[Part of our Grant Morrison Reading Project]
Welcome to the second part of my week-by-week look at DC One Million, the JLA mega-crossover from September 1998. Part 1 can be found here. Let's jump straight into the Morrison-penned 2nd issue of the central mini-series.
DC One Million #2
There’s a subtext that the future is almost lost thanks to the JLA’s hubris in accepting the honours the 853rd Century wants to bestow on them. I was surprised, or maybe more like disappointed, when I first read DC One Million, that Batman didn’t want to visit the 853rd Century to be honoured along with his JLA team-mates. I’ve seen writers argue that comics should give the readers what they need, not what they want, and that’s true here. Batman was actually right. Their duty was to stay where they were needed. The visit to the 853rd century as proposed seems very short, but it is still too long to be away from their stations, and too ‘far away’ to risk not coming back again.
Of course, if they all declined, there would be no story, but at least we have one good man – possibly the best of them – showing us what the truly responsible attitude would be, and how heroes are often defined by the sacrifices they make.
The Atom refers to how the trip to the future was actually a huge risk that they are now paying for, when he says they need Superman and the Green Lantern and the JLA to cope with the current crisis facing the Earth. Going forward from this, the remaining JLA concern themselves with getting their teammates back from the future, as the first step in addressing the seemingly insurmountable twin problems of the Hourman Virus and Vandal Savage’s bid for world supremacy.
In the Lunar Watchtower, the ragtag remnant of the League, Steel, Zauriel, Huntress, Plastic Man and Big Barda, debate whether or not to try to get to Earth immediately or develop a strategy in the Watchtower. They realise that it’s up to them to save the Earth. They are confused as they aren’t sure what elements of the crisis are caused by Vandal Savage, and what by the Hourman virus.
(Regarding the fog of war, future speedster John Fox also assumes that his time-travel gauntlets were stolen recently as part of Solaris’ plan, but when we get around to reading Chronos 1,000,000, we’ll find out different...)
The Atom hooks up with Oracle and shrinks down to study the Hourman Virus in her bloodstream.
“I don’t usually get this far on a first date”, he quips.
Back in the ‘ground zero’ of Montevideo, some 20th Century superheroes have started fighting with Justice Legion A. Morrison uses minor ‘science-based’ heroes Firestorm and Ray to make a few points about how many contemporary writers were missing opportunities to make their comics more entertaining and even educational, and less dependent on repetitive punch-em-ups.
It takes J’onn to remind everyone that at the site of a tragedy such as this, they have more dignified and urgent things to be doing than conducting the standard ‘heroes meet and fight’ manoeuvres.
Morrison is having his cake and eating it here, as he’s just had them do just that!
J’onn has an important central role to play in 1998, which is counterpointed by how marginal he seems to those celebrating the JLA in the 853rd Century. There is some pathos in how both he and Green Lantern are sidelined by that far-future time, especially considering how much we discover that J’onn will sacrifice for the people of Earth in the years between.
The Martian Manhunter was obviously highly regarded by the creators during Morrison’s JLA period, but this is perhaps the storyline where they managed to put that respect and affection into the story, and we see why they talked him up so much in the interviews as the moral centre and heart of the team.
The sense of events spiralling out of control on a grand scale is conveyed with scenes of the military and the President discussing the situation, followed by a scene at Vanishing Point where some 90s Linear Men start to panic about how things are going crazy.
General Eiling mentions the Ultramarines he has on standby in the first scene and the Linear Men refer to Gog’s cross-time killings of Superman in Faces of Evil: Gog and indeed they also refer to The Kingdom, the series to which Gogwas apparently a prequel. Just when everything is getting chaotic might seem like a strange point to signpost upcoming storylines, but it does add to the feeling of bedlam.
Reading these pointers to upcoming storylines featuring General “Shaggy Man” Eiling, the Ultramarines, and the Kingdom, they combine to form a reassuring message that we are in the hands of creators who have worked things through, and that this story, complex as it is, is being built as part of an even grander well-conceived architecture stretching over several years. This is very different to the seat of the pants, chopping and changing that has become DC's modus operandi in recent years. That much, at least was better then...
This is the moment that Vandal Savage reveals his hand. We find that Vandal has started putting the members of the Titans group we saw last issue into the Rocket Red warsuits and firing them as remote-controlled nuclear bombs. In fact, the suit that exploded in Montevideo contained Garth/Aqualad/whatever he was called at this juncture. As in sieges and wars of medieval times, Vandal is using the lives of people beloved of his enemies as psychological warfare. Morrison isn’t just using Vandal as a bad man who has been around a long time, but working the experiences, attitudes and tactics that such a man would have acquired during his life into his scenes.
