtually the only hint of where this fight between Batman and the Parademon is taking place. With the fact that the helicopters aren’t pursuing (after… whatever happened happened), we’d be forgiven for thinking that Batman and the Parademon fell into an alleyway. You might think that, with all this decompression, there’d be room to establish the scene, an old principle in both film and comics.

Then the helicopters return, as inexplicably as they left. And the we-don’t-know-it’s-a-Parademon-thing revives and hits Green Lantern from behind. And then blasts the helicopters.

Justice League #1, top of page 11Which apparently makes him shit sparks. Unless those sparks have replaced his leg. Because really, at this point, who the fuck knows.

Green Lantern then stops the helicopters with green bats. Which I guess seemed clever to someone at the time.

Then there’s a spider-alien-thing running along the streets.

from Justice League #1, page 12Just what the hell is happening in this panel? The spider-thing doesn’t seem to be touching these cars. Was the street trashed and on fire before the alien-spider-thing got there? There’s no debris from helicopters, for example, in sight. So who knows.

Looking down on this, Green Lantern says, “What is that? A Transformer? It just changed into some kind of dog.”

Does this mean the insect we’ve just seen has now transformed into a dog shape?

Or is Green Lantern saying the insect looks like a dog?

What Green Lantern means is “That guy you were fighting… just transformed into some kind of insect.” Calling the thing a dog is far less confusing than failing to identify that this thing is the same we-don’t-know-it’s-a-Parademon that we last saw inexplicably shooting sparks out of its butt.

In the back of the above panel with the insect, on the left, is the Parademon seen earlier. He’s supposed to be hopping down from the roof (which we didn’t know was a roof for some time) and transforming into the insect. But it looks more like he’s hovering inexplicably in space than transforming. And he’s colored just like the purple background, so it would be easy to ignore him. Even if we did spot him, it’s not at all clear that he’s transforming.

Actually, one panel after he shot sparks out of his butt, the Parademon jumped through one of the helicopters he was blasting. But again, it would be easy not to catch this because he’s colored like the helicopter’s explosion, which he’s immersed in. And in the previous panel, we saw him blasting the helicopters, so it would be logical to think the explosion is caused by this blast and not the we-don’t-know-it’s-a-Parademon jumping. After all, we don’t see the Parademon jump, nor do we even get motion lines in this panel that might clue us into this fact.

from Justice League #1, page 11

At this point, we’re on the bottom of page 12. That’s the length of two short comics stories. That was all Alan Moore needed to change the entire super-hero genre in Warrior. It’s the majority of the length of the very first Justice League story, which not only had Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern meet but established the entire team and had them defeat their first foe. Instead, we’ve gotten some of the worst action sequences ever and a good amount of totally confusing material, including minor details such as where the characters are or whether the villain is transforming into a dog-insect.

But it’s here that we get the first smart touch, as Batman tells Green Lantern to leave, because Gotham City’s his. Green Lantern responds that the entire space sector is his. It’s a nice touch, certainly a minor one but the first sign in the story of any intelligence whatsoever.

Only now does Batman even explain why he’s pursuing the we-don’t-know-it’s-a-Parademon: it was apparently trying to plant a bomb of some sort and spit fire at the police. And Green Lantern explains why he’s in Gotham: his ring alerted him to the presence of something extraterrestrial. This is crucial stuff, but it’s buried in dialogue 12 pages deep.

It’s almost as if how events got set into motion doesn’t matter. What matters is the badass visual of Batman jumping from helicopter fire, or a thing blasting those helicopters and transforming. None of which are particularly badass, really. And all of which are confusing as hell. But that’s the meat of the story. The how is, apparently, incidental.

Justice League #1, top of page 13

Then Green Lantern puts out the fires that this conflict has apparently started around the city. In a single, fairly tiny panel. With none of the sense of majesty that you’d expect, if you were going to be showing off Green Lantern’s powers to a new reader.

Compare this with Green Lantern’s arrival, in which his boring fire truck construct, which he throws thoughtlessly at Batman and the we-don’t-know-it’s-a-Parademon, is given a full page.

Oh, and then Batman and Green Lantern go down into Gotham’s sewers. Right there, in panel three, at the top of page 13.

Are they pursuing the we-don’t-know-it’s-a-Parademon-turned-insect-that-Green-Lantern-thinks-is-a-dog? Don’t know.

You might think someone would remark upon this. Or that Green Lantern might comment upon descending into Gotham’s sewers. But no.

Instead, Green Lantern’s far more concerned with what powers Batman might have. Because it’s a super-hero story, and super-heroes are stupid action stories centered around incredible powers.

In fairness, it’s important to point out what powers these characters do have, for the new reader. And we do establish here that Batman has no powers, and the ensuing dialogue does briefly spell out Green Lantern’s.

To show that Batman’s a badass, despite having no powers, he promptly steals Green Lantern’s ring. Which isn’t a bad idea, by way of illustrating this point.

Except that it’s been done before. In All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder. Just a few years previously. Which was also illustrated by Jim Lee. And this only underlines how much better Frank Miller is as a writer than Geoff Johns. Because while that series has been much criticized, it does the ring-stealing bit much better than this issue. In fact, Miller uses it to characterize Green Lantern far better than Johns does here, which is surprising considering that Johns writes Green Lantern. In both cases, Green Lantern, still early in his career, is thoughtless and arrogant. But Miller’s story demonstrates the real danger of such an attitude when combined with such awesome power. In Justice League #1, the same bit comes off as a gag, a shorthand way of demonstrating the difference between Batman and Green Lantern, without having to actually characterize either.

Conveniently, given that there’s no sign Batman and Green Lantern are actually pursuing the alien-dog-thing, they come across it. Or another one, which readers would be forgiven for thinking could be the case, given how little is actually communicated about what’s going on in terms of the actual plot.

