JLA: A League of One

JLA: A League of One by Christopher Moeller, with Bill Oakley.
By Christopher Moeller, with Bill Oakley

I'm currently more broke than usual, hence the lack of reviews lately on the blog. So I'm forced to delve into my own archives and revisit some old reading material. I have to admit that I was first swayed by the packaging of JLA: A League of One to purchase it. The story itself could have been told within the pages of a regular comic book, but is distinguished by Christopher Moeller's painted artwork. The pages are printed on thicker glossy stock, bound as a hardcover, and wrapped in a dust jacket containing an illustration of a lone Wonder Woman confronting an enormous dragon. "How cool was that!" I probably thought at the time. But hey, my decade-old copy's still in great condition.

"A League of One" takes place during Grant Morrison's icon-centric run of the Justice League. Drakul Karfang, the last dragon on earth, has awoken from more than six centuries of hibernation. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman listens to a prophecy made by the Oracle of Delphi that foretells the fall of the JLA after battling Karfang. To prevent the fulfillment of the prophecy, WW incapacitates her teammates, assuming sole claim to the JLA title, then takes on the dragon alone. She stops the dragon and dies bravely, but is bought back to life anyway. Hallelujah!

JLA: A League of One by Christopher Moeller, with Bill Oakley.
parapraxis #1

This comic is often bandied about when fans discuss "best of" Wonder Woman stories. Is it as grand as Moeller's cover suggests? Hardly. Inserting WW into a fantasy setting sounds like a great idea in theory. But it falls kind of flat. The problem is that the fantasy tropes being trotted out can't hide the fact that "A League of One" is still a standard superhero adventure. The JLA and WW are a little too invincible to function like traditional fantasy characters. Superman's compared to a god. Batman's prickly genius is indomitable as typically portrayed in other DC books. The story reflects the publisher's policy of hammering the message that their propertied are icons. Moeller lays it out a little too thick when describing how WW's virtually free of self deceit, even as she goes about tricking the JLA. And that's problematic. Most fantasy stories of this type work when the outgunned heroes set out on a quest to uncover the enemy's fatal flaw. But DC's A-list superheroes simply smash the bad guys. For all intents and purposes that's what WW does after she's finished with the League. Boring!

An unfortunate side effect of using this icon-drenched JLA roster is that it only serves to emphasize how anachronistic it is. The original League was basically a boy's club with WW the sole exception. Now the reader is supposed to believe that WW would sacrifice her life for her comrades. And I suppose fans take that for granted. I dunno. As far as this book is concerned it feels like WW's just taking orders from the Martian Manhunter. There's an unspoken sexual tension between her and Superman, but it never goes anywhere. So where's the personal connection that could be used to justify WW's extreme behaviour? Ultimately the whole thing is just another episode of the ongoing adventures of the League, and another excuse to trot out the company's big guns without altering their respective continuities. Fine, but Moeller oversells WW's compassion when she goes out of her way to keep her super-powered colleagues safe. They're not innocent bystanders or part of WW's civilian supporting cast. They're her comrade-in-arms. No reason to deny them that opportunity to fight a monster. Why does she even bother?

JLA: A League of One by Christopher Moeller, with Bill Oakley.
parapraxis #2
As a threat, Karfang fizzles out. Moeller hard-sells the dragon as the embodiment of lies just as much as he does with WW as the paragon of truth, producing similarly unconvincing results. Karfang might appear frightening. But as Batman astutely points out "The JLA has taken on Darkseid and won." Is Moeller arguing that Karfang presents an even greater evil than Darkseid? In the end Karfang is just a "monster of the week" threat to WW, rendering the JLA's involvement superfluous. The story begins with the dragon being driven to ground by a Crusader army led by a knight on horseback armed with a lance. A lance folks. That's all it took. When she awakens from her slumber, all she does is conquer the adjacent town. Meanwhile, nearly half the book is spent on WW taking down the JLA. She could have easily told them "By the way, I need to go to Switzerland for a couple of hours and punch a dragon in the face. No need to come along. I got this." And it would be obvious to them that she's technically the most qualified to deal with the situation. But then DC wouldn't have the page count to justify a hardcover.

It's not all bad. "A League of One" is still an attractive work, and Moeller is a fair fantasy artist. The orange and brown palette may look a little dated, but he renders some beautiful scenes. The fantasy elements in general, not just Karfang, are well realized. Some of the superhero art even works. The violent confrontation between WW and Superman is both viscerally powerful, and in a few panels involving vultures amusing to read. Still, this isn't the comic that's going to convince everyone that superheroes look better when painted, as a lot of the time they appear less like living figures and more like mannequins or action figures. Finally, as much as I've grumbled about the gratuitousness of WW's defeat of the JLA, it's not a complete waste when she manages get the last word on Batman. Given how many times Supes and Bats get away with kicking JLA ass, this is a rare reversal. After all, it's not like those beatdowns weren't also contrived forms of fan service.

JLA: A League of One by Christopher Moeller, with Bill Oakley.
parapraxis #3