"We were just sitting around talking, about how they've done the zero issues, and what's the most ludicrous thing you could think of in the other direction. Issue one million was the answer. I suggested it as a crossover and it just grew out of the idea of what would be these titles' millionth issues, and what year it would all take place in?"
Grant Morrison, describing the origin of DC One Million.
(from Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, 1999)
DC One Million hit an unsuspecting world in September 1998, when every single DC comic set in the DC Universe became involved in a huge crossover where we got to see what each title, and indeed the DCU itself, would look like in a million months from that time. It was a five week month, during which every DCU title jumped forward to the year 85,265AD. I've been meaning to look at this series as part of my JLA thread, which in turn is part of a look at most of Morrison's entire body of work. However, thanks to a pointer from one of the contributers to the JLA thread, verified by some of my own research, I discovered that Morrison had a hand in virtually every issue that came out in that month.
"Oh yeah, that was the biggest work I've ever done, because basically I plotted everything that month, every single comic except for Hitman. With that I just said, 'Garth, take the piss', that was my plot. The rest of it was quite detailed. The Batman stuff, the Superman stuff was really detailed. I plotted something like sixty-four comics that month and wrote five of them. It was big. That took a few months. I was working non-stop."
(NB: Morrison is exagerating here, not that he has to. Plotting around 35 comics to be ready in a single month and tying them all together is no mean feat itself.)
Having discovered that the mind-boggling architecture of the entire event and much of the plotting of each issue was down to the Mad Scotsman, I decided that I would have to go as deep into these comics as I could. All the more so, because such a fan-pleasing, original and ambitious crossover appears to have gotten very little coverage on the comics internet. I guess it is just too sprawling, and multi-faceted to be looked at as a complete body of work. Another mark against it is the hugely variable range of styles and indeed quality across the DC One Million titles. Virtually every DC writer and artist from Morrison's JLA period were involved, with varying degrees of commitment and engagement. The DC One Million titles range from perhaps my favourite single issue of any comic (Martian Manhunter 1,000,000), to perhaps one of the worst, most insulting comics I've ever read (Azrael 1,000,000). So we get a fascinating, slightly off-centre snapshot of DC's entire superhero line and the talent then at the company, which I hope inspires some comment from nostalgic fanboys in the replies below.
There is a huge amount of material to get through, so these may be some of the longest blogs ever posted here. Rather than just seeing a wall of text, I hope that the obliging reader will instead see these blog entries as mini-magazines with different sections to be read seperately.
The comics themselves might have appeared as random issues with a 853rd Century connection to the readers of the time, very few of whom would have bought into all the comics that month. The central story, contained in DC One Million #1-4, Morrison's JLA 1,000,000 and a few other key issues, was collected as JLA: One Million and it makes for a pretty good read. However, many of the other issues can be grouped together into several strands that weave together into a larger story and many other issues are interesting standalones, or even, as is the case with Creeper, Chase, and Young Heroes in Love, were in effect the final issues of their respective series.
So in each of these blog entries, I'll be picking out the themes and meanings of Morrison's work in my usual fashion, with particular emphasis on the 5 comics he scripted. I also hope to highlight the complexity of the inter-related story strands, all of which Morrison was involved with to some extent or another. Finally, I'm hoping to celebrate to some extent the DC comics of the late 20th Century, an area of superhero comics close to my heart.
DC One Million #1
We open ‘on the third day’ when Plastic Man and Zauriel rush back to the Watchtower monitor room to find that Vandal Savage has just nuclear bombed Montevideo. This turns out to be the day when the JLA take up the offer from their 853rd century counterparts, the Justice Legion 'A', to travel to the future to take part in various challenges in front of huge crowds to celebrate the original Superman’s return from the sun in the far future.
The rest of the comic is a countdown to this moment. DC One Million has a huge cast and a lot of story elements in play, in two time periods, and Morrison sets them all up in this 40 page comic. The comic is quite dense and hardly a frame is wasted. Character moments also push forward the plot or get across the dramatic tone that Morrison is going for. As the icons talk about visiting the far flung future, their nervousness and excitement communicates to the reader what a big deal it is. Even Batman is tempted to go. That these heroes in particular, who have experienced so much weirdness, should be nervous about the future-shock they might experience in the world of Justice Legion A, goes a long way in setting up the awe and wonder of the 853rdcentury.
