JLA: Ultramarine Corps - A Seven Soldiers prologue

JLA Classified #1-3

[Another thread in our Morrison Reading Project.]

 

Written by Grant Morrison, Art by Ed McGuinness.

Collected as Ultramarine Corps

This 3-issue ‘mini-series within a series’ came out cover-dated 2005.  In it, Batman has to stop Gorilla Grodd from eradicating human civilisation.  Unfortunately, as Alfred puts it, his ‘flamboyant allies in the Justice League are … indisposed.”   In the middle of all this, a complicating factor is the infant universe of QWEWQ becoming "a time-travelling bully".

Even though it is one of Morrison’s lesser-mentioned works it is noteworthy on several counts.  For one, it is a prologue of sorts to the revolutionary Seven Soldiers of Victory maxi-series, which followed it.  The coming threat of that series is foreshadowed and we learn a little of the rules they operate under.  Seven is a fateful number to the Sheeda, and thus they fear the seven mighty members of the Justice League.  These factors drive a lot of the action of Seven Soldiers.

Most notably,  this arc marks Morrison’s return to the DCU proper after a half-decade away.  Fittingly, his last story set in the DCU had also been a JLA tale – the final issue of Grant’s JLA run – and this 3-parter shows how his whole style and narrative technique have changed in the meanwhile.

Whereas I used to hold Grant’s JLA up as a most accessible comics series, and I was able to hand it to any reasonably intelligent person who didn’t usually read comics (an oxymoron, perhaps?), this story showcases Morrison’s much more condensed and compressed storytelling style, which was difficult and problematic for some readers. 

“I think fast, and I work fast.  Can you keep up, Beryl Hutchinson?”  Batman asks the Squire at one point, perhaps speaking for Grant too. 

Ed McGuinness has a wonderful bulked up cartoony style that serves this fast-paced superhero tale well, but the reader still has to concentrate to follow the action. 

The first time I read this, I was disappointed at how unlike the previous run of JLA it was.  Most of the first issue concerns the Ultramarine Corps – a very Authority-like, take-no-prisoners, superhero team who live in a floating island above the Earth.  As clueless as the Ultramarines, we too are thrown into the trap that Grodd has set.  So we have to work out their team-dynamics, powers and personalities as well as puzzle out the trap they’ve sprung, just as they do.  There are no Claremontian mini-essays to bring us up to speed. 

Issue 1 - Island of the Mighty

 

‘WHERE IS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE?’ asks the front cover of issue 1 and we don’t even see them until issue 2.  In JLA, Morrison allowed us into the inner circle of our favourite superheroes and we saw them joke and interact warmly with each other.  There is none of that here, even when we do catch up with the Justice League, later on. 

Morrison does do a lot with this slight-seeming arc, but giving old fanboys the warm cosies isn’t one of them.  It’s perhaps the main reason why this story is so under-appreciated.  Especially by those who loved Morrison’s JLA and read comics to feel closer to their heroes.  The distance between us and the Big Guns is important thematically, both in this story and as Grant develops his vast interconnected saga.  More on that later.

We do get some great Batman scenes.  This isn’t surprising.  Reading this story with the benefit of hindsight, I was amazed to see how this 3-parter foreshadowed and set up almost everything Morrison would do with the DCU right up to the present.  Ultramarine Corps is the first chapter of the vast interconnected Magnum Opus that Morrison has been working on since returning to DC in 2004, and as such, it is of interest to anyone looking at this phase of his career as a whole.

(I've grouped these recent-period Morrison DCU stories together as 'The Infinite Book' in my list of his work in the Morrison thread, named after the huge tome the Supermen of many worlds find on their voyage through the Bleed in Final Crisis.)

To take the first issue alone:

The Knight and the Squire get a lot of screen time.  They have since appeared in both the Black Glove / Batmen of All Nations storyline and the recent UK-set issues of Batman and Robin.  Each time they’ve appeared, we get only sketchy details, but taken together, they add up to a very rounded picture of Britain’s own Batman-inspired Dynamic Duo.

Irish hero, Jack O’Lantern is the first to come upon the infant universe of QWEWQ.  This entity becomes a major villain in the subsequent Seven Soldiers series, and provides a thoughtful aside in All-Star Superman.  The very concept of a sentient universe is something Morrison has made much of over the last 5 years.

One of the Ultramarine Corps called The Master has access to a quantum type-writer which allows him to rewrite reality just as the author himself does.  The metatextual aspects of this are under-played here, but they become more overt when we meet the Seven Unknown Men in Seven Soldiers of Victory, and moments to come where Superman and others become aware of us, the readers.

The Master also foreshadows a major plot point of Final Crisis as he gets sucked into the infant Universe of QWEWQ.  As he gets absorbed into it and begins to lose his personality he cries:

“Information!!!  Sent backwards through Time.”

The spotlight on Batman prefigures Morrison’s intense and extended work with the character in recent years, while the absence of the Justice League too, indicates Morrison’s refusal to revisit past glories. 

As Morrison says in the foreword to the first volume of the collected Seven Soldiers, “…there’s only so much you can do with the Big Guns, only so far you can go before you break them or repeat yourself.” 

This explains why he hasn’t come back to the Justice League since Ultramarine Corps, but it does cast an interesting light on his prolonged project of seeing how much repetition of cycles Bruce Wayne can take before breaking altogether.

We get an idea of the approach he was preparing to take with Bruce’s carefully compartmentalised mind when Batman equips himself for the strange adventure he’s about to step into.

“I’m opening the Sci-Fi closet, Alfred.  Don’t tell my friends in the GCPD about this.”

The closet itself contains such far-out gear as a set of Thanagarian wings, a deactivated Dalek (!), and a New Gods Boom Tube Gauntlet.

The New Gods would loom large in Grant’s plans for Batman and the DCU up to the end of Final Crisis.

All of that, and more, in only the first issue. 

Compressed, condensed storytelling. 

“Can you keep up?”

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Does anyone have a translation for the dialog between Aquaman and that girl in the third issue of this? I reread the three issues today--as well as the first little chunk of Seven Soldiers--this morning and didn't remember that part before.

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