"Justice League" #20 by Geoff Johns, Zander Cannon, Gene Ha, Andres Guinaldo and Joe Prado, and Gary Frank features two stories: "Secrets," a prologue to the Trinity War, in which Element Woman, The Atom and Firestorm battle Despero, and Chapter 12 of the "Shazam!" backup story, in which Billy Batson stands up to Black Adam.
"Secrets," is narrated in first-person by Rhonda Pineda (The Atom) and from the first page, her watchful and anxious text box monologue tells the reader that something is up with her. The first-person point-of-view blunts the information-dumping aspect. Johns uses Rhonda's text box observations to give readers a recap and later on, play-by-play reflections on the action, but he achieves a pleasantly conversational, casual tone.
The opening scene is classic Geoff Johns in its placement of a superhero in a civilian setting. Element Woman makes a fast food stop at a Big Belly Burger joint, and the dialogue shows off her innocence and charm. It's also the only humorous scene in "Justice League" #20, which is a shame, because humor and this type of humanizing characterization are two of Johns' seemingly effortless strengths.
The art throughout "Secrets" gets the job done, but it's messy, both within individual panels and pages and across the story as a whole. The variety of panel layouts are meant to make the action exciting, but the effect is cluttered. Also, there's little to no artistic unity in line and shading, which is inevitable in the unfortunate situation of twenty-two pages shared between four pencillers and three inkers.
The fight scenes that occupy the bulk of "Secrets" aren't totally boring, but the first few pages of battle seem to act only as a showcase for the powers of the new recruits. The action accordingly loses steam quickly, even before Johns changes scenes to a tense confrontation between Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman. Despero's eventual defeat is due to a surprise guest appearance. The identity of this super-being is predictable, although Johns and the art team play up the entrance scene well. The fight is intended to be an epic rematch, but the shouted melodramatic dialogue makes the action feel stale.
The following scene, in which Batman shows Superman his depressing "Batcave's Batcave," is a clear lead-in to the Trinity War. The setup is a variation on the well-worn theme of every hero having an Achilles' heel. However, I admit that I am curious about the contents of the boxes, so the trope still has some juice. I just hope that the revelations justify the suspense Johns is building up.
On a related note, the suspense for Atom's big secret is built up so much over "Secrets" that by the time all is revealed, it's slightly anticlimactic, especially because Johns lays enough hints that it's possible for the reader to guess the gist of it.
Oddly, the weakest part of "Secrets" is Despero's presence, and one wonders if Johns could have achieved the same objectives without the plot device of bringing out an old villain and then carting him away again in the same issue.
Johns and Frank's backup "Shazam!" story is on the verge of wrapping up, and the pacing and suspense are still impressively strong. After the artistic hash of "Secrets," it's a relief to see Frank as the solo penciller and inker here. Johns and Frank manage to pack in a remarkable amount of information and action into only eight pages, including a flashback to Black Adam's origin. Frank's skill with facial expressions is the emotional lynchpin of this scene between Adam and his nephew, Aman. Johns' dialogue plays up the contrast between Aman and Adam quickly, and Frank's dramatic staging adds impact to the horrific flashback conclusion.
Overall, "Justice League" #20 keeps things moving along. The strong "Shazam!" backup amply justifies its page count, and "Secrets" lays down more than one plotline for the Trinity War and begins to flesh out the new Justice League B-team.