By Thom Yee
Along with Warren Ellis’ Planetary, Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers and Mark Millar’s Ultimates, Grant Morrison’s JLA (short for Justice League of America) is not only one of my favourite comicbook runs of all time, but it really formed the spine of my personal literary sensibilities. In terms of print on paper with few-to-no pictures, I read very few books, so it’s fortunate that comicbooks as strongly executed and high-concept as those four came along to help inform who I am (or at least who I claim to be). Having grown up reading comics and magazines more than any traditional novels or literary works, I guess it’s an issue of attention span — I just can’t keep it going, it’s like there’s a wall made of nothing but text. It really escapes me how anyone can plow their way through a significant amount of text, fiction or nonfiction, without pictures of some invulnerable flying man or a giant, green rage monster jumping out at you.
Morrison’s JLA came about at a significant ebb in the general flow of the Justice League concept. Introduced in the ‘60s as an assemblage of many of the new DC heroes that had gained traction in the marketplace after a decade of horror, western and romance comics (and apparently the accidental progenitor of the Fantastic Four and, thus, the Marvel Age of Comics), by the the late ‘90s, the concept had been run into the ground, weighed down by such titles as Justice League Task Force and something called “Extreme Justice”. The important thing to realize is that none of that matters as, within the first 20 pages of the first four-issue story arc, Morrison dispatches with the previous titles’ characters, made up of such luminaries as “Metamorpho”, “Obsidian” and “Ice Maiden”. Yeah.
Morrison’s JLA represents the first time that DC’s mainline superheroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter — had been brought together under one title since the early ‘80s. I guess DC may have been reluctant to bring so many characters who were part of different editorial groups together (i.e., the Superman group of titles of which there were four at the time and the Batman group of which it felt like there were a few thousand), but by the end of the previous era, it was obvious something had to be done, creatively, critically and commercially.
Morrison’s first story arc begins with a bang as a group of superpowered aliens known as the Hyperclan arrive on Earth, claiming to be here to house our homeless, feed our starving and repair the damage we’ve done to our biosphere. Within moments of landing, the clan proceeds to bring temperate weather, lush gardens and “a rainstorm, loaded with honey and wine” to the Sahara Desert. Led by a preternaturally charismatic being named Protex, who “looks like Jim Morrison”, the Hyperclan seems almost tailor-made to appeal to humanity’s baser senses of wish fulfillment, power and free love. But as Superman posits soon after, “The Sahara is green today, but can it be sustained, or are people being given false hopes in the name of spectacle? Is humankind really willing to become the pampered lapdog of superhuman beings and squander its own potential?” And of course, like all of us would, the citizens of the DC universe Earth respond with a resounding “HELL YES!”
But things aren’t that simple. Soon after the Hyperclan have established themselves as the new hotness (a phrase that would have been well ahead of its time in 1997 when these comics were first published), the Justice League satellite is attacked, the Hyperclan establishes bases all over the world that are slowly hypnotizing the populace, and all of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Superman, Green Lantern and the Flash are defeated by the Hyperclan. Because, you see, the Hyperclan is, in actuality, nothing more than the first strike in an alien invasion, and every member of the team boasts the same powers as Superman. Plus shapeshifting. And invisibility. And intangibility. And telepathy.
In other words, we’re all in trouble.
The really exciting thing about this first arc in Morrison’s run is that, of all the members, each of whom is either missing in action or defeated by the Hyperclan, it winds up all being up to Batman in the end, who Protex repeatedly insists is “only a man”. And even though every member of the Hyperclan is a Superman-plus-level super being, Batman ends up taking out four of them before Superman and the Martian Manhunter free themselves and their teammates, ultimately overcoming this overwhelming force, as they would with every impossible threat thought up by Morrison through his run.
At this point in fiction, superheroes, or generally mythic narrative, it’s no surprise that good wins in the end. Despite our misgivings and deeper understandings of the world around us, it is the job of fiction to tell us, even if not in totality, that good wins, evil loses, and things will be okay. It’s generally only in the execution that we find any real thought provocation. Near the end of this initial Hyperclan arc, the question of “What’s the point?” comes up. Are the superheroes doing too much or too little? When does intervention become domination? As the Flash asks the group, “Why should they [humanity] need us at all?” And Morrison, through Superman, answers the question beautifully: “To catch them if they fall.”
The forty-one Justice League issues of this era would end up being the type of star-turning run that would help to make Grant Morrison comicbook royalty in the eyes of comicbook fans. Nowadays he’s the kind of rock star comic writer that any editor and any publisher, under any editorial regime would be crazy to turn down. The craziest thing about Morrison’s JLA is not only how definitively superlative it is as a superhero team book, but how well it holds up over time. Rereading the first story arc, the book feels just as if not more modern than any book out there right now. Through a combination of iconic takes on the characters, mostly solid pacing, and almost unbelievable originality, Morrison’s JLA is one of the first extended runs that I would give to anyone who is remotely interested in reading about superheroes or is doubtful of their literary potential.
JLA 1-4 final score: 9.5
On the Edge
- A biproduct of its time and a really weird thing Morrison had to deal with while writing JLA in the ’90s is the level of instability in DC’s top-tier characters. You might notice that in these first four issues that Superman has long hair. A post-resurrection decision to, I guess, modernize Superman, that’s nothing next to the electric-blue Superman costume and powers change Morrison had to endure for about a year after the Hyperclan arc. Later on, the JLA would officially induct Green Arrow into the fold, only it was Connor Hawke, the son of the original. The issue after that Wonder Woman had died and been replaced by her mother, Hippolyta. And this is all not even mentioning that the title launched with the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern, the Wally West Flash, and a grizzled, bearded and armoured Aquaman with a hook for a hand. All of this is a stark contrast to DC’s current approach of trying to put forward only the most iconic versions of its characters, even to the exclusion of fan favourites (cough, Wally West, cough). In the hands of lesser writers, these types of speed bumps in the book’s development would have proven to be serious obstacles. It’s a testament to Morrison’s abilities that he is not only able to deftly side step these issues where appropriate, but even smoothly integrate them into his stories more strongly than the writers and editors who had initiated those changes were able to integrate them into theirs.
- Superman’s response to Protex yelling about Batman that “He’s only one man!”: “The most dangerous man on Earth…”
- I’ll really miss Morrison after his departures from Action Comics, Batman Incorporated, and, seemingly, mainstream superhero work next year. Hopefully it won’t be too long until he’s back.