Last Tuesday brought an end to “Year One” of the comic book prequel Injustice: Gods Among Us. Many people out there hear this news and wonder, “Wait. That was still coming out? Really?” As for myself, I’m kind of bummed that I have to wait until its relaunch in January. I was really having a great time with it during its nine month run.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is based on the recent, best-selling fighting game of the same name from Netherrealm Studios. When the game was being hyped in advance, it was described as a world where Superman had taken over as a fascist dictator and Batman was leading the revolution against him. Once the game actually came out, many were annoyed that the story was more about the “real” versions of the DC heroes from an alternate universe entering this corrupt world to set it straight, basically making it a rewrite of “A Better World” from the Justice League cartoon. I can see how that would feel like a copout. You want this new continuity to stand on its own, letting it fix its own problems and tell its own story rather than have Regular Superman and Regular Batman come by to do the dirty work.
The comic soothes that pain a bit. Through 36 weekly digital issues collected into 12 physical issues, Injustice: Gods Among Us tells the story of Superman’s rise to world domination and gradual loss of sanity. In the game, there are a few major details given and the comic touches on them while filling in the blanks. We know that the Joker used a batch of kryptonite-laced Scarecrow fear gas to trick Superman into killing a pregnant Lois prior to the complete destruction of Metropolis. We know that Superman killed Joker in a fit of rage. We know that at some point, Damian Wayne killed Nightwing and took his mantle. We know that Superman revealed to the world that Batman is Bruce Wayne. We know that Superman’s dark side drove him to kill Green Arrow.
Writer Tom Taylor takes those crumbs and makes a feast for the most part. There was a lot of controversy over the Lois death and it didn’t sit right with many how this would make Superman go full-on rogue. Now, it does make sense to see it like that. The game shows Superman kill Joker and then skips to him as the top dog and after the comic spent four issues depicting this Joker incident, nobody had any idea that the series was only one-ninth done.
Truth be told, Superman doesn’t really go over the edge until issue #33. It’s really not so much different from the events of Kingdom Come, where Joker kills Lois, Superman loses his tether to humanity, becomes a fascist weirdo with good intentions and then everything goes wrong and he flips out. The differences come from the severity of what happens to Lois and the fact that plot devices aren’t there to keep Superman from taking lives. While the idea that Superman might have killed Joker had Magog not beaten him to it is debatable, he was totally going to frag the entire United Nations in the end had it not been for the story’s protagonist showing up to talk him down. Injustice shows us what it would be like if there were no Cable knockoffs or elderly priests to intervene.
I’ll admit that the first four issues are pretty unfortunate and to be fair, Taylor was writing what he was mandated to write (he’s gone on record to say that he made Lois’ death as painless as possible). From issue 5, it goes from something to read out of morbid curiosity to a legitimately enjoyable short story about Green Arrow trying to protect Harley Quinn from Superman’s murderous anger. Throughout the issue, Green Arrow is annoyed at Harley and how he has to protect her due to his morals, but starts to feel some level of sympathy for her and finds himself laughing at her antics despite himself. It made me excited for the possibility of an Arrow/Harley pairing down the line (especially since the game’s hype made it look like she was going full hero in this world), but that never manifested.
Superman’s loss and instance of taking a life doesn’t directly drive him to madness, but it does drive him towards the decision that he needs to stop war from going on. All war. Most of the Justice League, especially Wonder Woman, follow his lead and they go out to stop Middle East conflicts and the like. That doesn’t sound so bad and it’s easy to argue that Superman should be doing it already, but Batman knows that this is a really, really bad direction for his once-best friend. You can’t simply END someone else’s war because the conflicts will remain and the only way to put a stop to it indefinitely is to take over. The relationship between the World’s Finest goes from strained friendship to mutual fear to outright hatred.
Once it really picks up, the series becomes like a better version of Marvel’s Civil War, at least in terms of the basic hook. Civil War failed because the creative teams couldn’t deliver the idea of two equally-rootable sides. While Iron Man’s side had cold logic going for them, they were overpowered, had a bad stigma for working for the government and acted outright shady. Captain America’s side was the underdog, doing “what’s right” while the worst thing they had going for them was that Cap was maybe a little TOO into doing the right thing, with no writers willing to portray him in a bad light.
Superman and Batman mix it up here. Superman’s behavior is for all the right reasons, but the end doesn’t justify the means. He still has the Captain America-level of trust and leadership with the Iron Man-level of superhuman manpower at his side. Batman’s the underdog and time shows that he’s in the right, but it’s really hard to take his side because of how shady he acts towards his enemies and allies. Huntress herself is rather horrified that he has his own little rebellion sect of superheroes doing his bidding, but he hasn’t even let most of them in on his own secret identity.
How does she find this out?
My favorite “Batman’s a total jerk” moment is when the two hero factions are having a confrontation at Arkham Asylum. Cyborg is opening the cell doors with his powers and Batman puts an end to it by activating a virus. Cyborg goes into convulsions and later gets his bearings. He can’t understand it! He just installed a new firewall! How could Batman possibly get it through his defenses? Then he sees the date of the file and realizes that Batman gave him that virus during the week when they first met. In a nearby cell, Killer Croc says, “Dude. That’s evil.”
