"We are all Jarro": Empathy & entropy in 'Justice League' [LONGFORM]
Cover to ‘Justice League’ #1. Art: Jim Cheung, Laura Martin/DC

“Your story, the story of Jarro, is the story of the whole universe. It was created to be dark… but through heart and sacrifice, the universe was reborn as something bright, something brave… Every damn thing out here is like you, fighting to be better than its nature.” – Batman, to Jarro, ‘Justice League’ #29

by Brendan Hodgdon. The story of Jarro actually begins with the story of Starro, the conquering cosmic starfish that has menaced the Justice League since their debut almost 60 years (and two continuity reboots) ago.

That classic villain met his end in last year’s Justice League: No Justice miniseries, when he made a heroic sacrifice to help save the universe from destruction. In the wake of that sacrifice a new Justice League title was born, pitting the League against the Legion of Doom, and within it we met Jarro. A miniature version of Starro created from his remains by Batman, Jarro has become the beating heart of this series, representing the deeply-ingrained ethos that the series’ massive creative team has brought to bear.

But what do Justice and Doom mean in DC’s cosmic order? Which heroes are most important to understanding those philosophies? And how does Batman’s favorite son Jarro fit into it all? In the hands of writers Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV and artists Jorge Jiménez, Jim Cheung, Francis Manapul & Javier Fernández (among others), Justice League is not just the ideal DC flagship title, but an emphatic treatise on who we are as people… and who we can be as a society.

“Empathy isn’t about ideals. It’s about sharing our weaknesses too. Our fears.” – Superman, to J’onn J’onzz, ‘Justice League’ #7

"We are all Jarro": Empathy & entropy in 'Justice League' [LONGFORM]
Interior panels from ‘Justice League’ #7. Art: Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, Tomeu Morey, Tom Napolitano/DC

Thus far, Justice League has had four major story arcs: “The Totality,” “Drowned Earth,” “Escape from Hawkworld” and “The Sixth Dimension.” These stories, each built around an ambitious high-concept idea (an ancient cosmic power source arrives on Earth, intergalactic sea gods flood the planet, the League seeks to unlock ancient mysteries on Thanagar, the League is faced with alternate-reality versions of themselves), could easily function as standalone stories with no connectivity between them, save the recurring cast of heroes. 

But Snyder and Tynion have instead linked them all through the Legion of Doom, bridging the gaps between stories with one-shot issues. The most effective of these focus on the Legion itself and are written by Tynion, and are often more than a little unsettling in their tone. That this much time is devoted to the villains is atypical, but essential to the overall impact of the series; it frames Luthor and his compatriots in ways that both illustrate how dangerous they are and highlight their flaws.

"We are all Jarro": Empathy & entropy in 'Justice League' [LONGFORM]
Interior panel from ‘Justice League’ #7. Art: Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, Tomeu Morey, Tom Napolitano/DC

A lot of care has also been taken in deciding which characters are included in the series, and what those characters have to say about the themes Snyder & Tynion are playing with. While Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all get plenty of cool, fun moments (“The Sixth Dimension” in particular is a very good Batman/Superman story), it’s with Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl and John Stewart that the series often lives and dies. It’s in those characters’ struggles with themselves, with their faults and uncertainties, that the themes of the series become most apparent. The ideas at play also become more tangible and relatable when viewed through the prism of less-celebrated heroes, rather than through the overwhelming iconography of the Trinity.

And the team doesn’t stop there, as they’ve also populated the fringes of the series with a great supporting cast that will hopefully remain relevant in the months and years to come. Characters like Starman, Shaye and the World-Forger all help flesh out the themes and stakes of the story. But it’s in Jarro that we really see the full scope of this saga. As I’ll discuss throughout this piece, his arc exemplifies everything that this series is trying to say, while also representing the best and most absurd aspects of superhero comics. That a talking, mind-reading starfish dressed in a Robin costume is not just a great character but an impactful thematic element of the story is perhaps the most telling detail of what this Justice League is all about.

