Some of this Morrison reading project has been fairly heavy going. The Filth, The Invisibles, and Seven Soldiers of Victory are meaty lumps of sequential narrative. On top of that, the modicum of research some of my posts have necessitated has felt a tiny bit like work here and there*.
So I’ve been saving up Morrison’s JLA for when burnout beckons and I need some simple 4-colour superhero fun.
That moment has arrived!
JLA was my introduction to the mainstream DCU. Even though the stories weren’t designed to be read in conjunction with the rest of DC’s output at the time, reading about these central characters each month gave me a good handle on where the DCU was at back then. I loved this incarnation of the team. Morrison’s deft handling of these characters in their team book and his portrayal of them as a group bound together by mutual trust and respect allowed them to have a strong presence when they appeared as a team in other books, or when other writers borrowed the reins.
Because I have a fondness for this period of DCU history, I’ll probably be taking side-trips to appearances of the JLA in other comics during Morrison’s tenure as chief custodian. Such was my fanboyish enthusiasm for the JLA that I eventually bought many of those appearances, including events like JLApe and Day of Judgement. These summer crossovers might have been knocked at the time, but they are veritable models of restraint in light of DC’s publishing practices since DiDio took over.
Here is a chronology of Morrison’s JLA and the storylines that intersected with it. I’ll be using it to decide the reading order and possible side-trips. Let us know if there are any glaring errors on it. I’d love to read through every appearance of the JLA during 1996-2000, but unfortunately, most of them are amongst the comics I had to leave behind when I made my big move. If you would like to chime in with commentary on JLApe, Paradise Lost, Day of Judgement or any of the other stories in the chronology, be my guest.
JLA was stratospherically popular back when it hit the stands, so it’d be good to hear what you all thought of it at the time and how you think it reads now.
If possible, I’d like for all the early posts to focus on the first 2-3 storylines rather than ranging too far ahead. Not really for SPOILER reasons, but just to keep the discussion from getting too general. I don’t think we have to worry about spoiling later developments, though, as most of us have probably read this series already.
Given I’ll be branching out to the work of other writers, it seems right to begin the discussion with Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare, written by Mark Waid and Fabian Niceiza.
*Ironic, given where I wrote most of them…
(1224 - 240113)
JLA Paradise Lost (cont)
JLA Paradise Lost does pale when placed beside the JLA tale that it springs from. Michael doesn't really represent anything thematically, despite his awesome cultural standing, and it's hard to see what it is about Shannon that leads Zauriel to give up the power and the glory of his life in Heaven. At first glance, Zauriel’s attraction to Shannon and then loss of interest in her does look like shallowness on his part. The story doesn’t show us why Neron and Asmodel’s combined forces can entirely neutralise the remaining three Hosts of Heaven easily, yet be halted in their tracks by just Zauriel and good ol’ J’onn J’onnz. To be honest, JLA Paradise Lostwas so underwhelming, my first reaction on rereading it was to wonder where it fitted in regards to Millar’s collaborative efforts with Morrison; specifically to wonder if this was Millar's first series scripting completely on his own.
Perhaps I am being uncharitable, but for the sake of argument, I’ll take Morrison at his word when he describes in Supergods how he was working closely with Millar at this stage, even on work that had only Millar’s name on the cover. Going by what Morrison wrote in the book, and my own feeling having read it, JLA Paradise Lost could have been written by Millar without any input from his ‘mentor’. There's no doubt that Millar was just on the cusp of some very fine work at this point, with his great work on the Ultimate line and The Authorityjust around the corner.
In defence of Millar, there is a certain angle to look at this 3-parter from, whereby it starts to look quite .... good.
This blog entry from Comic Vine does a fine job of comparing JLA Paradise Lost with John Milton’s original Paradise Lost, wirtten in the 17th Century. The author of the blog, Jekylhyde14, shows that Millar's text shares much in terms of theological outlook with Milton’s epic Christian poem. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel by paraphrasing what he says about each. He gives a good summary of Milton’s poem and follows with the crux of his argument:
So what connects this three-issue mini-series with the 12 book epic poem? Obedience and duty play a huge role in both. Asmodel loses the second war of Heaven in the comic because God takes away all of his power in response to his affront. In this way Asmodel loses before the battle even began. Satan lost his war in Paradise Lost in a similar fashion. Zauriel is also a wonderful character where this question is concerned. He initially disobeys God and casts off his duty so he can selfishly make a play for Shannon. This causes more damage than good as it brings Asmodel's forces to Earth and Shannon to be kidnapped by demons. Things are only set right when Zauriel decides to resume his duty and responsibility by fighting Asmodel's invasion of Heaven and attempting to rescue Shannon. This sequence of events impresses the importance of obedience and duty onto Zauriel has he accepts the post of Heaven's representative on Earth and in the Justice League.
