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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I'm glad you were able to have a look at this story, Mark.  I was really interested in what someone who has enjoyed some of the heavier Morrison comics but generally avoids the DCU would make of Rock of Ages.

 

Although I'm satisfied I've highlighted how Morrison's more personal stuff and his 'corporate comics' interact and comment on each other, they do indeed exist either side of an unbridgeable gulf in some ways.  As much as Morrison endows the big name characters with personalities and 'voices', to some extent they have to be fairly empty canvases for so many people to see what they want in them.  I think that's part of it.  None of them can have the individual quirks and life history of someone like Jack Knight even.  Being the product of so many creators has given them an aspecificity.  So their adventures become a kind of medieval morality play where things will always work out a certain way. 

 

That the DCU is a place where the triumph of good is as certain as the rules of Physics in our world, may be the thing that really seperates it from other fictional universes.  There is the fact that some individuals there think it's normal to wear tight clothes and do good for its own sake, but as far as Morrison's work goes the big thing that makes his DCU stories different is that they are set in a world with its own history, cosmology, and moral order. He has lots of fun with those things, and because the world is so detailed and the work of so many hands across decades, he can treat it as its own self-contained universe. Whatever about our universe, the DCU is very much a Gnostic one, where outside forces all conspire to affect the lives of its denizens.

As you say, Mark, the temptation is there to use the DCU as an anology for our own, and ponder whether our world, too, is similarly a result of tampering and testing by higher beings. Of course, we don't have to do that, and we can just enjoy what Morrison does with the fictional universe. It's certainly fun.

Perhaps for those of us familiar with Morrison's other work, the superheroes seem quite 'slight' frames to hang heavy philosophical stuff on that he uses more 'flesh and blood' characters for elsewhere. However, Morrison's JLA was a huge hit with a readership that enjoyed the superhero stories as superhero stories, and that's all.

Rock of Ages is probably the most experimental of his really mainstream work. It stands out from the rest of JLA for that reason.

(Sorry for the delayed reply. Life's been getting in the way. Anyway, I'm about to start getting back into JLA soon.)

The end of Rock of Ages seemed like a good place to pause for a bit, but various events and dramas in real (as they say) life, kept me away even longer.  I’m not quite ready to jump into JLA phase II just yet, but I thought I’d flag a sub-project that is just around the corner.

 

Once we have read through the stories contained in the Strength in Numbers TPB, the next JLA story will be DC 1,000,000, in which the JLA played a central part.  Although Grant only supplied the 4-issue mini-series and the JLA #1,000,000 issue, (as well as the main concept behind the whole thing), I thought it might be fun to read the whole DC 1m line and see how it holds together. 

 

“Why bother?”, you may ask.

 

Well!

 

As practically each and every DCU title that month jumped to its millionth issue, set in the 853rd century (and usually starred 853rd century characters), it will be a sideways snapshot of how the entire DCU was looking in late summer 1998. (12 years ago – gah!)  A ‘sideways’ snapshot because the creators were generally given the chance to introduce entirely new characters and concepts under the banner of the usual title for that one month, so we won’t often see what the mainstream 20th Century characters were up to.  (OK - a sideways and out-of-focus snapshot, then!)  We will be able to talk about different writers and artists and their approaches, and also perhaps see them let their hair down when given a bit more freedom than writing run-of-the-mill corporate characters usually allows.  We’ll also be able to talk about what DC as a whole were up to during that era of their publishing history.

 

It’s rare to have the excuse of doing a ‘latitudinal study’ of all the titles a company produces in one month, so there’s that.  I can’t recall ever seeing DC 1,000,000 done as a reading project before, so there’s also that.  I’m a little excited about it, truth be told!  I had very little interest in much of DC’s output at the time, so definitely wasn’t fussed about paying good money to see one-off takes on characters and ‘legacies’ that I wasn’t following.  Still, since then I’ve picked up a lot of the issues cheaply, and over the last few months have been paying whatever I’m asked for remaining issues I see.  However, I’m still missing 12 of the 38 DC 1m issues that came out that month.  Later there was a DC 1,000,000 Secret Files and Origins (including material by Morrison), and a #1,000,000 issue of Booster Gold, both of which I’ll be looking at.

