Injustice: Gods Among Us (Year One)
This week I’m going to examine a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a few years now, and actually led to a lot of thought regarding some deeper and more complicated issues. Weird, I know. So let’s start with the basics: the book is Injustice: Gods Among Us, and it is meant to be the prequel to the 2013 Mortal Kombat-style video game.
Fighting games have always been a guilty pleasure of mine, dating back to the days of ponying up quarters in the arcade or plugging in the “blood code” in my Sega Genesis. It turned the sweat red! It was waaaay better than the Super Nintendo version! Who wants sweat when you can have blood-spray!
Injustice itself grew out of the Mortal Kombat/DC Universe crossover game, and I wondered how the muckity-mucks at DC would justify the over the top violence traditionally found in the MK franchise, this time without any MK anchors. Their solution: they made the game its own thing. Character designs took enough liberties with the comic costumes as to ensure audiences that this was a different version of your favorite Superfriends–a darker, morally conflicted, multiversal version. I played through the game at the time, and I really enjoyed the experience. Watching Mortal Kombat Batman order in a Batmobile to run over Mortal Kombat Green Arrow as one of the big prestige moves made sense in that context–as much sense as any Mortal Kombat-style moves made any sense. The plot of the game was really compelling and one of the few games where I actually enjoyed paying attention to the cutscene movies in between the rounds of fighting.
While I heard good things about this book when it was being published, I initially balked at the premise. For whatever reason, in video-game form, the Injustice idea worked for me. It was a concept I was already familiar with (and desensitized to) with Mortal Kombat, just with DC characters. In comic form, however, this comic seemed to represent all of the things about the New 52 DC that I didn’t like. It seemed like the entire DC Universe was being ratcheted down to the tastes of aggressive testosterone-imbalanced 12 year olds. The art seemed exploitive (why are all the male heroes in super armor and the females outfitted with flesh windows?), the stories overly violent (my Superman wouldn’t reach through the Joker’s chest to rip out his heart no matter what happened), and while the overly aggressive style works for a video game where characters go back to the start screen free of harm despite having their spines ripped from their bodies seconds earlier, in storytelling form, it just seemed distasteful. It didn’t help that the Snyder-verse films tended to match more of the evil Superman vs. Batman narrative from the game instead of what I would consider to be more character-appropriate approaches.
Fast forward a few years later, and I found the Injustice graphic novels clearanced out, and I recognized the Tom Taylor name on the front, and I remembered people saying good things about the series. Tom Taylor recently re-started the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-man title over at Marvel and I’ve enjoyed the first few issues, so I thought it would be worth the risk. I read the first issue…and I really liked it.
The basic premise is one where Superman goes crazy and kills the Joker en route to taking over the world. It’s how it happened that made it so interesting. Joker tricks Superman into being the one who kills Lois Lane before the Joker nukes the rest of Metropolis, thereby erasing Superman’s most important connections to humanity. From there, the story picks up like the best of the Elseworlds stories and explores familiar characters in a new unfamiliar context. This is the part where Taylor hooked me. Early on in the series, Green Arrow takes Harley Quinn hostage, and she ends up developing a Stockholm Syndrome-like sense of affection for GA. That made sense, and the dialogue was strange and almost sweet in a these characters are really sick kind of way.
The character interactions, especially among the Bat-family of Bruce, Alfred, Dick Grayson, and Damian Wayne felt on point. When one of Batman’s sons passes away, I was genuinely surprised with how it played out in a good way. Normally, when someone kills a Robin, I would be upset, but here, with Elseworlds rules, it was fair game and it made sense in the larger context of the story. Taylor took the freedom of this alternate reality and used it to say things that probably could never fly in the DCU proper, despite the fact they still felt true.
Even the personal turmoils of both the Flash and Shazam as they side with Superman and his decisions made sense. Heck, at one point Billy Batson gets downright meta as he voices his concerns with the direction of the universe.
The character moments that didn’t fit like Wonder Woman’s quick descent into despot and Aquaman’s intense aggression I could just chalk up to being necessities of being part of the video-game universe. All in all, the story seemed to fit inside its own little universe quite nicely, and I enjoyed it. I liked watching Superman and Flash play chess at superspeed as they debated some pretty weighty issues.
Taylor isn’t afraid to take things over the top, and as long as you subscribe to the rules of the alternate universe, they make sense. When Superman is greeted by the cheers of the crowd amidst the falling confetti of blood and gore of the parademons, it makes sense. It’s ok; they’re parademons.
