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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Justice League of America #4

As you may have noticed through the previous reviews of Justice League of America here at Geek Rex, this reviewer is quite the fan.  Not only has the series thus far featured some excellent writing by Geoff Johns, which focuses more on character development than flashy superhero action, but it also has absolutely stellar artwork by David Finch.  Just look at that cover!  Beautiful, isn't it?  Up to this point, JLA has done an excellent job of showing just how introspective its sister Justice League could be while also establishing some very clear differences between the two titles.  Since there was a bit of delay in shipments for the previous issue, we got two issues of JLA this month.  Normally, this would be cause for praise as the book has hitherto been quite fantastic, including the previous issue from this month.  Unfortunately, the same could not be completely said for our second JLA issue of the month.  Want to find out where the comic went wrong?  More after the jump.

After infiltrating the Secret Society of Super Villains in the previous issue, Justice League of America #4 features Catwoman working alone to find out just how secret this society truly is.  Worried about the lack of communication from their teammate, the rest of the JLA decides to head out to rescue Catwoman.  Meanwhile, back at A.R.G.U.S., newly introduced character Dr. Light begins to study a communication device found by Green Arrow in hopes of learning more about the Secret Society.  All the while, however, the Secret Society has a few surprises in store for the JLA, with one of their own paying the ultimate price.

Remember how, two weeks ago, we here at Geek Rex praised JLA for demonstrating how a superhero team book could be more than just a place for large, grandiose superhero battles?  Yeah, Geoff Johns seemed to abandon almost all hopes of character development for this issue, instead focusing on more of the aforementioned punching.  As this issue largely features the JLA busting Catwoman out of the hideout of the Secret Society of Super Villains, this means that the issue also largely features action.  Action is not necessarily a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.  Justice League regularly features enormous action pieces and it is still a quality read most months.  With this issue, however, it seems like JLA forgot what made it such a special deviation in the Justice League family.  Instead of an intriguing story built through the use of great character development (most notably from Catwoman in the previous issue), this time around we get the team fighting off a giant sasquatch-like villain called the Shaggy Man.  Yes, the Shaggy Man.  While it is quite possible that Shaggy Man is a retro DC villain making his New 52 debut here, for fans who were largely brought into the DC universe with the reboot, Shaggy Man reeks of camp.  Campiness is something which works quite well in Justice League, but it seems at odds with the tone of JLA thus far.  Not to mention, it seems a bit too easy that the JLA were able to find this secret group of villains in less than five issues.  Mind, it was probably intentional on the villain side of things, but the trap should have seemed all the more obvious to Steve Trevor and company.  It should be noted that it is not a terrible thing for JLA to feature action, but said action can be done a lot better than it is here.

There have been a lot of rumors floating around about this particular issue of JLA, and it delivers on its promise: a major character on the team dies in this issue.  While we will not reveal here on Geek Rex just yet who this character is, it seems unlikely that this spoiler can remain hidden for long as it will be absolutely integral to the plot moving forward.  But for now, dear reader, you are safe.  That being said, this death is still worth examining.  Perhaps it should have become more obvious who the ill-fated JLA member would be, but their death does come as quite a shock when it occurs.  We find this character in a perilous position with the Secret Society, vowing that their death would be avenged...unfortunately, this is exactly what the Secret Society wants.  In this moment, it becomes quite obvious that the Secret Society will have some role to play in the upcoming crossover event Trinity War (although, at this point, that event is still such a mystery even the death of a major character may not be enough to trigger it).  It is due to this seeming connection to the larger story at hand that this death loses a lot of its power.  Death has never been a permanent thing for most comic book characters, so fans of this particular superhero should probably not grieve too much.  An epiphany hits the reader almost instantly on the final page of the issue that the inevitable resurrection of this character will be just as swift as their demise, contributing to the overall downgraded feeling of this issue. Though this character's death is done quite well in this issue, it sadly does not come with any sting to feel permanent enough to make a true difference in the comic.  This is such a shame as it could have made for some interesting character development moving forward.

