Being the latest instalment of our reasonably in-depth examination of DC One Million, Grant Morrison's epic transtime JLA tie-in of 1998. So far we have followed the central storyline of attacks on civilization in two eras masterminded by Solaris the Tyrant Sun, aided and abetted by Vandal Savage. We've seen how these were thwarted (and in the best time-travelling tradition, caused too) by the combined efforts of 'our' JLA and their 853rd Century counterparts, the Justice Legion 'A'.
Every mainstream DCU comic of September 1998 tied into the crossover, and we've looked at most of them so far. I've been trying to detect the hand of Morrison as architect where that seems evident. In this installment we'll be looking at the remaining tie-ins, which mainly worked as standalone tales. Three of the issues looked at here are in fact the final three issues which wound down the whole DC One Million crossover.
Supergirl 1,000,000 Peter David and Dusty Abell (Week 3)
Whereas we are approaching a set of 2 comics that seem to have all the hallmarks of Morrison’s participation, we first stop off at a pair of comics which Morrison had little or no input into.
I’ve already discussed how Morrison’s original plans must have included a Supergirl comic that had a team-up between Peter David’s rebooted Supergirl of the time and the marble-bodied DC One Million Wonder Woman, which covered Supergirl being rescued from her Rocket Red suit before it went nuclear.
It seems to me that Peter David threw away those notes and just wrote a standalone story about a new Supergirl, a being that terrorises distant galaxies of the 853rd Century. As full of admiration as I am for the complex architecture of Morrison’s multi-authored epic, I’m very glad David rebelled here. This is a little gem of a comic.
David does sterling work introducing a stalwart hero, Dura, who has travelled far and is now the protector of a thoroughly alien world. The respective worlds of the weird aliens and their globby, slimy and warlike aggressors are each fully realised, or realised well enough for the purposes of the story. Supergirl herself is quite a creation.
Her name is R’E’L, and she’s six and a half years old. She causes havok everywhere she goes, speaks in a girly, sing-song voice, loves to play pretend, and absolutely refuses to be told what to do. The artist, Dusty Abell has a wonderful clear cartooning style, but he seems to be using some kind of photo-reference for R’E’L. The title character here is more than likely based on David’s youngest daughter Ariel, who might very well have been 6 and a half at this time. (In the story, R’E’L insists on calling Dura Daddy, despite his denials.)
R’E’L will strike a chord with anyone who has spent time with young girls. One scene where she is outlining the scenarios she is imagining herself in, was identical to how my own 4 year old daughter verbalises her ‘let’s pretend’ games.
A God-like, indestructible being who decimates whole civilisations is a longstanding trope of supertales, but David approaches it in a very fresh way here, by giving her the personality of a vexing child. He also presents us with a very human story about the extremes of exasperated despair our beloved children bring us to. Here on the Captain’s board, I’ve often bewailed superhero comics that are only about other comics. David here gives a masterclass on how superhero stories can be used to examine and comment on any aspect of our lives without necessarily sacrificing the wonder and far-out fantasy that we also come to super-stories for.
This is a great little comic. Seek it out!
Hitman 1,000,000 Garth Ennis and John McCrea (Week 5)
This penultimate comic in the DC One Million reading list is the second one we can be fairly certain Grant Morrison did not have much part in. This was Grant’s choice rather than a case of mutiny on behalf of the writer. As Grant explains in Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, 1999:
“...I plotted everything that month, every single comic except for Hitman. With that I just said, 'Garth, take the piss', that was my plot.”
Ennis’ story, beautifully illustrated by John McCrea, involves a gang of dweebs taking advantage of the disruption in the timestream caused by the events in the central mini-series. They want to bring one of the mythical heroes of the 20th century to the 853rd, so that they can drain some of his iconic power. Unfortunately they believe that Hitman was one of the most brave-hearted, powerful and noble of the heroes, so it is slovenly, amoral, decidedly non-heroic Tommy Monaghan they aim for.
When he arrives, Tommy Monaghan isn’t amused that they’ve just lifted him from his favourite seat in Noonan’s bar after a hard day’s grafting.
His nightmare is compounded when the 853rd Century’s lamest Liefield-type heroes start flying in en masse to confront him. Leading the charge is ‘Gunfire’, who has inherited his 20th Century forebear’s ability to turn anything he touches into a weapon. Ennis does indeed fulfil his remit and ‘take the piss’ as the heroes start to fight amongst themselves. Gunfire himself comes to a bad end when he turns his own ass into a hand-grenade. Then they reveal that they aren’t really who their friends thought they were in a series of sub-Claremontian revelations worthy of any afternoon soap opera. And finally we discover that half of them are actually murderous neo-Nazis in disguise. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Ennis must have read a few rubbish 90s X-Men comics when no-one was looking.
