Grant Morrison's JLA
by Michael Rees
Grant Morrison has always had a reputation for being off the wall, for coming up with very original ideas that push the boundaries. He made his name with such series as Animal Man where the main character confronted Grant Morrison himself and Doom Patrol where the oddall team found out that Jack the Ripper was really God. So the comic world waited with baited breath when Morrison took over the reins of the JLA, what would he produce with such well known and respect characters?
The honor of bringing the Justice League back actually fell to Mark Waid and Fabian Nicieza reuniting Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Martian Manhunter, the Flash, the Green Lantern and Aquaman in Midsummer's Nightmare.
Know Man was introduced in this story, a man who had foreseen a terrible threat to Earth and to combat it had given everyone on the planet super powers. The JLA managed to undo his work before the world descended into chaos and beat Know Man but his legacy would be felt through out Morrison's run.
"New World Order" was the first story in which the Hyperclan arrive on Earth only to turn out to be White Martians intent on invading our world. Grant kept everyone happy with well written fight scenes and a plot that rattled along at a grand pace with a wonderful twist ending. Morrison also started a trend by killing a regular DC character, in this case Metamorpho.
While the story has a big scope there are plenty of small details about each character for us to enjoy. J'Onn has a collection of Alien Autopsy type videos contrasting with Wally West's movies collection containing "The Running Man" and "Speed". Green Lantern is shown to be very nervous to be working with the super hero equivalent of The Beatles. All this added much needed humanity to the group.
The Hyperclan are designed to be very similar to the JLA both in appearance and powers. The difference lies in their attitude. The Hyperclan take action, they set out to change the world, ignoring any laws that might prevent them. They callously kill a number of super villains (Dr Doom and Wolverine among them) which gets public approval. While the JLA are not used to working as a team, shown in the scene where Wonder Woman and Aquaman get distracted from the fight while arguing with each other, the Hyperclan are a military unit, easily picking off the individual members of the Justice League.
Batman justifies his place on the team of powerhouses by using his deductive powers to reveal the Hyperclan's true identities. This will become another recurring theme during Morrison's run; it is usually a relatively normal human.
When the Martian's invade in force it is ordinary people who force them back with nothing more than an exposed flame. Effortlessly Morrison make's us the hero of the story. If we lived in the DC universe we'd be in those crowds, taking a stand.
Know Man's legacy appears in the scene where Protex wrestles with his counter part, Superman, and confesses that the White Martians mutated the human race so they never manifested the incredible powers they should have been blessed with.
The story is capped off with the JLA wondering if they should be more proactive, are they doing to little? Superman is the one to settle the debate.
Superman: "Humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can't carry them there."
Flash: "Why should they need us at all?
Superman: "To catch them if they fall."
To follow the large stake story that opened his run Grant continued with a more sedate story, focusing on characters rather than events in "Woman of Tomorrow". A simple story of how Iv and Morrow build the robot Tomorrow Woman to infiltrate the JLA and kill them all only for the android to break its programming and sacrifice itself for the team. A simple tale carried out in the space of an issue yet it is a touching one.
Tomorrow Woman was designed to be used once and yet she is a wonderful character. We see how the group welcomes her and how they develop an emotional attachment to her. From Superman complements to GL's flirtations, we see how Tomorrow Woman could have been part of the team and so it is very moving that she gives all of that up for them, barley able to understand the concept of good and acting without the word "Freedom" in her vocabulary.
Among the sadness there is also a hilarious recruitment drive including Hitman using his x-ray vision to ogle Wonder Woman and Damage destroying most of the base by accident.
The stakes get kicked right back up in the next two part story "Heaven on Earth" where the JLA wrestle with angels, in one case literally. The power of the JLA is tested to its fullest when things get biblical.
Zauriel is introduced to us, an angel who becomes mortal to win the heart of a woman (doubtless Nicholas Cage will be playing him in the movie adaptation). Right on his heel is the rebel angel Asmodel who plans to overthrow God and wishes to kill Zauriel to keep that a secret.
Notably absent in this story is Batman leaving the powerhouses to use their powers to their full, enforcing the feeling that the JLA is a modern day pantheon of deities. When faced with incredible odds they do the impossible.
