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Grant Morrison’s Run on Justice League of America: The Deluxe Edition, Vol. 1-2 (Review/Retrospective)

“Never underestimate the sentimentality of a Scotsman, Clark.”

- Batman knows how much Morrison likes comics

‘Tis the season for ever-so-slightly oversized hardback editions, what with DC reissuing the entire run of Starman and this re-release of the relaunch of the original superteam. The fact that they can put creator extraordinaire Grant Morrison’s name on the cover surely isn’t a problem either. Nor is the fact that the book (under his stewardship) was one of the best selling comic books of the nineties. So, what aren’t I getting here? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly adequate book (that isn’t necessarily as smart as it thinks it is), but it’s not gold. It moves at the speed of the Flash and seems intent to throw ideas at the reader at headache-inducing speed. It’s solid, reliable and it manages to recreate the zany madness that defined the group, but it never seems to completely transcend it. And it just keeps trying.

Rocking your world...

Don’t get me wrong. We have a lot to be thankful to this collection for. It supposedly provided the inspiration for the Justice League in its cartoon form. It features a superbly-written Superman. It’s packed to the brim with action and explosions and everything is turned up to maximum in order to grant it the greatest impact with the audience. This doesn’t even factor in that the series had been in trouble for decades before Grant Morrison stepped in. Sure, experiments like Justice League International (and even the Justice League Detroit era) are retrospectively viewed as worthwhile experiments, and maybe even as quirky stories in their own right. It’s just odd that it took one of comicdom’s greatest minds to fix a book which had once been so influential that it had inspired Stan Lee to create The Fantastic Four. Putting “the big seven” back on the team really should have been a no-brainer.

The series had originally been a success because it was value-for-money. Why buy seven individual comics when you could have Superman, Batman, Wonderwoman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman and The Martian Manhunter for the price of a single comic book? That was what had made the title so enticing in the past. It ceased to be a bargain when you replaced those iconic characters with a bunch of second-rate no-namers. It’s hard to access the impact of what Morrison did in retrospect, but putting the team back together was perhaps the finest legacy of his run.

Beyond that, I’m not so sure.

Putting the band back together...

Morrison attempts to use the book to ask questions about the nature of superheroes. The problem is that there really isn’t space for it in his epic, large-scale, clock-is-ticking narrative structure. Take his opening arc - Them! (in fact, all of the chapters in the story are named for sci-fi classics - The Day The Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Invaders From Mars) - as an example. A bunch of seemingly benevolent (ha!) alien superheroes show up and promise to do what the Justice League can’t: make the world a better place.

That’s a serious question right there. Why can’t superheroes actually make the world a better place? I mean, Superman could stop wars, the Flash could ensure everyone on the planet gets fed, the Green Lantern could mitigate any sort of natural disaster, Batman has technology that could instantly improve the standards of living. How come they do nothing? Of course, these alien creatures are inevitably sinister (executing criminals without trial is the first clue), but the also create a garden in the Sahara. A “garden of eden,” to quote Superman and keep with the religious metaphors throughout the series (more coming on that). By the end of the arc, it is crumbling to dust.

The Flash has a serous case of (star)fish breath...

So, what justification does Morrison have Superman give for never having done anything similar himself?

Humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there.

Hmmm… I’m not sure I buy that. Morrison includes the notions of faith and devotion throughout his run, and discusses how dangerous unquestioning obedience to a higher authority is (though he somewhat undermines himself by having those higher powers brainwashmankind, as if to suggest we’d never surrender willingly). However, that explains why Superman hasn’t overthrown world governments and – maybe - why he doesn’t interfere in wars. But – were the JLA to maintain the garden in the Sahara (rather than letting it crumple to dust) – I doubt it would be the same thing.

On the side of the angels?

How much different is it allowing people to starve rather than allowing them to die in a supervillain catastrophe? And, if you accept this logic, there are uncomfortable implications. Was there a Rwandan genocide in the DC Universe? Did Superman let it happen? Is saving human lives only really a concern when they are threatened by a wacky psychopath with a funny-sounding nickname and implausible technology? So, by inference, are American lives (since it is the JLA and that is where must supervillain attacks seem to occur) more important than lives in the developing world, because the deaths in the developing world are the result of the conduct of men in suits who drink fine coffee rather than wearing tight spandex?

