Friday, 18 April 2014

JLA, Volume 4: Tower of Babel Review (Grant Morrison, Mark Waid)


I read the first volume of Grant Morrison’s acclaimed late ‘90s JLA series and came away thinking it was just ok and that I wouldn’t be reading any more of the series. Then, earlier this year, the Tower of Babel storyline came back into print so I thought I’d go back to the series to see if Babel really is one of the most legendary stories on Batman’s psyche ever. And… yes and no - but mostly no! 

The reprinted book features a whopping 15 issues from the series with the four Tower of Babel issues closing the book (the listing incorrectly states this edition collects JLA #36-41 when it actually collects JLA #32-46). I read about 3 or 4 of the issues at the start before I had to skip the rest and jump straight to Babel because this series suuuuuucks! 

The first few issues reference the ridiculous and overlong Batman storyline, No Man’s Land, before jumping into the most boring stories ever featuring nanites (microscopic robots that do bad things to superheroes), alien shapeshifters (not J’onn, but the generically evil kind), and Hal Jordan as the Spectre (this was set years before the Rebirth storyline where he returned as the definitive Green Lantern). 

These first issues are written alternately by Waid, Morrison, and JM DeMatteis, and none are any good. The action is awful, the panels are too wordy with nothing much worth reading, and the stories are just so forgettable that you may as well not have read them for all the impression they’ll make on you! Plus Plastic Man is on the team and he’s just a super annoying Mister Fantastic making crap jokes with sunglasses, while Kyle Rayner’s Green Lantern wears this laughable Lego mask all the time that makes it hard to take him seriously. 

Anyway, I wasn’t going to read another 7 or 8 issues of that rubbish so I jumped to the reason I picked this up: Tower of Babel. The four issue series shows what happens when Batman’s contingencies against the JLA fall into the wrong hands – Ra’s Al-Ghul’s – and the League is very easily (too easily even) brought to its knees. 

The “paranoid Batman” storyline has been done before this, at least with regards to Batman and Superman, with Batman possessing pieces of kryptonite should he ever need to take Superman out, but I’m not sure if that extended beyond Superman to the rest of the Justice League. At any rate, the story doesn’t explore Batman’s psyche any more than this – Batman’s paranoid, the League are shocked and that’s it. Ooo, deep!

The League are beaten in fairly interesting ways – Kyle is blinded, Flash has super-fast epileptic seizures, Wonder Woman believes she’s fighting an equally matched opponent continuously, and so on – but it’s done far too easily that it feels contrived. It’s like Mark Waid is basically writing fanfic hypothetical scenarios about his favourite heroes and it’s like reading an outline rather than an actual story. Plus the whole thing relies on a ridiculous piece of pseudo-science – Ra’s has gotten his hands on some nanites and that’s how he’s able to affect all of the JLA. No matter what the superhero and their powers, these magical nanites can do anything and everything because I guess each member of the JLA has the same physiology(!?). 

Meanwhile, Ra’s unleashes his Tower of Babel device that eliminates language, both written and spoken, across the planet so suddenly everyone has severe dyslexia and can’t read any signs, notes, etc. or even understand one another. It’s a novel idea but doesn’t give Ra’s much to do – his scientists flips a couple of switches and he basically sits around waiting for people to die. 

Waid’s writing is what really bothered me. He can write great books – Superman: Birthright, the first half of Irredeemable, for example – but his work on JLA is clunky and heavily reliant on exposition. Each issue starts with one or more of the characters summing up what’s gone before while establishing each character’s motivation and becomes so irritating to keep reading issue after issue. Howard Porter’s art is fine but nothing special – it’s basically a very standard ‘90s superhero style that looks quite rushed on the page. 

So is Tower of Babel worth reading? Nah. It’s very outdated, poorly written and drawn, and is too derivative to take seriously as a great story. The resolution of the arc is like every cornball action movie finale where the whole thing devolves into stopping some henchman from setting off a handheld bomb. Yawn. 

“Legendary” JLA story, my foot!

JLA Volume 4 TP (JLA (Numbered))

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