There are so many moments in the story, which stay with you long after reading them. Superman stops the moon plummeting from orbit with his new energy powers, Wonder Woman tears apart a Chariot of the Heavens despite it's touch burning her and Flash and Green Lantern work together to disintegrate a legion of angels in one go.
If anything this story suffers for being only two issues long. While the event is huge the location is contained to San Francisco and the Moon making the whole story feel limited.
JLA get little time to rest however as The Key makes his return with a host of new powers in the story "Lock and Key." Each of the Justice League members find themselves in an Else World.
Superman is appointed a Green Lantern and protects Krypton, Aquaman lives in a modern day water world, Wonder Woman fights the good fight in WWII, the Flash lives in a world where for one hour a day everyone moves at super speed and Batman is old and retired, Tim Drake taking the mantle while Bruce's own son is Robin. These Else worlds are reminiscent of old golden and silver age stories showing Morrison's appreciation of the days before the Crisis.
The only one standing in the Key's way is the young Green Arrow who is forced to use his Father's trick arrows in another combining of old and new. Through Connor Hawke's cynical eyes we see how he finds a use for the goofy weapons.
The reader knows from the start that the JLA will see through the illusions but Grant Morrison has taken that into the account, as has The Key. If they heroes awaken from their dreams they will produce enough energy to make the Key one with the universe.
The Green Arrow manages to save the day winning his place on the Justice League. He would not be staying for long.
The whole story is a nice contrast to the last one. In "Heaven on Earth" the JLA are shown to be invincible while here they are incapacitated within their own base. Their vulnerability would again come into play in Morrison's next story.
"Rock of Ages" is really made of two tales. The first begins with a new Injustice Gang lead by Lex Luthor and consisting of the Joker, Circle, Mirror Master, Ocean Master and Dr Light, a dark reflection of the Justice League. They plan to use a alien device that can warp reality to take over the world.
The second begins where when the New God Metron transports Aquaman, Flash and the Green Lantern to their bodies in the future where Darkseid has conquered Earth because in the present the JLA destroy the alien device. They must get back to the present and preserve the device but still win the day.
This story line is arguably Morrison's best during the JLA run. There is so many clever ideas in these six issues that in a year's worth of other comics. In this story alone we are introduced to the immensely powerful heroes of Wonder World, view the heroes of a future Earth and see both the JLA and the Injustice Gang use their powers in interesting new ways.
Morrison creates an emotional gambit plunging the reader from despair to hope to despair again. The Injustice Gang seemed to have out thought and out manoeuvred the JLA but then Batman turns it all around. Almost instantly we're in the future and witness the death of the JLA in a world gone wrong.
When the time lost trio return home to the present it would have been very easy to leave the fate of the world under Darkseid unresolved but Morrison lets it run to its natural conclusion. We see how brave the JLA are, even in the face of certain death.
The events in the story demonstrate that while Morrison recognises the events in other titles Morrison isn't bound to them. The story opens with Wonder Woman dead and Flash injured leaving the group under powered. Despite this the trip to the future reveals Wonder Woman alive and kicking and Darkseid up to his evil ways even after the JLA have only just seen the tyrant embedded in the Source Wall. No explanation is given and as it turned out both these predictions have occurred.
This story introduces Plastic Man into the JLA roster, asked by Batman to infiltrate the Injustice Gang as the Joker. Aztek is already part of the team, his induction taking place in his own ill-fated series. Both prove good additions.
However the price of victory is high for the JLA as both Aztek and Green Arrow decide to leave the group. In the wake of the devastation and the loss of two of its members Superman disbands the JLA.
So much of this story is memorable its hard to pick out single stand out moments. Some that leap to mind include the Martian Manhunter shaping his mind so he can think like the Joker, a burning furnace where Europe once was and Atom's sacrifice when he directly assaults Darkseid's brain directly. Darn it, Morrison even makes the Black Racer cool!
There is foreshadowing ahoy when we meet the future Aztek who unleashes the 4D energy that power his suit causing a massive explosion that destroys a slave factory and himself. We would see this tactic used again.
The only disappointment in the story is that one of the cliff hangers relates to the God Wave cross over and its inclusion in an already crowded story makes things more confusing to a casual reader.
