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…

 

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JLA Secret Files and Origins #1

September 1997


I was a little bit hesitant about starting with this issue. Even though it shows the new JLA’s first adventure together, it was released concurrently with JLA #10. Indeed it has a clever relationship to that issue. The main story here, Space-Seed, does show the team getting together for the first time, but the effect of it does depend on the reader being familiar with the team dynamics and method of operating from the 9 issues they’d already read. This is only a sketchy look at this ‘origin story’ because I’d rather talk about those elements as they occur in the JLA series itself.

The villain here is a take on Starro the Conqueror, from the Justice League’s very first appearance in The Brave and The Bold #28 in 1960. It is only called the Conqueror here and it invades worlds by taking over the minds of the population. This is done by attaching starfish face-huggers to everyone’s face. Converted humans are very striking looking with the slimey green creature’s single eye becoming the only feature of their face.

The horror here is of everyone losing their individuality to a single group mind. In the early pages, the Flash falls victim, and the newly convened JLA are about to step in next when the Spectre appears to tell them not to go into battle as the JLA just yet. He shows them that they would fall to the Starros, who would use their super-powers to take over the world ‘within 36 hours’. From there the universe itself would fall.

Inspired by Batman, Superman realises the way out is to lose their powers! The Spectre removes their powers and they are able to bluff their way into the central building where Batman shuts down the bio-computer that is controlling the invasion. The Spectre then restores their powers and they’ve passed their baptism of fire.

Many of the themes of the larger series are at play here. That the solution is in being a normal man, like Batman, is one. There is also the underlying fear that increased powers, symbolised by the League, may just be a shortcut to greater possibility for evil. Of course, there was no such suspicion of the heroes themselves in the original Starro the Conqueror story.

I like the skewed parallels with the original Starro tale though. Starro reminds us that the original Justice League of America began with the team up and running, as this series was. Whereas this comic was released just after issue 9 of the JLA series, the original origin only came with issue 9 of the actual Justice League of America series. That story, while not a Starro story, was also about the Earth being threatened by alien invaders.

I read the original Starro story last night to compare. Those early JL stories were wonderfully surreal and imaginative. Aquaman first hears of a possible invasion from Peter the Puffer Fish! For all the silliness, the heroes themselves have a very appealing elegance and dignity, which has been lost amidst angst-laden scratchings over the years. Even though the Gardner Fox story has atomic bombs and mind-controlled crowds, Miller/Morrison's tale has more truly horrific elements.

Back in the issue at hand, the UN shutting down the old Justice League is mentioned and the vacated rooms and packing boxes lying around are well evoked by Porter in the Satellite scenes. It’s strange to think that it wouldn’t be until Ostrander’s series years later that the exact reasons for the old Leagues’ disbandment were revealed. Obviously so few people had been reading that series that no-one cared at the time!

The rest of JLA: Secret Files and Origins #1 comprises file pages of all the heroes and villains to appear in the first 9 issues of JLA, a(nother) revised timeline, a magazine interview with J’onn J’onnz and the ‘lost pages’ showing how the League reacted when Superman turned up in his funky ‘Electric Blue’ gear. All are written by Mark Millar and I might fit them into this thread later. The collaboration with Millar puts this comic into a particular subset of Morrison’s work, but it’s hard to say who did what in the main story.
Not just those books, either -- they also collaborated on a year-long run of The Flash.
From before the beginning of this series, with the inclusion of Kyle and Wally, I had already accepted this title as an ersatz “Big 7”… in fact, that was its draw. But with Aquaman already sporting his harpoon-hand, when Superman showed up in his “Reddy Kilowatt” phase I saw the concept as moving farther and farther away from what attracted me to the series in the first place. I would stick around for a while yet, but I let the “new line-up” in issue #16 serve to make #15 my retroactive jump-off point. Upon subsequent re-readings I have since come to appreciate this run much more than I did initially, and I know I and others have said before that Grant Morrison’s work reads better in large chunks than on an issue-by-issue basis.
Wally was already a JLA member before this, he was Barry's designated heir and he had his own book, so he fit in naturally. Kyle only had his own title but being Green Lantern did give him an edge in making the new team. In some ways, he was like Snapper Carr (Don't Laugh!), a young man suddenly associated with the world's greatest heroes. He saw them as regular people saw them and now he was their peer.

When Kyle debuted, I did not like him, or rather did not want to like him. Strangely enough, after Hal died in Final Night, I accepted him as GL. When they brought Hal back, I was hoping nothing bad would happen to Kyle. But like Wally, after years of telling us Kyle was THE Green Lantern, he is now in the background, not being allowed to shine! If I were them, I would sue DC for breach of contract!
I caught a couple of the morrison JLA trades and I was quite pleased with the stories,to me the JLA should be the big guns plus a couple of interesting less powerful characters canary,zatanna etc.So I was quite pleased with the line up always prefered Wally over Barry as well.
Hated the blue superman look though and as I was in and out of comics at the time(still am) I didn't have a clue why the look came about.Didn't like the way bats or WW was drawn either but I can't blame the writer for that,or can I.
Still I've said it before GM always gives you a good read it could be argued he doesn't reach the heights of Moore but he doesn't ever fall to his lows either.
I'll be keeping an interested eye on this thread as I keep umming and ahhing about picking up the rest of his JLA run
I think the Snapper comparison is apt. And Wally had an interesting relationship to him -- age-wise he was a peer, but a far more experienced one.
Rob Staeger said:
Not just those books, either -- they also collaborated on a year-long run of The Flash.