“You came to me and told me you wanted art. Well this was going to be my masterpiece. Made just for you.” – Joker, ‘Justice League’ #13

In approaching the art of this series, we need to be able to look at both the bright-eyed optimism of the League and the bleak ugliness of the Legion, while also unifying the visual identity of the entire DC Universe. From Jorge Jiménez to Jim Cheung to Francis Manapul to Howard Porter to Mikel Janín to Javier Fernández and more, the art team has done more than enough to accomplish that. 

Artists like Cheung and Fernández bring a clean-lined groundedness to their stories, an unassuming style that seems “realistic” when it isn’t; their approach helps to humanize the heroes and villains alike. It’s in Jiménez, though, that we get the pop-art kineticism and stylized expressiveness that gives the book so much energy. With him, we get a stunning blend of Ramos and Immonen, driven by impeccable storytelling instincts (it’s no wonder he was credited as co-writer on the “Sixth Dimension” arc). Utilizing him and Manapul, another artist predisposed to widescreen action, for the biggest stories of this run is the ideal move.

"We are all Jarro": Empathy & entropy in 'Justice League' [LONGFORM]
Interior panels from ‘Justice League’ #13. Art: Guillem March, Arif Prianto, Tom Napolitano/DC

The terror and darkness of the series comes to the fore in the Legion-centric issues, and artists like Doug Mahnke and Guillem March really capture the vicious uncertainty and tension surrounding the Legion’s members. This is particularly true of the March-illustrated #13, which chronicles the Joker’s heel turn on the Legion over his distrust of Luthor’s alliance with the Batman Who Laughs. The Legion’s headquarters becomes a house of horrors in March’s hands, and his Joker is horrifying in all his stone-faced derision for Luthor’s quest.

The push-pull inherent in the wide spread of art styles really helps sell the thematic tension of the story and the uncertainty that preys on Jarro and the other heroes. The world often feels like a horror, and yet there is so much potential for beauty and love and progress. The League fights to preserve and advance the latter, while the Legion hopes to wallow in the former. But in the spread of the art styles in this book, we already seem to have a hint towards an outcome: that for all the darkness and terror the world may offer, the light and energy of hope has more than enough strength to overcome it.

“On Mars, we forgot our greatest ideal, which was to remain open. To each other, yes, but also to discovery… perhaps my job must be not just to connect you to each other… but to remind you of who you are. The ones who inspire us to be better than we should be.” – Martian Manhunter, ‘Justice League’ #1

No matter what certain corners of fandom may say, things like theme and ideology are essential to good storytelling. It’s not enough to just label a big fight as Team Justice vs. Team Doom; you also have to know what those terms mean. Justice League doesn’t shy away from this.

Doom, as Snyder & Tynion define it here, is Randian self-interest taken to its most vicious, predatory extreme. Justice, as exemplified by the League, is about hope and communal support, the refutation of our darkest urges and impulses for the sake of the whole.

The heart of the League’s approach is first summarized aptly in the “boardroom” sequence of Justice League #1, as Martian Manhunter psychically links the team to debate the Totality. In this moment, they debate whether they should keep the universe as it is for now and hope it lasts, or embrace the possibilities of the Totality even with the attendant risks. J’onn poeticizes the idea of being open, of reaching for more, about making the universe something greater. By doing this, he offers the thesis statement of the series, framing the ideology that is later personified by Jarro.

"We are all Jarro": Empathy & entropy in 'Justice League' [LONGFORM]
Interior panels from ‘Justice League’ #1. Art: Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, Tomeu Morey, Tom Napolitano/DC

But opening ourselves up to the possibilities of the future has risks, and keeps us vulnerable to our fear of the unknown. We see this at the end of “The Totality” storyline, as Martian Manhunter has a vision that may suggest precisely what is coming in “Justice-Doom War”, which articulates a fear that can either be controlled or embraced. In the same story, Cyborg speaks to John Stewart about strength coming not just from willpower, but also from letting people see your worst parts and facing them yourself. And in the “Drowned Earth” story, there is a revelation that the Triumverate’s rage is the result of Poseidon poisoning Arion’s mind with suspicion and hate in the ancient past. The community and progress that the oceans offered, that Atlantis represented, was destroyed by fear that they attempted to control rather than work through.

