“The Valley of the Shadow of Death” (Justice League #75 Comic Review)
Writer: Joshua Williamson
Artist: Rafa Sandoval
Inks: Jordi Taragona
Colorist: Matt Herms
Letters: Josh Reed
Cover Artist: Daniel Sampere
Variant Cover Artists: Mikel Janin, Simone di Meo, Tony Harris, Norm Rapmund, Alejandro Sanchez, Dan Jurgens, Alex Maleev, Todd Nauck, Will Jack
Editor: Marie Javins
What You Need to Know: First there was Infinite Frontier: a story that hinted at the bigger mysteries of this new DC multiverse and the threats that lay beyond. Then there was Justice League Incarnate: a series that showed that this new threat was not just massive…it was imminent.
And now, in the aftermath of these two series, readers have arrived at the doorstop of DC’s big event of 2022: “Dark Crisis”. To get there…to put the DC Universe in it’s most dire and desperate hour…DC has to get rid of its biggest guns.
This is Justice League #75. An enemy responsible for perpetually putting the multiverse in danger ever since Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1985 is making its biggest play yet. With the character Pariah acting as its emissary, the Great Darkness has amassed a “Dark Army” of the most powerful and fearsome adversaries that the Justice League has ever faced, and they must face them now, together, one last time to prevent the end of everything. It’s a tale as classic and as old as anything else in comics.
The only thing is…we know how this ends.
This is the Death of the Justice League.
My first Superman comic was “The Death of Superman”. It’s interesting, to say the least, thinking about that in retrospect. I knew who Superman was, of course, even if I’d never picked up a comic book. I must have been maybe fifteen or sixteen. Of course, I knew Superman, and I think that’s why I wanted to see him die.
Superman was the best, everyone knew that. He was the strongest, the fastest, the kindest, and his only weakness was a glowing green rock from outer space that would render him fragile and mortal. And I thought it was so, so intriguing that when Superman did die—he died without the help of kryptonite. He died because there was someone stronger, someone faster, someone so remorselessly crueler than him out there, and Superman had to give his life to stop him. I knew I had to read it. I needed to see what that looked like.
It was an experience I’d never forget. The ominous march of this unstoppable beast tearing its way across the country, heading for Metropolis, heading for Superman, heading for the end. I knew what was coming. It was destiny, it was fate, and yet Superman still rose to the occasion and fought the beast. They would exchange blows again and again. The pages got shorter, the panels got bigger, until their final blows came on massive, full-page splashes that showed the city—the world—shaking beneath the weight of their blows. And then Superman fell, as I knew he would, and I was mesmerized. It was an experience. It was unthinkable. It was heartbreaking.
That’s what I wanted the Death of the Justice League to be.
The road to this issue has been long, especially within the community space where this story has utterly dominated the discourse for months and months. To say that the feelings of fans have been mixed since the story’s reveal back in January would be a great understatement. Fans were nervous. I was nervous. And I think readers had a right to be. There was a lot at stake here.
When I read Death of Superman for the first time the concept of the hero losing was new to me, it was fresh. Then I got into comics a bit more religiously and I found out that heroes dying is just another Tuesday. It happens, and then it unhappens. Death is a more curable ailment in comic book universes than the common flu, and I understand why. To maintain these properties, these characters, a status quo has to be maintained, but it makes things tricky. A publisher gets one, maybe two, good death stories out of a character before it becomes hackneyed.
So, when a writer tells the readers that he’s killing the Justice League…feelings fly. There’s resentment, anger, frustration that favorite characters are going away. There’s amusement, neutrality, a sense of nonchalance from veterans claiming calmly, “they’ll be back by August”. But then there’s also excitement, enthusiasm, and genuine speculation. Killing the whole league? That’s something new, that’s something big! What comes next? Who’s the survivor? Who takes their place?
How do they die?
The idea of this issue has been on my mind since January, and now the issue itself has sat in my brain simmering for the last three weeks. It is a lot to take in, as I had assumed it would be, but after reading through it once with a knot in my stomach hoping not to see the absolute worst come to fruition to characters I truly love and adore like Black Canary and Aquaman and Wonder Woman…I admit that it did get easier each time through.
But does it work? That’s the big question.
To me, this issue as a whole is, sadly, a bit of a mixed bag. It is not perfect, it’s far from a disaster, but does it edge out enough positives to avoid hitting thoroughly in the middle of the road?
