JLA #1 vs. Justice League #1: What Jim Lee gets wrong about introducing characters


I didn’t read the new Justice League #1, largely because I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a Geoff Johns comic, so I am not qualified to review it. So I’m not going to do that. But I can respond to Jim Lee’s statement from Heidi MacDonald’s interview on salon.com:

The first issue spotlights only Batman and Green Lantern. Some people have asked, “Where’s the rest of the Justice League?”

I guarantee you if we did a story that had every single member in it, people would say, “This is not for new readers! It’s too complicated!”

The thing that helps me debunk this claim is a Justice League first issue that I have read, Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA #1 from 1996. I bought this comic off the stands when I was in middle school(! Man, I am getting old) because I was a loyal reader of DC’s various Batman comics, but I had bought only a small handful of Superman comics and no comics at all starring Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, or the Martian Manhunter. Some of those characters were only names to me at that point, but I had no problem understanding the issue, as each character is introduced economically, and the story that builds across the first issue brings them in organically. JLA #1, by the way, contains 22 story pages to Justice League #1’s 24.

I don’t necessarily challenge the wisdom of leading off with the most recognizable characters in the first issue (though I imagine that making Green Lantern a focal point made more sense back before the failure of the movie gave him loser stink), but a new reader could be forgiven for expecting the characters prominently featured on the cover to put in an appearance for their $4, and the claim that it just can’t be done is simply wrongheaded. Here’s how Morrison and Porter did it:

PAGE 1: We know something serious is going on, because the President of the United States is upset about it.

PAGE 2: Oh, he’s upset because a giant spaceship is floating over the White House. He’s seen Independence Day, so he knows that can’t be good. Who are our heroes? The president will tell us: “Will somebody call the Justice League?”

PAGE 3: Intro some people I’ve never seen before. They look kind of lame. Apparently they are kind of lame, since they’re talking about how they missed a giant spaceship appearing over the White House, but we learn these are not the main characters, since the one called Rex is talking about “clearing out our stuff so the A-Team can move in.” In the last panel, we get a big shot of Superman with the caption “The big guy’s on the case.” We all already know who Superman is, but even if we didn’t, this page sets him up as a big deal. We also see him first—because he’s Superman.

PAGE 4: Superman is briefed.

PAGE 5: Intro the aliens from the ship. They’re smiling, they look like superheroes and they say they’re here to “save the world.” Hmm.

PAGE 6: News report: more on the aliens, who call themselves the Hyperclan. Intro the Flash, watching on TV. A caption tells us who he is and where he lives. In two panels, his wife reminds him that he’s forgotten to get the dry cleaning and he picks it up, seemingly only missing a few words in the broadcast. From two panels, we know his powers, his domestic situation (married, not great at his chores) and that the aliens are relevant to him.

PAGE 7: The broadcast continues. We’re introduced, in a series of three panels, to Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter, and we learn a little about each of them. In panel one, we learn where Wonder Woman lives, that she appears to work in either a museum or antique shop and that her first name is Diana, and her face tells us she doesn’t trust the Hyperclan. In panel 2, we learn where Green Lantern lives and that his dayjob involves working at a drafting table, and his face tells us he is dumbfounded by what the TV tells him. Panel 3 introduces us to the Martian Manhunter, tells us where he lives and that he seemingly has no dayjob or secret identity, watching the news in the same outfit he is wearing on the cover. He has a stack of VHS videos about aliens and alien autopsies, and his face betrays nothing; clearly an alien himself, he is taking this in thoughtfully.

We’ve now met five of the seven characters on the cover, and we don’t know everything about them, but considering it’s only seven pages in, we’ve been told a lot. Even learning where they live is significant, as no two live in the same city. They must be able to travel quickly, either by their own powers or other means, to act as a team.

PAGES 8–9: The Hyperclan appears to be telling the truth.

PAGE 10: But now they’re killing some Marvel characters. (An in-joke, but it doesn’t matter if a reader doesn’t get it. It’s only important that they are executing people without trial). What?!

PAGE 11: The dialogue between Green Lantern and Rex, whose superhero name we now learn is Metamorpho, “the element man,” tells us both that GL is cocky and also that he is fairly new to the superhero game. Also, some guys in space suits are approaching the satellite that GL, Wonder Woman and Metamorpho are on.

PAGE 12: Attack! We learn, through relatively natural dialogue, what Metamorpho’s powers are.

PAGE 13: One of the other minor heroes from page three voices his suspicion that the Hyperclan are behind the attack. Despite being introduced as being lame, the minor heroes get to be heroic. Green Lantern starts to use his powers, and we learn that he is filling the shoes of a previous GL and that his style in using his powers is different from the last guy.

PAGE 14: Green Lantern admits to a lapse in confidence. Wonder Woman uses her real name and tells him they’re in the same league. She is more experienced and something of a mentor, a nurturer. Captions begin to explain GL’s powers, and he creates a field around himself to leave the satellite safely. Wonder Woman, we see, can survive the vacuum of space with just a rebreather.

PAGE 15: Inside, the stakes raise for the minor heroes, but in keeping with how we’ve learned Metamorpho’s powers work, he concocts a plan, though the others aren’t sure if he can pull it off.

