Aug 1, 2012

Comparisons: Morrison's JLA or Busiek and Perez's AVENGERS

I haven't really done a Comics Comparison in a while, and since I reread these two recently, I thought it was apt to do one on them. We're gonna take a different approach this time around, though, because I've been reading The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons too much. (Seriously, if you're a basketball fan, go read it. Simmons is a captivating writer.)

JLA was written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Howard Porter. The first issue is cover-dated January 1997, and the pitch was simple: use DC's seven original Justice Leaguers, or at least, the ones then carrying the name — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman. This came after some years of the Justice League being populated by second- and third-stringers, with the later years having the League adopt a very X-Men-like approach in terms of character dynamics and soap-operatic storylines. Not exactly very fitting for the World's Greatest Heroes. So Morrison wanted to reinstill the sense of grandeur that the League was supposed to have.

AVENGERS by Kurt Busiek and George Perez came a year later (the first issue is cover-dated February 1998) as one of four series for Marvel's "Heroes Return" event, which came off the heels of "Heroes Reborn." "Heroes Reborn" was a year-long project which saw Marvel outsource the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America to Rob Liefeld's Extreme Studios and Jim Lee's Wildstorm Studios. Rob was in charge of Cap and Avengers for half of the year, when he had to hand the properties over to Jim. The Heroes Reborn books were a commercial success but were critically not very well received, but the thing is, Cap aside, those books were already spiraling downward in terms of sales and quality before then. AVENGERS in particular saw a team full of leather jacket–wearing members, bad mullets, and random new members, like Deathcry. (Seriously? Deathcry?) Busiek's vision was to bring the Earth's Mightiest Heroes back to their classic forms, and with George Perez on board, I think they pretty much succeeded.

Make no mistake: both series were fun as hell when they were coming out, and they're still really fun on a reread. And yes, I know that their differences kinda make this an apples/oranges comparison, but I can't help it. This article must be written. And it shall be written in a Dr.-Jack-ala-Bill-Simmons breakdown. (Dr. Jack is a sports analyst who divides things into categories and compares two things via category. Bill Simmons' version is the same thing, only with more... arbitrary... categories.) And if you've never read either series and want to decide which one to read first, maybe this will be helpful.

Let's get to it!

Art. We'll start off with the easiest one. The artist of JLA was Howard Porter, who happens to be the most common reason I'm given by people when they tell me they can't get into this version of the JLA. It's understandable; Porter's art was hampered by what looked to be rushed figure drawings, bad anatomy, a blocky style, and only a handful of facial expressions. Nevertheless, as weird and idiosyncratic as it was, it felt kind of suited to the manic and frenetic tone of the series. I'm not saying it couldn't have been better; just that it had a weird energy to it.

On the other hand, AVENGERS had, getting back to the top of his game, George Perez, one of the most influential artists of all time, master of the group shot, someone to whom storytelling comes naturally, expert on furnishing a piece with details, a man who makes facial expressions and body language easy...

Okay, this is getting embarrassing. Let's move on.

Major Edge: Avengers

Rosters. JLA started off with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash (Wally West), Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner), the Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman. Truly, DC's Big 7. AVENGERS started off with — actually, AVENGERS started off with everyone who'd ever been an Avenger, but the first main roster that they settled on comprised Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, and Ms. Marvel, who back then went by Warbird. That's a roster I can live with, considering that I think the main Avengers are those first six, plus Hank Pym and the Wasp. Ms. Marvel's a great replacement though. Add Wonder Man to that and you've got a true powerhouse team. Not exactly what I would have gone with, but good enough.

As both series went by, they both went through roster changes. JLA acquired Green Arrow and Aztek, only to lose them in less than a year. By the end of Morrison's run, the JLA consisted of those Big 7, Steel, Huntress, Orion, Big Barda, Plastic Man, Zauriel, and Oracle. By the time Perez left, the Avengers members were Iron Man, Triathlon, the Scarlet Witch, Ms. Marvel, the Vision, Wonder Man, and Silverclaw.

I'm gonna go with JLA here. At least they kept their entire core.

Edge: JLA

Threats. Kurt Busiek and George Perez seemed to not want to use the usual suspects so much in their AVENGERS run. The biggest threats were classic Avengers baddie Ultron and Count Nefaria, followed by powerful villains that didn't really live up to the grandeur of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, such as Morgan Le Fay, Moses Magnum, and a mind-controlled Squadron Supreme. They made great foils but not overly threatening ones, and they were the rule rather than the exception.

This collection of superbaddies isn't even the JLA's
most dangerous threat in Morrison and Porter's run.

