Friday, 8 February 2013

Justice League, Volume 2: The Villain's Journey Review

Lotsa spoilers in this review - you've been warned!


“STAAAY!” “AWWAAY!” “STAYAWAAYY!” screech the toothy horrors that burst off of the first page of the second Justice League book. It serves as a not-so-subtle warning to potential readers that this volume of Justice League is pretty diabolical and might best be avoided. As a fan of the first book, I was surprised to see how low the quality of writing had dipped and disappointed that by the second book the magic had all but gone. However, like the JL in the story, I hacked my way through the monsters and delved deeper into “The Villain’s Journey”, a confusing story about nothing.

The villain in question is Mr Graves, a bestselling author of a book about the Justice League with an interest in the supernatural. After he and his family are saved from Darkseid and his minions by the JL (see the first volume), his family become sick from exposure to Darkseid’s omega energy and die. Warped with sickness and grief he seeks out an unholy power in the uncharted mountains of Asia to reunite him with his loved ones and destroy those who had taken them from him - the Justice League!

This book gets off to a really slow start. The first issue is the prologue to the “Villain’s Journey” and frankly this could’ve been two pages instead of a whole issue, two pages added to the first chapter of the story for all the relevance it has to the arc. The second issue is by far the worst though. This is the Green Arrow crossover that sits awkwardly in between the prologue and first chapter of the main storyline. Green Arrow wants to join the Justice League SO BAD! He follows them everywhere, whining “aw, c’mon guys! Let me join the club!” etc. For an entire issue. He is so annoying and needy! This issue has no point at all either, especially with the splash page at the end where we see the new “New 52” series “Justice League of America” revealed - with Green Arrow kneeling and drawing back his bow. So we find out he wants to join a superhero team and at the end he gets his lame wish. Why...

This story picks up 5 years after the first book. Let me say that again because this is a huge plot point - Volume 1 = 5 years ago, Volume 2 = 5 years later. 5 years! What happened in between? Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, an army dude, got together then broke it off, and the Justice League have not managed to mesh as a team and still bicker about who the leader is. I don’t understand why Geoff Johns made this decision. In this reboot, technically we’re seeing the characters for the first time but when you fast forward 5 years in between issues, you’re avoiding all of the stuff that you should really be addressing in a reboot. Those are the formative years of these heroes and we’re still not seeing them, even in a reboot designed specifically for this purpose!

And it would really make sense for this book to still be set in the early years of the Justice League’s formation because are we really to believe that after 5 years they still can’t work together as a team - are they truly that ill-suited to teamwork? Then why not disband? But I’m getting ahead of myself...

The problem with skipping over so much time is that everything is told in passing or in flashbacks. So the emotional core of the book is Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor’s relationship but we never saw any of that because it was never written, at least not in the New 52. So we’re told in passing and in a handful of panels sprinkled across the entire book that WW and Steve Trevor had a relationship but WW broke it off for some reason and poor Steve never got over it. Why Steve is even in this book is baffling - why do the JL need a liaison between themselves and the rest of the world? There’s also a tantalising storyline that’s not explored - a splash page of the JL fighting J’onn J’onzz who’s managing to hold his own against the entire team! Uh... I’d like to read that story! That looks fantastic! Martian Manhunter - he was on the team or he wasn’t? Anyway, I’d much prefer to read that than this Mr Graves crap. But no, it’s a 2 page spread and then we’ve moved on. Flashback over, we’re 5 years ahead. Do you care about Steve Trevor now? No? Too bad, we’re 5 years ahead.

Mr Graves as a villain is baffling. He single-handedly discovers an area of Asia where giant Indian Death Gods wander the mountainous landscape that no one’s ever seen before, and somehow inherits from them these magical powers that feed on emotion... or something. Also, he’s one of these villains who looks inhuman - so you know he’s evil - and whose powers kind of swirl around him ethereally so he doesn’t have to do anything, he just stands there and lets the mists or ghosts or whatever they are do their thing while he stands back cackling evilly. That’s always interesting to see a bad guy doing – nothing. And through doing nothing, managing to defeat the most powerful team of beings on the planet.