Green Lantern charges it, which is probably supposed to further characterize him as headstrong, and the insect-thing explodes. Only unlike its previous explosion (shown above), this time it’s vaporized. How? Why? It doesn’t matter, apparently.

Here, on page 17, it’s time to finally end the first scene with Batman and Green Lantern. Johns has to get them to Metropolis, so they can meet Superman and start adding to their team-up, leading into the team that will become the Justice League.

So how does he do this? The exploding insect-dog-thing has left behind some kind of cube, which Batman identifies as possibly alien.

Alien,” says Green Lantern. “Maybe this is all connected to that guy in Metropolis.”

“Superman?” says Batman.

“They say he’s an alien,” says Green Lantern.

“He is,” say Batman.

from Justice League #1, page 17

And so they fly off to Metropolis, based solely on the idea that this is alien technology and Superman’s rumored to be an alien too. Not much of a lead, exactly. Tenuous, you might say, even in these characters’ early days, when not many aliens are known on Earth.

How does Batman claim to know Superman is an alien? Who knows. Maybe Johns will tell us, beyond suggesting that Batman’s “researched him.” Maybe not.

Far more importantly, how does Green Lantern not know? After all, the only reason he’s in Gotham is because his ring detected something extraterrestrial there.

To be consistent, Green Lantern would have to know Superman’s an alien. But that would mean that Green Lantern would have already investigated Superman, which would make perfect sense, if he’s flying off to Gotham at the first sign of something alien. Not to mention that, if he’s really in charge of this space sector, Green Lantern might have an interest in these other super-heroes.

But never mind all that. Green Lantern had to detect extraterrestrial stuff to set the plot into motion. And then he had to be incapable of doing so to continue that plot along. So forget consistency or logic, even within the same issue.

This is what’s called spectacularly bad writing, folks. Writing that’s aimed at the lowest common denominator. Writing that assumes you’re too stupid to notice glaring inconsistencies in the most basic outline of the plot.

Writing that assumes you’re really only here to see Batman dodge helicopters and Green Lantern create fire trucks and aliens that transform, and you don’t really care if they’re on a roof or not. Or if you know where that alien is or if he’s transformed. Or why Batman and Green Lantern are going into the sewer. Why would you care about those things, if you don’t care about the most basic elements of a plot? All that matters is that we give you some explosions, some cool stuff, and move the plot forward. Logic and storytelling be damned.

Characterization too. Because we certainly haven’t gotten that, beyond showing that Green Lantern is brash and Batman is thoughtful. That’s not characterization. It’s not even characters, really. It’s using types.

As the story (such as it is) continues, we get a four-page series starring Vic Stone, who regular DC readers will know is the future Cyborg. Only he’s not Cyborg yet — presumably, he’ll become Cyborg, as this initial Justice League storyline continues.

The length of this sequence is interesting, because it’s exactly how many pages the story is longer than the (now) normal, 20-page issue. So I guess these four pages account for why the issue is $3.99, instead of DC’s standard $2.99. And sadly, they do feel tacked-on, almost as if they were inserted to meet the diversity requirements of the new DC Universe.

And what’s Vic Stone doing in these four pages? He’s winning a football game, only his daddy’s not in the stands, as apparently is typical. The sequence establishes that Vic’s dad studies DC’s newly-emerged super-heroes. He’s presumably the absentee scientist father who, regular DC readers can guess, will remake his soon-to-be-wounded son into Cyborg.

There are real possibilities for characterization here, and four pages is a lot of room to accomplish something along these lines. There’s also the racial aspect: Vic is black, and his sports playing echoes how too many African-Americans look to sports scholarships, instead of education, as their way to mainstream success. Vic’s scientific father could play a part in this, and his absence could be used to echo the crisis of absentee fathers in the African-American community. All of this is potentially dangerous stuff, which one would want to depict sensitively, without falling into stereotypes. But it illustrates the depth of possibilities here, especially when one is retroactively adding a black character to the Justice League’s initial roster.

But Johns, typically, chooses to characterize in the broadest possible strokes. Almost the first half of these four pages is devoted solely to Vic winning the game. We get lots of action shots of footballs being caught and players being tackled.

And it’s just as sloppy as the earlier action in Gotham City. There’s no context, no sense of the stakes at play, whether Vic’s team is winning or losing, nor of actual football strategy and tactics. Instead, there’s just a kind of shorthand, composed of action shots, to indicate that an actual game is taking place.

from Justice League #1, page 19And how does Johns choose to dramatize Vic’s absent father? In the most cliched way possible: by Vic looking into the stands and seeing an empty seat. After he’s already won the game. Because hey, it’s more dramatic that way, and why would he bother to look over, during an entire game of football, despite caring so much? After all, if you had him look earlier, he might have to be haunted by his father’s absence during those action-packed football shots, and that might force you to characterize Vic’s state of mind, while he’s playing what is actually a rather complicated game. You know, writing.

After the game, Vic calls his father, who doesn’t answer — another cliche. “I know how busy you are at work,” he says, “but I really thought this time… I thought this time you were going to keep your promise.”

But there’s a reason, besides Vic’s yearning for a father’s presence, that he needs his dad to be there. He can’t get recruited otherwise. He needs his parent’s permission.

And those recruiters, they really want him. See, what’s important for you as the reader to understand is that Vic’s an awesome player and all the recruiters want him. They’re not going to hem and haw and play it coy. They’re not even going to bother bullshitting Vic about educational opportunities. They’re not going to have any reservations whatsoever. No, they’ve never seen anything like Vic, and they want him now.

So, watching the game, they speak as a group. “He’s a tank,” says one. “I just found our new receiver,” says another. In the locker room, they virtually shout each other down with offers of full scholarships. Subtle, this is not.

