Justice League #22: The Trinity War Begins
And lo, The Trinity War starteth.
What was once rumored to be the New 52's first event book is now just going to be a titanic clusterfuck of a lead-in to the real first event book, Forever Evil, which sounds a lot like Marvel's Dark Reign, if Geoff Johns is to be believed in his rundown of the whole storyline. Now when I use the term "clusterfuck," I'm not necessarily denigrating Justice League #22, because it's seemingly a clusterfuck by design. The actual story involves a clusterfuck. But the tricky part of incorporating a clusterfuck into your tale is that it can easily become an actual clusterfuck and not just a pretend clusterfuck. Hopefully, I've now set the world record for the number of times the word "clusterfuck" has been used in a single paragraph.
If you haven't been reading Justice League, Justice League of America or Justice League Dark, you will probably find all of this quite confusing, as my intrepid colleague Iann Robinson lamented on last night's Book Report podcast. Hell, if you read JLD and not the other two, you'll still be a bit befuddled, I imagine. Johns writes those other two and he hits the ground running, assuming you've read both of them as well as Ray Fawkes' Trinity of Sin: Pandora #1 from last week as well. If you haven't, allow me to provide a recap.
1.) The Justice League is made up of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg (Green Lantern Hal Jordan quit a while back, making Justice League much more readable), and is also featuring rookie recruits Element Woman, Firestorm and the new Atom. Recently, Superman and Wonder Woman violently defused a hostage situation in the nation of Kahndaq, resulting in an international incident with the volatile, paranoid country and a Bat-scolding for not respecting global politics and the national borders of humanity.
2.) In response to this group of unregulated supertypes, Amanda Waller and Wonder Woman's ex-boyfriend Steve Trevor have formed The Justice League of America, which features Martian Manhunter, Catwoman, Katana, Hawkman, Vibe, Stargirl, Green Arrow, rookie Green Lantern Simon Baz and newly-formed accidental superguy Dr. Light, who can't control his powers. Their main job, whether they know it or not, is to take down the JL if they ever go rogue. It's worth noting that the Atom is a JLA plant in the JL, but has recently gotten credit from the JL for taking out the mighty Despero on her own, even though it was Manhunter who secretly got the job done.
3.) There is a third, "dark" Justice League made up of magic users, although they resent being called that. That one has John Constantine, Frankenstein, Zatanna, Deadman, Swamp Thing and Madame Xanadu. Zatanna doubles as the original JL's magic liaison.
4.) Billy Batson has become Shazam despite being kind of a dick, and he recently tricked Black Adam into killing himself by instantly aging thousands of years and turning to ash. Also, for some reason, Billy apparently wears the same jacket Wolverine wears in the X-Men movies when he's not in Big Red mode.
5.) Pandora is a woman from ancient Macedonia who found a skull in the woods. She picked it up to look at it and out jumped the Seven Deadly Sins, who proceeded to corrupt the whole of humanity. She was then rounded up with the Biblical Judas and some nameless angry arrogant guy, they were collectively dubbed "The Trinity of Sin," and she was cursed to walk the Earth an immortal, acutely suffering all the pain caused by the Seven Deadly Sins for thousands of years, all for the simple crime of picking up a skull she found in the woods. This, of course, makes the "Council of Eternity" seem like a collection of asswipes. At least the Wizard Shazam apologized for it before dying. Pandora has dedicated her immortal life to trying to find a way to put the Seven back in the skullbox. How this ties into her appearances in Flashpoint and rewriting the entire DC universe, I have no idea, and I kinda doubt DC does either. And by the by, the other two became The Phantom Stranger (who has seemed like little more than an impatient, self-obsessed prick in his own book) and The Question (who is… well, we've got no idea what he is at this point, but he did recently murder the Phantom Stranger and send him to Hell), respectively.
This is all stuff you need to know before cracking open Justice League #22, the beginning of The Trinity War. Ostensibly, it should be a great jumping-on point, given the alleged magnitude of the event. Alas, not so much.
We start with the framing device of a distraught young woman plagued with nightmares seeking aid from Madame Xanadu in her Greenwich Village fortune-telling shop. However, upon physical contact, the good Madame gets a vision of another "Trinity" – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – hovering over a destroyed city. This compels her to go on a tarot card spree, wherein each card gives us a new snippet of story. One is Batson, who has decided that he needs to spread the ashes of Black Adam around his home country of Kahndaq, because "even bad guys deserve to be buried." Even though he's not burying him… but whatever. Also, Shazam is from Philadelphia now, so I guess there's no Fawcett City anymore.
