Brainiac Attacks, Martian Manhunter Returns & Aquaman Gets Picked Last Again: It’s A New Dawn In Justice League: No Justice #1

by Noah Sharma

After the wild and lengthy ride of “Dark Nights: Metal”, DC is at it again with a smaller, more streamlined event, Justice League: No Justice. Announced in January, the concept has been rightfully touted by DC ever since. The events of “Metal” have opened the door to something horrible and Brainiac, of all beings, has decided that, to save the universe, the Justice League must evolve. Kidnapping a host of Earth’s most powerful heroes, he redivides them into mathematically perfect teams alongside the galaxy’s most dangerous villains.

It’s a pretty great concept, even if it sort of sounds like a way to justify a video game roster. It takes advantage of Brainiac in a different way, presents immediate stakes, and throws bizarre and wonderful characters together in strange and intriguing ways. The one catch is that, if you’ve been following this series with anticipation, the first issue spends most of its time establishing that concept that you’ve already been jazzed about rather than exploring it. But that’s understandable.

The video game analogy I made earlier proves strangely accurate. Like a modern day Super Powers or a neon colored Injustice: Gods Among Us, No Justice flings readers into action with child-like abandon. What happened to the Source Wall? What is the Source Wall? Don’t worry about it! The universe is broken and only the Justice League stands a chance to protect it. The rest is details.

It’s an in-continuity, but continuity-light approach that should make No Justice exceptionally new reader friendly, as long as those readers can trust that it will get them up to speed.

The pacing of the issue is one of its strangest features. At times chillingly effective, the book also slows to a crawl repeatedly. Perhaps that’s the mark of bearing three writers, with Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Joshua Williamson all working on this series. Oddly, at this stage, it’s the interaction between characters that often feels the weakest. Scenes often feel bogged down in their own specificity, full of clever observations but without drive, yet many also feel like they needed more space to give more than lip service to the wonderful ideas the writers are playing with.

It almost doesn’t make sense that a fantastic interaction between Starfire and Sinestro is relegated to a couple of bullet points in the top half of a page while Beast Boy receives such an on the nose line as “Sorry, Starfire… Humor’s a bit of a defense mechanism for me… ‘Specially when we just got abducted by one of the biggest bad guys in the universe.” I mean, they’re on the same team, the line that triggers that exchange is rooted in Kory’s friendship with Gar, she doesn’t need to be told. And with Krypton and Supergirl out and six pages of one-on-one with the Justice League preceding it, I’m not sure we need to be told of Brainiac’s credentials. It feels like that’s an attempt to make the series more comfortable for new readers, but these writers are proving their ability to do that subtly and through effective character action all over the place.

These minor oddities are all the stranger for how smoothly, No Justice owns its exposition. Brainiac is a natural font of knowledge, able to make the situation clear to the reader while putting a relatable spin on it. Little details – like J’onn knowing this legend or that the Martian version focuses on the nurturing, motherly aspects of the Omega Titans rather than their fraternal bond – make these moments fascinating and natural.

The characters are a little broad throughout, but they’re delightful and clear. Ryan Choi is innocent and thoughtful, Beast Boy is all teenage posturing and faux ego, Amanda Waller is paranoid with the force of will to tell her fears to back off, and Starro brings all the scenery chewing villainy of the Silver Age to bear. It’s a welcoming way to write them that allows us to get to know the characters better than we probably ought to given the structure. And that’s actually rather necessary.

You see, I’ve already talked about how much No Justice seems to be positioning itself as a jumping on point after “Metal”, but it also functions as a soft reset for the DC Universe. Beyond prompting the creation of the teams that will take precedence for the foreseeable future, Justice League: No Justice includes a notable conversation between Lex Luthor and the Martian Manhunter. In it Lex refers to the tenuous bonds between the teams Brainiac has formed and looks to J’onn to step back into his role as ‘the heart of the Justice League’.

The only problem is that this J’onn never was, joining the League briefly in the offscreen early years of the New 52 before battling the team and fleeing to Stormwatch. In this, No Justice continues the work of “Rebirth”, slowly bringing DC comics back in line with the familiar and loved Post-Crisis versions of characters without sacrificing their development since 2011. It feels a little wrong to hear Lex disputing the idea that he’s a hero, especially in front of a pretender to the name like Superman, but even he is quickly established as charming, analytical, and supremely confident; a classic take on the super-genius ‘Man of Tomorrow’.

