Saturday, June 7, 2008

Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare

Pages were missing from the Book of Destiny. Every super-hero you ever heard of was at best just another comic book character. Across the world in recent weeks, humans had begun to spontaneously develop super-powers. 79,000 of these "Sparkers" resided in the United States alone. The heroes and villains of this new world order were new to the tongue... Onyx... Unity... Vigil... Behemoth... The only thing super about Beatriz DaCosta was her modelling career. Michael Carter was a football booster worth his weight in gold, with Ted Kord a CEO. Kyle Rayner drew comic books. Clark Kent was nothing more than a recently ineffectual newspaper reporter. Bruce Wayne's parents chided him for turning their charitable tax shelter into a philanthropic crusade. Wally West taught grade school, while Diana Prince was headmistress of a boarding school. Most incredulously, Arthur Curry was a fisherman given a position in the Red Tide Tuna Company corporate office to avoid a lawsuit when he lost a hand. Unlike the other former Leaguers, most of his supporting cast was also present... on staff. As the founding members of the Justice League of America begin to recognize the Matrix has them, they are drawn to one another as the only force powerful enough to set the world right. Problem being, one of the seven would just as soon retain their illusion, and what if the Know Man is right about this world being the best of all possible?

This was the basic premise behind 1996's "A Midsummer's Nightmare." After cancelling their then-current line of Justice League related books; America, Task Force, Quarterly, Extreme; this three issue mini-series seemed rushed into production to fill the gap until and explain the formation of what would become their renaissance formulation, the Morrison/Porter "JLA." Each issue ran about 1 1/2 times normal length, which likely put a strain on the artists, as their work was uneven.

That said, I think Jeff Johnson and John Holdredge's pages were mostly spectacular, evoking a mixture of cover artist Kevin Maguire's expressive caricature with Stuart Immonen's more impressionistic work. Johnson's Manhunter remains a personal favorite, and I regret his limited contact with the character. Few can capture both the extremes of serenity and righteous fury in J'Onn's Martian heart with comparable aptitude. Darick Robertson and Hanibal Rodriguez fare worse, too often appearing as choppy chicken-scratch.

Mark Waid and Fabian Nicieza co-wrote the effort, and they acquit themselves very nicely. I've long felt Nicieza is an under-appreciated master at team dynamics. Waid remains one of the best writers the League has never quite had, seeing as how he's rarely around longer than a handful of issues, despite multiple runs on various line-ups. For some unfathomable reason, this mini tends to be treated as something of a cast-off, even though it sets up both the monster hit ongoing that followed and the ultimate resolution of the Morrison/Porter run three years later. I only have sales numbers on the last issue, which sold 53,244 copies in the direct market. "JLA" #3 by comparison sold about 47% better, and that was before the book became "hot" or benefited from widespread newsstand distribution.

On a personal note, the end of the second issue was what turned Martian Manhunter from a well-liked also-ran to my favorite character, necessitating this series' inclusion as part of my spotlight of some of the best J'Onn J'Onzz comics ever. While the Manhunter himself is seen on only 5 of the first 68 pages, his presence is felt on many more, and he dominates much of the last issue. All of the Leaguers get their chances to shine, either through action or personality, making the trade both an excellent jumping-on point for passingly familiar readers and a pleasure for fans of any one character. Well, maybe not Wonder Woman, who's role is rather passive, and of course Aquaman, but what else is new?

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