I have a theory about music. My theory holds that the best music sounds improvised. The best music has an energy and freshness that causes you to tap your feet or nod your head even after the hundredth listen to a song. That’s truer after multiple listens show the underlying complexity of that music. That extemporaneous feeling captures authentic emotion and rawness through the verve and power of the music. The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street is a great example of music that sounds like it was made up on the spot in the studio, and I adore that album.
Despite the fact that Exile took months to record, that album has a looseness and fresh energy to it that makes it a thrilling listen. Part of the reason for my passion is that Mick and his pals explore classic musical genres on the album, delivering everything from bayou blues to nearly religious ecstatic music in a spectacularly diverse collection that feels thoroughly, and almost accidentally, unified.
Morrison’s JLA was the apotheosis of that approach. It reads like the pure, undistilled essence of Silver Age tossed into a blender and mixed with amphetamines, ecstasy, and some otherworldly pill that could only be found in a stray issue of Green Lantern written by John Broome. Grant Morrison’s super-hero comics at their best are a contact high, the greatest head trip imaginable and the perfect counterpoint to the angst-filled universe that most heroes inhabited in the 1990s.
Even the title of one of his favorite comics of the era implies a comic on a brilliant version of speed. There’s no time for a long title. Three letters and GO! JLA never slows down, and its title reflects that.
The membership of the JLA also reflects traditions turned radically different. In this volume, Superman is an energy being in a dreadful aqua colored leotard and not this iconic all-American suit. Flash is no longer Silver Age icon Barry Allen, and Green Lantern no longer Hal Jordan. Aquaman has a hook for a hand. Oliver Queen is dead and his son is now Green Arrow. At one point Wonder Woman is replaced by her mother. It’s appropriate and symbolic that the most iconic heroes of the DC Universe follow tradition but are radically different from the heroes who preceded them in the Justice League.
Morrison’s comics often are filled with inward-facing references and post-modern playfulness that defy easy analysis. His head-trippiest comics are simultaneously retrograde and futuristic. In the same way that Exile finds new truth in classic tropes of rock and roll, Morrison’s JLA finds its new truth in the classic tropes of super-hero comics. Like the Stones, his work on this series feels improvised and frequently thrilling in a fundamentally pleasing, like an old trope revealed fresh.
Those resurrected tropes are a major contributor to the power of Morrison’s run on JLA. The dozen or so issues that are written by Morrison and collected in JLA: the Deluxe Edition Volume Two are idea machines, with moments that place the reader into realms that only the Great Scottish Mainstream Hope can deliver. He provides an absurd number of perfect moments and grace notes. He delivers a slew of thoroughly glorious moments. Again and again as I ecstatically consumed the issues, I found myself ready to jump up and cheer as Morrison played with old tropes with a vitality that made them feel fresh again.
Unfortunately, with the brilliant flashes of joy, Morrison also delivers his share of frustration. Like a real-life doppelgänger of the types of plots he loved to deliver, sometimes Morrison’s imagination outruns his ability to give his ideas context. He sometimes seems to lose the thread he was unraveling, like a cat ecstatically chasing a string and then losing it behind a table leg. The ideas come breathtakingly fast in these wild comics –so rapidly that an idea explored to great delight in one issue can seem completely forgotten two or three issues later. This brilliant improvisation has a price, and that price is story continuity. Even the Stones had a few songs in which they seemed to lose their rhythm.
JLA: the Deluxe Edition Volume Two begins with the epic six-part “Rock of Ages”, a sprawling double album of the type that any rock and roller might see as a classic in the making. All the issues of this star-spanning story are written by Morrison. They’re drawn by the very capable and professional Howard Porter and John Dell, with some help from Gary Frank, Bob McLoed and a very young Greg Land.
“Rock of Ages” is in many ways an archetypal Morrison storyline. By that I mean “Rock of Ages” starts pretty small and focused, then builds rapidly into a massive star-spanning cosmic epic chock-a-block with everything and the kitchen sink, constantly threatening to become too vast for mere mortal readers. Like a super-hero who grows enormous but can’t control his own growth, Morrison’s ambitions sprawl out of his tidy clothes. “Rock of Ages” is a prog rock song that drags on too long, with too many guitar solos. This wild story is always on the verge of spinning off across the galaxy under the power of its own uncontrollable gravity.
