Monday, 25 September 2017

JLA: The Tenth Circle

Chris Claremont & John Byrne JLA: The Tenth Circle (2004)
As I said back in August, I've been catching up with neglected incarnations of the Doom Patrol, and this is where the John Byrne version was born, immediately prior to a couple of years appearing in their own title. I had a feeling I wasn't going to like this much, and a few online reviews suggested it all seemed a bit childish, as though written for kids. Happily I was wrong on the first count, and as for the second one, well - seeing as how this is a Justice League of America comic book in which Superman has a scrap with a vampire, what the fuck did you expect?

Okay. I had other reservations too, notably how John Byrne has always had a thing for what I seem to remember him calling big stick heroes, so in other words, big, colourful, and sunny just like when I were a lad. Like Teddy Roosevelt, they carry a big allegorical stick with which they duff up the bad guys, and they probably won't have much in the way of dark secrets. There's nothing inherently wrong with such ideas, but in context of Doom Patrol, the essence of Byrne's revival seems oddly Republican in its apparent revision of established continuity, starting again from the beginning so that we no longer have to think about all that weird Morrison stuff with men wearing dresses and drugs and all manner of related beastliness. That said, I haven't actually read Byrne's run on Doom Patrol as yet, so I'll have to suspend judgement a little longer.

On the other hand, I've always enjoyed John Byrne's work. It's easy on the eye, and there's something pleasantly chunky and tidy about his art. It's traditional and clean, almost classical in comic book terms; and yet in apparent contrast to such unashamedly mainstream appeal, he's always been quite good at weird, notably in West Coast Avengers and those early issues of Alpha Flight.

Anyway, here we have a vampire called Crucifer who bites Superman, thus placing him under some kind of hypnotic thrall. He's a vampire very much in the traditional sense, as seen in Murnau's Nosferatu, and he wants to bring all the other vampires back from the  tenth circle of Hell, to which they've been banished by Wonder Woman's people. Luckily the Justice League of America are on the case, as is some mysterious new group of slightly odd supertypes led by a dude in a wheelchair. So, yes, it almost certainly was written for kids, which I nevertheless found a pleasure, and I'm in my fifties.

It's been a while since I read anything by Chris Claremont, and the dialogue is very obviously his, with sentences broken up and splattered all around the frame in strings of speech balloons, pensive dialogue boxes, and unapologetic use of thought bubbles; because in case any of us should have forgotten, this is a comic book, not Crime & Punishment. I'd grown weary of Claremont's dialogue by the end of his run on the X-Men back in the nineties, always trying too hard and coming across like the idea of teenagers seen in a late eighties Rod Stewart video, but it could just be that he was overworked. In any case, whilst this may not strive for the sophistication of one of those grown-up comic books by Garth Guinness, Claremont writes a beautifully smooth read, pulling you right into the story from the first page and keeping your attention firmly pinned in place. There's nothing particularly profound in this collection, except that it's beautifully rendered, rounded, and very, very satisfying. It never needed to do anything more than it already does.

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