Reading Life is a monthly column where writers talk about the books they've read — good or bad.
For comic books, crossover series happen across several issues of different titles, and later on compiled in a collected edition. When this happens, a companion piece would be the norm for more backstories and a more extensive introduction to characters and their mythos.
This is unlike the massive 2017 “Justice League” film, which jumped right into their world, all while trying to infuse the same quirk and laughter as Joss Whedon’s initial foray into superhero films, “The Avengers” — but without the benefit of showing their origin stories or character studies. Coincidentally, Whedon was brought in to finish “Justice League” after Zack Snyder left the film (during post-production phase) in order to deal with a family tragedy.
While “The Avengers” had two Iron Man movies, and one film each for Captain America, Hulk, and Thor before the much anticipated cinematic team up, “Justice League” only had “Man of Steel,” “Batman vs Superman” and “Wonder Woman” before it. This was due partly by the course correction of the director and the studio that was met with much criticism by fans. Eventually, there was clamor from the fandom (#ReleaseTheSnyderCut) for Snyder's original vision for “Justice League” to be shown.
It took four years for the “Snyder Cut” to see the light of day, and thanks in part to a pandemic and a new streaming site trying to get its bearings, Snyder’s pure, four-hour take on this world of superheroes finally got its shot at justice. Through the power of Mother Boxes, he was allowed to retcon into his canon.
But what exactly is canon, multiverse notwithstanding? The conclusion of the mega-crossover “Crisis of Infinite Earths” on T.V., along with “Death Metal” for comics, declared that all multiverses, including the movies and T.V. shows of the 60’s to present, are all canon. To put it simply, all story arcs and continuities exist in their own multiverses, including reboots and retroactive continuities.
Here are six books — divided like the “Snyder Cut” chapters — that explore the same questions and issues, and have become iconic in their fleshing out of the main protagonists of the DC Universe.
Part 1: Don't Count on it, Batman | “Justice League: Origin” by Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and Alex Sinclair (2012)
In what basically served as a storyboard for the movie, written by its then-producer Geoff Johns years prior, “Justice League: Origin” was DC Comics’ way of rebooting and introducing themselves to a new generation of comics fans.
The New 52, as the campaign was called, was launched after the events of “Flashpoint,” to be discussed later on. Everything started from issue #1.
Set five years in the past, the events of “Justice League: Origin” present a world in which superhumans are the cause of major catastrophes with millions worth of damages and a lot of lost lives.
How does a regular person turned vigilante team up with superpowered beings to save the world?
The team-up happened because of the spread out attacks of Darkseid and his parademons, and how Mother Boxes were found in the different hometowns and jurisdictions of each member. No recruitment pitches, no feigned rejections due to personal issues. The story is written tightly but still filled with action and even with infusions of comedy.
No origin story was needed, save for Cyborg. The former Teen Titan replaces Martian Manhunter in this iteration, and his turn from being a superstar high school athlete into an instrumental member of the team was brought about the same powers that he was able to get from the Mother Box.
The overarching theme of the book is the existentialism of the six members of the league with mythical or unworldly powers, and how the world is struggling to find the balance between their normal and the “birth of a new race of people,” as Victor Stone’s father Silas says.
Part 2: Age of Heroes | “Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia” by Greg Rucka, J.G. Jones, Wade von Grawbadger, and Dave Stewart (2002)
The 2002 story is an ageless one about the ageless demigoddess, Wonder Woman. Aside from its iconic cover, it also speaks of the most important and sacred beliefs of the Princess of Themyscira.
What would you choose between duty or justice?
This is the conflict that Wonder Woman grapples with throughout the story, as she tries to fight the wishes of Batman to bring a murderer to face justice (ironic as it may seem.) But since Danielle Wellys, the other main character in the book, performs the sacred ritual of The Hiketeia, Wonder Woman accepts and takes the sworn duty to protect her.
It’s a very deep and thoughtful story, considering the context of Wellys’ crimes that were committed as retribution. It provides an introduction to the character and thought process of Diana, portrayed in a typical Greek tragedy. Herself the daughter of Zeus, it’s one of the approaches that Snyder tries to employ — how these superheroes are gods among men.
The book also discussed the difference in ideologies of the masked vigilante and the heir to the throne of the Amazonians. That they have such polarizing viewpoints on justice, and how it appeared to be a battle between personal desire and the moral demands of society, shows an interesting perspective on how Wonder Woman deals with the human side of the world.
Part 3: Beloved Mother, Beloved Son | “Flashpoint” by Geoff Johns, Andy Kubert, and Sandra Hope (2011)
In the movie, this part was grieving the loss of both Superman and Clark Kent. But another member of the Justice League whose origin story was rooted in the tragic death of his mother was that of Barry Allen or The Flash.
“Flashpoint” presents the ultimate question: What if you could undo the greatest tragedy?
