“Mechanical Plagues, Solar Computers... “ DC One Million - Week 3

Welcome to the latest in a series of blog posts looking at DC One Million, Grant Morrison's epic 1998 JLA crossover. This installment is organised around week 3 of of the 5-week saga, as we follow one of the two main strands of this sprawling eons-spanning story to its climax. There are some SPOILERS ahead...

 

(You might like to catch up with Week 1 and Week 2 before reading on...)

 

Starman #1,000,000 James Robinson and Peter Snejbjerg. (Week 2)

 

This is a simply wonderful comic! It’s essentially just a long conversation between Ted Knight and his great- great- great- great - ad nauseam grandson, Farris Knight, spiced up with some superheroic scenes. It works however, because Snejbjerg’s art is delicious, and Robinson does a fine job of melding the themes and plot elements of Morrison’s grand epic with his own family-based superhero drama, his celebrated Starman run. We get further information on Starman 1m. He is an important actor in the crossover, and an issue like this shows one of the strengths of these collaborative multi-creator crossovers.  Whereas Morrison pulls the reader forward through a series of short snappy scenes stuffed with information, Robinson is able to apply the brakes for a bit here and let us spend some leisurely time getting to knowone of the main actors in teh drama.  Thus his choices and sacrifices later in the crossover have a little more impact.

 

As Farris talks to Ted, we begin to understand that he has turned traitor and is working with the evil Solaris, but Robinson slips in a further complication. The story opens with Starman’s base near Jupiter pining for its Starman, lost far back in time, and also the space-base seems to have an intense relationship with the Supercomputer Solaris. So we really have a strange three-way relationship between a man, a space-base and a solar supercomputer!

 

One of the subtle sub-themes of DC 1m is that people and machines are drawing closer together, especially now that everyone is tuned into the Headnet computer network. Through Headnet, too, machines like Robin the Toy Wonder are tuned into humanity and seem to believe that the headnet system grants them a soul and an afterlife of some sort.

 

In many ways, DC One Million plays with ideas popular amongst certain computer geeks of the 90s that the steady improvement of computers would somehow lead men towards immortality and some kind of rapture-like union between man and machines that would give us infinite knowledge and power. This moment is sometimes called the Singularity. These ideas have informed much of Morrison’s 90s work. Remember both the Key and the Master of Time in JLA growing in knowledge and information to encompass the universe? We see elements of it here in DC One Million as regards information being the most precious commodity, which practically ‘makes the galaxy go round’.

 

It was a fun set of ideas in the 90s and perhaps opened up new avenues of thought, and a certain wonder regarding what the future might bring. The best debunking of the pseudo-religion of the Singularity I have read is Jarod Lanier’s book “You are not a Gadget”, in which he attacks various assumptions about how computers are supposedly making our lives better and adding to our experience of the world. It’s a profound book regarding our present stage of computer –influenced social and cultural development and it is well worth reading, but I don’t have much space to go into his arguments here.

 

I did think it was fascinating to see that ideas that were extremely fringe and novel in Morrison’s 90s work have now become so central and ‘taken for granted’ in 21st Century society that someone has written a book attacking them and decrying how deeply they’ve entered our mass-culture. Morrison was a kind of futurist in the 90s.  Staying with DC One Million, however, D. Curtis Johnson’s script for Chase 1,000,000, (which I'll look at in the next post) does anticipate some of Lanier’s objections, depicting some of the dehumanising downside of the integration of human minds with computers.

 

Regarding Starman #1,000,000’s place in the longform epic, Farris Knight takes the ‘Knight fragment’ which Ted discovered many years previously and kept in a lead box because it glowed green and gave off dangerous levels of radiation. Farris says he’s going to take it and bury it on Mars where it’ll be needed in the far future. (I wonder what it could be?)

 

 

There are really two main story strands in DC One Million. One of them concerns the events in 1998, where the JLA ‘left behind’ must team up with Justice Legion Alpha to combat the simultaneous threats of the Hourman Virus and Vandal Savage’s coincidental attack. I have organised this Week 3 blog post around that strand. It’s appropriate that I start with Starman, because the climax of this strand in Morrison's DC One Million #3 revolves around the choices Farris makes. This strand is really his story!

