Justice League, Animal Man: Format Changes A Lot

Kicking off their New 52 trade program, DC Comics has collected a small number of its [...]

Kicking off their New 52 trade program, DC Comics has collected a small number of its recently-relaunched superhero titles already. The first pair that I was able to dig into--Animal Man: The Hunt and Justice League: Origin--provided a few surprises along the way. Comic book fans have, of course, been talking at length about "decompressed storytelling" for years now. The first I remember it was nearly 15 years ago in a discussion about James Robinson's Starman, but I was a kid and it's likely that the conversation was going on for some time before that without my knowledge. The idea, for those of you in the dark, is that many of today's comic books are written with the trade paperback or collected edition in mind, and therefore the short-form, serialized monthly comic is not their ideal presentation and often gives readers a dull book that seems to go nowhere for months at a time. For those of us who read most of our books in trade, or who prefer character-driven stories as opposed to plot- or action-driven ones, it's not always a bad thing. Robinson's Starman remains a high point of the last 20 years in American comics for many critics and fans, and two writers notorious for decompression--Marvel's Brian Michael Bendis and DC's Geoff Johns--have consistentliy churned out some of the best-selling stories in years, so it's not as though this is strictly one of those "critics are out of touch with the average reader" things.

Indeed, Johns' Justice League: Origin--on which he collaborated principally with DC Co-Publisher and series artist Jim Lee--benefits substantially from the hardcover, collected format. The story, which plodded along a bit in the comics, seems sharper and less padded when it's being read as a single book. Here, the most baffling thing is the cover. Why use Jim Lee's Justice League #1 image yet again (after it was the iconic image of the initial New 52 press release, the cover of countless prints of the first issue and even the cover of DC's New 52 omnibus hardcover collecting all the first issues), when you've got a ready-made cover from the final chapter of this very book that's already marked "Justice League: Origin"? Granted, the League doesn't face off against Starro at all in this tale and so maybe that particular iconic image might be sending mixed messages, but I'm about done seeing the cover at left ever again and suspect that a lot of fans feel the same way. The focus on one or two characters for pages or even issues at a time isn't as much of an issue here, as by now fans have all seen their favorite heroes and are less upset by a lack of context for their role in the greater DC relaunch. That, too, plays a role as it allows the reader to enjoy the story (or not) on its own merits and not to put the whole "company tentpole" role at the front of the tale. At the end of the day, the most improtant thing in any review of a collected edition is to consider how it reads as a book. If it suffers, one has to ask whether a collection was strictly necessary from an artistic standpoint (obviously it's an economic necessity in today's comic book market, especially for titles like these). Justice League: Origin features a fairly standard story with a good-but-not-great script from Geoff Johns and some really strong visual storytelling from Jim Lee. The story's weakest suit is its pacing, and that's substantially improved in the collected edition versus the the floppies, so it's a win. While the backmatter is pretty bare-bones (very much like the Flashpoint hardcover that led into this one), that's true across the line. While character redesign sketches won't be enough to tempt fans into buying collected editions of some of the books at the bottom of DC's sales charts, though, Justice League features all of the publisher's best-known characters in one easy location, meaning that the fairly limited appeal of the backmatter can be multiplied times the number and magnitude of those characters to build something worthy of note.

Animal Man: The Hunt has somewhat the opposite problem; with an auteur approach to the book by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman, turning out some of the best work of their careers, one would have hoped for more in the way of "special features," but it gets basically the same treatment as Justice League did, with a handful of sketches and a cover gallery. It's also, frankly, a book that is well-served by the single-issue format in a way that I wouldn't have considered going in. Animal Man has its own look and feel--a unique set of storytelling rules and a worldview that's different from anything else DC publishes, even Lemire's other books. The cumulative impact of that is that on a monthly basis you're transported there and impressed by the scope and cohesion of it all. That's certainly still true when you read the book in collected form, but you miss feeling it anew at the beginning of each chapter. Ironically, being the better comic has made this the less impressive collection, even if Animal Man: The Hunt is, by any objective measure, still a better overall book than Justice League: Origin. That, of course, is something to consider, as well. Even if Justice League--let's say a 3 1/2-stars-out-0f-five comic book month-to-month--gains a half-star to the new format and Animal Man--a five-star book--loses half of one, that still makes Animal Man the better book. It's smarter, it's cleverer, it's more fun to read and it's ten dollars less if you're buying the collected editions at full retail price ($14.99 for Animal Man: The Hunt in softcover, versus $24.99 for Justice League: Origin in hardcover). And, of course, it's cheaper to buy the book this way. Getting the $1.99 digital back issues is certainly an option, particularly since the backmatter (not included in the digital issues) addds little or nothing to the book, but if you want to have a physical copy of the story to read and cherish and display on your bookshelf, it's cheaper to just break down and buy the trade paperback than it was to have obtained the single issues as they came out (or, likely, to get them at your local comic shop unless there's a sale on). These two books are probably a microcosm for the benefits and challenges of all of the New 52 collected editions, so it's unlikely we'll check back with reviews of any of the others unless something remarkable comes out of the backmatter or something is digitally changed in post-production, but so far it basically looks like this: If you loved a book in single issues, unless it's in hardcover or you really love trades, it's probably not worthwhile to buy these fairly bare-bones collected editions. If you WANTED to like a book in floppy format but it was just too slow, give the collection a whirl. It may improve your outlook.