I’ll concede that’s probably taking a comic book about grown men and women in spandex running around making quips and knocking the stuffing out of each other far too seriously, but Morrison invites this discussion. And maybe he’s right to – he frequently discusses how he uses his mainstream work to ‘inoculate’ readers to extreme or far out ideas, almost to broaden their horizons. The problem is that it is difficult to balance these serious ideas on one hand and deal with the craziness in the other. It’s a very fine line to walk, and it’s hard to consistently stay on the right side of it.

Batman's final crisis...

Take, for example, the recurring “Justice League as gods” motif. These are, after all, characters with “the purity of purpose, the unflinching courage and dedication to duty that sets them so high above” what Lex Luthor deems “mere men.” The comparison is overtly made several times, with Neron even factoring in the Justice League during his attack on Heaven itself. Indeed, the second story arc (Fire in the Sky and Heaven on Earth) has the team taking on rogue angels in a two-parter introducing Morrison’s own creation Zauriel. The rogue angel was rumoured to have been created because Morrison was forbidden from using the extremely convoluted Hawkman - Aquaman even confuses him for the winged hero at one point. In the midst of it, there’s a possessed body in a coma, a pair of demons pulling the moon to Earth and a huge showdown with some cyberpunk angels.

It should be incredibly epic in scope, but it just feels like everything has been switched up to the max and rammed incredibly close together. It almost feels like we’re witnessing a middle chapter in a gigantic crossover arc, where whatever it is that is happening will be explained at some other point. It never really is. It looks impressive, and fits with the theme, but there’s not really anything going on – it just feels like this strange mish-mash of grand ideas that are never slowed down enough to tie together.

Think fast!

Instead, we get some none-too-subtle post-modernism from Morrison (the angels refer to reality as “the book”), which also echoes throughout the run. There’s typical Morrisonian “meta” wackiness to be found in these volumes. Notice, for example, how Metron’s doorways through reality look like comic book panels. Or even how the Key’s evil plans rely on the Justice League winning, as they always do. “They always win, you see,” he explains. “The Justice League. They always win. That was the key to it.” Indeed, the Key justifies his babbling and expository villainous monologue as the mandatory side-effect of an enhanced intelligence. “Oh,” he remarks, “and make a note of an interesting side effect of my expanding consciousness. I can’t stop myself talking…”

In fairness, maybe Morrison took a while to find his feet on the title. The later stories collected here - Imaginary Stories/Elseworlds and Rock of Ages - seem more focused on providing some honest-to-goodness Silver Age nostalgia. We’re treated to a dream world where Superman is a Green Lantern, a Darkseid-run alternate future and the reemergence of the Injustice League, run by Lex Luthor in full-blown “criminal mastermind” mold. No suave John-Byrne-esque business man for Morrison, although he does throw a polite nod in the direction of that previous characterisation. “We don’t fight them in the street like brawlers,” Lex insists. “We apply the principles of the board room and we plan. We observe.” Asking his compatriots to imagine the team as “a rival company”, he remarks, “Prepare for the corporate takeover of the Justice League.”

The Joker's on them...

Hell, Elseworlds even has an homage to Alan Moore’s Superman story, For the Man Who Has Everything, as Bruce addresses the imaginary Selina in a manner very similar to how Superman addressed his imaginary son. “I’m sorry, but you’re not real.” Alan Moore, notably, would also be the writer who would write the iconic last story featuring the Silver Age Superman, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Morrison’s work here is an extremely comfortable throwback, which is solidly entertaining once you let yourself be taken along.

Indeed, the structure of Morrison’s run is quite worth noting. In the nineties, and – to a large extent – even today, there’s been an increasing trend toward decompression and “writing for the trade”, with a large number of comic books subscribing to the idea that an arc should be six issues in length. Harking back to the classic comic books, Morrison tends towards smaller arcs – stories of one or two issues, all building upon one another. Indeed, the largest story in this section of the run, Rock of Ages, is cleverly structured with the Injustice League story starting, a smaller New Gods story happening in the middle, and the original story then resolving itself. It’s similar to the structure Morrison would adopt during his first few issues of Action Comics, and it feels like a writer who is comfortable playing with the plotting and structure conventions of the medium.

