The unthinkable had happened.
Bendis had moved to DC. He’d done everything except the one thing people expected him to DC- Justice League.
And then he did Justice League. But it was not anything anyone was expecting.
So what on earth was it? Let’s continue to dig in, picking up where we left off…
The Way It Works (Or Doesn’t)
Bendis’ run would last precisely a year, from March of 2021 to March of 2022. It would span 16 issues and 1 annual, with the extra 4 issues in the year being made possible due to the book double shipping for 4 months out of the 12. That gave him room to tell a longer story and do a bigger run, before the inevitable Death Of The Justice League hit.
But that also presented a problem- the book would suffer artistically. It could not just be a monthly with a consistent artist, especially given it was a team book, on its strange schedule. It meant that David Marquez, Bendis’ consistent artistic collaborator and the man who established the look and feel and aesthetics of this Justice League book? He wouldn’t get to stick around as the regular artist. His detailed style required time and care the book just would not permit. He would thus end up doing only 5 issues out of 16.
Bendis would structure the run into two 5 issue arcs and two three issue arcs, with the annual dropping during the last arc to set up his Justice League vs Legion Of Super-Heroes mini-series, which would end up being his final DC work and the coda/epilogue to the body of DC work he had done.
The conceptual breakdowns for the arcs were also simple by design:
- The first 5-issue arc Prisms, which would make up the first trade, centered on this new Justice League’s formation, while they dealt with Naomi’s mythology.
- The second 5-issue arc The United Order would spin out of of Bendis’ own Superman run, also connecting with his Legion work on The United Planets, being a big ‘event’ story of sorts. It would introduce a sort of Cosmic Justice League (who the arc is named after) sanctioned by the aforementioned interstellar UP.
- The third arc The Biggest Score Ever was a 3-part that would be tying together with all of Bendis’ Event Leviathan and Checkmate events and fallout, while teeing up his 3-issue finale.
- And then the fourth and final 3-part conclusion Leagues Of Chaos would close out the run, being built around Xanadoth, The Lord Of Chaos, another antagonist introduced during Bendis’ Superman run. Reality itself would be at stake, and everyone, from the Justice League to the Justice League Dark would have to work together to stop it and save the day.
Bendis is a creator known for attracting and working with top notch artistic talent. Even when his books are poorly written, they’re often breathtakingly gorgeous. Here, that would break down after the 5th issue of the run. Marquez not being able to do the book was a big blow. It would rob the book of any kind of clear or memorable distinct visual identity, as the book in its second arc alone would give up on the idea of a consistent singular artist for an arc, shoving together Steve Pugh and Phil Hester to tell one singular epic story wherein their styles do not coalesce at all and feel like a poor match for what the story is and wants to be, especially following up on Marquez’s razor sharp style of detail. Pugh and Hester are lovely artists, but they feel deeply misused here. And that problem holds through right to the end, when Szymon Kudranski comes in to do the very messy finale of the whole enterprise, with even Emanuela Lupacchino pitching in. The book very much ended up an artistic mess that was hard to care about reading, with no real sense of cohesion or a confident aesthetic. Which is a shame given that even at its lowest points, its predecessor era of Snyder/Tynion always maintained a very clear and strong aesthetic identity with Jorge Jimenez at the forefront.
And evidently, as you can tell, much of this run is designed to weave through various other things Bendis has done at DC, and acts as almost a networking crossroads where they all meet and interact, whether it be Superman or Checkmate to Naomi, here they all intersected. The one and only thing in the book, the biggest thing, that has nothing to do with anything else Bendis has touched or played with elsewhere?
Bendis and Black Adam
As we’ve discussed prior, Black Adam’s inclusion was a suggestion by DC with synergy in mind. But at the same time, Bendis was into this character. Let’s pull back to this quote by him from the previous installment:
“They were like ‘Hey, is that someone you think you’ve got a feeling for?’ Because that’s a character that obviously is going to be grabbing headlines for the next year or two, and I did.