Another thing that Morrison does to get across how special this event must be, is to establish within the story how difficult it was to arrange for the two teams to swap places. The story emphasises that they can only do it for a brief period of time. Superhero comics do suffer when jumps between realities or from one time period to another are presented as boringly regular and everyday events.
A conversation between two Golden Age heroes tells us that this is a flowering of what they begun. Ted Knight, the first Starman can’t contain his excitement in a phone call to the Golden Age Flash:
“That dream we had. That stupid idea when we were young that we could make things better... It all comes true, Jay”.
It highlights the simple optimism and can-do spirit of the first generation of superheroes and perhaps, what superheroes are ultimately ‘for’!
As ‘our’ JLA prepare to leave, we get an exciting plot strand of the Titans as they were then - Arsenal, Aqualad, Jessie Quick - and Supergirl getting in way over their heads when they try to stop Vandal Savage buying some nuclear-armed Rocket Red armoured suits. They actually end up in the suits and unconscious as Savage prepares to launch them as weapons in his drive to conquer the Earth.
The Titans are well cast in this role, as they are between books at this stage, but are still well-known to the readers. (All readers except me in 1998, I suppose. I really was the newbie reader that Morrison was writing towards at this time. That I found his comics so welcoming at that stage probably speaks towards the success, then and now of this incarnation of the League.)
Leaving aside the plotting of the awe-inspiring mega-events in two time periods, the comic is peppered with lots of little details of the sort that make reading a Morrison comic a pleasure. To give just two examples of his handle on the characters and his ability, in only a word or two, to show what makes them tick:
“Snnt!” - Flash’s sniggering reaction to the news that Green Lantern’s Challenge Arena will be in a spaceship orbiting Uranus.
“Holy God!” - Plastic Man’s reaction to seeing the damage done to Montevideo by the first of Vandal Savage’s nuclear missiles. Not only does the phrase subtly hint at Eel O’Brian’s Irish-American background, adding a bit of texture, but it’s one of the few panels in the whole series where the pliable prankster isn’t joking.
There is another little fleeting phrase that betrays the depth of thought Morrison puts into his best work. The book ends with a glimpse of the Vandal Savage of the far future toasting the success of his plans with Solaris. We get our first taste of the continuous babble of Headnet, the information-broadcasting system that links all the citizens of the far future.
One of the lines is: “Instant cosmos accessing your neurons wherever the Super-Sun shines...”
The future Starman has already explained to us the perhaps central aspect of life in the 853rdCentury:
“Our entire culture organises itself around the processing of Information: a gigantic network of star-computers link the entire galaxy, allowing us to trade new ideas with distant systems.”
In literary and figurative language, the sun’s light often stands for understanding and knowledge. As used by us in phrases like 'The light dawned on him". In a kind of alchemical, magickal way, Morrison is making the figurative real in his future world, where the stars are giant computers, processing information and broadcasting it to all. In a way he is transforming the powerful figurative language of symbols, which we all use every day, into superheroic picture-poetry. Suns that have become giant super-computers are exactly the kind of thing that some would use to accuse Morrison of wilful “weirdness for weirdness’ sake”. I’d contend that there is deep systematic thought that goes into many of the ideas that confound those who only look for surface values in their comics. This transmogrification of the conceptual and the literary into the literally real and visually represented is something playful and smart, that lends itself especially well to superhero comics.
DC One Million #1 is a fine opening chapter to the crossover, communicating the wonder and awe of what is about to happen in the 853rd Century while establishing a large cast and an array of dazzling new concepts. All while building up the storyline of Vandal Savage’s greatest push for world domination in 1998.
The rest of DC One Million - Week One
To help guide you through the many issues released under the DC One Million banner, I'll be including these panels from the backmatter for each issue, showing what was released each week. The incredible thing is how, in the case of issues that weren't standalone, the events in subsequent week's issues follow on from the previously released issues. The logistics and planning that went into this crossover must have been immense. In the case of the major strands that run through several comics, I thought it would make for easier comprehension of the storylines if I presented them as a group, rather than divide them up over the different weeks. It'll be up to you to notice where a comic is in the list for that week's releases, or where it is from a different week. Well, I mentioned that the architecture of this crossover was complex!
Action Comics 1,000,000 – We'll cover this issue in a Superman strand in a later blog entry.