Justice League #1, top of page 20

Have any of these recruiters been to one of Vic’s games before? Apparently not. They seemingly all decided to come today, and they’re all wildly, unreservedly enthusiastic.

Now, I’m no football fan. But even I’ve seen documentaries and good fictional films about the sport and about the college recruiting process. You’d think that, if you were writing such a scene, you might think back to these. If you hadn’t seen anything at all, you’d think you’d at least watch a couple, streaming for free online, to constitute your research. Or, you know, just think logically about how recruiting might work.

But thinking is so clearly not the point. In fact, thinking’s clearly anathema to what’s being presented here. Thinking about the gaping holes in the plot only ruins the point, which is to convey an action-packed story in the broadest strokes possible.

Then Vic watches Green Lantern fly past and briefly notes that his father studies super-heroes — and that’s it for Vic for this issue. He’s the best football player ever, all the recruiters want him, and his absent father studies super-heroes. That’s all you need to know. Now back to the super-hero action!

It’s almost as if the issue is intent on weeding out any thinking individual from its readership. Those who think comics are art and can be as sophisticated as any form of art or literature? You need not apply.

Johns hammers this point home as Green Lantern lands his green-energy jet, in which he’s flown himself and Batman to Metropolis. Batman even points out how ridiculous this is. He doesn’t explain why, really, but we know Green Lantern can form anything with his ring and doesn’t need to make anything as literal as a jet. Green Lantern’s oblivious, suggesting he’s either literal-minded or brain-dead. Perhaps Johns is hinting that Batman takes the jet as a clue to Green Lantern’s background, and regular DC readers know that Green Lantern’s alter ego is a jet pilot.

But there’s a deeper problem here: why has Batman waited until they land to point out how ridiculous Green Lantern forming a jet plane? Did he sit silently for the entire flight?

Hey, dude. Who cares? It’s only comics. Super-hero comics at that. Right?

Batman even says that Green Lantern should have chosen something subtler, as if Johns is trying to point out that the story is just as opposed to subtlety as Green Lantern is.

And as if to underline how stupid it is that Green Lantern didn’t know Superman was an alien or investigate him before, he says he found Superman with his ring. “Like I said, it’s basically a GPS for the extraterrestrial. Superman’s in there.”

from Justice League #1, page 22

So much for any convenient explanation, such as that Green Lantern detected alien technology in Gotham but not Superman in Metropolis.

Superman seems to be inside a LexCorp building slated for demolition, and there’s a big hole in its side, as well as fire, which suggests that Superman’s just fought his own we-don’t-yet-know-it’s-a-Parademon-that-transforms-into-an-insect-dog.

Green Lantern, cocky as always, goes in alone. Just to underline his arrogance, Johns has him tell Batman to wait outside. So we know this is going to get comically upturned, because Johns has telegraphed that reversal so well. And he doesn’t disappoint our narrative expectations.

Justice League #1, top of page 23

Yet good writing is often defined by upsetting narrative expectations. That’s why twists work. The best writing upsets our basic expectations of how a genre’s narrative, or even narratives in general, can or should work. Classic works do so with great abundance.

But that’s clearly not what Johns wants to do here. Instead, Justice League #1 knows what you expect in a super-hero comic, and it gives you exactly this. Stripped of any significant intelligence, characterization, or even ability to convey a clear, consistent plot.

It’s like a Hollywood disaster movie that says “fuck explaining why the disaster is happening, and fuck characterization — the audience wants to see shit blowing up, and that’s just what we’re gonna give ‘em!” And then the movie proceeds to do so, following narrative expectations just enough so that the movie doesn’t veer into camp or craziness that might actually be interesting and different.

In this sense, having Green Lantern explain that he’s able to track Superman is a mistake, because it shows that Justice League #1 is concerned with narrative logic at all. It would have been far better to ignore plot holes and characterization completely, which would at least have been different and interesting. Instead, the story just manages to underline that it knows the rules of narrative but is too lazy or incompetent to follow them.

Telegraphing Green Lantern getting trounced by Superman is therefore a good emblem for the issue as a whole. “Hey,” it says, “the arrogant Green Lantern’s about to get comically defeated!” And then it shows just this.

Only it doesn’t even do this well.

What’s that burst of purple and red color, knocking Green Lantern about?

Is it a blast, shot from Superman’s hands? Keep in mind that this issue is supposedly meant for new readers, who might not know Superman’s powers. And this is the first issue of the new DC Universe, in which Superman’s powers might be different.

Maybe it’s a blast of Superman’s heat vision?

No, it’s apparently supposed to be Superman himself. Only it’s not shaped like a human being, even one flying at super-speed.

But that’s okay, because we’ll no doubt be shown Superman flying around outside, then moving to create this same comet-like purple and red streak, and readers will understand that this was Superman himself who knocked Green Lantern back.

Well, no. Instead, we get two more panels of Green Lantern flying backwards, along with debris, then exploding into some parked (and apparently unoccupied?) cars. In an urban center, all this debris traveling with what we can only imagine is hurricane force would probably injure some people. But never mind that, because it looks cool.

from Justice League #1, page 23

These two additional panels even have Green Lantern flying past Batman for a second time, which means that technically they’re showing the same scene from multiple angles, travelling slightly backward in time to do so, the same way a (shitty) movie might show the same explosion three times from three different angles just to underline the cool.

Only there’s no purple-and-red streak, the next time Green Lantern flies past Batman. Where did it go? Who cares. It looks cool.

And then Superman’s standing on the ground, in front of Batman. Trigger cool splash page of Superman, talking tough, and that’s the end of the issue.

So was the blast that knocked Green Lantern back actually Superman himself? Or was it one of Superman’s powers, because Superman could have exited the building during all of those Green-Lantern-flying-backward-causing-damage panels.

