I have a confession to make. Like so many comics readers, I have a history of giving up on the medium for long stretches of time. I've done it twice: a few years in the middle-late 90s, and a few more years in the first half of this decade. When I started reading comics again a few years ago, it was partly prompted by working with some people who were really into comics. My life was in a strange transitional period, and I turned to comics as a sort of security blanket. The people who I worked with were big fans of Geoff Johns' JSA, so that's where I started. Which, in retrospect, is kind of strange, considering that the last comic I had bought before that was either an issue of Magic Whistle or Atlas. But JSA is what they had at Barnes & Noble, so that's what I bought.
I guess there was something I liked about those JSA trades, because I kept reading comics, reading blogs about comics, getting enraged by blogs about comics, and then eventually blogging about blogs about comics. And gradually my taste in comics more or less reverted to what it was c. 2000, when my comics reading dropped off dramatically. So I read a lot fewer superhero comics now. But I remember those early JSA trades being a bit more self-contained (didn't Greg Hatcher say something about these being good trades to give to young readers?) and certainly a bit less preoccupied with its place within the DCU and all that junk. In retrospect, they remind me of solid, workmanlike shonen manga--something that rewards readers in fairly conventional ways, but at least does so consistently. The prototypical 2 1/2 star series, if you will.
Since then, Johns has earned a reputation for doing a very different type of comic. He seems much more concerned with how his comics relate to the overall DC mythos (sorry, Jones), or with patching continuity. Plus there's his greater reliance on graphic violence--particularly dismemberment (which actually makes his work more shonen-like) (and I should also note that ADD noticed this trend long before it became a running internet joke). Maybe it's his elevation to being DC's go-to guy that has wrought this change--everything has to be big, important, and above all else iconic. So instead of modest adventure stories involving people wearing spandex, you get characters standing around talking about what they mean to the rest of the planet. Or even worse, what they mean to each other.
So anyway, as the months went by I returned to reading a greater range comics (both superhero and not-superhero) and decided that my time and money was better spent on things which promised greater rewards. And Johns quit offering even those modest rewards of the early JSA trades, so it was an easy decision to quit reading the comics he wrote. Meanwhile, in the wake of Infinite Crisis, Johns became one of the industry's major whipping boys. Not that everyone disses him--you can tell a lot about how somebody views the superhero genre by whether they hate Mark Millar or Geoff Johns more. If it's Millar, the superhero fan hates decompression, the pernicious influence of Hollywood action movies, and long scheduling delays. If it's Johns, the fan probably hates the exaggerated importance of continuity, the blandness of traditional superhero writing, and possibly the grotesque and humorless fusion of nostalgia with "adult" situations (eg, corny Nazi-themed supervillains dismembering people at a picnic).
If you couldn't guess, I'm probably more in the Johns-hating camp. Millar at least seems to be looking towards the future a bit more, and I'd take his stupid action movie tropes over Johns' queasy superhero solipsism. Most importantly, I think Millar better takes advantage of the strengths of comics as a medium and superheroes as a genre--no active writer does action better than Millar. Or to put it in completely unfair terms: let's say someone was planning to institutionalize me for reading comics, and I was forced to plead for my sanity using only the works of Millar and Johns. I'd most definitely pick The Ultimates, Wolverine, and Civil War over The Flash, Green Lantern, and Infinite Crisis. And then I'd get myself fitted for a straight jacket.
Still, I haven't read anything by Johns in quite some time, and lots of smart people seem to be going crazy for this Sinestro thing he's doing right now. So, in the spirit of fairness, I decided to read a couple of Johns' comics this week: Action Comics #858 and Justice Society #10. Here's what I thought:
Action Comics 858:
I've never thought Johns was a master of characterization. He's the one who played up the Flash being a car aficionado/amateur mechanic, which is about the dumbest thing I've ever heard. The dude can run at the speed of light (or something like that), right? Why the fuck would he give a shit about cars? In this case, however, Johns' characterization is going to be a secondary concern, since I've never liked Superman. Growing up, he always seemed like the vanilla ice cream of superheroes--better than no ice cream, good with apple pie (ie, Batman), good as the base for a sundae (the Justice League/Super Friends), substantially worse than chocolate ice cream (Batman again). I can't say these feelings have dissipated as I've grown older. Superman just isn't a very compelling character unless put into situations with other superheroes--in which case he probably works best as a villain, or an ambiguous sort of figure. Kind of like in J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank's Supreme Power.
Which is kind of a natural comparison to make here, since Frank drew this issue. Part of what made Frank so effective on Supreme Power was the way he drew the human face: his people are bug-eyed, buck-toothed, jowly idiots. This was a perfect style for Supreme Power, as it gave the book a somewhat subversive tone--you kind of start to feel like Hyperion or Princess Power when you gaze upon the vacantly grinning/sneering faces Frank draws. But it might undercut Johns' intentions when the Legion of Superheroes look like they're auditioning for Deliverance: The Comic.
Hey Superboy, you got a purty mouth.
As for Johns' story, it's about...time travel! Which I guess is unavoidable, this being a story about characters living 1000 years apart. The basic theme is this: when he was a teenager, Superman had to disguise his powers so that he could blend in with humanity or whatever. His encounter with the Legion of Superheroes was a chance to let his true self out. Now Superman is an adult, but he still has to pretend to be a huge nerd. Coincidentally, a member of the Legion (Brainiac Five) arrives in the 21st century to ask for Superman's help. Superman then goes to the 31st century to help, where he might expect to relive those bygone days of his youth, hanging out with his pals the Legion of Superheroes. Except the future Earth is unexpectedly a xenophobic dystopia, with a red sun! So Superman isn't really Superman, but just an average 21st century barbarian living in the infinitely more complex 31st century. You can't go home again! Or something like that.
