Comics Review: The DC New 52, Week One – Justice League #1

Writer: Geoff Johns ~ Artists: Jim Lee, Scott Williams ~ Publisher: DC Comics ~
Price: $3.99 ~ Buy it in digital format from Comixology.com 

Justice League issue 1 Cover Jim Lee Geoff Johns New 52 DC Comics[xrr rating=3.5/5]

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

So – after all the hype, and all the build-up, it actually starts here. The ground-up remix of the New DC Universe has officially begun, and the comic that kicks it all off is Justice League issue 1 (one of only two comics published by DC last week, a ridiculously rare occurrence). The whole aim with this is to (except in a few cases) make the continuity accessible, and provide an easy jumping-on point for an entire superhero universe. People have been saying that it’s either going to save comics, or it’s the beginning of the end – either way, there’s an awful lot riding on this experiment, and Justice League is going to be one of the heavy-hitters of the new DCU, whether people love it or hate it.

And issue one? Well… it’s actually not bad, and rather enjoyable in places. Not being the world’s biggest fan of either writer Geoff Johns or artist Jim Lee (who, at the moment, are basically the two biggest names at DC Comics), I knew from the start I was unlikely to love Justice League. As it is, they’ve given this first issue a very cinematic feel – the visuals are sharp and well-crafted, and there’s some very nice imaginative touches (especially in the use of the Green Lantern ring constructs). This first arc of Justice League is going to be a ‘getting the team together’ story, especially since this story is set five years before the new ‘present’ of the DC Universe – this is a world where the first superhero, Superman, has only recently appeared (a story that’s going to start in next week’s Action Comics), so currently there’s a rather Marvel-style mix of wonder and fear about all these new costumed vigilantes that are popping up. So, we’re very much heading down a ‘heroes in a world that doesn’t trust them who need to find a way of working together for the common good’ path – we know pretty much where this road’s going to take us, it’s all about how good the journey’s going to be.

And so far, the journey looks like it’s going to be fun, if not quite remarkable. As one of DC’s core titles, this really does have to be an appeal-to-everyone blockbuster, so I wasn’t expecting narrative fireworks. Johns is a very reliable writer – he’s going to give you exactly what you expect (solid storytelling, a few well-placed dialogue zingers, some very literal plotting) and not much more. Here, he gives us Batman and Green Lantern on the run, going up against mysterious cybernetic aliens with a very specific (but shadowy) agenda, leading up to a cliffhanger which introduces us to the next member of the line-up.

That’s one of the biggest caveats for this comic’s approach – I can understand taking the slow-burn approach, especially in terms of decompressed storytelling and not overwhelming readers who possibly haven’t read a comic in a very long time. But it does feel might strange to pick up a Justice League comic with the whole team on the cover, and only have half of them show up in the story (one of whom, Vic Stone, hasn’t even been transformed into Cyborg yet). I get the principle of starting with your most recognisable heroes, but it does make things feel a little skewed.

Added to this, there’s the fact that while this does feel very modern and sharp, it’s very much going for a heavy visual feel, with lots of splash pages and minimal panels, meaning the end result does feel a bit sparse. This isn’t a self-contained chapter in the slightest – this is the equivalent of the first ten minutes of a summer blockbuster, and while general comics readers are perfectly happy with comics that are very clearly ‘written for trade’, I was hoping the new DCU would skew slightly more towards making the issues as satisfying as possible, considering that’s what DC are betting the farm on.

The other factor to the visuals is that this is one of the first comics I’ve seen where, for most of the pages, it feels very much structured to work digitally. The panels are laid out in a way that most of them will very comfortably fit on the iPhone/iPad screen – many of the pages are only made up of about three panels, laid out in a widescreen manner, and it looks good, but it does also mean that the comics storytelling isn’t especially adventurous, or even that exciting. The ‘panel by panel’ approach in digital does sometimes reduce the comics storytelling down to feeling like a slideshow, and that’s what the print version of Justice League occasionally feels like – a weird first step down a road where comics are thought out first for digital, and second for print. (It’s worrying to me, as a long-time comics fan, simply because it’d be very easy for even more comics storytelling devices to be ‘bred out’ of mainstream comics, in order so that they can fit better into the digital world, when it’s the adventurous and ‘do anything’ nature of comics that excites me about them).

But then, Justice League isn’t aimed at me. It’s aiming wide, and so far seems like an exciting, fun and engaging start to the DCU, if one that’s a long way from being revolutionary. There’s only a small level of cheesy dialogue, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in Johns’ take on Batman, as well as the general entertainment of watching them building a superhero universe from first principles. It ain’t a classic, and could have been a hell of a lot ballsier than it is, but Justice League #1 ain’t a bad start to this brave new world of superhero comics…

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