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Subj: Justice League #14 - The Solitude of Super-Heroes.
Posted: Sun Feb 05, 2017 at 12:19:07 pm EST (Viewed 394 times)
With a return from Bryan Hitch on both scripting and pencils Justice League #14 opens up with a disorientating introductory page of a Justice League having suffered some terrible assault and trapped in some dark tomb of earth and rock, shaken and clinging to life. The page moves on then to a typical Bryan Hitch sequence that makes full capital out of the artists almost trademarked panorama widescreen approach to show where this critical situation began, and the sight of the League racing off to investigate the arrival of a colossal planet-sized craft that fills the double-page spread following that first introductory shot. It looks impressive. It IS impressive. So enormous is the craft it sits there on the horizon, with the horizon and curvature of the earth acting as a reference point by which we can fully gauge just how almightily huge this celestial visitor is and just how terrifying must be to be to live a normal humdrum life down there on the everyday streets of earth and be suddenly reduced to insignificance by the arrival of a force that by sheer virtue of what it is makes you feel this is likely to be your last day.
As Hitch employs the detached form of a newscast reporters point of view to narrate events we learn more of its arrival and the reaction of watching normal folk, and although this is a populace clearly used to such visitations and potential threats it is disappointing that Hitch never engages with the man on the streets point-of-view. Last issue showed a similar weakness in Hitch's scripting as the refreshing use of a normal suburban family descended into a near holocaust oF their quiet neighbourhood and a fatuous wave of the hand that Bruce Wayne's billions would good on all. This failure to engage with real people, to fully connect the Justice League to the people they protect and watch over, has been something the writer has tried, really tried, to bridge in his work and yet never quite succeeded in. Here as the League are shown to be headed up to meet the arrival of this potential threat we can only wonder at what it is they were thinking and what errors were to be found in their initial approach that it appears they attacked the World-ship first, and that ship counters with a casual blast of energy that sends the team back to earth with such force that it ends with them at the bottom of a vast crater twelve miles deep(!) and only alive thanks to the efforts of the endearingly humble Jessica Cruz and Superman blunting the full force that struck them out there in space. It's an impressively done sequence as it shows just what it is the Justice League so often has to respond to and why there must be a Justice League. And yet...
It could be an opening sequence from any of Bryan Hitch's previous successes, in The Authority, or The Ultimates, or even The Age of Ultron. Widescreen shock and awe, culminating with a devastating explosion in a densely populated area, and surely many thousands of lives ended in an instant. We know that the blast hitting that Canadian city is the result of the World-ship reacting the the attack of the Justice League, we watch along with our observing newscaster as she tries to interpret the distant events up there with far away explosions close to the craft and the the League in action. We see the blast from the ship and the League swept away in an annihilating irresistible torrent of power that hits that City far away below on the earths surface. And yet the fact that it hits the very center of that City, leaving that monumental miles-wide crater, and the undeniable implications that that event brings with it, are things that go utterly unremarked upon in Hitch's following dialogue and script. The lack of any recognition of the events that have surely cost thousands of lives is something we might expect from the hard and blunt world of The Ultimates or The Authority but this lack of any recognition or empathy for the cost of human lives has no place in a book like the Justice League. How can the so-called World's Greatest Heroes be allowed to lie there at the bottom of this vast hole and be utterly uncomprehending of what has just occurred to the land above them? That they are sat sorting through their issues in the bottom of what is technically a Mass grave?
This lack of Judgement and consideration on Hitch and his editors is unfortunate as otherwise Justice League #14 offers a surprising level of thought and effort as the tale proceeds proper and the flow of the story takes an unexpected turn as the threat of World-ship is repositioned to a background element while the focus is shifted onto the bruised and shaken League regrouping and taking brief stock of their failure and their lack of true trust between the other. In the midst of this crisis then a catalyst for genuine change. And both we and the League learn some things about the other... but the lack of a proper firsthand human dimension in Hitch's script for the issue is troubling. It shows the Justice League once more as "overpeople", separate from those they pledge to protect and profoundly detached from the effects their actions have on the simple ordinary lives of folks like you and me. And doubly unfortunate as this was something Hitch did seem to be making real efforts to be tackling within the book this last year or so.
