Friday, July 26, 2013

Recommended Reading for 7/26: JLA by Grant Morrison

With Grant Morrison's run on Batman ending this week, I felt like going back and revisiting his first longform work featuring Batman, and the book that turned him from a cult favorite into a superstar: JLA.

By the early 90s, the once venerable Justice League franchise had fallen on hard times. After the "Bwah-ha-ha-ha!" era of Giffen, DeMatteis, and Jones, the various Justice League titles had been returned to their traditional superhero roots, and the success had been mixed. And over time, more and more of the DC mainstays had left the teams, leaving three titles with only two or three real headliners split between them. So the decision was made to scuttle the entire line, and bring it back with the original League, the Magnificent Seven, comprised of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash (Wally West), Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner), Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter, and DC tapped Grant Morrison, at that point best known for his offbeat superhero work in Animal Man and Doom Patrol, and for a couple brilliant, but dark, Batman stories (Gothic and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth) to do it.

The book was like nothing Morrison had done before. It was full of wonder and big ideas. And not the big, completely crazy ideas of Doom Patrol, or the big, but very intimate, ideas from Animal Man. It was big villains, big fights, the perfect synthesis of Morrison's own brand of storytelling and the Silver Age stories that inspired much of the series. Batman was the smartest man on Earth, Superman wrestled angels, and Kyle Rayner matured into a hero who could stand shoulder to shoulder with the other icons.

Morrison opened his run with a four part story where a new team of extraterrestrial heroes calling themselves the Hyperclan appear on Earth and begin fixing all the world's problems. Of course, the Hyperclan are more than what they seem, and I don't think any reader is surprised when it turns out they have an ulterior motive and they begin to do battle with the Justice League. What was unexpected was that by the end of issue two, the Hyperclan has captured the entire League, except Batman, who they have seemingly killed by crashing the Batplane.

I'm drawing out this point because in issue three, we actually get the moment where Morrison revealed that he gets Batman better than pretty much anyone else. Because of course Batman isn't dead. And more than that, he has used his brilliant mind to figure out exactly what to do. Over the course of the issue, he takes out four members of the Hyperclan by himself, with nothing more than a little gasoline and a book of matches. The moment where three of the aliens confront Batman might be the most Batman moment in comics. After leaving one of them tied up and hanging from the ceiling with a note saying, "I know your secret," Batman stands waiting for the aliens to arrive. And when they do, he tells them exactly what they've been hiding, triggers a trap, and takes them down. While Morrison's Batman is often accused to being the gadget god, the Batman who has all the cray tech; and he is. But this scene proves that Morrison understands that those are all trappings. Batman's greatest strength is his mind, and anyone should fear that mind turned against them.

Morrison took joy in reimagining or simply playing with classic Justice League foes. The Key was a villain who had a big key prop and was good at opening doors and took chemicals to open his perceptions. Returned, he became a skeletal, creepy figure who now used his chemicals on others as well as himself, imprisoning the JLA in worlds of their own imaginings to absorb their psychic energies (of course, he was taken out by a boxing glove arrow fired by Connor Hawke, who was then Green Arrow, so he wasn't the most badass of villains). Morrison also told a couple great stories with Starro, although he more or less starts fresh, not acknowledging the League's previous battles with the giant starfish alien. The second of these stories is actually one of the uses of Dream of the Endless not written by Neil Gaiman, and that was pretty darn exciting when it first came out, especially as I was reading Sandman for the first time when that issue hit. He also takes tow distinct villains, The giant cybernetic Shaggy Man and the manipulative General Wade Eiling, and merges them, putting Eiling's military mind onto Shaggy Man's indestructible form, creating a new villain dubbed The General.

Morrison also created his share of villains and heroes. Prometheus was his major addition to the DC pantheon of villains, and while he was never really used well after Morrison left JLA, the concept, a guy who could learn anything by downloading it into his head through his helmet is very cool, and this origin, the reverse of Batman's where his criminal parents were killed in front of him by the police (basically the same as Mike W. Barr's The Wrath, currently appearing in Detective Comics), was very cool. This cold analytical villain basically took apart the JLA the same way Batman takes apart his foes, by out thinking them; I'm a sucker for any non-powered guy who can defeat uber powerful character by using their intellect, and I think Morrison feels the same way.

Morrison also created the angelic hero, Zauriel, which is something uncommon in most mainstream comics; while the forces of the devil are often presented, honest to God angels are much rarer. The initial origin, that of a guardian angel who gave up his place in heaven because he fell in love with a mortal, has a beautiful ring of tragedy and is something gran and mythological; this was explored in a mini-series written by Morrison's then regular collaborator Mark Millar. Speaking of Millar, he and Morrison also wrote a short lived series called Aztek: The Ultimate Man, featuring a hero with magical armor who was the tool of a secret society that planned to save the world from a coming doom, but the book was cancelled long before that doom could rise. Both Zauriel and Aztek joined the League, and were part of Morrison's long game, because let's be frank, this is Grant Morrison. He always has a long game.