As they say it is always darkest before the dawn and we soon saw a new JLA assemble. The core members were there but replacing Green Arrow and Aztek were Zauriel, Steel, Huntress and Oracle all added to the roster in Chrisopher Priest's story "Heroes".
The new JLA were put through their paces immediately in "Prometheus Unbound." During a celebration of the new roster Prometheus, a criminal genius, sneaks on board the moon base and takes out the team one by one, actually besting Batman in hand to hand combat by using "skill software".
We are all very lucky that Grant is a writer and not a super villain because his methods of taking the JLA out are devilish. The story is just the right length being only two issues long. We get one issue to build Prometheus up and put our heroes in difficult situations and another issue to get them out of it.
The story ends with Prometheus escaping, vowing to return. The JLA grows even larger with the arrival of the New Gods Orion and Big Barda. They have been sent to fortify Earth against a terrible threat.
Things got very odd in the next story "The Strange Case of Dr Julian September." Grant Morrison's love of the weirder side of science shows through in the tale of Chaos theory wiping out members of the JLA from time and threating to heighten the probability that the universe never came into existence.
It's a good mystery that presents the team with a threat they can't just punch. Green Lantern is used to good affect, pointing out that Batman will work out what is going on just as the dark knight vanishes, as his parents were never shot.
The touches of humanity continue with Oracle agonising over whether she has the right to change things back the way they were, killing Bruce's parents. Her horror magnified when she hears the Wayne's coming up the stairs.
"Mystery in Space" presented another puzzle when Adam Strange capture Superman, Wonder Woman, J'Onn J'Onzz, the Green Lantern, Flash, Steel and the two New Gods and enslave them at the command of evil aliens. Have they been betrayed?
In fact this turns out to be another story of how an ordinary human can create a incredible high-risk plan and knew that the only people who could pull it off were the JLA.
Green Lantern: "You were counting on all this coming together? Wasn't that one hell of a gamble?
Adam Strange: "If I'd contacted the Seven Soldier of Victory it would be a gamble. I brought the Justice League. That's a plan."
Its also another tale of sacrifice, Adam Strange gives his time with is wife and child to save those he loved. We feel his pain as he sits on a small island on Earth looking into space, waiting for the next Zeta ray to strike.
Once again Morrison takes an old concept and makes it fresh for a new audience, cutting to its very core. Before this story I thought the idea of Adam Strange slightly silly, to similar to the old black and white Flash Gordon's serial. Grant showed it's really about an ordinary man placed in an incredible situation and triumphing because he wants to protect those he loves.
Special mention must be made of Flash lending Superman a portion of his power so the big S can out race Zeta Beams, penetrate the alien's ship and rescue their hostages. The art team of Arnie Jorgensen, Dave Meikis & Doug Hazlewood do an incredible job of showing speed in static images.
After all of this action the Justice League deserved a rest and they got it in "Return of the Conqueror" when Starro came back, putting everyone to sleep.
With the help of Daniel, the new Sand Man, the group enter the dream world to rescue a young boy whose faith in the group is the only thing stopping Starro from winning.
Who would have thought giant star fish would be so scary? The sight of them filling the sky is very disturbing. Once again events don't go in favour of the heroes as they lose their powers in the dream world and face the mind controlled public.
Superman: "We have no powers, there are millions of them and there's one child in there who needs us to save the day. Let's go."
Ultimately it's a story about faith. How some ones belief can make themselves and others strong. It's that faith that ensures good always triumphs.
Green Lantern's evolution continues in this story as his confidence builds. When he admits to Daniel he doesn't feel he can ever move out from under the shadow of Hal Jordan, Daniel explains that Kyle will surpass Hal because he knows fear. A cryptic message to be sure but Kyle seems more assured from this point on.
Another huge cross over followed, "DC 1 million". The future Justice league from the 853rd century bring members of the present day League to the far future to celebrate the return of the Prime Superman who has been living in the Sun. Not long after they have gone Hourman releases a deadly nano virus planted by Solaris, the living Sun.
With threats both in the present and the far future this an epic story of time, betrayal, legacies and legends. This was one of the best cross over events I had read for a long time and I still enjoy reading all the issues connected with it but for the purposes of this article I shall concentrate on Morrison's issues.
