Thursday, January 19, 2006

100 Days of Justice League Day 5: JL Annual #1

Justice League Annual #1
Story: Germ Warfare
Plot & Breakdowns: Keith Giffen
Script: J.M. DeMatteis
Pencils: Bill Willingham
Inks: Dennis Janke, P. Craig Russell, Bill Wray, R. Campanella, Bruce Patterson, Dick Giordano. Whew!
Letters: Bob Lappan
Colors: Gene D’Angelo
Editor: Andy Helfer

Do you like The Walking Dead? So do I. Now picture that as a sit-com with superheroes. But, well, not as good. That’s Justice League Annual #1. I’m not really selling it, am I? In my defense, it is an annual. From the 80s. Annuals have never had the reputation of being superior comic stories. Now, I’m not knocking all annuals. I’m sure there are some annuals out there with excellent stories. Feel free to discuss your favorites in the comments section. But this particular annual, while not absolutely horrible, isn’t of the same quality as the stories we’ve seen so far and will see in the future in the monthly Justice League titles.

The premise, for one, is not really that original. Ted Kord a.k.a. Blue Beetle, at some point in the recent past, bought a company with a research facility on an island in the South Pacific. I was going to say a “remote” island, but that goes without saying since islands in the South Pacific are pretty much all remote. You never hear anybody say they’re going to run next door to Tahiti. That’s why people go there. It’s remote. It’s probably also why this company put its research facility there. When Kord’s crew gets there to check things out, they encounter a woman with red glowing eyes and a creepy voice. We know it’s creepy because the dialogue appears in these squiggly sort of word balloons and the words themselves are all squiggly. Creepy. She gazes into the crew members’ eyes and their wills melt away. They become living zombies -- mindless drones under the control of a malevolent intelligence.

I’m not necessarily one to expect that every story doesn’t borrow (or, heck, steal) something from other stories. There’s not really anything new under the sun. It’s all in the delivery. A story can be derivative and still be entertaining. Superhero comics are built on this idea. This one tries to be entertaining. The first few pages interested me. Anyone with passing knowledge of Star Trek assumes that something’s going to happen to these guys. One of them alludes to their being like a Star Trek landing crew. I think there were several classic Trek episodes (not to mention more recent ones) where one or more crew members were infected by a microorganism or had their minds taken over by an alien only to return to Enterprise and either infect everybody else or generally cause trouble. That’s what happens here. These guys hop back on their helicopter and end up infecting people at Kord facilities in Paris, Los Angeles, Sydney, and Tokyo. That’s where the League comes in.

The League are hanging out at their headquarters bickering and bantering. Already that is becoming a staple. Most of the time the banter is directly related to Guy Gardner. Let’s face it. He’s integral to this series. It just wouldn’t have been what it was without him. In this issue, he has to be coerced into monitor duty. Normally, Batman is the heavy. This time it’s Doctor Fate. So, Guy reluctantly mans his station and immediately learns of large populations of people who seem to be under the control of some outside force. This is where the League splits up into two-person teams. Blue Beetle and Mister Miracle go to L.A. Booster Gold and Black Canary go to Paris. Batman and Guy Gardner go to Tokyo. The Martian Manhunter and Doctor Fate go to Sydney. One-by-one, they all fall prey to the “body snatcher” except J’onn J’onz because he’s, you guessed it, Martian and, evidently, immune to the unidentified evil.

The way that J’onn identifies the source of the evil is overly simplistic and overlooks a major hole in the plot. He puts on Doctor Fate’s helmet and suddenly just knows that people’s minds are being taken over by a sentient cell, which was mutated in a lab and dominates its victims cell-by-cell. Now, in J’onn’s place, I might’ve tried putting on the helmet, too, if I thought it would reveal the source of the problem. But, why couldn’t Fate have done this before he succumbed to the sentient cell? I don’t see why he couldn’t have other than this issue is intended to remind us that the Martian Manhunter is a veteran hero. Veteran heroes don’t become veteran heroes unless they have the chops. Still, it’s weak.

Further, in Legends #6, when Glorious Godfrey donned the helmet, it broiled his brain in its own juices. Is the Manhunter also immune to this? Apparently. Later, he all but says, I’m a bad ass if I do say so myself. He says, “My strength is second to none.” Okaaay. Tell Superman that. He goes on to list his other major abilities. Perhaps he’s just trying to psych the cell out. Maybe it’s the Martian equivalent of a bunch of Scotsmen standing on a hill screaming at the English.