Coming in, there were several things that excited me about the issue and just as many that concerned me, from both a conceptual standpoint and from (please forgive the expression) an executional standpoint. I was excited at the prospect of this grandiose and emotional story showing these heroes doing what they do best: fighting the good fight no matter what the cost. Yet, I was a bit squeamish and trepidatious at seeing these characters die. What if it was overly brutal? What if it was purely nonsensical? What if it was all for nothing?
To me, that feels like the best place to start and break this story down. The elephant in the room. The thing everybody wants to hear about most. The deaths.
This is the hardest point in the comic to critique because there is the question, “How do you kill some of the most beloved characters of all time…nicely?”. Williamson stated in an interview with Comicbook.com that he “didn’t want it to be like a snuff film”, which, I can happily say, was successfully achieved here. For anyone cringing at the prospect of watching their favorite comfort characters being beaten, impaled, drawn and quartered, or of facing any of the other numerous and graphic ends depicted in recent media, like the movie “Justice League: Apokolips War”, then fear not. This issue handles these deaths in a very sanitary, almost surgical way.
Yet, that surgical cleanness almost makes the demises we knew were coming feel almost hollow. It’s a hard situation, because I kept trying to figure out for myself what other way there was to do it WITHOUT it turning out like some cruel and gross affair, and there isn’t an easy answer. The method of death here is clean, the power exhibited is frightening and should leave a lot of anxiety and tension about how the heroes in Dark Crisis will rise to fight it, but I think in the mission to find a clean way to take the League off the board the book might have committed an even bigger sin and completed ousted its villain as a credible threat.
What I mean by that, and going into much stronger spoiler territory than before, is that this story had to handicap the Dark Army to achieve those clean deaths. The Dark Army in this story is nowhere near as big of an obstacle as fans thought they would be. The villains in the Dark Army only account for one, singular death amongst all the ones that occur. Just one. The rest are literally erased from the playing field in a manner that fans of a certain 1985 event will be all-too familiar with and it leaves you feeling like not just were the deaths empty but the stakes were as well. I feel like the Justice League was ex machina’d off the board.
Between two sides representing two evils, I think this book made a safe decision in picking a lesser evil, but I feel that there was someplace in between the two where a compromise could have been made. I feel that something as simple as allowing the Dark Army to take more than just one hero off the board would have gone a long way into evening that tone, or at the very least just balancing out the stakes. When all the heroes but one are wiped out with the wave of a hand at the very end of the book it makes one wonder what the purpose of all the previous strife was even for if removing the multiverse’s greatest heroes were something achieved so easily.
The battle itself is incredible and there are some truly jaw-dropping moments and splash pages where Rafa Sandoval and Jordi Taragona especially put everything they had into it. They nailed the action, the splash pages are gorgeous, some of the best linework I’ve ever seen, but I feel like in this effort to hit it big and loud a smaller moment that should have been a lot more impactful than it was loses a bit of its force. I couldn’t read the emotions on the characters’ faces. It’s an event that’s sad mostly because we know the characters and not because I could palpably feel their pain on the page.
Certain characters get their moments to shine like Green Lantern and Green Arrow, but it’s a book that’s about ten pages too short when you have not just the Justice League AND Justice League Incarnate, but also their greatest adversaries of all-time present on the same field. There are a few action beats that I wish had lasted longer, and most of them revolve around the singular idea that I wish the Dark Army had proved to be more of a threat.
There are some strange beats in the action where what happens isn’t exactly clear. There’s this specific moment with John where I thought for sure he had died but he very clearly didn’t. A lot of the action with Dinah’s scream is either unclear or inconsistent. I think she screamed one villain into ribbons, but I can’t be too sure, and there are far too many moments where she’s definitely having a full conversation with teammates and using her canary cry at the same time (which, in all honesty, does give me a bit of a chuckle when I just presume that isn’t a mistake and she just uses casual wartime conversations as ammunition).
There was definitely a very deliberate decision to give Black Adam bigger moments than a lot of the other leaguers like Aquaman and Zatanna and Martian Manhunter that feels surprising, but that’s one that we may get to see pay off later so I can’t critique it too heavily here.
A solid positive: the story was very engaging. That first time reading through, the tension is palpable. The pace is relentless, and I felt the anxiety in my chest from the moment I opened the book to the moment I put it down. That feeling of fear for your favorite characters doesn’t go away. Even if the Dark Army is ultimately underwhelming there are plenty of moments where they definitely try to get a few killing blows in and are just barely stopped and that keeps a reader on their toes. It works as a solid thrill ride.