On the other hand, the JLA kicked off with eight Martians, then had a pack of rogue angels, and at one point had half of the team battling the Injustice Gang (a team comprising Lex Luthor, the Joker, Circe, and the League's other counterparts) and the other half simultaneously fighting a future version of Darkseid in what could be seen as a prelude to FINAL CRISIS. They ended with a fight against Mageddon, a primordial world-killer.  Their worst villain, if he could even be called that, was Prometheus, a high-tech anti-Batman who figured out a way to take every Leaguer down, although he was essentially a one-note villain.

Pretty Big Edge: JLA

Pacing. AVENGERS wins out here because the pacing actually ends up changing based on the needs of the story. It's slow when it needs to be, fast when it needs to be, and there are "speeding up" and "slowing down" transitions. JLA, on the other hand, has balls-to-the-wall, high-speed, high-octane pacing. Even as a monthly title at the time of release, I thought it could have used some slowing down (not even by a lot; just some), and it's even more pronounced when you read it in one big go.

Edge: Avengers.

Characterization. This one's hard to really decide on, since the core concepts of the two are so different. JLA had the big guns, which meant that Morrison could really only do "soundbite" characterization — that is, giving the characters moments that fit their personalities and their unique dynamics without actually delving deep into those personalities. So we got moments like this, where a powerless Superman in a dreamworld just counts out the odds and then says "All right, let's do this." This was about the extent of the characterization.

AVENGERS had three guys with their own titles (heck, Thor didn't even have one for the first eight issues), so Busiek had more freedom to do what he wanted with the rest of the team. We had subplots where Ms. Marvel has to deal with an alcohol problem, where Hawkeye and the Scarlet Witch felt out of place, and so on. There was just more to work with.

So the edge goes to.... damn. I don't know. The characterization in AVENGERS was deeper, but that in JLA was more primal and better communicated what was so cool about these heroes. I don't know. I could go either way on this one. Let me flip a coin.

Edge: The coin says to give it to Avengers, and thus I will, because someone has to win.

Words. This is hard too, because I think this was a relatively weak part of both series. Morrison seemed to rely on "soundbites," which could easily go into establishing the badass level of a character, but could also be seen as stilted and unnatural. (Morrison likes using "Hh" a lot.)

On the other hand, Busiek showed a bit more craft and facility with his words. Unfortunately, this sometimes led to overexposition. AVENGERS ended up being a bit of a "talky" title, going too deep into the character's doubts with their thoughts and accompanying narration. It wouldn't have been as glaring if Busiek had a lesser artist working with him, but he had a guy who could convey a character's emotions with their eyes. It came off as overkill. (Incidentally, I'm not sure why AVENGERS had so much exposition — THUNDERBOLTS at the same time didn't have anywhere near as much.)

Edge: JLA. I've found I can read through the stilted dialogue in it, but the overexpository nature of AVENGERS would be just a bit more of a chore.

How It Begins. JLA started with an alien invasion, with all seven members of the League ready and raring to go and stop it. AVENGERS started out with the Asgardian Twilight Sword having gone missing, prompting the five founding members to convene a meeting of every Avenger who could possibly fight the new threat, only to be thrust into an alternate universe where Morgan Le Fay is Queen, and the Avengers are her soldiers. This came complete with medieval redesigns and everything.

So yeah, Avengers.

Edge: Avengers.

How It Ends. This is kinda unfair to AVENGERS, because Busiek stayed on the title after Perez left, but Porter stayed on JLA after Morrison left as well, so I think it balances out. Anyway, Busiek and Perez's AVENGERS run ended with a crossover with THUNDERBOLTS, and saw both teams (and a guest-starring Captain America) fighting Count Nefaria, involving Madame Masque.

JLA ended with a big giant war against Mageddon, the primordial weapon, which involved pretty much every hero on earth, culminating in everyone on earth getting superpowers for a short amount of time, and the world's greatest heroes taking down a weapon that had taken down more advanced civilizations.

Pretty Big Edge: JLA. It's helped by the fact that Morrison actually did write it to be his swan song. Busiek didn't.

"Classic" Feel. This one's going to go to AVENGERS pretty handily, because that's what it was supposed to do. It came with a completely fresh start (with the affected members also getting a fresh start), had a classic artist on it, and used classic or close-to-classic costumes. It feels even more classic than the actual classic stories, because they did it with the classic era in mind. As I said over here in my Gateway Comics (Avengers Edition) piece:
I do tend to think that because this is a throwback to a classic era, it actually ends up feeling more classic than the actual classic era, because there's a deliberate attempt to get that feel. It's able to eliminate things that the classic era did that didn't really work (like Starfox). So that's my whole point. If you want to get into AVENGERS, this is probably the safest bet.

