Whatever happened to the James Robinson Justice League?

Superboy and Green Lantern were the two comics that started me off with reading, but I can still remember when Grant Morrison’s JLA was announced because it was going to be a big deal. My dad was flipping through Diamond’s Previews Catalog and he said, “There’s a new Justice League that has Green Lantern in it. Would you like to get it?”

My decision to pick up a third monthly comic title was made, I was introduced to Grant Morrison, and my whole life changed after that.

While there have been many different creative teams with many different styles that have worked on the Justice League, the team of Morrison and Porter has always been the team to compare all others to in my mind. Morrison’s working philosophy on the series was that these characters are the seven most powerful in the DCU, and therefore, they must face beings that only they could get together and defeat. Anything less than the absolute most threatening menace would seem cheap.

After Morrison left the series, Mark Waid had a successful run that continued with this trend followed by Joe Kelly whose Obsidian Age storyline was interesting at least, but the rest of his run was unforgettable. The key problem to Kelly’s run was that he began the slide backwards into recruiting members who weren’t JLA material.

See, when Morrison was on the book, he wanted the series to star the biggest heroes who influenced the DCU so of course he had Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman. There was a membership drive in the middle of the series to get more members in, but the core seven were ever present.

When Kelly took over the book, he started including characters like Faith, and Manitou Raven. After losing the focus of the core seven, the series began to suffer and after Kelly there was a time of rotating creative teams that just couldn’t elevate the book to the status it had under Morrison’s tenure.

After JLA was cancelled, Brad Meltzer helmed the relaunch of the Justice League of America and it was almost the antithesis of Morrison’s agenda. While Morrison believed that character development was meant for the individual books of the heroes in the comic, Meltzer believed in building those interactions within his book. Furthermore, his team featured second string characters Black Lightning and Vixen to round out his roster.

While Meltzer’s Justice League was different than Morrison’s it was still an excellent twelve issue run that I could have read forever. I never thought I would care for Red Tornado, and I really never thought that Black Lightning could be cool, but Meltzer proved me wrong. He added a human element to the series that hasn’t been replicated since he left the series.

After Meltzer’s departure, Dwayne McDuffie stepped aboard the titled and the series fell into a cycle of editorial mandates that prevented the writer to gain any traction with the series. Eventually, McDuffie was so fed up with being told that he couldn’t do something on the series that he answered fan questions on the DC Message Boards which eventually made DC fire him for talking bad about editorial. The McDuffie run was really bad, but the writer is hardly to blame for it all. His initial opening arc with the Injustice League began well, but editorial made him change the ending three times to the point where it didn’t matter any longer. Each new story arc had to set up another DC event or had to tie-in to something going on somewhere else and McDuffie was never really able to craft the team he wanted.

Then came James Robinson.

Robinson has been a fan-favorite due to his four issue Elseworlds-that-is-probably-considered-continuity mini-series the Golden Age and for his incredible series Starman. Unfortunately, Robinson also has the distinction of being the screenwriter for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie that allegedly put him in a depression that kept him from writing for years, but the less said about that the better.

After Starman, Robinson had left comics for awhile, but he made a triumphant return with the Batman story Face the Face. Soon after that, Robinson was making a splash in the pages of Superman and then he was promised the keys to the kingdom with Justice League of America.

The picture at the top of the article was part of the promotion material to get readers excited for an all-new Justice League and I must admit that I was more than excited for it. Sure, the team wasn’t Morrison’s JLA, and Robinson’s Justice League: Cry for Justice was more than a mess (it was nearly impossible to read), but this was the next generation of heroes stepping up into the big leagues. This was a group of former Teen Titans finally stepping up and becoming the defenders of our planet. Metaphorically, this Justice League was like Robinson’s career itself; full of promise.

Robinson’s run began with issue #38 but the team wouldn’t form until #41 and they fell apart by #43. So, the James Robinson Justice League that had been heavily promoted was officially a team for all of three issues.

One probably can’t blame Robinson, however, because we have to assume that editorial mandates forced him to let go of some of the characters he wanted to use. After all, Mon-El was returning to the future, Green Lantern had just finished Blackest Night, Starfire was joining Rebels, and Black Canary was returning to Birds of Prey. Again, the Justice League was broken, but Robinson still swore to rebuild.