I really liked that idea. It immediately challenged me and made me think back to what we were doing with Doctor Doom in Iron Man. He’s a very different character than Victor von Doom and I wanted to see what we could do in that regard, and how his appearance really challenges the idea of the Justice League and these teammates that have known each other for a very long time, some of which, they are ride or die teammates. And then here comes this person that does really challenge everything around them. So that got very exciting.”
Now let’s unpack why exactly Bendis found the character so appealing. One might say it’s just press talk, and that Bendis was just doing typical synergy stuff as ever, that he had no vested investment beyond that. But when sitting down and actually reading the run, I don’t believe this holds true. It’s not a view that holds up to scrutiny. Even when the run is at its lowest points, even at its most unreadable or tiresome, you can still practically feel the interest and enthusiasm Bendis has for Black Adam as a character. He’s not just doing cold mercenary synergistic stuff. He’s committed.
There’s a faith and a conviction to Bendis’ writing of Adam. He’s not just going through the motions. You can tell he cares. Under his pen, Black Adam is at his most gentle, most considerate, and most sensitive. The rough exterior of the character and his ultra-violence of Johnsian Arm-Ripping are all gone. Bendis even references 52 and the death of Adam’s wife Isis in it, and does not really bring up any of the aftermath and horror of that. That’s not the point for him. To Bendis, Black Adam is just not that guy. He’s a guy who’s grown and changed, learning from his past, who returns to his wife’s grave every single year to not only mourn her, but to hopefully live up to the promise of being the better man she once believed he could be. He’s a noble immortal warrior with a murky past, who keeps persevering.
He might as well be the Wolverine, and in fact, Bendis certainly writes the character with the kind of faith and devotion that many would reserve for a figure like Batman or a Wolverine. To him, Black Adam is cool.
Bendis leans into the idea of the character in relation to Superman, the idea of him as a failed mythic Superman of the past. And then he asks ‘What if Superman could help him be what he’d failed to be? What if together with Superman he can actually live up to his promise and potential?’
The run is built on this act of faith by Superman, the faith that Clark has in Teth-Adam and his potential for heroism and decency.
And more than any structure, this becomes the actual spine of the entire run and its story. The arc and journey that Black Adam goes through is at the essential heart of the run, alongside the story of Naomi. For as we’ve discussed last time, Bendis and Marquez’s take on the Justice League emphasizes their iconic nature, them as symbols, but also them as people. It leans to them as celebrity figures and asks ‘What must it be like to be a cultural icon like that?’, to be someone who is both an idea of a person but also just a person?
Black Adam is that. He embodies that, being a literal living myth, a cultural myth and story of both his (Kahndaqi) people as a liberator, but also the world at large. He is a living, breathing, walking, talking myth of old in the context of his own universe. And he’s also just a guy. He’s a person. He gets angry, he says foolish things, he makes poor decisions, and he’s not always what he’d like to be.
Within the context of the kind of Justice League Bendis wants to present, Black Adam is a vital component.
The above page is the very first page of Bendis and Marquez’s first proper Justice League issue, and the mission statement couldn’t be clearer. All the numerous symbols in gleaming gold stacked on top of each other to construct a connected symbol of unity, of power, of something that is more than the sum of its parts. They collectively make up a larger complex symbol, whilst we are hold of how dehumanizing these people and alienating people from them means they don’t work. People have to be able to see their humanity, which should never be negating their ‘mythic’ or ‘iconic’ sensibility, Bendis and Marquez argue. They should at once be grand and larger than life and yet also right beside us. Not our judging parents or militaristic strike teams, but inspiring cultural icons worth listening to.
And the best way to demonstrate that? The most effective way to show that? It’s to show their effect. It’s to explore their impact.
What has the Justice League accomplished or inspired?
Bendis’ answer lies in Black Adam and Naomi. Black Adam represents the past, the what was, while Naomi represents the future, the what could be.