And even as Brainiac’s plans reveal themselves, a second, secret plot unfurls on Earth, leading to a cataclysmic cliffhanger that launches the stakes even higher into the stratosphere. Admittedly this thread feels a little easy, like it would never would have worked as a straightforward idea rather than a complication, but it’s clever, grounded in lore, and distressingly in character. This issue is fun and bombastic to the last.

Well, that’s a lot of words, and we haven’t even touched on the art yet. Needless to say, with Francis Manapul seemingly unleashed for this series, there’s a lot to say.

Manapul has been with DC for almost a decade and has been viewed as a powerhouse for almost the entire time. He’s handled Superboy, The Flash, Batman, and the Trinity in his time at DC and that experience is clearly put to good use here. The issue starts with some of the most essentially DC imagery imaginable, from the eerie majesty of the Source Wall to another Brainiac assault on a sunny Metropolis, and quickly rockets in its own direction, leading towards the sleek, futuristic, and stylish. Regardless of the tone, Manapul proves able to put his own spin on a massive cast of DC’s greatest while keeping up quality in his panels.

I know that DC has been making an effort to give their artists more creative control, particularly working ‘Marvel Method’ on their “New Age of Heroes” line, but whether that’s the approach used here, Manapul feels like an active creator. The layouts are never dull, with plentiful panels, dynamic gutters, and essentially no repeats. Every page is designed for this story and they communicate its force and scale in a way that is an absolute event, but never gimmicky.

Admittedly Manapul, or perhaps his adoring writers, use a few too many splashes. After a while they start to detract from each other and highlight where the issue could have used a couple more panels. They also make scene breaks very noticeable, a shame in a book whose pacing is so variable. Still, they give a definite event grandeur to the issue. Many pages also feature a dominant panel that is essentially a splash or even a double splash and these are almost universally great, addressing the problems of their more traditional brethren.

The panels themselves are characteristically beautiful. Manapul’s distinctive angular style is put to good use with this issue. The opening splash of Brainiac holding the Justice League is wonderfully textured and intimidating. And, of course, as a Francis Manapul comic, this issue has an incredible colorist, in this case Hi-Fi color design steps in to fill that role. The striking green of Brainiac and the glowing purple of his equipment create a striking atmosphere that suits the ‘new combinations of familiar components’ theme that the book is aiming for. The Kirby-esque designs and haunting colors of the Omega Titans mark them as something ancient, powerful, and awe-inspiring.

There is one character who does seem a bit out of place visually and that’s Harley Quinn. While the blame can hardly be laid solely at Manapul’s feet, Harley’s No Justice costume takes most of its hints from her DC You-era design, leaving her face exposed, her neckline plunging, and her hair pulled back in pigtails. Harley’s comedy and general expressiveness are actually hurt by Manapul’s insistence on drawing her as a conventionally beautiful woman. She asks questions looking like a stone-faced porcelain doll and, even electrocuted, she looks vaguely worried rather than surprised, never mind the Looney Toons expressiveness of her classic appearances. It’s a shame, as the writers give Harley plenty of spotlight, and deeply confusing, as Manapul has plenty of traditionally gorgeous leading ladies among the cast who don’t quite get the same loving treatment.

But while there are a couple of quirks that don’t quite come together, No Justice #1 remains a stunningly beautiful comic, with thorough panels, rich color, and evocative layouts. You could easily sell this book purely on the promise of seeing Manapul unchained.

I will say though, poor Aquaman…

He’s at the initial battle, but Arthur is the only founding leaguer to be left behind by Brainiac, including J’onn, who wasn’t even on Earth at the time!

Justice League: No Justice is off to a roaring start, crafting a perfect jumping on point for DC’s universe. The characters are well written and the art is sumptuous. Admittedly both art and writing have trouble finding a consistent pace, but the excitement of the mix-and-match concept proves infectious. And with a clever b-plot leading to a great final page reveal, you won’t walk away without sincere excitement for issue #2. Though the issue strains under its responsibilities to the greater universe and the series to come, it delivers event-level stakes with loads of charm and macrocosms of promise.

Justice League: No Justice #1 is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.

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