Thursday, September 21, 2006

JLA: Classified #26

JLA: Classified #26, October 2006, DC Comics
writer: Howard Chaykin
artists: Kilian Plunkett & Tom Nguyen
letterer: Ken Lopez
colorist: I.L.L.
editors: Palmer & Carlin

In my humble opinion, the Justice League titles should be the best mainstream superhero comic books on the market today. Where else can new readers find the most popular, iconic heroes of the our generation in a single adventure, and where else should veteran readers turn when they long to behold old characters tackling new and greater challenges on a regular basis? The diversity of the heroes' powers, personalities, and predicaments should make for the best action, adventure, and melodrama available in the medium, bar none. I'm not just talking about the "big seven," either -- the canon of characters popularized as a group in Grant Morrison's JLA relaunch. His run may have cemented my dedication to the team, but I've always admired DC's eclectic roster, and I think the "rotating chair" concept is one that benefits the League on a functional and fictional level, as a crime-fighting task force and a driving force in graphic literature. Bottom line, the Justice League isn't just one particular incarnation or collection of superheroes. It's DC Comics' chance to really show off their chops.

Unfortunately, DC doesn't know how to corral the horses in their stable. Like a painter cursed with perfectionism forever touching up his masterpiece, DC's canon has been revamped, repackaged, and relaunched so many times that the characters' cumulative effort, the League itself, often suffers from comic book crib death. The last ongoing JLA title, for example, lasted a mere 125 issues before the latest crisis pressed the proverbial restart button on the DCU. Before the end, the League went through three different Green Lanterns, if you count Hal Jordan's return in the eleventh hour. In retrospect, until the '80s, readers could pick up any issue of any DC title with little concern about cosmic continuity. Sure, some issues didn't make sense in the context of previous story arcs, including the existence of Earths ad infinitum, but the entertainment factor often overshadowed any potential confusion. Our heroes' adventures were fun. The Justice League was fun. Now, with a new line-up on the horizon, I don't trust the title. The series that I most looked forward to makes me cringe at the thought of how long (or, how short) it will last this time.

Enter JLA: Classified. A series dedicated to JL adventures from the past, these tales by rotating creative teams are free of all that baggage. Further, since the stories are essentially stand-alone mini-series, readers can come and go from the book depending on their tastes. I picked up the Ellis/Guise arc and took a break for a bit; now, I'm back for "Sacred Trust," a six-issue commitment that, if following installments live up to the first one, I can live with. Written by Chaykin, no stranger to a superhero tale with political intrigue, "Sacred Trust" begins with the League essentially disobeying the UN's warning to ignore two warring Middle Eastern countries, each building a metahuman army. More so than the snapshots of action, the driving force behind this yarn is the relationship between the heroes; as a diplomat himself, Aquaman insists that the League honor the UN's position, but Batman refuses as his fight for justice is accountable to no single government. Even Superman insists, "As a visitor to this planet, my loyalties are to its people, not its governing bodies." The League does shed their spandex to go undercover as civilians, so the next chapter should offer an interesting take on how their secret identities can be used for or against their favor. Looks the League likes to take leave of its baggage, too, from time to time.

Of course, the ideas presented in this arc are not new. In JLA, we saw the League fight as their civilian selves in the Mark Waid story that physically separated the heroes from their secret identities. And in "Golden Perfect," the League controversially tackled the troubles of a sovereign nation. Still, this is the group at its finest, slightly at odds with one another, which makes them human, but nevertheless divided for justice, which makes them heroes. No matter what else may happen to these characters, at least that will never change.

(Don't remind me about Parallax, okay?)

You know, without the Justice League, Marvel Comics as we know it may never have sprung forth from the mind of Stan Lee. The League's success inspired Lee's editor to prod Stan into creating their very own super-team, and the Fantastic Four was born. I'm sure you can find a more accurate history lesson somewhere on-line, but those are the essential facts. DC has always set the stage for the medium's concept of superhero fiction: from Batman: Year One came Spider-man: Chapter One. From Crisis on Infinite Earths came The Infinity Gaunlet. And this is just on the DC versus Marvel scale; other publishers have demonstrated similar trends. Believe me. Their characters just didn't have the history to stand up to the burden of such epic storytelling. Again, DC proves that their roster simply has the chops. Like everything else, the Justice League has overcome it. Even if it's classified.

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