Tuesday, December 6, 2016

JLA: The Secret Society of Super-Heroes #1

Writers: Howard Chaykin and David Tischman
Penciller: Mike McKone
Inker: Jimmy Palmiotti
Letterer: Bob Lappan
Colorist and Separator: David Stewart

Cover Penciller: Mike McKone
Cover Inker: Jimmy Palmiotti
Cover Color: David Stewart
Logo Design: Todd Klein

Our cover shows this Elseworlds version of the JLA in a very serious pose. Their costumes are slightly different, but they're still recognizable — Hawkgirl, Flash, Wonder Woman, Superman, Atom, Green Lantern, Metamorpho, Plastic Man and at the very bottom in yellow, this world's version of Bart Allen. The statue of blind justice on the side implies that this story will explore the deep themes of law and order and the role superheroes play in it.

Our imaginary, out-of-continuity story begins in 1943, with a young Clark Kent learning lessons of doing good anonymously from his parents. Skip forward to today, Clark is the aging editor of the Daily Planet, nearing retirement, and his powers are beginning to fade. Lois Lane is working at a tabloid, investigating wild stories of people being abducted by a man in a green suit. Bruce Wayne works at the FBI, and he's also investigating the reports of hundreds of people mysteriously vanishing without a trace.

We then cut to Keystone City, where we're introduced to Bart Allen. He's a bit older than the Bart we're used to, and he's living with his parents. This Bart has an earring and a rather acrimonious relationship with his parents, who are currently chewing him out for wrecking the family car. Bart's mom complains that she was pulled away from showing a house to her client, and Bart's dad complains that the repairs will cost $4,500. He accuses his son of being careless. Bart tries to explain that it wasn't his fault and it was just an accident, but his parents don't care for his tone. Bart clenches his fist, which is surrounded by lightning, but his parents don't notice. He then walks out on them in the middle of the lecture, and they're shocked to see their son is long gone when they open the door just a moment later.

Bart runs all the way out of Keystone City, worried about what his parents would do if they found out he had super speed. He visits a diner he comes to every Thursday and orders his usual, a blueberry pie. But Bart doesn't notice that while he eats, a young man with blondish/orange hair is closely observing him. (The coloring isn't particularly consistent.)

We then see Clark Kent enter a secret underground base to conduct a meeting of the Kryptic Order, comprising all the heroes we saw on the cover, minus Bart Allen. The topic for discussion once again is the debate on whether the team should go public. Green Lantern is leading the charge for this, with the Flash, Atom and Plastic Man on his side. But Wonder Woman, Metamorpho and Hawkgirl agree with Superman's longstanding mandate, so that continues to be the team's policy as long as there's a tie. Flash reports that he's located a potential new member for the team, but he doesn't know how he'll vote. In the meantime, Flash has this candidate under constant surveillance, and says he's made his first contact with him. We soon find out that this "first contact" came in the form of a letter with the haunting message, "I know what you can do." Bart is understandably freaked out to see this.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane cross paths, as they're both investigating the same mystery, and they agree to team up. We learn the Kryptic Order is able to maintain is secrecy by using technology from Wonder Woman to become invisible. And the Atom causes a financial crisis by hacking into the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Even though Bart was scared by the letter from the Flash, he follows its directions and heads to the same diner he was at earlier. There he meets Wally West, who eats Bart's hamburger, but assures the teen that he's not going to expose his secret. Instead, Wally demonstrates that he, too, has super speed. He assures Bart that he's not a freak, and he takes him on a quick "jog" to tell him all about the secret world of superheroes.

We then see that the Kryptic Order has a habit of capturing criminals, judging them, and exiling them to a lifetime in the Phantom Zone. Meanwhile, Green Lantern is working behind the Order's back by abducting all potential super-powered individuals to conduct DNA tests on them. But after 39 subjects, he still hasn't found any new recruits. Clark Kent has a heart attack at work, and he's shocked to see that his skin has grown weak enough for the paramedics to pierce it with a needle.

One night, Bart tells his parents he wants to go to UCLA to study history. Bart's dad, Barry (we never find out his mom's name), is mad at his son for changing his plans from last week, when he said he wanted to be a pharmacist. But he coldly says Bart may have only wanted to pursue that career to acquire drugs. Bart insists he wants to study history, saying it's important to learn the mistakes of the past to stop them from happening again.

The next day, an upset Bart heads to the park and skips stones on the lake. But his stones are traveling way too fast, and one of them destroys a kid's remote control boat. Wally appears out of nowhere and gives the kid money to buy a new boat. Bart tells Wally that he had another fight with his dad, and Wally tells him that he can't change his dad, but he can change his reaction to him. Bart says things will be better once he's 2,000 miles away from his dad at college, but Wally insists that Bart's dad really does love him. Wally speaks in more depth about the Kryptic Order and he formally offers Bart a spot on the team. But he does warn him, though, that once he's in, there's no going back.

We take a quick peek inside the Phantom Zone and see that hundreds of criminals have been sent there over the past half century, including the Martian Manhunter. But J'onn J'onzz has made the prison a rather pleasant place, transforming it into a peaceful community focused on meditation and harmony.

Bart is taken to the Kryptic Order secret headquarters, and he observes the team training against a bunch of robots. Wally introduces Bart to the whole team, but while they're doing this, Bruce and Lois have made a breakthrough in their investigation and have discovered the entrance to the headquarters.

This is a pretty interesting story. It's a fairly realistic premise with layered, nuanced characters. No one is purely good or bad, and there isn't one particular threat for the heroes to deal with. This works to the story's benefit and detriment. This issue, 48 ad-free pages, is pure world building. There's no clear direction to work toward or character to focus on. Superman losing his powers and place in the world could be an interesting framing device on its own, but it's competing with the equally interesting stories of Bruce and Lois investigating the elusive superheroes and Bart Allen trying to figure out what to do with his powers and find his place in the world. And all this is confounded by the countless subplots involving Martian Manhunter, Lucious Fox, Green Lantern, the Atom, etc., etc. Ultimately, there's just too much story here. We will have a second 48-page issue to conclude this tale, but that issue will feel equally overburdened.

This version of Bart Allen is a real interesting character, and I wish his story could have been the main focus here. Bart feels like a very realistic teenager who often gets in trouble and can sometimes be a jerk, but ultimately wants to do good, yet is held back by his insecurities. I'm not exactly sure, though, why he's so scared that anyone will find out he has super speed. Nor do I know why his dad is a powerless Barry Allen. Wally has powers, and all the other superheroes seem more or less the same, so why not Barry? All in all, this Bart is not as fun as the impulsive version we're used to, but he does have potential for some thought-provoking stories.

Ultimately though, I can't say I'm a fan of this issue. While there is lots of potential present, it's too difficult to form any connections to any characters. And it's not a particularly pleasant comic to look at, either. The art is subpar, at best, failing especially in the action scenes, hair coloring, and facial recognition (many characters are impossible to distinguish when they're out of costume). This is also one of the rare times where I'll criticize the letterer. It feels like all the letters were written with a shaky hand, and it is very annoying.

Next time, we'll take a break from this disappointing Elseworlds tale and review something great — Young Justice #25.

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