It's only when looked at in this light that the story starts to make sense. Now we can see that Zauriel's decision to leave God's service to 'follow his heart's desire' was meant to be a foolish one. Zauriel's troubles began when he strayed from God's plan, and the way he seemingly forgets about his great love for Shannon at the end and moves on so happily, is a result of learning this lesson, rather than merely evidence of Zauriel’s shallowness, or Millar’s poor writing. Millar describes himself as a practicing Catholic, so this unfashionable point of view does have the virtue of being consistent with a set of sincerely held beliefs.
The various trappings of Catholicism that are on display in the comic, such as Shannon’s crucifix and obvious Catholic background, as well as a lot of the language used, such as “Mother of God!” and the like, can now be read as setting the scene for a very Christian morality play. I have to admire how Millar uses his tale to frame an unfashionably old-school religious ‘parable’. Seen in this light, the story is now ‘about’ something, (always a good thing) and with a strong moral centre to boot.
Perhaps one of the reasons I couldn’t ‘get’ this story at first was because, like many of my generation, I am completely unaccustomed to seeing a ‘hero’ in a popular entertainment place the worship of a higher power above his own individualism and ‘self-actualisation’. Zauriel placing his love and duty to God above his desire for the leading lady of the piece would never play in a Hollywood film. This is a little ironic, given there is so much about Millar’s script that is very Hollywood, and I don’t just mean Thin White Duke Michael’s palatial home in the Hills.
Further, JLA Paradise Lost now looks quite central to Millar’s whole body of work. Millar’s very first comic series, ‘Saviour’, explored religious themes, and he is currently in the middle of producing a trilogy called American Jesus, the title of which kinda says it all!
That Millar has produced such a doctrinaire Catholic/Christian fable does however leave it open to other criticisms, and does contrast it sharply with Morrison’s work. For a sequel that starts exactly where JLA#6-7 left off, it does seem to espouse a totally different ideological viewpoint to Morrison’s two issues.
In Morrison's JLA tale, God is completely absent. In his place his hierarchy exercises power in a way that seems flagrantly unjust to us lowly humans. Rather than trusting that the ways of the Divine will turn out to be benevolent, the JLA openly confront and strive to defeat the high-handed self-righteous representatives of God's order. Morrison too, directly references Milton's poem. The Martian Manhunter quotes Milton's Lucifer when he shouts "I will not serve!" Morrison is using deliberate irony here, as this is the JLA's most pure-hearted and humble champion of humanity defying what seems to be God's plan. Like many who read Milton's Paradise Lost, and like many whose thinking is of a Gnostic bent, Morrison is 'of the Devil's party'.
Milton wrote his epic poem in order to ‘justify the ways of God to Man', but again and again, Morrison’s work shows that the ways of God to man are not to be justified, but instead to be questioned and raged against at every turn. Millar's Zauriel, on the other hand, trusts emphatically throughout his trials that God will ensure that the good guys win.
Zauriel’s meeting with Shannon in JLA #7, which is shown again in JLA Paradise Lost#1 is a fascinating example of how the exact same scene of two people meeting face-to-face for the first time can mean completely different things thematically, depending on the structure and argument of the story it is set in.
At the end of Morrison’s JLA versus Heaven story, Zauriel’s meeting with the object of his affections is an uplifting twist, as we find out that Heaven, Hell and all points in between have been turned upside down by the love of a seemingly perfect being for a mere mortal woman. It is consistent with the recurring theme in JLA,of humanity itself being something precious and valuable, and able to stand up to anything metahuman, supernatural or divine.