With two events going on at the same time this is a similar tale to "Rock of Ages". The difference lies in the feeling of hope instilled throughout the event. The 853rd century is a paradise, the result of the JLA's actions in the present.
With all the incredible power on display it is the human mind that makes sure good prevails. It's Huntress's plan that prevents the assassination of Superman Prime.
The new found confidence in the Green Lantern is shown here as he is able to contain the blast of a super nova with is ring taking an incredible amount of will power.
It is also great to see the end of the Superman saga in our life time and that in the end he gets everything he ever wanted. All in all an excellent getting very close to the near perfection of "Rock of Ages."
You'd think everyone would be grateful to the JLA for saving the world so many times but in "Executive Action!" the army has it in for the team. General Eiling sends the army and the super powered Ultramarine corps after the JLA while he transplants his mind into the Shaggy Man's body (after he's shaved it.)
Tactics are the key here as some very nasty things are done to the heroes such as crippling the Flash and making Green Lantern puke constantly so he can't use his ring. The groups lack of team work is exploited again by the bad guys.
While this story is fun and clever it is nothing new. Both the idea of military tactics and clever methods being used to neutralise the JLA have already been used in "New World Order" and "Prometheus Unbound."
Having said that Grant Morrison's mission to make the Silver Age shine again Is admirable as he makes the Shaggy Man a threat to be taken seriously. We would soon see Eiling return again.
After Mark Miller's amusing Amazo story "The Bigger They Come", Grant turned his attention to the Golden age with "Crisis time Five." The JSA and JLA were united again when they suffered an invasion from the 5th dimension. To make matters worse the forgotten hero Triumph had turned bad and decided to take over the JLA.
While some of the elements of this story work much of it doesn't. The effects of the imp's invasion are horrific, a bystander screams for help for his wife who has turned to ice cream and is dying in the Sun. Yet it all seems undirected, especially when the plot is split with Truimph's return. The whole is not as satisfying as its individual parts.
One of the main plot points was that Hourman predicted a hero would die during the crisis. A strong reason to stick around and find out who it was going to be. Someone did die but it turned out to be no big deal and they were fine the next panel.
However Morrison was back on form for his swan song "World War III". The threat that had been heading towards Earth since the start of Morrison's run finally arrived. Mageddon, an immense living weapon designed to kill Gods, had already eliminated the heroes of Wonder World and now all the heroes of the world had to unite with the JLA.
The Injustice Gang choose the worst time to reform. Still led by Lex the other members were Prometheus, Eiling and Queen Bee. Using the Phantom zone they infiltrate the moon base and blast a hole in its side.
In the this final story it feels as if everything is coming to ahead and as it was Morrison's last story anything could happen. It was also a well-known fact that Grant planned to kill one or more of the JLA off at the climax of the story.
Unlike "Crisis Times Five" the pacing of the story is perfect. Things just get worse and worse for the JLA producing a frantic climax.
Every character is utilised to their full and many story lines are resolved. Green Lantern finally stops feeling like a substitute, Huntress almost kills Prometheus resulting in her being kicked out of the League and Plastic Man gives the solution to stopping Queen Bee.
As predicted two heroes did die. Zauriel was blown up but as he was an angel he just returned to heaven to resume his duties. Not so lucky was Aztek who unleashed the 4D energy just as his successor did in "Rock of Ages" to stall Mageddon.
Animal Man makes an appearance and its good to see Morrison writing for his beloved character. The information that Animal Man brings saves the day and gives everyone in the world super powers. Humanity join together to defeat Mageddon, so yet again we are the heroes.
If any of Morrison's stories were to be turned into a movie this one would be it. Visually it is stunning to see every nation at war, angels bringing peace to the world leaders and billions of people flying into space. Let us not forget the sight of Oracle getting out of her wheel chair either.
So Morrison's run came to an end with a bang leaving big boots to fill. While he didn't create totally radical ideas it was the scale of his stories that were impressive, the sheer jaw dropping scenes and incredible excitement he created. He made the JLA a must read month after month and brought new life to the heroes.
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This article is © 2000 by Mark Gillins.
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