JLA: The Nail

There are no “sure things” in life. But some are “sure close”. For example, the sales prospects of any current release with the name “Justice League” on it. Or the quality of a book created by Alan Davis.

One of the things that made The Nail a sure bet for sales was the same thing that has contributed to the success of the ongoing JLA series written by Grant Morrison. It hearkens back to the original concept of the Justice League, as a team of the world’s greatest heroes: Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Flash, Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter, the Atom, and Hawkwoman. You say I’m missing someone important? Well, that’s the premise behind The Nail.

Like the missing horseshoe nail that led to the loss of a whole kingdom in the old verse, the missing Superman (lost when a nail-punctured tire prevented the Kents from rescuing the infant after his crash landing) leads in this story to a chain of consequences that dramatically alters the world. I’m a bit skeptical that the influence of one man is so profound as to make so many differences (and a few of them seem a bit contrived), but who am I to argue with the Jacula Prudentum (source of the original “for want of nail”)?

Although this is an Elseworlds that uses the modern, post-Crisis version of the DC Universe (with the Justice Society as part of its past, Luthor as a businessman in its present, etc.) it’s clear that Davis drew his inspiration for it from the classic Silver Age (with Barry Allen as the Flash, Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, and that traditional membership line-up for the JLA). So, kids, this IS your father’s Justice League. Well, except for that the absence of ol’ whatshisname.

Davis begins by showing the most obvious difference caused by Superman’s absence: the ascendancy of Luthor to dominate Metropolis. From there, he quickly introduces the difference that will provide the central conflict. The Justice League isn’t weakened so much by the lack of his power; Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and the Martian Manhunter provide enough of that. They’re hurt because they lack his credibility. Without the unimpeachable Superman at their forefront to demonstrate their integrity, the public has grown to mistrust them. To fear them. And perhaps even to hate and conspire against them.

The idea of public mistrust and hate of superpowered beings isn’t a new one; it’s been explored in previous stories by Marvel, DC, and others. But Davis has the advantage that he can make this mistrust as extreme as he needs for the purposes of his story (without having to worry about its impact on future stories), and he can present a logical reason for this mistrust. With that in place, he then paints a fairly convincing picture of how the public could come to perceive such obvious heroes as the Justice League as a threat. After all, starting in the Silver Age, many were inhuman aliens from other worlds, and the rest seem like aliens from normal society. And let’s face it, folks: xenophobia often works.

Of course I say he “paints” it metaphorically. Davis actually illustrates it the old-fashioned way, with pencil drawings. And his pencils are “old-fashioned” in the good sense. The layouts are varied and interesting, making good use of the page to fit plenty of activity on each, with splash pages used judiciously to good effect, both for the storytelling and as character showpieces. He shows an attention to straightforward figure drawing that’s downright refreshing compared to the “stylised” figures and just plan bad anatomy of many modern artists. Each character looks consistently like themselves, and individually… human. Even the “aliens”. Mark Farmer’s inks complement Davis’ pencils very nicely, with an clean, elegant approach that defines a lot without excessive lines.

When a writer works very closely with an artist - and especially when he IS the artist - they can more effectively use the art to tell the story, dropping clues and subtle hints in a facial expression, a hairstyle, or a gesture. They can sometimes dispense with the use of captions to describe or explain what’s happening. (But don’t believe everything you think your eyes tell you… there’s at least one red herring included that will surprise you when it’s explained.) Not all of the clues to what’s really going on are hidden in the art, of course. There are conversations, allegiances referred to, and other developments that only make sense when the big picture is revealed.

This story isn’t just a cerebral mystery novel, however. It has action aplenty, and the epic scale of an “event”… one affecting more than just the central characters in the JLA. The threat facing the League has implications for the entire superhero - and supervillain - community, and even stretches across the galaxy. Davis doesn’t ignore this. In fact, he covers most of these bases as the story unfolds. After all, one of the big mysteries is what power(s) might be behind the threat to the League, so to solve that, he needs to show us what all the great powers are in fact up to during this crisis, how they’re involved, or why they’re not. Plus, with each suspect off the list (or even joining the “victim” list) the suspense builds.

Another thing that adds to the suspense is the fact that this is an Elseworlds story. Because everything doesn’t need to be put back in its “proper” place by the last page, you don’t know from one page to the next what might happen to whom. Characters can die. Heroes can be destroyed. Or made. Lives can be changed.

That’s one of the things that really resonated for me, even my third time through the book. It’s a fun, action-packed adventure, and a well-woven mystery. But it’s also a story of characters… super-powered or not, alien or not, costumed or not. It’s about people with different attitudes and motivations working together - sometimes against their better judgment - to do what’s right. It’s about pain, loss, and deliberate sacrifice, even when success seems… unsure.

Of course there’s no such thing as a “sure thing”. But is this is a book worth reading? Well, sure.

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