The same first meeting between angel and human in Millar’s work shows us a fallen servant of God making the mistake of putting his own desires and wishes above his duty to the Lord of Creation, who is about to show him conclusively the error of his ways. Further, we see that he ‘falls’ for someone who is a thoughtless, irresponsible neighbour, willing to immediately drop her man at the suggestion of a better offer and whose apartment smells of cat-pee...
I can see now that some of my problems with JLA Paradise Lost were caused by expecting it to treat the story elements in the same way they had been handled in JLA#6-7. We have been talking about continuity a lot in this thread and I have argued that thematic and symbolic ie 'artistic' purpose should be allowed to trump continuity, if we are to have satisfying stories that mean something, and allow their writer to express something worthwhile, beyond being mere reports from a non-existent parallel universe. Millar’s follow-up displays a philosophy profoundly different to Morrison's whole worldview, and marks this unassuming little spin-off as an important milestone moment in Millar and Morrison's creative relationship.
It's ironic, given the lessons Zauriel learns under Millar’s pen, that Millar's own work is showing that sometimes you do have to revolt against your ‘Master’.
JLA Paradise Lost (misc)
Just a couple of final thoughts on Millar's only JLA mini-series.
I've complained that Archangel Michael here doesn't have much going on thematically. It is, however, tempting to see his role in JLA Paradise Lost as a cautionary tale about what happens to someone who gives up doing what they were created to do, in order to go chasing down a materialistic dream in Hollywood. Perhaps there may be something prophetic in how Michael is depicted...
Michael sells his soul and gets all the filthy lucre he could ever dream of in Movie-land, but his life is meaningless, he isn't happy and he becomes a sad shell of a man. Perhaps there are lessons here for Millar - a great comics writer in danger of pawning his creative soul to the hollow dream factory of the movie business. Heh heh!
Finally, you might just be able to make out the detailing on that skintight rubbery suit that Asmodel, in his terrifying 'Form-of-Boy' Flesh-suit, is wearing on the cover of issue 2 on the left.
Yes, that is the unnessecary piping which has now become ubiquitous amongst DC's superset. Here is proof, if it were needed, that this new fashion really is from Hell.
Just for the hell of it, I thought I'd point out that JLA One Million fits into our readthrough about here. It seems that World Without Grown-ups takes place just after the real Wonder Woman returns in JLA #23 and just before the Justice Legion A, who also first appeared in JLA #23, whisked our heroes off to their far future in DC One Million.
As I've mentioned elsewhere, the DC One Million blogs were a lot of hard work, so it's good to see the end in sight, and get back to these less formal little discussion posts on the main JLA run.
DC One Million really does sit in the middle of the run, and to some extent it is the crown jewel. In that huge crossover, what Grant was trying to do with JLA reaches its fruition in the awe-inspiring and optimistic future flowering of his iconic, heroic League. I've mentioned earlier that Morrison seems to have been trying to 'infect' the rest of the DCU of the time with the sensibility of his JLA. We've seen the League adopt some of the key players of the Batman and Superman heroic families, for instance. With DC One Million, Morrison managed to temporarily achieve the complete dominance of the whole line with his vision, as all the comics for one month were guided to some extent by him.
It's also clear from a lot of the earlier commentary in the thread, that while JLA really grabbed its audience in the first half of the run, interest waned somewhat by the final few arcs. This is a function of how these monthly comics are produced. Of course Morrison is going to use all his best ideas in the early arcs. For one thing, he doesn't know how long his run is going to last and he wants to get his great JLA-specific concepts out there, and for another he wants to build up the readership as quickly as he can before what Brian Hibbs calls 'standard attrition' of the readership sets in.
So perhaps the arcs after DC One Million aren't as strong as what went before. Even if Morrison manages to present stories that are as good as the early storylines and offer much the same kind of fun, then it's still a disappointment to some readers as nothing can compare to seeing this stuff for the first time. This is the law of creative diminishing returns...
I haven't reread the second half of the series at all until now, as that's the way I'm going about this thread, but I'm looking forward to seeing how the actual comics measure against the widely-held impression of them I've laid out here.
The first story we're going to look at is from issues #24-26, where the team battle the Ultramarines for the first time and the Hairy Man returns.
As I've just completed a potted history of Tom Peyer's Hourman in the first DC One Million Epilogue, I have to note that this story takes place just after the team return from the far future, but before Hourman himself follows them back to take his place on the team. Hourman only appears at the very end, uttering portents about an upcoming storyline, which will involve a team-up with the JSA.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves...
