Writer: Joe Kelly
Penciller: Doug Mahnke
Inker: Tom Nguyen
The final volume featuring the writing talents of Joe Kelly, “Trial By Fire” pits the JLA against a terrible new threat called the Burning, which seems to have links back to Earth’s distant past! As an entity with seemingly unimaginable power, who forced the Guardians of the Universe into action centuries ago, can the JLA stand against it and complete chaos? Meanwhile, the Martian Manhunter seems to have finally found happiness with Scorch, finally being able to confront his fear of fire. But is all as it seems?
Does Kelly end his run on a high note, or does this feel like a disappointment? Read on to find out…
As with Kelly’s previous storylines on JLA, this story once again has a fantastic opening. We are treated to some wonderful pencils from Mahnke, depicting a decimated winter landscape in Earth’s distant past. Indeed, the site looks like a battleground, with a crashed alien ship, hundreds of fallen human bodies, and numerous dead Guardians. It is a great set up, and this continues throughout the first two issues when we shift to present day. Mysterious events are occurring across the planet, seemingly punishing the criminal and the depraved. Two notable incidents are that of President Luthor falling into a coma, and the powerful scene of when Batman is called to Arkham Asylum, stunned by the sudden outbreak of remorse shown by all the inmates—most notably the Joker.
The Justice League suspect telepathic influence in all these events, and accordingly recall J’onn from his ‘vacation’ to help find the culprit. J’onn soon finds his mind overwhelmed when he attempts to reach out, however, before the League can dwell on this incident, they find themselves under attack with Ronnie Raymond lured out of the Watchtower and stripped of the Firestorm matrix. The search for the mysterious entity soon leads the team to an abandoned arctic structure where they find one Vandal Savage, who has a startling truth to the reveal—the entity attacked Earth a millennia ago, decimating his tribe—and was of Martian origin!
At this point, Kelly’s set-up comes to a fantastic end, with the JLA brought face to face with their tormentor for the first time. Upon the return to the Watchtower, they find Superman subdued on the conference table, with the mysterious assailant present. In a brutal battle, he at last reveals himself to indeed be a Martian, whilst declaring himself to be ‘Fernus the Burning’. However, after this point, the story somewhat loses its way. Whilst the direction was presumably always planned, Kelly introduces the fairly weak twist of Fernus being J’onn. It is revealed that the Guardians of the Universe tampered with the Martian’s biology centuries ago to make them evolve down a more ‘desirable’ path. J’onn’s time with Scorch in order to overcome his fear of fire however unlocked the ancient evil, since in overcoming his weakness to fire, he somehow broke the genetic block in his DNA, causing him to revert to his natural form and nature—to wreck havoc and bring pain and suffering.
The concept of the Burning Martians being the native life of Mars before the Guardians manipulated Martian life into the Green and White Martians is an interesting concept, but the way it’s executed in this story just feels lacking. Kelly attempts to introduce a side-plot which revolves around whether J’onn has chosen to embrace this form, or whether he has been consumed by it now that the genetic block has been broken, but it falls flat. It just seems like a late addition to the story in order to reconcile J’onn with the Justice League and pardon him once the story ends, with it seemingly developing out of nowhere. Indeed, despite being a story focused around J’onn, the real stars of this story are John Stewart and Plastic Man, with the pair being instrumental in stopping Fernus’s rampage.
Plastic Man is introduced into the story late on, and is seen for the first time since Kelly’s defining story on JLA, “The Obsidian Age”. Like J’onn, Plastic Man took time off the JLA after that story, being shaken by the experience and wanting to become a better father. When Batman discovers him, he is amnesiac, having forgotten entirely about his superhero career. Seeing Plastic Man’s denial and eventual return to action was the highlight of this otherwise fairly predictable second-half of the story, with Kelly’s exploration of the character being well done. Indeed, one of the strength’s of Kelly’s run is that despite being a team book, he manages to explore the characters in depth, with Wonder Woman, Kyle Rayner and Plastic Man all getting a fantastic story revolving around them. There’s also the matter of this having my favourite Wally West moment at the start of #89, which always brings a smile to my face.
The artistic team of Mahnke and Nguyen feature once again in this volume, and you know just what to expect from them. Mahnke thrives on the more imaginative segments of this storyline, with the opening shot of the decimated landscape and the apocalyptic sense of the final battleground and the JLA being equally well drawn out. His pencils are well inked by Nguyen, with the pair producing a truly menacing looking render of Fernus. I certainly wouldn’t want to irritate the Burning Martian…
All in all, this wasn’t a bad ending to Kelly’s tenure on JLA. It wasn’t a fantastic send-off either. The ‘secret history’ of the Martian’s was a well planned reveal, but the explanation for J’onn’s transformation into Fernus and the way in which he battles back from the depths just felt lacking. As previously noted, this story felt somewhat flat and formulaic, but that’s probably due to the fact that I have read the excellent Green Lantern: Circle of Fire, which tells a similar story with Kyle Rayner. Despite this criticism however, the story is not desperately poor and does offer a nice conclusion to Plastic Man’s personal story which Kelly introduced in Volume 10. If you enjoy Kelly’s works, especially his previous collected editions on JLA, then this is definitely worth a read.
GO Rating: 3/5
[Cover via DC Comics, panels scanned from JLA (1997) #87, 89]