Perhaps though this is all a question of perspective? After all the classic Superhero fable has always combined grand spectacle, action set-pieces, and with the effects upon the city and its people around them merely background props to facilitate the drama unfolding in the foreground of the scene. To which i would have to point out that while many writers and artists of days gone by were most often demonstrative of their awareness of the environment set around a Superhero set-piece. Consider for instance John Byrne's Fantastic Four offered many of the same grand vistas and set-pieces that Bryan Hitch's work so often illustrates, and yet whether it was the devastation of the approach of Ego early on, or the attacks of Terrax, the probing laser-beam of Terminus, great care was always taken in ensuring to us that no humans were injured in the making of these productions. The efforts to imply or show this point did not detract from the story, indeed it served to assure us that while people were lucky this time the danger posed was still all too real and out man of the spot with the tights and experience had to get himself in order to prevent this threat from becoming that dreadful reality. It therefore shows the weakening in moral standards in Comics production that today such efforts to deflect the full brunt of impact on normal people on the streets is all too often either forgotten or indeed, worse still, made part of the story itself.
Are the Justice League responsible for that ginormous blast the World-ship emits due to a thoughtless guileless challenge? Did some initial diplomatic contact take place on their part that was soundly rejected? We don't know for sure as we aren't shown, the information is missing from our reading of the encounter as along with out Newscaster host we are reduced to mere spectators on the street, powerless to read the actions of the Overpeople up there and left with only a choice between trusting to their ability for sound judgment or becoming deeply suspicious of it. It's an uneasy position by which to read this story. But as we are presented with the alarming proposition that America (and the World?) respond to the crafts unknown intentions by (futilely) launching their full Nuclear deterrent upon its vast planetary sized surface logic and sense has obviously not come into this particular element of the plot. So let us finally move on from it and instead rejoin with the League twelve miles below a wounded Canada...
I love the big ideas, I really do. The massive mining World-ship encroaching into the Solar System evokes the finest of Jack kirby visuals and grand spectacle, even Bryan Hitch's own JLA:Heaven's Ladder can be seen as a precursor to this current hi-concept story device, though a far more direct inspiration is to be found in John Byrne and Curt Swan's Superman:The Earth Stealers. In those examples the Concept is everything, in Hitch's remarkable self-contained tale though the Hi-concept element is introduced for the first four pages to set up events and swiftly shoved to the far background as the real point to the story gets underway and expectation takes a sharp turn away from what those pages had led us to expect. For Justice League #14 is a character building exercise, not some latest in a line of alien invasion yarns.
With our shaken survivors barely held together by their ordeal their use of first name basis is entirely understandable, but it also helps to humanise them for us as we have followed the tentative romantic explorations of Jessica and Barry, and we have seen the suspicion that the Batman has towards this mysterious and contradictory new Superman. As shock is dealt with the mood settles into defeatism, Aquaman's feeling of inadequacy is made perfectly understandable in the context as the scale of the distant world-ship above is entirely out of his own daily experiences of invading armies and grudge holding super-villains. The contrasting reactions on display here are refreshingly real and plausible, even Wonder Woman shares Arthur's general feeling of powerlessness in the face of such a force and this in itself says much about the threat at hand as even within Hitch's Justice League setting we have followed her unflinching resolve against The Church of Rao and The Kindred. For her to be bowed so in the face of this arrived Armageddon further adds to the sense of scale to it. But as we progress Hitch's purpose in this interaction between Leaguers slowly turns into a lesson in the importance in any unit of personnel of having a proportionate feeling of morale and self-belief, there must be understanding of what it is each of these people bring to the group that makes it so great and offers it deep and differing wells of strength and aptitude by which to draw from and strengthen the whole. More than any previous incarnation of the group this is the one that shows the Justice League as truly inclusive in its membership and what power it is that that willingness to embrace differences can bring to its effectiveness and potency - whatever the Crisis. It's a neat illustration of this point that Hitch uses the Green Light Jessica is generating to cast The Batman's shadow large on the chamber they have settled in twelve miles deep into the Canadian surface. Batman as we see is really no different than the Batman of every version of the League stretching back to the earliest days of the Giffen/DeMatteis revival of the group, he is an ally, he is an outsider, he is its greatest weapon and potentially even its greatest threat. As Superman's own experiences with the man inform his views of him the rest of the League have only a limited degree of appreciation for how it is he actually operates. As Superman turns to challenge Batman with his own past experiences the point is being made here that despite the now lost timeline which Superman came from this Batman is no different at all than the one he had firsthand experiences with and who was eventually revealed as having protocols in place that could eliminate all the League if they ever went out of control and became threats. Forced by Superman to admit to having such secret precautions in place (seen in 2013's Forever Evil #1 actually) the awkwardness of the situation between he and his allies might have been too damaging to overcome if not for Superman's grudging support of his actions. Betrayal it may have been interpreted as, but if Superman recognises and accepted its necessity then this must be accepted by the Justice League too. But this is an old paradigm in Justice League history, far more engaging is Jessica Cruz' ingrained but no less endearing feelings of inadequacy as both Green lantern and Justice Leaguer. It isn't a feeling that is rooted in actual reality of course, something The Flash is immediately there to assure Jess of, but who of us would not feel overburdened if suddenly elevated into the worlds of Green Lantern and the Justice League? But along with Barry Wonder Woman too offers support, the League needs Green Lantern just as much as it needs Superman. And both this Superman and Green Lantern are as new to this League as the other. The point is being made, subtlety, that individual situations are not what is important to the group, what is important, vital, is that these particular people engage with the group and offer their full experiences and individual roles within that group. The Justice League needs a Green Lantern, and as we were shown in issue #1 it needs a Superman, It needs a Batman, It needs a Cyborg figure, A Wonder Woman, and whether these are Dick Grayson, John Irons, or Donna Troy is not the issue. The League needs these roles filled with capable hands if it is to function at its most potent and flexible.
