Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Possibly The Greatest Superhero Graphic Novel Of All: Justice Edges Out "Kingdom Come!"

The Good: Great story, Wonderful artwork, Lush deluxe presentation, Good character work
The Bad: Expensive
The Basics: Visually impressive, telling a compelling story of two powerful groups of characters, Justice is arguably the best graphic novel set in the DC Universe as well as an amazing read!

Shortly before I had the three Justice volumes sent to my local library for me to enjoy, my wife and I were in a local comic book shop and I found myself looking at the beautiful slipcase-ensconced graphic novels intended for one's permanent library. There, I saw a $60.00 Star Wars comic book presentation, V For Vendetta, the deluxe clothbound Watchmen,
Justice is a DC Universe standalone graphic novel. It was originally presented in twelve special issues as a limited release comic book and then anthologized as three volumes with four chapters each. The Absolute Justice presentation represents the first time the book is assembled in its proper form as a single graphic novel and wow! It's about time. Separate from every other crossover and main storyline for the DC universe heroes and villains, Justice is a compelling story intended for adults who like a great superhero tale.

The Earth is destroyed in a full-out nuclear assault which destroys every major city and then the world, leaving only Superman alive and the Atom alive in a super-subatomic existence. This vision is shared in the dreams of the villains Captain Cold, Priscilla Rich (Cheetah), Black Manta, the Toymaker, and Edward Nigma (the Riddler). Facing the real possibility of human extinction and the end of the world, the villains realize that the superheroes cannot save Earth or even themselves. So, in a bold act, Nigma, Jonathan Crane (Scarecrow), Poison Ivy, Captain Cold, and Lex Luthor end world hunger, cure the diseased and heal those suffering from all manner of infirmities. Then, Luthor announces to the world what the former villains have done, while others incapacitate the rest of the first-string members of the Justice League Of America.

With the superheroes absent, the world turns to the former supervillains and Lex Luthor and Brainiac welcome humanity to floating cities they have constructed to save humanity and allow humanity to grow. But as Martian Manhunter recovers from the mental assault which incapacitated him and he leads some of the secondary members of the Justice League on a mission to find Aquaman, he learns that the conspiracy among the villains is much deeper than the altruistic act it appears to be. And even as every friend, ally and minor superhero that could help the Justice League is taken from them, the heroes work to turn the tide and re-establish the League from its ashes!

For chapter-by-chapter plot layouts, please check out my reviews of:
Justice Volume 1
Justice Volume 2
Justice Volume 3

Justice is an exceptional work on many levels and it is certainly intended for adults only. Filled with graphic violence and lush images that are often sensual in their depiction, Justice is an adult work more than a simple superhero story. Indeed, two things stand out in the content of the work that make it far more adult than the average comic book.

The first is a sense of philosophy. Justice dares to ask the question which no child's drama ever would: what if being saved by heroes makes humanity intellectually lazy and dependent? What if, instead of being forced to grapple with real problems like crime and global warming, the idea that a vigilante or powerful alien will save everyone has made humanity unchallenged and unassuming? The nightmare which opens Justice illustrates in a compelling and terrifying way that no amount of superheroes can be everywhere at once. With that realization, even villains wake up to realize that there's no point in being the ruler of a burning ember. In this regard, Lex Luthor's agenda, to preserve humanity to survive such an Armageddon and to force humans to grow by extinguishing the superhuman influence makes a lot of sense.

The second aspect of Justice that works in its favor is the psychology. Villains are not monolithic characters and while it might take a while for Justice to illustrate it, each of them has their own motivation and convictions that seem noble or worthwhile to a target demographic. This comes in late in the novel as the heroes work to rescue humans from the cities Brainiac has built. Black Manta, who seems like a hyperbole of a Black Panther, has populated his city with blacks, likely the descendants of oppressed peoples from around the world. Cheetah has created her city as a grassland and Poison Ivy's is the perfect greenhouse. And while some of the saviors of humanity need to be disposed of through aggression, more often than not, the solutions come from conversing and compelling the villains to see the errors of their ways.

Justice is filled with a very wide array of DC Universe characters, from the almost universally-recognizable Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman, to the more obscure Plastic Man, Zatanna, and Captain Marvel. Similarly, the villains range from Lex Luthor and Edward Nigma (Riddler) who many fans of pop culture in general will recognize to the less recognizable Captain Cold, Sinestro and Parasite. Fortunately, writers John Krueger and Alex Ross make context entirely clear for the powers and limitations of each character. In the Absolute Justice, character sketches for the heroes and villains are included and it's recommended to check that out first to give readers unfamiliar with the DC universe a fair primer on the material.

As for the artwork, Justice is a triumph of the medium. Penciled by Doug Braithewaite, each page of Justice is a painting. Alex Ross painted over Braithewaite's drawings, making each one a near-photographic image of the virtual world of the DC Earth, much like what was done with Kingdom Come (click here for that review!) and JLA: Secret Origins (click here for that review). Every page comes alive with a realism not frequently seen in comic books and the amazing aspect is that the painting quality is consistent page by page, character by character. Whether it is a beautiful underseascape with Aquaman riding to meet a threat to his kingdom or the plucky Zatanna asphyxiating in space or Cheetah slashing with cursed claws at Wonder Woman, this is an exceptional volume of visual artwork!

In the "Absolute" presentation of Justice, the oversized volume comes in a cloth slipcase. In addition to a new, premium art cover by Alex Ross, there is an art gallery featuring original concept sketches and paintings as well as notes on producing the series. These are a nice bonus and they enhance the already awesome deluxe presentation of Justice.

For anyone who likes a great hero story, Justice is it and this is truly the ultimate way to get it. And for those who have ever wondered what the hype is about graphic novels, splurge on this to see why literate adults will occasionally pick up a book with pictures. Start with this one; there's no point in beginning with a lesser volume!

For other graphic novels, please check out my reviews of:
Wonder Woman: Gods And Mortals
Batman: Knightfall Volume Two: Who Rules The Night
Green Lantern: Agent Orange


For other book reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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