It is very easy, and very dangerous, to assume that a character speaks for a creator, be he or she an author, artist, singer, or actor. As Clint Eastwood observed when careless commentators accused him of advocating for suicide with his acclaimed 2004 production Million Dollar Baby, he had also portrayed Dirty Harry Callahan, and that certainly didn’t mean he supported rogue, trigger-happy police officers. Still, there are times when a character seems obviously to voice, if not the opinions of the author, then at least the main themes of the story. So it is with the first arc of Bryan Hitch’s Justice League of America. The theme is scepticism, indeed suspicion, in the face of the promises of prophets and deities. As the Kryptonian god Rao continues to forge Earth into a paradise, healing the sick, ending famine, and toppling tyranny, Batman looks on with the pronouncement distrust, sure that there is a joker in the deck, pun intended. His confrontation with Superman, in which he expresses his misgivings and his barely veiled disappointment with his colleague could have been deliberately crafted as an homage to the work of Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. The cynical, brutal, and world-weary Batman watches with horror as the naive Clark Kent becomes the willing instrument of an unaccountable authority.
Meanwhile, Diana finds herself trapped amidst the ruins of Mount Olympus. The Greek gods have abandoned both her and their home, underlining the prevailing theme of untrustworthy divinity. Flash and Green Lantern have been hurled into the past of Krypton. When Barry accelerates, he is caught in a temporal anomaly and finds himself face-to-face with the scientists of the Infinity Corporation. We haven’t seen them in a while, but in issue #1, before the arrival of Rao, they were pulling dead Supermen from alternate timelines. Alone on long-ago Krypton, Hal Jordan sets out to see the planet’s ruler, none other than the god Rao.
It isn’t clear how Hitch plans to bring this tangle of plot elements together. He has bravely tackled time-travel, alternate realities, the nature of gods, the propriety of faith, and the essence of loyalty, all in three issues. Even for a superhero comic, that is an impressive scope for a single storyline. But even that list does not truly encompass the nature of his achievement, as he is not just the writer of JLA, but the primary artist as well. And his images convey his themes even more powerfully than his words. He fills the book with busy panels, his figures formed of long lines, drooping curves, and narrow ovals. The details of his faces are rudimentary and seemingly blurred. The result is that his characters are weary and slumped, bending like the weight of the crowded frames they inhabit presses on them. Even the scenery and backgrounds are compressed. A sense of horrible pressure, of terrible forbidding, permeates his drawings. Alex Sinclair’s colors reinforce this, especially the browns and reds he uses for Krypton and Rao. The hues suggest sterility and desperation, violence and danger, war and blood.
Hitch gives a message that is clear, powerful, and cruel. Hope is an illusion. God's are monsters. Truth lies in bitterness and suspicion. It is a message many will agree with. But it is also a message depending on a sprawling tangle of plot elements that often seem to be secondary to the overwhelming theme. There is great power in despair. In confusion and incoherence, not so much.