 

 

Detective Comics #1,000,000 - Chuck Dixon and Greg Land ... yes, that Greg Land (Week 3)

 

Another good Bat-instalment from Dixon, this time set in the present with fine artwork from Land and his collaborators. Land’s work looks like that of someone who is on his way to becoming a notable artist, rather than that of someone who is about to start making a career of swiping from porno mags. It probably helps that there are no women at all in this story. It makes sense that someone with a name like Chuck would be most at home writing manly stories starring manly men! Nightwing and Alfred work with Batman 1m (whose real name we never find out, it seems) to stop the virus.

 

There is a bit of business where Chuck’s manly men somehow deal with a global outbreak of the Hourman Virus by stopping the Firebug from leading a riot in the downtown area. This doesn’t make any sense in regards to any virus – technological or biological – that I’ve ever heard of, but the men get to act manly in any case.

 

Finally they stop messing about and get back to the cave where it is clear that the real solution to the virus will involve drastic action!

 

 

Man of Steel 1,000,000– Jerry Ordway (dialogue) Karl Kesel (plot) and Anthony Williams (pencils). (Week 2)

 

The team of Louise Simonson & Dan Bogdanove ended a long partnership on Man of Steel just prior to this issue. In the back issues I’ve read, I’ve found the soap opera elements of Simonson’s scripts to be quite strong, particular some of the scenes between Lois and Clark around the time of their marriage. So I’m a little sad to see that this longstanding creative team isn’t represented in my readthrough. I’d also like to have seen more ongoing writers dealing with Morrison’s great one-month shake-up of their titles. Perhaps it would only be industry gossip, but it’d be very interesting to follow up on how the regular writers of this time each reacted to the challenge of working to Morrison’s template. Some of the writers who took part really rose to the challenge, and some of them produced work which was a notch above what they were doing month in and month out on their own titles.

 

Back to the plot. Kal Kent, our Superman 1m, must defeat the Metal Men, who have been compromised by the Hourman virus and re-programmed to make the population suspicious of Justice Legion A and Superman 1m in particular. Given the strong role Platinum plays in the future strand of the story, it would seem that Morrison has some affection for her, or perhaps, as a pure, precious metal she has some role to play in the ‘alchemical’ meaning of his great epic.

 

The Metal Men almost turn the population of Metropolis against Superman 1m, but he eventually defeats them. Doc Magnus, now the 6th Metal Man Viridium, arrives to explain that they’d been compromised. There are some deviations from what I know of Metal Men history here. The 5 original Metal Men combine into the formidable group-being called Alloy at one point. Then there is the strange revelation that Doc Magnus is no longer human himself, but a Metal Man made of a strange alien metal. It’s hard to tell if the writers are just running with recent developments in Metal Men continuity, or if Morrison has contributed new ideas. The additions to the core mythology do have a sense of evolution about them, but I think that Morrison prefers characters like the Metal Men to be handled in their original forms if possible.

 

The strange quirky Metal Men would seem to be very marginal to the DCU at this time, so it’s notable that Morrison gives them quite a central role here, if this is following one of his plots. Of course, Morrison was the main writer of the 'Mad Scientist' strand of 52 as well, which featured Doc Magnus and some of the metal men rather heavily too, so he must have some fondness for them.

 

Superman 1m’s adventures in the 20th Century are given an urgency and desperation because his time away from the Supercomputer-Sun of the 853rdCentury makes him grow weaker as the hours pass.

 

In his own time, he is “faster than a speeding tachyon, more powerful than the gravitational pull of a collapsing star -- able to leap from world to world, in a single bound.”  It seems obvious that the adventures of this character in his own time would be very hard to write.

 

I could have had separate thread sections on the adventures of both Superman 1m and Batman 1m in the 20th Century. In both we get to see how the supporting casts of each react to having to deal with the future counterparts of the hero they are used to, and in doing so we do get an insight into those supporting casts. However, I thought 21stcentury readers might be more interested in how their regular heroes got on in their weird future worlds.

 

Man of Steel #1,000,000 falls exactly between DC One Million #2, where the Rocket Red suit containing Arsenal was launched against Metropolis, and Superman #1,000,000 where Superman manages to stop it exploding.

 

 

Here’s the frame that links this comic to both of those. There just aren’t enough tributes to the great Slim Pickens in DC comics!

 

Superman #1,000,000 Abnett & Lanning (script) Norm Breyfogle (art) (Week 3)

 

It’s great to see Breyfogle here as artist. There may be evidence of haste in how some of these issues were pencilled and inked, especially issues where the creative teams seem to have been put together at the last minute. This issue may not be as polished and well-finished as it could be, but Breyfogle, perhaps with the input of the writing team, shows good control of layouts and storytelling.

