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Grant Morrison’s Run on Justice League of America – The Deluxe Edition, Vol. 3-4 (Review/Retrospective)

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. With the review of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths later on today, I thought I’d take a look at Grant Morrison’s graphic novel which inspired it in someway. However, I figure – given that large debt that the entire Justice League cartoon owes Morrison’s iconic tenure on Justice League of America – it’s time to take a look at the latter half of Morrison’s run on the title.

We have no powers, there are millions of them and there’s a child in there who needs us to save the world. Let’s go.

- another day at the office for Superman

I remarked in my review of the first two deluxe hardcovers collecting his work on the series that I was perhaps a lot less impressed than most with Morrison’s work on the title. It was grand and bombastic, but it ended up feeling more than a little hallow, especially measured against some of his bolder efforts within the superhero genre. Although time and a few re-reads have softened my perspective quite a bit, I will concede that I don’t measure this as the writer’s best work. It’s epic and smart and fun, but never really becomes anything too much more.

But, then again, they are the Justice League. If I want deep characterisation of philosophical meanderings, I can check out a different book.

It actually looks quite peaceful when you're not saving it...

Again, none of this is to suggest Morrison’s writing is bad. Indeed, I had fun reading the entire run, collected in these nice hardcover editions. There’s a certain amount of depth to it all, and there’s some wonderful insight shown into each of the members of the team. One of the most endearing aspects of Morrison’s writing is the manner in which he just throws out ideas as if he’s not going to get the chance to use them all – there’s no hint that he’s really saving the best until later when he can serve it up right now. Occasionally this lends his stories a somewhat uneven feel, as if the best ideas have been front-loaded rather than stored until the end – take, for example, his work on Final Crisis, which features any number of brilliant ideas, but ends with relatively tame (for Morrison) idea of a vampire representing the darkness in comic books. It’s a good idea, but it comes out of almost nowhere (even if you read his Superman: Beyond miniseries).

In the last volume, for example, we say Morrison come up with more creative uses for Superman’s new electrical-themed powers than the writing staff in the character’s own book. We saw Aquaman, always something of a joke to comic and non-comic fans alike, rendered as a hyper-evolved badass. Batman was suspicious, but trusting – and always had a plan (foreshadowing Morrison’s Batman run just a bit).

Morrison's characterisation runs rings around most others...

In particular, I don’t think that Morrison can ever get enough credit for the work he did with the character of Kyle Rayner. For those without any extensive comic book knowledge, Kyle Rayner essentially was the Green Lantern from 1994 until 2004. Anyone who read my introduction to the Green Lantern mythos knows that the character is a “legacy” title, meaning that there’s more than one character who carries the name. Rayner was written to replace Hal Jordan, the most popular iteration of the character (and the one appearing in Martin Campbell’s movie), who was turned into a mass-murdering psychopath. Rayner was not welcomed by the die-hard fans, who felt the character had usurped Jordan.

Morrison worked wonders on the character, who never managed to find the same fanbase as other “replacement” characters like Wally West as the Flash, for example. Morrison wrote the character as essentially out of his depth, the newcomer even years after accepting his place on the team. He’s the guy who still gives a surprised “Me? Sure. Okay.” when Superman asks him to join a highly important mission. It isn’t just that the fans don’t think that Rayner is good enough to carry the title and the legacy – Rayner himself strongly doubts his worthiness. “Are you the Green Lantern, or what?” Guy Gardener demands of him, at one stage, voicing the frustrations of a whole generation. “Why do you hesitate each time?” Daniel, the Lord of the Dreaming asks Kyle at one point. “This man Jordan who wore the ring before you… why does he overshadow all your thoughts and actions?”

Kyle dreams of success...

And, like every other character during Morrison’s run, Kyle finds himself. He undergoes a full emotional arc over the course of Morrison’s tenure on the title – growing and developing into the role that he has earned. Anybody looking for a history of Kyle Rayner doesn’t need to pick up a copy of his Green Lantern title, or read any of the stories by Kyle’s creator, Ron Marz. They can simply read Morrison’s JLA to get a sense of the character. Morrison even successfully foreshadows the culmination of Kyle’s emotional arc in Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern: Rebirth, where Kyle is shown to be immune to the effects of fear because he knows it. “You will surpass him,” the Dreamlord suggests to Kyle, “You already know what he could never learn. Fear.”

I think it’s hard to have any meaningful evaluation of the character of Kyle and his decade-long tenure as Green Lantern without dwelling on the development he received during Morrison’s JLA. “You look like Green Lantern,” Wally West remarks to Kyle near the end of the run. Kyle replies, “Finally starting to feel like him, too.”

Making quite a splash...

