Imaginary Story: JLA #1-41

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In “Calliope” (Sandman #17), Neil Gaiman tells the story of Richard Madoc, a writer who imprisoned a muse, giving him a few years of brilliance. Afterwards, however, Madoc was cursed with an excess of inspiration, an endless bubbling stream of ideas that come so quickly and ceaselessly that it’s impossible to work on any one before the next shoves its way in.

I’m not saying Richard Madoc is Grant Morrison, but it does rather describe his DC career.

JLA #1-41 is generally referred to as Grant Morrison’s run; though eight issues scattered throughout were actually by guest writers, it is Morrison’s writing which sets the tone for the run. The series began in January 1997, after the cancellation of the various struggling Justice League spin-offs and formation of a new Justice League; the intention was to go back to the League’s roots as a core team of the seven most powerful and well-known DC heroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Note that this is almost the same lineup as the eventual Justice League cartoon; the only changes are that Aquaman was swapped out for Hawkgirl and the Kyle Rainer Green Lantern for John Stewart, in an effort to add some more diversity to a team that was otherwise very white and very male.

This is far from the only influence of JLA on Justice League, however. Quite a few Justice League stories are more or less adaptations of JLA stories. Both start with a White Martian invasion of Earth, for example, but in the comics the White Martians initially pretend to be friendly; in the show they don’t, but then the Thanagarian invaders two seasons later do. The “Only a Dream” Justice League two-parter and JLA #8-9 both involve villains trapping the Justice League in their dreams, while an unpowered hero works to outwit the superpowered villain and save them. A storyline beginning in #24 introduces the Ultramarine Corps, who bear more than a little resemblence to Justice League‘s Ultimen–and the same arc has General Eiling becoming a nigh-unstoppable monster, which the cartoon would make a separate story in Unlimited. And both issue 27 and “The Return” have Ray Palmer coming out of semi-retirement to help the League against an upgraded Amazo who can overpower the entire team. Even the very, very Grant Morrison-y final battle against Mageddon in issues 40-41 bears some resemblance to the fight against an Apokolips-devouring Brainiac in “Twilight,” which aired about a year and a half after the comics came out–just enough time for them to have been an influence.

That last arc is a good example of the problem with this run, however–ideas piled on top of ideas with no room to breathe. Just in the last couple of issues, we get the approaching alien monster Mageddon blanketing the Earth is psychic waves that increase aggression and territoriality, heralding World War III; Metron telling the Justice League that Earth is destined to become the home of the new New Gods and seed of the next universe when the current universe ends; Martian Manhunter helping Batman psychically connect to a Mageddon-controlled Superman in order to remind him that hope exists; Zauriel persuading a significant fraction of the angelic host to intervene on Earth and prevent World War III from becoming a nuclear holocaust; and Animal Man helping a group of Justice Leaguers build a device that temporarily gives everyone in the world the superpowers their descendants will someday have.

Any one of these ideas could take up an issue on its own, but most of them get little to no exploration because they’re bumping up against the others. Metron’s little revelation is dropped and then ignored–apparently none of the Leaguers present are interested in that revelation about their future. Similarly, everyone on Earth briefly has Superman-level powers, which somehow causes them also to decide to use them only for good despite the aggression blanketing the Earth–admittedly, this one rather bizarre idea, that omniscience leads inevitably to moral behavior, would eventually get something like exploration and explanation, or at least a few panels of expansion, in All-Star Superman a few years later–and no space is given to exploring the aftermath of their experiences. Or, for that matter, the aftermath of all major world leaders seeing first-hand that angels exist and look more or less how European Renaissance painters depicted them.

Morrison’s instincts about which idea most needs room to breathe are, generally, correct. In this case, it’s the psychic struggle between Batman’s hope and Superman’s rage and despair, including one gorgeous panel which plays on their similar appearances to show a single boy representing both, mourning the death of the Waynes and the death of Krypton simultaneously. Superman despairs of every life they fail to save, the endlessness and impossibility of protecting everyone; they couldn’t save Krypton/the Waynes, and therefore they will always lose in the end. Batman’s counterargument, in essence, is that they save Krypton and the Waynes every time they save anyone, and that therefore they always win.

It’s not that the story is confusing or doesn’t make sense; each idea gets enough story beats that the reader can fill in the gaps. The problem is that those gaps cover a great deal that would be interesting to see, to explore–but Morrison has to skip over it to make room for the next idea. In essence, JLA is the antithesis of The Death of Superman; one has too many ideas to give any one the space it really deserves, while the other spends far too long on an utter dearth of ideas.

Pretty much necessarily, this means JLA is a lot more fun than Death of Superman; though separated by only a few years, they clearly sit on opposite sides of the era divide epitomized by Kingdom Come.  Death of Superman sits in a place of rage and despair devoid of intellectual playfulness; JLA is essentially nothing but playing with ideas, so many that they can’t be contained. The latter is a vastly better problem to have if you want comics to be entertaining, varied, and interesting.

The future, at least for comics, is suddenly looking surprisingly bright.


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