Post-Structural Observations on the JLA and Stormwatch in the 21st Century
by Bruce Bachand
It is a safe bet to say that I have been reading about the Justice League of America for the past 28 years or so. I think the earliest issue I can remember had that vampire guy Star-something in it. It was about issue #92 or so. I thought it was very cool that a group of super heroes met in a floating headquarters above the Earth and fought crime. To my budding mind it seemed very cool that people who were super strong and extra intelligent could get along (for the most part) well. The action was a given perk, too. But it honestly was the characterization and teamwork that hooked me. I would also get the Avengers (by Marvel Comics) from time to time. But I found it less coherent, didn't care for the art, and hated the damn fact that Marvel seemed obsessed with making every issue part of some ongoing theme or saga. That drove me mental!
With that in mind I want to take advantage of this months' open format for submissions and talk about a series that I very recently got hooked on and want to prattle on about. That series is Wildstorm's Stormwatch; in particular, the issues by Warren Ellis that have been reproduced in TPB format. I simply want to compare my experience of the various JLA runs with my new interest (and hungry appetite!) for Stormwatch. As a sidenote, I do intend on picking up the first The Authority TPB that will come out later this year. I bought the first issue last fall and was blown away with the quality of writing and art. It bathed me in hope that the superhero genre has some life in it yet after all. We all have to be ruthlessly honest and admit that who but a fanboy or a comic geek would pay the ridiculous prices that comics are being sold for! But that is another article for another day. Perhaps.
The JLA. They've been around my whole life. It's true that many of those very early stories were true cheese. But even cheese tastes yummy at the right moment. Fortunately, there was some great dialogue and personal interaction to also balance out the platter. I do remember reading JLA #103 and being exposed to my first JLA\JSA team-up (thanks to Grant Morrison, for bringing them back, and to Mark Waid, who plans on keeping them as an on-going feature yearly). The teams had a transporter screw-up and ended up on an Earth-X. On this Earth the Nazis has won WWII and the remaining superheroes were covertly striking against them. You gotta imagine what this meant to a 10 year-old boy. I had never really thought about alternative universes much nor did I know what the "Nazis" were (I do recall my Mom being perplexed about my sudden interest in them when I asked her for more information about them). But these issues seemed to be extra cool. They even featured a Superman who had some gray hair who was the original Superman from WWII. Now that was cool. Waiting a month for each of the successive issues was agony for me at the time!
I managed to pick up most of the issues from month to month. There was the odd month when the newsstand simply didn't get a copy of JLA (or the Batman issues that I was also addicted to). Our small town only had one comic outlet for the most part and it drove me crazy when they wouldn't get stuff in! Fortunately, it was only occasional that that happened.
The years passed on and I simply kept reading comics. I do to this day. If you ask me why I really don't think I need to or can give an adequate reason. I just find it relaxing, interesting, and full of healthy escapism. I also read a number of very difficult books (mostly theology and academic criticism) that stretch my mind and understanding. But I just keep coming back to comics. I even had religious incident where I tore up my entire comic collection of about 15 years! Mind you, many of the titles and series today seem so lame that I shake my head and go "hmmm what a frikkin' waste".
I made my way through high school and kept up with the JLA (as well as The Planet of the Apes, Batman, Detective Comics, the All-Star Squad, the Freedom Fighters and some Superman stuff). The roster has changed. A guy named Firestorm and a guy named Red Tornado joined the team. A bizarre moment was when Green Arrow quit the team. . That I could not understand (though I do now). But Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Batman, Atom, Black Canary, and the Flash were there. There were also many guest stars in those years. When George Perez did some art for the series I was truly overjoyed (his coverwork just LEAPT out from the comic stand). Every team in the DC universe seemed to be meeting the JLA and teaming up with them. The stories were still cool. But when the "big guns" left the title took on a completely different vibe. And I thoroughly detested it.
