Doing Justice to Difficult America: “Justice League of America #1”

Probably one of the most accomplished affects achieved by the creative team of writer Geoff Johns and artist David Finch in the debut issue of Justice League of America, is the strangely comforting misdirection they’re able to initiate together. The opening issue is rendered in an essayistic format–fiercely antagonistic government operatives responsible for monitoring the new League, Amanda Waller and Steve Trevor (who hold opposing views on what the JLA ought to be) debate their relative positions, while each potential team member the pair talk about is showcased in a mini-adventure of their own.

Perhaps one of the finest feats of misdirection that the creative team is able to achieve is the unflinching (but of equal importance) unjaundiced look the difficult task of being American. Or perhaps this isn’t misdirection at all, perhaps this is really the emotional core of the book. What kind of American can you be, what kinds of American Dream are available to you? Whether it’s Green Arrow’s grand American narrative of rebuilding one’s self after having been knocked down, or Green Lantern or Vibe’s story of climbing what President Obama called “those strong ladders to the middle class”, or Waller and Trevor’s Red-State-Blue contestation on how to be a better patriot, each cast member on the book offers a unique take on American identity. Even outsiders like Katana and Hawkman whose amazing breadth of savagery border on being classified as war crimes, allude to Cold War-era foreign policy.

Navigating the humdrum task of introducing each cast member becomes deeply engaging when framed by Waller and Trevor’s conversation. It’s the kind of routine exposition that storytelling must almost always give way to in the opening stages of any new series. “I’m Catwoman, and these are my powers, and this is my backstory”. But Johns and Finch are able to offer a richly layered story throughout this necessary task of storytelling. It’s not that the various leads stories are particularly intriguing, it’s that they’re not.

Hawkman is simply a thug propped up the state because he serves a national security purpose. Vibe is just a kid waiting to make it big, whether or not he realizes that himself. Green Arrow is rolling the dice on the idea that he’s not out of the game yet. What makes their individual stories (and fairly common superhero, fairly common American stories at that) all the more compelling, is how Waller and Trevor are able to articulate the trap of identity that the leads themselves are simultaneously caught in and oblivious to.

Johns’ use of Waller and Trevor’s conversation to introduce readers to the deeper dramatic irony of each team member is perfectly complimented by Finch’s dark color palette. Even the bright, optimistic, Californian world of Stargirl as she in all fairness assumes the role of tabloid darling is thrown into question when we see it play out at night. This isn’t seedy corruption of opening party of the Godfather Part II. Nor does Finch’s dark seem to signify a morally murky world like those envisioned by Alfred Hitchcock. What Finch’s nighttime palette accomplishes, is a visualization of the difficulties of American identity the leads are oblivious to but the government overseers manage to elegantly describe.

Perhaps this beautiful black-hole tango of creative vision articulated through both writer and artist is the emotional core of the book. But then again, perhaps not. The very finely-crafted narrative use that is made of Waller and Trevor’s conversation does also elide the poorly-conceived ideological core to Waller’s stance on the JLA. What exactly is the threat Waller is responding to that makes her so passionate about manipulating the public with government-licensed superheroes? Trevor’s position that the superheroes should be free to be superheroes seems intuitive, Waller’s position that it’s in the interests of national security that the US have its own government-controlled superteam, not so much. Maybe ten years ago, with the nation just crawling out from the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the audience for Justice League of America might have intuitively have grasped Waller’s position. But now, maybe too much time has passed.

Had the first issue ended there, at the point in the story where the conversation between Waller and Trevor concludes, at the point where Finch delivers that beautiful, savage two-page spread that shows exactly how the JLA would take down the Justice League if it ever came to that… Had the first issue ended there, the book would have been critically flawed. But, the two concluding scenes that span the last five pages of the book elevate Justice League of America to the level of art.

Particularly the first of those scenes, Trevor’s conversation with the Martian Manhunter (more a confrontation really, that acts as a denouement to the earlier conversation with Waller), allows us to feel as if we’ve collectively stepped into the cathedral of something far greater than ourselves, as if we’ve collectively stepped into the idea of America, perhaps for the first time. Manhunter’s rebuttal of Waller’s position returns us to the idea that to be American also means to be assertive in the belief that no shadowy forces, not even the most well-intentioned spymasters, can describe the full arc of what you may yet be. The idea that while, in this instance, the JLA may have been brought together by the kinds of people who frequent cigar smoke-filled rooms lined with oak panels and chairs upholstered in leather, they will end up being a League on their own terms. The idea that to be American, means to be able to inscribe one’s destiny for oneself.

Johns has excelled with this book, conceiving of a most unique way to tell the story of the Justice League of America–by meditating on why America appears in the team’s name. Even the fact that no one before has considered this, and that such consideration now seems obvious, pales into comparison against the true intellectual core of this book–that meditations on a Difficult America and our collective struggle with American identity is now exactly what’s needed in popculture. This is exactly the social realism in American literature that Tom Wolfe mourned the death of when he inaugurated New Journalism. Justice League of America proves that Johns isn’t only heir to the American literary tradition of Whitman, Twain and Hemingway, he is also their equal.

RATING 10 / 10