Geoff Johns and the Batman Problem

Were the original creators of the very first Justice League scared of Superman? Decades later with Justice League International, the Justice League incarnation that spanned the 80s-90s and loosely chronicled the emerging post-Soviet world, the creators certainly appeared to be. Justice League International simply wrote Superman out of the League, as did the book Wonder Woman. And there’s little reason to blame them. Superman is definitely a problem. He’s simply too powerful. He bend steel beams, dodge bullets (but he doesn’t need to), shoot heat-vision bolts from his eyes, fly, give a locomotive a run for its money, the list is seemingly endless. And what could keep him in check save the incredibly rare shards of Kryptonite? The art of the Justice League always lay in creating villains that were large enough to push the other members to their limits.

It wasn’t until Grant Morrison’s handling of the League in the seminal JLA, that we began to realize the real problem wasn’t Superman at all, but Batman. In the opening arc, “New World Order”, it was Batman who first realized that the media-friendly group of intergalactic troubadour-superheroes was in fact attempting a planetary-scale brainwash. It was Batman who first uncovered the secret that these aliens were in fact White Martians. And when their ruse was finally uncovered, and when Superman and Wonder Woman each fought a single White Martian to a standstill, it was Batman who singlehandedly defeated four.

Grant had set the tone for the League. Batman was singularly capable, it was his capacity for self-discipline and his tactical assessment of every situation that made him superhuman. The real problem with the League was that the superheroes with “real” powers dulled their resilience by relying on those powers far too much. Not so with Batman. Batman could simply, solve everything. He was Mister Spock and Bruce Lee and Sherlock Holmes all rolled into one. Even after Grant, with Mark Waid’s Tower of Babel and later with Joe Kelly’s Obsidian Age and Dwayne McDuffie’s landmark Lightning Saga, we continued to see the real problem Batman presented.

It only made sense then, for Geoff Johns, DC’s Chief Creative Officer and writer at the helm of the newest Justice League book, to tackle the problem directly and shift the focus of the first issue to Batman. Last August’s release of Justice League #1 seemed the right kind of move on Geoff’s part. In a very direct sense, Batman demanded to be confronted by any writer of any Justice League book. And yet, playing off Batman against Green Lantern, each as foil, then counter-foil to the other, seemed to make no sense. Without a broader context, without a broader project, what was really going on here? The real context was the grudge that Batman couldn’t let go of. The idea that Green Lantern, in succumbing to Parallax’s possession, had evidenced some inner weakness. To Batman weakness was unforgivable, to his detective’s mind, the Parallax possession must have been the last in a long line of tiny, cumulative failures. But all of this was a thing of the past with the New 52, wasn’t it?

Geoff has time and again mentioned that, for him, the Justice League really begins with Green Lantern and with the Flash. They’re the core of the League, much more so than the founder-member trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. They’re why there is a League rather than simple superhero team-ups. It should have been clear then, even with issue one. The heart of the drama in that issue seemed so clearly the human element of Vic Stone’s life as a young wide receiver on the cusp of earning a college scholarship. But the heart of the story was as much Geoff dealing with the traditional genre of League stories (that is, the Batman problem), as it was imprinting his own vision on the League (that is, articulating Green Lantern).

If that emergent dynamic wasn’t as explicit in issue one, if that issue seemed little more than a context-free (therefore emotionally uninteresting) Batman “versus” Green Lantern, the problem is solved in this, issue #5. Geoff shifts the emotional engagement of the drama back to the superheroes and back to Batman and Green Lantern in particular. It’s a pure thrill to see Superman and the Flash outrun Darkseid’s Omega Beams. But even better, even more engaging is reading the turning tide in the battle of egos between Batman and Green Lantern. Those twenty-four magnificent panels are of the most compelling you’ll find in mainstream superhero comics. They are the very definition of not only Geoff’s vision for the League, but why there is a League in the first place.

And it is with this issue that Geoff introduces a new problem for the League, the Green Lantern problem. If there are any reservations to be had, it’s that destruction of Metropolis (and indeed the globe) seems to be growing more and more abstract as the emotional drama of the story shifts to the superheroes.

RATING 7 / 10