 

If anyone wants to fill some of the blanks as we go, my missing issues are:

 

Week 1

Action Comics #1,000,000

 

Week 2

Superman: Man of Steel #1,000,000

Azrael #1,000,000

 

Week 3

Superman #1,000,000

Superboy #1,000,000

Aquaman #1,000,000

Wonder Woman #1,000,000

Chase #1,000,000

The Creeper #1,000,000

 

Week 4

Resurrection Man #1,000,000

 

Week 5

Lobo #1,000,000

 

Most of them look pretty non-essential, but I’m annoyed I don’t have those Superman issues, as Grant’s DC 1,000,000 is a Superman story more than anything.  Resurrection Man is the only missing one that is included in the TPB, so it’s probably pretty central.  I read the trade a few years ago, but passed it on as a birthday gift to someone, so now I’ll have to Byrne-steal the Resurrection Man episode of it when we get to it.

 

This is just some prior notice of what's ahead. 

 

So get thee to thy basements, thy comics caves and thy lock-ups and prepare to join me on a voyage to a million months hence.

JLA: Strength in Numbers

 

We’ve seen that after the JLA got an insight into what the future might bring in Rock of Ages, J’onn, Bruce and Clark took the extreme step of disbanding the team in order to work on making it better and more capable.

 

In the Strength in Numbers Trade Paperback the team returns larger, stronger and more representative of the various types of heroes in the DCU.  Further, it has expanded its remit to mentor more of the next generation of heroes.

 

Comic readers at the time only had to wait a month for the new line up to materialise in JLA #16, coverdated March 1998.  That story opens with a sequence where Superman presents the new JLA to the world’s media in their Watchtower on the Moon.  However, we are told that 3 months has passed since the team disbanded.  The Strength in Numbers TPB begins with two stories that bridge the gap.

 

The first story is called “Heroes” and is the main story from JLA Secret Files and Origins #2, which wasn’t published until August 1998.  In it, Christopher Priest scripts the behind-the-scenes recruitment process.  It is good to see these heroes we love interacting with each other in a context that doesn’t involve the imminent destruction of the world. 

 

Superman asserts that they have enough force, and its cunning and smarts that they need.  Thus we see Huntress and Steel being pulled into the fold, somewhat against their wishes, and Oracle is surprised to find herself amongst the world-savers.  Guy Gardner in his ‘real men wear blue paint on their nipples’ phase, provides the comic relief, being chased out of the meeting room by Batman.

 

This gently paced story was published after the new, larger team had bedded down.  The readership was already invested in these characters anyway, and it doesn’t have to work hard to justify the new members.  It does feel like both Grant and Superman have similar agendas - reaching out to as many corners of the DCU as possible to bring them all into the new benign order of co-operation and empowerment that the JLA represents.  Knowing the importance Grant gives to holistic systems and how small viruses can benignly infect and strengthen the whole body, it’s not hard to imagine that there is a definite purpose in how Grant is trying to extend the sphere of influence of his uber-positivist JLA into the rest of the DCU, starting with the key Superman and Batman franchises,  represented by Steel on one hand and by the Huntress and Oracle on the other.

 

The actual JLA issues 16-23 in this collection are typically turbo-charged, plotwise, so don’t really leave time for much philosophising on what the JLA stands for or what Morrison was doing with them, so this story allows us to pause a moment and see how the team fits into the wider DCU.

 

Priest is a good writer and this down-time with the team-in-waiting is enjoyable.  However, this story’s laidback tone does jar with the usual hell-for-leather approach that Grant has used with the team since the first issue.  If I was feeling uncharitable, I might describe ‘Heroes’ as ‘merely fanservice’. 

 

Aquaman does have one line of dialogue that jumped out at me.  While he and Superman are discussing whether they have the right to set themselves up as the saviours of mankind, Aquaman says something like:

 

“My people suffered a cataclysm a thousand years ago and no-one stepped in to save us.  We survived.”

 

Reading it, I couldn’t help but remember that Christopher Priest happens to be an African-American.  The cataclysm that people of African heritage suffered through in the last few centuries of US history gave Arthur’s words added weight for me.  Perhaps it is Priest’s critique of the place of superheroes in the real world?  He is saying they are nothing much more than fluffy entertainment, after all, who can’t affect the real evil that transpires in life.  If so, this point of view is in a kind of dialogue in this collection with Grant’s more positivist philosophy.

 

As JLA Secret Files and Origins #2 wasn’t published until just before the last two-issue story in this collection, I will look at the rest of the special at that point in our read-through.