Shadow of the Bat 1,000,000 – “Neverending Story”. This is a good origin of Batman 1m, framed by a story of the future Batman trying to get to the 20th Century Batcave to begin addressing the crisis. Alan Grant supplies a tight script that owes something to the great European revenge westerns which he would seem to be a big fan of.
Nightwing 1,000,000 – This is basically a long conversation between Nightwing and Batman 1m. It's a fun bridge in the longer arc of Batman 1m stuck in the 20th Century, but it doesn’t have the good classical structure like Shadow.
Scott McDaniel’s art has element of ‘cartooning’, which is as good a point as any to remark that fashions have changed in comics in the last 15 years.
Green Lantern 1,000,000 – 'Star-Crossed'. This Ron Marz/Brian Hitch collaboration gets across the pathos of Kyle Raynor being the only Green Lantern, subtly pointing out that his line doesn’t continue into the 853rd Century, whereas the rest of the major heroes have proud legacies. This theme is presented in a very subtle ‘Morrisonian’ way, rather than hitting the reader over the head with it. Subtle as it is, there is some payoff of this by the end of the series.
The scene-setting double page spread is very Alan Davis-esque, with wonderful artwork that leaves us in no doubt that we are dealing with a weird and wondrous alien culture. As it should do!
Young Justice 'Just ice, cubed.'
“Current Location: Pluto. Current Time: Wednesday in the 853rdCentury.”
David's opening text-box betrays his iconoclastic and tongue-in-cheek approach to the material. The future versions of Young Justice tell each other stories about their 20th Century counterparts, each more ludicrously ill-informed than the last. Superboy 1m's story parodies Doomsday. Robin the Toy Wonder’s story conflates Final Night, No Man’s Land, Earthquake, Zero Hour and Knightfall, all told in a Batman, The Animated Series style.
This is a very fun issue, even though its clear David isn't taking it too seriously (perhaps because of this!) It would have been a distraction for David anyway, as this was only the third or so issue of his Young Justice series to be published.
One of the few obvious discrepancies amongst all these tie-ins occurs here. This story announces it takes place after Superboy 1m visits the Arctic in Superboy 1,000,000, but that story refers to the events here as if they were in the past.
Perhaps its a minor time-anomaly caused by Hourman’s messing with Deep Time?
Yeah, that’s it...
That this is practically the only major mix-up between so many comics, written by so many writers, many of which are connected directly to the others in terms of cause and effect, speaks well of Morrison’s overall architecture.
The Mercury Strand.
Finally we come to the first of our sections looking at comics which make up an inter-related strand. Only two comics in this strand, both set on Mercury, and both featuring men in red suits with lightning flashes emblazoned on their chests.
Power of Shazam 1,000,000.
This is a complex, disturbing story. It's extremely downbeat, as the citizens of Mercury are shown as a thoughtless lot, avaricious for the currency of information, addicted to the babble of headnet, into Kingdom Come-style pointless super-powered fights. A lot happens here, new characters and their society are well drawn in a few pages and then developed and worked into a single story.
Morrison’s hand is evident in the mysteriousness of Shazam’s long slumber and Shazam’s base ‘the Rock of Eternity' being hidden away in a tesseract deep within the machinery of Mercury - the Information hub of the Solar System. Shazam keeps being compared to the Flash in this story and mistaken for him, and we get hints in this story of Flash’s concurrent adventure, which wouldn’t appear until week 4. This prefigures their team-up in Flash 1,000,000.
This thematic association with the Flash prefigures how Morrison links them in his recent writing as bearers of the Mercury/Hermes Flash symbol of inspiration, and avatars of communication and the ‘magic’ of language and information. (Remember that Captain Marvel activates his powers by a Magic Word!) In Supergods Morrison points out that the second Flash kicked off the Silver Age, and was there when the hugely significant contact with the Golden Age/Earth One was made. He also notes that the star of the hugely popular and imaginative Captain Marvel comics, which outsold Superman's own comics for a time, also bore the flash symbol of lightning/inspiration descending from the heavens to the Earth.
