Crisis In Comic Book Land? Comparing new and old 'Justice League' tells the tale
And so, the biggest reboot in comic book history has commenced. Last week, DC Comics released Justice League #1, a new version of its venerable super-hero team, set within a revised version of its creative universe. (You can read Ken Tucker’s review here.) Over the next month, the publisher will roll out 51 new and revamped series as part of the company’s (latest) effort to rejuvenate sales of the industry’s staple, stapled product, the monthly periodical. (At the same time, DC Comics is also making a major investment in digital distribution.) The first Justice League title made its debut in the fall of 1960 following a wildly successful beta test in the pages of Brave & The Bold. Back then, the book (and the team) was called Justice League of America and sported a red, white and blue logo festooned with stars. The new Justice League logo is more humble. Neutral blue and white, nothing fancy and nothing symbolic. That’s just one of several notable differences between then and now that tell the tale of how super-hero comics and its attending subculture have (and haven’t) evolved.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 It’s 1960. Superhero comics are on the cusp of a creative and commercial renaissance known as “The Silver Age,” with DC Comics leading the way by giving modern makeovers to “Golden Age” properties like The Flash and Green Lantern. (Soon, Marvel Comics will join the cause by unleashing a new generation of characters — including Spider-Man and Hulk — that will capture the imagination of sixties youth.) JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 It’s 2011. Comic books live on the fringes of commerce, which is to say, the comic book store. The consumer is mostly adult. A variety of youth marketing initiatives have proven ineffective. Hope for the industry seemed to come from bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble, which began carrying a wide range of product in response to the boom in comic book movies. But Borders has imploded and Barnes and Noble is said to be rethinking its comic book strategy. Bottom line: A struggling genre of entertainment wishes it was 1960 again.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 The state of the super-hero archetype is strong. Channeling “Greatest Generation” nobility and space age wonder, superheroes are decidedly adult Right Stuff role models with a license to POW!, although interestingly, in the first issue (and in the stories to come), they have little interaction with the ordinary peeps they are sworn to protect. JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 The state of the archetype is confused. In a culture that no longer believes easily in self-sacrificing heroics and righteous conflict, super-heroes have become a deeply flawed, even unlikable lot, marked by arrested character development. Batman is an unhappy hard-ass who can’t get over his past. Green Lantern is a pumped-up, affirmation-needy jock. In the tweaked, post-“Flashpoint” DCU, superheroes are a shock-of-the-new phenomenon. The authorities want this outbreak of outlaw vigilantes — and their awful adversaries — curtailed and contained, ASAP. “The world’s afraid of us,” Batman declares. Which is just the way the gloom-addicted Dark Knight likes it.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 The first two captions. 1. “United in action, firm in purpose, the world-famous heroes of The Justice League Of America have pooled their extraordinary talents to stamp out evil and injustice wherever and whenever they occur.” 2. “Now there are called upon to fight tyranny and inhumanity in a dimensional world dominated by a three-eyed evil genius who tricks them into entering… THE WORLD OF NO RETURN!” JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 The first two captions. 1. “There was a time when the world didn’t call them its greatest super-heroes.” “2. “There was a time when the world didn’t know what a super-hero was.”
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 Depiction of youth culture’s relationship to super-heroes comes in the form of hipster teen Snapper Carr, the JLA’s chief cheerleader and honorary member. He often helps save the day. Dig his hilarious sixties patter from the first issue: “You’re a real ‘bad dad,’ Despero! I’m gonna queer your game!” JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 Depiction of youth culture’s relationship to super-heroes comes in the form of high school football star Victor Stone, whose neglectful scientist father is obsessed with the super-hero phenomenon. Like the rest of his generation, Vic doesn’t know what to make of these costumed marvels. He’ll soon find out.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter are on the cover. All are featured in the story. Superman and Batman are also members of the team, but don’t appear on the covers of the first 18 issues of the series. Superman is often a cameo presence in the stories. JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 Unlike Justice League of America, which proceeded from the perspective that the group had been together for quite some time, Justice League begins with the team not yet formed. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern and Cyborg are on the cover of the first issue, but only Batman, Green Lantern, and pre-Cyborg Vic Stone are featured inside. (Superman shows up on the last page.) Note: In today’s comic book marketplace, where Batman and Superman are among a handful of truly potent brands, there’s no reservation about over-leveraging cash cow characters.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 The first 12 pages introduce the villain, the conflict, and every member of the team with an action beat. It contains roughly 10 different settings (including a parallel dimension), a dinosaur attack, and two-page chess match. JUSTICE LEAGUE # 1 The first 12 pages chronicle one long action sequence on the rooftops of Gotham City that brings Batman and Green Lantern together.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 The conflict: The collegial band of super-friends battle and defeat a tyrant named Despero, an over-the-top, self-proclaimed “menace” from another dimension bent on expanding his influence and making mindless slaves out of conquered people. Many of the early issues of Justice League of America worked the alien tyrant antagonist/enslavement stakes angle. JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 The conflict: Batman and Green Lantern chase after a supernatural suicide bomber — the monstrous acolyte of a mysterious, unseen enemy — while being chased themselves by cops in choppers while also bickering with or fighting each other. Meanwhile, Vic mopes.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 A sit-down reading experience. The storytelling specs: 26 pages of story, 124 panels, 257 word balloons and captions, some of them quite wordy. No double page spreads. 1 splash page. JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 A quick flip, visually driven experience. The storytelling specs: 24 pages of story. 79 panels, 145 word balloons and captions, few of them very wordy at all. 1 double page spread. 2 single splash pages. [Note: Except for page counts, all measurements are subjective or approximate.]
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 A full meal of entertainment. The first issue tells a complete story told in five short chapters. It plays like a compressed feature length movie. In the 1960s, the perishable monthly pamphlet was the only delivery system for comic book storytelling. JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 A small appetizer by comparison. The first issue bills itself as “Part One” of a multi-part story. It plays like the first 10 minutes of feature length movie. Eventually, the individual issues will be collected and sold as a “graphic novel.” Many comic book fans will prefer to wait for the collected edition of this story instead of buying it in pieces. Hence, fewer trips to the comic book store. Hence, less sampling of other products.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 Cost: 10 cents. Was that expensive back then? JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 Cost: $3.99. Is that too much for 24 pages of quick-flip fun? An industry may hinge on your answer.