Morrison had to deal with a lot of editorial challenges in his JLA, even having to fight for the use of Batman as a team member. He got Kyle Rayner, Wally West, and bearded Aquaman with a hook — all my preferred versions of these characters, it must be said, but not really the classic versions. For a long time he also had to use Electric Superman. Yes, he did his best; yes, it wasn't his fault; no, AVENGERS still wins.

Pretty Big Edge: Avengers.

"Modern" Feel. So you'd think that with AVENGERS getting the "classic" nod, JLA would get the "modern" nod, right? Well, it does, but not by much. JLA had many attempts to "look to the future," utilizing high-technology and lots of "futuristic" gear. That usually gets old right away.

So how does JLA win in this category? Two words: widescreen storytelling. Every issue of JLA was a blockbuster, with incredible visual spectacles and a great adrenaline-rushing payoff. This, along with Warren Ellis' AUTHORITY run, paved the way for widescreen storytelling in comics, which got so prevalent in the new millennium.

Edge: JLA

Less Outdated Attempt to Be Modern. For AVENGERS, it's from issue #4, when they're introduced to their new government liaison, Duane Freeman, and have to figure out their roster. Duane's using a laptop, complete with one of them built-in ball mouses.

For JLA, it's the incessant attempt to use future tech. I think the most glaring attempt was during their adventure against The Key, in which the villain projects them into their dream versions of the future. In Batman's dream, Tim "Robin" Drake took over as Batman, with Bruce Wayne Jr. taking on the Robin mantle. Tim's decked out in an armored Batsuit and everything.

Edge: Avengers. At least those laptops are still in use today; future Batman looked outdated even in 1998.

Most Badass Character. Batman was clearly Morrison's favored character in JLA right from the get-go, getting a lot of the coolest moments, solving a lot of the mysteries, and delivering the final punch in a good number of situations. In the first JLA story, the Martians (still in disguise) end up capturing the rest of the League but let him go, reasoning that he's "only a man." Batman, of course, figures out who they are and makes them pay.

Even when other guys get the spotlight, it was frequently Batman pushing them into it.

For AVENGERS, it was Thor, who Busiek and Perez utilized at a "secret weapon" capacity to great effect. Frequently, they'd downplay him, either having him out of the scene completely or kept at bay by Captain America until it was time to unleash him.

Edge: JLA. Aside from the whole "He has no powers, but is able to hang out with all these guys" factor, there was also more variety to Batman's actions than Thor's.

Most Badass Moment. For JLA, it wasn't a Batman moment but a pair of Superman moments in succession. With the League under attack by a gang of renegade angels, the demonic Neron attempts to keep the two who can beat the angels, Superman and the Flash, at bay in the lunar JLA Watchtower by pulling the moon out of orbit. Morrison initially intended this to be a classic "Superman pushes the moon back into orbit" moment, but since he got Electric Superman at the time, he had to improvise.

So Superman gets the moon back into orbit, and then proceeds to earth, where he wrestles Asmodel, leader of the renegade angels, in what was a visual callback to the Biblical story of Jacob.

For AVENGERS, it was right at the end of "Ultron Unlimited," in which Thor, Captain America, Black Panther, Firestar, and Iron Man, having fought off a legion of android clones of Ultron, finally reached the main guy. Hearing the wall break behind him, Ultron turns around, only to be confronted by a really angry Thunder God, who says only seven words.

"Ultron. We would have words with thee."

Edge: Avengers, although I feel like it should be JLA. There's just something of a sledgehammer feel with the whole "wrestling an angel" thing, and from what I've seen, the Thor moment is more fondly remembered, with the line "Ultron, we would have words with thee" even repeated in Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow. Still, I feel like this was really close — if only JLA had a better artist to convey the moment, or if Superman wasn't electric...

Most Forgivable Misuse of a Character. Oddly enough, for AVENGERS, this was also Thor. It's not something that hit me when I was reading it month to month, but when I read it in one big chunk, I realized..., he loses a lot. I'm not going to count out how many wins or losses he got, as such a statistic isn't really relevant. But considering that his entry into the fights was always considerably built up, the end result when he loses (which is a good portion of the time) is that he ends up looking like he's posturing. Which I guess is in character. But still.