 

The first five pages of this issue, showing Superman 1m’s fall from the Rocket Red suit we saw him astride above, are a good illustration of this. Click on pages 1, 3 and 5 to see how the layouts of the pages and the direction the reader normally reads (left to right, top to bottom) are used to give the reader the feeling of a rapidly accelerating fall from a great height.

 

The nuclear-armed suit that Superman looks up at and tries to force away from the Earth is up there at the top edge of page 3, whereas Superman himself is then shown plummeting down and to the right, culminating on that page with Superman looking in horror just off the page, down and to the right. Bottom right corners anticipating what is coming next, as this does, encourage readers to turn the page. As with Morrison's JLA 1,000,000 issue, above, there is plenty of exposition in the first few pages, so the reader gets up to speed quickly, but the creative team even manage to make a virtue out of this necessity. As the first 5 pages speed up, the creators gradually decrease the amount of plot exposition being conveyed by Superman 1m’s inner monologue, so the reader is naturally forced to follow the pictures in a much faster way as we reach Superman’s crash landing. Techniques like these make reading the comic feel like a breathless exciting process, even if these tricks don’t always register consciously with the reader.

 

Some comics can feel a little dead as we read them, and we aren’t sure why. The creative team’s inability to mesh the tone and feeling of whatever is being depicted with the physical experience of reading may be the problem. It’s not enough just to show us a picture of something happening, with a few words explaining what the pictures can’t convey, for us to become fully engaged with the story.

 

The rest of the comic is quite functional as we follow Superman 1m’s attempts to get his hands on the technology that he will need to start constructing a new solar computer. He takes Luthor up on Lex’s offer to assist him. After they fail to get into the present day Fortress of Solitude and visit a Luthorcorp laboratory, Luthor turns on Superman 1m, by trying to dissect him in order to study the Hourman virus. All this time, Superman 1m is gradually losing his powers, as they fail one by one.

 

Finally he realises that he has to meet up with his Justice Legion A colleagues and try to gain access to the JLA Watchtower, in order to build a solar computer, which they know is the only thing that will stop the Hourman Virus.

 

I like how Abnett and Lanning depict the relationship between Lois Lane and this temporary usurper of her husband’s position. The breakneck plotting means they don’t really have time to get to know each other really well, but then, why should they? The little distance they keep between each other is more realistic than if they’d had some kind of fan-pleasing heart-to-heart.

 

The script instead gives us a series of exchanges between Lois and this Kal Kent where they use irony and understatement playfully with each other. This gives unity, and a uniqueness, to the whole issue, and hints at the growing fondness that builds between them without hammering us over the head with anything.

 

Superboy #1,000,000 Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett (week 3)

 

Superboy 1,000,000 stands out from the other crossovers somewhat. Most of the other September issues put their ongoing stories to one side to tell a one-off story about either the future counterpart of the regular star, or the regular star’s encounter with the mind-blowing world of 85,271AD. Kesel tries to tell us stories of both characters, in both times, while still trying to integrate this issue into his longer ongoing series. His approach is more like that used by frustrated writers in a conventional crossover, where he tries to service the event and still push his own storylines forward at the same time. A new ongoing character, Dr Serling Roquette, is introduced and Superboy’s induction to Project Cadmus is featured. We also get the obviously big deal decision to go public with the existence of Project Cadmus.

 

Taken as part of this readthrough of DC One Million, this one feels less successful, as this feels too much like another small chapter of an endless soap opera. This is in contrast to how many of the creative teams involved grabbed the opportunity to step off the wearying treadmill of endless monthly production to tell sharp little one-off stories, or to revel in the extremely fresh and exotic far-distant environment that the crossover allowed them to take advantage of for one month.

 

Blah Blah Blah

 

Even looking outside the DC One Million crossover, pick any really great single superhero comic that has stayed with you over the years. Chances are it was a comic where the creative team sat down and asked ‘what is this comic about? What is its theme?’ and from there focused a large part of the comic on serving that theme, or driving the message of the comic home. This comic doesn’t do that. Instead we are given page after page of different plot-driven events and endless expositionary speechifying.

 

Blah Blah

 

There are lots of amusing ideas here. There is a certain sense of lightheartedness, and the characters are likeable, but it all feels a bit “Jurgens-y” if I can use that term. By Jurgens-y I mean that there is plenty of plot, but we just get the story told in a series of pictures rather than something that feels very controlled artistically to produce genuine reactions in the reader. For one thing the art style doesn’t really change depending on how the reader is supposed to react. Then there is just so much text, as everything is explained to the nth degree to the reader.