Black Adam is the man of the past changed and influenced by the actions of Superman and the Justice League, a man who has been less who now seeks to be more. Naomi is the young teen hero in this world of Supermen and Wonder Women who wants to contribute and be something and someone worthwhile just like that. Both are inspired by the heroism of others. Both want to make something of themselves, and want to be the best versions of themselves they possibly can be. Both believe they have much to learn, and are willing to do so.
They are the heart of the run, their respective journeys are what anchor the book emotionally for Bendis. The essential story of the Bendis run, through all its messiness, is about Adam and Naomi becoming legitimate bonafide Justice Leaguers and heroes in their own right, and coming into their own.
I mentioned Wolverine earlier, and if Black Adam is the Wolverine, Naomi is the Spider-Man. They’re The Old and The Young who spice up the team and shake up the existing predictable dynamics of the roster. They introduce tension, uncertainty and mess that make for rich dramatic material.
But let us look to Bendis’ own Marvel comparison point- Victor von Doom. He’d already done Doctor Doom as Iron Man. He’d even done the biting Dark Avengers work about Masters Of Evil-esque figures draped in Avengers titles and outfits. So what was really special about Bendis’ Black Adam work here? What made it different, as he said, from Doom? Was there anything new or special?
The answer very much lies in specificity here. Black Adam is a character very specific to the DC Universe. Victor von Doom is certainly one of his archetypal antecedents, as is Namor. So the question is a fair one to pose. But the answer really lies in what Black Adam represents about the DC Universe for Bendis.
The Bendis Definition Of The DC Universe
More than anything, when you look at the collective totality of Bendis’ DC body of work, what you notice is how much he truly loves the legacy of the DC Universe. Both on a real-world-publishing level, obviously, but also beyond that, the way it seeps through so much of that rich setting. There is a reason that Bendis took his one shot at a Batman book and did not go the obvious ‘dark’ route and path, which frankly many expected of him, but made it a colorful celebratory tour of the richness and legacy of the DC Universe that spanned everything across time from Jonah Hex and Vandal Savage to The Green Lantern. There is a reason why when he was offered his own imprint of DC titles to do, Bendis created Wonder Comics, which are all about celebrating that long storied legacy. This is the man that chose to revamp Young Justice and make it his imprint’s flagship title. This is the man that made a book exploring the legacy of heroism and Dial H. This is the guy that greenlit Mark Russell’s Wonder Twins, about the young heroes at the Hall Of Justice. This is the guy who co-created Naomi, who is deeply inspired by Superman.
Bendis is the man who revamped Legion Of Super-Heroes, the ultimate manifestation of DC Universe legacy.
And not only that, but he made his entire damn Superman run and its first 15 issues an extensive prologue to his Legion Of Super-Heroes revival, building up the debut and creation of The United Planets. His Legion Of Super-Heroes: Millennium event 2-parter charted one individual’s journey through the current present day DCU into 1000 years into the future, evoking a similar issue he did on Powers about the perspective of a person from the ancient times up to our present modern times.
Bendis loves that progression, that baton-passing, that generational quality of the DCU that is so intrinsic to it. After all, he made a whole career dedicated to that notion over at Marvel, creating the likes of Miles Morales, Riri Williams and plenty of legacy characters to push things forward and diversify. Bendis loves that stuff, and it’s why he ended up doing Naomi and Legion, who represent the future and the possibilities of the future.
Naomi is the young hero cut from the archetypal cloth of Spider-Man, who Bendis helped shape and define in the modern era, whose journey is feeling worthy and worthwhile in this wild universe of heroism. That she deserves to be here, that she deserves to be a Justice Leaguer and has earned her place and is a true hero. She’s a legacy hero making her mark for the very first time, which will extend out over time in Bendis’ eyes, as he even teases the character’s future in the DCU during the run as the mythic ‘Queen Naomi’. Like Bendis’ young Spider-Man, Naomi too becomes part of a much wider, grander heroic legacy and tradition. It’s something Bendis sincerely loves.