Now, we’re at issue #54 and a whole new begins again. Mark Bagley has thankfully left the series (I’ve never been a fan of his art outside of Spider-man) and superstar artist Brett Booth is penciling Robinson’s new Justice League which consists of Batman (Dick Grayson), Supergirl, Donna Troy (who I wish had a superhero name), Jesse Quick, Jade, Starman (the blue alien), and Congorilla. So, how does this team stack up? Well, let’s hit the review:

Review – Before I even begin talking about the story, let’s talk about Brett Booth’s artwork. I’m not normally one to critique art because I’m no artist and there are people out there with far greater insight to structure, form, and line work than I will ever be able to express. With this in mind, I love Booth’s artwork. His characters tend to be more elongated than normal and it has echoes of Michael Turner’s work. I recognize that not everyone loved Turner’s art, but I thought it was gorgeous, so the fact that Booth’s work comes from that school of art really appeals to me.

The first page of the comic does not disappoint as Booth crams in 19 heroes in two large panels. The first panel features the core seven JLA members that we all know and love while the second panel features some fan-favorite back up characters (oh, and for some reason the worst JLA member ever, Vibe).

The next page is a full page splash of the current JLA and it left me with a sense of, “this is how you establish a team.” It just looks good and feels dynamic even if the overall roster feels a bit underwhelming at times.  Unfortunately, we don’t see the Justice League in any capacity for the rest of the issue because the rest of the issue is a prologue to the story itself.

If Robinson has one major flaw that characterizes his work, it’s his love of obscure characters that are sometimes inaccessible to new readers. The problem with relying upon little known characters is that large portions of issues are dedicated to establishing why the character is important. Stories that lack essential back story to establish character importance end up confusing new readers into thinking they have missed something. The beginning of Robinson’s run has the most perfect example of this flaw with the introduction of Blue Jay.

Blue Jay was an insignificant character even when he was ON the Justice League, but to have the character appear only to be captured with little explanation came off as a strange occurrence with little emotional weight behind it.

Eclipso is no different in this regard. Here is a character with a semi-long history in the DCU, but with little pathos or threat to drive him. He was once the Spirit of Vengeance but was eventually replaced by the Spectre. Now he possesses people. Sometimes he possesses superheroes so he can use their powers. That’s about it.

The majority of the first half of the issue establishes Eclipso’s long history through a back and forth between the villain and his host Bruce Gordon. After the recap, the rest of the issue has Eclipso recruiting people for his army. His recruitment drive takes place during the JLA/JSA crossover where elemental heroes were going insane and lashing out against the world. I wasn’t a huge fan of the arc mostly because I thought some of the “elemental” heroes were being stretched a little bit.

I suppose the comic hasn’t been advertised as being accessible to new readers, but I had hoped that it would be. Given that the story takes place during another story and features characters that a new reader wouldn’t know, it’s a bit tough to recommend to someone.

Eclipso’s team consists of:

the Shade – Perennial favorite of James Robinson ever since he redefined the character in the pages of Starman. I will never complain when I see the Shade.

Nightshade – The description in this issue is rather confusing, so I’ll include it here to give you a taste of Robinson’s sometimes elusive writing. “It made sense in the abstract . . . a marriage. She, Eve Eden, Nightshade . . . princess of the land of Nightshades betrothed to Jim Rook, Nightmaster, ruler of Myrra a neighboring, and in itself, shadowy realm.” – Um okay . . .

Acrata – Not sure if she is new or if Robinson made her up, but she has shadow powers too.

Shadow Thief – Because he is made of shadow. Do we see a pattern here?

Bete-Noire – Perhaps the strangest of the team, this guy is a french gorilla with a skull for a face. I guess he also has shadow powers or something?

Dark Crow – A Canadian hero with a shadow crow animal familiar. I think we’re reaching now.

Syththunu – An octopus faced being that has been labeled an “elder god.” I don’t care if he is a Cthulhu rip off, I love him simply because he IS a Cthulhu rip off.

The issue ends with Eclipso declaring that he needs Jade on his team.

Overall, not the best way to start a new story in a comic, but not the worst. The artwork more than makes up for the background heavy story. Again, I’m partial to Booth’s art because it is reminiscent of Michael Turner’s. The action was light in this issue, but the action present was expertly executed by Booth.

I may not be an Eclipso fan, but I think the art alone will bring me back to this series. Give it a shot and tell me what you think.

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