The first issue of the storyline opens in media res, picking up on a cliffhanger that began in the previous volume. Glowing purple “solid holographic” versions of Green Lantern, Flash, Superman, Martian Manhunter, Batman and Wonder Woman are devastating Star City in a strange attempt to apparently frame the JLA for the attacks.
After a fairly quick battle, which allows new JLA members Green Arrow and Aztek the chance to show their prowess, the heroes defeat their doppelgängers. But as readers soon discover, there’s a mastermind behind the attacks, perhaps the greatest mastermind in the DC Universe: Lex Luthor. (There’s not very much explanation of why the holograms are so powerful, nor how Luthor was able to duplicate the heroes’ powers, and we know we shouldn’t ask for that. This is a Grant Morrison comic book, after all, and the explanations are unnecessary.)
Morrison clearly has a glorious time writing Lex Luthor in this sequence. Under Morrison, Luthor is a sadistic, manipulative instigator, always a step ahead of everybody else and always ready with a barb that displays a sarcastic, arrogant sense of humor. Lex is allied with some of other vicious criminals in the DC Universe. His new Injustice League includes such villainous DC luminaries as Mirror Master, Dr. Light, Circe, Ocean Master and the Joker. Each has his or her moment of brilliant light in “Rock of Ages” but the writer’s focus repeatedly meanders back to Luthor and the ways that brilliant scoundrel manipulates heroes and villains.
The idea of an Injustice Gang as nemeses for the Justice League comes right out of the pages of classic 1960s issues of Justice League of America. Innumerable issues of JLA back in the day featured battles between Justice Leaguers and some sort of appropriate enemies. Those cute stories were held back by the businesslike storytelling of mainstream DC Comics of the 1960s. For all their brilliance and bizarre beauty, these tales never contained the breathless verve that Morrison brings to this epic. Morrison delivered echoes of those classics, always with a futuristic, ultra-modern sheen. He takes the past and giving it a modern energy. He gives the classics new life.
Part of the dynamism of Morrison’s JLA comes from the seemingly effortless way that he builds character. Previous Justice League writers (with the exception of Steve Englehart, who wrote a much more sedate version of the JLA in the 1970s that reads like an abortive blueprint for Morrison’s plan) seldom included the level of slick characterization that the Great Scot presents here. Even the much-loved 1980s Justice League by Keith Giffen, Marc DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire didn’t include the ecstatically glossy characterization that Morrison delivers.
For instance under Morrison, Lex Luthor has principles that he simply won’t violate. In one key early scene in “Rock of Ages”, the devastation of Star City causes some children to be killed. When the Joker brags he “can’t wait to see ‘em light up when the special coffins I ordered send those dead kids flying into the air like flapjacks”, Luthor is enraged. The bald man has his standards and it enrages him when people don’t live up to those standards. We see that dismissive arrogance in many other small moments as well: the dismissive way that Luthor always refers to ‘Ocean Master’ as if in the villain’s nickname is in air quotes, or the smart way that Circe seduces Green Arrow into the villains’ lair.
This level of characterization has a nice small climax in a brutally memorable scene in which Superman and J’onn J’onzz explore the broken shards of the Joker’s mind. The heroes wander through the maze of madness that the Joker lives in. That journey is literally a head-spinner that forces the heroes to face the essence of pure madness. The trip leaves the Manhunter and Superman in deep psychic pain and an understanding of the Joker that they will ever forget. Of course, justice triumphs. The painful struggle has been resoundingly worth the battle. In fact, that journey also helps to lead to a wonderfully appropriate conclusion later in the story.
But “Rock of Ages” also shows Morrison’s biggest weaknesses. Sometimes in his enthusiasm he gets a bit too far ahead of his readers and forces us them either keep up or jump out of the way. We see this about midway through the storyline when the adventure takes a radical turn. The story builds nicely in its early chapters, full of quips (Green Lantern hates the California Central Valley) and clever designs (the Injustice League has a satellite in space shaped like a skull and in which our heroes are trapped). We seem to be moving towards some small resolutions. Everything seems normal and happy, a great super-hero yarn…
And then the adventure takes a radical and unexpected turn. New God Metron shows up in the JLA watchtower and pulls the Flash and Green Lantern to the future. Or another dimension. Something like that, anyway. It isn’t quite clear in context, or maybe my small brain just doesn’t understand. This is Morrison, after all, so the boundaries don’t really matter. Suffice it to say that Flash and GL go someplace far away.
