Event comics get a bad rap, and rightfully so. They are often thrown together with sales being the primary motivator, rather than story. Furthermore, they also have a tendency to interrupt the ongoing events of the publisher’s other titles. Most events are handed their “must-read” status by forcing change onto its universe’s status quo. For example, DC One Million, which was penned by JLA’s Grant Morrison, caused series cease their ongoing narratives in favor of a #1000000 issue. But JLA itself, by nature of being a regular ongoing series, had to incorporate the events of its cast’s individual titles. It’s why Rock of Ages has Superman in his Electric Blue form. Or why Hippolyta serves as Wonder Woman for a period. It earns being “must-read” material.
With the release of JLA #1 back in 1997, Grant Morrison and Howard Porter took readers on a journey throughout the DC Universe, highlighting the key aspects that have made it an enduring part of American pop culture since the 1930s. More impressively, they turned a property which had experienced inconsistencies since the end of the Satellite Era in the early 1980s into a monthly event. Even with the occasional fill-in teams (which included Mark Waid and J.M. DeMatteis), JLA was must-read material thanks to the inclusion of numerous character moments to go along with the bombastic and mind-bending action. And even though each arc is relatively self-contained, there and underlying sense that something big is on the horizon. As an orchestra’s symphony builds towards a crescendo, each arc builds upon the previous, leading to the ultimate climax: World War III.
The premise behind “World War III” is one of the grandest scales: an ancient weapon of destruction has awakened intent on destroying Earth by tapping into man’s savage instincts. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has joined forces with General Eiling, Prometheus, and Queen Bee to infiltrate the Watchtower via the Ghost Zone in an effort to take down the JLA. It’s a plight that pushes the team to its limits, both physically and psychologically, as they are forced to battle on two fronts.
With the stage set, and with the unsung contributions of his art team, Morrison unveils his vision of the DC Universe, and the role heroes can play in the lives of everyday citizens. It’s been well documented that the heroes of Morrison and Porter’s JLA are allegories for the ancient gods of the Greeks and Romans. Flash is Hermes/Mercury, Superman is Zeus/Jupiter, etc. But to Morrison, these are not simply aspirational figures for lay people, but the next step for humanity. In the climax, DC’s heroes are joined by every man, woman, and child (temporarily imbued with powers) to fight side-by-side for the survival of the world. While such a physiological change is all but impossible in the real world, it symbolizes the unity of people which is often talked of in social and political circles. It seems even more impossible to achieve today, causing such unity among Earth’s peoples to be an awesome sight. The connectivity of every living thing is a notion that would extend into Morrison’s later works at DC, such as All Star Superman, Final Crisis, and The Multiversity.
There is not much that can be truly said about “World War III” in the context of the overarching JLA saga, or as part of the greater DC Universe. It is an event that must be experienced, as it pushes superhero comics (particularly the artwork) into the modern era. A good friend of mine said that JLA is the best way to watch the death of 1990s comics, and it’s apparent. “World War III” is not structured like a sloppily constructed, suffocating event like “The Death of Superman” or “Age of Apocalypse”. Each image has meaning. Each word is carefully chosen. And while pop-culture references undoubtedly date the work, they are subtle one-liners or mutterings rather noisy inclusions.
As DC Comics prepares to enter a #Rebirth, readers look onward with cautious optimism that the publisher is able to recapture the magic from when the universe was one that they could easily fall in love with. More often than not, it is this era of the JLA which people look back to fondly. Heroes act heroically. There is community among the JLA and the people. And the stories are larger than life. No incarnation of the Justice League has managed to match the massive scope and quality character work present in this run, and they most likely never will.