But at the same time, legacy and generations means the past too. And if all of Bendis’ Wonder Comics kids and Legionnaires represent the future side of ‘legacy’ and the ‘generational’ quality of the DCU, then Black Adam represents its mythic past.
He was once Mighty Adam, the mythic hero of a mysterious heroic age, the man who knew Hippolyta, Wonder Woman’s mother, and has endless wisdom and knowledge. Black Adam, to Bendis, suggests an endless longevity to the heroic tradition of the DCU, one stretching far, far back beyond the JSA or whoever else. Black Adam gives the DC Universe a sense of a mythic past alongside figures like Ra’s Al Ghul, Vandal Savage, and others. Bendis has nigh childlike glee at the very prospect of getting to make fun implications about what all Black Adam has known, seen, lived through or who he has met or had relationships with.
He’s a figure of profound mystery and intrigue to Bendis who enriches the DC Universe. And most importantly?
Black Adam is willing to change.
If you look at Bendis’ DC work, he is deeply, deeply fascinated by old individuals unwilling to truly change. Whether it be the conspiring scoundrels in a council in his Man Of Steel mini-series or even Rogol Zaar, whether it be the ancient immortal Lord Of Chaos Xanadoth or even Dark Lord Opal in Young Justice.
But its perhaps most pronounced in his choice of antagonist for Batman Universe, and eventually his final DC work- Justice League vs Legion Of Super-Heroes.
The final villain of his final DC story and Justice League story after this run is Vandal Savage. And the entire story is built around Vandal being this ancient, immortal old bastard who cannot change or grow to be better despite all that time he’s had. He loathes that which Bendis loves about the DC Universe–its generational, cyclical spirit of heroism. The idea that even if everyone falls and the Earth crumbles, that from the rubble of that Great Disaster, people will still rise and heroism will still persist.
Vandal is tired of this damn ‘Age Of Heroes’ nonsense and he wants nothing to do with it. He means to end it, to erase it, even if that means rewriting existence itself. So be it. For maybe that’s just what it takes, right? You have to rewrite the very fabric of the DC Universe to make it not what it is to ensure it doesn’t become what it is bound to.
It is as loud and clear a definition of DC as one can find, as Bendis is practically screaming it out loud.
And it’s one visible in his finale of Justice League too, wherein Xanadoth, the immortal Lord Of Chaos shows up. The ancient offers Black Adam a deal- offering ultimate power. All Adam needs to do is accept and it’ll be his. It’s the final test of Adam, wherein he’s been a hero, or he’s said he wants to be one, but is he really? It’s asking ‘Will he regress?’ and he does not. He tells him to go shove it.
Xanadoth ends up possessing him, using his body to wreak havoc and end reality itself, but then the Justice League and JLD finally manage to free him from the ancient. And that’s when the music starts. That cover up there? It is the cover to the final issue of Bendis’ Justice League run. That is how hard the man committed to the character. And that image you’re seeing on the cover?
It’s what the finale is all about, and what the whole run has been building up to.
Black Adam is not pleased after being possessed. And the conclusion to both this epic reality-bending ‘event’ story and the run as a whole? It is Black Adam with Hawkwoman’s shield and mace, Aquaman’s trident, juiced up and being boosted by all the power Doctor Fate and other heroes can give him, as though we were in a big Dragon Ball Z finale. It’s revealed here that Naomi has a special power that allows her to magic as well, and even she becomes part of this final last-ditch Crisis-esque effort to save all of existence, shredding all doubts regarding whether she is a ‘worthy’ enough hero who ‘deserves’ to be on the Justice League.
And then channeling all that power? With lightning everywhere and thunder marking his presence, as though he were Thor in a grand event comic, Black Adam lays the punishment, and finishes the job on the damn immortal.He becomes the conduit by which all of the heroic forces channel their strength, and he lives up to their hopes, dreams, and expectations.
Black Adam saves the day, and all of reality, in the end.