In Jarro, we see someone born of a creature with a long history of destruction, of self-interest, of doom. And yet, when brought up in a community of empathy, of hope, of justice… he has become a champion of the latter. In this, we see an active representation of how the League are role models; that when given these heroes as family and friends, even the descendant of an ancient race of conquering cosmic starfish can learn how to represent Justice, rather than Doom. He proves the thesis offered in those other moments, that being open and moving forward will always pay greater dividends than closing yourself off and trying to control your fears only for your own sake.

“With each new dilemma, retreat is the temptation.” – Arion, ‘Aquaman/Justice League: Drowned Earth’ #1

Of course, for all the people in the world who may try to follow Batman’s advice to Jarro to embrace their fear and work through it, there will always be those who attempt to control that fear and weaponize it for their own selfish gain. This is the crux of the philosophy of Doom, which in the pages of Justice League has found an all-too-willing prophet in Lex Luthor. After the events of the No Justice miniseries, Luthor uses his glimpse of the cosmic force of entropy as an excuse to become a villain again. 

It’s the justification he needs to reject the sublimation of his own ego in favor of indulging in his self-aggrandizement. As a result, he sees the ancient powers of the universe as tools with which to chisel away hope and optimism in favor of predatory self-interest. To aid his vicious quest, Luthor has assembled a collection of the greatest cutthroats of the DC Universe under the banner of Doom. And while anyone with a soul or brain could’ve seen this coming, Luthor’s plan has already hobbled his efforts over time. 

"We are all Jarro": Empathy & entropy in 'Justice League' [LONGFORM]
Interior panels from ‘Justice League’ #17. Art: Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, Walden Wong, Tomeu Morey, Tom Napolitano/DC

Both Black Manta and Joker have abandoned the Legion’s goals, more interested in their own desires than the larger ideology that Luthor is peddling to his allies. But this isn’t surprising; after all, when Luthor’s Offer to the world is the power to indulge in your greatest desires without shame or repercussions, should we not expect villains like these to tear each other down at the first opportunity? And yet, Luthor’s defeat is far from assured. 

The dog-eat-dog nature of his Legion may be unstable, but their amoral ruthlessness still keeps them dangerous. After all, Luthor’s willingness to throw the lives of everyone on the planet under the bus in order to unlock the power of the Totality—to commune with the ancient, corrupted goddess Perpetua—has turned him into an apex predator, an ostensibly-perfect being of death and destruction. And in the process he has destroyed the Martian Manhunter, who came to Luthor trying to cede for peace. But Luthor forges ahead, absorbing J’onn J’onzz into himself to advance his quest for power.

In this, Luthor demonstrates exactly why it can be so daunting to be open and empathetic, and how the League’s worldview keeps them vulnerable and capable of failure.

“Jarro really embodies the heart of what Justice League is trying to do.” – James Tynion IV

In doing this deep-dive on Justice League, it felt inadequate to just offer our own interpretations of this major title. Luckily series co-writer James Tynion IV was generous enough to chat with us and provide thorough insights into the series and all that’s gone into it thus far.

What was the motivation behind the ‘Legion of Doom’ one-shot issues, penned by you? How did you and Scott devise this structural element of the series?

James Tynion IV: This is a great question! It goes back to when we were cooking up the entire New Justice line-up that would ultimately spin out of Dark Nights: Metal, and the Justice League: No Justice mini-event that set all of the series in motion. No Justice saw the creation of four teams by Brainiac, and ultimately, the event would see those teams reshuffle and come back together in new forms. The aftermath of that series launched Justice League, Justice League Dark, and Justice League Odyssey, and there was a minute we were talking about potentially launching a fourth book, with the Legion of Doom up front and center.

Ultimately there were a lot of reasons that didn’t happen, but the main reason was that everything that was going to happen in a separate Legion of Doom series would be so consequential to the main Justice League book, that it would feel like we were trying to make a biweekly book a “three-times-a-month” book, which is practically a weekly. Which was more bandwidth that I think we needed, and more bandwidth than I think readers would really afford us. But the idea of doing stories from the Legion of Doom’s perspective, to show the story from Lex Luthor’s perspective remained important to us.

