By Jarrod Jones. The sheer storytelling potential found in the phrase, “Lex Luthor is a member of the Justice League” is almost limitless, and Geoff Johns has had a hell of a time having fun with that fresh and exciting concept with his (post-Forever EvilJustice League run. Pairing the world’s greatest heroes with their most cunning nemesis makes for some incredibly arresting reading, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions, most of which have obviously occurred to Johns himself, who posits in the latest issue of DC’s premiere superhero title, “what will be the consequences of allowing Luthor to play hero?”

Such ponderings are what propel Johns’ Justice League #35 (which shipped on time, successfully catching Justice League up with the rest of its New52 brethren, I’m happy to report). The pains of Luthor’s heroic acclimation may be at an end, but it was the would-be villain’s machinations that circumvented his place among the League after all, and that’s a fact which sticks in the team’s craw something awful. Entire battles are fought with each member the League making sure Luthor is never at their back, with looks of mistrust and doubt worn heavy on their faces. It’s all very enticing stuff.

Thats the crucial impetus behind Johns’ latest storyline, titled rather colorlessly as The Amazo Virus, and Justice League #35 acts as a prelude to this new saga, one that promises to be just as destructive as it is inauspiciously timed. (It seems rather insensitive for a major publisher like DC to allow HAZMAT imagery to adorn the cover to their flagship title, considering the present nature of our own media headlines.)

Keeping an eye on Luthor is easily a job for the Justice League, but counting the seconds until the bald philanthropist drops the floor out from under them doesn’t sit well for any of its founding members. (However, there is Shazam, who, as written by Johns, is far too thick – even for a teenager – to really comprehend what’s going on around him. Ignorance may be bliss for the Big Red Cheese, but it’s aggravating for any seriously committed reader.) A solution rests on the shoulders of Bruce Wayne, who willingly allows his family’s company, Wayne Enterprises, to partner up with LexCorp, where Luthor’s inner workings are open for the inscrutable Wayne to investigate. Finding critical evidence – anything will do, it seems – to lock Luthor away for good is the driving reason behind the League’s subterfuge, and the fascinating part of Johns’ opening salvo to The Amazo Virus is that it’s only a matter of time before Luthor gets wise. (And let’s face it: he probably already knows.)

This requires a big, loud show for the whole world to see in the form of a massive press conference in the heart of Metropolis, which only ramps up Justice League‘s double-dealing trickery. Both Luthor and Wayne put on quite the show, with Lex giving a meandering, mushy speech that probably could have done with a final pass through a copy editor (“… it’s time to make the world a better place to live…“, “… those who DO do and those who DON’T judge those who do…”), and with Wayne squeezing out a pair of crocodile tears, everyone in attendance is moved by the exhibition, including an incognito Wonder Woman. (“Luthor’s good. Bruce is BETTER.“)

The rest of the issue features some rather underwhelming back and forth between the Dark Knight Detective and his green-shelled counterpart, especially given what Luthor knows about Bruce Wayne’s nightlife. They shuffle their feet around a couple of Luthor’s hidden laboratories, and vaguely establish that Luthor’s construction of the Superman clone, Bizarro, wasn’t illegal (Luthor even informs Wayne that he’s undergoing the cultivation of yet another Bizarro: “… you could say I grew ATTACHED to it. Like a SIDEKICK.”). It’s all just superficial banter between Batman and Luthor, which isn’t too surprising: Johns’ writing style has always favored spectacle over pathos, so it comes as no shock that once we’re introduced to an innocent and vulnerable Lena Luthor (Lex’s paraplegic sister, making her first New52 appearance), the walls literally start caving in.

The rest of the issue (briefly) holds the typical Johns-ian bombast, but when it finally arrives in Justice League #35, it feels tamped down and stretched out for all it’s worth in order to meet the issue’s final page (an Aquaman splash page feels especially unnecessary). Most of the issue is primarily a stop-and-chat, leaving the visual heavy lifting for such underwhelming sequences to the artists. Doug Mahnke picks up the pencilling chores after Ivan Reis’ opening three pages, making the book feel visually lop-sided, especially when Mahnke’s pencils are a host to five (!) separate inkers: Joe Prado, Ray McCarthy, Christian Alamy, Mark Irwin and Keith Champagne all chip in to get this latest issue of Justice League to shelves on time, and the rushed nature of the resulting artwork makes the prelude to The Amazo Virus feel even more incidental than it should.

There are great ideas in Geoff Johns’ Justice League #35, but if DC’s sterling writer continues to gloss over the finer details of his own conceits, The Amazo Virus is condemned to join other lesser works from the 41-year old writer (Brightest Day and Forever Evil spring to mind). Just because the marquee is in place doesn’t guarantee quality, and it feels like Johns has been on auto-pilot for far too long. The New52 needs more champions. A book like Justice League can’t coast on its good name forever.

DC Comics/$3.99

Written by Geoff Johns.

Art by Ivan Reis, Doug Mannie, Keith Champagne, Joe Prado, Ray McCarthy, Christian Alamy, and Mark Irwin.

Colored by Brad Anderson.

6.5 out of 10

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