Written by Jim Kreuger & Alex Ross
Art by Doug Braithwaite & Alex Ross
The Justice League of America is the greatest team of heroes on Earth. Their roster includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and many more. And up until now, they have been the defenders of the weak. Suddenly, across the globe villains like Lex Luthor, Captain Cold, and Poison Ivy offer up help the downtrodden, particularly those with disabilities and people living in the third world. They do more for these people than the League has ever been able to and public opinion begins to turn on the heroes. Batman learns The Riddler has ransacked the databases of Wayne Enterprises and is armed with dossiers on every Leaguer. A psychic assault comes from Gorilla Grodd who incapacitates Aquaman. Meanwhile, Brainiac is constructing a plan that will destroy the heroes for good.
This was the final major work artist Alex Ross did for one of the big two (DC, Marvel), or at least the end of his first period of work in comics. He came to prominence working alongside Kurt Busiek on Marvels, an examination of that universe from a civilian’s point of view. That was followed by Kingdom Come with Mark Waid. Then Marvel wanted their knock-off essentially, and Ross gave them the Earth X trilogy. After that magnum opus was concluded, he returned to DC for this mini-series.
Ross has never lacked the ability to inject scope into his work and Justice is no exception. This is a blockbuster movie story told with large-scale visuals. Every corner of the DC Universe (circa 1984) is explored and touched upon. Ross has also stated in interviews that the 1970s/early 1980s are his particular favorite period so when he writes these characters, he does it using those versions as the foundation. You see much influence from the cartoon series Super Friends here: the Legion of Doom, the swamp base, the puppet version of Toyman. There’s no sense of real continuity in this book, unlike Earth X which was steeped in Marvel lore. Here we have what you could say are the Socratic ideal versions of every character. Superman is pure Superman, unmarried to Lois and reporter for the Daily Planet. The Teen Titans are the classic line-up, no Starfire, Cyborg, or Raven in sight. The only hint of where this might fit into a timeline is Aquaman’s newborn son, but even then a third act plot beat could be seen as making this an alternate timeline, which is most likely.
There are some amusing moments sprinkled throughout the grand affair. My personal favorite is putting Elongated Man and Plastic Man side by side, characters that make each other redundant. Both stretchy heroes have served as members of the Justice League during different periods, but Justice is the first time they have been on the team simultaneously. Ross and Kreuger play with the personality clashes and the insecurities developed by Elongated Man about the team already having a rubber-skinned member. I have a close spot in my heart for the classic Shazam Captain Marvel, as does Ross, who folds him into the story and makes his nemeses Dr. Sivana, Mr. Mind, and Black Adam crucial elements of the story. While never a member of the Legion of Doom, Joker is included in the story as a wild card, lingering in the background for the first ⅔ before acting as a catalyst for events in the final act.
The biggest problem with Ross and Kreuger’s work at this point is how dense and over-crowded the story becomes. I had similar feelings about this summer’s Avengers: Infinity War. While it is always cool to see hordes of your favorite heroes and villains on the same page you often lose sight of the storyline. Justice had twelve issues to tell its tale, and there are still elements that feel underdeveloped. There is also much less of a clear thematic thru line than in Ross’ other works. Marvels and Kingdom Come are short yet feel important and deep. Even the Earth X trilogy, while unwieldy, still had interesting things to say about death in the world of super-heroes and the corruption of legacies. I’m not quite sure what Justice’s overall point was at the end, other than to tell a “big budget” Super Friends story. I feel like the story lost the plot halfway through, especially in conveying what exactly Brainiac’s master plan was.
There are some spectacular images in Justice, gorgeous two-page spreads that are instantly iconic. However, Ross wants too much in this book and by the end not only are the Justice League on every page he’s cramming in The Doom Patrol, Teen Titans, The Metal Men, The Phantom Stranger, and The Marvel Family. My brain glazed over and I just sort of floated through the last couple chapters until I reached the ending. There’s no drama anymore, it all becomes pretty poses.
I can’t help but feel like this was a disappointing conclusion to Ross’ first career arc in comics. He and Krueger moved on to Dynamite Comics where they tried their hand at creating a universe of public domain super-heroes from the Golden Age. Those comics still come out from time to time but have not had a significant impact on the industry. Ross still does quite a few cover commissions for Marvel, he did the last run of Amazing Spider-Man’s covers and is now painting them monthly for Ta-Nehsi Coates’ Captain America title. Jim Kreuger still writes stories here and there. His most recent major work was Mother Panic for DC’s Young Animal imprint, and it was the only one of the series in that line I enjoyed and read monthly. It’s penciler Doug Braithwaite who has been the most successful post-Justice. Braithwaite is one of the star artists of the Valiant Comics line, having illustrated premier titles like X-O Manowar and Bloodshot USA.
I don’t suspect we’ll ever get another Alex Ross work like his early and best stuff. I think that was just the right material at the right time, evoking the correct amount of nostalgia and fresh ideas. It reminded you of what you were familiar with, but he could remix a character or a concept into an entirely new and intriguing one. I found Ross’ work in the late 1990s to be the lift we needed, alongside Grant Morrison’s out of the post-Crisis malaise DC Comics found itself in. They were both unabashed lovers of the multiverse and classic heroes. Geoff Johns would later work with Ross on a story arc in Justice Society of America that served as the real epilogue to all this, envisioning a future, one thousand years from now where it’s Superman, old and grey staring up at a sky filled with heroes.