The issue doesn’t tell us. It’s far more concerned with the coolness of those panels and getting to that wanna-be-badass final splash page.

So yes, Justice League #1 is pretty abysmal, merely on the technical level of storytelling. And no, that’s not a matter of taste. It is objectively true, based on its many incompetent aspects described above.

I should say that I do sincerely hope you enjoyed it. I’m envious, honestly. I wanted to enjoy it. And even bad stories can be enjoyable, particularly if you’re a fan of the genre, the same way I can enjoy bad sci-fi movies even though I know they’re bad. But the key thing is knowing they’re bad. Because there’s no clearer way to indicate that you’re a biased fan than not being able to admit this.

And yes, I get that it makes sense to focus on Batman and Green Lantern, who are the DC super-heroes most recently in movie theaters and thus most in the public consciousness, with Superman included as well. This also conveniently reflects their comics sales. Yes, I do appreciate that Cyborg gets four pages in this first issue, which is at least a nod to DC’s new (and admirable) focus on diversity. And yes, the use of Darkseid as a rallying point for the League’s formation makes great sense, since he’s much more interesting and lasting than the silly Starro, who served this function in earlier continuities.

I’m not against any of this. I am against executing this so badly.

That’s not, of course, to say that Geoff Johns or Jim Lee aren’t talented or haven’t done other important or fine work, including some I’ve enjoyed very much and praised publicly. They’re articulate and intelligent men, and I respect them both as creators, even if I don’t like this particular creation.

It’s also perfectly possible to blame the issue’s editors specifically and DC’s editorial system more generally. Having done extensive editing myself, I can’t imagine not noticing the gaping plot hole of Green Lantern not having detected Superman previously. Nor the many ways in which the issue’s story and art fails to convey basic information. There’s nothing wrong with the issue, were it a rough first draft. As a printed story, however, it’s unpardonable. Is the system so broken at DC that no one dares to say to Geoff Johns or Jim Lee, “I know you’re my boss, but this doesn’t communicate effectively. Would you be willing to fix this or try it like that?” Yet such open dialogue is essential to any creative endeavor.

But forget the blame game. Because the abysmal quality of Justice League #1 has far deeper implications. Ones that go far beyond one crappy comic or anyone associated with it.

Because what’s most upsetting here isn’t even the bad storytelling. Unfortunately, super-hero comics fans have been dealing with rampant bad storytelling, along these same lines, for many years. Sadly, such fans have read plenty of stories where it’s not clear what’s happening in many panels. Such fans are also used to super-hero cliches, and they tend to go with the story anyway, fixing logical failures with their prior knowledge of the genre and hoping it’ll all make sense eventually.

And these readers keep reading, which is probably the definition of a fan: a fanatic who continues to support something far longer than it deserves that support. Perhaps you can’t blame a for-profit company from exploiting this.

No, what’s really sad here is that this is the first issue of the new DC Universe. The initiative hyped for months and promoted across various media, intended to attract new readers. The issue has reportedly exceeded 200,000 copies in print, and that doesn’t even include the first digital download.

In other words, this issue is a rare opportunity to really bring new readers into comics. To make new fans, not play to old ones.

This was the stated purpose of the new DC Universe.

But consider: if you’re new to super-heroes or to comics, what in the world would you make of this issue?

If you’re not used to the cliche of characters following a villain into the sewers, what would you make of Batman and Green Lantern inexplicably going into the sewers?

Justice League #1, top of page 13

If you’re not even used to panel transitions, which a lot of non-comics readers aren’t, how are you going to respond when you have to adjust to this at the same time that you have to do a tremendous amount of work to even understand where characters are, why one’s shooting sparks out of his ass, or why the villain explodes twice, only vaporizing himself the second time?

from Justice League #1, page 12

If you’re not used how time works in comics, what would you make of Green Lantern flying backwards, after being hit by Superman, in which he’s shown flying past Batman twice, just because it looks more dramatic? Maybe you’ll make the connection between this and how bad movies sometimes show explosions and other dramatic scenes multiple times in quick sequence. But here, you have to figure this out while also figuring out what the hell that comet is knocking Green Lantern backwards and why it’s not there the second time Green Lantern flies past Batman.

from Justice League #1, page 23

And if this new reader, who might be new to super-heroes, finally figures all this out, what is he or she to make of the fact that this, their introduction to super-hero comics, can’t even be bothered to present Green Lantern’s powers consistently, instead making him able to detect and not detect aliens, obviously based on when it’s convenient for the plot?

Did anyone even think of all this? Did anyone even try to put themselves into the mind of a new reader, for whom Justice League #1 might be their first comic? Or was everyone simply too mired in a fanboy mentality to do so?

In fact, the comic reads almost as if it’s trying not to attract new readers. Its every incompetent aspect detailed above screams, “Sorry, just kidding! Hardcore fanboys only, please!”

Who could such a narrative appeal to, except the fanboys who don’t care about such errors, who are in fact used to such errors, and who come away from such a horrifically bad issue as Justice League #1 saying, “Wow, that was badass! We’re watching the Justice League form for the first time! Cool, aliens! Wow, Green Lantern’s arrogant! Batman’s the smart one! Cyborg wishes his father were there! What characterization! Dude, I’m sold!”

I love many DC characters. I appreciate DC’s relaunch. I admire DC’s move into digital.

And no, I’m not harping on DC. I could pick up the average Marvel comic and find the same kinds of problems. As Colin Smith has repeatedly demonstrated, this is an industry-wide problem.

But what difference does it make, if you’ve got a sparkling new continuity and downloads available on everyone’s smart phone, if the actual content is just as insular, just as lazily and incompetently told, as ever?

Because underneath all the gloss and digital accessibility, what we have here is a comic that no one could possibly understand or enjoy, outside of DC fanboys (and not even most of those, judging on the reactions so far).