Crossover time!

That said, Morrison’s run is held captive to the conventions of superhero storytelling in other respects. Most notably the way that he’s forced to deal with all the random character developments occurring to each of his characters in their own books. I’ve always felt that’s the problem with big team books like this, remaining a slave to the regular continuity. I’d almost rather a separate and accessible continuity to allow the writer of books like this a lot more freedom to plot and tell their stories.

Morrison arguably handles the demands of a shared universe much more gracefully than Brad Meltzer or Dwayne McDuffie would, but it’s still distracting. One minute Superman has long hair. Then he’s Electric Blue Superman. Suddenly Wonder Woman’s dead. Then she’s replaced by her mother. Although, when Morrison does continue plot threads from elsewhere (using the book, for example, to wrap up threads from Mark Millar and Grant Morrison’s short Aztek run), he is careful to ensure the audience is given the information they need to follow the story.

Fun run!

Perhaps a large part of the appeal of Morrison’s run is lost in the gap between when the run was originally published and the present day. Morrison mostly tells bright and optimistic stories, allowing his heroes to stand as paragons of virtue, and thwart cartoonish supervillains. Coming out of the nineties, a decade that had seen Batman’s back broken in Knightfall and The Death of Superman, the optimism of Morrison’s run must have felt like a breath of fresh air. Indeed, I think it foreshadowed a broader reconstruction of comic books, where it became possible for successful mainstream books to reject casual violence and nihilism.

I was actually surprised – given how fond Morrison seems to be of traditional Silver Age light-and-fluff-iness – at how dark he painted Batman’s fantasy in Elseworlds (featuring a terminal Joker crippling Bruce’s son and preparing to suicide-bomb Gotham). There are some familiar tropes of Morrison’s work present here (humanity is again zombified and brainwashed by an extraterrestrial menace, but we have untapped potential, and the Justice League work best as ideals). Still, it reads well enough.

Somebody's about to have a very Dark Knight...

Indeed, a lot of Morrison’s core ideas are hinted at here, making Final Crisis feel like a coda to the run. Indeed, not only do we have Darkseid “killing” Batman, but we also have the notion of Earth as the “fifth world” to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, with even Metron describing the JLA as “only forerunners” of something greater. “Earth was to have been the cradle of a superhuman race,” the Martian leader tells Superman. “But we snapped one too many DNA chains and the creatures that should have been gods ended up just… humans.” However, that potential is still there, a key theme of a lot of Morrison’s writing. After all, Superman deals with the Hyperclan by inspiring mankind to raise fire against them, just one of the many times the heroes defeat evil by inspiring the masses to action.

Indeed, Morrison even manages to throw in ideas that would later find expression. In particular, I like the suggestion that the Philosopher’s Stone is “a mirror of the universe. In miniature.” It’s the same sort of idea that Morrison would use for “qwewq”, also mentioned here in passing. It suggests that these fictional worlds are recursive, fitting inside one another like an infinite string of nesting dolls. Morrison has always had a keen interest in the DC Universe, and it is perhaps reasonable to suggest that it is a skewed, smaller “mirror” of our own world. Indeed, Morrison’s work always lends these ideas some symmetry, suggesting that these characters are looking out at us as well. As in noted, infinitely recursive.

Something something something Darkseid...

There’s also some fantastic callbacks to stories long past thrown in for good measure. Take for example the aforementioned reintroduction of the Injustice Society or the clever use of Starro in the really fun Secret Origin story (co-scripted by Mark Millar), harking back to the original Justice League adventure (of course, the giant alien starfish has been given a wonderfully creepy overhaul). It’s small touches like that that bring a smile to the inner nerd. The fact that the stories featuring these concepts aren’t half bad is perhaps even better.