Being in its own continuity and not having to deal with things like crossovers, Injustice has really been able to stand on its own. Normally, a video game tie-in comic would last a handful of issues, but this one KEPT ON GOING without an end in sight (until recently). The decompression allows for Superman’s psyche to take a slow burn into the way he’s depicted in the game. We also get some character spotlights that show us how others are taking the change in status quo. Ares is afraid that Superman might succeed in eliminating all war, which would make him obsolete. Billy Batson is unsure of Shazam’s actions and interviews people on their opinions on the more proactive superheroes. Flash wants to believe Superman is right, but an incident with Superman and Wonder Woman taking down an Australian hero for protesting their way has him second guessing himself.
Flash also ties into one of the more inventive moments of the series, where he and Superman have a normal-paced debate over their role in the world while playing chess at super speed, each announcing, “Checkmate,” when coincidentally making a point. The comic is filled with clever bits like this. For instance, how is it that Tom Taylor is the first person to ever come up with the idea that Wonder Woman is Black Adam’s weakness? All she has to do is lasso him and ask what the trigger word is! Then there’s the way Superman reveals Batman’s secret identity to the world. Just unmasking him or even simply saying it on TV is too straightforward. Without giving context, a ridiculous series of events and teamwork lead to this image:
That’s the best. The absolute best.
The best-written part of the series is easily the latter arc where Superman finally snaps. For the previous bunch of issues, it’s one incident after another that makes him question his actions and while he isn’t the Superman we know, he’s still sane and remorseful about it. Everything leads to a moment where he feels betrayed and threatened on all sorts of levels before losing himself in the worst way. The aftermath, where the Kents converse with the AI ghost of Jor-El, is a tremendous punch to the gut.
Not that the comic is all so wonderful. The art is regularly problematic, especially for the first half. This is to be expected for a weekly comic, but while most of the artists (regulars including Mike S. Miller, Jheremy Raapak, Bruno Redondo and Tom Derenick) don’t have the most exceptional pencils to begin with, the problem really comes from the coloring. I’ve been reading the digital versions, but as it turns out, the printed versions take more time with the coloring and come out looking better. For instance, the digital version of Injustice: Gods Among Us #17 has some really questionable art and none more hilarious than what should have been an emotional image of Batman angrily punching a heavy bag to the point of his fists bleeding because he doesn’t know how to deal with loss in any other way. What we get instead is this laughing stock panel of Batman looking like some kind of demon that had been dropped on its head when it was a baby. When released in printed form, it looks an awful lot better.
The colorist tried to draw eyeballs in there when his eyes were supposed to be closed. Wow. Also pretty infamous is a panel of Black Adam with a doofy smile on his face while tearing off Cyborg’s arm. This one definitely reeks of being the fault of bad coloring because it was drawn by Kevin Maguire of all people and he knows better than that.
Still, there are some aspects that can be blamed simply on bad art direction. Like the scene where Nightwing dies. The body language is a little too hokey and it’s impossible to take it seriously.
The art does get better overall in the latter half and Redondo’s work is easily my favorite.
In terms of storytelling, one of the biggest problems would be Wonder Woman. See, I have no problem with Superman’s characterization. Taylor’s done a good job with such a tender concept and I find Injustice Superman way more interesting than Mark Waid’s Plutonian from Irredeemable (which is Waid’s take on, “What if Superman went crazy?” for those who haven’t read it) or Mark Millar’s Communist Superman. It’s Wonder Woman’s characterization that bugs me. Superman’s the way he is due to contrived plot devices and interactions. Wonder Woman’s just naturally on his side. Now, granted, she’s been shown to be the most extreme of the DC Trinity, but her mission statement thus far has been, “Oh, Kal’s trying to impose his will on the world through fascism? Finally! Now to ride this out until he’s finally over Lois.” If anyone needs a spotlight issue to justify their actions, it’s her because at face value, she misses her mark.
But hey, you know who does get written really well in Injustice: Gods Among Us? Go figure, it’s Alfred, the guy who isn’t even playable in the game.
Alfred has five scenes over the 36 issues, but it tells a strong enough story on its own. Batman is worried and distraught about the effect Superman’s actions will have on the planet, but Alfred is different. He’s worried and distraught about what the effects of Superman’s actions are having on his own family. In terms of other characters who don’t show up in the game, Captain Atom has his moment to shine too.
The way the series is set to continue long after the game has stopped announcing downloadable content is pretty awesome. It’s been selling so well that they’ve been keeping the train rolling. It reminds me of Marvel’s Rom: Spaceknight, which went on for years after they discontinued the toy it was based on. In November, we’re getting a double-sized annual that will revolve around Lobo hunting down Harley Quinn. After that, we’ll get Year Two in January.
It’ll be interesting to see where the story goes. Hal Jordan has been almost completely ignored in Year One, meaning they’ve yet to explain his induction into the Sinestro Corps. Surely, there’s some interesting stuff to be said there. I imagine Year Two will also touch on the Injustice world’s origin of Batgirl and how she becomes part of this mess, which should also be fun.
Despite being a video game tie-in with average art, I found myself looking forward to it more than almost anything else that DC’s had to offer recently. If anything, it makes me wish Marvel had the drive to do right by the Marvel vs. Capcom franchise in the same way. You know those comics would sell like crazy.