A New Kind Of Justice League In Justice League Odyssey #1

by Noah Sharma

It’s been a long and grueling wait for one of the strangest and most interesting Justice League launches that I can remember, but that wait is over. Justice League Odyssey #1 is finally here.

Primary cover by Stjepan Šejić

The premise of the series remains fascinating. Jessica Cruz, Cyborg, Starfire, and Azrael head to the newly created Ghost Sector to explore the next steps in their lives and take responsibility for the shift in the cosmos that the Justice League created when they released the captive worlds from Brainiac’s stasis, only to find Darkseid waiting for them, claiming that he is part of the team. That’s at least two amazing hooks and some of my favorite characters in the DC toybox!

Though billed as a third pillar alongside Justice League and Justice League Dark, Odyssey doesn’t really feel like a Justice League story. Certainly Cyborg is a founding member of the League in this continuity, but even he acknowledges that this is not a League affair, and GL is only there on behalf of the Guardians of the Universe. With Starfire and Azrael rarely being considered part of the League in any continuity, there’s immediately a lack of the authority that one might associate with a Justice League title. What’s more, some of the best writing of this issue highlights how small in scale the heroes’ motivations are. This is a task worthy of the Justice League, but the approach is notably different. For now, trust that the scale and adventure is of Justice League caliber, but know that it has the heart of something new.

Interior art by Stjepan Šejić

Speaking of heart, I mentioned the character focus of the issue. This is really one of Odyssey’s highlights. Cyborg’s feeling of responsibility is one of the most enticing emotional beats of the issue and much of what is best in Odyssey follows that pattern, being the small and human rather than the grand and cosmic. Jessica’s friendship with Simon, Starfire’s tenderness with Cyborg, Vic’s distrust for Azrael all fill in the story in the ways that count.

Interior art by Stjepan Šejić

That’s not to say that the character work is perfect. Starfire occasionally leans on her animation-inspired stilted speech in place of actual cultural and personal specificity, Cyborg’s multiple motivations muddle each other, Azrael is still fairly shallow and ambiguous at this early stage, and – charming as it is – I have no sense that any of them would have painted flames on the skull ship! It’s also kind of silly to think that Jessica, whose job it is to travel through space and whose assignment has been to monitor the maelstrom, would be unaware that her ring can not handle it. Unevenly implemented, the threat has some cool ideas, but fails to build the tension that the issue seemed to hope for. It’s a lackluster challenge for these socially awkward but very effective heavy hitters of the cape community.

With a less than spectacular challenge taking up several key pages, it’s not surprising that, like many large scale issue #1s, the debut issue of Odyssey is largely an expansion of its solicitation, with a couple of notable changes seemingly due to rewrites. That means that the question of quality comes largely down to how much it wows the reader and if it can instill confidence that the series will explore the premise to satisfaction. The strong character writing and focus on unanswered questions do a good job of answering the latter point, while the high stakes, gorgeous art and seismic guest star at issue’s end help with the former.

While the marquee value of it is undeniable, I can’t help but think how amazing it would have been if Darkseid’s appearance had been even a moderate surprise. That would have been a huge moment! I’m not sure that those kind of surprises are still possible in the information age, but Joshua Williamson and Stjepan Šejić really sell the charisma and fear that surround the Lord of Apokolips. Though some moments undercut it, the critical appearances of Darkseid communicate forcefully that he is The God of Evil and that his words possess both unimaginable treachery and incredible authority.

Those who didn’t follow Justice League: No Justice will not be at a loss for explanation, Williams ensures that the critical details are front-loaded and reestablished in context throughout the book. However, while I think that the information is present, it’s not presented in a way that will reassure readers who feel uncomfortable not having the preceding story. Many new readers and even some longtime fans can feel self-conscious starting a book that’s heavily dependent on another story and this one is based on an event that sprung out of another event. While those who trust and power through will almost certainly do fine, I think that this series could have been more welcoming to those who simply see Starfire and Cyborg on the cover with Darkseid and want to know more.

Interior art by Stjepan Šejić

Cyborg is being used to great effect already, finally addressing some basic questions about his New 52 origin, while Jessica Cruz immediately establishes herself as the heart of the team. Her dueling social anxiety and deep loneliness immediately endear her to the reader and Williamson writes her, even more than the rest, with a really sincere knowledge that doesn’t turn her traumas and foibles from diagnoses into factoids for a trading card the way that too many comics do when they pick up a character.

The intrigue of the original Azrael comic was the question of how reluctant hero Jean-Paul balanced against the blunt instrument that is the avenging angel. The current incarnation has consistently danced over the line, starting with an Azrael that didn’t really have an alter ego only for each subsequent writer to hint and forget that a real Jean-Paul persona was developing. Williams doesn’t avoid this trend, but there’s plenty of space to grow for the character, who, if lacking in humanity, is definitely an engaging mystery. Certainly a brief monologue for the character reads as somewhat surface and Jean-Paul is generally overwhelmed by his programming this issue, but remnants of the previous incarnation of the issue bode well and you just know that there’s fertile ground to cover where Darkseid tries to become the avenging angel’s new god.

