“War World” (season 1, episodes 12-13; originally aired 2/24/2002 and 3/3/2002)
(Warning: spoilers for Fantastic Four #600 below.)
Why do superheroes work so well as gladiators? Whether in an alien pastiche of ancient Rome (Greg Pak’s “Planet Hulk”) or a supervillain casino (Roulette’s “The House” in JSA), it’s a common conceit in superhero comics to trap characters in a setting where they are forced to fight for their lives. Like ancient gladiator games, superhero comics were devised as escapist entertainment, distracting people from the problems of the real world with colorful fisticuffs. Since the rise of grim-and-gritty comics, the violence has become more graphic and spectacular, and gladiator stories tap into that primal desire to watch people get the shit kicked out of them without any sort of real world consequences.
(Spoilers for Fantastic Four #600 coming up!)
Take a look at last month’s Fantastic Four #600, which featured the return of Johnny Storm after “dying” 10 months ago. Jonathan Hickman reveals that while Johnny was technically killed in the Negative Zone, he was revived by Annihilus’ technology to fight in gladiator games for the bug-emperor, dying and reviving in an endless cycle of bloody entertainment. There are some truly unnerving images of Johnny ripped in half, then getting put back together by slugs that rebuild his musculature in gory detail, showing how dire the situation is in order to make the uprising all the more effective. And that’s what gladiator stories are really about: the uprising.
The pleasure derived from watching Superman or Hulk take a royal ass-whupping pales in comparison to the joy of watching them rise from their defeats and take the fight to their oppressors. The writers of Justice League must have had a list of genres they want to cover during the first season, and “War World” is superhero Spartacus, as Superman and J’onn are abducted and forced to fight in gladiator matches for the tyrannical Mongul (Eric Roberts). It’s an enjoyable if flimsy episode that is light on the humor and takes shortcuts to de-power the characters, but it adequately establishes Superman as the team’s moral compass without making him less of a threat.
“War World” is loosely based on Superman #32 by Roger Stern and Kerry Gammill, where our hero did his best impression of Marvel’s Hercules by throwing on a headband and S-shield toga to fight Mongul and Draaga. Superman is always such a good boy that it’s a delight to see him cut loose (see: any Superman/Darkseid fight), but writer Stan Berkowitz builds on Stern’s story by emphasizing the pervasive influence Superman’s beliefs can have on a larger population. When Superman refuses to kill Draaga after defeating him in combat, he is slated for execution by Mongul, but J’onn is able to get the audience on his side, supporting Superman not just in the arena, but on the streets.
When Superman and J’onn disappear, Hawgirl and Green Lantern team up to find them, and Berkowitz starts laying the groundwork for their future relationship by having them bicker with each other like children on the playground. Their antagonism toward each other is clearly attraction; insults are their way of flirting, and beating up aliens is foreplay. Hell, in “Comfort And Joy,” a bar fight is like sex for Hawkgirl.
Mongul uses the fights as a way to avoid giving people what they need, distracting them with entertainment to quell any demands they may have for their government. “Rebellion? There’s not going to be any rebellion,” he says. “Not if I can give them fights. Good ones. Enough to keep their minds off their troubles.” When Superman stands up to Mongul, it shows the citizens of War World that they don’t have to allow Mongul to impoverish them, and that a single person can make a change that affects an entire planet. As their first act of rebellion, people begin putting S-shield graffiti around the city, and even Draaga takes on Superman’s iconography, burning an “S” into his chest as a constant reminder of the man that took away his honor.
Draaga’s “S” is originally a punishment, but when Draaga has the opportunity to kill Mongul, the letter becomes representative of Draaga’s acceptance of Superman’s values. Rather than kill Mongul, Draaga just beats him until he’s unconscious, screaming, “This is for my people! This is for my humiliation! This is for JAH-STISS!” It’s the outer space gladiator equivalent of “truth, justice, and the American way,”
Butch Lukic is the director you want for an action-heavy episode, and the battles in “War World” are harsh and powerful. With no risk of collateral damage, Superman is able to cut loose, and he’s able to unleash the might that his right keeps in check. J’onn can’t use his powers because of “something in the atmosphere,” a half-assed excuse by Berkowitz to depower J’onn, which is really unfortunate because it would have fantastic to see J’onn show off his moves in the ring. With all of his powers plus shape-changing abilities, J’onn would be a visually exciting combatant, and it’s a shame never see him on a rampage this episode. Granted, that’s because Berkowitz wants to keep the focus on Superman, so in terms of giving this episode a specific direction, depowering J’onn works.