I loved Ennis’ Hitman comics back in the day. It’s one of the few 90s series that I got from start to finish, as it came out. I love any superhero series where a consistent creative team manages to tell a complete, longform story with a beginning, middle and an end in one run. It’s all the better if the main character’s arc reaches a logical conclusion by the end, and actually Tommy does prefigure his own end in a slice of his dialogue here in this otherwise less-than-serious entry in the run.
Ennis is not just a fellow Irishman, but a fellow Ulsterman too. I met him in Dublin one time and he signed an issue of Hitman for me whilst discussing his favourite Dublin watering holes. I have followed his career with interest, and I don't just 'get' what he is trying to do, but I've enjoyed the hell out of much of it. Ennis is a fine writer and Morrison’s instructions to him reveal both a confidence that Ennis can tell a great story using Morrison’s concepts, and also a reader’s curiosity on Morrison’s part to see what such a singular writer would come up with.
However, placing Ennis’ 'piss-taking' DC One Million tie-in against the rest of the issues of his overall Hitman run does highlight a few things that might be both typical and problematic about Ennis’ approach. (Problematical to me, anyway.) In this issue, Tommy thinks nothing of blowing up and shooting Gunfire and the rest of the Liefieldian anti-heroes. Just like the Image and 90s X-Men heroes they are based on, these guys aren’t too bright, and are overly prone to violence. Still, half of them, at least, believed themselves to be heroes. They begin to arrive at the scene after Gunfire investigates Tommy’s kicking of a harmless cat out of a twenty-thousandth(!) floor window. (An indestructible cat, but still!) 90s ‘heroes’ like these are certainly an offense to right-thinking people, but I’m not sure they deserved to be despatched so callously here!
This is troubling enough, but it contrasts sharply with the direction Ennis took in the final arc or so of Hitman's run. During the climax of the whole Hitman series, Tommy gets all gloomy and remorse-filled about some British soldiers he killed during the first Gulf War in a friendly-fire incident. I dunno. To me modern soldiers are every bit as well-meaning and every bit as fond of violence and prone to cause unthinking collateral damage as any 90s Image or X-Men hero. Tommy never loses much sleep about the various hangers-on and family members killed or injured when he goes after unsavoury types on the streets of Gotham, and it just seemed out of character for him to be so badly affected years after his involvement in a friendly fire incident in his youth. Considering how many British and US troops have been killed since WWII as a result of friendly fire from their US allies, it kind of looks like par for the course for anyone signing up to either army!
Tommy mentions in the pages of this DC One Million tie-in that part of his code is ensuring that he ‘did right by his buddies’. By the end of the series, he identifies the British SAS men as his buddies, and on a par with his other ‘brothers in arms’, so this is what causes his crisis of conscience. Writing it here, it sounds like some subtle psychologising on Ennis’ part, but I fear that Ennis was just using his old sentimental ‘brothers in arms’ argument to give some emotional oomph to the climax of Tommy’s long saga.
It just seems a bit odd to me that the only exception to Tommy’s carelessness about killing should be regarding professional soldiers who’ve signed up for the mayhem anyway. It does reflect, however, Ennis’ rather uncritical attitude to that one ‘brothers in arms’ part of the soldier’s code. In a series about someone who kills people for money, it’s strange that of all the moral and emotional cruxes that the climax should turn on, it’s regret about killing other guys who have signed up to, amongst other things, kill people for money.
Maybe that’s just me? In any case, it’s notable when a writer as adult and as sophisticated as Ennis can be, still clings to such a simplistic schoolboy version of the role of the military in the modern world.
Lobo 1,000,000 Alan Grant and Greg Luzniak (Week 5)
So this is the sixth in a series of long blog posts, covering over 40 DC One Million-related comics, not to mention the late-90s context in which they were published and various other topics. I've covered topics pertinent to the crossover, and topics associated with DC One Million only in my comics-addled brain.
That being the case, I don’t think anyone can blame me for letting Lobo slip through the net pretty much unmolested by any critique of mine. It’s a comic that’s pretty much beyond criticism anyway.
For the curious, just imagine 20 pages of this:
The Legion of Superheroes strand
"Reality is spaceships! Ray-guns! Metal-eating monsters! Super-heroes! Reality is the impossible!"