Then, we've got Superman – currently trying to avoid the fact that his girlfriend, Wonder Woman, kills people sometimes – getting approached by Pandora. She thinks that Superman is pure enough of heart to take the skullbox and put the Seven Deadly Sins back in, but it turns out that Superman is just as corruptible as anyone else, as he gets all black-suited and third-eyed and punchy until he drops the box. Oh, and Pandora is claiming that she was manipulated by some god into picking up the box in the first place.
Anyway, the JL gets a report that Shazam has just flown into Kahndaq, so they have to go after him to make sure he doesn't cause any trouble. That prompts the JLA to go after the JL, assuming they've finally crossed the line, and the JLA will have to do what they were designed to do. Shazam tries to give Black Adam a dignified scattering, Kahndaq soldiers shoot at him and destroy the urn before he can, he's about to punch them back when Superman tackles him, and then they fight. Then the JLA shows up, ratcheting up the tension and making the Atom regret ratting out the JL. Dr. Light steps forward to try to calm tensions, as he's apparently totally altruistic at this point and not the creepy rapist Old DCU fans unfortunately remember, but his powers react weirdly to Superman, he loses control and zaps Wonder Woman, prompting Superman to grab him and suddenly blast his head off with his heat vision. Straight-up murder. Oh god, we're going all Man of Steel now. Damn you, movies that make comics echo you!
Well, not really. Did I mention that there is a Secret Society of Super-Villains, led by a mysterious nameless guy who looks like a cross between the Joker, the Riddler and Alfred Pennyworth, but with telepathic powers? He's the one who mentally nudged Superman into murdering Dr. Light, which is part of a conspiracy to "impute" the Man of Steel – one that The Question is trying to suss out. But it's too late – the fighting begins in earnest (the aforementioned intentional clusterfuck). Oh, and it turns out the distraught woman seeking help from Madame Xanadu is actually a member of the SSSV named Plastique, who explodes and seemingly murders the soothsayer, and our mysterious no-name guy has plans to force Pandora into the SSSV fold.
It has taken me almost the entirety of this review so far just to explain what happens in Justice League #22, and that's not a great sign – although you're free to blame some of that lengthiness on my own hyperbole and wordy writing style. Having followed the JL books fairly closely, I didn't have too much trouble parsing this all out, but it's a lot to digest. It's a massive collision of a massive amount of characters all falling into one massive stew of mania – so massive that it might make you want to back away from its massiveness and instead read something more streamlined and capeless – maybe like The Massive. This is going to be something of a headache to keep up with, and all I'm saying is that we better have some damn answers by the end of this madness.
What saves the day is Ivan Reis, whose artwork is generally wonderful, Shazam's "super-excited face" aside. Everyone looks great, and he does an admirable job in figuring out how to cram all the events and Johns dialogue of this book into the confines of its pages. There's a sequence where the JLA is learning who their matchups are when going against the JL that is illustrated by little circles next to them – Vibe vs. Flash, Stargirl vs. Cyborg, Catwoman vs. Batman, etc. – that exemplifies the cramped feeling the issue has while trying to force everything to fit. This book may be too busy-looking, but at least it's a good-looking busy.
Overall, whoof. It's a big story full of big things. If you're invested enough in these characters, you'll be curious to see what happens next and how the JLD will get mixed up in things (and whose ass Frankenstein is going to kick). If you hate the New 52 and the new "edginess" of DC heroes, you won't be much of a fan. If you're a casual reader, it'll probably give you a headache. You'll have a lot of homework to do before getting up to speed, if my recap above hasn't helped you enough. I want to think that the geopolitical dangers of Kahndaq and the differing motivations for each League will make for some interesting drama, but I can't help feeling that "Trinity War" will be one of those stories that's all about the spectacle, a means to the end of getting to the real "event." I really hope it's not another Flashpoint in that regard, but we shall see.
There's also the concern that DC is trying to jump through hoops Marvel's already been through, what with having a civil war between superheroes leading to a long reign of bad guys, but the jury's still out on that particular indictment. It's a comic tradition to take familiar concepts in new directions, so we'll let Johns and Co. finish their story before passing judgment on whether this direction is new enough to matter.