Monday, May 21, 2007

When is a Superhero Not a Superhero?

Justice League of America #12: Brad's Meltzer's fantastic run on the JLA concludes with a shocking cliffhanger! “Monitor Duty" is an amazing day in the lives of the world's greatest heroes, as only the League’s artist Ed Benes could envision!

This solicitation neatly sums up what's wrong with Brad Meltzer's Justice League of America, careless typo included.

First, "concludes... with a cliffhanger"? Does someone need to teach Brad (or whoever's writing DC solicitations) what "concludes" means?

Second, and more to the point, the big concluding issue is a Day in the Life story?

It's not that I have a problem with Day in the Life issues, they can be great. The first issue of Astro City is a Day in the Life of the Samaritan. Joe Kelly's first issue on JLA was a fun Day in the Life story. It's a good way to show what superheroes are like when they're not on a life and death mission, when they're just hanging out or dealing with more mundane problems. Day in the Life issues can display hidden depths to characters and humanize superhumans. They are great sources of exposition and as such belong at the beginning of the run!

But Meltzer's entire run has been day in the life stories. What superheroes are like when they aren't acting like superheroes. And it just doesn't work.

It doesn't work because most of the characters in the Justice League already have their own book (or two) to get character work done (and the ones that don't don't belong in the League).

It doesn't work because dwelling on the character stuff needlessly decompresses the story, spreading a two issue plot over six issues, losing narrative drive and reader interest at the same time.

And it doesn't work because the low stakes interpersonal drama ("uh oh, Power Girl wants to kiss Hawkman") looks pretty petty in comparison to the high-stakes superhero drama ("A giant moth is eating Earths' history!").*

I should say I actually enjoy Meltzer's take on superheroes, that the battles are vicious but extremely fast, leaving a lot of time to stand around, talking about books or playing capture the flag, in the right books. I liked his run on Green Arrow, about a man putting his life back together, and even appreciated how Identity Crisis focused on the emotional cost of a single murder; in stark contrast to way casualties in the thousands are usually forgotten by the end of most crossovers. So I might check out whatever he does next.

But Justice League is just not the book for him. It's the crossover action book of the DC Universe about heroes coming together to save lives, and if they are NOT actively engaged in saving lives most of the time, then I don't want to read about it.

I am eager to hear who the new writer for the Justice League will be, what his or (please please please please please) her plans for the team are, and how quickly they'll drop Geo-Force, Vixen, and Red Arrow from the team.

*I have a similar complaint with "24", where people keep wanting to interrupt Jack's search for today's nuclear weapon to talk about their feelings.


Jeff said...

Hi Steven -- long time lurker, first time poster.

I have to disagree on one point. I really like Meltzer's "stand-around talking about books or playing capture the flag" approach. Not only do I enjoy seeing the heroes' downtime, I particularly like seeing them interact with each other while still on duty, but not in the midst of some life-or-death crisis.

In the same way that, in some firehouses, a lot of firefighters' time is spent hanging out at the firehouse rather than fighting fires, Meltzer's take on the Justice League is kind of like getting a free pass to the cool kids' clubhouse.

That said, I do think the story so far could have been tightened somewhat, (though probably not to the extent you do).

Oh, and Gail Simone as writer of Justice League of America? ABSO - FRICKIN - LUTELY. (As long as she doesn't have to give up The All-New Atom to do it.)

SallyP said...

Gosharootie, MONITOR DUTY! Sounds riveting!

Steve Flanagan said...

I'm glad to see that Brian Meltzer has finally got together with Alex Ross. It's a natural marriage: one loves writing about superheroes standing around doing nothing; the other loves painting superheroes standing around doing nothing.

Steven said...

r.: I like superheroes interacting in their downtime too. I love the Thanksgiving issue of JSA or the Green Lantern issue where Kyle takes his first monitor duty with J'onn and doesn't know what to say. I'm not saying it's a bad approach to superheroes in general, it's just not how I want my Justice League stories.

Your firehouse example is apt: yes, firemen spend most of their on-duty time hanging out at the firehouse, and that could be an interesting story on its own (i.e. Rescue Me or Teen Titans). But if you tell me this story is about an All-Star team of the world's best firefighters, well, I wanna see them fight some goddamn fires! And I'll just take your word for it that they don't fight fires all the time.

Derek said...

When I first started reading comics, I had the (terrible) idea about a comic that was only about off duty superheroes. No set cast, like the JLA or the Titans; it would change focus from team to team, hero to hero every month. I think I named it "Downtime".

It wouldn't sell, of course. But I'd buy it. Me, I skip right over big fight scenes and dramatic posturing. What I find interesting in team books is the interplay of personalities.

Will Staples said...

I just can't believe they got Alex Ross to paint any characters dating from after 1975. What's next -- Kyle Rayner?!

Unknown said...

Just a quick aside is all, because I agree with the majority:

*I have a similar complaint with "24", where people keep wanting to interrupt Jack's search for today's nuclear weapon to talk about their feelings.

You know, I agree, but I'm kind of the opposite at the same time - sometimes I think things move too fast paced and are forgotten too quickly on the show.

Like seriously, the day Jack's having this time? He should be catatonic by hour 18. Even for him, that's just ridiculous.