Books: JLA Year One

…written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Brian Augustyn and Barry Kitson.  In JLA Year One we get contemporary revision history of the original Justice League of America.  As part of the trend in the 90s (that continues in some respect today) of revisiting or retelling the origins of popular comics characters, this book seems like one of the more effective offerings.  While it doesn’t pack the punch of Frank Miller’s Batman Year One, neither is it obnoxious of self-serving like some other revision origins.  JLA Year One was originally published as a 12-issue series in 1998, which gives some further context into more recent adventures (and deaths and rebirths) that have also seemed to draw from this version of the team’s beginning.

Waid focuses on the original core team: Aquaman, Green Lantern, Black Canary, the Flash, and Martian Manhunter.  The story begins just after the JLA’s initial team-up to thwart a group of hostile aliens, the Appellaxians.  The heroes are trying to decide the wheres and hows of actually forming a team, even as they each struggle with their own issues of identity and dual-lives on their own.  It’s frankly, a very Marvel approach to the characters.  We see, for examples, Aquaman trying to decide if interacting with the surface dwellers is worth the effort, Black Canary dealing with her Mom’s legacy as the original Canary with the  Justice Society of America, and Flash, Manhunter, and Green Lantern sparring with the eternal questions of alter egos.

Amidst questions over the defeated Appellaxians, a pact between the immortal villain Randall Savage and a secret society known as Locus emerges as the uber-villain.  The bad guys are trying to use the alien DNA for their own nefarious purposes, which may include inducing a globe-changing apocalypse to cleanse the earth of all unworthies.

But the fledgling JLA has only vague awareness of this, as they deal with other villains, the press, and the growing pains of setting up a team.  To Waid’s credit, every JLA-er has a character arc with insecurities, pitfalls, and internal growth.  They question each other over secret identities, who should be the team leader, whether or not to invite Superman to join them.  In the meantime,  the Locus plot continues unabated and we get strong hints there’s a mole inside the newly minted JLA headquarters.  As you would expect it comes down to a planet-shaking battle involving not only the JLA, but most of the other DC heroes.  During this battle, Waid ties up a number of character-driven subplots, and pulls a few surprises in the final pages.  Crisp writing and plotting across the board.

As someone without the kind of detailed knowledge of the DC Universe of some geeks (mostly I read Marvel growing up), I enjoyed this book. I had the sense that it drew just enough from the established mythos to retain authenticity, yet it didn’t devolve into an exercise in making everything fit with the establishment.  As it turns out, books like this set a dangerous precedent for today’s popular comics writers, many of whom seem to hold little to no regard for origins and continuity.  And similarly, I couldn’t help thinking about other team books (recent stuff with the Avengers and Alan Moore’s Watchmen) that drew heavily from those original JLA/JSA adventures.  And here Waid was, drawing, in turn from Moore…  Weird.

Anyway, the real strength of JLA Year One is the balance between characterization and action.  Mark Waid has shown over the years he’s one of the best, most capable writers when it comes to big-name characters, so this is no surprise.  Augustyn and Kitson provide a classic DC rendition of the characters while employing many of the contemporary sequential art techniques.  If you’re an old Superfriends fan, a Justice League Unlimited fan, or just a comics reader looking to enjoy a good retelling of a classic team’s beginnings, give this one a look.


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