Friday, July 27, 2018

Justice League Amazing

Nobody expected too much of Grant Morrison's Justice League comics when they were first announced. There was some bafflement from the likes of Wizard magazine that they were giving the title to 'that weird Vertigo guy', while more high-brow commentators felt the Scottish writer was taking a giant step back, away from worthier, artier endeavors and into futile mainstream silliness.

Even though Morrison had already unashamedly shown that he still had a wide-eyed affection for the dopiest aspects of superheroes in Animal Man, or had already done his own version of Crisis On Earth UK in Zenith, nobody seemed to expect too much.

They certainly didn't expect it to instantly become one of the defining comics of its generation, influencing the direction of superhero comics in so many ways, both good and bad.

JLA blasted out into the world in late 1996 and 22 years later, it still shines with the fresh rush of new ideas and proven concepts. Even now, after it has been remixed and ripped off and covered over and over again, it's still massively entertaining and brilliantly stupid.

This version of the world's greatest super-team burst out of the gate just as Hollywood was embracing CGI and going for impossible vistas and ultimate stakes, and doing it while cutting up the editing and shaking the camera as much as possible.

Morison and Porter's JLA is just as giddily incomprehensible as an early Michael Bay film, vast parts of it don't make any sense if you think about it for too long, but if you just go along for the ride, you'll get some cool moments.

And the comic delivered on that promise, giving these strange and iconic characters some of the coolest shit they would ever do - Batman figuring out who the Hyperclan are, Superman wrestling with an angel for all creation, Green Arrow figuring out how to use the dumb boxing glove arrow, everyone in the world becomes a superhero and just wants to help, the ultimate last-panel wink from the far future. JLA delivered it all.

It brought in widescreen action that would be copied and emulated by many of Morrison's peers, often to striking effect. There was absolutely no fucking about, especially in the first year, with each world-shattering threat dealt with solidly within two issues.

Morrison's plots were super sharp, and still managed to get in some weird little asides, and you can find desperate attempts to put a bit of poetry into the caption boxes, which sometimes work, but often just stick out as clumsy and forced.

But Morrison's truly great idea for JLA was the most blindingly obvious -  bringing the band back together, and for the first time in more than a decade, stacking the team with the best of the best. This wasn't just a brilliant marketing hook, it also created an insanely strong team dynamic, filling the team with incredibly competent professional super-heroes who always got the job done, without ever leaving humanity behind.

It had the solid spine of the big three, and made you really believe that Martian Manhunter and Aquaman had always been an essential part of the League, and had the new generation of legacy versions of Flash and Green Lantern trying desperately to live up to the name (and largely succeeding, but only when they weren't working together, b
ecause they always turned into arsehole bros around each other). And with the greater sandbox of the entire DC universe, anybody could pop up, anytime, to help the heroes, or hinder them.

Morrison's plots had to work around all sorts of DC office politics - Superman turns blue, Wonder Woman turns dead and comes back, the Genesis wave smashes right into the Rock Of Ages, which is 
already super tight. Most of these backroom changes are gently smashed into the narrative, and largely gets away with it by dispensing with a lot of the characterisation.

With the reasonable assumption that readers had four other Superman comics a month to get inside the big guy's head and show his home life, there was room for one where he was taking on massive threats to all existence with the best teammates in the world.

There are still some terrific little scenes where Morrison nails the characters -  there is a part towards the first year of the comic where Superman talks down an extremely angry bystander and ends up shaking his hand, all in the background of the main plot, or the part where the bloody Sandman convinces Kyle Rayner that he will make a better Green Lantern because he knows what fear is - but there wasn't room for much of that when there were vast cosmic nightmares to outsmart and beat up.

Looking at it now, Howard Porter's art has generally aged a lot better than anybody could have expected. JLA came out when online discourse was really getting going, and there was some vitriolic sneering at Porter's art on the message boards, and general lamenting that DC couldn't put a stronger draftsman on the comic.

I might have been responsible for some of that, because I always thought Porter's art as busy and ugly. It's still clumsy, but under John Dell's slick as hell inks and a case study example of a turn-of-the century comic. It might be a little too busy and scratchy for modern eyes, but it isn't unreadable.

While the figurework is often still awkward - people just don't bend in that way, and arms don't do that - there is still an energy to the action, and it's still sparkling. Sometimes literally - every other page has sparks flying of some forge, or the sharp brakes of a bat-cycle.

Porter had the unfortunate timing to be working on the comic while truly great pencillers like Frank Quitely and Alan Davis were working on JLA side-projects, but there is some genuine mythic craziness in the artist's efforts.

And then it was all over, Morrison was in and out again in barely more than 30 issues, and while he has returned to the characters and concepts over and over again, nothing has had that spark of the time he had all the big boys and girls working together.

Some of the characters and concepts burned out fast - you never really see a lot of Zauriel, for instance - but people are still copying the vibe, most recently with Scott Snyder's own unabashed love for Morrison's ideal. The never ending battle goes on.

The ideas about pacing and character that appeared in the comic were soon everywhere in modern comics, and every month there are more desperate attempts to replicate JLA's cool moments. These only get more tired as time goes on, even with a writer as talented as Snyder, but you can't go wrong by going back to the source.

I fell hard for the Justice League during the previous great era, and still have huge affection for the surprising depth of the Justice League International.

There wasn't very much depth in the JLA era, but I always loved it just as much. I was a full-on Invisibles devotee at the time, but also adored the full-speed mentality of the superhero efforts. I always do.

Thge thing that so many of the imitators forget about Morrison's superhero comics is that he takes them all dead seriously, but also isn't ashamed or embarrassed by how incredibly silly they were sometimes. While his comics often got gritty as hell, he always always embraced the absurd, and the best superheroes are the ones that don't forget how preposterous they are.

And they don't come much more preposterous than the JLA, a team of enormous power, beating the big bad guys with strength, smarts and weapons-grade empathy and compassion.

Even with the DC universes greatest heroes on board, nobody expected much from Morrison and Porter's JLA, but we all got a superhero comic for the ages.

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