I was still confused about Orion and the Huntress' attitudes about joining the JLA, since in their cases, it would be rejoining the JLA! In fact, if you follow Post-Crisis timelines, the Huntress is an official member before Superman!

The Wonder Woman here is Queen Hippolyta as Diana was either dead or a goddess at the time.

Past members are brought up like the Atom (reverted to a teenager at this point) and the Elongated Man (rejected for Morrison's new darling, Plastic Man). Even Guy Gardner, in his hideous "Can't Be a Green Lantern, But We Like the Character" phase had the right to be there if not the invitation.

Aquaman's strong role here, at the expense of J'onn, was probably due to WW's absence, since we have seen other examples of Superman and Batman mulling over the team with one of these three at different times.

Ironic that Oracle becomes a member, something that she wouldn't have been allowed to do as Batgirl.

Priest's treatment of the Batman/Huntress dynamic follows Morrison's closely. She strives for his approval yet wants to respected as an individual. In some regards, her situation is a prototype for Damian's, ironic given the similarities of their original conceptions!

Almost forgot Superman was still "blue" here!

I'd argue that Grant Morrison wasn't picking his own darling by choosing Plastic Man over Elongated Man. He was picking the more iconic and widely recognized character.
Thanks for the retrospective, Figserello. This was one of my favorite eras for the JLA and I loved Morrison's expanded roster.

I was still confused about Orion and the Huntress' attitudes about joining the JLA, since in their cases, it would be rejoining the JLA! In fact, if you follow Post-Crisis timelines, the Huntress is an official member before Superman!

 


That's interesting. Was she a member of the Bwah-hah-ha League with Booster and Blue Beetle? Was Batman around at the time?

When Diana reappears later in this very collection, she says that she lived amongst the Gods during her absence, and adds that being with this JLA doesn't seem like a big change. One of several ways Morrison & co highlight explicitly in-story the 'pantheonic' aspects of the project.

Past members are brought up like the Atom (reverted to a teenager at this point) and the Elongated Man (rejected for Morrison's new darling, Plastic Man). Even Guy Gardner, in his hideous "Can't Be a Green Lantern, But We Like the Character" phase had the right to be there if not the invitation.

 

I guess there is an unspoken understanding in this new JLA that most earlier incarnations weren't really the serious high-powered defenders of mankind that this crew are. Superman and Batman (and Wonder Woman, I suppose...) have taken the lead in this one rather than just offer a guiding hand and have brought a level of seriousness and respect to the team it didn't really have before.

In-story, everyone has to have respect for the first post-crisis Justice League, but they were peopled largely by outsiders, like Martian Manhunter and Aquaman, and second stringers like Black Canary. Green Lantern was officially a member of an intergalactic police force with allegiances elsewhere, technically speaking. Even compare Wally's years of experience when he joined this JLA with Barry's relative inexperience at the founding of Waid and Kitson's Year One League.

So this feels like the first time it's been done right, in terms of a serious team, and their choices stack up. Steel seems much more useful than Guy Gardner: Warrior, for instance. Oracle too fills an obvious gap, especially in a series where information is cited again and again as a valuable empowering commodity, a fundamental building block of the universe, and even the currency of the future.

Plastic Man fills an important gap too, but in a more aesthetic sense. DC, especially, developed very straight-laced superheroes. This worked well when they surrounded them with chaos and craziness in the Silver Age, but it means that a whole team of them when comics are going through a 'realism' phase can be a bit dour. Eel brings some fun and colour to the proceedings, and his background on the other side of the tracks adds even more texture.

It's also great that Morrison wanted to acknowledge Plas's years as an imminent superhero, from a time when there was room for cartoonishly humerous heroes too.

(For these reasons, the fractious and thuggish Gardner doesn’t have the right to be there... Yes, Orion is also fractious and thuggish, but his godhood qualifies him for this ‘modern pantheon’ League.)

I'd also have to reiterate that one of the things that make Morrison's JLA so great is its accessibility. Morrison may be glossing over some aspects of JL history, but people like me, who didn’t know much about the DCU, didn’t feel like we were being left out of things. People like my friends, who didn’t know much about superheroes at all, also found JLA accessible and enjoyable. (See things like Zero Hour and the then current Teen Titans for how some series tend to alienate new readers with too great a dependence on continuity for their plotlines.) It’s not that Morrison is denying the points that you are making, Philip, just that in order to bring our beloved superheroes to the masses, he doesn’t dwell on them. Notice that Heroes is the story that refers to all the minutiae of DCU and League history. The Secret Files and Origins were aimed at the more hardcore fanboys who collected everything, and needed to know how it all fits into continuity.