It’s clear that these stories do come from the mind of someone who greatly loved the hokey tropes of classic comic book story-telling rather than the gritty realism that defined the genre in the nineties. He even articulates this through new-age Green Lantern Kyle Rayner:

What is it with supervillains these days? What happened to crazy jewel heists and dumb traps? Now they murder your girlfriend and stuff her in a fridge for kicks.

And you though Silver Age nostalgia began with Geoff Johns?

Not-so-Green Lantern...

Perhaps the best part of these two volumes is the characters. In fairness, Morrison is forced to be economical in his use of them (this is an all-action-all-the-time book, after all), but he writes most of them well. He particularly crafts a good Superman and a solid Lex Luthor (who is not a cynical businessman here, reverting to his classic out-and-out villain). Superman – who unsurprisingly fits Morrison’s model of a classical “god” to a ‘t’ – seems almost a better Morrison fit than Batman, and it’s almost sad that Morrison has ended up the title writer on Batman rather than with the Man of Steel. Still, we’ll always have All-Star Superman, right?

Here Superman may fall prey to some of the… more ‘out there’ trends of the nineties (first long hair, then his “electric blue” look), but there’s no insecurity or self-doubt or any attempt to make him darker, or more ambiguous or to move him ‘more in line with the times’. This is Supes as he was meant to be. This is a version of Superman who still holds on to the idea that Lex Luthor can, despite his evil deeds, somehow be redeemed. “I came to thank you for what you did up there,” Superman remarks after a confrontation. “Your idea was brilliant. The dead of Star City are back, safe and well. They don’t even remember being dead. Batman’s convinced you did it to avoid murder charges. I prefer to think otherwise.” Even when all others think Lex is beyond redemption, Superman holds on to hope. “Goodbye, Lex. There’s a good man in there somewhere.”

Has Lex got the stones to take on the Justice League?

And it’s nice to see Morrison write Luthor, Superman’s central antagonist. I think Morrison has a wonderful voice for the character, even if I don’t quite like the mad supervillain approach to the character. To Morrison’s Luthor, everything is about him. And Superman. There’s that wonderful self-delusion in Morrison’s Superman, that hint of obsession, as he claims he would have no problem with the Justice League, “but for Superman.” With no small amount of ego, he claims, “I take his leadership of this preposterous team of alpha males as a direct challenge, a throwing down of the gauntlet, a clear and deliberate escalation of the hostilities between us.”

The irony is delicious – because I’m fairly certain Superman didn’t even think of Luthor when setting up the League, and Morrison almost subtly hints that this is equally infuriating to Luthor. Perhaps this is all some desperate grab for attention. It’s a nice way to rationalise a concept as decidedly Silver Age as “the Injustice Gang”, presenting it as a clear attempt to hold the attention of Superman, and even a none-too-subtle attempt to emulate him. After all, Lex has built a suit that allows him to fly and gives him super-strength. Perhaps he’s assembling his team as a means of compensating, trying to be the man he claims to despise.

Talk about ganging up...

We also get a sneak peak at Morrison’s Batman here as well. Don’t let the fact that Batman is a mere mortal fool you – here he’s more god than man. It’s Batman who manages to deliver the most damage to Darkseid in the alternate world (even hijacking Desaad’s body to do it), it’s Batman who survives being underestimated by the alien invaders and it’s Batman who figures out that waking up from their Key-induced dreams might be a bad thing. If we accept that Grant Morrison’s unique creation Prometheus is intended as an anti-Batman, we get an even closer look at the Scotsman’s perception of the Dark Knight.

Prometheus is presented as the parent of a pair of hippy criminals, killed by the forces of law-and-order, who vows to avenge them by waging a war on crime. Morrison borrows all the trappings of the classic Batman origin story – Prometheus is left a huge amount of money by his deceased parents, and embarks on a trip across the world, to hone his skills and crafts. “I walked among the rich and powerful and acquired their secrets,” he confesses, mirroring the time that Bruce spent with criminals to develop his own understanding of the criminal minds. Indeed, much like Morrison’s Batman, Prometheus has spent time with Tibetan monks. Where Morrison’s Batman meditated and found inner peace through sacred ritual, Prometheus merely finds a “crooked house for a crooked man” in Limbo. “Only the dead go there,” Zauriel observes.