At that point the comic threatens to fall apart due to its intense centrifugal force. “Rock of Ages” gets bigger and more radical, eventually (after a detour through a dead future and some mysterious titanic heroes) transporting readers to a word in which the Justice League defeats the Injustice Gang– but that defeat leads to Darkseid controlling the world. All of this tumult is quite grand, with some unforgettable images and delightfully bizarre scenes. Obscure, weird things happen for which readers have no context, forcing an expansion of imagination and confusion. That fits the way our heroes feel, giving us a unique insight into the mental processes of a super-hero. Unfortunately that set of scenes also makes readers feel estranged from the storyline. This feels like a tangent rather than the central story that Morrison and Porter had been serving up for several dozen pages.
Somehow, in a way that doesn’t really make sense to me even after multiple readings, this trip through the future leads to Darkseid taking over Earth and the classic old trope of a small group of rebels determined to overthrow his empire. This segment is Morrison at both his most maddening and his most thrilling. The writer’s mind has broken free from the constraints that the rest of us live inside. His imagination flies free and it’s thrilling to be dragged to places that we could scarcely imagine but which also are familiar.
He’s using his Lego blocks in a completely different way than we could imagine them being used. But these explosions of creativity are confounding in the larger context. We never see how Morrison puts together the blocks, and the shape he creates is as baffling as it is delightful. This vision of his artform is confusing, as if Morrison couldn’t wait to properly introduce his ideas in a more fitting context and instead dropped them in the middle of an unrelated story.
Artist Howard Porter delivers memorable images that make those scenes powerful. Several of the panels in the latter half of the story are shocking and powerful. On one page he delivers images of ordinary people whose mouths and eyes are covered by masks in the shapes of hands; on is another sequence readers witness a world in which Darkseid is worshipped like a terrifying cross between God and Adolf Hitler. Soon after, Morrison and Porter present readers with a future version of Batman who is so deeply scarred by his battles that his back resembles a roadmap. That’s a smart, subtle touch that shows Batman’s resilience in the face Darkseid’s evil domination.
As the sci-fi segment of the story reaches its climax, the team of rebels defeats Darkseid with a fiendishly clever plan led by the Atom (the Atom? Where did he come from?) that capitalizes on both Darkseid’s greatest strength and a logical weakness that is so fiendishly ingenious that it made me want to jump out of my seat.
“Rock of Ages” is frustrating for a reader because at the same time there’s so much to love and so much about which to be flummoxed. The climax of the futuristic battle is one of a number of brilliantly clever moments in this book that are “head slap” moments because they seems obvious in retrospect. But at the same time the reader delights in that thrilling moment, that have to wonder why the Atom (of all characters) is the one to end the storyline. After all, the Mighty Mite hadn’t appeared in a Justice League comic for years and his solo comic was cancelled back in 1989.
It’s deeply unsatisfying to have an obscure hero defeat Darkseid and change history because there’s no resonance to it. We have no stake in the success or failure of this character in particular. It would have presented a stronger resolution if an alternative version of a current Justice Leaguer defeated the villain. It’s easy to see why Morrison considered this an intriguing idea (The Atom is one of a small handful of characters with shrinking powers), but without an additional echo of the character, the moment, unfortunately, falls just a bit flat.
Then again, this is a Grant Morrison comic. The reader has to recite a mantra as they go on: Don’t slow down. Don’t hesitate. Just keep moving ahead. Enjoy the flash, glory in the guitar riff, and move on.
The resolution of the “evil future Darkseid” storyline brings the modern JLA back to its status quo. Morrison and Porter soon show the heroes back battling the Injustice Gang, and the situation is still quite desperate in the satellite. The League needs a deus ex machina to save the day, and thankfully they literally have a god in the machine. The Justice League has an ace in the hole, or perhaps an Eel in the hole. Plastic Man has infiltrated the evil-doers team and his shape-shifting abilities help lead to a delightfully clever resolution.
Here again, though, readers see both the delightful and frustrating sides of Morrison. Readers hadn’t seen Plastic Man before in this storyline, which means that the readers are able to gasp with the same type of surprise that the villains experience. Plas gets several delightful moments and clever one-liners but his presence has the same problems that the Atom’s presence has. In an especially delicious moment, Plastic Man is compared with Dionysus, which makes it clear that he is quite literally meant here to resemble a god in a machine. That’s spectacular and absurd all at the same time. There’s good and bad in the obscure revived and appreciated.