See, that’s the thing, Black Adam is an old man, an immortal, a myth, a symbol, and an idea, sure. But he’s a person too. He’s human and he can change. Whether it be Xanadoth or Vandal Savage, these people don’t wish to be people. They don’t wish to be human, and neither do they think of themselves as such. They think themselves gods. They believe themselves to be more. They are ideas, not men. And they’re unkilleable, or so they believe. And so they never change. They can’t. They don’t have it in them. All they crave is power and the past and control.
Black Adam is, to Bendis, the opposite of that. He is the alternative path. He is the other option. He is what all of his chief DC antagonists are not, he is their antithesis and ultimate answer.
He’s a man willing to surrender and give up control, who believes he is not more than anybody, and for all his divine power and strength, does embrace his mortality. Black Adam is capable of change and evolution, of learning, of considering he is wrong or changing paths. Black Adam evolves, in Bendis’ mind.
“He’s been around for a very long time and with that comes shifting perspectives and things change. Even in our short lifetimes, you live long enough to see things differently than you did a few years ago. The world has changed a lot, so Black Adam is responding to that.” – Brian Michael Bendis
Black Adam is the idea that the heroic tradition and spirit of the DC Universe, its generational evolution, is constant, ever growing, and that even 5000 years later, even an immortal can learn and grow from young people. That the journey isn’t over, that you cannot be an ossified fossil, the moment you become that, it’s over. You have to be someone who is open to being wrong, learning, someone who adapts, and that’s what Black Adam represents to Bendis.
Bendis realized he could use Black Adam as a vehicle, as a means, to express the essential nature and truth of the DC Universe as he saw it. It fit perfectly with the themes and ideas he wanted to tackle with the Justice League. For in a world of old figures who don’t change, myths who have lost touch with their humanity, the Justice League helps Adam firmly cement his own. What makes the DC Universe such a beautiful and distinct place to Bendis? It’s that precisely.
It’s why you have scenes wherein Oliver Queen, the king of all ‘I’m here to check you all and keep you all in line!’ soap-boxer gets a speech from Adam on how he will be there to check Oliver Queen. The role that Green Arrow usually gets being given to Black Adam of all people is a sign of just what Adam means to Bendis and his vision of the DCU and the book he’s making.
It’s amusing when one remembers that this is a literal King saying this to Ollie, but at the same time, one must remember, while Bendis acknowledges it, it really does not factor into his vision and perspective of the character. To him Black Adam is The Ancient Mythic Hero and Protector Who Failed and is now here to do better. That’s the abstract concept he latches onto, which is why he selectively picks and chooses even while referencing 52.
He’s building on Geoff Johns’ own conclusion for the character in Shazam! wherein Adam is finally fully heroic, but comitting to that idea even harder, constructing a much ‘softer’ and ‘gentler’ Adam. He doesn’t have the bile or harshness of Johns’ take, he’s not as likely to say something hurtful and is much more of a typical conflicted noble man out of time.
So what is the difference between a Doom or a Namor and a Black Adam in the hands of Bendis? It’s that unlike the rest, Black Adam is an ancient mythic hero that represents and suggests a rich, mythic history to the universe, even more so than Namor’s 20th century escapades, and he also happens to be a mythic protector of his people and a liberator, a story parents pass on to their children from generation to generation. But most importantly, it’s because Black Adam is a vehicle of expression for Bendis, about what the hell this grand setting and landscape he’s exploring is and means.
Adam is central to the larger macro definition of the DCU that Bendis is trying to weave together across his work in a way that a Doctor Doom is perhaps not in the Marvel context.
It’s why Bendis echoes that classic JLA sentiment, one that rings so powerfully through so many runs and especially the Grant Morrison run, about how if you’re in the JLA? You’re never alone.
Black Adam has always been alone. He just expects to be. And he hopes to clean up what mess he must on his own. But he no longer needs to. He’s no longer alone, no longer the burdened mythic immortal. His burden isn’t so heavy anymore. He has people to share it with. He has people who will help carry it for him, and whom he can help carry their burdens.