This is top-flight superheroic action-adventure.
The Batman in the Future strand
“This is so far from my world. More than years. More than miles”
Batman 1,000,000 ‘Peril Within the Prison Planet’ Moench and Guichet/Buscema
Despite declining the honour of being feted in the far future, Batman was ambushed by his 853rd Century counterpart and his ‘soul’ sent forward to inhabit a body in the 853rd Century. The members of Justice Legion A are not without presumptuous hubris themselves.
As one of the tie-ins showing the adventures of ‘our’ JLA headliners in the year 852,571, this one has pretty much the same plot as the others. The hero is first talked through their ‘challenge’, then manages to get halfway through it when everything goes crazy and their lives are seriously endangered. Then they overcome the obstacles and realise at the end of the comic that they have to reach the Justice Legion A HQ on Jupiter to hook up with their teammates and save the day.
This Batman comic is much the same. It follows a very linear A to B plot as Batman makes his way through the futuristic versions of his rogues gallery imprisoned on Pluto to reach the Batcave where he can access a Boom-suit to take him to Jupiter. The main difference is that his journey isn’t over yet. The Bat-family suite of titles in 1998 was quite extensive and they have been divided up into two strands. One group of Batbooks follow Bruce’s attempts to reach Jupiter in the 853rd Century, whereas the other follows the adventures of his Justice Legion A counterpart in the 20th Century.
Perhaps not a lot happens in this comic, but there is plenty of dialogue and the world of Batman 1m is fleshed out well, with plenty of texture added to the background of Morrison’s story. Morrison has developed the idea of Batman representing Hades, God of the Underworld in his modern pantheon by casting the future Batman as the sole jailor of the cold, dark prison planet Pluto. The cleverest twist on the Batman mythos that Morrison has added is the relationship of Robin the Toy Wonder to his Batman.
There’s feeling and sadness and comicbook fun in this scenario. Only in a superhero comic could an adult scarred by such a severe trauma be accompanied on their adventures by something with the persona of their own childhood, pre-traumatised self. Writers of heavy ‘literature’ would struggle to show how the young victim never leaves the adult survivor, but in comicbooks, both personalities can just drive around in a crazy-cool flying car, having a conversation together.
Viewed from a distance, the plotting of the whole saga is quite careful and controlled. Alan Grant’s script for Shadow of the Bat, in Week One, showed us the origin of Batman 1m intercut with his adventures in 1998. It worked very well as a story-based insight into his psyche and what had made him what he is. However, it says nothing about the bittersweet ‘saving grace’ that Batman 1m was granted, in being accompanied by a robot with the persona of his innocent, younger self programmed into it. The revelations are being measured out week by week. The hand of a single guiding architect on all of the tie-ins becomes more and more evident as we go through this event.
Morrison’s notes are all very well. The origins of Batman 1m and his Toy Wonder add up to a very clever twist on the Batman myth, which also comments tellingly on the whole mythos. The childhood persona of Batman wouldn’t be as well used in a story until Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader in 2009. Whatever about how great these concepts are, Alan Grant and Doug Moench (and as we shall see, Chuck Dixon), each do excellent work in translating those notes into stories. Alan Grant’s is a more self-contained revenge tale. As is clear from so many of his Judge Dredd stories, Grant would seem to be a big fan of Spaghetti Westerns, and his Batman 1m story is very like a revenge western in that mode. Moench’s linear narrative is less self-contained, but is a fun segment of Bruce’s journey as we accompany him on one portion of his long quest to get off Pluto.
‘Our’ Batman in the 853rd Century can be followed in Catwoman 1,000,000 and then Robin 1,000,000, before Bruce finally gets to Justice Legion A HQ in DC One Million#3 (in week 4).
Catwoman 1,000,000 Devin Grayson and Jim Ballent (week 4)
I was looking forward to reading this comic as I find Devin Grayson’s personal story of how she became a DC writer a fascinating one, and I was hoping for an opportunity to talk about her work through this DC One Million tie-in. Alas, her input here seems to be quite minimal as she only seems to have supplied the dialogue after Ballent had plotted and drawn the comic, Marvel style. Even then her work is twice removed, as Ballent would have been working from Morrison’s plot notes in the first place.
As for Ballent, I have heard his name mentioned in despatches but my knowledge of his work doesn't extend past his fondness for drawing bowling-ball breasted women. Catwoman 1m’s physique doesn’t diverge from his usual depiction of the female form.
Of course, an artist of Ballent’s school has to be up to the difficult (but, it seems, necessary) task of posing the female body so that her boobs and her butt are both on display. In Catwoman1,000,000, however, Ballent goes the extra mile for Morrison’s project and gives us a single frame where the same woman is showing T&A in 3 of the 4 poses in the frame. You go, Jim!