So the Flash and what he and his Lightning iconography symbolise have great significance in Morrison’s ‘cosmology’ and in this story he is ‘bundling’ the two Lightning-emblazoned heroes that embody the forces of Hermes/Mercury together with the actual planet named Mercury and its 853rd century role as the hub of information to the whole Solar System. Again its a kind of poetry in pictures that would be impossible to do in other media. There is a lot of this bundling and compressing of symbolic roles in Final Crisis, where several characters appearing in the same issue embody similar forces, so it’s interesting to realise that he was doing it in this phase of his career as well. In the plot of The Power of Shazam 1,000,000, he addresses the dark side of the mercurial forces symbolised by the lightning.
At first I thought that this comic wouldn’t get MY glowing review, as it is so downbeat and paints the citizens of this corner of Morrison’s supposed Utopia as extremely cruel and petty. The forces of creativity, communication and inspiration that Morrison normally speaks so highly of elsewhere manifest themselves here in the disturbing characteristics and behaviour of the citizens of Mercury.
They are addicted to information and the acquiring of it at all costs, thoughtlessly killing Sutra, the enterprising mother of the hero of the story, whilst stampeding over her in their rush for new experiences and information to acquire and sell.
However, thanks to the conceptual meat of Morrison's plotting and the excellent realisation of Morrison's ideas by Ordway and his collaborators, I eventually developed a higher opinion of this entry in the crossover.
Flash 1,000,000– “Fast Forward” (Mark Waid and Michael Jan Friedman)
This wraps up some of the themes of the Power of Shazam issue, and seems at first glance to be a well-put-together but unexceptional superhero tale. 'Our' Flash has to save the world of Mercury one million months hence from the depradations of Commander Cold and Heatwave. A closer look, however shows why Mark Waid is such a consummate professional and a wonderful collaborator with Morrison. Waid subsumes his story to the broader DC One Million project. Each issue of these DC One Million comics has an introductory page which summarises the set-up of the series and introduces the reader to a future world which they haven't seen before.
I'm presuming Waid wrote the intro page to Flash 1,000,000, but whoever did added a line which gives some context to the behaviour of the citizens of Mercury in the earlier Shazam book. It describes “the fast-living culture of rabid info-junkies”. So Waid (or whoever) gives the reprehensible behaviour of the ‘Mercurians’ some context and explanation, which the earlier story didn't present so explicitly. The page also points out that Mercury is the connecting point between the brain-sun and the rest of the planets. So now the name, location and all the mythology of Mercury/Hermes and the Lightning of inspiration/thought/communication are all compressed and presented as a superhero comicbook.
Another thing this issue does is take the time to elaborate on the nature of the poverty suffered by Sutra and Tanist, the main protagonists of The Power of Shazam 1,000,000. Yes, they have all the basics for living, but they are still marginalised and cut off from the true wealth of this society. Waid's contribution is one of the few comics I read that really felt like the writer concerned had studied the comics that his would tie directly into. He seems to be developing the bare ideas Morrison puts forward in the Shazamcomic and making them more presentable and understandable to the general reader. Perhaps the fact that his issue would come out in week 4 allowed Waid the tiny bit of extra time to do this with his script.
Although this looks like a straightforward confontation between the heroes and two bad guys, a comparison with the other DC One Million comics featuring the adventures of 'our' JLA in the future shows that Waid avoided the trap that the other comics all fell into. Each of them ended up inadvertantly using the same basic plot more or less, as the Green Lantern comic described above, where the hero had to deal with their contest going dangerously haywire and then find a way to get to Jupiter to meet the rest of the JLA there. This repetition of the same plot makes the DC One Million comics featuring the main JLA stars pretty much the least interesting of all the One Million comics. Waid wasn't 'Flashy', if you'll excuse the pun, but he put a lot of thought into his work and provided satisfying comics as a result.
I'm reminded of some notes Waid added to one of the trade collections of 52. He said that he was the perfect choice to script the Ralph Dibney sections of 52 because they chronicle the adventures of a man of science and rationality who has to deal with the mystical and the bizarre encroaching on his life. Waid declared that this was a great fictional parallel to his own relationship to Morrison.
Waid and Morrison were a great team. In their rejected proposal for Superman 2000, Waid was specified as the one who would make Morrison's far-out ideas work and keep the feet of the series on the ground. I can only agree with that assessment of their dynamic. DC should have made more use of the productive synergy that seemed to flow from their obvious respect for each other's different methods and styles.
That's it for DC One Million, week 1. I hope you can join me for the next installment of this look back to the future.