Despite appeals to my local library, I still haven't been able to read that. Another example of Grant & Mark: The Leg-Up Years is the first arc of Millar's Swamp Thing run, which has never been collected in TPB form. They'll have to address that soon, considerring Millar is now 'Mr Hollywood'.

Morrison and Millar also collaborated on a whole summer's worth of strips for 2000AD, most of which are unreprintable due to issues of good taste.

Jeff said: But with Aquaman already sporting his harpoon-hand, when Superman showed up in his “Reddy Kilowatt” phase I saw the concept as moving farther and farther away from what attracted me to the series in the first place.

As the issue I've just reviewed showed, it takes more than clothes or powers to maketh the man! The episode of Smallville that got me just about on board, that this was a version of Superman, was ironically, the one where he lost his powers, but still stepped up to take down the super-powered bad guy. I understand your 'Trade Descriptions Act' argument, but at the same time it seems tough to adversely judge JLA on editorial decisions that were out of Grant's hands.

Yourself and Donovan may have bailed at the same point in the story. Having just read the first arc, I can see that JLA started very strong, but we'll have to see if it drops in quality on its way to the big finish. Off the top of my head there is a JLA/JSA team-up and a face-off against a loosely disguised Marvel crew. DC One Million is possibly my favourite crossover of all time, that made me feel like I was 10 years old again the first time I read it. We'll see presently how the whole run stands up.

Donovan said: Still I've said it before GM always gives you a good read it could be argued he doesn't reach the heights of Moore but he doesn't ever fall to his lows either.

Moore has lows? Even his Image stuff was enjoyable entertainment, I thought.

Glad to have you reading along, Donovan.
Kyle only had his own title but being Green Lantern did give him an edge in making the new team. In some ways, he was like Snapper Carr (Don't Laugh!), a young man suddenly associated with the world's greatest heroes. He saw them as regular people saw them and now he was their peer.

It's a good comparison, but because of his power and bravery in the field, Kyle quickly becomes more of a true peer than Snapper. Speaking of Snapper, I was wondering as I read the first Starro story whether he'd appeared before that? It was hard to tell.

Actually, Kyle's relationship with Wally is one of the ways the Secret Files and Origins story is a bit off. Even though it's supposedly set before JLA #1, their relationship is much more like it is in the later arcs rather than the prickly one in New World Order. Makes me think Millar had more to do with that story than Morrison.
Snapper's first appearance was the same as the JLA in B&B #28. And he did fight along side them several times. spouting his weird beatnick language, or rather what Gardner Fox thought was beatnik language. And yes, shame on the JLA for allowing a non-powered civilian teenager to battle super-villains!

(Crazy aside---Did Snapper talk that way in school? Bet he didn't attend Catholic school!! And for a rebel beatnick, he really was as conformist as the JLA. Makes you wonder what the Teen Titans REALLY thought of him?)

I felt Wally resented being "lumped" as a rookie like Kyle since he's been around as long as the League and far longer, in the then-current continuity, than Wonder Woman.
I never thought of that, but that's a good point. In fact, I believe that Wonder Woman at that point had been established to be only around eighteen years old, meaning Wally was likely older than her for those stories as well.

Philip Portelli said:
I felt Wally resented being "lumped" as a rookie like Kyle since he's been around as long as the League and far longer, in the then-current continuity, than Wonder Woman.
Yourself and Donovan may have bailed at the same point in the story... Off the top of my head there is a JLA/JSA team-up...

Oh, yeah... I came back for that (but it's filed in my JSA rather than my JLA box).
JLA #1-4 New World Order



The JLA are only just up and running as this story begins. A group of superheroes from outer space called the Hyperclan arrive on Earth and declare they are going to end hunger and homelessness, war and want, greed, pollution and the whole nine yards. The human race, unsurprisingly, are keen on this, but the JLA quickly realise that something is amiss. Perhaps the murderous unprovoked attack on the old Justice League Satellite tips them off?

The speed with which Morrison sets up the conflict in the first issue is quite breathtaking. We get the Hyperclan being accepted as saviours and Superman’s arguments regarding their right to jump in and start messing with complex systems. However, the readers are quickly brought in on the threat posed by the Hyperclan and the rest of the 4-issue story is a hero versus villain showdown. As Batman says at the end of the first issue, in the first of many cool bat-moments that came to typify the series:

My suggestion is this: We make plans, we move fast and we hit hard. This is war!”

