By: Geoff Johns (story), Ivan Reis (pencils), Joe Prado, Oclair Albert, Jonathan Glapion (inks), Rod Reis (colors)

The Story: Cheer up—every first-time Leaguer feels a little in over their head.

The Review: I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced this, but every now and then I’ll witness someone do something incredibly awkward, humiliating, or boneheaded, and I’ll get this crawling feeling that makes me want to duck and cover in the nearest hiding spot available, a feeling which I can only describe as “sympathy squeamishness.”  Even when the person seems to be totally oblivious to what they’ve done, I seem to feel embarrassment enough for them.

I don’t mind telling you that’s pretty much how I feel whenever Johns gets a little too direct or cheesy in his scripts.  It almost never fails to induce a shudder out of me—not out of disgust, mind, but out of a kind of dismay, like when you watch a friend try the worst pick-up line possible on the nicest girl in the room.  My running thought is, Aw, man—why’d you have to go and do that, you poor sap?

Frankly, I cringed watching Alfred break down over Damian’s death in front of Jason Todd.  It just felt a little over the top for his usually composed personality; his silent tears in Batman and Robin #18 seemed more true to his character.  Maybe it’s true that Johns just doesn’t have as good a grasp on the Bat-family as he does with most other DC heroes.  I cringed again later in the issue when Jason starts beating himself up on letting some invader into the Batcave: “I know you’re disappointed.  I’m disappointed in myself—”  It just doesn’t sound like him, either.

That said, I kind of like Johns’ mellowed version of Batman, even if he does lack the edginess we’ve grown to expect from him.  It gives a more sincere flavor to the lecture he gives to both Superman and Wonder Woman when they waltz right into the middle of a hostage crisis in Kahndaq,* setting the world aflutter with reckless speculation.  Instead of seeming annoyingly self-righteous, as he usually does in these conversations, he seems quite reasonably concerned, although he ends up having to admit to some sneakiness of his own in the process.  We’ve seen the whole “Batman secretly plans to take down his colleagues” plot before, so it’ll be interesting to see if Johns can manage to take it in a different direction—if that’s even possible anymore.

While the big Leaguers are occupied with these more political concerns, our rookies get their first taste of major super-villainy and we get to learn a little more about the new kids on the block.  Firestorm and his dual personas are old hat (especially if you actually read his former ongoing at one point),* but everything about Rhonda Pineda as the Atom is new, so I’d like to get to know her better beyond her MMORPG hobby.

By now it should be pretty clear that Reis is a monster among DC’s major mainstream artists.  Not only does everyone look drop-dead gorgeous (and yes, that includes the guys—I’m equal opportunity that way), their proportions are in dignified order and they have enough emotional credibility to look like actual human beings who just happen to be in fantastic shape.  The ink team makes Reis’ already striking lines even glossier, and Rod Reis’ colors are exactly the deep, vibrant hues you’d expect from a blockbuster series like this one.  Look at the shades of rose, violet, and blue he gives to a set of Kahndaq ruins at dawn, and you’ll readily agree with Wonder Woman and Superman how beautiful it is.

The Shazam back-up has really taken on a life of its own over the past few months.  Despite its frustrating shortness, it feels a little more substantial and complete with every issue, perhaps because all the characters have been well-established by now and all that’s left is to let them mix it up and see what excitement they can deliver.  Here, Johns give us a tweaked version of Black Adam’s origin which has some pretty cool implications for any future relationship with Billy, should one develop.  Gary Frank has the innate ability to go broad on the emotion, but still make the characters seem completely genuine; he seems to embrace Johns’ on-point style of writing better than almost any other artist.  Brad Anderson’s colors are no less vivid than Rod Reis, giving this issue the gift of two sets of superior pop coloring.

Conclusion: The issue exposes a little too much of Johns’ flaws as a writer, and there’s a well-worn quality to the plot, but it’s engaging despite all that, and it’s bolstered by strong art.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * That is a pretty sweet beard Superman’s sporting, by the way.  Guess he didn’t get the message that Mustache March is over (and yes, I know he doesn’t technically have a mustache, but that distinction seemed lost on most of my guy friends, too).

* And Ronnie’s got to start learning to keep these mental exchanges with Jason inside his mind.  You know, instead of blurting it out loud like some people you’d meet on the bus.