Simultaneous to these sudden charitable outreaches, the villains secretly launch a new series of ruthless attacks against the Justice League. With Lex Luthor’s help, the Riddler escapes from Arkham Asylum and manages to steal Batman’s personnel files, giving the bad guys full knowledge of the secret identities and weaknesses of the heroes. Brainiac employs Black Manta to kidnap Aquaman’s son, then captures Aquaman himself and performs some weird, bloody brain surgery on him, leaving him apparently dead on an operating table. Brainiac also uses microscopic machine worms to control both his fellow villains and a few of the heroes, notably Batman, who is cured by wrapping himself in Wonder Woman’s magic lasso, and Superman, who purges himself of the mind control worms by having Captain Marvel fling him into the Sun. The Justice League’s Watchtower satellite (where they also publish Awake!) is invaded and disabled, and on-duty member Red Tornado is torn to pieces. Green Lantern is flung to the far reaches of the universe by Sinestro, and Wonder Woman is poisoned by Cheetah and begins slowly turning to stone. Yes, things look bleak indeed for our heroes . . .
But not to worry! Sure, their identities are compromised and their weaknesses are exposed and their friends and family have been abducted (did I forget to mention that?), but the heroes of the Justice League are able to rally in the second half of the series and fight back against the Legion of Doom. And I’m spoiling nothing by telling you that they win in the end. In fact, they win utterly. Completely. Despite the severe setbacks dealt them by the villains in the early chapters, the Justice Leaguers wind up winning the day, with not a single casualty. Aquaman is miraculously healed, and recovers his son unharmed, Wonder Woman is restored to life and health thanks to her mother pleading with the gods, Green Lantern is rescued and uses his power ring to wipe the knowledge of the heroes’ secret identities from the minds of their enemies. All the bad guys are captured, their nefarious plots are foiled, and not one innocent life is lost to their evil schemes. At the end, it’s as if the events of Justice had never even happened.
Which would be absolutely fine, if Justice were the sort of breezy, light-hearted story you’d expect from a Super Friends-inspired homage to the Silver Age. You wouldn’t go in looking for anything too heavy. But Ross and his collaborators want to have it both ways. They want Justice to be a nostalgic tribute to the comics of their youths, and an edgy, modern superhero war story. By not choosing to make their story one or the other, it winds up failing as both. There are lighthearted moments, like Lois Lane exclaiming “Superman! Where’d you come from?” after being rescued, and Superman answering “Krypton. But you already knew that.” But for most of Justice, Ross and company have obviously convinced themselves that their take-off on an old Saturday morning cartoon is some seriously deep shit. Even scenes that would seem to lend themselves to comedy, like the Elongated Man arguing with Plastic Man over why the team needs “two stretchy guys,” are played inexplicably straight.
In such a purportedly serious story, the elaborate contortions performed in the late chapters to reset everything to the status quo just don’t play. Serious stories have consequences for their characters. The heroes of Justice suffer no lasting consequences as a result of the events of the story. The first half or so is spent throwing the world into upheaval; the second half, rather than exploring that changed world in any kind of a realistic way, is spent painstakingly returning the world to the way it was, in increasingly lame ways. Justice is the worst kind of story there is: one that is outlandishly silly, but keeps insisting it is serious and important.
It reminds me of The Lord of the Rings. And that’s not a compliment. I despise the goddamn Lord of the Rings! And Justice resembles Tolkien’s horrid trilogy in more than its unjustified sense of its own profundity. It’s also packed with dozens of characters that don’t need to be there, that distract from the main story and render everything a confusing muddle. Calling the storytelling in Justice undisciplined would be a grave insult to your average spoiled-rotten toddler. Characters, scenes, whole plotlines are entirely gratuitous.