It’s like super-hero comics want new readers, and DC’s willing to make these bold and praiseworthy moves to make this happen. But it’s not willing to rethink the kind of stories being told. Or to even put stern editorial guidance in place to insist on quality.

It’s like watching a rival to Apple going to great lengths to make their devices look cool and have great digital storefronts, while ignoring these devices actually have to work too. To be logical and easy to navigate for the uninitiated.

You can cry all you want about the size of comics readership. You can cry all you want about comics’ lack of respect as a real form of art.

But if you consistently pump out the same lazy, insular stories, you’re just a fanboy wondering why the wider culture doesn’t take your little hobby more seriously. When in fact, it shouldn’t.

Marketing’s irrelevant if the general public can’t make heads or tails of your work. Who but someone who’s already a fan would bother trying?

It’s a bit like the creative writer who wants everyone to love his work, which actually has big problems. But he thinks art is all subjective, and he’s happy to point out shitty works that get lots of praise. So he concludes there’s no need to actually focus on telling a coherent, interesting, smart story. He’s fine the way he is. No, he thinks the reader should do all the work to make sense of the story. Despite that the reader, unless he or she is already a fan, has no reason to do so.

And worse, if the public’s reward for the very hard work of making sense of the narrative is to realize that it’s pretty stupid, that the only benefit was those helicopters and transforming aliens that were obvious on the most superficial of readings… well, that public’s never going to give you a second chance. And shouldn’t.

It’s one thing for a single creative writer in a workshop not to get this. It’s another thing for an entire industry to have this same failing.

If you want people to respect and read your favorite genre or medium — say, romance novels — you’d better offer ones that are clearly written and compelling for a general audience. But logical coherence is the ground floor. Then you think about maybe even offering some smart, even unconventional twists. Or hey, how about some deeper underlying themes or meanings?

This is nothing revolutionary. It’s Creative Writing 101. It’s Media 101. It’s Running a Creative Business 101.

How sick are comics generally that they don’t seem to understand this anymore?

Justice League #1 was an opportunity to demonstrate what super-hero comics can be. To hit one out of the park. And in all the ways that actually matter, there’s little sign that they even tried.

No, helicopters and an exploding alien drone isn’t trying. Explosions and splash pages aren’t trying. That’s trying to be cool, not by trying to tell a good story. Let alone a smart one. But a cool visual is not a story. Early Image Comics should have taught us that. Ideas and visuals only come off as cool when they’re coherently communicated, smartly revealed, and hopefully interwoven into a logical narrative structure.

Otherwise, we’re just imitating the worst of Hollywood blockbusters, not showing what comics can be as a compelling and literary form of storytelling.

If comics are going to survive and attract new readers, they’re going to have to show how you can use the medium of comics to tell powerful stories, not examples of how the very format of comics can result in failures to communicate basic information.

Nor examples of how super-hero comics are frequently nothing more than a string of cliches, with nothing underneath.

So the question must be asked: do super-hero comics even really want to be taken seriously? Do they even want to expand their audience?

Or is this an idle desire, one far less important, at the end of the day, than getting more of the same super-hero pablum?

Because the insularity of corporate super-hero comics isn’t continuity, nor Superman’s marriage, nor characters’ jobs or ages. Those can sometimes be problems, but they’re superficial. A good writer can work around them and figure out how to tell amazing, new stories within those strictures.

No, the real insularity is shoddy, cliche-ridden narratives, intelligible or fun only to the already initiated, that go through the motions of a plot, rather than communicating any real sense of character, of stakes, of anything vital and new.

Because accessibility is a matter of storytelling, not simply of continuity.

And the biggest enemy to comics isn’t the powers that be, or American reading habits, or our fast-food, video-game culture. It’s the complacency that allows this state of affairs to continue, even amid such a high-profile relaunch.

All the eyes in the world don’t make a difference, if you can’t be bothered to focus on that.

I was so passionate about all of this that I produced a follow-up, “Hollow Spectacle (or How Super-Hero Comics Warped My Logic Circuit).” It looks more closely at Green Lantern’s arrival in this issue, attempting to differentiate between good spectacle (or spectacle that works) and hollow spectacle. It also tries to prove that our acceptance of super-hero cliches has warped our sense of narrative logic. Please check it out, and thanks very much for reading!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Julian Darius:

This Lightning, This Madness: Understanding Alan Moore\'s Miracleman, Book One

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A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

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Classics on Infinite Earths: The Justice League and DC Crossover Canon

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New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

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When Manga Came to America: Super-Hero Revisionism in Mai, the Psychic Girl

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a short documentary on Chris Claremont's historic run and its influence

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Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews

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Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization

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Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

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The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby\'s 2001: A Space Odyssey

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The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil

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Everything and a Mini-Series for the Kitchen Sink: Understanding Infinite Crisis

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Revisionism, Radical Experimentation, and Dystopia in Keith Giffen\'s Legion of Super-Heroes

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And the Universe so Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke

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a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

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Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

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Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen

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a documentary on the life and work of celebrated comics writer Grant Morrison

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Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen

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Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes

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Not pictured:

31 Comments

  1. “Which apparently makes him shit sparks. Unless those sparks have replaced his leg. Because really, at this point, who the fuck knows.”

    Accompanied with the actual panel, this made me laugh out loud at work. Great job Julian. No offense to Cody, but this is a train wreck.

    It feels like the whole thing was tacked together.

  2. Cody Walker says:

    I had a really long response to this and then when I clicked “post comment” it said I needed to log in and then it erased my comment. Needless to say, I’m pissed at this point considering how long my response was and now lack the energy to argue, but I will condense my 1,000 word response to a few:

    Julian, you ignorant slut.