Catwoman 1m has to get through the computer defences to allow Batman access to the Boom Suit which will take him to Justice Legion A’s HQ on Jupiter. This being an age when information is the most valuable currency, Batman 1m’s burglar foe is a hacker who can break into any programme and steal data.
The linear plot involves the old trope where what we know of as programming firewalls and virus protection are manifested as robots and sealed doors that Catwoman has to get past. Morrison would return to this story set-up with issue 8 of Batman Inc (Vol 1) where Oracle is the master hacker.
What’s amusing is that the terminology for 853rd Century programming and hacking dated after just 15 years never mind 83,000 years later, with lines like the following -
‘As quiet as a headnet chatroom lobby’
‘Password accepted. Next screen’
‘a 404 wasteland’
One of Grayson’s non-superhero projects was a mini-series called ‘User’, about a young woman who became obsessed with a computer role-playing fantasy life, so perhaps Grayson was a good choice to write the computer hacker version of Catwoman. Grayson and Mark Waid were an item around this time, so perhaps Morrison knew a little about her, and plotted this issue towards her interests to some extent.
Robin 1,000,000 (week 4) Chuck Dixon, Staz Johnson and Stan Woch.
This is the final chapter of the ‘Bruce Wayne in the 853rdCentury’ strand, before he joins his teammates for the rest of the adventure.
Like the others the plot simply involves Batman getting a little closer to the means for getting off Pluto and on his way to Jupiter, the headquarters of Justice Legion A, and in this one he eventually makes it off the planet.
This is a fine little comic. There are some nice lines in it, such as the “More than years. More than miles” realisation which occurs to Bruce here. Batman is also told that “The light of billions more stars reach us than in your day” in a surprising little revelation when he leaves Pluto’s solid ice atmosphere. Points like this make the science fiction seem more real, and this particular point highlights the themes of optimism and hope that run through the whole crossover.
Doug Moench, Alan Grant and Chuck Dixon are all to be praised how they manage to handle the fresh new concepts while still fitting them into well-crafted stories, full of meaningful character moments. As we shall see in the Legionnaires / Legion of Superheroes issues, a bunch of cool and weird Morrison ideas thrown into a comic do not always a great story make, if you don’t have something in there that engages the heart too.
Robin 1,000,000 is an especially good spotlight on the title character. The Toy Wonder might be Morrison’s single cleverest idea in the whole series. It really illuminates the relationship between Batman and Robin, and cleverly makes what is just figurative – that Robin is the younger, innocent form of Batman - into something that is literally real, and dramatised in front of us.
The little guy makes the ultimate sacrifice for Batman here and gets a rather heart-tugging death scene.
“Dying? Diagnostics gone to black -- Time for a new model --“
“-- Going now -- Back to the headnet.. “
Awww! Poor little guy!
(I will have more to say on Robin faith in a net-enabled eternal life in my next installment.)
The Rest of Week 2
(I'll be looking at Man of Steel, Starman, Green Arrow and Legionnaires in future posts.)
Impulse 1,000,000 William Messner – Loebs & Craig Rousseau
"Desperate Times -- A Million"
In this comic, John Fox, the Flash of the Future, teams up with Impulse to stop the Rocket Red suit manned by Jessie Quick from hitting its target.
The comic hits the right plot beats, and the time spent with the characters is pleasant enough, probably helped by the fact that we are in the hands of the regular creative team of the time, and Waid had done such good work establishing the great Flash family set-up and supporting cast which Impulse benefits from.
Reading it as part of a complete readthrough of DC One Million, however, much of the content of this comic is redundant. There is a lot of space given over to explaining the back-story to this issue – essentially all the important plot elements of DC One Million of the first two weeks. Of course, this is to bring regular readers of Impulse, who haven’t bought into the important issues of the crossover up to –ahem – speed. All the background info does highlight what a strange beast DC One Millionis.
Morrison would go on to sell Seven Soldiers of Victory as a modular story that could be read in a number of ways. A reader could follow a particular character or characters as 4-issue arcs, or they could read the issues ‘chronologically’ so that the issues starring the seperate characters are interspliced with each other.
The fact is, however, that Seven Soldiers of Victory adds up to a self-contained story, that sooner or later a reader has to read as a single work for it to all add up and make sense. DC One Million, however, is a truly modular story, that was designed to be enjoyed whether the reader read every issue, or just a handful of them. Possibly a reader might only read Impulse, and still get their DC One Million story’. At the other end of the scale however, there must have been very few readers who bought all the issues of the crossover. It would have cost an outlay of around US$80 at 1998 prices, and involved the reader taking a punt on a huge array of creative teams and comic series that they would already have an opinion on.