Interior art by Stjepan Šejić

Surprising no one, Stjepan Šejić delivers a truly beautiful comic. As fans have come to know and expect, Šejić’s characters inevitably carry with them a texture and specificity that is essentially unmatched. Šejić’s art tricks your brain into using distinctions and clues that it often only bothers to look for in living breathing humans. But that’s not to say that it’s truly photorealistic. Šejić’s is a very willfully heightened reality and that’s apparent from top to bottom. Obviously the colors, the textures, the sex appeal of his worlds are beyond what reality will reasonably offer, being at once the height of cinematic modernity and a return to the childish excess of comics past, but it’s not just that.

Šejić excels at animating his characters. Jess, in particular, benefits greatly from Šejić’s pinpoint knowledge of how far he can stretch the human face and form. Šejić is perhaps most famous for his work on Witchblade and Sunstone, two series that fly rather close to the sun that is cheesecake. But so much of his mature and explicit work lacks the uncanny, waxy vacancy that often defines cheesecake because it remains concerned with the scene and its participants. Just so, that care for the interiority of the characters elevates what would certainly be incredibly proficient work without it into stunning sequential art.

All in all, it’s a fitting look for this team built around two Titans, created by another master of these skills, George Perez. I don’t make that comparison lightly and the styles are very different, but I think the similarities bear it out.

Interior art by Stjepan Šejić

The design work was one of the immediate draws of this series and it remains stunning. Though it still isn’t perfect, I wholeheartedly think that this is the best new costume Starfire has ever had. Azbats hasn’t felt as unironically cool as this since the 90s, if ever. And, man, though the design weakens a little below the waist, that Darkseid is already iconic.

This last one kind of ties my previous two points together, for, while the outfit is a strong and distinctive choice, at least as much of what is striking about Darkseid is just how Šejić renders his face. He’s got all the – pardon the expression – stony force of the animated Michael Ironside incarnation with the expressiveness turned up to eleven.

Even Cyborg gets some great tweaks. Though he retains the overly mechanical aesthetic and cheesy emblem of the New 52 redesigns, Cyborg looks suitably advanced, balances nicely between the mechanized and over-designed, and has a real humanity to his face. The face is once again the most impressive element of the design. Šejić obviously remembers that Cyborg is relatively young and all the more brilliant for it. And the robotic part of his face is just alien enough, with its red eye and gunmetal base emphasizing every shadow. This series looks to be exploring Cyborg’s duality – and is off to a decent start at doing so without stumbling into uncomfortable territory around black bodies and disability, knock on wood – so this slightly eerie addition to the character works wonderfully.

But despite clever designs, stunning colors, and evocative storytelling, there are some cracks that remind that Šejić did have to redraw two whole issues of this series. The backgrounds largely consist of crackling whips of electricity and other attractive but simplistic effects work. It’s possible that this was an effort to avoid busying the panels, but there are other hints. The layouts are still quite lovely, but for large swaths of the issue they are much simpler and stiffer than Šejić’s usual fare.

Interior art by Stjepan Šejić

As ever, Šejić’s signature flourishes serve him well. Though I pointed out the minimalist backgrounds as a visual weakness of the issue, eschewing them entirely in favor of negative space works wonderfully, making me wish the effect had been called upon a little more frequently. Likewise, the ‘unfinished’ flatter color effects that Šejić utilizes give a great sense of texture and abstractness. With the palette so potent and fiery this issue, it adds variety and some space to process all that’s going on.

Though I’m certain that Šejić can do even more with layouts and interpanel storytelling, the total effect is beautiful and the individual panels are almost uniformly stunning.

Though I’ve not heard any other reports, my copy of Justice League Odyssey featured a peculiar error on the first four pages. The whole prologue is blurry, as if it was printed onto the page twice, the second almost imperceptibly offset. At first it wasn’t absolutely clear that it was an error due to the mysterious atmosphere of the Ghost Sector, but before long it became aparant that this was a production error. As I said, it seems to just be the luck of the draw in this case, but I advise giving the issue a quick look if you’re yet to pick it up, just to be safe. That art work deserves it.

Justice League Odyssey #1 is a very impressive book but one that comes with a lot of qualifiers. Stjepan Šejić’s art is incredible, but a few critical weaknesses hold it back from the full revelation that one suspects it might have been and Williamson’s writing, though overflowing with potential, feels restrained by its responsibilities. This isn’t the issue that’s necessarily going to blow you away, but it is the one to assure you that future issues should.

Even with editorial snafus and the necessities of marketing holding it down, Justice League Odyssey plainly wants to soar. There’s no mistaking the wonder of the setting or the quality and potential of the cast. Though this first issue is largely concerned with establishing the series, even as it weathers a pre-release storm, the little details and the sheer beauty of the art bear out this debut and set the stage for something special.

Interior art by Stjepan Šejić

Justice League Odyssey is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.

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