The cell by now is controlling a lot of people, including the other League members, and using them as weapons more or less to attack J’onn. After a while, it creates an ogre-like body for itself composed of some of the people it’s controlling. I don’t mean it reshapes them. They’re all still there, whole. But there’s just a bunch of them mashed together to form this giant humanoid shape. Very surreal. In doing so, however, it somehow leaves itself vulnerable by allowing J’onn to isolate the cell’s central consciousness. It’s completely unclear as to how he’s able to do this. But he does it and at precisely the right moment, he hurls Doctor Fate’s helmet at it and Fate is able to manifest himself although weakly and temporarily wrest control away from the sentient cell.

During these few moments, Fate tells J’onn that the cell can’t control him since he’s not human and, therefore, J’onn can absorb it into himself, using his own body as a prison for it, which he does. I don’t know if this little point has been addressed since then. If not, presumably, the Martian Manhunter is still walking around with a sentient cell imprisoned inside of him. That seems like a cool story just waiting to be written to me. Perhaps the cell mutates further as cells are wont to do and gets to a point where it can control Martian physiology. Hoohah! That sounds like fun.

This is one of those comic stories that seems padded to fill out an annual’s higher page count. If the Martian Manhunter and Doctor Fate had done at the beginning of the story what they did at the end, we wouldn’t have needed an annual. Fate is practically omniscient and that takes the oomph out of the story because he and J’onn don’t have to struggle to figure anything out. They just spontaneously know. So when everyone realizes that J’onn saved their keisters, it doesn’t have nearly the impact one wants even though we’re supposed to feel like he made some great sacrifice.

Now for some random thoughts.
  1. It always worries me when a comic has a bunch of different inkers. It makes me think the editor was under the gun to get an annual out and he had to hire that many inkers to get it done by deadline.
  2. Woowee! Look at the pink background on that cover. This is definitely an 80s comic.
  3. How’d Mister Miracle end up as the League’s IT guy? Just because he grew up on a more technologically advanced planet, that means he’s the one to set up their defenses and program the League’s computer? The Blue Beetle and Batman are no slouches. Plus, they’re CEOs of tech companies. Wha?
Next issue: Justice League #5 – “Gray Life Gray Dreams”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Martian Manhunter absorbing the evil cell thing was addressed in the DeMatteis/Badger Martian Manhunter mini-series. The Manhunter started to go crazy and thought it was because of the cell, then learned it wasn't because of the evil cell at all, but because of the gods of Mars. Or something. Anyway, that story started out as a follow-up to this annual, even though it ended somewhere completely different.

That mini-series is where he got in touch with his Martian heritage and learned to look like Gumby, by the way.

1/19/2006 11:20:00 PM  
Blogger MacQuarrie said...

This annual was one of the two comics that convinced me Bill Willingham is the worst artist DC ever employed. The other is an issue of Batman & the Outsiders he drew, in which Halo looked positively grotesque. It's hard to believe he once did an adult comic, because he drew absolutely hideous women back then. Thank God he switched to writing.

1/20/2006 02:09:00 AM  
Blogger Bully said...

Wow, I'd forgotten that the bwah-ha-ha League and Watchmen were contemporaries, but there it is in the corner box for all to see.

That was indeed a golden age of diversity, wasn't it?

1/20/2006 06:34:00 AM  
Blogger jamawalk said...

they had to give Scott something to do.

since he can't just escape from something every month, they made him the tech guy on the team.

1/20/2006 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher Burton said...

Ah, I'm glad that they didn't let that plot point get away although it sounds like the execution may not have been what one would've hoped for.

I didn't comment so much on the art, but, yeah, it wasn't great. The inkers didn't necessarily help much. There are a couple of good panels here and there like the one I posted. But all in all, it feels like a rush job. I heard that Willingham is returning to the drawing board for an upcoming series (I forget which one). Hopefully, he's improved since JL Annual #1.

There is a caption on the cover of issue 2 or 3 that says "Matt Wagner's Demon is coming." That's a little more than I wanted to know about Matt Wagner's demon.

Yeah, I guess being an escape artist is only beneficial under very specific circumstances.

1/20/2006 11:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Isaac said...

Willingham is supposed to draw and write the new Shadowpact series.

We'll see how that goes. Hard to imagine that he'd have time to do that AND write other comics, but maybe he works fast.

1/21/2006 10:21:00 AM  

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