In my review of the Justice League of America: Rebirth issue, I posited the theory that the character appearing to be Batman was in fact an imposter, that someone other than billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne was beneath the cowl. With the series’ proper start here in issue #1, my suspicions were proven correct, albeit not in the manner which I had expected. While there’s still no hard proof that this Batman is indeed Bruce Wayne, and so my initial hypothesis still stands, this issue nevertheless demonstrated that the character calling himself Batman is a mask for none other than the title’s writer, Steve Orlando.
To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Orlando is utilizing the Dark Knight as a metafictional device to insert himself into the narrative, a la Morrison’s fiction suit in his finale of Animal Man. Nor do I mean that Orlando’s Caped Crusader is a Mary Sue for the writer’s own egoistic gratification. Rather, Orlando is treating Justice League of America less as narrative and more so as a pedagogic text preaching his personal brand of identity politics, with Batman as the main mouthpiece of for Orlando’s own views.
Such shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I was there in the room with Orlando at New York Comic Con last October when Justice League of America was first announced. From his brief comments, it was clear that he was a passionate proponent of the direction the medium had taken in the Postmodern Age of Comics, wherein demographic representation is a key component to character reinvention, team composition, creative team selection, and marketing towards potential readers.
From the first page, Batman repeats the mission statement of the JLA – in-universe and out – that this new team is about identification. “People need to see heroes are human, Vixen. Like them. That they can be heroes.” (Emphasis in original) In my analysis of the Rebirth issue, I found similar statements by Batman perplexing. He claimed to be assembling a team qualitatively different than that of the Justice League, made of mortals and not gods, but both lineups featured aliens (Lobo and Superman, respectively), meta-humans (Frost and Flash), and baseline humans (The Atom and the Green Lanterns). Initially I’d suspected that the obviously dishonest rationale was Orlando signaling to the reader that Batman was being deceptive, but now it’s apparent that the emphasis on heroes whom humans can identify with is in actuality a dog-whistle for Orlando’s identity politics. It’s not that the denizens of the DC Universe can better identify with the Mari, Ray, and Ryan because their power-levels are less than those of Arthur Curry and Barry Allen; it’s that many real-world readers can better relate to a black woman, gay man, or an attenuate Asian than the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, literally-Aryan- Übermenschen that are Aquaman and the Flash. Orlando, through Batman, is saying members of those diverse demographics “need to see heroes are [Asian, black, female, gay, etc]. Like them. That they can be heroes.”
Not only is this dog-whistle unnecessary – it’s not as if the rest of Orlando’s political commentary in this issue is the least bit subtle – it breaks the narrative immersion. Nothing specific to either the character of Batman or the current state of the DC Universe drives the motivation for him assembling this specific set of individuals at this particular junction. I personally love fiction which is didactic and relevant, but it has to work not merely as commentary but a self-contained story following its own internal logic as well. Thus far, Orlando’s JLA fails that test.
Likewise, just as his Justice league of America is a clear celebration of America’s demographic diversity, so too are their opponents a clear condemnation of the real-world group most readily associated with calls for cultural and ethnic homogeneity, that being the recently ascendant Alternate Right. Initially it appeared that Orlando was mixing his metaphors, with the catalyst for conflict being invading aliens appearing on American soil, Batman instinctively labeling such “threats.” Such sounded closer to the Alt-right’s opposition to immigration than Orlando’s own political program. However, the adversaries were not extra-terrestrial in nature, but rather hail from Earth-8. Lord Havok is a Dr. Doom analogue last seen in The Multiversity #1 (also illustrated by Ivan Reis).
From their characterization it’s apparent the Orlando is using Havok as a stand-in for Trump, with the Extremists (as I said, subtlety is not Steve’s strong suit) representing his coalition of supporters. This is evident in Lord Havok’s dialogue. Per Trump’s authoritarian and illiberal impulses, Havok proclaims, “Freedom is too dangerous to grow unchecked. Only a strong hand can bring safety and order.” Per Trump’s demagoguery and anti-democratic attitudes, Havok promises “Your system of, by, and for the people does not work… I am this world’s only hope for safety,” absolutely a deliberate echo of Trump’s quote at the Republican National Convention, “I alone can fix it.” The one aspect of Trumpism Orlando either ignores or purposefully inverses is his populism, with Havok instead insisting “People cannot be trusted.” This may be Orlando insinuating that Trump’s populism is opportunistic and inauthentic, that the coastal billionaire elite cares little for the concerns of rustbelt workers.
The rest of the Extremists also take clear cues from other Marvel villains, just as Havok does with Doom. Dr. Diehard is a purple and crimson clad master of magnetism, like Magneto. There are also analogues of Abomination, Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, and Jack-O-Lantern – an eclectic troop if ever there was one. Whether these specific selections have any significance on the analogy of the Extremists to real world right-wing extremists is unclear, but bears consideration as the story arc continues and these fiends are further fleshed-out.
Apart from Reis’ phenomenal pencils, it’s still unclear whether Justice League of America is for most fans, myself included. As a #NeverTrump classically-liberal neocon, I stand in full agreement with Orlando’s not-so-veiled critique of the President and his allies, though those common adversaries hardly make Steve and I ideological bedfellows; in fact, I find the white tribalism of Trumpism and the Alt-Right to be merely the majoritarian mirror of the minority identity politics which Orlando peddles throughout the rest of the issue, and by emphasizing either whiteness or non-whiteness, respectively, both wrongly de-emphasize our common humanity. Moreover, I neither seek representation in the art I consume, nor do I particularly lack for it; thus, that particular appeal of the book is likewise lost on me. Stripped of such, all that’s left is a poorly written plot replete with mischaracterizations and cringeworthy dialogue… albeit with amazing art.