I’ve made the comics explicitly written by Grant Morrison central to most of the preceding blog entries, and the issues I want to draw particular attention to this time around seem to owe a lot to his input. The two issues in question are worthy of a closer look themselves and function as a fairly meaty and self-contained two-parter on their own. Legion of Superheroes fans were serviced by 2 books in the run-up to DC One Million. Morrison uses the 1,000,000 issues of both Legionnaires and Legion of Superheroes to tell a single complex time-spanning tale - a crossover within a crossover. They are both written by Tom Peyer, but they are the only comics in this crossover that acknowledge Morrison's input explicitly in the credits - where he is listed as 'Time Trapper'. I hope I'm not doing Peyer a disservice by attributing so much of the following to Morrison's concepts and plotting, but I hope to show that the conceptual strangeness of many of the ideas used and the way that these issues build on years of continuity in a complex and non-linear way make them almost archetypal Morrison comics. They display much of the abstraction, denseness and difficulty that estrange a lot of readers from Morrison's work, whilst intriguing and entertaining the rest of us.
Legionnaires #1,000,000 Tom Peyer and Sean Phillips (Week 3)
Imagining an 853rd Century Legion of Superheroes obviously presented Morrison with a problem. Whereas Justice Legion Alpha are meant to be the future counterparts of ‘our’ JLA, they are also, as the word 'Legion’ in their name attests, a version of the Legion of Superheroes, banded together from wildly different backgrounds to protect a future confederation of worlds. Justice Legion A are as much the ultimate flowering of the Legion of Superheroes as of the JLA - perhaps more so. Morrison’s set himself the task of conceptualizing a super team whose reason for existing and status quo is as far from the Justice Legion A, as the original Legion's was from the original Justice League. In order to do so, he has given a lot of thought to how the Legion ticks. Here he gives us a version of the Legion reflected, refracted, and inverted in all sorts of intriguing ways.
Just as Legionnaires in 1998 was about a group of Legion of Superheroes stuck in 'our' present, Legionnaires #1,000,000 is set in 85,271, the main future era of the crossover. Instead of being outward looking integrationists, as the original Legion were, these are the champions of the 'United Planets'. This is a group of worlds that have isolated themselves far from the other civilised worlds, in order to preserve a separateness that they believe civilisation will need, in order to introduce new ideas and different cultures into a pan-galactic society that is becoming homogenised. It's an interesting inversion of what the Legion of Superheroes is normally about, and an implied critique of the homogenised utopia of those books (or at least, where it would be headed).
In opposition to the 'white Americans in space' set-up that the Legion stories largely (and problematically) continue to this day, here we have a team of genuinely alien and strange beings. Many of the team resemble the abstract and unsettling villains of Morrison's Doom Patrol run. Brainiac 417 is an entity of spirit and intelligence combined, Chameleon Lad is only an outline that merges into the background of every scene he's in whilst refusing to interact meaningfully with his teammates, the Umbra is a dark, vaguely human shape. Making up the rest of the team are Titan Girl, from a world where everyone sleeps in hospitalised environment whilst they sport in their dreams in a paradise, Implicate Girl, who carries her home world and its 3 billion inhabitants in a tesseract in the 'third eye' of her forehead, the Mon-Elves, who represent a race of tiny superhumans, and Cosmicbot, the leader, from the 'small body - large head' class of alien beings.
Then there's the 'last sleeper of Naltor', a diaphonously garbed young lady who can only communicate her prophetic visions via a screen on her forehead as she endlessly sleeps, and Wildflame, who may be Wildfire evolved into a Promethean bringer of knowledge and keeper of the flame of wisdom to the Justice Legion L, as this iteration of the Legion are called.
Implicate Girl is the best example of what Morrison is doing with this team. At first she doesn't seem to have any connection to any previous Legion concept, but then it becomes clear that she is Triplicate Girl, put through a very 'Morrisonian' transformative process. Instead of drawing on the powers of 3 girls, she can draw on the knowledge of the 3 billion people who live in the tesseract-contained world in the '3rd eye' on her forehead. Furthermore, everything on her homeworld is organised around the number 3.
The tale is so full of weird abstract ideas, that they obscure the fact that the plot is a classic Legion one of traitors in the team and members being suspicious of each other. Like most modern writers, Morrison doesn't like using his most original ideas in his corporate superhero work, but he is a master at taking what's there, even if it's just something implied in the set-up or an old story element that everyone else has forgotten, and transforming them in strange ways, to give us something that seems original, but depends on what's already known about the concepts he's using.
