Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Looking at the JSA

JSA #36: A little late, but I tend to only get comics once a week or so now. In this case it gives a little added perspective in that I've read other reviews or seen the absence of reviews and comments on boards and so, when reading this, I was struck by something that many seem to have missed.

The story opens in the future where the villains have already won and a captured and graying Mr. Terrific is relating the story of how the JSA fell. It then flashbacks to the present day and the super-powered Fourth Reich launch an all out attack on the JSA starting with a trap laid out for Green Lantern, killing him almost instantly. From there, it's all out action and the heroes not faring too badly. The story is told well enough, giving an entertaining read and yet eager to see what happens next, how they are going to reset everything back to the status quo. Willingham knows how to pace the story with multiple characters without making it feel padded. We get little character bits and interaction, forward movement, sense of danger and conflict. It's not exactly pitch perfect, but it doesn't have the plodding feel of a Johns epic nor the sense of equating characterization to plotting. Characters are allowed to shine beyond the plot spotlight. The last two-parter was about Mordru and the new Dr. Fate, but we see the other characters doing more than chewing scenery, especially Green Lantern. Which plays off well here where he's taken out quickly but the Flash and Wildcat are shown off to great effect.

Only a few minor quibbles in writing and art. We see Lightning and Mr. America suiting up to join the battle but apparently arrive too late to do anything as the fight and comic is over without seeing them again. The villains are at least named this time out, so we have a scorecard but don't know anything about them. And, we get another character cameo with little context that seems out of the blue. Who the heck is the Veteran that the JSA are talking to who seems to be working for the US government? A generic government cog would have worked better than a writer's obscure pet character in such a manner. Likewise, we really don't know anything about the "Fourth Reich". Is it just a gathering of like-minded modern day Nazi supervillains or is there an actual movement with a leader, this group just being the assault team? The Red Skull and the later Baron Zemo worked as being masterminds, we can see them setting themselves up as rulers. The modern-day Captain Nazi doesn't have that kind of cred. Partly because he's not the original but also because we don't really see him leading or manipulating others to do the fighting for him. He comes across as a field leader but not the spiritual leader or mastermind of such a group.

Likewise with the heroes, Willingham seems to struggle with the more normal people being part of the team. Mr. America had been given a whip that is super-destructive, Sand has been absent from both teams though ostensibly still a member, Doctor Mid-nite is purposely given something else to do and Mr. Terrific is uberfied even more than he has been. Soon, a story is going to have to be told that tells us just who and why Mr. America is beyond the cypher that he was a friend of the previous title-holder and why that rates membership in the JSA. Especially, as he is usually one of the first taken out in any fight so far. When telling an epic styled story, characterization is allowed a little sliding, but many of the better writers of the past balanced the big arcs with small arcs or character focused stories in-between.

The art has a wonderful classic feel, the elder heroes are gray but still dynamic and heroic looking. Jay Garrick finally has gotten his hair cut. The coloring doesn't over power the art except for the scenes where Wildcat and Mr. Terrific are fighting Captain Nazi. As the heroes are wearing dark costumes, the backgrounds and the Christmas colored Captain Nazi also become very dark and hard to see. Makes you wonder if people coloring comics actually read the printed product in normal lighting. The glossy paper and dark/dense coloring combination can make the books harder to read except under specific conditions as the pages can be too dark to read without turning on bright lights or having to deal with the glare caused by light and the glossy pages turning dark pages into silhouettes with a bright glow in the middle and word balloons.

What I found especially interesting were the members of the Fourth Reich itself. See, the JSA in the forties didn't really fight that many WWII inspired bad guys. The publishers at DC thought that readers would like to escape from the realities of the War, not read about it. It is probably why DC didn't really have many patriotic inspired heroes of its own. It is hard to qualify Wonder Woman as one since she wasn't even really American and her stories had their own odd influences. That pretty much leaves Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, and Mr. America/Americommando as men inspired by Old Glory and patriotism to become heroes. This is a bit unique to DC in that almost every other company's heroes were clearly fighting the War as well as criminals on the homefront.