    I think we pick apart comics so much sometimes that we forget what it’s like to sit back and just enjoy some super-hero action. When you mention, “Writing that’s aimed at the lowest common denominator,” you’re right – it’s POPULAR FICTION. It’s meant to appeal to as many people as possible.

    “Writing that assumes you’re too stupid to notice glaring inconsistencies in the most basic outline of the plot.” – I would argue that it is writing that assumes the reader is more concerned with enjoying the ride rather than nit-picking everything.

    Is this comic academic? No. It’s pop fiction. It’s fun and exciting. Most importantly, it’s a comic that I gave to a student and watched as it was passed around the school . . . all in one day.

    To me, that is a success. That is not a train wreck.

    • Besides loving the Chevy Chase / classic SNL reference…

      Really, Cody? You’re telling me that it’s pop fiction, and pop fiction should be aimed at the lowest common denominator? Do you really want to stand by that?

      Really? Because that would eliminate basically almost all of the art that I like, Cody. Watchmen wasn’t aimed at the LCD. Neither was Nolan’s nor Millar’s Dark Knight.

      You really want to stand by that? That it is the goal of popular writing to hit the broadest number of people possible, and thus it’s great to dumb things down as much as possible? Because that is what you’re saying here.

      And really? Pointing out the plot makes no sense on the most fundamental level is nit-picking? Really?

      I didn’t expect this comic to be academic. But it’s certainly not fun and exciting, at least to me. It makes no sense. It’s incompetently told.

      Maybe the fact that I require more to enjoy a comic than Jim Lee drawing Batman and Green Lantern makes me elite and academic. If that’s the attitude of comics, fuck them. They deserve to die, if that’s the case.

      Give your students better comics. They’ll probably like them just as much. Because this is an example of a comic that uses the medium really poorly. And if what you want is super-hero action, there’s plenty of better stories to choose from.

      Really.

      • I was riffing on a more recent SNL bit with the “really”s. But I do really mean that about sharing comics.

        Don’t get me wrong: you like the comic, and it’s awesome that you shared it. Kudos, seriously. I wish more people did that, with whatever they like.

      • Cody Walker says:

        Comics need to be accessible and this comic was. My students could read it and understand it without any of the problems that you raised because they are new to reading comics and the concerns you raised wouldn’t occur to them. They were just excited to see GL and Batman together.

        Maybe they are the lowest common denominator and that is one way to look at them, but DC sees them as money. This was an accessible comic to new readers who are excited for this story.

        Not every comic can be Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns just as every movie can’t be Citizen Kane. I thought it was fun. Obviously, you do not agree and that’s fine, but please I surprised by your comment of “That it is the goal of popular writing to hit the broadest number of people possible, and thus it’s great to dumb things down as much as possible? Because that is what you’re saying here” because it makes it seem as if you would rather advocate for the opposite – which is the exact problem with the way things had been done before.

        Comics used to be for kids, remember? There was a time when the very idea of Sequart would be absolutely inconceivable to people – comics are academic? IMPOSSIBLE! – and while I am thankful for comics that are challenging and important works, we have to acknowledge that this isn’t that book. This is Justice League. This is the most important heroes together in one book. This should be COMPLETELY ACCESSIBLE to EVERYONE. And it absolutely is. Other books will come along and be more challenging and sophisticated in the new DCU, but this one is exactly what it should be.

      • I’m certainly not advocating that every issue has to be Watchmen. And I honestly don’t think I’m suffering from high expectations. I knew what this was going in. I just didn’t expect it to be shoddy on such a basic level.

        Obviously, “lowest common denominator” has a meaning, and it is uniformly a negative one. One that’s anti-art. I don’t think such an approach is defensible. And pointing that out is certainly not being elitist.

        I venture to guess that if your students weren’t bothered by these points, it’s not because they’re new to comics. It’s because they didn’t understand the story. Because there’s no way you can understand what’s going on with that Parademon, for example, without stopping and figuring it out. The same is true with several other problems I point out. Which means that if it’s accessible to someone, they didn’t get it and didn’t care. Is that arguable? Are you saying they got these things? Or simply that they didn’t care and don’t need to?

        But you also say they “were just excited to see GL and Batman together.” Well, that’s a pretty low bar. Lots of comics satisfy that one. And it also means that they know and like those characters already.

        I would indeed argue that being new to comics certainly hurts the story. A lot of what you enjoyed was the interaction between GL and Batman. And that was mostly based on what’s been done with them in other titles, not anything that’s here. I get it. I like that stuff you reference too. But it’s not in this issue.

      • If your story isn’t clear on such basic points as the ones I mentioned, how can it be accessible? Unless your audience doesn’t care about anything but, as you say, Batman and GL together.

    • I love how you imply that criticizing a plot that contradicts itself on its most basic level and has several basic inabilities to communicate what’s happening is nit-picking.

      • Cody Walker says:

        I didn’t have any trouble following it. Some of your concerns are ones that only occur if one overthinks the text – the biggest being Batman’s choreography in the opening sequence. I read the same thing that you did and had none of those problems. I didn’t notice them until you pointed them out and even then, I found them questionable. The reason why is that I am reading it with comic book logic in mind. I am filling in the gaps that are left behind.

        I could go on, but I’m really tired and I’ve spent a good portion of my planning time for classes thinking about all of this today. You’re completely entitled to your opinion, and I love you like a brother no matter what and I hope I haven’t ticked you off at any point today. This has been fun.

      • Not at all, Cody! I love you too, man! And I know we’ve both been strong in our opinions and our occasional playfulness, but I hope I haven’t pissed you off either! If so, I’m sorry. And I have felt bad about not pulling too many punches…

        At the end of the day, we disagree. But I respect your opinion and your intelligence. And we’re both united by our passion for comics. And we’re both thoughtful (even if we both think our thoughts today were better!). That shared passion unites us a hell of a lot more than what we happen to think about a single issue. Or even what comics we want to see more of.

