Monday, May 27, 2013

JLA (Grant Morrison & Mark Waid)

Here is a roundup of some comics related to Grant Morrison's run on JLA. Besides the actual Morrison run, this covers some surrounding miniseries, plus Mark Waid's Year One and Waid's own subsequent run on JLA.

Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare (Mark Waid/Fabian Nicieza & Jeff Johnson/Darick Robertson) - A 3-issue miniseries designed as an intro to Grant Morrison's new JLA series, bringing together the most iconic Justice League lineup to face the threat of a world that's been drastically redesigned, where all the established heroes are powerless while nearly everyone else on Earth has been given powers. This kind of stuff would be a recurring throughline in Morrison's subsequent series, which often had the JLA facing threats that remade the world in various ways or submerged the JLA in dreams or visions or alternate realities. It would all be handled much more interestingly by Morrison, of course.

This series, with its dual creators on both the writing and art side, is a bit of a jumble, and the villain, when he's finally revealed, is a typically silly 90s-style character who, tellingly, has never appeared again outside this mini, though Morrison does make a few references to this story in his own run. Still, there are nice moments along the way, most notably a great little scene where Superman gently, almost romantically, wakes Wonder Woman out of her dream state by inviting her to fly with him. Waid would go on to do some really fun JLA stuff himself, and there are frequent flashes of his humor and heart in this story, but it's pretty slight and not even close to being as good as the Morrison and Waid JLA material that would follow it.

JLA v1 #1-41 (Grant Morrison & various artists) - I read Morrison's JLA many years ago, when I was first getting into comics, but I'm glad I decided to revisit it now. At the time, I thought it was fun but not up there with Morrison's best work. It's more straightforward, in some ways, and more conventional: Morrison was set loose to do his thing on fringe characters like Animal Man or Doom Patrol, but the JLA, especially this configuration, are the big guns of the DC universe, and Morrison can't get quite as out there as he did on the smaller books he'd previously tackled. This was his big step-up at DC, certainly the biggest property he'd yet handled for DC, and here he proved that he could tell big stories with Superman, Batman and the rest of the icons, that he could be trusted to steward more than minor, forgotten C-listers. In retrospect, though, this is still very much stamped with Morrison's vision and personality, and the seeds are planted here, already, for a lot of the stories he'd be telling in the next decade as he ascended to be one of DC's top creative minds. Particularly in the epic "Rock of Ages" arc, with its mind-bending time travel narrative and its focus on Darkseid, the stage is set for Seven Soldiers and Final Crisis. Moreover, far more than his previous Arkham Asylum graphic novel, this run establishes the personality of Morrison's Batman and foreshadows his eventual and still-running Batman saga.

It's not all top-level work — the Prometheus and Ultramarine Corps arcs stand out as rather uninspired — but at its best it's some great comics. "Rock of Ages" especially is just jaw-dropping, an utterly unpredictable narrative that, in 6 densely packed issues, shifts from a typical heroes vs. villains set-up into a crazed, reality-warping cosmic epic with the heroes hurtling across time and space, plunging into alternate realities and then leaping back into the present for a final battle that's as much slapstick as fisticuffs (thanks in large part to Plastic Man, who Morrison uses really well throughout his run). It's one of Morrison's very best stories, and worth reading this run for those 6 issues alone.

My one big complaint is Howard Porter, who drew most of Morrison's issues, and whose style is way too conventional and boring to really do justice to the writer's work. Porter's Wonder Woman, especially, is a distorted Barbie-esque piece of cheesecake, while his muscled supermen bear a lot of unfortunate influence from the 90s Image aesthetic. Still, the boring art doesn't ruin an otherwise very fun series, and the best stuff here, like "Rock of Ages" and the equally bonkers final story, "World War III," has all the energy and propulsion that always characterizes Morrison's best superhero work.

DC One Million (Grant Morrison & Val Semeiks) - A big crossover event that impacted most of DC's titles, which all had issues numbered 1,000,000 to celebrate the occasion. But the core of it all is Morrison's 4-issue miniseries plus the issue of his JLA that tied in to it — it's basically a JLA story at heart, an extension of his run on that book. And it's really good, a time-bending narrative on the level of "Rock of Ages." Morrison's great at stirring up a feeling of chaos and impending doom, then solving it all at the last moment with a combination of cosmic feats and good old human wit. The Justice Legion of the 853rd Century travels back in time, sending the JLA to the future to celebrate Superman's emergence from the sun after 15,000 years spent hibernating in its flames. And it all goes crazy from there, as an evil mechanical sun unleashes a virus on the past while multiple versions of Vandal Savage assemble evil plots. The fourth and final issue of the miniseries builds to a crescendo of insanity and then Morrison unleashes one thrill after another, leaving the reader tingly and happy — Morrison's action climaxes tend to be as emotional as they are visceral, and that's especially true here.