Also largely unique to DC was the general lack of super-villains during the early forties. There were a few, but most of the colorful and memorable villains didn't show up until near the end of the War and afterwards. This was partially true of most of the companies. In the early days, the tendency seemed to be the more fantastic the hero, the more generic his foes and vice-versa. The bulk of bad guys were mad scientists, gangsters and spies. But, it seemed especially true for DC over other companies, that the majority of their villains were as unmemorable and generic as their heroes weren't. Thus, when Thomas wrote All-Star Squadron, quite a few villains were ones that had been created since then. Especially the ones that related directly to the War effort. His opening arc included various time-tossed villains just to provide some colorful adversaries that wouldn't pop up for another couple of years.

This ties in to the Fourth Reich in that it's membership is largely of characters from other companies! The exceptions: Baroness Blitzkrieg has her roots in DC. Taking a page from Roy Thomas' book where he took Hillman's Baroness Blood name and used it for a whole new male character Baron Blood to bedevil the Invaders, the Baroness here takes her name from Baron Blitzkrieg that figured prominently in Thomas' All-Star Squadron (though his creation was prior to that). Her costume and powers are homage to another Thomas villain Der Zyklon. As far as I can tell, Shadow of War is an all new character while White Dragon appeared elsewhere in the DCU though the name was also of a GA villain that the Whip fought. Captain Nazi is a Fawcett villain that fought Captain Marvel and Bulletman before becoming the cause of the creation of his most recurring sparring partner, Captain Marvel Jr.

Green Ghoul, Captain Murder, Count Berlin, Hunter, Captain Swastika, Baron Gestapo are all actual GA villains (though visibly pretty different than here) and from MLJ comics! Dr. Demon is a name of a foe from the company when it was known as Archie in their 1960s and published The Shadow as a costumed hero. There was also a Doctor Deemon from the forties that fought Harvey's Captain Freedom. It's interesting that while DC is publishing all new tales of the MLJ heroes and promoting them, that the company's villains would crop up in the JSA with little to no fanfare whatsoever. And, no one seems to have noticed.

One of the big shames is that the DCU honors their golden-age heroes, have in place storytelling engines to utilize them and fit them into the continuity and history instead have decided to scrap the original characters in favor of all new versions. The JSA would have been a natural place to see one or two of the original MLJ heroes. Then again, we've not seen any of the original Quality or Fawcett characters become members either. It gives credence that the characters are public domain though. While the DC versions of the Archie heroes are taking place in-continuity as it were, they haven't been used outside of their own books. This makes sense as Archie will own the trademarks to the heroes after the license or books finally cease. So, reprints of the books with the heroes would be problematic as far as promoting or putting them on the cover. The villains, on the other hand... if they are public domain copyright-wise, there's no problem with creating new villains based on the old ones, it won't cause any trouble down the road. If you'd like a little history on some of these guys, I'll just point you to my site on them

JSA Annual #2: Nothing like being dropped into the middle of a JSA All-Stars story with little to no clue as to what's going on. Heck, it might be that the first part of this story is actually from Magog. It also plays up the stupidity that is the Magog character. David Reid was interesting. There aren't that many modern superheroes who don't wear costumes at all and so he had potential of being a normal guy superhero. He's got the powers, the training, and even the motivation of being a stand-up guy. But, he's not about the theatrics. He'd be just as happy using his powers as part of the police force or in the armed forces. His transition to Magog resulted in a whole personality change that never felt natural or logical enough to get across the sense of tragicness that I think they were going for. No internal conflict, no sacrifice. He just went from embodying the best of the patriotic soldier archetype to embodying all of the negative aspects. He was just part of the whole bad idea of bringing Kingdom Come into continuity and part of the JSA continuity.

So, his removal from the JSA should be a cause for rejoicing just as the team has had to repeatedly dump Hawkman-the-barbarian from their roster. The problem is that Magog was pretty much the motivating plot device to divide the JSA into two teams and two books. Removing him from the team and there's no in-story reasoning behind a long-term division between the two teams. I don't care as it removes many of the other bad-idea legacy characters that lately were introduced: Citizen Steel, Judomaster, Chimera, whatever Wildcat's son calls himself, the damaged Damage (isn't he dead in other books going on right now?). I'd chalk Cyclone up there but I find her personality to be both annoying and refreshing so that she is at least interesting to have around.

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