Five years ago. Those are among the first words in Justice League #1 (2011), as well as the actual amount of real world time which has passed since its publication. It’s one of several first issues of a League series I’ve recently reread in anticipation of this week’s Justice League #1 (2016), and the contrast is stark, not merely with respect to the interpretation of America’s pantheon, but in the importance implicitly assigned to the title by DC Comics. The New 52 volume from five years past had as its creative leads the zenith of superstardom for both writing and pencils: Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, respectively. Launching a week before any of the other series in the relaunch, such fanfare signaled to readers that Justice League was the publisher’s premier title. And, somewhat surprisingly, DC followed through on that promise, with Johns’ fifty-two issue run one of the most consistently high quality comics to come out every month for these past five years, ending in the superlative Darkseid War.
Nearly twenty years ago, similar effort was expended in making JLA (1997) the central ongoing of DC’s modern mythology. Grant Morrison, already by that point one of the greatest auteurs in the medium’s history, was given nearly free reign (save for reviving Hawkman), starting with bringing the League back to its roots with the Big Seven who first founded it. Unlike the de-condensed, character-focused first issue of Johns’ Justice League, Morrison’s JLA was dense and concept heavy from the beginning, starting with a first issue which questioned the fundamentally reactive modus operandi which had defined superheroes since the late thirties. Though Morrison concluded his first arc in affirmation of traditional super-heroics, his arc was an obvious inspiration on many of the most important runs of the years which followed, including Ellis’ The Authority and Millers’ The Ultimates, both of which depict more proactive organizations.
Now, DC has taken the amazing artist from The Authority and assigned him to writing duties on Justice League (2016). While Bryan Hitch has demonstrated a penchant to pen creative concepts with his creator-owned Real Heroes, other endeavors of his into the writing side of the industry are evidence of why he’s still remembered primarily as a pencilist, including the uninspired America’s Got Powers and a still ongoing, painfully dull Justice League of America. It’s not that Hitch is an unknown quantity as a writer; he’s very much known, including how he’d write the League and the inevitable lackluster reception readers would have to him (again). That DC placed him as Johns’ successor speaks volumes as to their low expectation for League in the Rebirth era.
After this week’s Justice League #1, perhaps they’d better lower those expectations even further still. There’s even less to like than in his run on Justice League of America from last year. It lacks either the compelling characterization of Johns’ or the heady concepts of Morrison, attempting something in the middle and missing both. Aside from Superman, every member of the League is given a few pages, but these are squandered, each portrayed more or less identically as generic rescue workers. They show up on the scene, save lives, protect property, all that stuff; but had artist Tony Daniels drawn Cyborg in place of the Green Lanterns, or exchanged Aquaman for Wonder Woman, the difference would be indiscernible. Moreover, the threat posed by the Kindred, essentially zombies which also rob the League members of their abilities, is not interesting or unique enough to pique readers’ curiosity as to the true nature of this new threat. If this is the best Hitch can come up with on his own, he ought to go back to ripping off Mass Effect.
Tony Daniels too seems off his game. He’d previously proven his proficiency in illustrating the Justice League as an interim artist for several issues of Johns’ run, not to mention his gorgeous Detective Comics at the outset of the New 52, but nothing in this issue reaches those previous lofty levels. He seems to be trying to channel Hitch, particularly in the detail of his backgrounds, but his character-work suffers as a result. I don’t blame the effort; Detective was clearly channeling Frank Miller and resulted in a better Batman than depicted in The Dark Knight Returns. But despite Daniels’ previous successes in exploring alternative art styles, here he fails to capture Hitch’s je ne sais quoi.
If DC has any ambitions of Justice League being a blockbuster book in the Rebirth era as it was in the New 52 when it was a monthly event in itself, they’re certainly not communicating such with either the creative team selected to spearhead such a storied series nor with the final product they permitted to come to market. Rebirth was supposed to be about course correcting after the mistakes of the New 52, but as a successor to one of that era’s successes, Justice League breaks one of the few books not broken. And while so many other Rebirth titles are counting on comic fans’ ‘90s nostalgia, Justice League learns none of the lessons from Morrison’s seminal run from that decade. Justice League #1 is unforgivably bland, and many readers will rightfully jump off after this awful first issue.