We knew the larger metastory we were building, and that it would ultimately spill out beyond our little corner of the DC Universe, and we thought that those issues would make really great interstitials throughout the run. And the idea was always that we would split up the JL stuff and the LOD stuff, and then co-write the big epic finale together, which was always going to be “Justice/Doom War”, going back to our first document about the book. So I guess that’s a really long answer to say that Legion of Doom-centered stories have been part of the DNA of Scott and my Justice League run from the beginning.

The ‘Legion’ one-shots contrast strongly with some of the League-focused one-offs written by Scott; how important is it for you to clearly define each side’s characters and ideologies? And how did you arrive at Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl and John Stewart as the main perspective characters, as opposed to the Trinity?

Honestly, this goes back to a lesson I learned writing Detective Comics during the Rebirth Era. When you’re doing a team book in a connected universe, built out of characters that appear in other books, it always lowers the stakes a little bit. You know that The Flash isn’t going to die in an issue of Justice League. It would happen in his own title, right? J’onn J’onzz, Kendra, and John Stewart aren’t appearing in other titles (or at least other titles with them operating in the core continuity in the present day), so it made a lot of sense to put the focus on them in a big way. They are the characters we could make the most impact with, both in terms of emotion, and with pure plot.

Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter in particular were both reintroduced to the DC Universe after a few years in continuity limbo, in the Dark Nights: Metal event, and we wanted to put their reintroduction to good use. Those are the practical reasons, though, but there were deeper ones… Martian Manhunter has, in his best moments in the DCU, been the heart of the Justice League and we wanted to really re-establish him as the heart. I remember talking to Scott a lot about making him the central character in the first issue of the new run. We realized very quickly how much this opened up for us, and I still remember when Scott called me to pitch the idea of a secret connection between Martian Manhunter and Lex Luthor. That story would in many ways become the heart of the entire run, and once we had that, we knew exactly what would need to happen for Lex Luthor to reach his endgame. He would need to take J’onn down in the most brutal, horrifying way, and that moment would change everything.

"We are all Jarro": Empathy & entropy in 'Justice League' [LONGFORM]
Interior panels from ‘Justice League’ #28. Art: Javier Fernández, Hi-Fi, Tom Napolitano/DC

There’s a real undercurrent of existential cosmic terror running through the series, for both the heroes and villains—was this a natural consequence of your and Scott’s horror backgrounds, or was it a conscious effort?

I think it is very much a natural consequence. Scott’s always been concerned about finding the personal angle for every story, and using a personal fear to help build the villain and their motivations in a story. There’s a core thesis to Scott’s DC work, that he spoke to in the most direct terms with his first DCU story, but continues to speak to with each of these stories. It’s the idea of “The Black Mirror”, the idea of your deepest darkest fears taking shape as a means to test you. Sometimes it’s more literal than others; I mean, what is The Batman Who Laughs but a pure literalization of the Black Mirror concept?

With Justice League, what we’ve tried to do is essentially turn the Black Mirror against the DC Universe itself. What greater fear is there to our heroes than the idea that everything is destined to turn bad? That it was built that way. That nature actually dictates that we should turn to Doom, and not Justice. It’s always about manifesting the greatest fears of our greatest heroes and hoping they have the wherewithal to overcome them. When it comes to a team of such cosmic stature and power, that fear needs to manifest in the form of something universe shattering. The literalization of “The Multiverse is meant to be evil.” The literal mother of the Multiverse, Perpetua. 

It seems to me that Jarro (and Starro before him) is not just one of the most earnestly comic book-y elements of ‘Justice League’, it also serves as a microcosm of what the arc of the series is all about. How do you guys see Jarro, and how important is he to the series going forward?