JLA #24-26 Executive Action
After the complexity of DC One Million we get a relatively straightforward tale of military skulduggery, and the reappearance of a seemingly unstoppable old foe. A US General retrieves the Shaggy Man from deep beneath the seas and sets events in motion that will result in the JLA facing off against him. Complicating things is the introduction of a new military-founded superteam called the Ultramarines.
The original justification for the Ultramarines is that the US needs a team that will serve its interests alone, rather than humankind as a whole. This was a fun area for superhero speculation during the relatively peaceful Clinton era, but has acquired a new sharpness, given how much US interests and the wider good have diverged since the 21st Century began. Put beside his ‘prophecy’ of Jihad and pre-emptive war going hand-in-hand in Superman – Man of Tomorrow 1,000,000, it seems Morrison was a bit of a ‘futurist’ after all.
As a specifically US military superteam, the Ultramarines first order of business is to pre-emptively take the JLA off the board before they become a problem. As usual, Morrison has applied his considerable imagination and intelligence to the task of neutralising a team of Big Guns like the JLA. His solutions to the problem are entertaining and perhaps plausible. All-in-all, given the ingenuity of the attack plans he gives their enemies, and the way they exploit the team-members’ individual weaknesses, I’d say Morrison is one of the greatest supervillains that the JLA have ever come up against. He’d probably even have found a way to make the Deathstroke vs Justice League fight in Identity Crisis look like a halfway plausible match.
The Shaggy Man is a fun villain. A flashback scene of him waving members of the 70s Justice League around like helpless action figures brought a smile to my lips. And then there is the visual of the first thing a regimental jughead-type would do when given custody of a hirsute giant. The Shaggy Man didn’t stay hairy for long in this story. I think stories about the military getting out of control will always be relevant and worthwhile, but when they appear in a superhero story, there needs to be fun stuff that you don’t get in other storytelling forms too, like weird super-warriors and unstoppable shaven giants. Elements like these are what Morrison tried to bring forward from the Silver Age, rather than just chapter and verse of old stories. And pages of serious men standing around boardroom tables in their shirtsleeves don’t cut it, either.
When I first read this story, the fact that this was a returning villain of sorts didn’t make much of an impression on me. The fact I hadn’t read the old stories didn’t prevent me enjoying this one. That’s a good way to keep comics accessible to new readers.
Like DC One Million, this tale ended with a series of epilogues, this time each looking forward to upcoming storylines and plotpoints.
The first one concerns the fate of the Ultramarines. For readers interested in Morrison's extended DC grand narrative, the Ultramarines are the most noteworthy element in this whole arc. When first encountered, they are four completely original 'heroes' who realise they are being duped by the end of the story, and go on to construct the floating city of 'Superbia', from where they will recruit more heroes and police the world in a more interventionist way.
(How strange to see Knight and Squire there, years before Grant's Batman run. He plays a long game, does Grant...)
As Morrison argues in his 'Supergods', they are true precursors and protoypes for the millenial interventionist and 'take-no-prisoners' superteams like the Authority and the Ultimate Avengers. Of course, Morrison's very first JLA arc highlighted some of the problems with such teams, and it's difficult to see how such teams could co-exist with the JLA as Morrison portrays them. These inherent problems with the Superbia gang wouldn't be addressed until Morrison returned to the JLA for his unofficial prequel to his Seven Soldiers of Victory maxi-series - later collected as 'The Ultramarines' (and as discussed here and here.)
This epilogue ends with the arrival of Hourman on the JLA Watchtower, uttering his warnings of things to come, specifically a war with the Fifth Dimension. Having given Hourman a lot of study for my latest DC One Million blog post, I’m looking forward to following his tenure as JLA member. It will be presumably brief as he leaves the team in the first issue of his own series, which only came out a few months after he popped up here. We get a further foretaste of the war with the Fifth dimension in the second epilogue where a pink lightning-looking being appears and seems to offer his services to and African American-looking gentleman.
Speaking of foretastes, we also got a quick cut to New Genesis during a quieter moment at the beginning of this story, which gave the reader hints of an even bigger cosmic menace on the horizon. I’ll discuss that in an upcoming post that will cover what the New Gods were up to around this time.