(As for seeing a complete 'Absolute' edition of it now, I'd imagine that the cheif obstacle is that the permissions and royalty rates for each and every creative team involved would have to be negotiated, and perhaps the lawyers and administrative costs of that are prohibitive.)
Whereas SSoV was meant to be collected eventually as an artistically complete ‘whole’, DC One Million looks meant to be experienced differently by each and every reader who buys into some or all of it. As many of the issues were, like Impulse 1,000,000, presented as another monthly adventure in a longer series, then the crossover opens out at various points to include whole series, as with Impulse and Starman.
For myself, I only bought the Morrison-penned issues and a handful of other comics that I’d been buying anyway. What I read then was a hyper-compressed JLA story that affected me in two notable ways. First it gave me the same thrill that superhero comics gave me when I was 10, which is quite an achievement. Secondly, it was one of a handful of reading experiences around the late 90s that made me realise that Superman is actually a hugely interesting and worthwhile character with more to his personality and his potential, than just the big dumb boy-scout that The Dark Knight Returnshad painted him as.
Reading DC One Million now (and rereading it over and over for these blog posts), it is a huge, baggy epic that contains so many different storytelling styles and tones, and curious side stories. I also see more clearly the single unifying hand behind it all in some very complex plotting that hit its beats week on week, to tell one long complex story that in one month ‘contained’ the entire DCU of its time.
The bagginess, profusion of styles and untidiness is very Morrison, as is the deceptively well-hidden deeper structure and the ‘fractal’ effect of containing everything about the DCU, including just about all its creative staff, in one story told over one month’s output.
Azrael 1,000,000 Denny O’Neill/Vincent Giarrano
I mentioned last week that this was one of the worst, most insulting comics that I’ve ever read. Perhaps I shouldn’t take it so seriously. It’s clear that the rightly esteemed and venerable Denny O’Neill didn’t take it his contribution to DC One Million at all seriously.
We begin with the reconvened Order of St Dumas bestowing a powerful costume and wings on a blonde, long-haired muscle-brain type much beloved of 90s fanboys. The comedy turns on how stupid this champion of justice turns out to be, but that leaves us wondering how he was picked for the role in the first place.
I guess O’Neill is having fun with what certain Hollywood scriptwriters found to be the central comedic thrust of the Green Lantern mythos. If you give all that power to some guy, what happens if he turns out to be a klutz?
Thus Azrael 1m travels through space and time, trailing chaos and needless death in his wake. At one point he almost gets the original Azrael killed by Two-Face, and then kills a Frixit, which a group of Thanagarian Hawkmen were watching over until it wakes up from its centuries-long sleep. Usually the Frixit goes on a cosmic destruction spree, but just sometimes, if it happens to be a Bodlean Frixit, its awakening hastens an age of enlightenment and harmony. Guess which one Azrael discovers this one was after he kills it?
Finally he gets a lesson on the nature of evil from his Mentor Sister Dumas, whose cod-profundity betrays O’Neill’s hippy Sixties roots.
The more I read this stupid comic about a stupid lunkhead the more it makes me smile. Sometimes comics are just dumb, preposterous stuff that passes 10 minutes of your time.
Denny O’Neill wrote some of the most interesting and ambitious comics DC had produced in the previous few decades, and his stewardship of the Batman titles in the Eighties was assured and consistent, even if some of the directions they took might be frowned on in hindsight.
As O’Neill was such a senior DC figure, it’s hard not to see this Azrael 1,000,000 as a thumbing of the nose at Morrison’s whole project. It just feels so tossed off and dismissive of what DC One Million was about. This sense that I get of O'Neill's lack of engagement, verging on contempt for the project, is all the stranger when we consider that O'Neill was the senior editor of the whole Bat-line at this time and the other Batman comics lock into the overall story pretty well. Thematically, Azrael 1,000,000 rips right through the central thesis of the whole project: that we can trust people endowed with great power to act for the greater good, and with a degree of responsibility and restraint commensurate with their power. Admittedly real-life would seem to indicate that those with power tend to be motivated by the heedless self-absorption shown by Azrael here, but still...
I’m only guessing that O’Neill diverged from Morrison’s plot (and probably ignored it completely) to write this comic. It’s hard to imagine Morrison pegging O’Neill, the regular writer of Azrael, from the outset, as the guy to write a comedy issue. It’s a pity O’Neill didn’t give it his best shot, as some great creators were able to harness Morrison’s far-out ideas to their own strengths to put some very fine comics on the shelves in September 1998.
That's it for Part Two. Thanks for reading along. Hope you can join us for Week 3, where the epic events on Earth, 1998 head towards a resolution.