 

Blah

 

Certainly, a lot happens in this comic, in two eras, which is something at least. The reader gets value for money on their first reading of comics like these, as there is a lot going on and lots of text, but with everything explained and laid out so that all the comic has to offer is gotten by the reader first time through, there’s not much reason to go back to this comic again. Everything is in service to the busy plotting, rather than allowing the comic to serve themes and feelings and human insights. It would also seem that the need to fill each panel with plotting means that few panels or pages are allowed to be simply pleasing on the eye, as happens in Snejbjerg's Starman, or either of JH Williams III's contributions to this crossover.

 

An interesting thing that Kesel does is use some tampering by the representative from the future to reveal something of Superboy’s immediate future to him. If I was a regular reader, I’d want to find out more about the hints and glimpses shown on this double-page spread.

 

 

I don’t really mean to pick on Kesel and Grummett here, but I am trying to pin down why this comic, by the regular team who supposedly have a lot invested in these characters and concepts, doesn’t work as well, ‘as a comic’ as Abnett and Lanning’s Superman #1,000,000, which seems at first glance to be a quite simplistic crossover-installment handed in by a substitute team. DC published a lot of exposition heavy, plot-driven comics like Superboy 1,000,000 in the early 90’s, that arguably scared off a lot of readers whose curiosity had been whetted by the work of Moore and Miller. So it’s worth considering what they are doing differently to comics of other eras.

 

JLA #1,000,000 Grant Morrison and Howard Porter (week 3)

 

It’s strange that this is the only issue of this Morrison/JLA epic that is drawn by regular JLA artist Porter. He rises to the occasion here with page after page of interesting layouts and dynamic superheroics, in his distinctive JLA style.

 

In this one, the Justice League subs bench has to defend the Watchtower from what they see as an attack by the Justice Legion ‘A’. They don’t know that the future heroes are trying to get access to the equipment and power supplies they need to build a new Solaris that will neutralise the Hourman Virus. The stakes are high and we take the heroes dilemmas and choices seriously, but they are still presented in a colourful and fun way. The colour and fun of these ‘Reconstruction’-era comics is something that really strikes the reader in 2012. Tastes and fashions have changed considerably in mainstream superhero comics, as evidenced by all that grim and grit and dour compromise of both the DCnU and the brave new crypto-fascist dispensation that Captain America presides over in the Marvel Universe.

 

The first page illustrates the colour and fun I speak of, with a side-order of awe, wonder and smarts. (Click to enlarge)

 

This is really an info-dump page, but Morrison uses several techniques to lift it above the endless panels of people talking to each other that we got with Kesel’s Superboy. As well as the information, which is just as well to get out of the way early, so we can sit back and enjoy the rest of the comic, we get some heart in the genuine respect and fondness the 853rd Century’s Finest Team have for each other. It is heartwarming to see this Superman call this Batman “Old friend” and know that some good things will endure. Then there are the fun ‘Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ entries using all kinds of novel and inspired terms and concepts to describe these two remarkable heroes.

 

Actually, Morrison adds a little conceit to this comic, in showing how entertainments of the future might come loaded with information. As well as the frequent updates on the histories and powers of the cast, from an entertainingly vast historical perspective, we also get reminders at the bottom of ever second page to ‘turn page’ – which highlights in a roundabout way that the future society would be so different to ours that people wouldn’t even know how to read a comic!

 

Then there are the nods to wild adventures and lives lived outside the pages of this or any comic: in this case the reference to the Pandora’s Box adventure. References like this make the fictional world seem open and boundless, instant of closed-in and restricted, as happens when everything ties directly into the plotting and continuity.

 

Finally, look how Superman’s feet are shattering the ground as he prepares to launch himself at the moon. Einstein gets name-checked in the dialogue box there, but it’s nice to see Newton’s laws of equal but opposite reaction get a look-in too. In the next full page splash Superman speaks the end of that famous phrase, but we don’t see any words in the balloon because, of course, he’s in the vacuum of space.

 

These preposterous heroes become a little more real when they are presented with little ‘true’ details like the cracking ground and the soundlessness of space. What could be more fun than the preposterous becoming real for just a little bit?

 

Morrison writes at length in his Supergods about how superhero writers have to make the same limited number of hackneyed plots entertaining month after month. In the case of this comic he takes the cliché of two super-teams meeting, fighting and then teaming up to defeat the bad guy, and through various techniques such as those shown on this page, gives a masterclass in how to make it work one more time.