It’s what Vandal Savage could never be, and it’s what Xanadoth could never begin to ever understand. But Black Adam does. And he gets to understand because of the act of faith Superman showed him, because of what the Justice League offered him. Because that’s just what the Justice League does.
They make things better. They help you be better. They fix things. They inspire possibility. It’s what Bendis adores most about these characters and the worlds they inhabit.
For what greater display of the JL’s impact, effect, and power could there be than helping transform a once-supervillain into one of their greatest champions?
It’s why the run begins and ends on Black Adam. It’s why he gets the final word, closing things out. It’s his journey, alongside Naomi’s, that we’ve really been following. And given Naomi has her own separate solo book wherein Bendis can dive into her in depth, and Black Adam had no such thing, Adam became much more essential to the whole endeavor.
It’s a run about how the greatest power of the Justice League isn’t their superpowers, but the inspiration they afford, the care and concern they have, and their collective unity and spirit.
But it struggles and fails at being that in execution. Adam, for instance, is so central, and yet often just looks and is drawn and colored like any stock white guy for the most part. Another stark reminder of how while Bendis has long been committed to diversifying these worlds, he also has painful limitations and flaws, the kind made immediately apparent when you remember he cluelessly named Miles Morales’ father ‘Jefferson Davis’.
And the absence of any real consistent visual/artistic identity after Marquez’s loss shatters the book in a way it just never recovers. A bloated cast matched with the endless parade of narratives leads the book to become a vehicle to tie-up a convoluted hub of Bendis books. Bendis is indeed connecting up all his DC pieces and having fun, certainly, but it’s hard to go along for the ride, even as a journey of pure action thrills.
It reads more akin to a poor JSA comics run of the 2000s than what should be a premier Justice League title, and that’s a shame, because you can see what Bendis wants it to be and do and say. He’s certainly got enough pieces and ingredients to do it, too. But he just never gets there. He feels like a superhero writer way past his prime upon reading this, no longer filled with the kind of vitality that once made the likes of his Daredevil so thrilling. So it’s no surprise that people would ignore this, drop this, and straight up forget about it. That it would be doomed by apathy, as its very existence was subject to little attention.
Of course it even ending was not a big deal, because there just wasn’t the investment or any emotional response bound to what was happening for anyone to care. It was just stuff. And it would prove even more true for when Bendis would finally conclude his DC tenure and tell his final Justice League story by closing out Justice League vs Legion Of Super-Heroes.
It was all over. It was done with.
What should’ve been a triumphant conclusion with a great last hurrah, a grand send-off, because that’s how you’d imagine a creator of his stature and caliber going out, ended in a whimper of apathy and ignorance. It was a lot of sighs, shrugging, and dry laughter.
That DC would end up killing The Justice League right after he was done with them, and that he had to write a mostly ignored side mini with them while they were ‘dead’ everywhere else? It felt like the final punchline. It did not feel like a vote of confidence or support, or a ‘We need to build on from all this great, important work Brian’s done’. There was not even a pretense of that. It was as though they’d granted him the book as a vanity project and once it was done, they set fire to it all.
Not even the most bitter cynic could’ve perhaps imagined things would turn out like this, given Bendis is…well, Bendis.
It was unceremonious. What had once been welcomed in via loud BENDIS IS COMING! posters and ads now seemed to only earn pin-drop silence. There was not going to be a BENDIS IS GOING! farewell or celebration of any kind. In fact, little seemed to be said at all.
What felt like a seismic shift was now just something to be forgotten about. Bendis may have changed the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe once he arrived, but having done so, he just became part of that hierarchy in the end. And all that energy and power seemed to subside and fizzle away over time, until by the end what was once novel and special no longer was.
He arrived with thunderous impact. The day of the announcement proclaiming his move is impossible to forget. It was a day like no other.
But by the time he left? It was a different story. The departure seemed to have no real impact.
It was another day. Just like any other.