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November 24, 2017

Justice League of America #1-2 (Review)


Justice League of America #1-2
DC Comics, April-May 2017
Writer: Steve Orlando

In 1990, writer Keith Giffen created a group of interdimensional supervillains called “The Extremists”. The characters appeared in a title called “Justice League Europe” (issues 15-18), published by American comic book publisher DC Comics. The Extremists were replications of a group of iconic super villains which very regularly appear in the pages of various titles published by DC Comics’ main rival, Marvel Comics. These were:

a. Lord Havok, as a parallel to Doctor Doom (the arch-enemy of The Fantastic Four and ruler of a fictional country called Latveria);
b. Tracer, as a parallel to Sabretooth (a villain from the pages of Uncanny X-Men);
c. Doctor Diehard, mirroring Magneto (another occasional enemy and occasional member of the Uncanny X-Men);
d. Gorgon, paralleling Doctor Octopus (a perennial foe of Spider-Man);
e. Dreamslayer, as a parallel to Dormannu, the nemesis of the mystical superhero Doctor Strange; and
f. Carny, a parallel to Arcade (yet another X-Men villain).

Superhero comics ordinarily involve the formula of good guys versus bad guys, with the good guys almost always winning. But in the pages of “Justice League Europe”, the Extremists were blatantly unbeatable. The members of the superhero team Justice League Europe were a formidable assemblage in terms of their various abilities. Yet these hyper-powered characters were depicted as easily trounced by almost any one of the Extremists. In many ways it was a nod to the potency of Marvel Comics’ characters – in no way were the rival publisher’s villains diminished by being easily rolled by DC Comics’ superhero ensemble.

The villains were only defeated in the original story through an anticlimactic twist, whereby almost all of the Extremists proved to be invincible robots subordinate to a Walt Disney-esque character. A modern reader would perceive shades of the 2016-7 Netflix television series “Westworld” in the conclusion. The fundamental problem with the story was in execution: there was no glimmer in the plot as it unfolded hinting that the Extremists were robots. At the conclusion of the story, the robots, having been immobilised by their creator, are frozen on display at a (thinly disguised) Madame Toussard’s wax museum.

The Extremists were reincarnated – and not just as robots – from time to time by DC Comics’ editors, and this including the characters’ own limited issue series in 2007. The formidable nature of the characters, as well as being obvious doppelgangers of popular Marvel Comics villains, seems to have caused the Extremists to become fan favourites.

The new “Justice League of America” title forms part of the “Rebirth” continuity re-launch, an activity DC Comics notoriously engages in from time to time. The writer, Steve Orlando, has taken advantage of this systemic reboot to reintroduce the Extremists. The villains engage in an incursion from their homeworld, Angor, which was destroyed in a nuclear war triggered by the Extremists (echoing the original 1990 storyline). The Extremists seem intent upon saving the Earth from itself through the benefits of absolute tyranny, having learned hard lessons through thermonuclear genocide, although this is not entire clear – the precise goals and motivations of the characters is garbled through grandstanding dialogue.

 

 

But these are clearly not robots. Lord Havok captures an inexperienced superhero who can shrink called the Atom, and is intent on crushing the hapless amateur’s throat. The leader of the Justice League of America, DC Comics’ famous character Batman, intervenes. Batman offers to assist the Extremists to conquer the Earth and facilitate their efforts at saving humanity from itself, in exchange for the Atom’s life and the lives of his newly-formed team. Lord Havok accepts the deal, in what should properly be characterised as an act of naivety (particularly given a mere eleven pages later in the same issue Batman is shown leading his team in to combat a minor and new Extremist named Death Bat). But Doctor Diehard objects to compromise and rebels, attacking Lord Havok. This proves to be a bad decision. Lord Havok quickly disposes of his erstwhile colleague using a glowing axe, and the gore from Doctor Diehard’s evisceration erases any questions about the characters being robots in this iteration.

Lord Havok follows in Doctor Doom’s footsteps by quickly establishing himself as the ruler of a fictional Eastern European country, this time called Kravia. This occurs through a combination of intimidation and some sort of feudal rite – Kravia’s nobles vote for Lord Havok’s reign. Suddenly the Justice League of America find themselves seeking to overthrow a recognised government, in a scenario vaguely reminiscent of George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

It is an interesting read, whereby Batman and his comrades find themselves on the wrong side of international law. Some examination of this in subsequent issues would be welcome.

In addition, the Justice League of America is a motley crew (and which includes a somewhat scary villain, Killer Frost) which is an interesting departure from recent iterations of this superhero group. The only jarring element is in the additional inclusion of the spacefaring bounty hunter Lobo. Lobo is well-established as a blood-thirsty scoundrel. Joining a team called the “Justice League of America” to mitigate boredom seems forced.

Overall, this is no virtuoso performance by Mr Orlando, but neither can it be dismissed as standard hero-on-villain fisticuffs. Depicting the title characters as recidivist breakers of international law would be a very intriguing departure from stereotypical law-abiding superhero groups. In these uncertain days of Trumpian post-internationalist foreign policy, it would also be a very contemporary take on an old theme.

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