You hit the nail on the head. Jarro really embodies the heart of what Justice League is trying to do. He’s a deep dive character, going all the way back to the first appearance of the Justice League way back in The Brave and the Bold #28 in 1960. So, he’s an integral piece of Justice League lore, but he’s also pure DC Comics Silver Age. He’s a giant conquering starfish! He’s pretty ridiculous. So, he also represents the kind of DC elements that were seen for a long time as being “too silly” to be up front and center in a big way. Back during Metal and No Justice, Starro was brought in almost as a joke, a fun nod to the fans of the DCU’s nuttier elements… But in writing him, we all fell in love. When we sacrificed him to save the rest of the Justice League in No Justice, we thought that was going to be the end of the road, but Scott pretty much immediately wanted to find a place for him in the main book. 

"We are all Jarro": Empathy & entropy in 'Justice League' [LONGFORM]
Interior panels from ‘Justice League’ #29. Art: Bruno Redondo, Hi-Fi, Tom Napolitano/DC

That’s how we ended up with the Starro Fragment in a Jar, which our editor at the time, Rebecca Taylor, jokingly referred to as “Jarro”, and then we just straight up called him that in the book. And then he grew from there. From him calling Batman “Dad” to his dreams of being Robin… He embodies everything we love about this series. He is a pure fun character that could only really ever work in a book like Justice League. He is a fundamentally ludicrous element, who has a very emotionally serious role to the series, and his turn from Cosmic Conquerer to lovable Wannabe-Robin is the best case for “Justice” over Doom. Issue #29 was his big showcase, but he’s definitely going to have a big role in the final battle. 

Just wait and see!

Obviously getting the right artists for a marquee series like this is key, and artists like Cheung and Jiménez are great choices in this. But for the smaller interludes, how much do artists like Fernández, Manapul, et al. shape the approach to the story? What made them right choices?

Oh, they always factor in. Going back to the first Legion of Doom one-shot by Doug Mahnke, who is one of my favorite DC Universe artists, I used the opportunity to show as many characters from as many corners of DC Villainy as I could get away with. With the Francis Manapul issue #22, I wanted him to go full-on cosmic and tell the history of our universe with the Monitor and Anti-Monitor. With Frazer Irving, we were dealing with Dead Gods, and his creepy cosmic gothic style was just perfect. The artists always matter, and they always shape the content. This series has been incredible with the number of amazing artists I’ve been able to work with, and I couldn’t be more excited to be working with a top-tier lineup for “Justice/Doom War”, with Jorge Jiménez, Francis Manapul, Bruno Redondo, and Howard Porter coming back to bring this story to new heights.

“Together… we are more than we can even imagine.” – ‘Justice League’ #25

"We are all Jarro": Empathy & entropy in 'Justice League' [LONGFORM]
Interior panels from ‘Justice League’ #25. Art: Jorge Jiménez, Alejandro Sánchez, Hi-Fi, Tom Napolitano/DC

Togetherness is essential for progress. Because when we don’t stand together, we all too quickly succumb to fear. That fear pushes us to be selfish, to be cruel, to seek domination and control. But when you have people with you, you can face your fears, and see past them to the opportunities the future offers. This is the lesson that Jarro has learned from the Justice League, and his ability to be better than his progenitor stems directly from the empathy they offered him, the sense of security that allows him to face his worst aspects and still reach for something more.

It could be the love and support that Batman offered a starfish in a jar that wins the day in the end.

So here we are, at the start of another grand cosmic conflict. Justice and Doom are drawn together in another clash over the soul of the universe. We’ve seen this dance before, and since this is comics, we will certainly see it again. And yet, the army of creatives behind Justice League are doing more than just offering their twist on the old story. They’re using the old story to tell us about ourselves, right now, on the precipice of our own defining moment (it is an election year coming up, after all). They are telling us, with a resounding and unequivocal call, to stand together. To open ourselves to our fears, to draw strength from each other, to fight through the risks and uncertainties of the unknown and find our best collective selves together in the future.

They are telling us to be Jarro. And we should listen.

Brendan Hodgdon is a DoomRocket contributing writer and the author of Top Cow’s ‘Ares IX: Darkness’ one-shot. Follow him on Twitter.