Morrison's first long arc on JLA after the inital Hyperclan arc was "Rock of Ages," a six part arc featuring the Injustice Gang, Darkseid, and plenty of time and space travel. This is a story that is very Morrisonian, with lots of high concept diversions. What starts out as a simple battle between the League and a new Injustice Gang headed by Lex Luthor becomes something different, as Matron of the New Gods, a character Morrison has used often and who I often see as Morrison's proxy, or at least as the voice of the universe, send Flash, Aquaman and Green Lantern to Wonder World, a distant planet populated by idealized giant superhumans to retrieve the Philospher's Stone. They are told that Wonder World is there to protect the universe from a great coming threat. The three don't wind up returning to Earth when they came from, instead coming to a dark future where Darkseid rules. There are echoes of Morrison's Final Crisis here (or the opposite of echoes, I suppose, as this pre-dates the crossover by over a decade), with a story where Darkseid rules the Earth. The League defeats him cleverly, again re enforcing the brains over brawn themes that Morrison uses throughout the series. The JLA naturally defeat the Injustice Gang, but the threat that Wonder World's heroes are there to defeat remains unknown.

The next arc adds Orion and Big Barda, two of the heroic gods of New Genesis, to the JLA, and they are sent because something is coming, something evil. Over the next few arcs, hints are laid out, and a word appears on the Source Wall, the place where the universe talks to the New Gods. And that world is Mageddon. The final arc of the series is "World War III" where Mageddon, the Anti-Sun, the Primordial Destroyer, a sentient planet that is making its way to destroy Earth. Mageddon begins to influence humanity, drawing it towards destruction, and controls Lex Luthor to gather a new Injustice Gang, including two of Morrison's earlier villains, Prometheus and The General, and introducing a new incarnation of another Justice League villain, Queen Bee.

"World War III" is an intricate story, mixing this new Injust Gang's attacks on the League with the heroes of Earth preparing for the arrival of a force that the New Gods fear. Mageddon causes humans to fight each other by preying on their basest instincts, and causing despair and doubt. The battles of "Rock of Ages' were preamble to the Mageddon manipulated Luthor and Batman's chess game. The story ends with the League finding a way to jumpstart humanity, to give much of the human race superpowers to help buy the League the time it needs. The images of waves of humanity rising into space to stop the nearing Mageddon is stunning. But in the end, after Aztek sacrifices himself to wound Mageddon and Zauriel brings an army of angels, it comes down to two men. Superman has been taken by Mageddon, imprisoned in its heart, and Batman breaks through to him with a telepathic boost from Martian Manhunter, and convinces him to shake it off and absorb the solar radiation that powers Mageddon. The final triumph is more than one of man against man or planet, but one of the human spirit, the spirit that makes everyone a hero.

And while I touched on most of the tentpoles of Morrison's run, there were more stories as well. He did a cool team-up between the JLA and the JSA, hearkening back to the classic Justice League/Justice Society team-ups of the sixties and seventies. He also wrote a one issue story that introduced Tomorrow Woman, a heroine who joined the JLA only to be revealed to be a tool of the mad robot makers Professor Ivo and T.O. Morrow only for her to cast off their bonds and sacrifice herself heroically. If you look at the central theme of Morrison's JLA to be that of intellect over brute force and of humanity over the forces that would make us less than what we are, the Tomorrow Woman story is a perfect microcosm of everything Morrison did over the course of 30+ issues.

Grant Morrison's JLA is an excellent superhero comic, doing everything that genre can do best: big fights, big ideas, and big characters. Each member of the team gets a moment to shine. If you are a person who loves Morrison's recent work, you'll be able to see the seeds of much of that, and if you find Morrison's modern work a bit perplexing, try this and see exactly why he rose to popularity.

While the original run was collected in six trades, DC recently repackaged them as four trades, adding in the JLA: Earth 2 graphic novel and the story Morrison wrote for JLA Classified #1-3 as well, making these recent four trades the definitive Morrison JLA. The first two are now available in both hardcover and trade, while the third and fourth are still only in hardcover with trades pending.


Nancy K said...

Morrison's run was my introduction to JLA and I really enjoyed it. (I made it as far as the Terror Incognita arc, I think?) There were parts in the run that were super confusing - characters that appeared for only 1 or 2 pages that I didn't recognize because I'm not a TRUE FAN who has been reading ALL TEH COMICS since the BEGINNING OF TIME OMG - but for the most part it was great. Loved the characters and how they functioned as a team.

Zauriel was my absolute favorite.

The Matt Signal said...

In all fairness to you, there's a chance that even those of us who have been part of comics culture since we were tiny might not have picked up all thr things Morrison dropped in there. He's a weird guy with an encyclopedic knowledge and also tends to introduce ideas then just sort of let them sit to get around to later, and sometimes doesn't, so...

Nancy K said...

Ah, well, that does make me feel better!