There is an ongoing debate in games criticism regarding whether games should continue to become more cinematic (that is to say, to emulate the conventions of film in presenting their narratives, such as through cut-scenes and story-structure) or more ludic (focusing on the elements unique to the games medium, such as environmental storytelling and strong player-protagonist identification). Comics as a medium likewise have their own unique set of strengths, and both for better and worse Geoff Johns’ run on Justice League is best described as “cinematic.” Yet while such a charge may seem a criticism, it is a testimony to him and his artistic collaborators that nearly every issue, including this latest in Darksied War, demonstrate this series’ ability to execute cinematic storytelling through the comics medium better than most superheroes movies in theaters these days.
Of course, even “cinematic” may be too broad a term to best describe the current Justice League series. Cinema covers a broad spectrum. On one end is the artistry of true films such as Nolan’s Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises, which use the trappings of the superhero genre to make cognizant commentaries on the War on Terror and the Occupy Wall Street Movement, respectively. At the other is the typical summer popcorn blockbuster, with plenty of fun action, maybe even emotion, heart, and great characterization, but nothing of consequence to actually say. Justice League is most definitely the later.
More so than even the League members themselves, this is most clearly evident in the New Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips. Because comics as a medium are unrestricted by an effects budget, they more than any other media lend themselves to stories which are operatic in scope and mythological in flavor. Grant Morrison, when writing the New Gods, wrote them as the very embodiment of certain platonic Ideas. When Darkseid shot his son Orion, it was with archetype of every bullet that ever existed, and when Batman shot Darksied with the same, it was, in a sense, with the very bullet that had killed his own parents. Such grandiose notions would be difficult to translate to the big or small screen, and find a cold reception among the more populist sensibilities of the general public, but such are perfect for comic books and their readers. Yet Johns’ gods are in many ways a mere devolution of Kirby’s; whereas their creator at least differentiated them by making them alien astronauts, Johns’ seem different from superhumans merely with respect to their power level, and even those are difficult to qualify.
It is also strange to see how Johns juxtaposes the New Gods with the old, or at least with the monsters that co-habitated their same mythologies. Superheroes, particularly the pantheon that is the Justice League, are often regarded as the American mythology, our modern equivalent to the tales of Achilles and Odysseus. Yet despite the fact that the later are of greater literary merit, higher canonical status, and of more enduring importance, one area in which comics have the upper hand is in regard to epic scale scale. The titaomachy in which the Olympians seize divinity from Kronos and his brethren seems almost quaint compared to the multiverse-spanning Crises of DC continuity. Thus, when Diana draws an analogy between the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis to the mythology-in-the-making before her eyes of the Anti-Monitor warring with Darkseid, the monsters in reference seem downright pedestrian in comparison. While it is in many ways appropriate for Wonder Woman, herself a continuation of Greek mythology, to reference the events of such, it serves to downplay the far greater importance of the events playing out before her. I far prefer Hickman’s approach in Infinity #2 where, resounding to Maximus the Mad comparing the Inhumans’ current situation to “the Christ in the human holy books,” Corvus Glaive responds, “No. Like Thanos of Titan, in the Now.”
Not only the storytelling, but also the art has been cinematic, and indeed, with the exception of the utter verisimilitude captured by the Richard Donner Superman films, the images throughout this series encapsulate the essence of these heroes far better than anytime they’ve been portrayed on film. Furthermore, despite the fact that there have been three primary pencilists on this run, there has been an incredible amount of visual consistency nonetheless. That is not to say anyone would ever fail to distinguish the unique artistic styles of Jim Lee, Ivan Reis, and Jason Fabok; each has among the most instantly recognizable linework in the medium today. Yet each has a “cinematic” look insofar as they render their characters with realistic proportions set against hyper-detailed backgrounds. Lee is perhaps the most bombastic of the three, with wild and energetic scratches across the page. It is huge praise that DC house style is essentially lesser artists trying to channel Lee; his is a style oft emulated but never replicated. Reis captures motion best, not just of people but objects especially, such as a tidal wave crashing a battleship into a city. Fabok had the cleanest pencils, a sure and steady hand that purposefully places every line, not to mention the most detailed background and foregrounds. Jason Fabok’s work on Justice League seems to be somewhat of a halfway between ’90s Jim Lee and Bryan Hitch circa The Ultimates 1 &2. The product of this amalgamation is one of the most beautiful comics currently being released.
Of course, much of that beauty is due equally to the colorist, Brad Anderson. Anderson has the misfortune of following the likes of Rod Reis, one of the best colorists in the industry’s history. Yet Anderson succeeds with aplomb, infusing every panel with saturation appropriate of a book deliberately channeling the four-color comics before it. Here is the one place this comic utterly diverges from being “cinematic” and completely embraces its medium, and is all the better for doing so. Colors that’d be outright gaudy on a movie screen pop with vivid splendor here.
The Darkseid War doesn’t set out to be high art; it sets out to be a triple A tent-pole movie. It hits exactly the mark its aiming for, and even in many ways surpasses the films its trying to emulate.