As much as I can’t believe it, 2021 marks the ten year anniversary of the DC Comics publishing initiative known as The New 52. For a variety of reasons, DC made a clean break from the previous continuity by blowing it up and starting it all over from scratch — except when they didn’t. Over the course of a year, I’m going to go back and re-read every single debut issue from The New 52 line-up to see how much it changes things from the way they were before, how much of this new status quo stuck around and just how well the comic holds up ten years later.
I really did debate whether Justice League #1 should be the first comic I cover as part of this series because it was the flagship book for The New 52. Prior to Flashpoint, the Justice League comic hadn’t felt like a priority for DC for several years and while Marvel had successfully franchised Avengers and turned it into the comic that the rest of the universe orbits, Justice League of America had become a weird ancillary title that had no bearing on the larger DC Universe.
Prior to the reboot, the Justice League’s roster was Batman (Dick Grayson), Congorilla, Donna Troy, Jade, Jesse Quick, Starman (Mikaal Thomas) and Supergirl and no offense to those characters, but it doesn’t seem like an all-star line-up. The New 52 was a chance to kick the doors down with a new team made up of DC’s biggest stars and establish that anything major that happens in the DC Universe goes through the Justice League.
Curiously, this isn’t the first time this had happened, as Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA launched with a similar remit, casting aside the previous Justice League line-up — which featured luminaries such as Civet, Yazz and Icemaiden — in favour of a “Big Seven” approach. That’s exactly what Geoff Johns and Jim Lee try to recreate in Justice League #1 but as a standalone debut issue of a team comic, it struggles to live up to the high bar set by Morrison and Porter. I could easily compare Justice League #1 to JLA #1 and I think there’s merit to an article that does that, but this isn’t that. Instead, I want to talk about the ways Justice League #1 fails on its own merits, without comparing it to another comic that I’m fond of.
When I started reading comics and discussing them online in around 2007, the word “decompressed” was already an overused and somewhat lazy criticism of comics storytelling. The term became popular largely due to the work of Brian Michael Bendis, particularly on Ultimate Spider-Man, where he took what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did in one issue and stretched it out to six. Back in 2007, people used “decompressed” as a synonym for “bad” but I don’t think that’s true, there’s merit in taking a rushed story and stretching it out to let character moments breathe but there are also fair criticisms of comics which are just talking heads speaking in an attempt at Mamet-style dialogue.
Justice League #1 has plenty of action, but it also suffers from decompression. As the first chapter of a graphic novel, it probably reads a little bit better but if I pick up a comic titled Justice League which features seven superheroes on the cover, I’m going to feel short-changed if it features only two of them in a significant way, while hinting at a third and ending on the surprise introduction of a fourth. That’s my biggest issue with this; it’s a team-up comic, but it’s not a team comic.
Justice League #1 stars Batman and Green Lantern, two characters Johns had established felt an enmity towards each other previously in issues of Green Lantern from before the reboot, and that relationship carries over to Justice League. I’m trying to limit my criticism to just this issue rather than the arc or the run as a whole, but the thing that turned me off Justice League the most is that no-one likes each other. I like franchises like Avengers or The Fast and the Furious because the characters that work together get along and while they may make jokes, the jokes come from a place of love. Johns’ characters in Justice League just feel like they all would rather not be on a team and that they all think they could do a better job on their own; it’s like they’re daring me to put the book down and read their solos instead.
That said, I don’t hate the last page as much as I remember other people hating it at the time. After arriving in Metropolis on the hunt for a Parademon, Green Lantern and Batman are attacked by a red-blue blur which turns out to be Superman, who ends the issue facing off with Batman. Superman is cocky in this moment but I don’t think he’s arrogant; he’s the only person like him that he knows until five seconds ago and he’s excited to see what kind of challenge Batman can present to him. I think anyone that didn’t like this moment was a bit too wedded to the previous incarnation of Superman and would have been against any changes at all, but I like New 52 Superman and the character we see here is perfectly in line with the Superman from Action Comics #1.
Amid the superhero action and bickering, we do get a bit of a quieter moment. There’s a four page interlude featuring Victor Stone absolutely trouncing an opposing high school football team and this is the kind of decompression that works for me. Victor should be riding high after a big win and a half dozen scouts begging his coach to let them talk to him, but all he can focus on was the fact his dad missed his game, again. Johns and Lee took a bit of a risk in promoting Cyborg from Teen Titan to founding member of the Justice League and while I think it was the right call, it was also necessary to give him a bit more background before introducing him.
One of the best things about Justice League is that DC realised how much of a secret weapon they had in Jim Lee. He had been pulled out as a big gun for “Hush” and “For Tomorrow” in the 2000s but it felt like something changed with the 2010s and he became more involved as a creative rather than an executive. I’d speculate it would have something to do with the end of WildStorm, but I don’t have anything to back that up.
My relationship with Jim Lee’s art has changed and evolved over the near-fifteen years I’ve been reading superhero comics. I started out just not being a fan of his work and that was pretty much a blanket thing across most of the big names of the ‘90s, especially the Image founders. In recent years, I’ve come to really appreciate the kineticism and dynamism of guys like Jim Lee and he’s done some work that I’m a big fan of. However, I’m not a massive fan of how Justice League #1 looks.
One of the big criticisms of The New 52 was that it felt like an unwanted throwback to the worst excesses of the superhero comics in the nineties with guys like Lee and Bob Harras in executive positions and creators like Scott Lobdell and Brett Booth coming back around. Even Batman was criticised for that, with Capullo being a McFarlane protege, but he managed to transcend it. Jim Lee’s pencils, with Scott Williams inks and Alex Sinclair colours, felt dated for 2011 and even more so a decade later. He also designed the bulk of the costumes in The New 52 and was responsible for the little high collar that everyone seemed to get and it all just dates the comic to such a specific era of superhero storytelling.
Justice League was successful at setting the tone for The New 52 but it’s not a tone I find very appealing. Heroes who don’t like each other and don’t want to get to know each other aren’t really characters I want to get invested in and the actual larger Fourth World story felt like it missed the mark entirely. Unfortunately, Johns’ big Darkseid story and his bickering team dynamic would go on to be a big inspiration for what eventually became the Snyderverse or whatever you want to call it. I’d say that this debut issue absolutely does not hold up a decade later and would absolutely not recommend going back and revisiting it.