        This diversity is exactly the point. It’s good to have passionate debates about these things.

  3. Cody Walker says:

    One last thing:

    “Now, I’m no football fan. But even I’ve seen documentaries and good fictional films about the sport and about the college recruiting process. You’d think that, if you were writing such a scene, you might think back to these. If you hadn’t seen anything at all, you’d think you’d at least watch a couple, streaming for free online, to constitute your research. Or, you know, just think logically about how recruiting might work.” – Is this really a legitimate concern? Are you really upset that Johns didn’t do research over proper football recruiting methods? Surely you’re referencing this http://www.bleedingcool.com/2011/08/25/brett-booth-is-our-hero/

    • I don’t really care about Johns doing his research. I care that it’s incompetently written.

      Can you read that panel I included, with the recruiters, and honestly say it’s well-written? Or the panel at the bottom-left of the previous page, where all the recruiters are exclaiming? Is there some parallel writing universe where that passes muster? If you saw it in a movie, you’d laugh and consider walking out.

      • Cody Walker says:

        How would you rewrite their dialogue?

        “I do declare, that Victor Stone is a bully of a player in sportball! I’ve attended his matches the past two fortnights and doth believe him to be the finest specimen of athletic achievement that I’ve witnessed!”

        “Forsooth! Hast thou seen his yards rushing! Dare I say that I hath not witnessed such a marvelous event of such spectacle since the 1920′s world’s fair whenest mine eyes fell upon the Edison electric tie rack!”

      • You nailed it exactly! Because what I really like is everyone talking like Thor or a bad pastiche of Shakespeare. That is really fucking sophisticated.

      • I’m with Mr. Darius on this one with the football scouts’ dialog. Those weren’t people talking, those were cardboard cutouts of what Johns seems to assume what happens behind the doors in football. The athletics board of the colleges have no say in the matter apparently, no time for consideration or debate, these scouts are ready to make the decision to spend the school’s money themselves, RIGHT NOW, in the middle of football season which is late fall/early summer; the schools have all year to negotiate a scholarship with Vic.

        But maybe that’s too nit-picky for Mr. Walker. Well, okay, how about the complete lack of subtlety or tact on the scouts’ parts? The only thing that could have made them any more over the top and more of people playing roles than actual people would be if one of them yelled “Please, I’ll do anything! I’ll suck your dick!” These aren’t people, these are THINGS made to make Vic look oh-so-amazing.

        Me being nit-picky would be to take issue with a high school wide receiver being called a “tank.” Receivers are usually tall and agile. The “tanks” are usually running backs or linebackers. Also, WTF is up with that score? Is Vic playing defense too? Or is Vic just so great that the refs go ahead and let Vic’s team play offense the whole game?

        I will say one thing to refute a point of Mr. Darius’s; even if the scouts had seen Vic’s stats before hand, as a football fan, there can be a big difference between seeing the numbers of a game and seeing the game played.

      • Thanks for reading and for commenting!

      • Good points, Joseph. You know the sport better than I do (though I would have guessed about stats vs. seeing the player live… hence my point about just thinking, if you can’t do research).

        My biggest complaint was about the lack of subtlety you pointed out. That’s the most superficial, non-nit-picky point you make, and it’s my main one there. But everything else you say makes perfect sense to me.

    • Also, that guy writing Brett Booth was an archer, presumably nit-picking. I’m not even into football. But I know as a thinking person, with basic knowledge, that this presentation is ridiculous.

      Ah, but it’s not aimed at thinking people. What could be more obvious? It’s aimed at fans who will delight to see the League form yet again and who love seeing Lee illustrate Batman and GL. And you know what? That’s totally fine.

      But own it. Don’t pretend it’s accessible. It’s by fans for fans.

      And that means we can’t complain that more people aren’t reading comics, if they’re like this.

  4. Cody has his own, positive review, also on Sequart, here. We’re doing point / counter-point today.

  5. Did anyone see this article.
    http://www.bleedingcool.com/2011/08/31/the-justice-leagueflashpoint-crossover-everybody-missed/

    I smell a backdoor out of this universe coming up. I am pretty sure they are going to Age of X the fuck out of this shit.

  6. Cody Walker says:

    And to make a movie comparison (because of course we have to do that) “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is one of the best western films of all time because it is an expertly crafted film. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is also a wonderful western that isn’t as great as GBU, but one can still appreciate it for the commercial appeal of the movie. I would argue that this comic is more “Butch and Sundance” but if you don’t think it is really up to that quality, then you can at least say that it is like “Young Guns” in that it is purely commercial, and crafted to appeal to a broad audience even if it isn’t great.

    Please don’t rate this comic as an “American Cowboys” – complete and utter trash.

    Yes, I think we should institute our rating system for comics to be based upon how they compare to westerns.

    • I’m a big fan of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but you clearly know the Western genre better than me. So permit me make the sci-fi comparison instead.

      If Watchmen is 2001 and The Invisibles is The Matrix, Justice League #1 (how it pains me to even include that in the same sentence) is like some Japanese B-movie in which they move the Earth to dodge an asteroid by placing thrusters in Antarctica.

      In other words, irrelevant except for the genre’s most hardcore fans and illogical in the extreme. That doesn’t mean a fan of the genre can’t enjoy it, but they ought to know it’s not good.

      And yes, that Japanese film actually exists. And I love it! But I know it’s not good. It’s pretty stupid, but wonderfully so! It’s a guilty pleasure.

  7. Colin Smith says:

    I love the too and fro between Julian and Cody here, because it forces me to think through again and again what I think of this first grand statement from the ‘new’ DC.

