By Jonathan Edwards
With Justice League of America #22, Steve Orlando rose to the occasion and finally wrote what I would call the first truly decent issue of his run on the series proper (meaning not including the prequel one-shots). Sure, issue #17 ended with some legitimate character development for Ryan, but that was in spite of the first half, as well as every other issue in that story arc, being crappy. And yes, if you ignore the art problems, the Annual was a relatively fine read. But, with double the page count and only about a third of the main cast (read: Lobo and Black Canary), it failed to represent or even adequately connect to the rest of the series, and it sure as hell didn’t give the impression that the book, as a whole, would be getting any better. However, that changed with JLA #22. We finally got a villain with some complexity to her, and none of the title team’s members did anything too stupid. And then, Justice League of America #23 managed to keep it mostly together. But, as I said in my review for that issue, it takes three to form a pattern. So, here we are with Justice League of America #24, the upshot of which is twofold. On the one hand, it appears that Orlando has indeed settled into a new, less stupid standard for his last half-dozen issues of JLA. But, at the same time, there’s been a conceptual short-sightedness that’s been at the heart of his work on this title, and it returns as clear cut as ever here.
Admittedly, this is a fine distinction to make (especially with the notion of the book both being not as bad and making the same type of mistakes), but let me explain. See, for the majority of Orlando’s run, that short-sightedness has manifested as deeply flawed characterizations and character motivations. They’re the things I’ve continually called out and harped on as showing a lack of self-awareness. Things like the blatant, pseudo-philosophical villainy of previous antagonists, Ray continually treating Batman like a bad guy for not trusting Makson even after Batman turned out to be right, and the JLA willingly allowing Prometheus unrestricted access to The Sanctuary simply because he was disguised as “documentarian” John Porter. Rather than focusing on the story moving forward based on the agency of his characters, Orlando decided on events he wanted to happen and then tried to justify their happening by forcing character actions. In other words, it was contrived, and that makes the characters feel stupid, annoying, and hard to relate to.
Now, JLA #24 is contrived as well. The difference is that the focus has almost entirely been moved away from the ‘why’ of characters’ actions and toward the ‘how.’ That is to say, Orlando spends more time bending the mechanics of character capabilities rather than personalities. For example, Vixen uses her Tantu Totem to communicate with everyone in the world whose wish was granted by Tsaritsa while she was The Might Beyond the Mirror. It’s obvious where Orlando is coming from with that idea, and it’s at least somewhat creative. But, it substantially deviates from Vixen’s established powers. The Tantu Totem lets her draw animal attributes from The Red. And, even though humans are technically part of it, the whole significance of the heroes connected to it is to show their relationship to other organisms. Doing something as audacious as using it for mass communicate at the human level should be a big goddamn deal and treated with reverence. But, here it’s practically an unceremonious deus ex machina working off of a technicality. Furthermore, even if we accept that Vixen can suddenly use The Red to communicate telepathically, as well as somehow pinpoint every single person that’s had their wish granted, how are they all able to un-grant (for lack of a better term) their wishes, and how can she access that power through The Red? Since it has to do with imagination and the Queen of Fables, wouldn’t everything we’ve learned from this arc suggest that power should originate from and be tied to Immateria, the realm of thought, and not The Red?
There’s a similar problem with Caitlin still having her ice powers. Tsaritsa cured Caitlin’s heat vampirism, but that was what powered her cryokinesis. Yet, in Orlando’s mind, it’s appropriate for Caitlin to defeat Tsaritsa with ice powers since Caitlin was the one who released her by getting rid of them. So, she has to keep them, even though that doesn’t make sense. And, before anyone tries to argue that Caitlin un-granted her wish to get them back, she was definitely using them to fight Lobo before that. Combine all of that with last issue’s revelation that, apparently, Freya looked just like Caitlin AND herself had heat vampirism, as well as Promethea showing up for little reason other than to say she showed up, and it becomes clear just how far Orlando is willing to stretch and distort internal logic for the sake of the story in the direction he wants it to go in.
Edwards’s art fluctuates back to characters’ bigger expressions falling short at times. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the result is something of an Uncanny Valley effect, where the exaggeration of a given face far exceeds the amount of genuine emotion it conveys. I’m guessing it has something to do with the reference pictures Edwards uses. Maybe he’s not meticulous enough at choosing references that work with the bodies he’s drawn. Maybe he follows them too closely or not closely enough. Maybe it’s none of those things, or maybe it’s a combination of all of them and then some. Whatever it is, it doesn’t quite work. Additionally, did the Tantu Totem change shapes? Because Vixen is now wearing a completely different necklace, and there’s no sign of the original totem. If it did suddenly transform, two questions: why and, more importantly, how? Seriously, doesn’t the name “Vixen” come, at least in part, from the fact that the Totem is and always has been shaped like a fox? And, if that necklace is just a part of her new costume and not actually the Totem, then why does it glow purple when she uses her powers, and where the hell is the real Totem?
To give Orlando some credit, Ray’s apology and request to rejoin the JLA right at the end of this issue is fairly satisfying (even if it does ostensibly contradict what he said about staying in Vanity), especially when he disagrees with Black Canary telling him his actions were justified. Although, it’d be a whole lot better if Ray didn’t once again blame Batman by offhandedly saying he “seemed to be pitting us against each other.” And, I’m not sure why Orlando feels the need to keep attempting to reinforce this point. After all, it’s not like saying it again is going to make anyone, least of all me, decide to start believing it. Maybe he’s still trying to convince himself that it does make sense for Batman to be in the wrong, as the alternative would require acknowledging and accepting that the foundation for a lot of this book’s conflict has actually been unfounded. Regardless, next issue marks the return of Lord Havok, and if we’re lucky, Orlando will handle him a little bit better this time around.
Justice League of America #24