The only really JLA-worthy person was the Martian Manhunter in my mind. What in the world was Steel (an android for all purposes), Gypsy, and Vibe doing on this team. and what in the world were they doing in a bunker in Detroit City?!?! AGHHHHH! If you had told me that Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman would be leaving the JLA I probably would have laughed at you. We were to believe that this team could defeat Despero? BWWWAHAHAHAHAHA! Not a chance. The premise of the team change seemed so inane that I think I was in "comic shock" (this is a condition where a title that you have loved changes it's creative team and stinks horribly but you keep buying it out of habit and out of the hope that the damn series will pick-up to it's former glory some time soon).
Giffen soon took over the series and I pretty much gave up collecting it after a year or so. I couldn't stand it. Add to that the fact that the original series had been mercifully ended and you have a pretty fair snapshot of where things were. The series Justice League came out and became the new staple JL(A) title. It was pretty decent and had a strong following. To be honest, I just wasn't into all that goofy humor to be frank. Actually, I hated it. It seemed to make the Justice League a joke for me. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I needed to lighten up. I think that my friends told me that all the time. But I am just tellin' it like it wuz. Heh, heh.
In the Morrison-era we have a very cool General introduced into the JLA's history. Not so with Giffen's I must confess. I once again hated that WWII throwback pontificating, gaudy-dressed buffoon. Yes, I am talking about General Glory. Oh well. some of you like him. That's ok. Because now he is dead.
It was early 1990 when I bought a JLA comic. It may have been 1991, It had Despero in it. He laid the League to waste with an unparalleled ferocity. Now this is what I had been wanting. Dark confrontations with truly powerful and evil beings who possessed commensurate will power to achieve their intent. I started collecting the series again. I was actually enjoying the funny stuff more this time around. The team had the Blue Beetle, Guy Garder\Green Lantern, Oberon, Ice, Fire, Booster Gold, Orion (nice hair, Fabio!), and maybe a couple of others. The writing was way cool and I think I was "getting" it. I still liked the serious stuff more (perhaps The Dark Knight Returns, The Watchmen, and Crisis On Infinite Earths had sown too much dark writing into me) but this was a League that could kick some butt. The characters really seemed have their sense of purpose as individuals come together in this matching, too. The chemistry was there.
It was Dan Jurgens run that got me excited about the team far more. He had Superman join the team. He had some great multi-issue stories where you actually wanted to read all four part. You know what? I think it was the leadership presence that Superman brought that unified the whole thing for me. He was a rock. He stood for something worth believing in. He wasn't riddled with narcissistic preoccupation. And he was a man of humility and confidence. He symbolized to me the best that the iconic characters had knit into their origins. Calling. Dignity. Self-sacrifice. Team player. He had the things that the team needed. Jurgens didn't always hit the mark. But he did hit it!
This brings me up to the Morrison phase (I realize that I am merely pointing out the peaks and extreme crappiness; but that is my intent. I am not trying to discuss each JLA writers' contribution to the JLA; rather, I am giving a highly subjective and personal synopsis of things that have stood out in my mind. For instance, I still remember the thrill of seeing the JLA, the JSA, and the Legion of Super Heroes all together in one book those years ago. Others may think, "who gives a damn". Good point! But I do and that's fine for now for me.)
Grant Morrison has written some memorable stuff in his days with comics and sci-fi. His run on JLA has been exceptionally popular (it was one of the 10 best selling comics for the longest time and is still in the top 15). But popular doesn't always mean great writing. IN this case though I do think that Morrison has hit the mark far more than his has missed. I have also liked the fill-in issues that Mark Waid has done. For almost three and a half years JLA has been a roller coaster ride. I think that because he has given us some truly remarkable stories (i.e. The Rock Of Ages) that Morrison can afford to miss. I don'think many of his misses have been as dismal as 80% of the crap that is printed out there. Yeah, that is a cheap remark, but IT BEARS TRUTH. I know artists who brilliant compared to some of the pencil scribblers that do different comic book work. Howard Porter has done a fair job on JLA in my mind. I think his stuff has worked. It isn't George Perez or Alex Ross. But it isn't supposed to be. It is Howard Porter. And for that I give him credit. He has developed a style that has life and dimension to it. I also think that the inking on JLA has been fantastic! I love it! The colors are vivid, bubbling, and tasty to the eye.