In the end the situation that has led the Justice League to being twelve Miles beneath the surface of Canada is not important. The situation is that they are here and the situation allows for longstanding doubts and issues to be addressed between allies that leads to a wonderful and natural realisation of each person in that earthen cocoon realising that they are not as isolated or alone in their personal alienation as they had long thought. By sharing honest feelings and thoughts, by being honest, each gains an awareness of not just the other but themselves. And that it is Victor Stone who offers the final summation on where the other stands, and must stand, is entirely appropriate and natural given he was the League's youngest and most unprepared member those several years ago. Like Jessica, Simon, and even Superman, he knows what it is like to feel alienated and deeply unsure of his place in the scheme of things. But what matters is The Justice League. This must be the focal point of all their attentions and each must know they can trust the other implicitly and rely on the other to support and aid in whatever challenge will face them in the coming days.
Structurally Justice League #14 is a flawed uneven piece. It might be that the curious fact that Daniel Henriques had to step in to finish select pages is a clue to deadline problems affecting its production. But what a splendidly brave effort it is as a piece of Justice League work - a self contained issue dealing with a monumental and near inconceivable hi-concept threat to the planet that would otherwise have been stretched out for at least three issues. But Hitch shows his respect for tradition by condensing the narrative to just the one issue and overturning initial reader expectation to instead examine many of the lingering tensions between the cast and how they react to what it is they actually do in their chosen careers. What it is they feel about it all.
The opening segment is pure Authority, what follows is nothing at all like The Authority. And as I have pointed to before it does seem that Bryan Hitch's influences for his work here come not from his work with Warren Ellis or Mark Millar but from his earlier collaboration on JLA with Mark Waid in the mid 1990s. The dynamics on display are much the same, Hitch even refers to his and Waid's finest moment on the run by revisiting plot elements concerning the betrayal by Batman and the breakdown in trust it triggers between members. For all of the problems seen writ large in Bryan hitch's Storytelling these last twelve months the proof of a potentially very good writer and storyteller is still very much in evidence with this latest issue. Perhaps the problem Hitch, and we readers, struggle with lies in editorial failings within modern Publishing, where editors once scrutinised the work being handed in and offered both notes, support, and advice as to its progress, todays editors often appear to be either afraid or unwilling to involve themselves so in the production process and at least act as sounding boards to their freelance creators who can sometimes be very new to ongoing monthly serials such as this. An experienced and interested editor should be intercepting the shortcomings in the development of Hitch's scripts and advising the writer on how they might be improved and strengthened, and by so investing the time and effort now they ensure that in in the longterm the publisher has a prospective talent who may well pay them dividends in their future engagements as a more capable and trained artiste.
Credit must got though to Hitch here and now though as despite the initial problems found in that opening segment the actual core of the story was a welcome and unexpected piece that put character first and spectacle second. For when you get down to it the reality that the Justice League will eventually rally to save the day and send the latest 'alien scum' packing is never ever in doubt after all, so why not take off in another direction altogether and use the familiarity of the cliche to explore some other dimension of this event instead... a subversion of audience expectation which Bryan Hitch succeeds in with a commendable degree of skill it has to be said. Justice League #14 has its problems yes, but by being a little daring with its storytelling choices and offering a self-contained character based tale of a group of people coming together while under extreme pressures I can't help but admire and appreciate the effort put in by those involved to deliver this book to us.
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