I always find it funny when people claim that Grant Morrison hates superheroes because nothing could be further from the truth. Morrison LOVES superheroes, perhaps to an unhealthy extent. He is also ridiculously comfortable playing within continuity, and mining that continuity for obscure gems. This is, perhaps, the reason he taken with one long lived, corporately owned comic book company and not the other.
There are two major stories in this collection, the first of which would end up becoming a major component to one of Morrison’s more ambitious projects, the Seven Soldiers.
The Shaggy Man is a Justice League villain who had made 5 appearances prior to Morrison and Porter bringing him back. He’s rescued from a trench at the bottom of the ocean by the first of a handful of new characters introduced here: Warmaker One, Flow, 4-D, and Pulse-8, the Ultramarines! These new heroes were created by the U.S. army and answer to General Nathan Eiling, and if you think this arc is going to examine American military might, the titles of these three issues should give you a hint: “Executive Action,” “Scorched Earth,” and “Our Army at War.”
General Eiling’s plans for the Shaggy Man aren’t immediately apparent, but his plans for the Ultramarines are. Since the JLA has decided to make their goals more in line with a global view than a strictly American one, Eiling is concerned that they might decided to act against U.S. interests. The Ultramarines are exactly that: U.S. Marines who were given special abilities through a series of experiments, experiments that are portrayed one way to the public, but in reality are slowly killing them. The Ultramarines have no idea they are dying, they simply volunteered to help their country.
Stories about military might, be it American or otherwise, can be tricky, let alone stories about military might that use superheroes as part of the statement. Thankfully, Morrison steers away from an indictment against all armed services, and instead focuses on General Eiling, the epitome of American paranoia who operates under the belief that if you’re not for us, then you’re against us. He also gives Eiling motivation beyond simply just being a warmonger: he’s dying, so he’s decided he needs to transfer his brain into an immortal, invulnerable body, that of the Shaggy Man. Comics!
At it’s core, this arc is about a horrible, desperate man, doing horrible, desperate things, regardless of any collateral damage, and a willful disregard for collateral damage is a pretty damning argument against military action under any circumstances. But Morrison makes a point of making the Ultramarines not just good people, but good people who were duped, preyed upon by their honorable sense of duty. They’re tragic, if not heroic figures.
The Ultramarines question their orders even before the General is revealed to be up to no good. Why? Because their orders are to kill the Justice League or, more specifically, to try to kill Superman. Attacking the Justice League is one thing, but when the time comes to attempt to murder the Man of Steel, the Ultramarines (and their military support) start wondering what it is they’re doing and why. It’s the perfect complication, to the point where I think the Ultramarines would have done their duty had Superman not been a part of the League. But being told to take down the embodiment of what human strives for is beyond the pale, even for them.
General Eiling successfully transfers his brain into the Shaggy Man’s body and, for some unknown reason, shave down like he’s got a swim meet tomorrow. But Morrison has, once again, taken a tiny moment in the JLA’s history and create a viable character going forward. The JLA defeat him, of course, but this wouldn’t be the last we’d see of the General.
I don’t remember the JLA being a lead-in to a new JSA series, in part because the mitigating factor for that launch stemmed from a JSA special. But it’s clear from Crisis Times Five that Morrison and Porter were setting up a new series for DC’s original super team, and they were doing so by making some fairly drastic alterations.
As the post-Crisis DCU moved forward, the JSA was reduced to three characters: Alan Scott (the original Green Lantern), Jay Garrick (the original Flash), and Ted Grant (Wildcat). Wildcat was always an odd part of that trinity given that he wasn’t a legacy character like the other two, although DC certainly tried to make that happen numerous times. More to the point, they were the three characters whose clearly reduced age they could justify: Alan Scott’s magic based power ring kept him young (he called himself Sentinel these days), the Flash’s super speed kept him young (the Speed Force did it, I guess) and Ted Grant apparently had nine lives, something the others didn’t seem to know until this JLA story.