A Promethean accomplishment...

Prometheus is a counterpart to Batman, but he’s also a brutal deconstruction of the most excessive attributes of the Dark Knight. Bruce dismisses Prometheus as “another coward with a grudge”, as the bad guy rambles on about his vaguely-conceived “mission” to wage war on the forces of law and order, as ambiguous as Batman’s war on crime. The character uses analysis to defeat his foes, almost a parody of the fandom idea that Batman could beat anyone “with prep time.” He quickly and efficiently takes out most of the Justice League using his careful research, boasting, “I’ve been planning this.”

However, Morrison knows that there’s more to Batman than those attributes, and that any character emulating them (whether for good or ill) will fail without a greater understanding. Bruce isn’t awesome because he has researched and prepared – as Prometheus learns, it’s easy for a situation you’ve prepared to get out of hand quite quickly. Similarly, Batman is more than just a raving lunatic “with a grudge”, Morrison rejecting the idea that Bruce is a mundane vigilante out for revenge. Indeed, despite his shrewd technique, Prometheus is quickly humbled by one of Bruce’s own villains, as if to demonstrate that he’s not really anywhere near the same league as Batman. Catwoman taunts him, “So you’re just a poor little mommy’s boy, is that it, Prometheus?”

Some men just wanna watch the world burn...

In fact, it was Selina Kyle who would take advantage of the “poor little mommy’s boy” version of Bruce Wayne that Morrison would present in The Butler Did It, offering a universe where Bruce never became Batman at all. It’s also telling that Prometheus has no identity beyond Prometheus, while Morrison suggests that Bruce Wayne is an essential part of the balance of Batman. Of course Prometheus isn’t an effective Batman counterpart, because he’s missing that most crucial part of the equation.

There’s all the trappings we’d see in Morrison’s run on the title present here, with assassin monks and meditation and absurd levels of planning. It seems almost as though Morrison feels that Batman needs to prove that he belongs amid all these iconic characters. I’m not really complaining – he is made of awesome here – but it’s interesting to note that Morrison clearly had a core idea of the character that lasted. It’s also interesting to see that Batman’s dream future (as imagined by Morrison at least) has a former sidekick – this time Tim Drake – and his son running around Gotham as Batman and Robin. We even get a spin on the mantra Morrison used to tie together Batman R.I.P. and Batman & Robin. “As long as Gotham needs them, Batman and Robin can never die.”

That retro feeling...

You can already see Morrison attempting to curb some of the tendencies to push Batman towards the “psychotic loner” of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In the Elseworlds two-parter, Morrison even dares to propose an alternate future for Batman, notable because The Dark Knight Returns has always represented the character’s de factofuture. It’s a vision that has come to define Batman, suggesting he’ll grow old and alone and isolated, becoming an increasingly violent and almost psychotic individual. Morrison proposes an alternative to that image of a lonely old Batman.

In this alternate world, Bruce grows up and marries Selina – they’ve been married for “twenty-one years” by the point we join the story. Bruce’s family is with him. He’s retired, but Gotham is safe. It’s secure in the hands of Tim Drake, the then-current Robin. Morrison even gives Bruce a mustache, like Miller did at the start of The Dark Knight Returns, to illustrate how far behind him his days of Batman are. Of course, the moustache is inevitably shaved off, as Bruce discovers that he can’t not be Batman. In fairness to Miller, Morrison concedes that Bruce could never truly stop being Batman, but Morrison disputes the idea that Batman will end up alone.

Didn't we already do the Death of Superman?

It’s remarkable that, in contrast to Miller’s realistic and functional “Bat-tank”, Morrison’s future Batman drives a highly stylised Batmobile, as if to suggest that the joy won’t ever be entirely drained from Bruce. Another nice touch is te fact that the Joker is well aware of Batman’s secret identity (“just let me see the look on your face when I do it, Brucie…”), a nice reference to the climax of Batman R.I.P., when Batman unmasks in front of the clown to… no reaction at all. Morrison’s Joker doesn’t care about who Bruce is under the mask.

