Monday, July 6, 2009

Review: Justice League: Cry For Justice #1

Justice League: Cry For Justice #1 (of 7)

Writer: James Robinson
Artist: Mauro Cascioli
Released: July 1, 2009

Oxford American Dictionary:
jus-tice n. the quality of being fair or reasonable; the administration of the law or authority in maintaining this.

venge-ance n. punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong.

I start with these definitions because I believe that they are often used too loosely interchanged with each other, and it's important to reaffirm what each one truly means. From these definitions here we see that justice is concerned with the fair and rational administration of law and order. The United States of America is founded on this principle, the idea of blind justice being swayed not by emotion but by reason. Our legal system is founded on the idea of due process, that all are afforded fair and equal treatment to bear out their guilt or innocence. Stories of torture and despotic cruelty are tales of other countries, backward nations drowning under the morass of totalitarian rule. We don't believe in those things here. We don't do those things here. Waterboarding. Sleep deprivation. Starvation. No, we don't believe in those things. Not here. Not in America.

When news breaks that our leaders greenlight such torturous activity, we are rightfully appalled, even if we are completely unsympathetic to the victims. While we may believe the terrorists and war criminals to be the worst kind of people, we recognize that to torture them is to become them. We believe that justice must be served, but we know that vengeance is not the instrument to serve it with.

In James Robinsons's new mini-series Justice League: Cry For Justice, certain members of the costumed hero community are seeking vengeance for crimes committed against them in most personal ways. The killings of families, of colleagues, of lovers brings forth tremendous emotional pain, and this pain manifests itself in the overwhelming desire for bloody revenge. Make no mistake, that is what this book is setting up with absolutely no varnish to cloud the message. These men want revenge, and their is no justice to muddy the waters.

One scene, in particular, that was most striking comes early in the book when Ray Palmer, The Atom, is interrogating a very low-level criminal who goes by the name Killer Moth. Palmer is well-aware that this man is incapable of being the brains behind a much larger scheme that is alluded to here, so he presses him for the name of the true mastermind. Killer Moth, of course, refuses to cooperate. Palmer proceeds to shrink to microscopic size, crawl into Moth's head, and then to slowly grow back to normal, in essence, performing a brain hemorrhage, replicating an aneurysm. Palmer evens refers to the pain as "torturous". What is disturbing about this scene is that Palmer performs this act of torture with such ease and matter-of-factness, without any hesitation before or remorse after. I was also struck by its complete mirroring of how his ex-wife, Jean Loring, committed the murder of Sue Dibny in Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis. In that book, Loring steals her ex-husbands shrinking device, shrinks down to atomic level, enters Sue's skull, and proceeds to jump around, ultimately leading to Sue having a fatal seizure. When this is revealed at stories end, Ray is devastated by guilt, knowing it was his device, his former wife, that was responsible for such a horrifying murder. Apparently, he suffers this guilt no more, and now sees this as a most viable interrogation method.

There seems to be a pervasive sense of indictment of how the Justice League of America and the Justice Society have operated and apparently, how they have seemingly failed, for much of their history. This scathing assessment comes from a former member, Hal Jordon, member of the Green Lantern Corps. As a space cop, he holds very conservative views of good and evil, of right and wrong. Violations of laws are not issues of debate, but nails to be hammered down. To Jordan, true justice can only be achieved by eradicating any potential for recidivism; justice must be proactive, not reactive; justice must be achieved through preemptive measures. Jordan scoffs at the idea of the hero community, seeking instead to create what appears to be a much more militaristic strike-force. Blinded by pain, anger, and a sense of helplessness at not being able to save the lives of fallen colleagues - a sense of helplessness and futility he, no doubt, does not recognize outright and so blames on the system at large - Hal is seeking vengeance on an eye-for-an-eye level, and mistakenly calling it justice.

All of this is quite intriguing if not also quite unnerving, for the tone of this first issue seems to side with our distraught and enraged heroes and paint them as being the only ones with a true understanding of genuine justice. Superman, Wonder Woman, and the other heroes of the JLA come across as ineffectual idealistic pawns who've lost sense of the current state of the world. Their brand of heroism is called out as hopeless fantasy and failure. This is incredibly cynical, of course, and also strikes at the heart of what we consider heroism to be. Batman, for example, chooses to not use guns, as they represent to him the problem, not the solution. His parents were taken from him by way of the gun, so for him to resort to their use would be for him to become the villain himself. He chooses not to kill his enemies, but to hand them over, ultimately, to the system for imprisonment or rehabilitation. We recognize these as extremely difficult choices for him to make, to quell the need for vengeance and instead take a moral high-road, and we recognize these choices as what separate him from the evil he seeks to eradicate. Batman's ability to make these difficult choices are what make him a hero to us. He serves as an example of what heroism is supposed to be, what we as humans so often strive for but fall short of in real life. Heroes are supposed to be examples of ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, and that path is not an easy one to take, nor is it supposed to be. Villainy is easy, heroism is hard. When Hal Jordan states that the Justice League's brand of moral heroism is no longer in step with the current state of the world he is essentially giving up on heroism altogether. It should be a sad moment, but as written, comes across as defiant and true.

Perhaps Robinson's ultimate goal is to set up our heroes to see the error of seeking blind retribution; to show them what George Orwell shows us in his classic novel Animal Farm, that when the pigs overthrow the evil humans and take over, they only become evil humans themselves in the process? That is the path these characters are heading down, the slippery slope of becoming what they seek to destroy. Superman sees this. When he tells Hal that they can not have him running off as a rogue cowboy, he is foreshadowing the future conflict between hero and former hero; between a hero with ideals and one marred and sunken by cynicism. This issue is vague on this, however, and feels more like an odd endorsement of pain, rage, and cynicism as being the true lights that shine the road to justice. It's disturbing, unnerving, and flawed - much like the characters themselves, really - but it did leave me with much to ponder. I can't say that I loved this issue, nor even liked it very much, but I was strongly provoked by it, and that, in an age where so much art just lays there to be lazily consumed, is a grand accomplishment, indeed.

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