For JLA, it was Wonder Woman. Pretty much everyone in Morrison's run had a badass moment or more — Superman wrestling an angel, Batman taking down Martians, Green Lantern containing a supernova, even Aquaman rising up from the seas with an army to prevent World War III — but Wonder Woman's signature moments were almost always overshadowed by everyone else's. Her defining moment in this run is when she takes command of the JLA and attacks the angelic warship on her own.

An awe-inspiring moment. It's only too bad for her that Superman would, you know, put the moon back in orbit and wrestle Asmodel a few pages later. (Which doesn't even make much sense, if you think about it — with Superman being electric, she was the most powerful person on the team.)

Edge: Avengers. Being built up and then taken down still shows the reader what the rest of the team thinks of you. Being overshadowed every time you do anything just kinda makes you fly under the radar.

Creativity. By "creativity," I mean "doing something in the story that you never even thought would happen," and JLA wins here pretty handily, possibly because of AVENGERS' desire to go back to basics. JLA has many of these moments, including the Martian Manhunter changing the proportions of his brain so he's able to think like the Joker (reasoning that the Joker must be dominated by the right side of the brain), the aforementioned Electric Superman moon trick, and Green Lantern containing a supernova, but to really illustrate the point, let's go here:

Flash is up against Zum, the Martian speedster, and decides to run as fast as he can around the world, applying Einstein's theory of relativity, to knock out his opponent.

It's a moment that was even replicated in one of the best episodes of Justice League Unlimited!

Major Edge: JLA

More Acceptable Overpush. For AVENGERS, it was Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. Perez made it no secret that he loved drawing her, and Busiek was quick to oblige. They gave here powers a new explanation (in addition to being a mutant, she was tied to chaos magic), made her deputy leader (and eventually, when Captain America left, leader), had her save the day a lot, and amped up her powers to an incredible degree. This was not only organic growth for her, but it led to her being used in all sorts of ways after Busiek's departure, including as the lead villain in two — TWO! — events, the pivotal figure in AVENGERS: CHILDREN'S CRUSADE, and currently, apparently the only person who can stand up to the Phoenix Force in AVENGERS VS. X-MEN. Regardless of the controversial manner in which she's been used since Busiek and Perez were on the book, the fact is that she is now being used in such a capacity.

For JLA, it was Batman, who just saved the day an awful lot, sometimes to the detriment of his iconic teammates, who would end up deferring to him and how great he was. I don't think it was this run that started it, but this was certainly where the horrible "Batman can beat anyone if he has enough prep time" train of thought got popularized, turning me off to him as a character for the last 13 years. Look, it was fine in JLA with the quick-shot characterization, but the fact that it's been applied to him as a character since is lazy storytelling. People always complain that there's no suspense in reading a Superman story, but Batman right now is even worse — he can beat anyone or anything as long as he's prepared, and he's always prepared.  Where's the drama? What's the point? Never mind that the whole point of superheroes is to always find a way to win; he's got that over everyone else, meaning that hey, if your favorite superhero happens to be guest-starring in a Batman book that month, or if Batman happens to be guest-starring in your favorite superhero's book that month, you can pretty much expect your favorite superhero to look incompetent. Does it build up Batman? Sure. But does he need it, and at the expense of the rest of the DC Universe? Surely not. There's a glass ceiling at DC Comics, and Batman's standing on top of it. (Superman's on top of it too, but he's sitting down or something.)

Flash has known Batman longer than most people. Even in
Morrison's proposal for JLA, he says Flash isn't intimidated by Batman.
And yet here he is, chattering like an idiot, worried that he's stepping on
Batman's toes. How can anyone read "We're all adults here, Mr. West,"
and not feel that Batman's being condescending?

Edge: Avengers. Batman didn't need it, and I think has suffered as a character because of it, and has caused the rest of the DC Universe to suffer because of it.

Most Unintentionally Funny Moment. Sometimes Morrison's creativity went too far in JLA, and the results were just funny to see. Here, Steel realizes that the Queen Bee is blind to the color red, because, well, bees are blind to the color red. So he wraps himself up in his cape, completing the only moment ever that someone prevented World War III by wrapping himself up completely in a blanket.

AVENGERS' funniest moment is this, when no one bothered correcting a drawing of an eye, lending a complete air of comedy to a really dramatic situation.

Edge: JLA. The whole thing is still funny no matter how many times you've read it; the AVENGERS thing is just annoying the second time. They couldn't have corrected that for the reprints?

Guest Creators. AVENGERS featured a three-issue stint by Jerry Ordway, who sent the team (and a guest-starring Black Knight) to Polemachus to fight the Wrecking Crew. Even in terms of the art, I didn't think it was up to Ordway's usual standards, fun though it were.

