Comic Book Review – Justice League: Origin/A Villain’s Journey

Justice League Volume 1: Origin (2013)
Reprints Justice League v2 #1-6
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jim Lee

Justice League Volume 2: The Villain’s Journey (2013)
Reprints Justice League v2 #7-12
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jim Lee, Gene Ha, and Ivan Reis

In 2011, DC Comics shook up its titles by returning to square one and rebooting the universe. The first book published under the moniker of the New 52 (there were 52 ongoing monthly books) was Justice League #1. In this book, we are introduced to altered versions of classic superheroes. Batman. Superman. Green Lantern. The Flash. Wonder Woman. Aquaman. Cyborg. Through this title, we were meant to see a more modern interpretation of classic characters and narrative arcs. Unfortunately, by 2016, the series would be canceled, and the Justice League title continues to struggle to find its footing. Nevertheless, the series should be a grand slam; it features some of the all-time most iconic American pop media characters. As we look at these books, I hope to figure out if there is anything from this era that should be recognized and re-explored or if this is merely a misstep in editorial decisions.

The story of Origin opens with Batman being pursued by Gotham Police as he is also searching for a killer plaguing the city. He eventually crosses paths with Green Lantern, Hal Jordan in this incarnation, and the two discover the killer is a rogue Parademon. This leads them down a journey where they join up with Superman and others who are all following clues. Those clues herald the arrival of Darkseid, the despotic ruler of Apokolips. Only through joining forces can this team of heroes defeat Darkseid and become the first planet to push back his invasion. Along the way, athlete Victor Stone is horribly scarred, and his father uses alien technology to repair his son, creating Cyborg and separating that character’s origins from the New Teen Titans on a metatextual level.

You cannot argue that Johns and artist Jim Lee don’t deliver a blockbuster action experience. That’s the book’s promise, and it follows through on it. There are some impressive spreads from Lee, whose art appeals to fans of that early 1990s Image Comics look. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been a tremendous fan of this messy style, but I can understand why some readers enjoy it. Unlike most of Johns’ previous DC Comics work, I didn’t find this to be so referential, which makes sense as this is an attempt to build a new universe on some of the foundational pieces of the old one. 

The problems with the writing are pretty glaring and honestly took me out of the book. It’s the character interactions; they feel so unnatural and forced. Wonder Woman, in particular, is a character that Johns does not seem to understand or know how to write. It’s made even weirder as he includes her paramour Steve Trevor as an integral part of this run, an operative from the government agency ARGUS who works as a liaison to the League. Most of this book is some fairly cliche fight sequences peppered with weird character quips and conversations. Johns is also laying the groundwork for later storylines, which leaves a very unfinished feel to the collection.

The second collection has a smaller arc and some one-off stories to bridge into the next big storyline. It begins five years after the events of Origin, placing it in the “present-day.” The team is still not fully cohesive; a bit strange, in my opinion, with them operating together for so long at this point. What did find interesting is that the League has created a distance between themselves and the public. Steve Trevor and ARGUS speak to the public on behalf of the League, who operate from a satellite above the Earth and have refused to expand their roster. There’s an interesting story about Green Arrow attempting to get on the team with the League pushing back against it. In one brief scene, we see that Martian Manhunter joined in the past, and something went terribly wrong.

The core of this second collection, though, is the story of David Graves. Graves and his family were saved from destruction during the League’s initial battle against Darkseid. He’s an author, so he penned a best-selling book about the team and their importance to the world. Unfortunately, his family died later, which sends the man into a spiral of destructive grief, eventually blaming the Justice League. He invokes mystic energies and is transformed into a supervillain who goes about terrorizing the heroes. There are hints of some more significant elements working behind the scenes, but I don’t feel the series ever addresses Graves and his situation. I’m not sure if it’s connected to the Forever Evil arc, but if it is, the writing does not make that clear.

Johns seems intent on applying the writing structure he used on the Justice Society here, and I don’t think it works. The heroes appearing in that older series only appeared in that title, so you could do a lot more character development. Everyone except for Cyborg has their own title, which limits the kinds of stories that work. Johns also feels like he’s building up many subplots and threads that can feel disconnected from the core narratives in these books. It’s a problem with many contemporary comics who indulge in decompressed storytelling spread out over years’ worth of issues.

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