How "DC Universe: Rebirth" Fulfills Its Promise of Restoring Legacy to DC Comics
Hot damn, I love these comics! And, as it’s the God of All Comics’ fiftieth birthday today, it’s a good time to discuss them (even if it was completely coincidental)!
JLA by Grant “I am … the Tyrant Sun!” Morrison (writer, issues #1-17, 22-26, 28-31, 34, 36-41, 1,000,000; Secret Files and Origins #1; New Year’s Evil: Prometheus; DC One Million #1-4; JLA: Earth 2), Mark Waid (writer, issues #18-21, 32-33; Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #1-3), Mark Millar (writer, issue #27; Secret Files and Origins #1), Devin Grayson (writer, issue #32), J. M. DeMatteis (writer, issue #35), Fabian Nicieza (writer, Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #1-3), Howard Porter (penciller, issues #1-7, 10-16, 18-19, 22-25, 28-31, 34, 36-41, 1,000,000; Secret Files and Origins #1), Oscar Jimenez (penciller, issues #8-9), Gary Frank (penciller, issue #15), Greg Land (penciller, issue #15), Arnie Jorgensen (penciller, issues #17, 20-21; New Year’s Evil: Prometheus), Mark Pajarillo (penciller, issues #26-27, 32-33, 35), Jeff Johnson (penciller, Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #1-3), Darick Robertson (penciller, Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #1-3), Don Hillsman (penciller, Secret Files and Origins #1), Val Semeiks (penciller, DC One Million #1-4), Frank Quitely (artist, JLA: Earth 2), John Dell (inker, issues #1-7, 10-16, 18-19, 22-25, 28-31, 34, 36-39, 1,000,000; Secret Files and Origins #1), Ken Branch (inker, issue #7), Chip Wallace (inker, issues #8-9), Bob McLeod (inker, issue #15), David Meikis (inker, issue #17, 20-21; New Year’s Evil: Prometheus), Mark Pennington (inker, issue #17), Walden Wong (inker, issue #19, 26-27, 32-33, 35), Doug Hazlewood (inker, issue #21), Marlo Alquiza (inker, issue #27), Drew Geraci (inker, issues#40-41), Jon Holdredge (inker, Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #1-3), Hanibal Rodriguez (inker, issue #9; Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #1-3), Albert de Guzman (inker, Secret Files and Origins #1), Prentis Rollins (inker, DC One Million #1-4), Pat Garrahy (colorist, issues #1-32, 34-41, 1,000,000; Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #1-2; DC One Million #1-4), John Kalisz (colorist, issue #33; Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #3; Secret Files and Origins #1), James Sinclair (colorist, New Year’s Evil: Prometheus), Laura Depuy (colorist, JLA: Earth 2), Heroic Age (color separations, issues #1-13,16-25, 29-41, 1,000,000; New Year’s Evil: Prometheus; DC One Million #2-4), Digital Chameleon (color separations, issue #26-28; DC One Million #1), Wildstorm FX (color separations, JLA: Earth 2), Ken Lopez (letterer, issues #1-20, 22-41, 1,000,000; Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #1-3; Secret Files and Origins #1; DC One Million #1-4; JLA: Earth 2), Kurt Hathaway (letterer, issue #21), Janice Chiang (letterer, New Year’s Evil: Prometheus)
DC, 51 issues + JLA: Earth 2 original graphic novel (Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #1-3; JLA #1-41; JLA Secret Files and Origins #1, which comes after issue #9; New Year’s Evil: Prometheus, which comes after issue #15; DC One Million #1-4, which come between issues #23 and 24; issue #1,000,000, which comes between DC One Million #2 and 3), cover dated September 1996 – November 1996 (Midsummer’s Nightmare) and January 1997 – May 2000 (Earth 2 was released in 2000 as well).
SPOILERS ahoy! I do try to keep them out, but I don’t always succeed! And click the images to enlarge, because they’re awesome!
It’s fascinating to consider the life cycle of certain comics, especially Justice League. The first volume ran its course, finally dying during “Legends” when J. M. DeMatteis killed or incapacitated the remnants of the team – Vibe, Steel, Gypsy, and Vixen. Then we got the relaunch, which injected fresh life into the franchise with its irreverant take on superheroes. This even led to a spin-off and an ancillary title, and life was good. That too ran its course, and the book floundered again. Then the God of All Comics got ahold of the series, and life was again good. This series, too, ran its course, and DC killed it and relaunched it yet again. You can’t keep a good Justice League down, it seems.
This particular relaunch is what really turned Morrison into a superstar. He had done excellent work prior to this series, of course, but working on such a high-profile book and knocking it out of the park really made his career, and he’s been on top since then. He uses many, many ideas that he would later refine or simply re-use, and it’s interesting to see if they’re better here, in their rawer forms, or later, when he’s had time to think about it. In many ways, this is Morrison’s apotheosis, at least when it comes to superheroes, and he’s been working in its shadow ever since. What makes it so is worth considering.
