Christopher Golden, Justice League:
Exterminators
(Pocket Books, 2004)

Exterminators is not your typical superhero novel. There are no supervillians, no familiar faces to bash around amidst outbreaks of witty banter. Nobody's actually plotting to take over the world, rob a bank, or hang Batman and Robin upside down in a giant sno-cone maker. One of the most important characters in the book makes no bones about his gut feeling that the whole code names 'n' capes approach to life is a moderately ridiculous one.

What Golden does instead is present a global threat of the sort the Justice League was putatively created to guard against, and use it to show that even the best intentions and greatest powers -- not to mention snappiest spandex outfits -- can produce disastrous consequences. It's the old "with great power comes great responsibility" shtick, with the added caveat that one must think about how to fulfill that responsibility in a way that does not create further disasters down the pike.

The story opens with a series of seemingly unconnected incidents: various folks from the UK suddenly manifesting superpowers for no known reason, and using those powers for good or ill. The various members of the League get called out to deal with the issue, along the way making friendly -- or unfriendly -- acquaintance with some of these new metahumans. For a while, it looks like the novel is going to serve as a discussion of the notion of "privileged" superheroing, whether it's the sort of thing everyday joes should be willing or even allowed to do. Golden's newly powered characters engage in a refreshingly diverse range of activities, from demanding a knighthood to private detective to good old fashioned super-antics on both sides of the law. Green Lantern and Flash in particular grow close to one of the new super-blokes, a graphic artist who's got a knack for manipulating energy and a down-to-earth attitude about the whole thing.

The tone shifts, however, when it's revealed that the powers that these folks are manifesting are just the first step in a hideous mutation, one that turns them suddenly and irrevocably into gigantic, burrowing monsters intent on indiscriminate destruction. In best daikaiju fashion, what follows is a series of increasingly touchy giant monster throwdowns. However, there's something troublingly familiar about the monsters, one that leads League members to realize that the incident had its genesis in a case years earlier. In that instance, the League found itself forced -- or so it thought -- to eliminate a band of monstrous alien invaders. The titanic extraterrestrial chickens from that incident have now come home to roost, and the League simultaneously needs to save the world and deal with the consequences of its own actions.

There's an odd ambiguity in the middle of Exterminators, one that pops up years later in Golden's YA zombie novel Soulless. It's the notion that the characters we're supposed to sympathize with make a strong and cogent case for not killing innocents caught up in the maelstrom in order to effect a solution, only to discover that, yeah, you really do have to kill them and the jerks advocating this were right all along. Here, it fights with the notion -- espoused by Batman, of course -- that the League needs to consider its actions carefully and think before exercising its tremendous power. It's a weird tension, and an unsettling one.

Otherwise, the only quibble with the book is the logical leap between "using random superpowers" and "suddenly transforming into Gamera's worst nightmare." If you can go with that, then the rest of the book is a ton of fun, with well-drawn characterizations of League members both prominent and obscure. Fans of the Giffen-DeMatteis Captain Atom (and you know you're out there) may not like the way Golden portrays him, but the eye-rolling "oh, that guy again" from the other League members is one of many deft touches showing off how human Golden's take on these superhumans really is.

[Richard Dansky]