The most glaring examples of this are the recurring appearances of the Joker. First seen locked-up in Arkham Asylum, Joker eventually escapes, gets himself taken up into the floating city presided over by the Scarecrow (each floating city is controlled by a different supervillain), and attacks Scarecrow dressed up as Dracula before eventually being returned to Arkham. None of the Joker’s scenes have the least bit to do with the story of Justice. He plays no part in the plans carried out by Luthor and Brainiac, and nothing he does makes any difference to anyone else. He doesn’t need to be there. Every panel devoted to him is a waste of space. And yet we’re shown him again and again. Why? The only reason I can think of is that Alex Ross just likes drawing the Joker.
And there are other unnecessary aspects of this story. Lots of them. At one point, after a long fight sequence with Black Adam and a Brainiac-controlled Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr., Captain Marvel is taken over by Brainiac’s mind-control worms and launches an assault on Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, where the rest of the Justice League is holed up planning their counterattack. What should be a huge turning point in the story, one of the most powerful heroes forced to work for the bad guys, is undone in a few pages, as Superman fights Marvel until Green Lantern is able to use his ring to purge the worms from Marvel’s brain. The brainwashing of Captain Marvel takes up a few pages and ultimately amounts to nothing, so what the fuck is it doing there in the first place? Again, the only thing I can come up with is that Alex Ross just really wanted to paint the full-page scene shown below to the left, of Superman squaring off with Captain Marvel. I think it’s possible for an artist to craft a good comic book story around scenes he thinks would be fun to draw, but Justice ain’t one. Often, it feels less like a coherent story and more like a series of pretexts for Alex Ross to render a given scene.
While I’m on the subject: if nothing else, the series is superficially very nice looking. Ross is a very skilled painter, there’s no doubt about it. Here he’s painting over Doug Braithwaite’s pencils, but the end result is virtually indistinguishable from Marvels or Kingdom Come, where he did his own penciling. He creates some stunning scenes in Justice. But I’m finally starting to catch on that, beneath that impressive photorealistic style, Alex Ross is a pretty poor storyteller. Especially when he’s not collaborating with a great writer like Kurt Busiek, who can deliver a script strong enough to take up the slack left by Ross’s art. Jim Krueger, who shares a story credit with Ross and also has sole script credit, is no Busiek. For every striking scene in Justice, there are many more that seem awkwardly staged, artificial, or flat. There’s a close-up of the Elongated Man in one scene that is a very impressive study of a man’s face, but conveys none of the emotion supposedly present in the scene, and seems out of context. And Ross’s women, particularly Wonder Woman, never seem like anything other than busty, glass-eyed mannequins.
This is a frustrating series that could have been something really special. Justice is an island unto itself, taking place totally apart from the mainstream DC Comics continuity. It’s free from the bullshit canon obsession that drains the life out of superhero comics. Like the infinitely superior All-Star Superman, or the recent re-start of the Star Trek film franchise, Justice could have been bound only by the imagination of its creators. If they wanted to tell a serious, transformative story starring the classic Justice League and the Legion of Doom, they could have. Imagine a story that took those cartoon characters as a foundation and placed them in a world where actions had realistic and permanent consequences. Imagine if the poisoned Wonder Woman had to actually face her death, or if Green Lantern truly was trapped in the farthest corner of the universe, surviving in the virtual reality of his power ring, reliving the memories of his past forever. Imagine if Batman’s brainwashed betrayal had actually cost himself and his friends their secret identities, or if Brainiac had really killed Aquaman — I mean, Jesus Christ, why not kill Aquaman?! The point is, Justice is a closed circuit. It begins in that generic island universe of DC Comics, where Dick Grayson is always Robin, Barry Allen is always the Flash, and the Fortress of Solitude’s front door opens with a humongous fucking gold key. When it’s over, it’s over, and the writers and editors of the mainline DC Comics titles don’t have to reckon with it at all. Ross, Krueger and Braithwaite could have taken the story anywhere they wanted (pending editorial approval). Instead, they created an overlong, meandering, cluttered, self-indulgent series that holds no originality, no insight into its characters, and is more confounding than entertaining.
Well, shit! At least the action figures are pretty cool. Judging by Ross’s introduction to volume 3, that was the point all along, anyway.