It Needs More Punching: A Review of Justice League #44

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 1, 2015.

Justice League #44

“Forever Evil”, the last Geoff Johns’ penned superhero event from DC Comics, was an unabashed shit show. It stretched two and a half plot points (a generous estimate) across a mini-series and various tie-ins, treated dialogue like something you solved in a puzzle on the back of a Froot Loops box, and threw up its arms at the end because it was clear no one had any idea where it was supposed to go from the start. That combined with David Finch’s complete inability to communicate geography, action, emotion, or any female body type that doesn’t look like a porcelain Barbie doll, and you had a disaster on your hands. It was, essentially, exactly what you would expect from most events produced by one of the notorious B.I.G. T.W.O.

However, “Forever Evil” had at least one thing going for it. Occasionally it seemed just self-aware enough of its aimless ramblings and ink drenched panels to rise above the level of disaster and into the realm of camp. Whether it was accidental or purposeful, the comic knew it shouldn’t be taken seriously. In those brief moments, like when Lex Luthor gets tender with a dying Bizarro like Izzie cradling Denny at the end of Gray’s Anatomy season two.

“Darkseid War” doesn’t even have that going in its favor. It takes itself very seriously, moving it from laughable (most of Geoff John’s recent repertoire) to insulting.

Justice League #44 is the fifth part of “Darkseid War”, which for most 22-page comics would require some amount of plot synopsis. Not this one. The Justice, various New Gods, and the Anti-Monitor are all punching one another in various locales for various reasons. That’s all you need to know here. You might want to ask, which heroes and villains are doing the punching and why? That question will lead you down a dark path to intelligence insulting, plot-driven nonsense though. “DC characters” will suffice for the who and “reasons” will suffice for the why.

Technically, Batman, Superman, Darkseid, Mister Miracle, and lots of other classic characters appear, but they are only recognizable by their color schemes and logos. Beneath the heavily rendered, gritty sheen provided by Jason Fabok, these are all essentially variations on the same Funko pop toy. They are teeth clenching, angry, determined, and, above all else, ready to punch people they don’t like really hard.

Punching is both the source of and solution to every problem in Justice League #44. The biggest problem of all is that Darkseid and the Anti-Monitor are punching one another. Some of their sidekicks are punching each other too, and this is also bad. So the Justice League is here to try to punch them away, but they are scared their punches won’t be enough.

Meanwhile, Superman and Lex Luthor are trying to punch their way through Parademons, until Superman wants to punch Lex Luthor instead. How will Lex get out of this predicament? (I bet it involves a certain word that ends with P and ends with “unch”.

The only story not centered around punching into and out of problems involves Batman and Green Lantern. The former verbally punches the latters ego though in a moment that fails to be funny or insightful. It’s just kind of sad, like Batman punching a dog without much personality.

None of this is to say that punching is bad. Just take a look at action-centered superhero comics like Nextwave andOne-Punch Man. They are all about making fists hit things as hard as they can in clever ways for hilarious and/or exciting results. But these comics also understand what they are, and deliver their material with surgical precision. Whether they’re choosing to be a self-indulgent flagellation of genre tropes (Nextwave) or a heart-filled exploration of heroics (One-Punch Man), these comics know what they are and communicate that just as effectively as the comedy and action on their page. Justice League #44 and all of “Darkseid War” either doesn’t know what it is, or has mangled its intentions so badly that they need to be amputated with the nearest saw, no matter how rusty.

Here Johns has grafted iconic DC stories onto the Lenny-like manchild of his Justice League series. It is a Frankenstein’s monster with the legs and torso of Justice League “War”, the arms of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the rotting head of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Saga. It’s that last part that hurts the most for anyone familiar with these properties. The members of this incarnation of the Justice League have always been two-dimensional facsimiles of anything enjoyable or relatable. Crisis on Infinite Earths best element was always Perez’s art, so it’s no great loss to see the Anti-Monitor be transformed into something somehow even sillier. But it’s harder to watch Johns’ mangle some of Kirby’s greatest creations like Sid in Toy Story.

Darkseid has any sense of menace or evil replaced with size, an overly ornate costume, and plenty of punching and shouting. If Finch’s ink-muddied pencils were drawing his fight with the Anti-Monitor it would be difficult to tell the two apart. The only reason is a threat is that characters continually state that he’s both the most powerful and most evil being in existence. Johns doesn’t need to back that up when he can just have superheroes act as his mouthpiece.

Mister Miracle has been stripped not only of his wife, but of any sense of wonder or imagination. He spouts a line about the difference between running and escaping that I imagine a 12 year old might think cool for a few minutes before forgetting it, and then continues to do a whole lot of nothing in his torn costume. Others from the Fourth World fare even worse with Kalibak being angry (and now blind) and the Black Racer exists and… Actually, it’s difficult to recall many of the New Gods involved in this story. That’s a big part of the problem.

Some of the most imaginative visual designs and distinctive personalities ever introduced to DC Comics have become bland fodder for another big, battle royale in the perpetually moving destruction engine that is Geoff John’s New 52 Justice League. These aren’t characters meant to expose ideas or introduce themes, they are creatures meant to move plot and provide flashy spreads. Justice League #44 and “Darkseid War” aren’t only a disappointment for anyone interested in these creations, they are the antithesis of these creations.

And again, this isn’t to say it couldn’t be done. Reinterpretation and reinvigoration of decades old concepts are the recycled lifeblood of superhero comics. It has almost all been done before, so it’s always about finding an interesting way to do it again. That is done on a pretty regular basis producing a stream of readable and occasionally enjoyable comics. However, that’s not the case here. Rather than find a new spin or add a fresh polish to great ideas, Johns has removed everything that made New Gods like Darkseid and Mister Miracle great and left zombified husks to shamble through his plotting.

Honestly, all of this, the endless punching, the pointless plotting, the reduction of great concepts, is just exhausting. Reading Justice League #44 isn’t enraging or funny; it’s the experience of mild shock fading to indifference. If this is the superhero event comic we choose to praise, then it’s the quality of comic we probably deserve. I should know better by now, but I’m still here giving it a shot, and I guess that means I deserved this too.

I’m sorry.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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