Morrison needs to write Aquaman. Even as one of the “big seven” members of the Justice League, Aquaman has too often been the butt of too many jokes. “He’s a superhero who can talk to fish!” is a punchline unto itself. It doesn’t help that it’s hard to find a good Aquaman story. Peter David’s reimagining of the character in the nineties is highly divisive, and the character simply doesn’t have a story as powerful as The Dark Knight Returns or Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Not that too many characters do, but you can generally point an interested party to a selection of half-decent titles featuring a given hero. It’s much more difficult with Aquaman.

The superb (and highly recommended) blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics reflects on the difficulty of being an Aquaman fan. However, it also observes that Grant Morrison arguably does more to make the character iconic in a supporting role amongst an ensemble cast than any solo story from the character’s history:

The first time I ever believed Aquaman was a King, rather than just accepting the fact, was in Grant Morrison’s JLA #41: all the peoples of the world have been driven insane with war-madness by Mageddon and on Venice Beach, fighting breaks out between enraged soldiers and the super-heroes who can’t hold the chaos back. Zantanna shields the Black Canary as the sands around them are raked with bullets, the Ray is shot from the sky and believes himself about to die. And, as is the way of these things, all order and hope is lost.

And then.

An Atlantean war machine rises above the waves. From within, the amplified voice of King Arthur Of Atlantis breaks across the beach. The soldiers pause from their carnage.

“Lay down your arms! I’m serious and I have the firepower to prove it! Sworn protectorate of over fifteen thousand submarine states. My territory surrounds every continent on the planet. I rule most of this planet’s surface and almost all of its depths. So don’t even think about picking a fight with the King Of Atlantis.”

My first reaction to this scene was purely emotional. I laughed, and I felt proud of Aquaman. I’d never conceived of the character in the way Morrison, and artist Howard Porter, presented him, but it was as if I had and that someone else had overheard my thoughts and put them down on paper. For I’d always thought that DC’s Atlantis ought be a world super-power, and I’d many times imagined Arthur being not a barbarian warrior, but a soldier wielding might through judgement and strategy. And here he was. This was the Aquaman leading a technologically advanced armada into war. This was the Aquaman wielding the legal authority to wage war in defence of a coalition composed of many thousands of undersea states all less powerful than Atlantis, all united in common cause.

That’s a lot of character, but that’s the sense you get in reading Morrison’s work on the character.

Aquaman has one hell of a right hook...

Is it wrong that part of me wishes that Morrison was forced to do a writing a stint on the books of each Justice League member in rotation, like he did with The Flash while he was writing JLA and with Batman afterwards? I would love to see Morrison write a Green Lantern book, or an Aquaman story. Imagine what he could do? These moments are sprinkled throughout JLA - you can be certain that each character gets at least one perfectly defining moment. Still, I feel greedy – I want more. I don’t want to be teased with these wonderful ideas thrown around like icing on the cake, I want the pastry that Morrison has under the icing.

Morrison returns to his core themes here, the idea of the Justice League as symbols or icons. He again juxtaposes the team against counterparts or replacements (“we have met the enemy and he is us,” Plastic Man quips, and he’s not far wrong). The JLA face (and beat) the Ultramarine Corps, Lex Luthor’s new and improved Injustice Gang, Triumph’s reformed less popular iteration of the team (“the losers and the also rans”) and the Crime Society of Amerika in the stories collected here – suggesting that (like with Batman) there’s really no substitute for the real thing. It’s their iconic nature and their capacity for good in a world filled with doom and gloom which marks them as distinct from any other random group of heroes. Although the “A” stands for America, Morrison goes out of his way to make it clear that the team is truly global – it isn’t anchored to America or its government.

Is Batman out of his league?

More than that, Morrison suggests that the power of the team doesn’t come from their selection of superpowers. It’s no coincidence that repeatedly over the run – in Michael Haney’s dream in It or in the fifth dimension in Crisis Times Five – the team are featured as drawings or cartoons. That is the source of their power. Repeatedly throughout the run, the team finds itself relying on humanity as much as humanity depends on them – be it the decision to empower all of humanity in World War III , the way that street kid J.J. is the key to the JLA/JSA crossover, the fact that the soldiers in the Ultramarine arc “can’t shoot £%*&!^@ Superman”, the importance of Michael Haney’s faith in them (“your belief saved us,” Superman explains to the child) or even the “strictly small time” criminal who steals Kyle Rayner’s ring in The Ant & The Avalanche. Morrison suggests that the League draws its power from our imaginations – as Starro slowly saps away the illusion of one small boy, the team feel themselves weakening. “If the child’s belief in you falters, all is lost,” the King of Dreams explains. It doesn’t matter that the child is inside a war veteran begging for food on a street corner – you are never too old or disillusioned for the blind faith that these characters deserve.