The problem that Justice Legion L have to deal with in these comics is the dissolution of the magnetic force that holds the United Planets together as they drift through space. The solution to this involves, in the best Legion tradition, a trip 1,000 years into the past to enlist the aid of the Superboy of 84,271. It's another example of Morrison's knowing use of classic continuity whilst transforming it and inter-mixing it with the strangeness.
Legion of Superheroes # 1,000,000 Tom Peyer and Keith Geffin (Week 5)
The storyline of the traitor in the Legion is continued in Legion of Superheroes # 1,000,000, the last DC One Million comic in the official reading list of the original crossover. This time the story is framed by a sequence set, yes, 1,000 years after the climax of DC One Million.
In an isolationist, dull and conformist society, somewhere in the year 86,271, Dav and his young friends discover an artifact that gives them a glimpse of an exciting, colourful world of adventure. Through it they see how Justice Legion L solved the problem of the United Planets drifting apart and confronted the traitor in their midst. (Admittedly, this isn't a very satisfying resolution, but Peyer and Morrison had a lot of balls in the air in this story, and a lot of plates to keep spinning, so we’ll give them a pass!)
We find out that Dav’s community exists isolated in a tesseract on the Earth. In the course of the story they are imprisoned and subjected to a kind of conditioning to make them accept their place in society and give up questioning what might lie beyond it.
They learn that Wildflame was the one who has placed the artifact in their path. From this they deduce that the United Planets must have returned back to Earth in the meantime, completing 'humanity's first great cycle of expansion and contraction'. As the story draws to a close, Wildflame communicates to them that they are destined to be the next iteration of the fabled Legion of Superheroes. (To mention another bum note, the wild invention that has characterised this two-part story so far deserts the creators here, as the protagonists' future selves are shown as 3 generic, poorly designed unnamed space heroes as the issue closes. To be fair, I can think of several reasons for this, some of them even thematic!)
These two issues include a lot of discussion and analysis of what makes the Legion tick - perhaps even more than I have been able to perceive, as I'm not a big Legion devotee. Legion fandom seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition and so far, apart from a few Showcase volumes, I know what side of the fence I reside on. Just as these two issues have been a crossover within a crossover, Legion comics have been a continuity of their own within the wider DCU continuity, and Legion fandom has been a fandom within a fandom too. Which to some extent excuses how the 'meaning' of these two comics lies largely in their relationship to Legion lore.
As a discussion of the Legion, then, it's not surprising that this two-parter closes with what could be the ultimate statement about what made the Legion so important and treasured by so many young fans in the first place. There are parallels to be drawn between the sheltered, suspicious and conformist world that the heroes Dav and his friends live in, and the America of the late 50s that the first Legion stories arrived in.
Dav tries to describe the better world he is now aware of to his captors and his father in this way:
"Reality is spaceships! Ray-guns! Metal-eating monsters! Super-heroes! Reality is the impossible!"
In this millionth issue, the artifact the kids find looks like a piece of paper, but it is actually a contact with a brighter, fairer and more exciting world. It's not a stretch to see how Adventure Comics #247 and the follow-up appearances of the Legion of Superheroes played a similar role in the lives of young people back in 1958. Legion of Superhero comics back in the conservative era of its introduction must have similarly granted its readers a vision of a better, brighter future that was there for the taking.
All of which makes Legion of Superheroes #1,000,000 the perfect issue on which to end the whole glorious shebang, even if it seems like a fairly unrelated addendum at first. In a very real way, the entire DC One Million crossover has its roots in the original Legion of Superhero comics. In the pages of this event, we've seen Morrison take the core Legion idea of a future science fiction utopia, presided over by inspirational superheroes, to its ultimate conclusion. In doing so, he also, perhaps, presents the apex of the 1990s Reconstructionist Age of comics as it unfolded in the DCU. Presenting superheroes as icons of optimism, inspiration and benevolence was a project that had a surprisingly short shelf-life once Morrison left his era-defining run on JLA around the turn of the millennium. Ahead there would be infinite crises, and many black nights of the soul for DC's modern-day Knights of the Round Table.
And there we have it. An epic tale on a cosmic canvas. However, the 853rd Century wasn't going anywhere, and readers were able to visit the realm of Justice League Alpha on a few rare occasions after the curtain fell on our first visit. I hope to look at some of the sequels in my next, and final, blog post in this series.