PAGES 16–17: Captions explain more of how Green Lantern’s powers work, including that will power is involved. It’s all fairly conversational, as when it says that “working the ring is like giving up cigarettes,” a better image of what it means to wield a will-powered ring than I’ve heard elsewhere. Wonder Woman is almost powerful enough to hold a space station together, but not quite. When she prays, it is to a Greek goddess.

PAGE 18: The Hyperclan have been to Earth before. They resurrect something old, something that humans probably don’t know about.

PAGE 19: The minor heroes crash to Earth. Metamorpho has taken precautions that everyone else will be safe. He is clearly injured in the crash, though it’s not clear how the others have fared. Throughout their appearances in this issue, Rex is so far the only one of the minor heroes to get a name (except one called Fire, though she (she is identified as a she) is not present and is mentioned only to note that her powers aren’t working), which is clearly deliberate, as he is the one who takes it upon himself to protect the others and appears to sacrifice himself, at least to the point of serious injury.

PAGE 20: Now we learn the names of the other three minor heroes, though only their hero names (again, Metamorpho alone gets a proper name, to make his sacrifice more tragic), and we find that they are injured, though Metamorpho is said, portentously, to be “inert,” which doesn’t sound good considering we’ve learned he has chemical powers. This page also tells us that Flash can run on water, that he has a problem with Green Lantern, that he and Superman can reach similar speeds and that the League will be meeting in a cave, as the satellite was destroyed.

PAGE 21: The five Leaguers we’ve met join together. Superman tells the group that he knows the Hyperclan is lying about their involvement in the attack on the satellite. We learn that Aquaman and Batman haven’t responded to the League’s call and that this doesn’t surprise anyone. Except, intro Batman, who is hiding in the rafters.

PAGE 22: Batman is very clever and doesn’t entirely trust the others. We know because he’s built a device that hides the sound of his heartbeat from Superman, who apparently can hear heartbeats. This is perhaps how Superman knew the leader of the Hyperclan was lying when he met with him. At Batman’s direction, Superman listens for microwave frequencies, and the group discovers that the Hyperclan is broadcasting at a frequency used for mind control. They are up to no good. Batman declares, “This is war.”

In issue #1 of JLA, we get six out of seven of the characters on the cover. Aquaman will be introduced in similarly economical fashion in issue #2. The issue cleverly ratchets up the tension throughout, gives us quick first glimpses of each character, followed by longer scenes that tell us more about them, and ends with a revelation that raises the stakes dramatically. For a cast of this size it tells a reader as much as they need to know to understand what is happening and drops in details that entices them back for the next issue.

Most importantly, JLA #1 is not written in a way that assumes character can only be learned through long scenes and expository dialogue. Some characters are introduced in a single panel, but not one panel is wasted in filling in who they are. Quick bits of dialogue, setting, and props in the corners of panels are all used to convey character. The name of the game is economy, and Jim Lee’s statement that more than two or three characters can’t be introduced in the course of a first issue discounts economic storytelling altogether. It is a failure of imagination that says that only dialogue can reveal character.

It is also a mistake to think that readers need to know everything about every character in the first issue (some information, like the real names of most of the minor heroes, is even withheld, making the information we do learn, such as Metamorpho’s real name, more significant). If they are written compellingly enough, the questions that remain will be reasons to keep reading, not reasons to disbelieve. Every element of every page should be used to further the story, and character is something that should be shown, not told. JLA #1 is an excellent course in how this is done, while judging from reviews and Lee’s own comments, Justice League #1 is decidedly not. Neither Johns nor Lee are really to my taste, but I recognize that they are craftsmen, so it’s a bit sad to see in Lee’s statement an abdication of craft.

Images of the Justice League © DC Entertainment.


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4 Responses to “JLA #1 vs. Justice League #1: What Jim Lee gets wrong about introducing characters”

  1. Comics A.M. | Jury selection begins in Michael George trial | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] Comics | Brendan Wright looks at last week’s Justice League #1 in the context of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA #1 from 1996. [The Wright Opinion] […]

  2. How many Justice Leaguers can fit in the first issue of a Justice League comic? | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] lives outside of costume are like (Here I’m going to point you to Brendan Wright’s post “JLA #1 vs. Justice League #1″ on his blog The Wright Opinion, where he breaks down the first issue of Morrison and […]

  3. Frank Smith Says:

    Dude, this is freakin’ awesome. I haven’t read the early issues of Morrison’s JLA in some time, and this made me remember how much I enjoyed them, and how exciting it was. I think I’ll go find those issue now.

    And while I did like the general tenor of the first issue of Johns & Lee’s JLA, I also immediately decided to wait for the trade and spend some pennies on other DCU #1 issues because, well, it’s clear that the story isn’t designed to be enjoyed issue by issue. It sets up a string of moments that are clearly going to be a lot more interesting if one reads them all in one sitting, and I’d rather only pay for all of those issues once. At one time.

    No harm done, imho. DC will still get their money for their product from me, if not in the ideal fashion, and I’m willing to try, say, the Frankenstein title in the interim (which also managed to introduce all of the characters on the cover and more in the first issue).

  4. Drew Melbourne (@DrewMelbourne) Says:

    I think that if they introduced all of the characters with the rapidity of Morrison’s #1, it would undermine this issue’s notion that superheroes are new and awe-inspiring. (An idea that jaded fans may have trouble with, but which is a reasonable storytelling choice.) Johns and Lee’s #1 is really about establishing mood, setting, and character, and I think it’s handled exactly right for its mandate.

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