Morrison's WWIII has been quite solid. As I write this the last JLA that Morrison wrote is out this week. It is a 48-page part six-out-of-six. To say the least it will be an exciting issue that leaves as many questions unanswered as it does answer others. Where Mark Waid takes the series is a good question. Overall, I commend Grant on really doing some entertaining and mindful writing. You had me hooked like I haven't been in years. The first year of JLA was an amazing trip, man.
So this is where I take a brief detour and talk about my "new love". Well, at least as far as comics are concerned. Of course, I am talking about Warren Ellis and Stormwatch. This is the superhero title I think I waited my whole life to read. Someone has taken the idea of superheroes and used them in a series that has fantastic dialogue, plot, and characterization. The art has almost always been breathtaking (and to think that Hitch and Neary are heading to JLA with Mark Waid YEAHHHHH!). Now I don't want this to be some Ellis hagiography. But this man has does with Stormwatch (created by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi) is brilliant. It has been an exercise in extreme patience to not buy The Authority until it comes out in TPB so that I can read it all at once and have it in a great edition for others to read.
S what is the big deal? Well, believe it or not, but in the age of dying interest in comic book super heroes Ellis has given the world new iconic figures. It's all in the writing (and the art, visually). Sure, Lee and Choi created the characters but Ellis has take the shapes and sculpted the details into the clay that really brings them to life. These stories are so intriguing that I think my mind believes that these things really are happening in an alternate universe! That is how powerful they are to me. There is a fluid inclusion of techno-talk in the series that isn't distracting but is rather crucial in "coloring" the work without being the dominate "colors" so to speak. Power, betrayal, longing, dignity, loyalty, stealth, cunning it all seems to be here in a way that radiates wonder, fun, and intelligence. This is what the Justice League could have been. Morrison does his own spin. It was a good spin. But to read Stormwatch Ellis at the helm is amazing. The guy just seems to keep on putting out this fiery stuff that gnaws at you as much as it entertains you in another sense. Your mind feels like it has been lit on fire with an acetylene torch when you finish a Ellis episode.
Yes, let's not forget the art. Tom Rainey, Oscar Jimenez, Michael Ryan, Bryan Hitch, Randy Elliot, Chuck Gibson, Lucian Rizzo, Jason Gorder, Mark McKenna, Richard Friend, and Paul Neary have been absolutely crucial in translating Ellis' words to pictures. It is about sequential arts, too, folks. The art has been stunning. I am blown away at the work Hitch and Neary do. How often do you just stare at a panel or page and soak in it? Thanks to all.
The characters in Stormwatch do mimic the best that the JLA could have and add more. There is a Batman (Midnighter) and a Superman (Apollo) who are written the way these guys should be written in the DC universe. They are also gay. Yet primarily they are a team, a duo who are their world's finest. They worked it seclusion for years after being set-up by the Weatherman for a botched attempt to kill them. They are with Stormwatch and back into the fold. It is really gritty and meaty stuff. If you want 60's JLA stories this is not the series for you. This is dark, optimistic, and uncertain all at the same time. Open our wallet and buy at least one of the TPB's. I recommend "Change Or Die". It is a good place to start.
Well, let's wrap this up. I have "eaten" what has been available in the superhero genre for the past 20-odd years. Needless to say, I am bloody glad that the best JLA to date has been the Stormwatch "JLA". It is a must-read in a market that is flooded with many watered down and horrid stories. The pace with grab you and woo you in for the duration of the read. And then you will be in withdrawal waiting for the next issue. Happy mental flogging. Thanks for the ride, Ellis.
Bruce Bachand has a blurb
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This piece is © 2002 by Bruce Bachand
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