Reading Room: Dwayne McDuffie's "Justice League of America"
The late, great Dwayne McDuffie was the story editor for Justice League starting in season 2, and he served in that capacity for the duration of Justice League Unlimited. It would seem like a no-brainer for DC Comics to hand the keys to their premiere super-team book over to him and let him take them for a spin. In 2007, DC seemed to do just that, with McDuffie scripting the newly rebooted Justice League of America comic book series starting with issue #13.
Unfortunately, McDuffie’s work was repeatedly compromised and undermined because of other events both in the fictional DC Comics universe and in the real world of making comics. As a result, stories had to be radically rethought, sometimes more than once, and a few were jettisoned completely. McDuffie gave voice to some of the behind-the-scenes changes that had to be made over the span of his run, which unfortunately led to his removal from the book with issue #34 (cover dated August 2009). All of McDuffie’s comics have since been collected in four individual volumes. While there are plenty of things to like about them, those big-scale comic book events and editorial mandates clearly took their toll, often making these stories more difficult reading than they should have been.
The Injustice League
The Justice League TV show did “supervillain team-up” stories three separate times, with McDuffie himself involved in two, so the core theme of this volume is very familiar territory. Luckily, McDuffie is genre-savvy enough to know the many ways this trope has been played out, even lampshading it a few times in the book. While the basic idea is the same (villains team up in secret and win some short-term victories against the heroes before getting their butts kicked by the good guys), McDuffie makes sure to play out the variations on the theme to minimize the sense that you’ve read this story before. This is probably the most successful of McDuffie’s story arcs during his tenure because it tells a straightforward, self-contained story that links into the larger DC Universe but doesn’t require an encyclopedic understanding of it to understand.
Unlike the TV show, the comic book was aimed at an older-teen to adult-aged audience, and McDuffie used the greater latitude wisely. There may be more overt violence in this book than in the TV show, but while it may be a bit shocking to see the sadistic glee that this Injustice League derives from torturing the captured heroes, it never seems gratuitous or unjustified (unlike many of its other contemporaries from DC). McDuffie also never forgets to relieve some of the darkness with appropriate topical humor, some of which also would never have passed muster on Cartoon Network (such as a real howler about Giganta’s choice of costume).
There are two “bonus” stories included at the end, one of which is marginally interesting but ends hanging (it is labeled a prequel to the Tangent: Superman’s Reign storyline) and the other of which leads more directly to the next major story arc.
The main story in this collection was written by Alan Burnett, another name that should be familiar to modern action animation fans. Government agents (led by Amanda Waller and a new Suicide Squad) took custody of the Injustice League at the end of the previous volume, and this one reveals that none of the supervillains arrested by the Squad were ever seen or heard from again. As a result, a small band of supervillains shows up in the League’s Hall of Justice asking for asylum, fearing that the government is “vanishing” them. The truth ends up being even odder, heralding the return of a classic Justice League foe. Even though the story crafts an interesting fictional parallel to the appalling real-world practice of extraordinary rendition, it feels thoroughly unsatisfying because the big question of where the supervillains really went goes unanswered in this volume. For that, you’d have to go read a totally different story, and the fact that the book doesn’t even bother to tell you which one makes me totally uninterested in seeking it out.
McDuffie provides the backup stories that expand on some background events from the first story arc, such as the mystery of Vixen’s new super power of borrowing abilities from other superheroes instead of from animals, and the rebuilding of Red Tornado from the dismantling he received in Injustice League. There’s a single-issue story focusing on the Flash that’s probably the best single story in this volume. The closing story ends up being yet another tie-in to the big Final Crisis event (at least they tell you what it is this time), but just assumes that you’d read the story that wrapped up the “Sanctuary” story arc. With two bait-and-switch stories that start but don’t finish in McDuffie’s run, this volume just feels oddly incomplete. I don’t blame McDuffie for this at all, however, since his own words reveal how often he had to work around the incessant crossover events DC was publishing.
