JLA #96 Review

Reviewer: John Babos
Story Title: The HEART of the matter (The Tenth Circle: part three)

Written by: John Byrne and Chris Claremont
Penciled by: John Byrne
Inked by: Jerry Ordway
Colored by: David Baron
Lettered by: Tom Orzechowski
Asst. Editor: Valerie D’Orazio
Editor: Mike Carlin
Publisher: DC Comics

The Buzz

John Byrne and Chris Claremont are two of the biggest legends working in comics today. They revolutionized Marvel’s X-Men more than 25 years ago. They have each distinguished themselves in the intervening years and are two of the most talked about creators ever. Let me qualify — while they’ve each clearly contributed to the comics mythology, “fans” still talk about and debate the merits of their contributions. Unlike with other creators, fans seem to be squarely in one of two camps with regards to Byrne’s and Claremont’s respective works — they either love them or hate them. Their appears to be no middle-ground. These creators stir passion in vocal fandom.

After years apart following their X-Men collaboration, Byrne and Claremont have come together again as the second team on a foreseeable future of rotating creative units and arcs for DC’s ongoing JLA series. They have been joined by inker Jerry Ordway for the six-part, bi-weekly Tenth Circle arc that pits the JLA against a vampire cult that is kidnapping children, presumably to feast on the latent metahumans among them. With the arc only halfway through, there is clearly more to the story that has yet to be revealed.

The arc also reintroduces DC’s Doom Patrol — a ground-zero reboot that has “fans,” the vocal ones anyway, debating about continuity and other issues. As is the case with Byrne, fans either like the reboot idea or don’t. Interestingly, not one issue of the summer-debuting ongoing Doom Patrol series has hit the stands yet, while fans debate the merits of the new DP reboot. There isn’t much content to feed that debate as the appearances of the yet-to-be named DP in the pages of JLA continue to grow with each issue.

Does rebooting DP present DC with “continuity” problems? Sure. So does Superman: Birthright for the Superman franchise. Yet, if online debate is any measure, “fandom” would rather give scribe Mark Waid the benefit of the doubt with BR, yet John Byrne gets the opposite for DP. Double-standard? Sure. However, to be fair, Waid has been known to be his own controversy lightning rod.

In any event, all this buzz around DP and even BR is only good for the industry. Why? “Fans” are showing a passion for their weekly dose of comics that I haven’t seen in years. Accolades or criticisms, fans care about their heroes and heroines.

And, folks not engaged in the online debate are interested too. The sales figures for JLA prove that out – although, as has been proven in the past, sales figures are open to interpretation.

The HEART of the matter

I think most reviewers, even those at 411, have missed the mark in their assessments of the first two parts of the Tenth Circle. The books have been unfairly criticized for being slow and dated. The Tenth Circle is clearly a mystery and is paced as such. Its not a mega-super-action-packed arc. Its not intended to be. Its a mystery peppered with some “strange” elements — i.e. vampires, a flying skeleton, a four-armed ape, a cyborg, etc.

This is the type of story that the World’s Strangest Heroes should debut in. Its a story that puts the JLA in new surroundings that keep readers guessing. Perhaps those vocal readers that find the book slow and dated are just upset that they don’t know what happens next?

Perhaps it is a slow-developing story, but, hey, you get your doses every two weeks. Its not that slow. When Geoff Johns does whodunit-pacing in JSA, the fans don’t come out with knives for the writer. Fickle fandom indeed.

I particularly find that the way each story begins interesting. The last two parts have begun a bit before the end of the previous issue’s cliffhanger. That way readers can learn more about what got them to the cliffhanger. Its tough to get ahead of the writers, but these added dimensions contribute to a refreshing storytelling approach.

What may add to the dated feel of the book are John Byrne’s pencils. He’s been penciling for a long time. He’s as good now, but with stronger visual storytelling skills. However, you never hear folks call George Perez’s pencils “dated”. Another example of fickle fandom — well at least some of the vocal ones.

In any event, issue #96 advances the Tenth Circle story a bit more. Manitou Raven is still missing and the Atom continues his journey within Raven’s “telling stone.” He’s stuck in a world within a world with an intelligent salamander-like populace. Strange indeed.

JLA’er newbie Faith is still a prisoner of the Tenth Circle’s head-vampire the Crucifier, and Superman is still in his thrall.

Batman, investigating the death of a missing child tied to the Tenth Circle, goes toe-to-toe with vampires, while Niles Caulder and the yet-to-be-named Doom Patrol strategize their next steps.

This issue goes a long way to explain the relationship between Nudge, a metahuman youth that can “nudge” others to do her will (except those with superior will power) and the four-armed super-strong simian Grunt. Readers also learn how Niles Caulder and crew got wrapped up in this whole ordeal.

As is my way, I will reveal no spoilers. However, there is a brief Superman vs. Wonder Woman fight that should have action-junkies satisfied.

John Byrne continues to weave a hard-to-nail-down plot and great visual storytelling. However, I still find names like “Grunt” and “Crucifier” a bit odd, but I really like the super-heroic nom de guerre of “Nudge”. So I guess that’s a bit of a wash.

Chris Claremont, in his typical verbose fashion, peppers the script with pop culture references with Buffy The Vampire Slayer references that are heaped on the previous issues’ Star Trek references. The dialogue seems overly-dramatic at points, but the JLA is an all-ages book whose dialogue should appeal to its varied readership. Its an accessible read whose over-the-top scripting at points lead to laughter (for some of us “veteran” readers) instead of the intended drama, but those moments are fleeting and do not greatly distract from the story.

Inker Jerry Ordway seems to have gone out of his way to not overpower John Byrne’s pencils as he has over the last two issues. More of Byrne’s pencils looks like his own in this issue. Ordway still has some work to do to tone down his inks.

My big gripe with the last few issues is with colorist David Baron. There are too many mono-colour pages in each issue. For example, in this issue, the Batcave moments are predominantly characterized by a red backlight, while the Doom Patrol moments are in green, and Nudge’s four page flashback is in blue. Those moments could have been better coloured. The mono-colour nature of some of the pages don’t enhance the story at all — they’re more of a distraction.

Overall, having reread the previous two issues with this one, the Tenth Circle arc, so far, is entertaining with me eagerly anticipating the first encounter between the Doom Patrol team and the JLA. Yes, the fact that this inevitable meeting provides some continuity headaches, I’m willing to see how its portrayed before I pass judgment — as is my want as a reviewer.

I can’t wait for JLA #97 as this story is starting to pick-up. However, make no mistake, the pacing of this arc is deliberate. Its a mystery not a space-opera. Its an interesting genre within which to tell a JLA story. Next week can’t come soon enough!