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Ross rides again.
on November 24, 2009
Since bursting onto the comics scene in the early 1990s with "Marvels", Alex Ross has come to be associated heavily with a nostalgic style of writing that focusses heavily on the Golden, Silver, and early Bronze Ages of comics (roughly, 1938 to the mid-1970s). He's also been a vocal fan of the classic 1970s DC animated series "Superfriends", and has worked elements of that into his past projects. "Justice", a twelve-part maxiseries co-written with Jim Krueger and illustrated with the assistance of Doug Braithwaite, represents this love taken to the logical extreme: a twelve-issue alternate continuity story that more or less plays out the story of "Challenge of the Superfriends", pitting the Justice League against the Legion of Doom, albeit in a more mature storytelling format, and with many, many more characters. Originally collected in four small hardcovers, something of a ripoff, this is the first time the entire story can be found in one place. Some spoilers follow.
Broadly speaking, "Challenge of the Superfriends" pitted at the title characters against an array of their rogues organized into a nefarious organization known as the Legion of Doom, episode after episode. Ross takes this basic setup, and expands on it; the League (going by its proper name here) has a considerably larger membership than it did in that period, including the Martian Manhunter, Zatanna, and longtime Ross favourite Captain Marvel - and the heroic cast just grows and grows the longer the story goes on, bringing in, among others, the Metal Men, the Teen Titans, and the Doom Patrol. The villains, too, have extended their numbers, bringing in characters like Poison Ivy and Vandal Savage. Roughly divided into three acts, the first, which, to my mind, remains the best, sees the Legion mount a carefully-orchestrated strategic attack against the JLA, first ascertaining their identities and then using this to surprise the membership with overwhelming force when they least expect it. Some of the strongest sequences come here, such as Superman's sudden ambush at the hands of a squad of the DCU's strongest villains. From there, as one might expect, the League members slowly begin to extricate themselves from their predicament (having either survived the seemingly unsurvivable or just been left for dead), and hastily try to reorganize as the Legion puts its master plan into motion. At the same time, frictions grow between the masterminds behind the plot, Lex Luthor and Brainiac.
Frankly, I think the plot loses something as it goes along. The Legion's opening moves are excellently-depicted, and the issues that they broadcast to the world (as well as the motive implied in their opening dreams) seems to suggest a somewhat different story than we are used to. However, gradually it just becomes yet an other iteration of Brainiac's schemes; a well-done one, no doubt, but nonetheless very familiar. Likewise, the ballooning cast eventually leads to a feeling of clutter; anyone lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of the DC Universe might feel a bit lost as the parade of minor figures increases, resulting in a final battle that involves, to one extent or another, probably around three-score individuals.
Where the book always shines, though, is in its characterization; Krueger, handling the dialogue, has a way with summing up a character's core personality in the space of a monologue (Superman's discussion near the end about how he always worries about bullets bouncing off him and hitting someone else, for example, is a novel idea). And the writers, while clearly fans of "Superfriends", are clearly working to undo some of the characterization flaws of that series, most notably in the case of Aquaman, a character to popcultural farce status by that series. Aquaman's plot there, essentially a rerun of an infamous 1970s story where he failed to save the life of his son Arthur Jr., is one of his strongest portrayals in memory. Ross and Krueger also deliver a strong Wonder Woman (who, almost alone among the cast, seems much more the post-Crisis version of the character, albeit at pre-Crisis power levels and trappings), though her plot has a rather abrupt ending that left me scratching my head a bit.
Artwise, the Absolute format is most certainly the way to read an Alex Ross story. His intricate panels, often hard to fully appreciate at normal page-size, look fabulous in the larger size. Ross can deliver iconography like few other artists in the business, even if his work could be said to lack a certain amount of dynamism (though this book delivers some good fight scenes, better than some of his past work. His Superman, in particular, is to die for.