One of the most universal observations across the comic reading community – among DC and Marvel fans alike, along with those of us with no allegiance in either direction – is that, at least early on in their publishing histories, DC’s heroes tended to be more aspirational figures, whereas Marvel’s tended to be more relatable. In DC comics, the audience surrogate was the teenage sidekick, a Jimmy Olsen or Dick Grayson who’d look up to the perfect parental paragon of Superman or Batman, respectively. Marvel had no need for such surrogates; rather, readers were expected to empathize with the plights of Peter Parker precisely because his life was so similar to their own, save for the proportional strength of a spider. According to Debarghya Sanyal in Sequart Magazine:
Now when we talk about the two comic book canons – DC and Marvel – DC always had gods among men. Supra-humans rather than super-humans. That ways (sic) the DC comic book universe has always been grander, more fantastic and its success with fans over the Marvel comic books is partially due to this. One might as well think of DC as high-fantasy – completely fictional characters involved in un-real events, in a completely fictional world…. DC tales take on a metaphor-like character then. Marvel on the other hand was alternate history, right from punching Hitler in the face to post-9/11. So if DC took the tale to beyond humane, Marvel simply took the next step within the humane.”
Justice League of America: Rebirth #1 (DC Comics)
Justice League of America: Rebirth #1 appears to be a conscious attempt on the part of Steve Orlando to subsume several of DC’s second tier characters into the paradigm put forth by Marvel. The only explanation for the sudden formation of the team is Batman’s statement to Black Canary: “I’ve started something new. A different team. Mortals, not gods.” Later, he expounds upon this to the newly assembled League: “The world needs heroes they can know, not gods, to inspire them – to show them they can be heroes.”
This explanation, at least within the context of the story, is lacking. There seems to be little meaningful differentiation between Batman’s teammates on the Justice League and his new recruits on the Justice League of America. Is the Czarnian Lobo any less alien and more human than the Kryptonian Superman? Why does Batman believe the public would find meta-humans such as Frost, Ray, and Vixen more relatable to the general populace than Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz, who are biologically fully human, albeit wielding advanced weaponry on their ring fingers? And if Batman is truly seeking allies that demonstrate ordinary citizens can participate in the community of heroes, why not include his many non-meta guardians of Gotham? Dick, Damien, and Duke all demonstrate the point more readily than Dinah with her Canary Cry.
Two possible reasons for such jump out at me. The first is lazy writing on the part of Orlando, offering a post hoc rationale for the formation of the team, its members having been picked by him or editorial for their own out-of-universe purposes. A more intriguing possibility is that the man behind the cowl is not in fact Bruce Wayne, but rather a Batman impersonator. At no point throughout the issue is he seen with his mask removed, nor does he demonstrate any special knowledge which only the real Batman or his close confidants would have access to. Moreover, his characterization is demonstrably different, to the point that several of his various recruits note the peculiarities of his personality. Black Canary rightfully finds it surprising that Batman is deferring to her for moral guidance. Later, she’s likewise taken aback by his call for public accountability and transparency, noting, “’Openness’ isn’t really your thing, Batman.” Equally odd is his tenderness with Vixen, affirming that he’d always respected her, with her stating her surprise at seeing him standing around in broad daylight. Twice he demonstrates deference to Lobo, backing down when the later challenged his authority. To top it off, nowhere in the issue are his combat skills evidenced. Taken together, such seems highly evidential that the individual purporting to be Batman is in fact an impostor who’s assembling these c-list heroes for some secret and perfidious purpose.
This theory is the only possible salvation for an otherwise plodding and pointless plot. As with all the worst debut issues ever to hit newsstands, the tired trope of the team being recruited does nothing to advance the actual story, and the brief sketch of each team member is too thin for the audience to attach themselves to any particular character yet. Nor does it even successfully argue for what is seemingly its thesis, that the world needs relatable, human heroes. The issue either constantly and completely mischaracterizes Batman, or else it correctly and coyly characterizes a Batman impostor.
Its only saving grace is Ivan Reis’ pencils, though even those suffer at the hands of Orlando’s script, especially when compared to Reis’ tenure on Justice League with Johns. This issue amounts to little more than a glorifies series of talking heads, failing to make use of Reis’ skill at bringing to life spectacular set-pieces, such as the Naval carrier crashing through the Metropolis skyline in “Throne of Atlantis” or the clash of heroes in “Trinity War.” Perhaps his pencil will be put to better use in forthcoming installments, but the talents of a true superstar are wasted in these pages.
Given how lackluster Bryan Hitch’s Justice League has proven – perhaps one of the only titles to have drastically declined in quality since Rebirth rejuvenated the rest of DC’s lineup – high hopes were placed upon Justice League of America to return DC’s former flagship property to its proper level of quality. The inclusion of Ivan Reis on the project certainly signaled that the publisher considered it meritorious of one of its top talents. But if Orlando does indeed have a seminal story to tell, it certainly doesn’t start in this superfluous and best-skipped Rebirth special.