Saturday, June 21, 2014
Review: JLA Deluxe Edition: Volume 1
The nineties were a weird and frightening time for comics. Known as the Dark Age of Comics, this era in comic book history actually began in the late eighties following the successes of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen. The next thirty years or so of comics were spent trying to emulate those two series. Both Marvel and DC did everything in their power to make their comics "darker" and "grittier," in order to show that their stories were more "mature" and "serious." To them, and, sadly, to a lot of fans, that meant outrageous displays of profanity, sex, and gory, bloody violence. Every hero under the sun suffered at the hands of creators who wanted to make their heroes more dark, more brooding, more, you know, realistic. The art was affected too. Characters were drawn to be more exaggeratedly muscular, more ripped and mean looking. Superman got a mullet for a while, for Pete's sake.
Then you throw Grant Morrison into the mix.
I've never been a big fan of Grant Morrison's work. It's generally super trippy, super complicated, and super hit-or-miss. I haven't read much of his stuff, but I have read enough to know what his style is like. He tends to rely on plot twists, Chekhov's Guns, and lots and lots of nightmare fuel, depending on what he's writing. I've got to give him credit, however, for being really, really into all manner of comics. I mean, this guy digs up stuff from the Silver Age and recycles it for use in the Modern Age. He just loves comic books. Plus, he actually writes some pretty good stuff. It's not always to my personal preference, but it's usually aesthetically good, and I can always find something to like about that.
What I'm saying here is that Grant Morrison in the nineties makes for a bizarre combination. We've got goofy, over-the-top art combined with trippy, devil's-in-the-details writing, which all combine to make one of the most peculiar trade paperbacks I've ever had to review. For the uninitiated, JLA stands for "Justice League of America," and features the adventures of DC's "big seven": Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter... plus all their friends who pop in every now and again. JLA Deluxe Edition: Volume 1 collects the issues originally collected in New World Order and American Dreams, plus some random Secret Files issue. We've got an alien invasion story, a mole inside the JLA story, a story about a fight between a rogue angel and the Legions of Hell that spills over into the corporeal world, and a traditional Morrison mind-bender story involving a supervillain called the Key and medically induced comas.
I'll be honest: I'm not a huge fan of alien invasion stories. For one thing, it's been done to death, and for another, I have yet to meet a comic book story full of large groups of people blasting each other with energy or hitting each other that did it in an interesting way. I have faith in comic books as a genre, but I just haven't seen anything of that nature which I find entertaining to date, except maybe, just maybe, Blackest Night. Thankfully enough, Morrison manages to subvert the usual pitfalls of an alien invasions story by injecting his own unique spin on it. With the first story, the one with the "Hyperclan," I think Morrison was actually trying to make fun of the exaggerated, toyetic era of the nineties. The Hyperclan, led by "Protex," show up on Earth apparently wanting to use their powers to better the world. But they actually have a secret agenda. Next, a JLA recruiting drive brings in "Tomorrow Woman," secretly a mole cooked up by T.O. Morrow and Professor Ivo to bring down the Justice League. Following that, there's the story where Zauriel the angel literally falls out of the sky, shortly before all heaven breaks loose, so to speak. Finally, we get a two-parter where Green Arrow is forced to go it alone on the Justice League satellite against the Key, who has trapped the rest of the Justice League.
Like I said, Morrison has his flaws, but his unique style manages to bring out his stories so as to elevate them above the rest. Considering that this thing was written in the nineties, that's saying something. My favorite story of the four listed was undoubtedly the two-parter at the end. For one thing, we've got the novice Connor Hawke, then the only Green Arrow, being a badbutt, while at the same time we're treated to some cool-looking alternate realities. The Key is an awesome villain, a truly magnificent bad guy. The thing about this story, though, is that it was set up in the Zauriel one. Morrison tends to do that. Just pay extra close attention to the hospital scenes and you'll see what I mean. Speaking of Zauriel, that story was probably my least favorite. The long and short of it is that I don't appreciate Morrison's grasp on theology (it's almost as bad as what David Hine and his ilk were doing over in Azrael a few years ago), and the story wasn't particularly groundbreaking. I guess I just don't think much of Morrison's huge, epic stories, and it's the smaller scale, more personal stories like the two-parter that I really like. It doesn't help that the evil invasion plot is so... generic.
Morrison also has trouble with stilted dialogue, but it's not usually particularly egregious. The art is typical nineties fare, with Batman's look being particularly ridicule-worthy. My only other objections are motivated by personal preference. I don't generally like epic science fiction adventure epics like this story, but I'm willing to proceed given that I've heard so many good things about Morrison's run on this book. It's just that he did the invasion/war story twice in the span of seven issues. Granted, he resolved and executed them in cool and unique ways, but I just don't particularly care for that sort of story. Otherwise, his characterization of the JLA members is spot on, particularly with Batman. I've always liked Morrison's take on Batman, mainly because Morrison knows how to make Batman look really, really cool, and I'll thank him also for only minimally touching on the souped-up Superman (see Dork Age). The dynamics we're given here are sure to be deepened later, as they are prone to do in long runs. In short, while not perfect, Morrison does deliver a satisfactory start to the JLA series.
Image courtesy of unitedmonkee.com