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.
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:
In the second panel, Batman apparently has an awful lot of rockets stuffed under his palms. Since when does Batman have those?
They’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.
Then 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?
When 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.
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.
Just 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.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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!