Justice League Odyssey connects an outstanding cast with a brand new setting and places them in a fairly unique situation. It is a strange and wonderful mixture that really embraces the limits of the DC Universe, but, from the beginning, there has been one idea that has felt awkward: the concept that this incarnation of the Justice League are the ancestral gods of the Ghost Sector.
It’s a concept that has some fascinating implications, but has always felt weird for its insistence that there is no ambiguity in who the Old Gods are. It is odd to see a host of alien species worshiping two humans and a Tamaranian, down to their current costumes. One expects that the explanation of this peculiar mystery will be a huge part of the series down the line and will likely be explained, but at the moment, in this issue, it becomes an actual impediment to the story for the first time.
While last issue saw Koriand’r treated like a goddess – I mean, on some level, who can blame them – it’s a whole other experience to see a civilization built around “The Machine”. Cyborg struggles with the adoration of a people who not only deify him, but do so without really knowing him. This is almost certainly the most interesting aspect of the issue as Joshua Williamson shows us two sides of Cyborg’s down to earth nature, balancing his distrust of being held above others with his desire to be accepted as part of a community. It’s a solid, true-to-core character beat that takes a new look at a classic part of Victor’s character and does so in a way that announces its presence very clearly while still offering examples with some pleasant subtlety.
Justice League Odyssey does a great and almost unique job of combining that kind of incisive modern character analysis with the kind of simply bombastic idea work that DC excelled at in the Silver Age. But, I admit, even my well trained suspension of disbelief gets distracted by seeing a one-to-one sculptural recreation of Cyborg looming over an alien world. Though JLO concerns itself with what feels true over what feels real, this issue leans over the line, to a point where it feels like it’s missing opportunities due to the gravity of its archetypal tale.
The cover is a perfect example of the old school sensibility that suffuses this issue, promising Cyborg and Azrael locked into gladiatorial combat on an alien world. Yes, the story gets us there, but it never feels right or logical. Have past pretenders to divinity come disguised as humans? Why is Azrael chosen as the opponent? Do the Machine Worlds not only not recognize Koriand’r but not even recognize that they have all of the Old Gods in their custody? And why is a god of mechanization tested by combat? Why not a virtual system check or an invasive judgement of how beautifully integrated his cybernetics are? For every moment that reminds how pumped Williamson seems to explore Cyborg’s character, there are a couple that pass over the chance to do so.
The rest of the cast doesn’t get a huge amount of time. Starfire certainly feels like herself in her few moments to shine, bringing sincere appreciation and observation of her friends and unapologetic fury in equal measure. Jessica Cruz quietly finds a place on the team, something that feels surprisingly earned. But, unsurprisingly, it is Azrael who gets the best definition.
Jean-Paul has struggled with a consistent characterization, not only in this series but since he was introduced to this continuity, but here he begins to find one. There’s not much of the quiet nerd he was as a civilian and he’s hardly the angel of St. Dumas. Instead Azrael feels like a conservative kid who shed his dogma in college. He’s still got that programming deep down, but he’s not religious anymore, he’s just spiritual. And maybe there’s a reason that he needed edicts and dogma to guide him. The gap between Jean-Paul and his teammates has never been clearer and the danger of having him around is suddenly real.
As an old fan of the character, this interpretation of Azrael doesn’t really hit home with any version we’ve seen before. It’s hard to imagine this Jean-Paul becoming a taciturn soldier of god and even harder to see Batman putting up with this kid for long. But despite my old man grumbles, one has to admit that this self-righteous hero kind of works for the series.
The side characters are probably the most consistently intriguing members of the cast. Rapture is an interesting, if shallow, character that begins to set the stage for a war in the Heavens and drops a pair of quiet hints about what’s going on here. Though he seems to be a true believer he obviously knows Jean-Paul’s old costume and he namedrops his Agent of the Bat epithet, implying that he’s familiar with his Lord in a way that Cyborg’s worshipers might not be. It seems that the Ghost Sector was not as cut off as we have been led to believe…
There’s also a great sequence between Darkseid and another fantastic DC villain. It’s not a hugely important scene, but it turns the screw a little further, introduces another potent personality into the series, and gives us some really fun interactions. I’m not sure how believable the sense of equality the issue seems to present between the two is, but, man, I do love some solidly executed villain posturing. It also pulls against the tension of Rapture, that scene implying that the mystery of the Ghost Sector is more immediate than we knew, but this one potentially taking us so far back that it cannot even be considered literal, historical time.
Whenever you discuss this series there is an elephant in the room. There is no denying that Justice League Odyssey suffers for the loss of Stjepan Sejic. It would no matter who handled the art chores. He is a rough act to follow, especially this early into a series’ lifespan.
Philippe Briones is a very different artist depending on how you examine his work. On a macro level, it is absolutely clear why he was brought on to this series. His energy is perfectly attuned to Williamson’s wild, Silver Age aesthetic, diving headfirst into whatever craziness the script demands and rendering grand, sweeping views of alien worlds with grandeur and an abundance of detail. On a micro scale, however, things can be considerably more awkward. Put simply, Briones’ individual characters feel rough. In keeping with his skill for mood building, the staging and construction of bodies is solid in Briones’ work. The characters are adequately rendered and skillfully arranged, but deviations from the most platonic vision of them often read as off-model. Exceptionally long faces are a particular problem. Additionally, at least as completed by Jeromy Cox, Briones’ art has a simple look and an unpleasantly rough texture.
Darkseid’s appearance is one of the clearest examples of all that is right and wrong with the art of this issue. There are few scenes in which Briones fits as much power and character into body language and also gets to show off his knack for scenery. At the same time, Darkseid, a character that Sejic truly owned, lacks his grandeur. He looks flat and, at times, lumpy and awkward.
And while the skillset that Briones brings to the issue is both impressive and vital, it is the discomforts of the art that strike a reader first and likely linger longer, holding the issue back.
For his part, Cox compliments Briones well. The colors in his foregrounds are bold and alien, at times walking a fine line between the otherworldly and the overwrought. Like Briones, he shines in the backgrounds, where those complex hue mix and fade more naturally, bringing subtle reality to the foreign worlds he conjures. The sheer force of the the colors also makes for an impressive assault, forcing the reader to acclimate to their excesses and allowing some very direct influence over the story for a colorist. Scenes have clear palettes that convey their mood and the changes to it. And when the colors pull back a bit, even to a point that would be intense in another comic, it feels deliberate and restrained. It’s an interesting strategy but one that doesn’t entirely undo the sheer number of forceful colors on the page.
With its fourth chapter, Justice League Odyssey delivers its weakest issue, but not one without merit. Joshua Williamson’s mixture of broad Silver Age creativity and precise and meaningful characterization remains a treat but this issue is uniquely affected by the oddities of the premise and a poorly justified central setpiece. The creative team is on the same page and support each-others’ strengths, but don’t compensate for their weaknesses. Especially after two issues from Stjepan Sejic, the art looks primitive and awkward in expressions. The visual spectacle that one assumes was meant to propel the issue through some necessary awkwardness is not strong enough to disguise some small but significant failings. The result is the lowest point in the so far short trajectory of a series whose altitude has not yet been determined. There is plenty to love here, but a number of flaws keep this one from greatness.
Justice League Odyssey #4 is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.