    I can’t help but think that it was a pretty rotten comic, to be honest. And it’s what I’ve feared ever since I first heard of reboot, or whatever it’s being called. The assumption always seemed to be that since the Batman and the Green Lantern franchises were selling better than the rest of DC’s product, those books provided road-maps for how DC’s future should be framed. This certainly seems to be true where Justice League is concerned, and I think that’s why it’s possible to agree in many ways with both Julian and Cody here. Because JL is a better example of a typical Geoff Johns comic, but that’s all it is. And that means that it’s thin and often nonsensical if the vurtues of his work don’t already appeal, even as its narrative does offer dramatic snares and enough exposition to carry a reader with it. I can’t help feel that it’s a book that’s in love with superheroes rather than story, and with spectacle rather than substance, and unless there’s a critical mass of books in the 52 which aren’t like that, this grand reboot will fall flat on its face over the next six to nine months.

    My fear always was that DC wouldn’t re-examine what it was doing in any depth, but simply run with the status quo, and that’s what JL seems to be. More of the same. I just can’t spot what’s different about it in storytelling terms, and how, in the absence of anything more substantial there, it’s supposed to attract massive new audiences.

    The problem for me is that the creators of this book have such low expectations of their work. And again, I’m stating that as an opinion and not a fact. But this is lazy work. If the mainstream superhero comic wants to appeal to anyone but the Rump of the hardcore, and the recently-abdicated members of it, then this won’t work. It’s nothing more than a flashy version of what we’ve been getting for years and years, and the audience has fallen further and further away while that’s been done.

    The answer to the question “What are we doing wrong?” appears to have been “Nothing at all if it’s Johns and Lee and their typical work.” The volume’s been turned up a notch, but so what? The volume’s been going up to 11 and 11 again for years now. This isn’t a revolution, this is the same old thing carried on a wave of stupendous hype. And when the hype beaches itself, I very much doubt that much will have changed. Those creators and properties already held as sacred by the Rump will still be afloat, but what about the other 40 titles? And the industry?

    Or: this will be the knees of the bees and I’ll be proven, once more, to know not a thing about the sub-genre and its audience )

    Still, the next week’s books may be splendid, and I’d love for my suspicion of “Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss, ONLY LOUDER” to be proven wrong. Can’t go wrong with a host of new great comics …..

    • Colin, there’s a reason I cited you in the review. It’s because you’ve been doing exactly this kind of panel-level focus on storytelling for some time now. And your pieces are simply devastating in this respect. Inarguable in their conclusions.

      Also, you called the DC relaunch two months ago, pointing out that there was no sign that such shoddy craftsmanship would suddenly reverse itself, since that would indicate DC was perfectly content to pump out incoherent Flashpoint crossovers because all of its editorial attention was focused on the relaunch, which would be hard to fathom (not to mention unethical).

      “I can’t help feel that it’s a book that’s in love with superheroes rather than story, and with spectacle rather than substance.” Yes, that’s exactly how I feel about it.

      But what interests me is the superficial thinking at work. You’re a deep thinker, Colin, and you focus on the big picture, in which the shoddy storytelling hasn’t changed at all. But there’s a superficial thinking, which goes something like, “Hey, this is revolutionary! We’re rebooting our continuity! We’re revising the League’s origin! It’s Johns and Lee!” All of which are fine and probably even quite wise, as far as they go. But that doesn’t get at the real insularity, which has to do with storytelling and being objective enough to see that, while you may love the genre and get off on Johns and Lee doing Batman and GL together, none of that’s a selling point for the new reader who isn’t already in love with super-heroes.

      It’s a little like a TV show wanting to expand its demographic, so it includes a woman. But the fratboy writing style remains the same, and no one’s fooled. Such attempts become the target of jokes, as they deserve to be. Except among the die-hard fans, who say, “Hey, we included a woman! What more do you want?!?”

      Can you trademark “Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss, ONLY LOUDER?” Because it’s genius.

  8. Cody,
    My personal worry with all this is that people are confusing enjoyment with judgement. I will admit here and now there are some Maroon 5 songs I actually enjoy. Are they good? Fuck no. It’s vapid, but pretty trash as most pop songs are. The first issue of JL was no pop song, nor was it art, but it was completely toss-able.
    I am not saying to never enjoy this stuff. After all, isn’t that why fan fiction is big on the Internets? What I am saying is lets not masquerade this as fancy gentlemen when its clearly a disheveled bum.
    As a bum myself, I have no problem being called such, just as Justice Leauge should not mind being called what it is: hollow.

    • I think Cody would reply that he doesn’t think this is a fancy gentleman, nor that it wants to be. And that I’m the one holding it up to that standard.

      And he has a point.

      I would reply that I’m not, of course. Hey, “Teenage Dream” is a really, really well put together pop song. It’s not a fancy gentleman. It’s not revolutionary in the slightest. But it’s really, really well put together. If you’re going to do bubblegum, that’s competent bubblegum. I’d be fine if that’s what Justice League #1 was. But it’s not, and my stance is that I’ve proven that objectively in the review.

      I love me some Justice League. I’ve written a book about it! But I’m not reading this as a fan, content with a decent Justice League relaunch. I’m bracketing my biases to examine the work objectively, and I think that’s especially called for when something’s been marketed so tremendously as a good jumping-on point for newcomers.

      But yes, I do think, following up on what you’re saying here, that it is important to acknowledge what’s a fanboy pleasure versus being actually well-done. I have no problem with fanboy pleasures. I have plenty of them myself. But I’m not going to pretend that classic Transformers cartoons, much as I love them and would defend some of their ideas, are well-made. Or fine examples of their medium, were I to market something as a jumping-on point for that medium.

  9. Well, this is what happens when not only change the entire DC universe, but completely white wash and ruining all the personas of most the characters.
    At this point, I really do miss the real DC heroes. And it is just not DC comics without them!

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