Similarly, Earth-2 suggests that the team is literally powered by the meta-narrative – what Batman calls “a law of nature.” If the Justice League cannot win on the alternate Earth because “everything we do is ordained to fail” because this is a world where “even good deeds go bad”, then it follows that on our own world (which is the reverse) the Justice League will always win because they are always ordained to win. Pretty much simply because the narrative requires them to. They don’t win due to skill or luck, but because they’re good guys and – in their fictional world – good always triumphs.

High 'tek...

Speaking of meta observations, how cool is it that the futuristic Hourman just forwards through the “boring” parts (“the next seven minutes is filled with irrelevant conversation”). Much like the author himself, who has expressed disdain for all the exposition and unnecessary “connective tissue” in modern comics, Hourman would “like to move things along.” It’s a nice touch.

It’s a fairly light and bubbly observation – and one which speaks to the themes that Morrison repeatedly returns to in all his work. When Superman delivers a harsh (but deserved) dressing down to the “darker and edgier” Ultramarine Corps in the JLA Classified arc included here, it’s hard not to hear the echoes of the same argument he has made countless times before and since. “‘Superheroes’ who don’t mind killing to achieve their ends can be dangerous in the wrong hands,” sounds like an admonishment which could be delivered to Jason Todd as he appears in Morrison’s Batman & Robin. “These no-nonsense solutions of yours don’t hold water in a complex world jet-powered apes as time travel,” sounds like a prototype iteration of the core theme behind Morrison’s Final Crisis.

Superman poses for the posers...

Indeed, it almost looks (reading this in retrospect) like Morrison’s entire JLA Confidential arc was intended to set up ideas for the author to work with down the line. In fact, it seems like even more of a nexus for the writer’s crazy ideas than DC One Million was, which is saying nothing. Here, among other things, we get the first appearance of the Nebula Man from his superb Seven Soldiers, “the infant universe of qwewq” (which hints at “Earth-Q” of All-Star Superman) and the presence of the Knight and the Squire – who would become major players in his Batman run.

More than that, we get the precursor to Batman’s “black casebook” (the place where he shamefully hides all his weird and wacky adventures) with “the sci-fi closet”. The red emergency hotline from Adam West’s Batman! even puts in an appearance, foreshadowing the return of elements like Batmite or the Batradia when Morrison would write Batman fulltime. Batman seems just a little embarrassed by the Silver Age relics he keeps locked away in there. “Don’t tell my friends in the G.C.P.D. about this,” he makes Alfred promise. There’s even a nice reference to a superhero dying and getting replaced by his sidekick. “The ‘English Batman’?” Bruce asks, trying to coax his butler’s memory. “His son, Cyril, replaced him when the knight was murdered by his arch-enemy, Springheeled Jack, the evil black sheep of the royal family?” Of course, during Morrison’s run, Batman would ‘die’ following an encounter involving the Joker and (possibly) the devil only to be replaced by his surrogate son, Dick Grayson.

Is this a breakthrough hit?

This collection also includes the tie-in issue for the massive DC One Million event that Morrison orchestrated at DC in the nineties. The series essentially featured a possible future for the iconic DC characters in the 853rd century (the century when most DC comics would print #1,000,000 issues – assuming they reached that point uninterrupted). Given how closely tied the event was to Morrison’s JLA, there was a suggestion that these hardcovers would include at least the core miniseries – however, that is not to be. Perhaps DC are saving the miniseries for a nice deluxe hardcover in the coming years, as you imagine that they’d be keen to keep the crossover in print (especially given its close ties to All-Star Superman). It’s highly regarded as one of the best comic book crossovers ever written, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t been properly treated.

On the other hand, the issue collected here makes little or no sense. It’s always a bad sign when an issue included in a collection needs both an introduction and conclusion to some close to making sense. It seems that we’re joining a party already in progress, as chaos unfolds and we have no idea why. Again, there are hints of clever little ideas that I have no doubt are explored further in the main series, but remains sadly undeveloped here. There’s the notion that Batman and Superman will each found dynasties – ideas Morrison would articulate in Batman Incorporated and All-Star Superman among other works – but it’s just lost in the giant mess. DC needs to give the series the proper treatment it deserves, if only to keep more of Morrison’s work in circulation.

Triumph's tragedy...

And yet, true to his style, Morrison has as much respect for the past as he does hope for the future. For every new direction the Scottish scribe boldly marks out, he makes a reference to an ancient piece of Justice League lore. Perhaps this is where the series loses me. Don’t get me wrong, I love nostalgia. I am a fan of the work of Geoff Johns, and I adore James Robinson’s Starman. I like the way that Morrison incorporates classic JLA foes like Starro and the Shaggy Man into his run. On the other hand, sometimes his love of the minor details harms the story.

