JLA Classified: New Maps of Hell

Written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Butch Guice, inked by Mike Stribling, coloured by Dave Baron, covers by the unforgotten nightmares of the 1980s

I struggled to get past the first few pages of this, felt totally scunnered by the pissy, huffy Clark Kent of the story’s opening.  I mean seriously, just take a look at this dick:

As someone who disdained the guy who ran our local comics/toy corridor for his enthusiastic blather about how Clark Kent/Superman represented a perfect combination of action and humility, patience and wit, even I can’t get behind this version of the character now.  The opening of this story, in which Clark throws a hissy fit when he gets fobbed off during a murder investigation, is one of those moments where you can feel the comics’ authors looking up you from the page, so sure of their superior intellectual position, of their mastery of facets of the adult world beyond the ken of your average comics reader that they want to look you right in the eye and teach you how to be a grown up.

The fact that this ascended mastery is demonstrated through the (metaphorical) detailing of Superman’s ironing arrangements is not supposed to concern us – somewhat remarkably, we are simply supposed to marvel at the fact that someone has actually thought about this shit!

So: don’t get me wrong, there’s much in this world to get angry at, I just expect this character to be a little more witty and subtle in his machinations. But no. Clark Kent, he’s a journalist right?  He’s a hard-ass, he’ll keep on pushing the point until something breaks, he probably drinks too much coffee and complains about being an old man with all the other technogoths down the pub at night, he’s… just another hack prick, basically.  Acht, it “makes sense” I guess, but not in a way I’m particularly interested in. Guice needs to take as much of the blame as Ellis for this, given that his Kent expresses his frustrations with the honking venom of a man who’s not shat right in weeks.

I was relieved when the plot started to happen, but alas, I can’t work up the enthusiasm of last year’s CBR reviewer. The mystery wasn’t, the action didn’t, and the tech-speak read like so much static to me: “Ideas are viruses. Contagious. And viruses are nothing but biological machines.” Oh Richard Dawkins, so much to answer for.

Short version of the plot (*SPOILERS* for a ten year old comic): what if Lexcorp accidentally activated an ancient, unstoppable threat… that was actually just a bit old and rubbish.  I’m sure it sounded witty and subversive as a pitch, but as a superhero comic it doesn’t even provide enough build up to offer an anti-climax – let’s just say that there’s a reason why I haven’t included any pictures of the emotional and conceptual high-points of this story because they mostly consist of characters standing in poorly realised environments and realising that it’s all just a lot of bollocks.

Still, all of this helped me find meaning in the book’s title in the end.  Having failed to enjoy the pay-off, I went back to the build-up, searching for the good notes of characterisation that our own Andre Whickey had flagged up for me.  And what would you know, they’re there, in the interactions between Clark Kent and Lois Lane that come after all that hard-arsed posturing:

The premise of these exchanges is similar to that of the introductory scenes I so loathed – “What if superheroes acted a bit more like you and me, eh? Eh? EH?!!” – and yet where the Clark Kent: journo stuff felt even less intelligent than the standard fare to me, this came across as a version of what adult relationships might look like that is desirable, if not necessarily true.

Once again, Butch Guice has to take the large part of the blame.  His Lois looks poised but relaxed, involved in the action but willing to knock down the great man before he gets any delusions of grandeur, exactly as I tend to cast my girlfriend when I’m too caught up in my own story to notice that she’s struggling with hers:

You think you now what hell is, but by the time you’ve drawn your map up you’ve discover that some of those other nightmare landscapes might actual have been okay.

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