He not only looks like a stereotypical villain, he does something all idiot villains do: when he has Steve Trevor tied up and on the brink of death, he leaves before witnessing his death! Even though Steve’s death is central to his plan of destroying the JL - “You have to be dead for this to work!” he exclaims in surprise when Steve shows up at the end - he doesn’t make sure he’s dead! It’s shocking how inept a bad guy he is.

His plan to “show the world who the Justice League really are”? Never understood it. How exactly was he going to do this? There was a moment where Wonder Woman, for no real reason, decides to punch Green Lantern and then Superman gets roped in and is kicked by WW, and Graves, somehow, manages to broadcast this scene on every single screen in the world, thus showing the world they’re not a very unified team. But that was it. And that’s not much of a plan in the first place is it? I mean what if WW hadn’t flipped out and they flew calmly off – what then? No big scene and the world continue loving the JL, Graves’ plan is in the crapper. I guess it’s a good thing the script is so obliging.

Also, Graves’ writing cabin? It’s a freakin’ mansion, not a cabin! And why does he need a dedicated cabin/mansion to write anyway? Does he really need so much ritual and pretension to write his crummy books?

There are a lot of moments throughout the book that don’t really make sense but instead feel wholly contrived. Wonder Woman and Superman kissing at the end? When did they have feelings for one another - don’t tell me, in the 5 year gap, right? Because it’s not established anywhere. WW fighting Green Lantern and Superman for no reason, then Aquaman challenging Batman for leadership of the JL at the end, and Green Lantern leaving the Justice League - why are any of these things happening!?! There are no reasons, these are events that just happen. I like Geoff Johns’ writing, I think his first JL book was great and his “Aquaman” and “Batman Year One” books were excellent, but his awful writing in this book is inexcusable.

Believe me, I really wanted to like Volume 2, especially after such an enjoyable first volume, but there was so much wrong with this book from the awful villain, the nonsensical story, the bizarre moments, and the glaring 5 year gap between books, that I couldn’t enjoy it. All of these problems failed to immerse me in the story and instead I found myself dreading turning the page for fear of the next blunder about to emerge. Jim Lee’s art is ok but in no way makes up for Johns’ lacklustre script. I’d heard there was a Shazam backup to the JL comics drawn by Gary Frank that I was looking forward to reading but it’s not included in this hardback - maybe they’re saving it for the next book or as a standalone series? Anyway, “The Villain’s Journey” is a dud - “SSTAAYAWAAAYY!”.

Justice League Volume 2: The Villain's Journey

Friday, 1 February 2013

The “Judge Dredd is Gay” Issue of 2000AD, or Marketing Works Again!

Tharg, the alien-in-chief fictional editor of 2000AD, and his marketing team did their homework this week as headlines across numerous culture pages blared “Is Judge Dredd Gay?” in anticipation of that Wednesday’s (January 30) issue of 2000AD. The headline was eye-catching enough for me, along with numerous other fans of Dredd, clicked on it to be met with the image of Dredd frenching a guy.

Sacrilege! cried out the internet, Dredd’s not gay! My response was that this reeked of desperate publicity and I was right. Having read the story “Closet” told from the perspective of a gay young man in Mega City One, it’s revealed that the man attends an underground fetish club celebrating the most famous judge of them all, Dredd. It turns out the Dredd in the picture smooching up a storm wasn’t Dredd but a gay man in Dredd costume.

But the press had a fun couple of days pointing out that Dredd’s uniform was all leather and chains, hinting that he essentially wears fetish clothing and has done since his inception in the late 70s. Some readers’ reactions were quite ugly, stating plainly that they would stop reading the comic now that the flagship character turned out to be homosexual. I can understand their reaction up to a point. Not the homosexual angle – there’s nothing wrong with that – but that Dredd should have any sexuality at all seems uncharacteristic.