To round out this new iteration of the JSA, Morrison and Porter brought in a character Morrison (with Mark Millar and Paul Ryan) had introduced in the pages of the Flash: JJ Thunder (he would eventually go by just his first name, Jakeem), the new human “master” of the Thunderbolt once used by Johnny Thunder. The Thunderbolt turns out to be a creature from the 5th dimension, famous for being the home of Superman villain Mr. Mxyzptlk. While the Thunderbolt is here to help, another 5th dimensional creature named Qwsp (who first appeared in Aquaman #1) has launched an attack on the JLA’s 3rd dimension.
Morrison and Porter also pull in another new version of an old character, Wonder Woman, or in this case, Wonder Woman’s mom, Hippolyta, who in the DCU at the time, had adventured as Wonder Woman during the 40s, thus making Wonder Woman a legacy character. It was a controversial move, made by John Byrne when he was writing and drawing Wonder Woman. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Morrison would have chosen to do, but his move to embrace it while reforming the JSA underscores his willingness to be a part of a shared universe.
Another original Justice Society member, the Spectre, was the first to be attacked by the 5th dimensional imps. Zuriel and Alan Scott spend most of this story trying to free the Spectre from his supernatural binds, only to find that an entire world has been started on the Spectre, which would require them to commit genocide to free him. This wasn’t even the B-plot and it was that complex.
Much of the forward moment in this story comes from the newest iteration of Hourman, in this case an android from the 853rd century, based in part on the original Hourman, Rex Tyler. This android version has the ability to see the future, so he spends much of Crisis Times Five giving the team ominous warnings. Again, we see a new take on an old character, one who was a part of the Justice Society from the start.
Founding out what appears to be a brand new version of the JSA is Captain Marvel. Marvel had never been a member of the Society in the past, but his addition makes sense as he’s the perfect stand in for pre-Crisis Superman, who was a member of the JSA. The similarities between the two in both power set and personality works as a call back to the Earth-2 Justice Society.
By the fourth issue of this four issue arc, the Roll Call of characters doesn’t stipulate who is on which team, but clearly divides them all up between the JLA and JSA. The seven characters I covered above are meant to be a new version of the Justice Society, even if it’s not explicitly stated at the end.
It’s interesting, then, that this isn’t the team that would eventually show up in the new JSA series. This group is largely ignored, the focus shifting away from the story that seemed to reunite them to another story all together, more in keeping with the work of JSA co-writer James Robinson (for example, Starman is a part of the new JSA). It’s too bad, really, because while I liked the JSA well enough (I’m a sucker for the Justice Society in all forms), that line-up was no where near as entertaining as the one that’s formed here.
But yet again we see Morrison taking the lengthy, nutty history of the Justice League and turning it into something new, respectful of what came before, but looking towards the future. If there’s a theme across this entire run and, frankly, across the body of Morrison’s superhero work, it’s building on what came before without destroying it, because no one loves old superhero comics more than Morrison.
This volume wouldn’t be the same without the work of Porter and Dell. Mark Parajillo and Walden Wong step into do handle guest art duties, and they do a fine job, but by this point in the run, the book belongs to Porter and Dell. Their Captain Marvel is suitably iconic and their new Hourman is creepy and cool. The fifth dimensional genies are epic and the end of the world feels like the end of the world. In fact, Porter and Dell have gotten really good at designing and executing scenes of complete chaos, while still maintain coherent storytelling, which is impressive, given the number of elements happening on any given page.
The sharper, somewhat clumsy angles of Porter’s earlier work has smoothed away and he’s also added volume to his figures, not in making them bigger, but in perspective, in making them appear larger in the individual panels. These are stories about modern day gods, after all, so they should seem big. But he and Dell manage to keep it grounded in reality, not unlike when John Romita, Jr. returned to Uncanny X-Men in the mid-90s, yet without the roughness so synonymous with JR, Jr.’s style.
I mentioned it before, but the choice of Porter as the penciler for this relaunched Justice League book was a controversial one, particularly when it seems like high profile books with high profile artists were being launched every month in the late 90s. DC took a chance on a relative unknown, hoping his style would continue to evolve, and I think their faith in Porter, aided and abetted by a veteran inker in Dell, was rewarded.