Which is one of the reasons I called Priest’s story ‘fanservice’.

Good point about Huntress's origins as a child of Batman. I hadn't thought of that, even while noticing the obvious parallels between Batman's relationship to her and Steel's relationship to his daughter in the Heroes story.

(Superhero stories often have the psycho-analytic logic of dreams anyhow. Huntress isn't Batman's daughter here, but in terms of the dynamic of her relationship to him, and her following Batman's archetype as a superhero, not to mention her place in actual DC comics history, she IS his daughter!)

Thanks for joining in, Chris. Hope you can add more as we go.

New Year’s Evil: Prometheus

 


 

As the full title of the one-shot attests, this came out around the start of 1998, and sets up a new villain for the first two issues of JLA proper that appear in the Strength in Numbers collection.  Prometheus’ origin is told through the device of  telling his backstory to the winner of a competition to join the JLA on the Watchtower for a day.  In order to win the prize, the young man had to create a fictional superhero persona.  The hapless young man in question had won with the persona of Retro – "Today’s Hero, Yesterday’s Attitude!"

 

Retro obviously reflects the kind of superheroes that were doing very well in the mid-nineties – think Kingdom Come, Supreme and Starman amongst others.  As such, Retro is the polar opposite of Prometheus, who uses up-to-the-minute technology and information systems as well as a very 90’s lack of morals in his evil pursuits.  Although we can presume Morrison favours the innocent and idealistic Retro (who looks not unlike Jimy Olsen in a green and white Supreme suit), his story shows that the world really belongs to those that have force on their side and the will to use it. 

 

Prometheus kills Retro and takes his place on the trip to the JLA moonbase, showing that Silver Age do-gooders are no match for pragmatic grim’n’gritty Image-type characters.  This dichotomy comes up again and again in Grant’s superhero writing.  I’d accuse it of being hold hat now, only the return to idealistic superheroes that JLA was supposed to be a part of never really took hold.  The transmutation of “dour ‘realism’...into something strange and magical” that Morrison predicted in his introduction to Midsummer’s Nightmare never really took hold.  Superhero comics have become even more grim’n’gritty in the 21st century than they had been in the early 90’s.

 

It’s also clear that Morrison, like Moore before him, may decry this triumph of brutality and violence over grace and idealism, but he’s very good at bringing such ‘realism’ into his own comics – also like Moore before him!

 

One thing that my ‘Morrithon’ is showing me is how consistent Grant is in his themes, motifs and obsessions.  Years before Grant began his years-long Batman mega-story, he presents us with Batman’s dark twin.  Prometheus too, has seen his parents mown down in front of him as a child and vows to spend his life fighting the forces that killed them.  As they were career criminals killed during a Bonny and Clyde style shootout, Prometheus has trained his body and mind and marshalled his parents’ wealth in a war on justice rather than a war on crime!

 

Prometheus, as a study of the anti-Batman fits very satisfyingly into Morrison’s whole body of work, and put beside other creations like Mason Lang of The Invisibles adds further dimensions to Grant’s study of the ‘ultimate human’ and the whole bat-mythology.

Some quick comments:

1) The Huntress was part of Justice League America with Booster and Beetle, briefly. This was early in her career.

2) If, as you say, the League became serious because Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were "finally" members together, that's DC's fault! They took the trio out of the JLA to placate their new creative teams.

3) Despite my fondness of the Elongated Man and his wife, Sue, I had and have no problem with Plastic Man being a JLAer. It's just that he suddenly appears in "Rock of Ages" out of the blue. Also as a counterpoint, Plas had been around the DCU for thirty years prior to this and was never added to any roster in any decade, regardless to whether he had his own book, series or cartoon show!

Now for Prometheus, the one-shot was crafted to create a mythos for the new bad guy! His parents were out of Natural Born Killers and his origin was similar to the Wrath from Batman Special #1 (1984). His criminal parents were killed by Police Officier James Gordon on the same day that Bruce Wayne's parents were killed. He becomes an assassin of policeman and is Batman's physically equal, his "evil twin".