Indeed, continuing Morrison’s attempt to move Batman away from the shadow of The Dark Knight Returns, the opening arc sees Batman paired with Superman on the trip to take down the bad guys, and they speak as friends – a return of the Silver Age characterisation that had been brushed aside by Frank Miller’s portrayal as a pair of ideological opposites. Batman admits his mistrust of the more colourful heroes, while being sure to identify Superman as the explicit exception. “I don’t have superspeed or invulnerability,” he reminds Clark. “I can’t risk wearing a bright costume that makes me a target and I can’t afford to trust poorly-trained people who do. Present company excepted, of…” In The Return of Bruce Wayne, Morrison revealed that it was Superman Bruce trusted to bring him back to the present, and one can see the attempt to reconstruct their old friendship here.

'Tek war...

Hell, Morrison’s Batman seems far more rounded here. He even cracks a joke to his team mates at the expense of the new guy. As Connor Hawke takes the opportunity to lament the large-scale property damage as “stupid, pointless madness”, Bruce points towards him and remarks to his team mates, “Remind you of anyone?” A darker version of the character might have thought it to himself, before indulging in a monologue about how little Connor understands about the world or some other nonsense, and it’s hard to imagine Frank Miller’s version of the character sharing it with a cheeky grin on his face.

Morrison also does himself and the DC Universe as a whole a bit of a service in accepting the necessary changing of the guard with several younger generation legacy heroes – in particular the second Green Arrow and Kyle Rayner. When Superman confesses he is worried about Kyle pushing himself past his limits, J’onn observes, “I don’t think he’s anywhere near his limits.” It’s a small thing in a universe where time seems to stand still, but it creates the feeling of a progression of sorts in a universe that risks remaining too static. In fact, given that the bulk of his brief is restoring the League to its classic lineup, Morrison manages to balance old-and-new quite finely.

Batman knows how to light up a room...

One can almost sense the author’s contempt for the “darker and edgier” twists on modern heroes. In particular, he seems to have a bit of a go at the modern Aquaman. Originally a silly figure of fun (who could talk to fish), the nineties saw the character’s child die and had Arthur lose his hand. He replaced it with a hook, as befitting the times. Aquaman is the member who originally ignores the League, stating typically macho nonsense, “I’ll decide what my problems are, Diana, and the sea is my responsibility, not yours.”

Wonder Woman has little time for this. “Oh, stop posturing, Arthur,” she remarks, as if chiding a small child. “‘The sea is my responsibility’? What a ridiculous thing to say.” And then the two pairs of heroes refusing to work together – Wonder Woman and Aquaman and the Flash and the new Green Lantern – are promptly stomped due to their “lack of discipline.” None of that nineties posturing and character drama for Morrison.

None of your watered-down Aquaman...

I have to admit, reading back over it again, I’m impressed by the volume of set up that Morrison does here. Not only is he foreshadowing ideas he’d fully develop in Final Crisis, but he also successfully sets up the threats and plot points that would play into the end of his run – suggesting “a threat older and more terrible than Darkseid” is waiting to face the Justice League just around the corner. There’s a sense of mounting tension and pressure, and it’s to Morrison’s credit that he sets it up so well.

Still, I’m not entirely sold on this run and this comic book. Maybe it’s too bright and cheerful for me. Maybe it’s too zany and ridiculous for me to fully embrace. I’d like to think I’m not that joyless – I quite enjoyed most of the collection and particularly savoured the later arcs. It just feels like maybe the book has a little bit too much going on and it can’t decide whether it wants to be a post-modern melting pot of ideas, or a good old-fashioned fun ride which doesn’t need to stop for your logic or consideration. It’s a very tough tightrope to walk, and I’m not sure that Morrison manages it all of the time. I will confess, however, to enjoying it much more on a re-read, and to appreciating the final two volumes in the set much more.

Beam me up, Scotsman!

Maybe justice isn’t for all, but I can feel myself warming to it.

Read our complete reviews of Grant Morrison’s Justice League work:

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