Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mike Friedrich's Justice League

It seems like a lifetime ago that I mentioned this, but I did indeed interrupt my reading of Essential Avengers (currently up to Vol. 6 and #120!) to dive into Showcase Presents Justice League of America Volume 5. I was shocked by how fast I breezed through the book! The years may pass, but I still love the classic JLA something fierce.

This book gave me the opportunity to finally check out what is possibly the most-maligned significant run of the title - namely, Mike Friedrich's tenure as writer. I own a couple of Friedrich's issues, and I liked them alright. However, the stretch from #86-#99 that Friedrich penned are considered by some folks to be a lesser period for the League. But is it really that bad?

Actually, I'm going to say no. I think Friedrich just had the misfortune to follow a run by Denny O'Neil (with a fill-in by Robert Kanigher as a stop-gap) that was marked by numerous long-lasting changes to the JLA, and then he was succeeded by Len Wein's extremely fan-friendly and colorful series of tales. But taken as a whole, Friedrich's run is solid and (dare I say it?) maybe a little innovative.

It doesn't start that way. #86-#90 are wildly uneven, with #90's introduction of "Harlequin Ellis" being one of the most infamous JLA stories among those who have read it. Both #86 and #87 lead off with virtually identical opening sequences. And then there is the jackhammer-like subtlety of planet "Cam-Nam-Lao" and other attempts at the relevance so deeply craved in those days. So it's fair to say that Mike Friedrich got off to an awkward start on the book. However, he is far from alone, as such O'Neil creations as Generalissimo Demmy Gog and Mind-Grabber Kid will attest.

It is in #91 that things start to get interesting. The main story is similar to what has gone before during Friedrich's stint, but then there's that epilogue. Batman shows up with the Flash's seemingly lifeless body! It's a cliffhanger! Out of nowhere!

This is the beginning of eight consecutive issues (#90-#92, #94-#98) that are directly interconnected. What I mean is, there is at least one cliffhanger of some sort in every issue until we reach the conclusion of #98. I do believe this sort of continuity was unprecedented at DC Comics at the time, as even their more ambitious stories like the Green Lantern/Green Arrow thing usually were self-contained components of a larger whole. Friedrich's JLA virtually DEMANDED you pick up the next issue to find out what happened next, and he did this for almost a YEAR.

(Why skip #93? It's the all-reprint "Giant" issue, aka the Annual. They were included in the numbering of the regular series back in those days.)

Friedrich delivers a JLA/JSA story that manages to build on an obvious but seldom-used premise. He ties together the twin threads of Deadman and Ra's Al Ghul in an issue with guest art by Neal Adams (after already wrapping up in #88 a strange Batman/Black Canary subplot hatched by Kanigher). He even introduces a brand-new villain in the cosmic vampire Starbreaker AND retells the League's origins. It is a run so deft and confident that you can scarcely believe it's the same guy who brought you characters like Theo "The Zapper" Zappa. Even Friedrich's forays into relevance became somewhat less heavy-handed (though maybe that's just me), and while I knew the awesomeness that awaited me in JLA #100-#102, I was sort of sad that his run had to end.

Lest you think I have forgotten my favorite artist, let me reiterate that Dick Dillin brings great skill to each of the stories. He makes even the weakest story more palatable to me, and it's interesting to compare the differences in inking on him between Joe Giella and Dick Giordano. Dillin gives the book the artistic continuity it needed as the author's voice changed - even when it was the same guy who was just evolving!

I have a newfound respect for Mike Friedrich's run on Justice League of America. If I've piqued your curiosity, the Showcase just came out a few weeks ago. I am sure it can be found at finer comics shops and online vendors.

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