Purge CacheMorrison goes a bit too far with yet another revival of an obscure character: the creature whose psychic abilities power Luthor’s plans is a brainwashed alien called Jemm, Son of Saturn, whose existence is never given an proper context in these stories. Jemm is weak and manipulated but his presence is never really explained despite the fact that he’s the deepest of deep cuts in DC continuity (Originally meant to be a rebooted version of Martian Manhunter, Jemm starred in a long-forgotten and never-reprinted 1984-5 miniseries). Even the most devoted DC fan had good reason to have no idea who this character was, and it feels a cheat for Morrison to use the red-skinned creature.
“Rock of Ages” ends with a series of epilogues: a delightful interlude between Luthor and Superman; a foreshadowing for the forthcoming JLA epic One Million; the revelation that the trip to the future erased all the deaths in Star City. All of this is housekeeping, but it’s housekeeping of a very Morrisonian sort: surprising, busy and a little cosmic. Inattentive readers might have missed some of the important moments in this segment. After such a mind-blowing saga, who could blame them?
The hardcover JLA: the Deluxe Edition Volume Two includes two more major storylines by Morrison. Both are both traditional and futuristic in their own way, showing more variations on the cosmic-slash-prosaic approach that Morrison favors, though both are more focused than “Rock of Ages.”
Next up by Morrison is the one-shot Prometheus, which introduces the villain for the next JLA storyline. It’s a delightful one-shot origin tale that does a clever job of establishing Prometheus and his place in the universe. There are some charming scenes, driven by first-person narration, that show the villain’s love for his criminal parents and set up Prometheus as a villain who has the ability to defeat the Justice League. That acts as an ideal establishing point for an enjoyable story. The single-issue, published as part of a long-forgotten DC event, has some classic surreal Morrisonian moments like a house in limbo that looks a lot like a house from many 1970s DC horror comics.
When readers return to the JLA after the one-shot issue, they discover that the team has disbanded due to fears about Darkseid. However, as quickly as they fall apart the team just as rapidly reunites, with a slew of new members. Significantly, among those members are New Gods Orion and Big Barda. As the theory goes, if the League could become an army, perhaps they will be ready to fight Darkseid’s threat – certainly a logical approach.
This “Prometheus” storyline tells the story of the League’s battle with Prometheus and is actually quite delightfully focused compared with “Rock of Ages.” It starts with the team being systematically beaten by the villain in one issue and Prometheus gloating in his triumph like a classic DC villain. In the next issue the tables are dramatically tuned. The defeat is reversed through the heroism and intelligence of the JLAers and their friends the next issue.
“Prometheus” has a sharp focus. There are few tangents and only a handful of deus ex machina moments (The reader has to wonder why was there no foreshadowing of the heroine/villain who drives the conclusion, even while smiling at its cleverness). The “Prometheus” storyline ends with a delightful sense of closure, with each of the heroes given a chance to show their true strengths in powerful Morrisonian ways. By the end the team has reunited and the new members have experienced their baptisms of fire.
JLA/WildC.A.Ts wraps up JLA: the Deluxe Edition Volume Two. This is one of those crossover comics that dominated the industry in 1997 and 1998. Morrison does as well as he can with this story but after the manic craziness of the earlier storylines this team up with Wildstorm’s lackluster heroes lacks the spark that we might expect from the writer. It has some wonderful moments with the Flash and some fun time-spanning adventure, but the team up between the two teams falls a bit flat and there’s just no real spark in this story.
Because this is by Morrison, there has to be a few moments in JLA/WildC.A.Ts that build character. The friendship between Superman and his counterpart Mr. Majestic is delightful, and the story gives readers a charmingly candid view of the childhood of Wally West, the Kid Flash who will one day become the Flash.
Morrison honors history and tropes in this story. The two super-teams fight in an almost obligatory feeling way, because that’s a key trope of crossover comics. Wonder Woman and Zealot are delightful counterparts for each other, with Zealot a slightly more vicious version of the Amazon warrior. There’s some time traveling madness in the story, and some psychedelic twists and turns, but this story feels more a cash grab than innovative approach to storytelling. JLA/WildC.A.T.s is a slightly desultory conclusion to this book, best summarized by Superman’s closing line: “Okay. Let’s clean up.”
Grant Morrison’s JLA: the Deluxe Edition Volume Two shows the writer’s strengths and weaknesses in microcosm. He delivers some grand ideas and presents some delightful characterization. But his stories fall apart on the ground of their own over-ambitious natures. Grant Morrison’s mind moves at super-speed but there were many times I just wanted him to slow down for us mere mortals.