When Harley Quinn rips off the head of a popular 90’s character, it makes sense. It’s ok; he regenerates.
The twists in the story, the spies, the intrigue, the double crosses–they all make sense. I don’t want to spoil those as they’re fun.
When the unexpected hero of the first year stands up to Superman, it makes sense. I really want that guy as a playable character in the game by the way. Spoiler: It’s freakin’ Alfred! I can’t help but spoil that one. The way Taylor treats the Bat-family as a family really is one of my favorite parts of this series.
On the art side of the equation, that’s where this series stumbles. One, I’ve already discussed the costume designs that I’m not a fan of in the first place–their only saving grace is they keep this series firmly grounded in the Elseworlds motif. Then, factor in the common practice in modern comics of not keeping a consistent art team, as art chores are spread out over 12 issues by 12 different artists (not including colorists). The majority of the artists come across as following what I saw as the New 52 house-style at DC: like Jim Lee, but not nearly as good. When Kevin Maguire pitched in a few Shazam/Black Adam pages, I was excited, but the rest of the art suffered from a blandness where it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. It was just there.
To top it off, I found out later that one of the headline artists, Mike S. Miller, is a bit of a terrible person. He’s been removed from conventions for making anti-LGBTQ statements, and recently he tried to co-opt a Mike Wieringo cover breakdown and reappropriate it for his own creator-owned comic, complete with forged ‘Ringo signature. Miller eventually backed down after being called to task.
Still, it brings to mind the issue of when you enjoy something but then find out its creators are terrible people. Do you separate the art from the artist? Is it case by case, or are there hard and fast rules to follow? When I worked the convention set, I was notorious for having horrifically awkward interactions with celebrities, but none of them colored how I viewed their work or accomplishments. Just because the guy who was Robin on that one show was rude that one time doesn’t mean I stopped liking that Batman show. I’ve known of creators that have differing beliefs from me personally, and I’m ok with that usually. I traditionally don’t let personal politics ruin my enjoyment of things too frequently. Once they cross the line into hate or downright evil acts, then I struggle.
Is it still ok to enjoy Bill Cosby: Himself, knowing what we now know about Bill Cosby? I imagine the bits are still hilarious out of context, but I can’t bring myself to listen to them anymore. I know as humans nobody is all wonderful or all terrible. I also believe that it’s not really my place to pass judgement in the long run, but I also don’t want to be a supporter of scumbaggery or worse.
I was blissfully unaware of Miller’s action and attitudes when I started reading Injustice and enjoyed the story quite a bit. The art wasn’t the reason why, but it wasn’t a huge detriment, either. It was palatable. Then, after doing some googling, it made the whole Injustice much less palatable. I dare say it soured. What was once a fun and ridiculous guilty pleasure was now a steaming stink sandwich that left something worse than a sour taste behind. So… thanks for that, I guess. It means I won’t have to chase down the remaining volumes of this series. That’s for the best, I guess, as I also learned through my research that the series goes on for a few years and ends without a proper ending anyway.
So ultimately: Injustice: the game: fun, guilty pleasure. A!
Injustice Year One: story: fun, guilty pleasure. Occasionally derivative but when it hits, it’s a spot on Elseworlds tale. A-
Injustice Year One: art: not a guilty pleasure, just makes me feel guilty for paying actual dollars and supporting some of the ne’erdowells involved. Live and let live, kiddos. F.
Overall grade: Dammit! I was enjoying this series and had plans to keep going, but now I’m not. Blah! It’s worse than if the whole thing was garbage. In dad speak, I’m not mad at this series, just disappointed. Superfail F.
So what do you think, Ghostly visitors? Am I being jerky here and overreacting? Should I not have even written this piece in the first place to not give promotion to these folks? I kinda already had things half done by the time I noticed any issues so I kept the train a rollin’. What’s your line when it comes to separating the art from the artist? Do you care at all? I’m interested as it’s definitely something I struggle with. I don’t want to be the type who is offended by everything–I don’t have that kind of time. I also don’t want to be responsible for propagating hate or intolerance out there. The struggle is real. Feel free to help me out in the comments or on twitter or wherever you feel comfortable casting your opinions out into the atmosphere.
Until next time,
I’ll be reliving my awkward celebrity encounters in my nightmares and hoping my heroes aren’t secretly horrible people!