Friday, November 15, 2013

Justice League #24 (HERE BE SPOILERS!)

Although this issue is filling space in much the same way that "Justice League of America" #8 was, Johns effectively uses it to get to the heart of this event, the struggle between good and evil.

One of the challenges for Johns from the start with "Forever Evil" is that the Crime Syndicate debuted in 1964, at a time when comics tended to tell stories that oversimplified "good" and "evil."  Lex Luthor couldn't just want to defeat Superman; he also had to kick puppies and steal candy from small children.  Since 1964, comics have evolved, adopting a view of "good" and "evil" that more accurately reflects the complicated guidelines that drive the moral judgments of people's actions.  For example, the Brotherhood of "Evil" Mutants eventually became just the Brotherhood of Mutants.  In fact, Marvel has gone even further, with Scott Summers' Brotherhood claiming that it's actually the legitimate inheritor of Xavier's legacy, a bit of deconstructionism that shows how far we are from the good/evil dichotomy of the 1960s.  (Truthfully, I find that DC hews more to this dichotomy than Marvel does (particularly in portrayals of characters like Joker or Lex Luthor), but it certainly allows for more nuance than it did in the 1960s.)

Johns has so far addressed this problem by mostly just accepting the Crime Syndicate as it is, embracing the anachronism.  He does so in particular with Ultraman's origin in this issue;  we're treated to a brutal and petty "Kal-Il" and the spousal- and substance- abusing Kents.  By the end of this tour of Ultraman's childhood, it's no surprise that he is who he is.

However, Johns also embraces the anachronism on the other side by using the "Daily Planet's" newsroom staff as the embodiment of "good" to Ultraman's "evil."  Ultraman goes to the "Daily Planet" to confirm his suspicions about this Earth's weaknesses; for him, this weakness is embodied in the goodness of Jimmy Olsen as compared to Earth-Three's Jimmy Olsen, who apparently skinned alive someone for peeking at his X-rated photos of Lois Lane.  With this conflict, Johns sets these extremes against one another in a way that allows him to comment on the true nature of heroism.  It's about Jimmy Olsen telling Ultraman to spare everyone other than him.  It's about Lois Lane smashing her typewriter on Ultraman's head to save Jimmy.  It's about the newsroom staff charging Ultraman when he throws Lois into the wall.  In a more morally relativistic world, it's harder to define "heroism."  If Lex Luthor kicks puppies but gives candy to small children, what conclusions are we supposed to draw from that?  Johns reminds us of the value of this over-simplified dichotomy for defining what heroism means.

Moreover, Johns uses this incident to give us a glimpse into the panic that regular people are feeling as the Crime Syndicate consolidates its hold on Earth in the absence of the Justice Leagues.  We haven't see that before this issue; the focus has primarily been on the villains themselves and, after that, the heroes.  It's a worth-while addition to the story.  

The Black Adam "save" is a little convenient, robbing us of the possibility of the newsroom staff using its ingenuity to escape (if not defeat) Ultraman.  (It's really the only reason that I gave this issue three stars instead of four stars).  But, the scenes in the "Daily Planet" make this issue an almost necessary tie-in issue for anyone reading "Forever Evil," to give him/her the missing sense of impact that the event is having on regular people and a contemplation of this definition of "good" and "evil."  It encourages you to see the Crime Syndicate as caricatures of the challenges that people face and the newsroom staff as examples of how we can overcome those challenges, by staying true to ourselves and the people around us.  It might not be deconstructionism or moral relativism, but it's honestly all the better for it.

*** (three of five stars)

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