Easily the leading contributor to the overall disappointing feel of this issue is the art.  David Finch drew the first three issues of JLA as well as the cover for this issue, but he was noticeably absent inside the comic.  Instead we are treated to the art of relative unknown Brett Booth.  While Booth does a somewhat able job of drawing this issue, it feels more like an animated series of JLA than the realism which was present in Finch's artwork.  One of the things which made Finch's work on the comic so notable was that it seemed perfectly synced to the writing being done by Johns.  With Booth, however, the comic feels slightly more light-hearted in the way that he draws, which stands in direct contradiction to the more dark writing of an issue with a major character death.  Brett Booth is a decent enough artist, but he has absolutely no business ever coming back to JLA for anything other than covers (even then, variant covers would be preferable).  The only saving grace from the underwhelming art of this issue is that David Finch is returning to art duties next month.  Finch's return will be a god-send and will hopefully begin the work of washing away the utter disappointment of this issue.

Though this issue is quite the disappointment, that does not mean it is lacking in any positive aspects.  In fact, there are still quite a few things Geoff Johns does well here.  With a team with such intriguing characters like Martian Manhunter and Hawkman, it is perhaps to Johns' credit that Stargirl just may be the most fascinating of them all.  As we learned in the previous issue, Stargirl is under the direct supervision of Amanda Waller, who would prefer to keep the young superhero at A.R.G.U.S. to help with the JLA's PR than have any actual experience in the field.  Stargirl's infiltration of the JLA's mission this issue helps to add to her intrigue as it seems we may have some more focused development coming her way, which would only be a huge plus for the comic.  A new piece of technology is shown off to the JLA in this issue which is actually a pretty nice Easter Egg.  The Invisible Jet has officially made its New 52 debut and it is not nearly as lame as the jokes made at its expense and actually does a good job of deepening Steve Trevor's connection to Wonder Woman.  Another aspect of the issue which is quite nice is the brief look we get at the Secret Society itself.  While we know the group is seemingly much larger than the five or six members we have seen thus far, the Society is a pretty engaging concept even if the name is not the greatest.  Though Shaggy Man is still an incredibly idiotic name, the Secret Society could possibly be a very nice foil to the government-run JLA.  What makes superhero team-up books so hard is finding just the perfect adversary that has such a commanding presence that it seems our heroes may never survive their fight with them.  Thus far the Secret Society has played a background role, but their more upfront appearance in this issue seems to promise that we are not too far away from a more menacing encounter.  If they are ballsy enough to kill someone four issues in, Geoff Johns and the Secret Society just may prove to be a worthy threat to the JLA.

Matt Kindt continues writing duties on the Martian Manhunter back-up in this issue.  This time around, we get a closer glimpse at why a seemingly invincible being is averse to being around fire.  One of the things that makes these back-ups worthwhile, in addition to the general mystery surrounding the character, is that Kindt is actually taking the time to back-up this story with the issue you have just finished reading.  Not only that, but this time around there is an actual connection with the previous back-up, making for a much more cohesive picture of Martian Manhunter's abilities and origin.  For all of these pluses, this back-up still does not achieve the greatness of others like it (see the Shazam back-ups in Justice League).  While the explanation of Martian Manhunter's weakness is believable it is still hard to feel more than apathy about anything else which takes place here.  Although some of this could be due to the lackluster art on the part of Andres Guinaldo, which actually blends quite well with the equally depressing work of Brett Booth.  With a little bit of work, these back-ups could be great, although it does not seem like these stories will live up to their full potential.

You know when you would get in trouble with your parents as a kid and they would say, "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed"?  That's about how this issue of JLA could be summed up.  The first three issues of this comic were a stellar demonstration of cohesive art, story, and character development that completely smashed into a brick wall with this issue.  While the death of a main character is usually cause for fan outrage, the buzz thus far is relatively mum as it seems rather clear that this death will probably not be permanent.  Geoff Johns can be a good writer, we know he can, and he has been a good writer on this comic up to this point.  The second Johns' strays away from what made the first three issues work, however, is when this book loses a lot of its charm.  Though there are quite a few things to like about this issue, there are also a lot of things to be quite disappointed with.  Perhaps smashing into this metaphorical brick wall we be good as it should give Johns a chance to pick up the pieces which actually fit in with JLA.  Hopefully things will improve over at JLA, but we may not have a clear sign of improvement until after Trinity War.

Rating: B-

Summary: Justice League of America #4 has a few things going for it, but is overall an underwhelming issue with some terrible artwork and a mediocre back-up.
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