Bendis and Marquez jump-start the Justice League

A new era begins in ‘Justice League’ #59, which ‘includes a number of familiar, welcome elements, all deftly executed.’

[Note: This post contains spoilers for the lead story in Justice League #59. The issue also includes a Justice League Dark installment, which was creepy and suspenseful, but won’t be discussed here.]

Last year’s trip through the Justice League’s 60-year history got as far as the start of the “Snyder Era.” (No, not that Snyder — Scott Snyder.) Because some of us still have a slight Death Metal hangover, a post on those years is still TBA. Regardless, the “Bendis Era” began this week with May 2021’s Justice League #59. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, drawn by David Marquez and colored by Tamra Bonvillain, it includes a number of familiar, welcome elements, all deftly executed.

Chief among them is the notion that the Leaguers have lives outside this book. At the risk of being redundant, the point of an all-star team is the interaction of characters who can each carry their own features. Sure, you can craft a perfectly entertaining adventure by dropping a handful of heroes into a standalone story, but the best League runs have incorporated larger DC continuity to one degree or another. (Somewhat ironically, the Bendis Era begins just as DC has decided to have free-range continuity.)

To this end, Justice League #59 focuses on Black Adam and Bendis’ creation (with Jamal Campbell) Naomi. We know they’re going to join, but for now we’re seeing them separately from the existing team. More importantly, we know they’ve got their own gigs – Adam as ruler of Kahndaq, and Naomi trying to figure out her superhero story.

Even so, they’ve already been connected to the Justice League. Put in the book for movie-marketing purposes at the request of Jim Lee, Adam had just worked with the League in December’s “Endless Winter” crossover. Likewise, Naomi’s questions have taken her to the Hall of Justice, and she’s since appeared in the Bendis-guided Young Justice. (And she’ll be on TV soon, but apparently Jim Lee didn’t have anything to say to Bendis about that.) While neither are real reader-identification characters, the fact that they are on the outside looking in allows Bendis to portray the League itself as an institution, instead of just a storytelling setting.

This too plays into DC’s shared-universe maintenance, because the mere existence of the group isn’t as important as why it exists. Writers from Steve Englehart to Brad Meltzer have treated the Justice League reverently, albeit with differing perspectives and results. Grant Morrison set the JLA apart from the rest of humanity as a pantheon watching eerily from its lunar base. Even Justice League International was conceived at the intersection of the traditional Satellite Era and the experimental Detroit team, and found a third way to make the group fresh and relevant.

In this issue, Bendis and Marquez establish that the League’s current mystery involves its putative new members. That brings up another positive aspect of this new beginning: It doesn’t need to re-form the team. (Not restarting the series is a subtle reminder of that.) One of the things which frustrated me immeasurably about the Meltzer/Benes Justice League was its obsession with recruiting, both real and fantasy. Bendis and Marquez wisely start with big superhero action – a fight with an implacable but chatty foe – and build from there.

They then take a step back to highlight Green Arrow and Black Canary, two longtime Leaguers who nevertheless haven’t been part of the main team for … maybe since before the New 52? Bendis will be using Green Arrow in the new Checkmate series, but I hope that doesn’t take too much away from his presence in this book. This summer will be 25 years since the “original” Leaguers – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter – reunited in Justice League: A Midsummer’s Nightmare. Subsequent teams have stuck close to that roster, and this one is no different. Except for Black Adam and Naomi, the current lineup includes Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Hawkgirl, Green Arrow, Black Canary, and (possibly in a reserve capacity) the Flash. Hippolyta will be filling the Wonder Woman role, which she did previously during the Morrison/Porter years. Therefore, the roll call is very traditional, but with a good infusion of new and returning members.

In fact, both Black Adam and Naomi have their own precedents for League membership. Captain Marvel was part of the post-Legends, pre-JLI group and sister Mary was in the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire JLI reunion. Meanwhile, Naomi joins the ranks of Leaguers brought into the group by their co-creators. (For example, Gerry Conway did this with Firestorm, Steel and Vixen, and Morrison had Zauriel and Aztek.)

Moreover, Green Arrow and Black Canary got fairly radical makeovers during the New 52, which collectively nullified their near-monolithic romance. Now, thanks to the post-“Rebirth”/Death Metal continuity awakening, they’re back to a more familiar, and therefore more accessible, mode. A previous DC creative regime – pick one, it probably doesn’t matter – might have given readers at least a page or two explaining why GA and BC were back in the League. Here they’re just back, dusting off their old banter with a couple of narrative slugs noting that Ollie’s still rich and Dinah still has her sonic cry. Old characterization and updated setups, coexisting peacefully.

Overall, the attitude is collegial and professional. Black Adam is a lot less arrogant than you might expect, although there’s still plenty of room for him to be snippy. Marquez and Bonvillain work very well together, so the book looks fabulous. Elements like Aquaman’s command of a shark army and Superman’s telescopic vision are conveyed simply and directly, letting the reader linger over their use. Marquez’ layouts are dynamic, as with a double-page fight scene that takes the eye from bottom left to top right. It’s a lot less busy than the Bendis/Ryan Sook Legion of Super-Heroes, mostly because there are a lot fewer characters and not so much world-building.

Marquez gets room to let the action breathe because the characters don’t make a big deal about their powers. If you’re reading Justice League, odds are you already know who’s who and what they can do. The series has tended to trade on that meta-awareness, whether through a JLI quip or a pointed Morrisonian aside. In fact, I almost got a Nextwave vibe from the fight sequences, since Marquez brings a similar playfulness to the action.

Again, it’s all very promising. The Justice League is a very simple concept, barely above a marketing strategy; but it has developed over 60-plus years into a group (and series) that demands the best efforts from all involved. That means paying attention to the little things that help ground it in the larger DC universe. I hate to raise my expectations unreasonably, but this week’s 20-page story sure did push a lot of those detail buttons. Here’s hoping Bendis and Marquez have a productive run.

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