07 December 2012

earth-2 & the non-return of the jsa

Reading list: Earth 2 (2012) # 1-6, 0 (James Robinson/ Nicola Scott)

When DC first went through the lineup of the New 52, perhaps the most glaring omission was a title devoted to the Justice Society of America.  After being unceremoniously written out of the DC Universe during the Zero Hour event in 1994, the JSA returned to action in an ongoing series in 1999.  It proved quite popular, and thereafter there was a JSA title continuously until the relaunch.  So for DC to cast it aside seemed an odd omission.  Then of course we learned that the JSA characters would be returning in a new series, set on an alternate Earth presumably so as to preserve the New 52 idea that Superman was the first hero in the DC Universe.  (Even though he clearly wasn't, since Frankenstein's been running around since WWII.  We'll go with first "public" hero, ok?)

Though old farts like myself have seen the JSA through a number of different incarnations over the years, the constant for basically anyone who's less than 60 years old is that they've always been the old guys.  At least the staples - the Green Lantern, the Flash, and so on - the team often featured younger heroes including their kids, but the principals of the JSA were elder statesmen.  And that was the case for so long that it came to feel like a sine que non - as if that was just part of these characters' basic fabric.  Prior to Crisis on Infinite Earths, the beauty of Earth-2 was that the characters could change.  They could grow old and have kids and their kids could become superheroes too.  That ability mostly went away after the JSA were folded into the main Earth post-Crisis, and at that point it was less about aging them than about demonstrating that they already had aged.  The JSA was used as a vehicle to explore the "legacy" theme that DC just couldn't get enough of for about 15 years there.  The results were mixed, as results over 15 years are bound to be, but there was some genuinely good stuff there.

With the new Earth-2 series, though, the legacy aspect has been stripped away entirely, and the core group of characters isn't a bunch of elder statesmen.  Quite the opposite, really.  The series opens with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, who are the most prominent of 8 (I think?) "wonders" on Earth-2, and who are in the midst of an extended war against Apokolips - a war which, by the end of the first issue, has destroyed all three of them, while pushing their proteges Robin and Supergirl to another world (and series - see Worlds' Finest).

The remainder of this first arc, then, devotes itself to reintroducing the key JSA characters, all reimagined from scratch and depicted as youngsters.  On its face this approach can create some cognitive dissonance, just because the idea of Jay Garrick and Alan Scott being old guys is so ingrained.  There does come a point where, if you're going to radically alter a character, using a familiar name seems like a waste.  Anyone can be called "Jay Garrick" but that doesn't mean he'll be accepted as Jay Garrick, after all.  Cards on the table, this take skirts right up against that problem, particularly where Garrick is concerned.  Even though Alan Scott is now a young gay man, he still feels like the same guy.  Garrick, on the other hand, is now a little brash, a bit immature, a 20-something slacker looking for direction in his life, and it's not until the later stages of the arc that one can look at him and think "Jay Garrick" - up until then he's just That Guy They're Calling The Flash.

At his best, Robinson is a guy who likes to meander, and he does maybe a bit too much of that here.  There aren't the radical divergences you'd see in issues of Starman, but it does take him six issues (plus the #0, which is a prologue) to get to the point, i.e. show the characters working (sort of) together.  I'd like to say that the character work is detailed enough to fill in that space, but it's really not.  I have a pretty good sense of who each of the characters is after #6, but none of them are particularly well fleshed out.  They're all likable enough, though, and Robinson does get where he seemingly planned to go, even if he takes a leisurely route.  And what's clear - what marks his best work - is that he has *thought* about this stuff, I mean really thought about it.  You can almost see the gears turning as information is doled out in small bits but the meticulous plotting that marked Starman is here as well.

I have a tic when I read Robinson books where I compare everything to Starman (just in case that wasn't clear), and that creates a disconnect from me when the story is illustrated by someone like Nicola Scott.  Scott for my money has taken a big leap forward on this book.  She has always been a solid artist but the amount of detail packed into these pages is pretty staggering.  It's very much a "traditional" style, though, probably not what you'd associate with some of Robinson's more eclectic work.  It's kind of amazing to me how much better this book looks than Jim Lee's Justice League did.  The similarities between the storylines really highlight that - her work stays clean where Lee's sometimes looked dirty or rushed.  Obviously Lee is the more acclaimed artist but he may be less suited for a team book (at least at this stage in his career) than someone like Scott.

This one comes together pretty nicely by the end, though even after the lengthy arc, it ends on a cliffhanger of sorts.  The generational aspect of the JSA is gone.  The idea of the JSA as elder statesmen is gone.  The idea of Earth-2 as a place where anything can happen, though, is alive and well for the first time in nearly three decades.  For better or worse, most of these characters are now blank slates, and Robinson and Scott can take them in any direction they choose.  Some fans may be turned off by the fact - and it is a fact - that some of these are familiar characters in name only.  I've seen enough that I want to continue with the book.  I would like to see it tighten up a little in terms of pacing, but there are a lot of good ideas here, or at least ideas that have the potential to be good.  I'd score this one a win for the New 52, particularly compared to the 5-6 years of JSA stories immediately preceding the relaunch.

Addendum: I don't mean to suggest that Jim Lee is some sort of hack has-been by any means.  He's clearly slower than he used to be, though, whether that's due to age or just to his other responsibilities.  He also relies heavily on "big" figure work; his characters are usually massive, and sometimes they look cramped in normal-size panels.  Somehow he made that work ok when he was drawing X-Men but even in a "widescreen" Justice League story it looked too busy in places.  Scott seems to hit just the right balance between detail and clear composition.

Addendum II: If you think Earth-2 Superman is really dead I have a bridge to sell you.  He's SO still alive and SO going to be a villain eventually.

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