Dredd is the Law. He is Judge Dredd, asexual, almost robotic, in his approach to keeping the peace. Living to dispense justice. That he even thinks about sex seems a distant possibility. So to retcon the character into revealing he spent his off duty hours in gay bars seemed to go against everything we readers knew of Dredd after all these years. Dredd himself is, and never should be, sexual.

The publicity worked though. I went to my local Forbidden Planet last night to pick up a copy and they were sold out. Nowhere else seemed to stock it and my feeling was that if they did, they were sold out too. So I ended up buying a digital copy on 2000AD’s online store – but more on that experience in a moment.

From about 12 to 17 years old I bought and read 2000AD , the weekly comic and its many iterations and I loved the publication. Besides Dredd were amazing characters like Strontium Dog (2000AD’s version of the X-Men), ABC Warriors, Durham Red, Rogue Trooper, Vector 13, Slaine, and many more than I can recall off the top of my head. For whatever reason – youthful snobbery perhaps – I abandoned the publication, consigning literally all of my comics to a recycling plant and leaving comics behind for about 5 years (it would be Neil Gaiman’s Sandman that brought me back to the fold once and for all).

I always regretted that decision, not least because of all the money I’d spent on those comics and now had nothing to show for it besides happy memories, but because I’d like to now go back and re-read some of them. They weren’t all great but there was always a story or two within 2000AD’s pages that were pretty brilliant and it’d be fun to revisit those halcyon days once more. Maybe when I’m middle aged and sentimental I’ll track them all down once again. Maybe not.

Since then I’ve become a huge fan of comics once again, especially of the superhero comics published by DC and Marvel as well as the indie comics put out by Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, and on this side of the pond (Britain) Jonathan Cape and Self Made Hero. So it was interesting that over 10 years after I gave up on 2000AD, I returned to see if Dredd was gay or not and to see what reading the magazine was like. Well – it’s short! The Dredd story was just a few pages. I’d forgotten that in 25-30 pages of comics, they put in about 5 series per issue so each series gets just a few short pages before you get “to be continued” – very unsatisfying.

But “Closet”’s message is hard to deny. There are lots of young people out there who know they are gay and are figuring out how best to let people know – especially their parents – of their sexuality, which unfortunately even in our modern, liberal society is still deemed controversial. The writer Rob Williams (who also wrote Marvel’s Daken series, the bisexual son of Wolverine who had no problem with his son’s sexuality so much as he did his son’s murderous attitude toward him!) writes the man as calm but sad because of who he is and what that’s done to his relationship with his father. But he becomes triumphant towards the end as he embraces his sexuality and finds the resolve to become his true self – soon.

It’s an important story if only because it’ll really mean something to some readers as well as once more put the issue of homosexuality back out into society, the prevalence of which might diffuse the term of its controversy and make people feel more comfortable with it. Viewed purely as a story? It’s not that great. A bit dull even. But, you sold an issue to an old fan, Tharg you green bastard, so mission accomplished, eh?

I bought it as a digital copy expecting it to be as easy to read as the comics I’ve bought at Comixology with its guided view technology which takes each panel as a separate “page” for easy viewing on my iPod. For larger images it zooms in on the parts of the text before zooming back so you can view the page as a whole. And the whole time you can zoom in on areas you want to look at more closely. It is the perfect way to read comics digitally.

2000AD doesn’t use guided view technology. You get each page as a whole, which on an iPod is ridiculous as it’s too small to fit on the screen. Instead I have to zoom in on individual panels myself, rotating and cropping until I can get the most comfortable fit on the screen before moving on to the next. Factor in the slowness of each new view as it becomes clearer and the fact that waiting for the image to clarify can lead to crashes so you have to reload the issue, find the page, find the panel, and zoom in on your last place AGAIN, and it is a disaster to read. Until 2000AD sort this out and adopt guided view or something approximating that experience, I can’t see myself buying another copy digitally in the near future. It’s too annoying.

So relax guys Dredd’s not gay in any sense of the word – he’s still the miserable, scowling lunatic whose helmet will never come off in any sense of the phrase.