Without taking anything away from Morrison, Mark Waid deserves some credit for making this a memorable run. The “prequel” of JLA, Midsummer’s Nightmare, introduces the major theme of Morrison’s run – that is, an ancient evil bent on destroying Earth, and how to fight it. Perhaps Waid was working from a basic plot that Morrison gave him, but it’s still Waid that gives us the seminal story of the entire population of the world turning into superheroes. Furthermore, it’s interesting that Waid makes the most of the idea of seven superheroes being somehow important, in the two-part Julian September story in issues #18-19, and it’s also Waid who brings up the Seven Soldiers of Victory, in issue #21 (granted, it’s to denigrate them, but did Morrison read that and think ahead to a different project?). Waid also writes a clever follow-up to Morrison’s initial story arc in issue #33, when Batman sends the JLA to confront … Bruce Wayne? It’s a fun, one-off story that shows how poorly the League dealt with the problem of the Martians. Waid’s contribution to the success of this incarnation shouldn’t be overlooked, especially when we look at Midsummer’s Nightmare. In it, we meet Know Man (yes, the name sucks – deal with it!), who is attempting, with Doctor Destiny’s help, to make everyone on Earth a superhuman. He tells the “League” (who aren’t the League yet, just seven heroes who managed to break Destiny’s programming) that he foresees the destruction of the world, and the only way to fight it is if everyone has superpowers. This idea, of course, colors Morrison’s entire run, leading up to the confrontation with Mageddon in issues #36-41. However, Waid uses Destiny to show that the League is vulnerable through a “false world” – using their own minds against them. It’s something the Key will use in issues #8-9 – Aquaman and Batman even comment on their vulnerability to it. The use of Doctor Destiny, however, points to a different, grander theme of Morrison’s run: The idea of different worlds, not just those in the Leaguers’ minds. This is something that has always fascinated Morrison, and he uses it to magnificent effect.
If we examine the first theme, that of superpowers and heroism, we see that Morrison is remakably skilled at making each hero who appears an interesting character, with their own skill set. This is why his run works so well – unlike a lot of superhero books, where a core group handles all the problems, Morrison used different characters from DC’s rich history to come up with solutions to specific issues. This has become a bit more common over the past decade, and Morrison certainly wasn’t the first to do it, but his lack of a stable team and his ability to move various characters into positions where they can do the most good is a fun juggling act, and it helps build this idea that heroes are people that do heroic things, not ones with powers – which pays off in the final arc. While the various heroes who show up to perform certain duties have powers, they also possess abilities that have nothing to do with superpowers, and therefore show that it takes something different than powers to be a hero. This is most notable in Batman, of course, the hero who has no powers. Morrison loves Batman, obviously, and although some people complain that he made Batman almost superhuman, he usually just figures things out first. Morrison does this with other heroes, too. In the brilliant first story arc, we get an entire fight in which the Flash battles Züm, the speedster of the Hyperclan. It’s a memorable battle because Wally uses the power of … physics! Whoo-hoo! Later, Aquaman takes out Züm (poor Züm) in another cool way, although why exactly Züm would have marine ancestors isn’t explained. These kinds of examples litter the book, and Morrison, more than many writers, seems to think about how these heroes would use their powers. When the demons are trying to drag the moon out of orbit in issue #7, Blue Superman figures out how to stop them by using his new powers. J’onn figures out how to get through the Joker’s twisted mind in issue #11 by changing the shape of his own brain to become insane himself. Ray Palmer discovers a way to defeat Darkseid in issue #15. Waid runs with this when Palmer figures out how to make probability stabilize in issue #19. Buddy Baker figures out how to wound Mageddon by talking to lizards in issues #40-41. Many writers don’t think of different ways for superheroes to use their powers beyond a limited palette. Morrison doesn’t limit himself – he knows that superheroes would be thinking about their powers and how to stretch what they can do, and he comes up with those uses. It’s refreshing reading this run because of the wild and inventive ways the heroes defeat the bad guys.
