Thursday, August 10, 2006

JLA: Return of the Conqueror (#22-23)

First up, a few words on the Mark Waid fill in issues that preceeded this storyline. I'm not sure why Waid did four issues, I do know that Morrison was way behind with his Invisibles scripts at this time, so he might have taken some time off from JLA to get ahead, but I'm not really sure what the reason for these fill ins was.

Reading the Morrison JLA, I sometimes wonder if I just say it's good because Morrison wrote it. Some of his stories are special, others aren't quite generic, but certainly aren't as unique as his other work. I was think that perhaps anyone could write the craziness that Morrison brings to JLA. Reading the Mark Waid issues makes it quite clear that this isn't true. Waid's first arc is alright, particularly the second issue. However, he's too reliant on rather artificial cliffhangers, having the JLA disappear isn't particularly exciting or threatening at this point.

However, that arc is a sterling example of comics writing next to the awfulness that is "Mystery in Space," an arc that has some really awful writing. The idea was clearly Adam Strange imprisons the JLA, so we do that for an issue, then spend half an issue on backstory of Strange, flagrantly violating show, don't tell. There's no emotional stake in the story and the reveal that Strage isn't actually evil is so unshocking it makes the whole story essentially pointless. Waid's major problem is that he writes the JLA in a traditional narrative way, putting the characters in danger or having them turn evil doesn't work because they're all essentially static. You can't write the JLA like you would normal people.

So, it was refreshing to return to Morrison and one of his stronger stories so far. The opening of this issue, with Michael Haney drawing Superman is a classic Morrison moment. I was actually thinking that this story was Morrison going back to that thematic well one too many times, but he mixes it up from Flex Mentallo and takes a similar setup in a slightly different direction. Morrison views superheroes as an aspirational model for normal humans, in someone like Superman, people can see their potential. In Flex Mentallo we see how an adult can become cynical and lose touch with the magic that these characters once held. Michael, a child, is the one person who can imagine wonder in a world filled with zombies, for Morrison, it's superhero comics that took him out of a boring world and opened his mind up.

When Alan Moore wrote Watchmen he thought it would be the final superhero story, because there was nowhere left to go from there, he had utterly broke down all the concepts traditionally associated with those characters. Morrison's work digs just as deep as Moore, but with the goal of reaffirming the traditional wonder present in the characters, enhancing the concepts rather than destroying them. Flex Mentallo is the best example of that, we go through the grim and gritty real world but by the end emerge in a shiny new world of heroes and wonder. Morrison sees the rejection of wonder as something utterly adolescent, best summed up by the villain in Flex, he sees nothing wrong with maintaining a childlike sense of wonder into adulthood.

This arc had my attention right from the start because of the appearance of Daniel, the new Sandman from Neil Gaiman's series. I'm a huge Sandman fan and it's very cool to see Morrison writing one of Neil's characters and drawing on his concepts. Neil's Sandman run is the second best longform comics work, behind only Morrison's Invisibles, and like Morrison, he's a stunning font of stories and ideas. The appearance of Daniel here is another really cool cameo moment, normally you read something, it ends and that's it, but in the DCU, characters from previous stories can pop up again. It reinforces the idea of the DCU as a sentient entity, people put their ideas in and then those ideas mutate and are carried by others. Along with Daniel come a bunch of tie in references to Sandman, and some really cool visuals. I love the way Porter draws Daniel, and the stuff in The Dreaming is gorgeous.

This story is all about the conflict between childlike wonder and the conformity of boring adulthood. Michael is trying to hold on to his belief, but It is out to crush him and turn him into something like everyone else. It is attacking the world of dreams, the place where stories and imagination come from, if that's destroyed then humanity is lost. What Superman has to do is prove his existence to the boy and as a result validate his beliefs and prevent him from succumbing to It. This conflict between childhood wonder and adult conformity crops up quite a bit in Seven Soldiers, which features numerous children being corrupted by an encroaching adult world. Without the JLA, those children are not saved and wind up messed up by their encounters with adulthood.

Seven Soldiers is largely about the struggles that lesser people have living up to the example set by the Justice League. Read alone, this story has an upbeat ending, however in light of Seven Soldiers, the boy's need for superheroes only makes apparent how lacking others are in comparison.

It's not only Michael who needs Superman, Superman also needs Michael to validate him. On a meta level, this could be read as superheroes only existing because the readers choose to believe them. It's us who give them the powers, changing an image on a piece of paper into a fully formed character in the world of the imagination. The idea that Michael can draw an image on a piece of paper then make it real is what making comics is all about. It's what all of art is about, taking thoughts and making them real, it's all about hypersigils, craftiing the reality that you want by just believing hard enough.

The end of the story reveals that Michael Haney, the boy from the dream, is an adult in real life, which ties in perfectly with the theme of the story. The adult world tried to take his wonder, but deep down he still has the same beliefs he did as a child. The captions say that he has "too vivid an imagination," but he's happy to believe in something and not be like them. This is Morrison justifying the fact that he still writes these stories and rejecting the boring world that looks down on them.

The final page shows Daniel tucking the previously massive It into a small fishbowl. If we read the It as conforming adult force, which quite literally puts people to sleep and destorys their minds, the ending would imply that there will always imaginative storytellers who will make our everyday reality look insignificant by comparison. The whole arc is a tribute to the power of stories, hence the guest appearance by the king of stories, Daniel.

These are classic Morrison themes, but it's always fun to watch them play out. I loved getting to see Daniel again and I think the arc on the whole finds the perfect balance between exploring Morrison's personal favorite themes and doing really cool action stuff. It's my second favorite of his JLA arcs so far, behind only Rock of Ages.

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