Bridging the gap between Dwayne McDuffie’s prematurely curtailed JLA run and James Robinson’s regular series debut has been Len Wein. Yup, Len Wein, Seventies wunderkind, long absent from DC and Marvel. Can he cut it in the modern DC Universe?
Too bloomin’ right he can. The last three issues of JLA are certainly old-fashioned in structure: Amos Fortune and Roulette join forces to sic enemies on the world’s greatest superheroes and the team splits into mini-strike forces in chapters – complete with cute individual logos – coming together at the end to wrap things up. It’s pure Gardner Fox. It’s also pure fun when done right, and Wein knows how to write. This is the approach he used in his well-loved Seventies JLA run and I’d venture to say he’s only gotten better.
For this is no fill-in handed to some old guy as a favour, with no ties to anything else going on in current comics. This is a true bridge between runs built by a seasoned veteran, with Vixen dealing with the aftermath of the League being sundered by the loss of most of its members. So we get a new League, resulting from the death of Batman, Superman’s flight to New Krypton and the formation of Hal Jordan’s Grimace League. It’s Vixen, Plastic Man, Dr Light, Firestorm, Red Tornado and Wonder Woman and they make a tremendous team.
While it’s fair to say this final issue of Royal Pain is all action, Wein uses the excitement to effect character, exploring the dynamics of such unusual combinations as cranky but caring Dr Light and presents-as-flighty Plastic Man. Not for Wein the modern school of heroes sitting around at breakfast, shooting the breeze – he has them actually accomplish things while bantering.
He also knows that a comic book team isn’t simply a bunch of characters sharing one book, it’s heroes combining their powers and personalities to move the story forward. So here, for example, Wonder Woman and Red Tornado make the best of a bad job when Amos Fortune’s bad luck technology kicks in against them, and triumph.
While all the characters shine, it’s determined, spunky Vixen who is the standout, refusing to let the League dream die. I especially liked the flashback to Superman giving her a pep talk. In many other writers’ hands the very idea would peg the experienced Vixen as a newbie, but Wein simply shows the strength of friendship, reminding us that Superman was her mentor of sorts (when the DC Explosion killed Vixen’s solo title before it launched in the Seventies, she finally made her debut teaming with him in DC Comics Presents).
The incidental details are a delight, from Fortune’s team sheets styled to look like Wein-era JLA covers to the use of Infinity Inc’s Stellar Studios and Superman foe Titano as a movie icon. Wein knows his DC history and employs it not as fan porn but to enhance the story. And just when it seems his job is done, he brings in another old JLA foe in a surprise ending.
I hope DC are planning to give Wein a chance to pick up where he leaves off here, as this is the most fun I’ve had with a JLA book in ages. If there is a second JLA book planned to complement the James Robinson/Mark Bagley run, I want Wein writing it.
And if he brings this issue’s penciller, Tom Derenick, with him, that’s fine by me. The fella’s been around for years and I can’t remember the last time he had a regular book. It’s a fill-in here, a fill-in there, always done with style and care. The consistency suffers here from too many inkers, but the storytelling is solid, the figurework punchy. And all nicely coloured by Pete Pantazis.
The issue is topped off with a gorgeous cover by Joe Prado, coloured by David Curiel. It’s a shame these last three issues are unlikely to be collected (‘Smells Like League Spirit’, maybe?), as the image would make the perfect cover.
So, is the Len Wein JLA too old-fashioned for today? Nope, it’s a classic formula, updated by a pro. Hope you caught it.