Just as important as the superpowered beings are the ones that don’t have them. In the final story arc, of course, this comes to the fore, as Mageddon can only be defeated if everyone in the world becomes a superhero, just as Know Man claimed. Morrison, however, uses “ordinary” humans throughout the run, and not just Batman, to show the human potential. This is an idea he developed a bit more during his run on X-Men (although that was with mutants, of course), but it germinates here. He does it in small moments, such as the people holding up lit lighters and other flaming items when they realize the Martians are scared of fire, but also in bigger ones. He first explains this grand theme in issue #4, when Superman tells the others their purpose, and the first time Morrison examines “ordinary” people becoming more heroic, he ironically doesn’t use a human, but a robot, in issue #5. Tomorrow Woman, the first new recruit of the League, turns out to be a creation of T. O. Morrow and Professor Ivo, and she’s supposed to destroy the League. As she spends time with the League, however, she develops a conscience and breaks her programming, something Morrow planned all along as a way of proving that he’s a better genius than Ivo. It’s a clever story, and it works in Morrison’s themes of people rising to the occasion. That Tomorrow Woman isn’t an actual person doesn’t change the central idea. The next time we see a non-superpowered person fighting seemingly impossible odds is in issues #8-9, when Connor Hawke, the new Green Arrow, has to save the day. He’s stuck with Oliver Queen’s weird arrows, but he does what he can, stopping the Key from taking over reality. In “Rock of Ages,” an older Connor is crucial in defeating Darkseid. Even someone like Prometheus, a villain, creates his persona from scratch, using good old human know-how, and he’s defeated, in part, by Catwoman. A key part of the League’s defeat of Starro in issues #22-23 is a boy’s belief in heroes (specifically Superman), and belief in heroes is part of this idea of humanity striving for more. The Huntress comes up with the way to defeat Vandal Savage and Solaris in DC One Million (and receives no credit for it, mind you). Ted Grant teaches Huntress a bit about heroism during “Crisis Times Five” (issues #28-31), while J. J. Thunder, the boy who gains control of Johnny Thunder’s thunderbolt, also has to learn about heroism in the same arc. In JLA: Earth 2, Alexander Luthor and Thomas Wayne fight alone against the Crime Syndicate, and they have no powers (and even though Thomas Wayne turns out to be not quite so heroic, that doesn’t change the fact of what he fights for). All of these examples are simply a prelude to “World War III,” but it’s interesting that Morrison was doing this throughout the series. Waid’s example wasn’t simply forgotten and then brought up again three years later. Whether it’s Oracle or even Blue Beetle, Morrison never forgets that seemingly normal people can do heroic things. In a book as wild as JLA, it’s an interesting contrast to the big superhero moments.
The second pervasive idea in this run is the “different worlds” one that begins with Waid’s mini-series. Morrison has always been fascinated by other worlds in his fiction, and it seems as if he’s extremely disappointed he wasn’t writing before Crisis on Infinite Earths, when the multiverse was a normal fact of life in the DC Universe. What he can do with these ideas of different worlds is show our heroes in completely different lights, which helps again to highlight their heroism. When you consider how powerful the heroes are on this “plane,” it’s not surprising that Morrison has to look elsewhere to come up with threats for them. Batman and Aquaman might complain about it, but coming at the heroes through their minds is a good trick, and making them confront threats from different realities makes them better heroes, because it’s nothing like they’ve seen before. Waid, as noted, begins this trend, as the seven “big guns” are some of the few who aren’t superpowered – Know Man says he gave them a “reprieve” from their powers and they rejected it. Waid, interestingly enough, goes metafictional on us, as Kyle is drawing a comic book starring Doctor Destiny, which is how the League finds him in issue #3. But let’s consider the “other worlds” that Morrison delves into throughout the run, because it’s remarkable. In issues #6-7, we get different planes of reality – Hell and Heaven, which brings the League in contact with rogue angels and nasty demons (even though they don’t know they’re fighting demons). This leads directly into the Key arc in issues #8-9, which begins with Kal-El of Krypton becoming a Green Lantern. Each Leaguer is trapped in an alternate reality which reflects their powers and pasts and desires – Aquaman is a protector of a world inundated by water; Batman is grown and mentoring Tim Drake (who is now Batman) and his son (who is now Robin); Wonder Woman fights Nazis in a classic adventure story; Wally lives in a world where, at noon every day, everyone has super-speed; Kyle is a crazed video-game anti-hero. In Secret Files and Origins, Morrison tells a story that occurred after Midsummer’s Nightmare but before issue #1 of the regular series. They plan to battle Starro, and the Spectre shows them what will happen if they do – they will be taken over and used to dominate the cosmos. (As an aside, it’s interesting that none of them know who Starro is. I suppose this is after one of DC’s seemingly endless reboots, so perhaps the Powers That Be at the time were claiming that J’onn, for instance, hadn’t battled Starro in JLE a few years earlier, but if that’s true, it seems strange that at one point, we see an Extremist in the trophy room. It always struck me as odd that they didn’t know what Starro was.) “Rock of Ages,” of course, shows us a future in which Darkseid has taken over the world, but it also introduces us to Wonderworld, the bastion of heroes waiting to defend reality against Mageddon (a task they fail spectacularly to do), not to mention the various realities Kyle, Wally, and Arthur go through to reach Wonderworld itself. Prometheus’ headquarters is in the “ghost zone,” which Zauriel refers to as Limbo. When Waid steps in for issues #18-21, he gives us our world, but changed beyond recognition thanks to Julian September changing the laws of probability. Issues #22-23 not only give us Starro, but Daniel from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, taking the League into dreams to strike at the alien. DC One Million features characters from the 853rd century. “Crisis Times Five” brings us characters from the fifth dimension, and also, with its depiction of Kyle and Captain Marvel in that dimension, hearkens back to Morrison’s classic “Coyote Gospel” from Animal Man #5. Mageddon, while not from a different reality, is a product of a war between gods. And, of course, JLA: Earth 2 gives us an antimatter counterpart to our universe.
