Yes, I am claiming that this line-up of the Justice League is the best. I fully admit that the animated Justice League line-up is fantastic and, really, should have been the line-up chosen for the New 52 (perhaps even keeping the Martian Manhunter/Cyborg swap, too), but if we’re talking about a line-up that represented the original seven, yet pushed that group forward, this is as good as it gets.
There are two essential elements to a super team story: epic adventure and engaging characters. You get varying degrees of each depending upon the super team in question. Bendis era Avengers? Engaging characters. Hickman era Avengers? Epic adventures. Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League? Engaging characters. Geoff Johns Justice League? Epic adventures.
Going into the Morrison/Porter run on the newly christened JLA, I felt good about getting the epic adventures portion. I’d been reading Doom Patrol and the Invisibles and, in my mind, a guy who could come up with those stories could surely give the Justice League some big things to do. I had no idea who Howard Porter was, but I assumed DC would pair Morrison with someone who could draw big time superheroes.
At this point, however, Morrison hadn’t written much of the Big 7. Aside from a 3 page Superman story for DC UK, he’d only written about Batman (something that is clear from this initial story arc). I didn’t know what his Superman would be like, had no idea the Flash was his favorite character, and couldn’t have told you if he ever even gave a second thought to the Martian Manhunter. And even if Doom Patrol and the Invisibles were really strange team books, I had no idea if he could write superhero team dynamics.
Oh, but he could. Oh, but he did.
But let’s start with what was the biggest surprise when I picked up the first issue of JLA back in January of 1997: the art. I’d read Underworld Unleashed when it came out a few years before this, but honestly didn’t have much of an opinion of the art. I was never confused by the storytelling and never found any of the work ugly or distracting, and that’s pretty much all that mattered to me. I do remember there being some complaints about Porter’s work, comments about this being DC’s attempt at getting a Marvel/Image style artist to work on their books. I can see that, to a certain extent. The characters are a bit blocky, like they’re chiseled out of rock. Wonder Woman often looks a bit too much like a kewpie doll. And, yes, there’s a solid amount of angst displayed on all of their faces on a regular basis.
But you can also tell that this is early work by Porter. You see his art evolving from issue to issue. His characters become more delicate, less similar in shape and movement. Awkwardly posed characters start looking more natural. Look at Superman on the White House lawn in the first issue. I’m not sure what he’s doing there. Heck, what was the shadowed out president of the United States doing a page earlier? But these are the things that get ironed out. It’s certainly not like the work he’s producing now, which is light years ahead of this.
What really matters is that Porter’s storytelling skills are spot on. Everything is clear, action is emphasized when it needs to be, and the quiet moments feel grounded, because Porter never skimps on backgrounds, which made him a bit of an outlier in the 90s.
The gist of this initial arc is that a mysterious super group calling themselves the Hyperclan arrive from outer space and begin fixing Earth’s problems. It’s a fairly straight forward “if superheroes exist, why don’t think do more to save the world?” story, although we do get to see Hyperclan leader, Protex, execute Dr. Doom and Wolverine (blurred enough to prevent copyright infringement).
Yes, I said “Protex.” The Hyperclan is full of oddly named characters with distinctive looks. Aside from Protex, the team is made up of A-Mortal, Armek, Fluxus, Primaid, Protex, Tronix, Zenturion, and ZüM. They’re all ridiculous names, no doubt chosen because they sound cool. And I suppose an argument could be made that they’re meant to represent the types of characters we were seeing in the 90s, the flash over substance characters who had cool powers and crazy designs and never ending mysteries. I don’t think that idea really holds, though.
The Hyperclan do have a secret, though: they’re white martians, leading the way for a global invasion. Batman is the first to figure it out (of course), but soon the rest of the team starts lighting things on fire, since that is a Martian’s one true weakness. It’s not the most complicated of initial stories, but it’s full of nods to Martian culture that make it feel like fully realized sci-fi. The Flower of Wrath alone is worth the $2 each of these issues cost me.
But as I said, it was the character work that I was most impressed with, and it’s also what makes this the best Justice League line-up I’ve ever read.
The conclusion of this story comes with Superman in front of a camera, informing the world that the aliens dropping out of spaceships are deathly afraid of fire and that, if everyone works together, we can repel the attackers. This is aspirational Superman, the hero we all want to be, the pinnacle of human goodness in a superhuman body. He is the idealism of the Justice League and a source of inspiration for the younger members.
Batman and Superman are often portrayed as leaders when they’re on teams, but Morrison doesn’t do that with either of them. Batman doesn’t lead the team, he fixes problems. He’d be the g stuck back in the lab or the library if he didn’t also happen to beat the tar out of people. This is possibly the best version of Batman in the Justice League that we’ve seen, because despite all his crazy abilities, it speaks to his limitations: he isn’t a leader and shouldn’t be expected to take on that role.
There’s an incredible reverence directed at Wonder Woman by all of the other characters in this series, not just in this initial arc, but throughout the run. It’s in part based upon her abilities as a warrior, abilities that, rightfully, outmatch even Superman. But it’s also based upon WW’s demeanor, her complete control of any given situation. She doesn’t freak out, she does what is needed, and she doesn’t suffer distractions. Her first exchange with Aquaman in issue #2 is brilliant; Wonder Woman has neither the time nor the inclination to put up with melodrama.
Wally West represents 1/2 of the best part of this era of the Justice League. While it’s acknowledged that he’s one of the younger members, Superman asks for his help from the start because Wally has been doing the superhero thing for as long — if not longer — than anyone else on the team. And while Wally, as he usually does, has some maturity issues, he takes the insanity of being in the Justice League in stride, unlike the other half of his pairing…
The Wally West/Kyle Rayner dynamic in JLA is so great that it makes me hate everything that’s ever been done to take it away. Kyle is presented as the novice working alongside the greatest heroes to ever walk the earth. And while fans of the newest Green Lantern may have taken issue with his portrayal, it works perfectly here. Besides, no matter how much Kyle had done on his own up until this point, it was still nothing compared tow hat the rest of this team had done. But his apprehension translated into wild enthusiasm and awe and allowed him to work as a POV character for the reader. His back and forth with Wally was, on one hand, a case of the two youngest brothers bickering all the time. But on the other hand it was the first legacy hero putting the latest through his paces. And Green Lantern’s abilities have never sounded cooler than in this Justice League run.
If you want to understand how Morrison and Porter feel about J’onn J’onnz, then look no further than the fact that this initial story arc is built around him. The Martian Manhunter is the Justice League, in part because he has been, from the very start, the only character whose main title was this book. Yes, he’s had his own solo comic multiple times, but it’s never really taken, which means he’s able to undergo more advancement in the pages of the Justice League than any other member. Morrison and Porter waste no time in putting him in charge, as it should be. And while Batman may seemingly save the day, it’s J’onn who has had a plan from the start.
I have to wonder, if Aquaman hadn’t been undergoing a facelift at this point in his history, would he have been different in this series? Because of all the Leaguers, he definitely suffers the most. He comes across as angry and often full of himself, like he considers working with the Justice League a waste of his time. They make a go of portraying him as the grizzled veteran, but his character lacks the depth and nuance that we see in the others.
Morrison and Porter would work on the Justice League for 3 and a half years (with a few fill-ins here and there) and the stories would become more and more epic, but it’s the character work that made this run special.