This isn't the worst thing I've ever read, but it's impossible to read it without thinking of it as some kind of story about What Superman Means To Us and What is Going On In the DC Universe. That's partly because I'm familiar enough with what's going on in DC comics to know that the scene with Clark Kent, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen rings false--in fact, Johns (and Kurt Busiek) wrote a multi-part One Year Later story which portrayed a depowered Clark Kent as a happily-married, accomplished journalist who lives a rich and full life without his Superman alter ego. In this issue, he's a wimpy, bumbling social outcast, just like in the movies. Normally I'm not a stickler for this kind of thing--a character as old as Superman is going to be inconsistent, and there's no use whining about it. But we're talking about a story co-written by Johns from about a year and a half ago. This makes no sense. I guess I would like the story better if my impression of Superman came from those (long, dull) movies, but it kind of doesn't. So I can either take it as an attempt by Johns to appropriate some of the lingering nostalgia for those movies, or I can wonder if there's some kind of larger "characters are changing before our eyes!" type story at work.
Normally I'd guess it's the former, but (a) this is DC, the Crisis Company, and (b) Johns clearly wants you to read this as a story about continuity. Brainiac Five has to restore Superman's memory of the Legion, thus suggesting that someone or something is blocking it. With his memory restored, Superman remembers that his time with the LSH came to a close with "the crisis." Well, there you go--Johns is directly telling the reader that this is a story about splicing old continuity into new continuity, so read the rest accordingly. It's also a continuation of the JLA/JSA crossover that everyone seemed to hate so much, and which I studiously avoided at all costs. If I didn't know these things, I might have read the comic differently; I would have been confused by all that stuff, but I think the issue would have worked just as well (or better, since I wouldn't have to worry about which version of the Legion this was and all that kind of crap). But I'm guessing that next issue will be more of the Countdown to New Continuity Bible stuff.
Justice Society of America 10
Oh boy, more Superman! And this one is about the Kingdom Come Superman, which is even better, considering that I really hate Kingdom Come. And this is all about Kingdom Come, specifically the parallel Earth where the events of Kingdom Come really happened, and which is apparently always rendered by Alex Ross. And there's also a whole bunch of What Does Superman Mean to Earth again, with some What Does the Justice Society Mean to Earth thrown in for good measure. So this comic is basically guaranteed to annoy me on multiple levels.
The art, at least, is okay. Not as good as Gary Frank's, but appropriate for the sort of somber reflection on the somber importance of superheroism that this comic wallows in. Dale Eaglesham does best with those sorts of scenes, but his storytelling and timing seem a little off:
How fast is Cyclone talking, anyway?
Cyclone (the figure in the left panel) says an awful lot of words, probably about ten seconds' worth. In the bookend panel, Stargirl says one word--probably less than a second long. The two panels are of equal size and shape, forming a quasi-symmetrical triptych with the middle panel. By cramming so much dialogue in the first of these panels, Eaglesham destroys this sense of balance. This is troublesome because Cyclone's pose doesn't really fit what she's saying by the end of the word balloon. We're seeing an expression that suggests Cyclone introducing herself, but by the end of the panel this expression is no longer appropriate for what she's saying. The panel wouldn't work regardless the composition of the other panels, but it's especially bad because its identical size and shape to the others implies a similar amount of time has passed. Which is impossible, given how much dialogue there is in that panel. This dialogue should either be split into smaller panels (which, in turn, could reveal Cyclone's changing expressions) or into a panel larger than the two following it (which would imply a greater passage of time). I'm not sure if it's Johns' script or Eaglesham's layouts which are to blame, but this is a really clumsy sequence. But it's still better than Ross' art, which alternates between overly muddy and overly busy. Nobody makes superheroes look lamer than Alex Ross.
There's not much else to say--this is something purely intended to please fans of Kingdom Come, and I'm definitely not in that camp. KC Superman demonstrates his heroism and prowess, and some subplot (related to previous issues, I assume) churns along in the background. But mostly, KC Superman talks about what superheroes should and shouldn't do. Several of the regular characters get to play off this, but this issue is mostly dedicated to somber reflections about What Went Wrong in the Nineties. If that sounds like fun to you, then you probably already own this. You might even be preparing an angry comment which questions my intelligence, or accuses me of not liking anything produced by a "big company."
So then...am I justified in continuing to dismiss Geoff Johns as a guy primarily interested in a bunch of nonsense about continuity and mythos (sorry, Jones)? There's no doubt in my mind. These are comics written for people with bookshelves devoted to superhero toys and sculptures, people who think Kingdom Come saved comics in the late 90s, people who get Superman tattoos on their backs. Action was significantly better than Justice Society, though, and I think this indicates that Johns is still capable of writing solid-if-not-spectacular stories about superheroes and supervillains yelling at each other and occasionally fighting. Honestly, I think Johns' continuity porn is less annoying than the superhero hagiography. There was always a healthy dose of What the Justice Society Means to the World in JSA, but I never felt like it got in the way of the story. That's no longer the case, unfortunately. I'll flip through the Sinestro trade when it comes out, but Johns must be a completely different writer on Green Lantern if it's as good as people make it out to be.