It seems Grant is starting off by getting the obvious question out of the way. Namely “Why don’t superheroes just change the world for the better already, instead of just standing around posing, and punching each other?” Superman’s arguments are quite sophisticated, citing Mankind’s right to grow and develop in its own way, and not to become a ‘pampered lapdog’ of its superhuman protectors. At the end of the story, Superman states:

Humankind needs to be able to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there.”

When Flash asks “why should they need us at all?”, Superman replies “to catch them if they fall.”

Grant has admitted it’s a reference to the titular Catcher in the Rye, who is there to watch over innocent children at play.

I like this stance. For one thing it shows Superman’s humility. Great as he is, he doesn’t have all the answers, or the need to lord it over anyone. More, it shows his faith in the rest of us. These are great traits for anyone to have; costume, powers or no.

It was a good idea to deal with this question early on. The question itself misses the point of what superheroes are 'for'. Morrison's approach is more ‘realistic’ than the dictatorial bloodbath Moore had Marvelman embark on just a few years before JLA. This comic has a different relationship to reality than Marvelman, or The Authority. As superheroes don’t actually exist, Morrison’s story is more ‘truthful’ in showing us that the role of these heroes is to stand on the sidelines and be there to offer us inspiration, and show us what we can be at our best.

The fact is that the guy speaking those words is an inspiration in the real world and a proverbial model of the best that we can be, known far outside fanboy circles. I like my comics to tell me something about the world I’m living in, rather than the fictional world Snapper Carr is living in (Daddio!). Superman and friends being an inspiration seems like ‘truth’ to me.

In fact Morrison has seized on the brand recognition factor of these archetypal heroes and worked it into the fabric of his project. As he’s quoted on the back cover of the TPB:

The strength of the Justice League lies in the fact that it actually can boast a membership comprising the World’s Greatest Heroes. These guys are the originals … and DC’s got ‘em!”

Morrison himself asked that the cover of the first issue (up there in my first post) should show the superheroes looking down at us. Not that they think they are better than us, but when they are depicted right, they should be more noble and stronger than us. (The cover of issue #4, above, is from a similar vantage point.) He contrasted this with the famous first issue of the late 80s version of the League. On that cover, if you remember, the heroes were all looking up at the reader, and they did turn out to be mostly foolish and idiotic, and we looked down on them, for the most part. (Keith Geffin seems to be extremely ambivalent about the value of superheroes and indeed any of the output of the corporations.)

Morrison’s harnessing of these corporate megabrands is a subject I hope to return to later.

Integral to this heroic approach is the depiction of these superheroes as superheroes. It’s what they are, and why they have such power. Thus, the philosophising about how these guys relate to the world they live in gives way, very early on, to top-class straight-up superhero action. There are great character moments between the members along the way, but its about the action.

This series big innovation seemed to be in how it presented Batman as the equal of these godlike super-beings. He gets at least one great moment in each of these issues. One of the all-time great Batman moments has to be when he lets himself be surrounded by his super-powered White Martian foes and then lights a circle of fire around them, ensuring they are weakened and trapped in his circle of pain with him.

Ready when you are,” he growls, cracking his knuckles with relish.

Batman’s brilliance, skill and cunning is such a recurring motif of the whole series that I’ll leave this topic for a later post too!

After J’onn, Batman is the first to realise that they are in fact up against White Martians. I have to say, this was the one bad note for me the first time I read this story. I was coming to the DCU pretty fresh, and because of the way Morrison was dancing around issues of continuity that would have bogged down other writers, the story seemed very accessible. However, setting up a puzzle where only readers with prior knowledge could have worked out the solution annoyed me a bit. I would have thought Morrison could have got in some reference to J’onn’s weakness around fire, at least.

It’s a very small gripe, but I think it is an indicator of where DC can go wrong. I know no-one reading this thinks too much about how accessible these comics are, especially the comics that star the well-known ‘brands’, but it’s a factor that has probably hurt DC a lot over the years, and pushed away new readers. I imagine that more sales than we think are driven by new readers, but not as much as there could be…

As I said earlier, this series dances around issues of continuity. To address a subject already brought up, Wally is told specifically that he has as much experience as any of them. So the series recognises his long apprenticeship. However, it is Wonder Woman, in her Mater Familias role, who says it!

Morrison handles how Wally and Kyle relate to each other with some psychological subtlety. It’s Wally himself who makes the biggest deal about not accepting Kyle at first, and is actually somewhat childish about it, so it’s he that makes it an issue. The others don’t really ‘lump them together’ except to referee in their bickering.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Morrison is rebooting a little bit here by depicting a much thawed, even respectful (almost warm) relationship between Batman and Superman. I think that had more to do with how ‘regular people’ assumed the World’s Finest Team would get on than how it had been shown in the post-COIE continuity that followed Dark Knight Returns.

(Of course Batman and Superman are friends! Every schoolboy knows that!)

It’s a great opening arc, and there’s lots more to say about it, but for now, I’ll throw it open to you guys…

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