Review by Karl Verhoven
In numerous Batman comics since the 1970s the near immortal Ra’s Al Ghul has promoted a broad ecological agenda, and by the time of Tower of Babel viewed humanity as “six billion shortsighted parasites who continue to ravage our planet’s natural resources”. His plan to set things right could do without interference from the Justice League, so he targets them first, and one by one they succumb to his agents. Anyone familiar with their bible stories may have a hint as to where Tower of Babel goes from there.
Tower of Babel is highly regarded, one of the earliest stories selected for hardback reprinting as part of the Eaglemoss DC Comics Graphic Novels Collection in the UK, and regularly featuring in online lists of the best Justice League graphic novels. Mark Waid’s terrifyingly imaginative plot and writing certainly make it a viable contender, but Howard Porter’s art is another matter. He supplies detail, and in the opening pages he’s decorative, but even these betray a less than creative method of page design, and other elements of his work are basic. Bodies lack proportion, and the musculature is exaggerated to the point of distraction.
Waid weaves two strands to begin with, one involving Batman, the other regarding the disabling of the remaining Justice League members. This has been well planned, is supremely effective, and Waid throws in a good twist as to why this is so. By the midway point seemingly all has been revealed, and applying the best standards of suspense, all seems lost and Ra’s Al Ghul allows himself some smug crowing. From there Waid sustains the tension to the end by ensuring the JLA have to cope with threats requiring subtlety rather than obvious manifestations of their abilities, and then formulates an interesting discussion based on moral principles and an excellent character-based final page. One massive plot convenience isn’t explained, namely how well guarded information fell into the wrong hands, but the remainder of Tower of Babel is an exciting superhero adventure that could have been more imaginatively drawn.
The title story is preceded by a single chapter tale deserving wider attention. It features the Atom, not widely used in this incarnation of the Justice League, and an ingenious plot. The Atom discovers a tumour inside a child’s brain is actually a form of civilisation strip mining the brain to survive. How can the child be saved without destroying the civilisation? Dan Curtis Johnson’s plot has similarities to the title story in the JLA’s powers being diminished, but he wasn’t to know that at the time, and extrapolates his scenario well. Artist Mark Pajarillo also has a few problems with figures, but makes up for it with a visually interesting alien civilisation. Johnson also writes an episode tying into ‘Tower of Babel’, in fact explaining the plot hole in Waid’s story, which is a nice touch. Pablo Raimondi’s art, however, is ordinary.
Rounding matters off the book are two short stories. ‘Revelation’ by Christopher Priest teams Aquaman and Wonder Woman, disappoints as it lives up to the title and has ugly, confusing art by Eric Battle. John Ostrander’s story of the JLA’s early days and Batman suspecting Superman of murder. It’s okay without being scintillating, but Ken Lashley’s art hardly shines.
Used copies of this out of print original packaging are still easily found online, but most of the content has now been absorbed into the larger JLA packages, found in volume four. Waid’s JLA continues with Divided We Fall.