I could have done without the inclusion of Triumph in Crisis Times Five. The character – essentially a prototype of Sentry, the hero Brian Michael Bendis used during his run on the Avengers – is the first hero of the DC universe. However, everyone has had their memory of him wiped, so he’s become old and bitter. That’s a hell of a backstory, and one that pretty much eats into any original story that Morrison is trying to tell – there’s so much set up around a character who is a footnote in DC history that it distracts from what is going on. It’s especially obvious when you contrast the way Triumph is handled with the way that Morrison deals with Quisp, Aquaman’s version of Batmite or Mr. Mxyzptlk.

Batman & Prometheus, mask-to-mask...

Quisp gets a simple introduction – you know all you need to know about him in a single line, and then he’s reinvented and up to new tricks. On the other hand, Triumph is constantly referencing a story that nobody has read. The suggestion that the old character Thunderbolt is “an imp from the 5th dimension” is an ingenious use of continuity I’m surprised nobody suggested before. However, it seems a bit strange that minor villain “the Queen Bee” plays such a large role in Luthor’s plan against the Justice League, given her most recent appearance before this was over twenty years previous.

The funny thing is that Morrison isn’t writing any of this as a slave to continuity for the sake of continuity. He goes out of his way to trash the (admittedly poorly executed) revision to Batman’s history which attempted to make the character an urban legend in the early nineties. “Urban Legend?” a convict mockingly remarks of Batman. “Half the guys in that yard had their bones broken one time or another by that ‘urban legend’.” It appears that Morrison doesn’t feel tethered down to editorial policy, but rather writes what appeals to him – he doesn’t want to write Batman as an urban legend, but he does want to work with Triumph, or Queen Bee. I’m not overly impressed with the results – I’m constantly finding key story points outside my frame of reference – but I appreciate the effort.

Batman was very blue to find Gotham overrun with corruption...

Perhaps what’s also great about Morrison’s work here is how seamlessly he ties together his own new creations with Justice League lore. During his work on Batman, I never bought the way that he attempted to reconcile the wackiness of stories like Robin Dies at Dawn! with his own take on the character – but here Prometheus blends in nearly perfectly with Lex Luthor, the Shaggy Man is reinvented and the New Gods give birth to Mageddon. Very few of his own ideas or developments seem out of place against the backdrop of his story – perhaps because it seems the arc had been planned from the start and there’s very little in the finale that hasn’t been foreshadowed (unlike, for example, the appearance of Solaris at the climax of All-Star Superman, which almost came out of nowhere unless you were familiar with DC One Million).

Howard Porter delivers most of the artwork on the collection, including most of Morrison’s run on the main JLA title (although Mark Pajarillo does fill in for an issue). I find Porter’s work just a little bit loud and a little bit messy – everything’s a jumble. It’s never unclear, but he isn’t an artist who likes negative space. It isn’t that he’s bad, it just takes some getting used to – indeed, any artist who has a run this long on a modern comic book deserves considerable praise for the effort. However, the final of this four-volume collection includes two additional Morrison Justice League stories – his stand-alone graphic novel Earth-2 and his introductory arc to the spin-off JLA: Classified.

Justice League fans will be in heaven...

Earth-2  is notable, as well as being a wonderful stand-alone story which deals with a lot of Morrison’s ideas in a fairly straight-forward manner without ever being inaccessible, as the introduction to mainstream American comics books of artist Frank Quitely. Quitely has a long history with Morrison – working with the artist at the start of his New X-Men run, on All-Star Superman and on the introductory arc of Batman & Robin, as well as the superb graphic novel we3. Quitely is an artist who frequently has trouble with deadlines, so graphic novels rather than comic books are his ideal medium. I love his artwork and I think that Earth-2 is a great example of his style without going too far overboard with his stylistic quirks (he likes to make things wrinkled).

Ed McGuinness’ artwork on the JLA: Classified arc is perfectly cartoony, but the artist also has some absolutely ingenious panel and page layouts going on – the story is easy to follow, even when he’s split the page into sixteen boxes. It just looks great – it’s ridiculous and pulpy, but there’s enough going on to keep the reader engaged. It seems like McGuinness is a rare cartoon-y artist who can keep up with Morrison’s ideas.

Batman REALLY needs to clear out that closet...

It’s blockbuster superheroics, but don’t let that fool you – there’s an awful lot going on under the hood. It might be a little bit too busy for my liking at times, or too obscure in its particular references, but it’s still a fine example of Morrison throwing together a smart and well-executed superhero blockbuster. It does feel at moments that the bombastic moments threaten to overwhelm the story – indeed, there are moments I wish that this were a quieter book so that the handful of incredible character ideas could be advanced and developed before the next bunch are thrown out there. Still, it’s pretty damn good superhero comics right here.

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

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