So what, you may say? What’s my point? Well, I would argue that Morrison has to do these things to make this a great comic. After comics’ age of innocence ended (in the mid-1980s), no longer could a writer simply throw world-conquering bad guys at the heroes over and over and expect people to enjoy it. It makes no sense to have all these powerful characters and just keep upping the ante – it gets boring. A writer has to change it up, and Morrison uses these two major themes to do so. By bringing in regular humans, he shows how innovative and adaptable humans are. By using different realities, he confronts the Leaguers with threats that they can’t necessarily punch out, and therefore their powers are, if not useless, then needed to be used in different ways. The fact that Morrison gives us alternate realities means that the League often needs to think their way out of bad situations, and it’s a refreshing change of pace. Morrison continues to build bigger and bigger threats to chuck at the League, but it doesn’t feel stale because of the different ways he has presented these heroes. Despite the complaints that Morrison skimped on the characterization, we do get a lot of insight into these characters – Morrison just does it on the fly, which in many ways humanizes the characters even more – their personalities are revealed through their actions and the random things they say to each other during their big fights. That’s as effective as a quiet issue focusing solely on characterization. Not all of it works perfectly (the Huntress in the ghost zone with Prometheus still, a decade later, feels completely off), but because Morrison has focused a lot on the “non-powered” humans or the humanity of the superpowered ones, plus the various alternate realities where we see the Leaguers in different lights, his characterization is very effective.
If we ignore the subtext of the comic, however, and focus on the surface (as Chris Eigeman memorably says in Barcelona, “What do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?”), it remains a wonderful comic book, full of astonishing scenes and brilliant fights. A good deal of this is due to Howard Porter, who simply does not get enough credit for making this book amazing. There are times when Porter’s perspectives are a bit skewed, which upsets the balance of his pages, but for the most part, this book looks tremendous. The 1990s were an interesting time in art development – on the one hand, artists had moved beyond the lack of detail that had plagued many superhero comics in the past (I’m generalizing a great deal, of course, as you can find stuff from earlier decades that is very detailed), but on the other hand, computer “shortcuts” hadn’t taken over in such a huge way as they became. Just compare Greg Land’s art on JLA #15 with his work today. So while the 1990s are vilified for the “Image” style that took over in many comics, we also got artists like Porter filling the books with tons of detail but still actually drawing it, so everything looked like it belonged rather than being Photoshopped in. And Porter had a lot to draw. Morrison’s scripts were hyperkinetic, and Porter’s art kept up with them very well. His layouts are extremely busy, and while that is occasionally a recipe for disaster and incoherence, Porter manages to make it breathtaking, flitting from scene to scene as quickly as Morrison wants him to. His design work is simply amazing, from the hideous Martians to the thundering Asmodel to the heroes of Wonderworld to the wall-like Darkseid to the Ultramarines to the terrible power of Mageddon. If Morrison’s scripts give us heroes set against amazing villains, Porter makes sure that those scripts are translated with sufficient grandeur. His fight scenes feel brutal, because he makes sure that things get smashed, while he does well with the creepiness too – witness Mageddon’s giant eyeball encircling Hector Hammond and later Lex Luthor. The other artists do a fine job, and of course Quitely’s work on JLA: Earth 2 is amazing, but Porter helps make this a great superhero book. I don’t think he’s been this good since.
I can write about the themes and art all I want, but this is a comic that demands to be seen. So let’s check out some pages from a few story arcs. Wallow in the excellence! (And check out Brian’s post about Earth 2 for some keen-o scans of that.)
Justice League: Midsummer’s Nightmare #3 (Darick Robertson art).
Issue #9 (Oscar Jimenez art).
One final note: There are some interesting letter-writers in these comics. Yours truly didn’t get one published until issue #44, but here are some of the names I recognized in the letters column: J. Caleb Mozzocco (issue #5), Kevin Huxford (issues #6 and 13), B. Clay Moore (issue #10), and Will Brooker, who writes stuff (issue #20). And those were just the names I happened to know!
This iteration of the JLA has, of course, been collected in trade paperback. DC has started releasing them in big hardcover versions, too, which is nice. Seek them out, good readers! If you haven’t read them already, you’re in for a treat! And I’m working on getting the archives completely back on-line, too! I promise!
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