Thursday, August 25, 2011

Comics! Heaven's Ladder!

Since DC Comics' new iteration of  "DC Comics Presents" is specifically designed to reprint high point stories and artwork from the company's many decades, I'm presuming it'll be cancelled soon so all that glorious past continuity doesn't muddy up the "new 52" onslaught that begins hitting comics shops next week. Can't be regularly reminding your readers of how things used to be if you're trying to sell them a brand new set-up, now can you? Especially the part of that brand new set-up that touches on the Justice League, since the legendary super-group of all DC's iconic characters is undergoing a radical revamping in only a week, from a super-powerful team honored and respected by the world to, it seems, a spatting and hunted group distrusted by the world. I'll be trying that new Justice League (and a dozen other "new 52" titles), and I'll be keeping an open mind to its potential. But nevertheless, I'll always have a special place in my comics-reading heart for the real Justice League, especially for the rare instances when the title is done perfectly.

That's murderously difficult to do, of course. The League has taken on many incarnations over the decades (some interesting, some just plain ridiculous), but it's always at its best when its roster is at its strongest, crammed full of names even the most dilatory comics fans will recognize: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman (nobody at all recognizes the Martian Manhunter, alas, but he's been with the team from the beginning, so creators always feel obliged to use him, even though the far more natural candidate would be either Supergirl, Plastic Man, or Captain Marvel) ... and with a roster like that, it's well-nigh impossible to come up with challenging things for them to do. DC heroes (at least, until next week) typically don't bicker and squabble among themselves the way Marvel heroes do, so Justice League writers can't get much out of the kind of interpersonal dynamic that would animate a Marvel book like "The Avengers." But actual adversaries capable of giving this 'big seven' roster a serious challenge are almost non-existent.

My own solution to this problem, if I controlled DC Comics, would be fairly simple: "Justice League" would be an annual comic, not a monthly one. Once every year, DC's best writer and artist would give us a staggering, epic adventure of the League, pulling out all the narrative and visual stops, and the rest of the time, we'd just read about the separate characters having their separate adventures.

(Of course, if I controlled DC Comics, none of these characters would be radically re-invented in only a week. And Adam Strange would have his own monthly comic.)

Since there's franchise money to be made, DC will never officially adopt that strategy - but for decades now, they've more or less unofficially adopted it, periodically bringing out special one-shot Justice League issues that stand alone in continuity and offer self-contained and fittingly epic stories. These are almost always far more satisfying than any monthly League title happening at the same time, and virtually every one of them has become a classic of the team's history.

So it's kind of fitting, in a bittersweet way, that one week before the debut of an all-new, all-different Justice League, "DC Comics Presents" would re-issue one of the greatest of those stand-alone Justice League events, "Heaven's Ladder." This book was originally issued back in 2000 in an oversized format designed to better highlight Bryan Hitch's stunningly detailed visuals, and I was very pleased to learn that it would be reprinted in a normal comic-book size and thereby perhaps reach a much wider audience.

The story is epic in its simplicity: the oldest race of beings in the universe is dying, and they abduct a string of planets (including Earth) in order to form a DNA-like helix that will allow them to transcend death into an afterlife of their own creation. The League (here comprised of 'the big seven' plus Steel, Plastic Man, and the Atom) naturally want their planet back, but they quickly become altruistically involved in the quest of their abductors to find peace. And along the way, they share their own beliefs of what the afterlife might be like, from Aquaman's oceanic view:
 In death we become one with the inky depths of the ocean. Below the knowledge of light, we float forever wide and weightless, silent witnesses to the dark above a sea-soaked sandscape older than time. Every creature of the sea, from the mighty whale to the merman to the turtle to the glistening mussels shed of their shells, becomes the very salt that buoys the teeming life beyond them.

To Wonder Woman's more warlike credo:
The ancient Greeks bequeathed us the lesson that death is but a dismal state. All men and women, from the greatest to the most ignoble, are eventually reclaimed by the soil of mother earth. The only way to deny death, then, is to live each day to its absolute fullest - by constantly striving to carve an immortal legend which will serve as your eternal legacy. By making the extraordinary ... look easy.

And naturally, for us Superman fans, this is a fraught topic - after all, our hero died (I still have the armband DC issued to prove it). The Atom remembers this at one point in Heaven's Ladder and asks Superman what Heaven was like, leading to a classic, simple exchange:
"What makes you think I went to Heaven?"

"Because if you didn't, the rest of us have no hope. Seriously, what do you remember? Anything?"

"A sensation that at long last, whatever I had to do next ... it could wait."

Waid's writing is snappy and in-character the whole time (Batman is the typical stumbling block for writers doing this kind of epic thing, since he's a guy with no superpowers who wears a bat suit - Waid handles it perfectly), and Hitch's artwork is magnificent - in my opinion, the best stuff he's ever done. Great chunks of DC continuity are worked into the story, and there are some hum-dinger fight scenes, and the scope of events is so big even this powerhouse version of the League is beaten and tattered and brought right to the edge of what they can do. It's thrilling stuff, and it feels all the more precious being presented to us now, when the foreseeable future might not have stories like this.

So I say "long live the good old days" - not the last time I'll be thinking that about DC comics in 2011 and beyond, I'd guess.


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