Unfortunately, beneath that, it falls apart. Storywise it is a bit clunky. Most of it is simply a matter of “there can only be so many pages in one comic book so do what you can, axe what you can’t” and they definitely do. All the heroes are simply whisked away by teleporter at the beginning to fight in a fight they didn’t even know was coming, only have panels to inquire about, and with barely a page to even process the news the battle starts. They go with it because—they’re heroes, and the story says they should, but beyond that I couldn’t begin to tell you what most of them were thinking. Most of the characters here exist and then they die, and that’s that. There’s too much that had to happen here.
Total lines from Martian Manhunter? Zero. Mary Marvel literally disappears from the book after the teams’ arrival on the battlefield. Whether or not this is intentional I cannot say. This is a book that didn’t crumble completely, but definitely noticeably buckled under its weight.
A lot could have been much better here, but there is one small moment I really, really loved before all the fighting starts where Superman does what Superman does best. He tries to play to Pariah’s humanity. There isn’t any room for character work in this book which is specifically designed to be this loud and explosive set piece, but that one was appreciated. I’m glad that the book gave at least that much.
The Bottom Line:
When the book was revealed, there were a good half dozen or so variant covers that were dropped alongside it. One of them was this glorious one by Simone di Meo. In it, we get this scene that reminds me of All-Might’s last fight from My Hero Academia. It was raw and emotional. The idea that a child would look up at these big screens, and see their favorite heroes…fallen. That was what I wanted this issue to be. I wanted to feel the weight of the world on me. I wanted to feel the tears in my eyes. I wanted to feel like my heroes gave everything they had and paid the price, and we’d have to make it on our own from here on out.
Instead, I felt like it was just something that happened. I didn’t feel like the heroes lost because they were bettered; I feel like they lost because the story said they had to lose. I feel like the build-up to this could have—should have—been longer.
In interviews, Williamson has talked a few times about how Dark Crisis is going to be used as a tool to prop up lesser-known heroes and let them take the reins, and about how one of the things he was most excited about here was creating an atmosphere in the mainline DCU where the absence of these heroes who died will be felt, and yet it’s hard to believe that’s a promise that will be fulfilled.
Characters like Black Canary, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Zatanna, and Hawkgirl already felt like they were gone, having spent the last year and a half as glorified B-listers in the current DC roster with their only consistent gigs being as either second-billed co-stars of other books or as part of the Justice League itself. Reducing them from maybe ten lines of dialogue a month to zero is sadly not a huge impact for characters that actually feel like the ones who would have benefitted best from a change in the overall status quo. Green Lantern’s book was cancelled, so John’s absence will be felt, even if it is debatably Hal who has had the greater influence and affect in DC comics over the last two decades. Aquaman’s title will change to adapt with the event which is the one area where I feel like this event is working exactly as it should, letting characters like Jackson, Mera, and Tula get a light so normally reserved for Arthur alone. But the trinity? Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman? They’re not going anywhere.
Through at least July those titles remain unchanged. Clark is still on Warworld, Diana’s still fighting Dr. Cizko, and Bruce’s still in 20 books. Williamson said that he wanted the absence of the League to be something that was felt, and for the characters who had the League and ONLY the League I guess that it will be. But for bigger characters? It’s a non-event. It leaves me looking at a gloriously drawn and colored splash where the big three fade into nothing and feeling exactly the same: nothing.
This story feels like it literally and metaphorically occurs within a vacuum. Not every title will feel it’s effects, and the emotions I feel thinking about it aren’t the raw emotions of someone who witnessed it firsthand…but the tertiary, circumstantial emotions of someone who heard the whole story from their friend instead.
Will this issue eventually be worth it? I hope so. I hope that Dark Crisis is as amazing as it should be, I hope that the characters who deserve this moment get it and use it. I hope that the event is a success so that DC finally sees that it can and SHOULD actively be building upon their rich and storied world and building a stronger base for their universe and properties.
But, until we get to then, I have to critique this issue for what it is now, and for what it offers in this moment.
And in this moment, I think the Justice League gave it all that they could…but I don’t think that this issue could match it.
Summary Death of the Justice League sets its aims high, but can't manage to keep the enormity of its premise under control. Overburdened by the task at hand, what's left is an exciting ride that is sadly devoid of the emotion that it strives for.