 

DC One Million #3 - Morrison and Val Semeiks (Week 4)

 

In this issue all the threats and plotlines set in 1998 are resolved. To begin with things are in absolute chaos, but Morrison’s heroes are just that - heroes. Other multi-hero crossovers may involve most of the 'good guys' standing back and letting the main hero do the important stuff, but here, Morrison is careful to show that all the heroes are each doing what they can with the facet of the overall situation they are presented with. Oracle tries to co-ordinate everything, whilst the Atom, in her bloodstream works out how to defeat the Hourman Virus. He is successful in this, albeit it would take too long for his vaccine to be made and distributed. The Martian Manhunter and the Teen Titans of the day face off against Vandal Savage, whilst the rest of the JLA work furiously to construct a ‘Solar Computer’ which is the only means they have to defeat the virus within a short timeframe.

 

As elsewhere in Morrison’s JLA work, the JLA members from both timeframes show their true heroism in their behaviour, rather than just the fact that they are the ones fighting the bad guys. As the Virus makes them more paranoid, short-tempered and unable to concentrate, they constantly try to encourage and placate each other, and show compassion.

 

 

This is most obvious in the scenes between Batman 1m and his colleague Starman. Batman is enraged at Knight’s betrayal, and determined to beat a solution to their predicament out of him, even if it means killing him. In a moment of grace, Batman sees that Starman is the only one capable of helping them get their solar computer up and running, and he gives Farris his powerful Gravity Rod back. Batman puts Farris’ redemption into his own hands. A gesture that possibly redeems two lost souls at once.

 

In a series presenting such a hopeful vision of the future, it’s satisfying that the atavistic violence, selfishness and will-to-power that threatens everything is personified in Vandal Savage, a conqueror from mankind’s earliest days. Savage even faces off against the Martian Manhunter in some of Hitler’s set-aside super-tanks, to drive the point home. Vandal Savage is one of DC’s most potent characters, representing as he does, the evil that mankind has always been capable of since our beginnings, but he’s been woefully underused for most of his existence. To date, this is perhaps his best use in a major crossover, although he had a small but important ‘uncredited cameo’ in Final Crisis. Vandal is also Solaris’ most trusted partner and co-conspirator in the 853rd Century, showing that the evil that has accompanied the human race is something that we will probably always have to contend with.

 

Thematicaly, it is satisfying that it is J’onn J’onnz, the kindest and most compassionate of the Justice League, whose attitude to the world is most unlike Savage’s, who gets to put Savage out of the picture.

 

In the remainder of the issue, Farris Knight’s gravity rod allows them to jumpstart the Solar Computer, which absorbs the Hourman Virus from all over the Earth. As it gathers more information and increases its intelligence, however, it starts to become the Tyrant Sun Solaris. This is a bad thing, and it’s up to the conflicted anti-hero Starman to step up and banish him from our universe, even if it means sacrificing his own life. It’s a great sequence. I wanted to post a picture or two from it to illustrate how good it is, but it all works as a long sequence of words and pictures, and just a couple of them don't do it justice. In any case, it’s a great climax to Farris Knight’s arc. Considering that no-one had heard of Farris Knight only a month before, Morrison has brought this character from nought to light-speed in 4 weeks! Literally ‘from Zero to Hero’.

 

Part of his story was told through revelations that the heroes trapped in the 853rd made in their comics, but the main work was done in Robinson’s wonderful 1,000,000th issue of Starman.

 

Farris’ sacrifice is presented as something that puzzles himself. He’d tried all his life to escape the role of hero that he’d seemingly been born into, but here he was, being the greatest hero of the moment. Farris wonders if everything was pre-ordained from the beginning, but this is a very ‘Morrisonian’ line of thought. The rest of the series does show us that despite everyone’s attempts to change history, they each end up doing exactly what they’d done each time these events were set in motion. More than just presenting a cleverly constructed time-travel story, its clear that Morrison is once again trying to get across the insights he believes were granted to him during his "Katmandu experience".

 

With Vandal and the Tyrant Sun dealt with, all that’s left is for the heroes stuck in the 20th Century to find a way to get to the 853rd, or find some way to help their timelost companions save the Universe from Solaris’ nefarious plans.

 

We’ll get to that in my Week 4 blog. However, first there will be a brief Interlude to mourn those who fell during this great battle for the future of the DCU.

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