This third volume wraps up two major background stories about the rebuilding of Red Tornado and the mystery of Vixen’s altered superpowers. The former ends up marking the return of another classic, heavy-hitting Justice League foe, and McDuffie takes full advantage of the scenario for a truly massive dust-up that’s even bigger and more desperate than the confrontation with the Injustice League two volumes earlier. The reveal of the villain is one of the more pleasant surprises of the book so I dare not reveal who it is, but I will say that he’s appeared in just about every DC animated series since Justice League, so anyone who’s familiar with those shows ought to at least recognize his name and why he’s such a big threat.
The Vixen story pulls in cult favorite superhero Animal Man, and strays pretty far into meta-textual territories. McDuffie himself admitted that the puppetmaster pulling the strings of the tale is intended to be himself and
the story is about not having control over the stories in the book. Overall, McDuffie does an excellent job ensuring that the story isn’t overwhelmed by the meta-commentary elements, and the tale leads to an alternate universe Justice League that’s incredibly interesting. Again, McDuffie never forgets to include some humor, this time pulling a hilarious joke about a superhero euphemistically described as “culturally insensitive” whose superhero nom de guerre required a visit to the Urban Dictionary to understand. Knowing the tale’s provenance makes some of the antagonist’s statements a bit more pointed than they would be otherwise, but unfortunately the story doesn’t quite achieve escape velocity from its origins as meta-text. It’s not as bad as Grant Morrison at his most cosmically obscure, but there are still a number of head-scratchers that don’t come off as clearly as they probably should have.
When Worlds Collide
The fourth and final volume of McDuffie’s tenure on Justice League of America promises to be the biggest event yet as the League splinters into factions just as a massive inter-dimensional threat appears and forces the League into conflict with superheroes from the Milestone Universe, such as Hardware, Icon, and the Shadow Cabinet. Unfortunately, this story arc ends up having some of the best individual moments and the worst overall structure. McDuffie pulls off a truly impressive juggling act by assembling a truly massive cast and ensuring that everyone involved gets a distinctive voice and perspective on the situation. However, that alone doesn’t manage to really adequately explain all the events that happen in the book, and I suspect this might be because a lot of inciting incidents happened in other comic books (also happily unnamed anywhere in this reprint volume). The result is a story that’s strangely disjointed and that feels even more unfinished than the average perpetually on-going superhero soap opera narrative. McDuffie himself said that his abrupt removal from the book meant that he had to leave a lot of plotlines unfinished, such as the Black Canary thread that ends on a pretty lame note in this volume.
Fans of the TV show or the DTV animated movies McDuffie scripted will recognize the same cleverness in plotting, sharp wit, and plot twists you feel like you’d have seen coming if only you were a little bit smarter. However, they will also miss the coherence and self-contained nature of the TV show, and one can’t read McDuffie’s comments without feeling a little frustrated that his success with the show was insufficient to simply give him free reign to do whatever he wanted and force other comic book writers to adapt to him. The artwork is mostly by Ed Benes, who tempers his tendency for overdone female cheesecake and turns in some rather nice work.
DC did a decent job packaging these books, springing for glossy paper and including cover images, but there are a number of other annoying aspects common in DC and Marvel’s reprint program. There are no volume numbers anywhere on these reprints or even a note of which issues are reprinted on the back cover. Unless you already know what’s where, you have to dig into the copyright indicia to find out what issues are reprinted in each volume. This is simply idiotic, making it far, far harder than it should be to assemble and read them in order, or find out how it links to the other comics with “Justice League of America” in the title (including those reprinting classic Silver Age material). And, as mentioned, there’s a strange combination of requiring readers to seek out other comics to get complete stories, but a baffling reluctance to say what those stories actually are, even in the 2 or 3 pages of ads in the back of each volume.
Even compromised and incomplete Dwayne McDuffie comics still prove to be pretty entertaining, but it’s still rather frustrating to realize the extent to which they ended up being that way.
At least we still have the TV show and direct-to-video movies.