Glen Weldon wrote a great piece for NPR’s Monkey See blog, where he discusses the Superman’s appearance has changed over time to adjust to American cultural shifts. For the Superman: The Animated Series Superman, Weldon writes: “The s-curl has become a squiggle, the eyes have once again dwindled to black dots. He doesn’t need expressive eyes—this Superman is about action, not words. Or, worse, feelings.” The black dots and squiggle remain, but for Justice League season one, lines under the eyes, more pronounced cheekbones, and slightly graying hair give him a weary appearance that suggests he’s getting tired of a life of action. After being manipulated by Darkseid at the end of S:TAS, Superman doesn’t have a perfect reputation anymore, and he’s taking strides to bring peace non-violently, like endorsing nuclear disarmament at the U.N. in “Secret Origins.” This elder statesman version of Superman doesn’t last though, and he’ll go back to his younger S:TAS appearance for later Justice League seasons because viewers don’t like to watch a Superman with wrinkles.
- John Stewart has no imagination when it comes to using his ring. It’s almost exclusively used for laser beams, protective walls and bubbles, and scanning energy signatures. Where are the boxing gloves and green firetrucks?
- Superman is de-powered this episode, I’ll chalk it up to the absence of Earth’s yellow sun. That’s “something in the atmosphere” that actually makes sense for the character.
- The animators get around Cartoon Network’s “no blood” rule by not making blood red. Krodar The Terrible shoots out black fluid, while Draaga’s face and body have small neon green lines where he’s bleeding.
- I love when the composer incorporates flourishes of Superman or Batman’s animated series theme song during particularly heroic moments for the characters.
- Hawkgirl destroy’s Mongul’s cannon by smacking its energy beam with her mace, which is a completely implausible solution, but leads to a very satisfying (pretty) explosion.
- “He’s more than that—he’s a Superman.”
- “Draaga, the real test of honor isn’t how you die. It’s how you live.”
DC Relaunch Rundown
We’re a quarter of the way through the first year of DC’s relaunch, and like last month, the strongest titles remain so, while the rest of the line becomes plagued with inconsistency. There haven’t been any previous writing shake-ups on the titles, but this month brings the first of many: J. T. Krul’s exit from Green Arrow. It was one of the worst titles of the relaunch, and hopefully interim writers Keith Giffen and Dan Jurgens can get this book on some kind of track before Ann Nocenti takes over for her first ongoing comic gig in years.
There are some significant writer changes happening in the coming months, and they’re a mixed bag. Rob Liefeld taking over writing duties for Hawk & Dove is truly mind-boggling, while Ron Marz was taken off Voodoo because the editor’s wanted a new direction, likely one that is more similar in tone to fellow Wildstorm hanger-ons Grifter and Stormwatch
Artistic inconsistency is an ever-growing problem, and while that’s not always a problem (Trevor McCarthy on Blackhawks, Nicola Scott on Superman), for the lower-selling titles its can be a harbinger of doom. Blackhawks isn’t selling great numbers, and the huge dip in the art between #2 and #3 isn’t likely to help. That said, Mike Costa is a smart guy, and for his New 52 interview in the back of #3, he emphasizes how good the book will look once new regular artist Cafu comes on at #5. At this rate, it’s looking like most of the relaunched DC titles will have had multiple creative teams by the end of the year, which is more evidence to suggest that the relaunch was a rush job.
In terms of headline-worthy developments, Teen Titans #3 debuted a new openly gay character named Bunker, a Latino superhero fanboy that can create psionic bricks with his mind. Yeah. Bricks. Scott Lobdell still writes horrible teen dialogue (I don’t think any teen still says “fella,” Latino or not), but his plot moves at a quick pace and Brett Booth’s art is clean and colorful, and it’s great to see a young gay character embracing his sexuality. He’s flamboyant and seems to have a bit of a crush on Red Robin, and it looks like Lobdell is essentially turning Bunker into the Teen Titan equivalent of Glee’s Kurt Hummel. Pink bricks are still a really stupid power, though.
Rumors of Watchmen 2 have been circulating for a few months now, and I just want to see what everyone’s opinions are on the matter. DCAU veteran Darwyn Cooke is rumored to be in the executive producer role for a series of stories set in the past of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal work. Andy Kubert is also rumored to be drawing one of the stories, while names like J.G. Jones, J. Michael Straczynski, and even Gibbons have been bandied about. Cooke has become one of the most reliable names in comics over the past decade, and I’m willing to read anything he’s involved with, but it feels wrong for DC to touch one of comics’ sacred cows. What do you think: awesome or appalling?
I figured out what my problem is with Geoff Johns on Justice League is: he’s writing like Jeph Loeb. An emphasis on smashing, tired dialogue, and broad characterizations are all qualities of Loeb’s recent work, and I fear that the time Johns’ is spending on the Hollywood side of the company is affecting his comic book writing. The character-driven storytelling of Johns’ Flash, Hawkman, and JSA is still present in Aquaman, but Justice League is flash over substance, spotlighting Jim Lee’s artwork and not much else.