For Barry Allen, he finds himself in an altered timeline after he travels back in time to save his mother from being killed by his nemesis from the future, Eobard Thawne/Reverse Flash. But how does he come into grips with the butterfly effect of his actions? It strips him and some of his colleagues of their superpowers, changes relationships around him, and in turn, makes him forget his own memories/realities.
In the DC continuity, the events of “Flashpoint” erased at least ten years of history from the characters, and created a brand new universe. This has also given birth to the endless memes of asking Barry Allen what he did whenever something bad happens.
This is an important thing to factor in. Flash harnessed the Speed Force to turn back time and give Cyborg the charge that would eventually destroy the Mother Box controlled by Steppenwolf and foil Darkseid’s plans. The upcoming Flash solo movie already has Michael Keaton as the Batman, perhaps referring to the switch in the “Flashpoint” universe where Bruce was the one murdered and Thomas Wayne survived, among other things.
Part 4: Change Machine | “Mister Miracle” by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (2019)
The central plot device of the four-hour movie, Mother Boxes are “change machines,” as defined by Cyborg, perhaps the extended cut’s winner for most gained speaking lines. But since Cyborg, himself powered by the technology drawn from the Mother Box, does not have a solo title nor one that has had much impact, we delve into the power of the Mother Boxes, which came from the New Gods.
Scott Free is the biological son of Highfather, leader of New Genesis. To end the war with Apokolips, Highfather and Darkseid agree to a ceasefire through an exchange of heirs.
Through boom tubes of the Mother Box, he flees with Big Barda and settles on Earth, and establishes himself to be Mister Miracle. With his abilities as a god and honed through the torturous means of Apokolips, he has become a great escape artist. It doesn’t take long until everything he’s gone through catches up with him.
How does a god escape his own fate?
The story opens as he tries to escape life itself, and each panel plays out with the reader asking whether or not he succeeded. The winner of the 2019 Eisner awards (the Oscars of the comics world) for Best Limited Series, Best Writer, and Best Penciler, it’s one of the absolute must-reads of this generation for its take on mental health.
The present-day retelling of the Jack “The King” Kirby classic becomes a voice that has become so familiar in the present political climate, as there are plenty of similar questions about reality and existence sprinkled throughout. The incredible partnership of writing and art by King and Gerads is on full-display as they play with textures, colors, and just those darned words that make their presence felt. Darkseid is.
Part 5: All the King’s Horses | “Green Lantern Rebirth” by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver (2005)
As the nursery rhyme goes, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” In the movie, this chapter title referred to Superman rising from the dead. My choice of title is one of Geoff Johns’ best, what I call his audition to Justice League — “Green Lantern: Rebirth.”
“Justice League” really did without one of its original members, perhaps the film’s biggest disservice to the fandom. The Green Lantern Corps were only shown during the first battle with Darkseid and did not even get any specific member of the Corps to have more than three seconds of airtime. There are at least seven human Green Lanterns yet none have appeared since the solo film (starring Ryan Reynolds) flopped in the box office in 2011.
It’s a shame because the intergalactic defenders who wield willpower into any of their strengths could’ve really done a lot to help establish the Justice League. To begin with, he is the only one who Batman can’t really control because of his lack of fear.
“Green Lantern: Rebirth” presents its conflict through a different set of lens: How does willpower stack against growing fear?
Set after Parallax took over Hal Jordan and caused catastrophic damage, this was his way of being brought back into existence and as a member of the Justice League. Like any other Green Lantern story, it’s the redemption through overcoming emotions like fear that make it hit close to home. The ring chooses its subject based on the strongest willpower, and Hal Jordan has repeatedly proven his worthiness because of his ability to will things through.
Geoff Johns went on to write for the title for nine years, including some big crossovers like “Blackest Night” and “Brightest Day” which feature the best stories from the Emerald Knight. It’s a shame that this didn’t translate on the big screen with the 2011 film that Johns was a producer for.
Part 6: Something Darker | “Kingdom Come” by Mark Waid and Alex Ross (1996)
This 1997 Eisner Award winner for Best Limited Series, Best Painter, and Best Cover Artist is a legendary title in the comics scene. It’s a story that has aged so well, that 25 years after, its storyline and art are still sought after.
It has a simple premise: How do superheroes grasp the concept of power?
When they first arrived on earth, the superheroes were treated as gods or supreme beings. But as with the case of the retired Superman, it has reached diminishing returns. After being beaten by the younger and stronger generation of superheroes and losing his loved ones and hometown, he just fades into obscurity.
What once made him powerful now makes him just like any other — he now feels his human side. And in this book, a deeper discussion ensues. What exactly makes them any better than humans, and why is there a need for them to have as much power and authority as they already have?
There is an overall dark approach towards beings who supposedly exist to provide hope, something similar to the vision of what Snyder tried to pull off. And through the six parts of his film, that was something that was rightfully executed.
These six stories also explore the same ideologies and concepts, of moving into the light and realizing their place and value in this universe. Maybe, just maybe, that would be what brings us back into our brightest days once more.