He'd revisit a lot of this stuff in All-Star Superman, to even more heartwarming effect, but the seeds are already planted here, and multiple images from this issue's climax will stick with me for some time, like a sun overlaid with a Green Lantern symbol or a silver woman being assembled from a strand of DNA to be reunited with her golden man. It's a blast, a typically convoluted and frenzied Morrisonian event comic, with an intentionally fragmentary feeling that, I suspect, would not be entirely erased by picking up all the tie-ins not written by Morrison. It's also beautifully illustrated by Val Semeiks, who's a major step up from Howard Porter's work on JLA — he's got a great grasp for the cosmic, explosive beauty of Morrison's imagery, and his style melds well with the computer graphics of the issue design and the constant barrage of text (from multiple viewpoints) through which Morrison tells this story.

JLA: Year One (Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn & Barry Kitson) - Published during Morrison's run on the main JLA title, this 12-issue series looks at the group's origins and early years, with a different, somewhat less iconic version of the team — no Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman, with Black Canary subbed in instead. It's a total blast, just fantastic superhero comics with a real Silver Age vibe. Waid and Augustyn pack each issue with plenty of humor, and place the emphasis squarely on the characters and their interactions, developing each one in relation to the others, giving each a distinct voice and personality. It's a model for what basic, fun superhero comics should be — nothing flashy, nothing deconstructionist or "grim and gritty," just a series of colorful threats providing an action context for these characters to crack wise and spar and air their personal troubles. Kitson's art is excellent, as well, detailed and realistic but with enough flair to sell the more ridiculous moments, particularly during the Doom Patrol arc, with its outlandish villains and their sinister plan to steal the JLA's limbs.

JLA: Earth 2 (Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely) - A final capstone to Morrison's JLA, a graphic novel that reintroduces, with surprisingly little fuss or fanfare, the concept of alternate realities that had been eliminated back in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Indeed, the book focuses on the Crime Syndicate, who had been killed off in the opening pages of Crisis — an alternate version of the Justice League from a universe where everything is the opposite of the heroes' universe, where good is bad and bad is good. In this world, Lex Luthor is the only hero, bravely opposing the evil of the Crime Syndicate's twisted analogues for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern. It's a fun little story, brisk and relatively straightforward compared to Morrison's super-dense JLA epics.

The appeal here is mainly in seeing Quitely's crisp, iconic depictions of the Justice League and their opposites, and in Morrison's graceful examination of the idea behind these opposing worlds. It's a neat twist that the Justice League can't win in a world where good is bad, while the Crime Syndicate equally can't function in the "real" DC universe, where their evil doesn't function or fit in nearly as well as it did in their own world. It's obvious that Morrison misses the multiverse and its unique alternate realities, and the message of this book is a rebuttal to Crisis, which collapsed the multiverse and brought characters from different universes together into a shared reality. Morrison seems to be saying that this shouldn't happen, that these characters only make sense in their own realities, their own spaces, and that trying to force all these different characters together into a single world only robs them of some of what made them unique in the first place.

JLA v1 #43-60 (Mark Waid & various artists) - It couldn't have been easy to follow Morrison's run on this title, but Waid does a fine job, expanding on both the weirdness of Morrison's run and the bright, bold tone of Waid's own earlier JLA stories. Not only had Waid done the Year One series, but he'd filled in for Morrison a few times and done a pretty good job — most notably in a great issue that brought back the White Martians, teasing his own eventual work with them, and which contains probably the best naughty use of Plastic Man ever. The opening story of Waid's own run is a particular highlight, the "Tower of Babel" arc in which Ra's Al Ghul steals Batman's files on the rest of the Justice League, including detailed plans for taking down every member of the team. This is the start of a theme that runs all through these issues — the seeds for which were first planted in one of Waid's fill-ins during Morrison's run — with the JLA constantly being divided and split apart. At times this division is literal, as one arc finds most of the League members split into two, with their secret identities and their superhero selves both taking on separate physical forms. Despite the paranoid themes, this is fun and freaky superhero action, all about body transformation and warped realities, like a lot of the Silver Age stories that inform both Morrison's and Waid's work on this series. It's good stuff, and a substantial portion of Waid's run is illustrated by Bryan Hitch, which is an added pleasure, his richly textured art and realistic figures providing some heft to the craziness going on in these stories.

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