Prometheus' computer technology  makes him a downloadable Taskmaster. I was hoping that he would become a major villain, perhaps having a one-on-one with the Dark Knight. But he still the most relatable of Morrison's adversaries!

2) If, as you say, the League became serious because Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were "finally" members together, that's DC's fault!

 

 


Nothing's anyone's fault. I'm merely pointing out that there is a perfectly good in-story reason why the various losers and also-rans that may once have belonged to one of the teams calling itself the Justice League in the past are given short shrift this time around.

As we've already mentioned, by this time the context and the main players have all evolved beyond how they were in the Silver or even Bronze Age. You pointed me towards The Joker's Five-way Revenge in the Batman thread. A great story of the 70's Batman. Still, at one point a hood on the docks sneaks up behind him and knocks him out, just like that! The guy who faced down Darkseid in Rock of Ages and then in FInal Crisis wouldn't be caught out so easily.

Batman has evolved in the meantime and moved on to the next level, as have the villains, and as have the capabilities of those superheroes that make the cut in this JLA. I'd posit that's why past membership of the "Justice League" isn't much of a consideration this time around. As in his X-men run, Grant has introduced the idea of evolution and actual progress.

Sounds like you hit Prometheus' predecessor the Wrath on the button, as you have a habit of doing!

In Grant's defence, whoever created the Wrath didn't work him into a huge body of comics that deliberately returned to re-examine the same concerns and subjects from so many different angles.

'Artistic intent' ... as they call it in the salons of Europe!

:-)
only the return to idealistic superheroes that JLA was supposed to be a part of never really took hold. The transmutation of “dour ‘realism’...into something strange and magical” that Morrison predicted in his introduction to Midsummer’s Nightmare never really took hold. Superhero comics have become even more grim’n’gritty in the 21st century than they had been in the early 90’s.

Very true. I have my own pet name for this period of comics: "Reconstruction." Starman, Supreme, JLA and others were intentional attempts to bring something strange and magical back into the world of comics. And it's one of my favorite eras, despite the repercussions of the speculator-market crash and Marvel's bankruptcy being discussed in another thread. But you're right that it didn't last. I'm not entirely sure why. I think that one major factor was the success of Planetary and Authority in '99 and 2000. Those comics ushered in the wide-screen approach that was imitated to great success by others (including Ultimates), but they also brought back the dour pessimism that many thought would dissipate. I think that Morrison himself is also partly to blame. While there are reasons to appreciate and even love his work on New X-Men, he reverted to a more cynical approach during that span. The success of New X-Men and Ultimates in '01 and '02 set the tone for the decade much more than the "grace and idealism" of Morrison's JLA or Busiek's Avengers.

I'm still surprised that that period of 'reconstruction' wasn't a high-selling point for comics.  Just cause I was buying comics doesn't mean everyone else was, I suppose.

 

I loved Planetary and Authority, but they did ladle on the cynicism.  I was also impressed with the levels of nihilism in Millar's Ultimate comics that I read recently.  It's somehow satisfying to see the world as I recognise it represented in superhero comics.

 

Still, it's a slippery slope and once you start down it you end up in a very bad place for your heroes.  They end up as tainted and compromised as anyone out here in real life. 

 

I have a theory that superhero comics are very like the story of the Garden of Eden.  Once you let time, and death and knowledge of how the world really works into the stories, there is no going back.  The characters are expelled from the innocent adventures they once had and have to walk a fallen world, surrounded by death and despair!

 

On this readthrough of JLA, it's hitting me how assidiously Morrison works to keep his characters at a level at which we can still look up to them.  There are story possiblities in secrets and betrayals within the team, but all the arcs so far have been about external threats.  The only exception was during Rock of Ages where Luthor thinks he's sowing dischord amongst the JLA, but in reality Wayne is using his machinations to plant more spies in the enemy camp.  The teams unity is shown to be its strength.

 

It's struck me that as soon as Morrison lets go the reins, the slide into secrets and betrayals begins.  When Priest revisits the recruitment phase of this expanded league, he immediately shows us Oracle bugging the JLA's computer and communications systems on Batman's behalf.  I don't think this prefigures anything in Grant's run, but as soon as Waid took over, we had the Batman Protocols which was a further slide down the slope.

 

Subsequent writers were all about secrets and betrayals within the team and the JLA quickly lost it lustre after Morrison left.  Few subsequent writers on the JLA understood exactly how Morrison was handling them that made them such an uplifting read.

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