My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Let’s get in the way-back machine (well, the sort-of-way-back machine…okay, the one-decade machine, and you can decide whether or not that’s way-back) and talk about a one-shot that Paul Dini and Alex Ross offered, “JLA: Liberty and Justice for All.” This is an over-sized (by that I mean physical page size, not book length…you can easily read this in a sitting) graphic novel that grabbed my attention from the shelves of my local library. This is one of a few over-sized graphic novels to Ross’ credit, and my first real experience with his art, which feels much more like a sequential painting that normal comic book art. This book truly shines because of the art: Aquaman’s face, Batman’s cloak, Wonder Woman’s presence, Hawkman’s and Hawkgirl’s wings as they are in flight. I’ll be the first to say that some of the portrayals of the heroes’ faces aren’t particularly to my liking (Superman looks too old, Green Lantern too conservative), but this is a matter of preference that shouldn’t eclipse the fact that the art in this book is absolutely breathtaking. The final panel in which Superman and the Martian Manhunter hover over the Earth keeping watch is alone worth reading this.
To be fair, I’ve read other reviews that criticize the writing for plot inconsistencies. My primary negative reaction to the writing is the lack of inventiveness in some of the action sequences, an occasionally the dialogue could be more natural, to fit the realistic images of our heroes in the artwork. What I admire in the plot, though, is the fact that it explores important themes about super hero mythology. As hysteria about an alien plague begins to sweep over the world, rioting and chaos break out. The Justice League is forced to turn their powers against those that they have protected before in order to keep peace, and, while they are not violent, the writer explores the public’s feeling of betrayal and stunned silence as the superhuman powers of the Justice League are suddenly not between them and danger, but rather turned toward them. All of us who were “good kids” in school remember the unease as the teacher’s glare was turned upon us for the first time.
As the heroes stand at their press conference to defend their actions, Dini does a fantastic job of making the reader want to take their side, but feel uneasy doing so. In the spirit of another great graphic novel, I found myself thinking during the Manhunter’s closing address, “but who watches the watchmen?”
Superheroes are the powerful, the ones who stand against the evil that we cannot hope to resist ourselves, selflessly acting in our defense when we need them most. That mythology falls apart when their power is turned against us instead, and so that is our tension: we want the heroes to save us, yet we fear of what they are capable should they choose to act selfishly, to cross the line between hero and villain. What Dini does so powerfully here is to underscore that that line…the very definitions of “hero” and “villain”…can be subjective.
Keep in mind, for those of us familiar with the stories, that this is a stand-alone book, outside of the canon of the regular DC story arcs. This book is worth the read for anyone remotely interested in superhero tales and what they mean to the human experience. Any reader will appreciate the themes that are explored in this book.