Sunday, September 17, 2006

JLA: Earth 2 and Wrap Up

Last time, I wrapped up my writing on Grant's main JLA run, but now it's back for one more with his graphic novel, JLA: Earth 2. During the main JLA run, Howard Porter's art was generally satisfactory, but nothing too special. So, it's a big jump to the greatest artist working in comics today, Frank Quitely.

The thing I love about Quitely's work isn't so much the aesthetic as the way that his art creates near three dimensionality. This is really evident in his work on New X-Men, and his work on the final issue of The Invisibles makes me wish that he could have drawn the whole series. Of course, if he did it probably still wouldn't be finished. Anyway, his work here isn't quite up to the level of that or We3, but it's still very strong.

One of the themes that cropped up every once in a while during Grant's run on the series was to take the story necessity of having the JLA always win and make it a feature of the universe in which they live. The best longform works are able to the take repetitive story elements necesitated by the form and turn it to the story's advantage. In Buffy, this meant that her attraction to Spike wasn't a retread of Angel, it revealed the fact that the character required some darkness in her mate. With the JLA, it becomes a meta comment on the very nature of superhero fiction, and Earth 2 is concerned with exploring this idea by creating a world that's the opposite.

In Warren Ellis' works alone we must have seen ten different analogues of the JLA, so the idea of yet another crop of JLA dopplegangers popping up isn't inherently that exciting. But, Morrison pushes things to the next level by creating an entire alternate universe that reverses the metafictional rules governing DCU storytelling.

I've gained a lot of affection for the DCU from reading this JLA run and Seven Soldiers, but I'm not a big enough fan to grab all the allusions that Morrison makes in building Earth 2. The first half of the story is so devoted to building up the anti-matter verse that it takes until about halfway through the story to really take off. The best stuff in the beginning is the humor surrounding the illicit relationship between Owlman and Super Woman. The petty humanity of these characters is such a contrast to the godlike JLA. When the JLA finally cross worlds, they're disgusted by the very nature of the world.

My very Quitely page is the big shot of Green Lantern building hands around the moon. That's flashy, but throughout we see Quitely bringing a level of detail that you don't normally get. The panels with the many, many Flashes are particularly impressive. I think Quitely's greatest strength as a storyteller in doing moments in detail, so the constantly moving narrative of this book doesn't necessarily work to his strengths, or rather, it doesn't take full advantage of his possibilities.

Reading this book now, one of the striking things is the rampant destruction of major buildings. Grant's JLA work, and most of the widescreen superheroics it inspired, are of a distinctly pre 9/11 mindset. There's some death, but this destruction is generally treated as a light thing, just a salvo in the war. I think if the book came out today, you wouldn't see this sort of thing. All of Morrison's work from this period has an optimism about the direction of humanity that feels somewhat undermined by the stuff that Bush has put us through post 9/11. I think he still feels humanity's going in a generally positive direction, but right now, the forces of progress are losing the battle with the archons. That's why The Filth is such a critical work in Morrison's cannon, it shows the dirty flip side of this shiny optimism.

We soon find out that Brainiacis behind this cross of worlds. Brainiac stands outside the manicheanism of the JLA/CSA. As he says, he is "Beyond good and evil. Beyond the moral and conceptual framework which limits 3rd-level intellects such as your own." He is such a high level intellect that he does not care that his actions will result in a lot of people dying. Morrison's work frequently focuses on moving beyond traditional conceptions of morality, which makes it a bit hard to reconcile Brainiac as a villain. I thin Brainiac is meant to show a pure intellectual being, whereas in the supercontext, it is love for humanity that motivates the push to higher levels of intellectual consequences. Without that emotional grounding, evolution becomes a destructive force.

The thing that I love about the book is the way it can be read from the matter or anti-matter perspective with equal validity. You get a real idea of the morality of the CSA world, those characters feel totally real and motivated, and you can see how our world would be weird to them. Throughout the book we see the actions of the two groups balance each other perfectly to fit the nature of their worlds. In our world, good will invariably wind up triumphing, so the CSA's destruction is quickly repaired, in the same way that in the other Earth, the good that the JLA does must be undone. Each world must always revert to its status quo. In that way, this work provides the best explanation for why heroes in the DCU are always going to win. But, if you were a reader for the anti-matter verse, you could just as easily read this book as a triumph for the CSA.

So, like a lot of Morrison works, this book functions simultaneously as a meta comment on superhero fiction and a fine example of the form. I would still consider "Rock of Ages" the ultimate Morrison JLA arc, but if you want a condensed idea of what's great about the run, go to this book.

And that brings me to the real end of Morrison's JLA run. Before doing this read through, JLA was one of the rare Morrison works I wasn't a big fan of. This read has changed that, I think his treatment is the definitive address of these characters, he made the big seven more than their mythology and brought real humanity to the large supporting cast. Seeing Green Lantern becoming more confident and revel in his heroism was really satisfying, and Huntress' uneasy move into and out of the group was the most grounding emotional force in the narrative.

Reading all of Morrison's JLA back to back makes you forget just how innovative his stuff is. The fill in issues sprinkled throughout the volumes bring this to the fore, Morrison's work is so far beyond what anyone else is doing, in terms of narrative, character development and concepts, I hesitate to see why anyone would read it after he left the title. Obviously there's love for these characters, but only when Morrison writes them do they feel real, other people just draw on the same couple of traits that they've been whiddled down to over the ages.

Looking through the run, my favorite arc was undoubtedly Rock of Ages. This arc took the kitchen sink approach, throwing everything in. The JLA fought robotic doubles of themselves, battled Lex Luthor and The Joker, went to Wonderworld, and reset the world from a dystopia ruled by Darkseid. I loved that arc because it felt most like his work on The Invisibles, there was more uniquely Morrison in there than anywhere else. I also loved the two issue storyline featuring Daniel from Sandman, an arc which functioned as a simpler version of Flex Mentallo. One Million was in a lot of ways the high point of the run, full of so many ridiculous concepts and a narrative scope that was never matched. Earth 2 and the final issue are also notable.

The run's greatest demerit is the somewhat repetitive structure of most arcs. A foe appears who has figured out a foolproof plan to defeat the JLA, he winds the first round, then the JLA regroup and beat him. Because most of the characters have individual titles, you can't really do heavy character arcs, so these massive scope narratives are pretty much the only way to make a viable threat.

Looking at this run next to Morrison's work on New X-Men reveals a lot about the difference between Marvel and DC. The characters in X-Men are designed to be actual people, they have flaws and are meant to be people the readers can identify with. The core members of the JLA are aspirational figures, so they're frequently read as power fantasies. However, Morrison goes beyond that simple interpretation and positions the JLA as humanity's guides to the next stage of evolution. As Metron says at the end of WWIII, the JLA shows us a glimpse of our future selves, and it's up to us to get to there.

The Complete JLA Review Index

JLA: New World Order (#1-4)

JLA: American Dreams (#5-9)

JLA: Rock of Ages (#10-15)

JLA: Prometheus Unbound (#16-17)

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

JLA: One Million

JLA: Executive Action (#24-26)

JLA: Crisis Times Five (#28-31)

JLA: World War III (#34-41)

JLA: Earth 2

JLA: Classified (#1-3)


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