When Words Collide: Justice League Digital

Mon, April 9th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

The digital-first "Justice League Beyond" may be the best current comic no one is advocating for

I haven't seen much written about it -- honestly, I haven't seen anything written about it -- but the best "Justice League" comic being published right now isn't the one written by Dan Jurgens and drawn by Aaron Lopresti, and it's not the one written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Jim Lee and Gene Ha. It isn't even part of the New 52, it's not part of current continuity, and you aren't likely to see it on the shelves of your local comic shop.

It's "Justice League Beyond," the straight-to-digital monthly comic by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen.

Sure, months after its release, you can get a floppy reprint of it (along with "Batman Beyond") for $3.99, but I suspect we'll see as many of those at the LCS as we saw copies of the Johnny DC titles during their prime. Which, if your shop is anything like the one near my house, means that you might see a single, lingering copy, and that's a strong maybe.

It's built for digital anyway, with landscape formatted pages and images that read perfectly on the iPad. And it's 99 cents an issue.

I know Marvel has dabbled in the straight-to-digital stuff too (they were certainly well-ahead of DC on that trajectory, though they didn't yet have the proper handheld devices in the marketplace to create content for), but while they are now looking to Augment the Reality of their comics with a clumsy add-on, DC is almost silently producing inexpensive, high-quality digital comics that readers would actually enjoy.

It's that "almost silently" part that's troubling.

I haven't written all that much about digital comics, but whenever I've had conversations with industry professionals about the topic -- and it is a topic everyone has an opinion on, to be sure -- the discussion has always circled back to 99 cents as the magical price point. I've often said, and heard others say to me, something along these lines: "If original digital comics were 99 cents, and they were produced by a strong creative team, the sales would explode."

Here's a monthly Justice League comic, drawn by well-established and well-liked artist Dustin Nguyen, at less than a dollar per issue, and... crickets.

It also has the added benefit of tapping into a wider mainstream audience by following up on the future Justice League as presented in the "Batman Beyond" animated series, a cartoon that millions of people watched. Certainly more people watched that show than ever stepped foot in a comic shop in the past ten years.

The series follows the future DCU continuity established in "Batman Beyond"

Now I realize that the show has been off the air for a decade, and that means DC is banking on the nostalgia of now-20-somethings, but if DC can't bank on nostalgia it doesn't have much left to leverage.

All of this is mere context, though, and the reality is that I haven't heard anything about "Justice League Beyond" -- I vaguely remember the initial press release -- that would indicate that it was any kind of success. DC claimed that the absurdly painful "Superman: Earth One" graphic novel was a huge success because it sold thousands of copies. They were proud of that one.

If "Justice League Beyond" were making any kind of money, they would immediately start moving to produce more original digital content, and you'd see Dan DiDio and Jim Lee spout phrases like "Due to the runaway success of the digital-first 'Justice League Beyond,' we will launch a new... yadda yadda yadda." None of that seems to be happening. I can only assume that "Justice League Beyond" is still largely as ignored by readers as it is ignored by everyone in the community of comic book punditry.

And that is a tremendous shame, because "Justice League Beyond" has something special going for it: quality.

"Justice League Beyond" is just a straight-ahead adventure, but it's one of the best action/adventure comics from Marvel or DC right now. You know that thing where, when you get to the end of an issue, you can't wait to find out what happens next? "Justice League Beyond" does that, every month.

It's certainly in the tradition of the best episodes of the animated "Justice League Unlimited," with Nguyen drawing in a streamlined, cleanly angular style, and with the script by Fridolfs and Nguyen providing incisive takes on each character while whisking the reader through the astounding range of landscapes the DCU provides.

I know the death-knell of mainstream superhero comics is the taint of "all-ages appeal" (which is, as we know, completely ridiculous, since most of our favorite comics were implicitly "all-ages" along with the rest of the entire genre), but "Justice League Beyond" is such a pure comic book experience with grand villains and master plans and betrayals and seeming deaths and hidden conspiracies and superheroics that it would surely appeal to anyone, of any age.

The only criticism I could possibly muster against it is that it doesn't make any excuses for being a straight-ahead superhero action comic. It doesn't aspire to anything profound. But who needs that, when you have the minions of Kobra on Dinosaur Island and Big Barda in the future bashing in the heads of deranged clowns and knocking the teeth out of moody vampires?

"Justice League Beyond" is a pure comic book experience with grand villains, master plans, betrayals, and seeming deaths

In the four issues that have been released so far, the Justice League Beyond team -- comprised of Terry McGinnis' Batman, Big Barda, Warhawk, Kai-Ro the Green Lantern, Aquagirl, and Superman -- has faced down a gang war between post-Joker maniacs and brooding mutant monstrosities, contained Bizarra and Kidzarro, traveled to future-Cadmus on future-Dinosaur Island, confronted a handful of insta-Parasites, chased a former teammate into a detonation, and came face to face with a familiar name from the distant past.

Four issues, many of them filled with pages that feature only two panels, for more efficient iPad reading.

If you'll recall, Dustin Nguyen spent years of his life drawing Batman-family comics where that quantity of plot events would have taken four years of issues.

In "Justice League Beyond," everything is fast-paced and nothing is safe.

At 99 cents an issue. Digitally.

Too bad that, because these comics don't "count" toward the current DC continuity, they will remain largely ignored and mostly unread. But if the original "Batman Beyond" series took place in 2019, and these comics take place a year or two after that, then we just might see this future soon enough. Then Fridolfs and Nguyen will have the last laugh. These are the comics that will have counted all along, and your squabbling international Justice Leaguers and your Boom Tube fodder heroes will seem like quaint relics of a time when you could have gotten good new comics on the cheap, but you passed them by in favor of something that didn't matter at all.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when worlds collide, justice league beyond, derek fridolfs, dustin nguyen, digital comics

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