I continue on in the “Greatest Stories Ever Told” vein with this Justice League collection. Once again, there are one or two stories featured here I have been forbidden to read yet by Mistah J, for fear of giving away major spoilers (or possibly just so I’m not confused even moreso than I usually am. He’s nice like that.) As with the other “Greatest” trades, there is no discernible connection between the stories. This is rather a simple grab bag of issues, deemed the best out of all that have been published.
There seems to be an inherent problem in attempting to collect the best JLA stories ever. With individual characters, one can pick and choose which stories best represent that one character, either through character development, emotional response, or sheer entertainment. The focus is on that singular superhero.
With the JLA, the focus is not on one, but many characters, and the JLA members depicted vary from issue to issue. How then, does one decide what stories best represent the Justice League? A story may be good, but perhaps a popular character is absent from it. On the flip side, there could be a mediocre story, but the characters featured are much more mainstream. What, then, are the criteria for picking out the best of the best, the greatest JLA stories ever written?
This problem in and of itself poses a challenge, but it’s not the only one this collection faced. Many Justice League stories, particularly the earlier issues, followed a standard plot: a crisis would occur, the members of the JLA would break off into groups or go out alone, a repetitive fate would befall each group/individual, before the league would finally be reunited and defeat their foe. This method makes for lengthy, sometimes slow-paced issues, leading me to question some of the choices for this collection.
The issues presented here aren’t bad per se, but quite a few felt very similar in style, and left me unable to discern one story from the next. It’s easy to sense that each issue was written with a grand scale in mine, meant to increase the pressure the characters felt. I’ll admit they succeeded in this regard, sometimes drawing on real-world issues to fuel their plot:
Clearly the reference to Communism evokes images of the Red Scare even to this day, and its impact on readers of the day would have likely been even more profound. Unfortunately such real-world tie ins are few and far between in this particular collection, and so the stories exist external to any historical continuity. With Earth’s mightiest heroes banding together to battle the forces of evil, one would expect there to be a few more references to the actual threats the planet was facing at the time. Maybe my bias is showing, but I greatly prefer the stories that keep the fantastical superheroes grounded in reality.
Even ignoring this, I still felt there was something missing from the collection. Perhaps it was the lack of a larger, more terrifying central villain. A handful of criminals are shown in this trade, but none appear in more than one story, and none really give the sense that they could single-handedly take on the entire JLA.
One villain comes close, and I must admit I was surprised to see him pop up in a Justice League comic:
The Joker, in all of his maniacal glory, posed as an average, ordinary man named John Dough (oh Joker, you and your humor) and attempted to turn the general public against the JLA, arguing that they were different and so should be feared.
I found this particular story quite clever, primarily because rather than fight the Justice League in a physical altercation, Joker tried to out-maneuver them and manipulate the crowd into turning on their heroes. Although unsuccessful, Joker’s plot was the most intriguing to read about, and if nothing else, further cemented his status as one of the top comic book characters in my mind. Although not the star of the issue, his stories are always well-written.
(Also, on an unrelated note, I’m grateful to the previously mentioned Joker story for finally answering the question about just how Snapper Carr betrayed the Justice League, a storyline that popped up in a previous trade and that now finally makes sense to me.)
After reading this brief collection of JLA stories, I can’t say I necessarily agree with the assertion that these are the greatest ever told. Even in my limited comic reading, I’ve come across better examples of Justice League teamwork. Perhaps most telling for me is that none of these stories showed any of the characters, or the JLA as a whole, growing or evolving in any way. The small glimpses into the human vulnerabilities of these characters makes their stories that much more compelling, and those asides were starkly missing from these pages. Only one such development occurred in this trade, the point at which the JLA members agree that they must know each others’ secret identities, and even this is mentioned in a final panel with no emotion and no further discussion. It simply is.
Did I enjoy the issues collected here? Yes. Did they add to my overall understanding and appreciation of the Justice League and its individual members? Not so much. Perhaps the title of the trade puts too much stock in these stories. I certainly liked reading them but, in my humble opinion, they are not “The Greatest Stories Ever Told”.