JLA had Mark Waid take over for four issues. He first had a two-parter where a new character named Julian September invents something that reverses the history of the world, with the catch that every reversal has something to do with the number 7. It's an interesting premise based on actual research in quantum physics that involved splitting an atom.

He followed that up with a two-part Adam Strange story that I can honestly say was the first time I ever thought Adam was cool.

Edge: JLA

Tie-Ins. AVENGERS had AVENGERS FOREVER, a 12-part maxiseries drawn by Carlos Pacheco and written by Kurt Busiek that involved time-displaced Avengers and a jaunt around alternate universes.

JLA had DC ONE MILLION, in which the JLA members went to the 853rd century (when the 1 millionth issues of their comics would have been published) and met the heroes there, including their counterparts in the Justice Legion A. This anchored a month-long event where every DC title was projected into its 1 millionth issue.

JLA also had an OGN called EARTH-2, in which the League discovered the new Crime Syndicate of Amerika. It was written by Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely. Although anticlimactic, it was still pretty well done.

Edge: JLA

Rereadability. Morrison's creativity remains the anchor of the JLA on rereads. Unfortunately, a large part of that is the novelty of seeing these ideas, and I can see why you would want more substance on a reread. AVENGERS wins out on this one specifically because of the more intricate characterization, not to mention that Perez's art ages much, much better than Porter's.

Edge: Avengers

Final Edge. Well, unless I lost count, JLA won this by a point, but it's important to note that there are probably other factors I didn't even consider, and some of these factors probably should weigh more than others ("Most unintentionally funny moment?" I must really be on a Simmons high.). Seriously, both books are still pretty good to this day, and they each offer a unique flavor, though they both read like products of their time (that period in the 90s when everyone pretty much said "All right, enough of these horrible gimmicks and terrible stories. Back to telling a story with pictures!"). JLA is breakneck, high-concept action, while AVENGERS is a well-paced, well-characterized mix of dramatics and team dynamics. Plus, they led right into this little baby. So why did I bother comparing them if it's such an apples-and-oranges comparison? I dunno, 'cause it was fun? Do I really need a deep reason?

I'd probably start with JLA though. It's easier to go up to Perez art than go down from it.


Anonymous said...

I knew you'd like Book of Basketball. Glad I recommended it...

- Back Issue Ben

Anonymous said...

Great article! In regards to your feelings towards Batman how do you feel about Snyder's run on the character? It's clear to me that his intent was to humble Batman by revealing the Owls. He was defeated pretty handily at first but eventually won the battle after regrouping. The Owls are still out there though and I felt that Batman was left with the sense that he's not as bullet proof as he once thought.

Duy Tano said...

Ben: Shut up!

mikyzptlk: I haven't been reading Snyder's run, but I have been reading Nightwing. The criticism about Batman wasn't really in regard to his solo books, but in how he is in context with the rest of the DCU. I really like Nightwing, but I don't think he's had a great run in comics. So here he was, having probably the best run in comics he's ever had, and at the end of the first arc, his story is not only railroaded by a Batman crossover but it ends with him being smacked by Batman. And then he just yells at him, then bikes off, with his nose bleeding. Sigh.

JV said...

Nice analysis but I still think Busiek/Perez Avengers beats Morrison/Porter JLA any time. You should've put a weight to each of your categories. I mean storylines means a lot more than "Classic Feel" or "Modern Feel". What that means for a reader is quite subjective. Plotwise, I gave up on JLA after issue 15 while I stayed on Avengers even after Perez left. Morrison may have been creative in his story but it was all over the place while Busiek kept things coherent. Just saying that things like writing, art, story and characters are the most crucual factors when judging which book to read first ;-)

Duy Tano said...

I didn't really feel like doing weights; I just wanted to compare various aspects and go off on (some very) random tangents. It was a takeoff on Bill Simmons' Dr. Jack breakdowns where maybe three or four categories mattered and everything else was just a way to go off on digressions. I did say it was going to be purely arbitrary!

MOCK! said...

Great post! I was out of comics when these were on the stands but have tracked down most of the JLA and all of The Avengers. I am a HUGE Avengers fan and worship Perez, but I still agree with all of your assessments!

Unknown said...

HAHAHAAAAA I'm a Bill Simmons junkie and a comics junkie, this blog was made for me! I agree on all counts. If not for Morrison's imagination Howard's art would have killed JLA. Likewise, Busiek is sometimes waaay too wordy. You described that perfectly. Another great read. I'm loving this blog.

Duy Tano said...


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