27 Aug 2008

From The Vaults: JLA #43-46

While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections but are always worth revisiting...

JLA #43-46

by Matt C

I grew up a Marvel kid. I began my superhero comic habit with British reprints of Spider-Man and Hulk, and DC characters never really crossed my radar in printed form early on. I clicked with Batman in my teens but never really ventured further into the DC universe until my twenties, when my previous aversion to the Man Of Steel disappeared and I became a fully-fledged fan of the character (a story for another time). Still, it took a few more years before I made the plunge and started picking up JLA – I was aware of Grant Morrison’s acclaimed relaunch but didn’t hop on until the tail-end of his run, and even then I wasn’t that impressed. I stuck with it because I got the impression it was a book I should be picking up but, as with a lot of Morrison’s work, it didn’t hit the spot for me. Mark Waid, on the other hand, was a name I knew fairly well thanks to some great work on Captain America and, of course, Kingdom Come. When he joined JLA regular writer of the book I thought now the JLA would finally make sense, and I prepared – with fingers crossed – for my conversion into a Justice League fanboy.

It pretty much worked, and from then on I got just about every issue of the book until I parted ways with the title in its current incarnation fairly recently. The high point for me was Waid’s first story arc, Tower Of Babel, which pitted the League against the immortal Ra’s al Ghul. Ra’s trump card this time around was certain secret files he’d stolen from Batman, files that gave specific instructions on how to take down every member of the JLA should they ever go rouge. According to the Dark Knight the files were intended as last resort in case all else failed but, unsurprisingly, he’d neglected to tell his teammates of their existence.

So, when each member of the team is suddenly put out a action by a unique and specific method - and unable to oppose the Demon’s Head’s world-decimating plan - the last place the Leaguers expect to be looking for the cause is to one of their own. It’s a brilliant premise: unexpected, but somehow exactly the kind of thing you know deep down Batman would be capable of.

I’ve raved about it since read it, but only got around to revisiting it recently, eight years on from its original publication date (eight years!!). It’s still thoroughly enjoyable but not quite the classic I’d built it up as in my memory. Waid is without a doubt one of the best straight-up superhero writers of recent times and it’s clear to see how easily he grasps each individual Leaguer’s distinct personality, and how he understands the group’s relationships and the dynamics between each member. Ra’s is utilized well, his singular determination and the lengths he goes to achieve his goal of a worldwide population cull are quite shocking (as Bruce Wayne discovers when visiting his parents’ graves).

It has its flaws: exactly how Ra’s gets hold of the files is never revealed here (according to Wikipedia, JLA: Secret Files #3 filled in the backstory later on), and the pacing is a little too quick, with the expected plethora of action sequences often not allowing the characters much room to breathe, but there’s no doubting that there’s enough excitement to hold your attention for the duration. While Waid aims high with his world-encompassing storyline, Howard Porter’s art doesn’t quite match that ambition. It’s serviceable – and it does the job it’s supposed to do – but it’s rather uninspiring and unmemorable, his style not really suited to the epic narrative, thereby diminishing the story’s power somewhat. Bryan Hitch came on board with issue #47, at a time when he most at his most creatively fertile, and you wonder how his “widescreen” draftsmanship could have transformed the tale into something far more grandiose.

So, it may not quite be the work of genius I’d convinced myself it was over the years and perhaps the potential was there for something closer to a landmark in the League’s history (and looking back at it now, I’m convinced there was) but if you’re looking for a thrilling, accessible read featuring DC’s icons, something that now seems a rarity under the current editorial status quo at the company, then this should more than fit the bill.

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