At the end of the final issue of Morrison's JLA run, Metron says "We have shown you the shape of the world to come. Now you must find the way there." That basically sums up Morrison's goal with the series, and with most of his work, to prevent an aspirational model of the humanity that could be. For him, the superhero is a vision of what humanity could be, the next step in evolution, and that concept is at the center of this arc.
I think the final issue is fantastic, but the earlier stuff is a bit more hit or miss. I do like the way Morrison brings back some old villains, which gives a nice sense of closure to the arc. It's like everything has been building to this point, which is true in some respects. However, the arcs are generally standalone so the payoff in this final arc isn't going to be the same as it is in The Invisibles, or New X-Men, where each arc built on what happened previously, bringing us to a big overall conclusion at the end.
One of the issues with writing for the JLA is it becomes very difficult to keep topping yourself. I feel like One Million was the ultimate threat for the JLA, and since then the smaller arcs actually worked better, where the focus was on character rather than just making massive foes. In this case, Prometheus and Luthor are good villains, but they seem to be here only to show how massive a threat Mageddon is. Side note, but I'll just mention that the Bee Queen seems like a precursor to The Filth, with both her visual design and the nastiness of her setup.
Mageddon works better as a thematic villain than as a an actual foe. He's a concept, and can create destruction, but we don't have a huge emotional stake in his destruction. That said, when you're dealing with the JLA, normal villains don't work. What they're fighting in Mageddon is the destructive force of regression. It is a holdover from a previous world and is trying to destroy the world that has grown up since his time. So, it's the ultimate conservative force, the anti-sun, an impediment to human progress. In this respect it's similar to the Sheeda, who harvest civilizations when they grow too powerful.
Morrison heroes are always about evolution, so Mageddon is the ultimate foe for them to fight. During the arc, there's a lot of different phases of evolution. What we realize by the end of the arc is that the whole reason the New Gods were working with the JLA was to fight Mageddon. They were there to guide humanity through this trial then leave them to grow on their own. If we view the New Gods as humanity's parents, this arc is all about humanity proving that it's strong enough to stand on its own.
However, humanity here is divided into two distinct categories, regular human and superhuman. The New Gods serve as parent figures to the superhumans, and the superhumans act to guide the regular humans. This series has been all about the way that these God like beings have the mandate to inspire regular humans to be better.
The ingenious thing that Morrison does at the end of the arc is reveal that Mageddon is literally preying on humanity's primal, unevolved weakness by activating our dormant reptilian DNA. Side note, but it was great to see Animal Man back in a Morrison comic. I think Morrison gave the character the perfect conclusion to his own series, but it's nice to get to see him just keeping on. Similarly, it's cool to see Zatanna as well, I would love to see Morrison write an ongoing series with the character, his work on her miniseries was phenomenal.
Anyway, if Mageddon's going to fight them by targetting our primitive weakness, the JLA decides that the best way to combat this is to tap into humanity's potential and evolve the world. On the one hand, this feels like territory Morrison has gone over many times, but I give him a pass because it works wonderfully here. I love the idea that the JLA is giving humanity a preview of what they could be. Morrison's core thematic statement is contained in this speech by Oracle:
"Hi, everyone...don't be afraid...what we're feeling are new structures opening up in our brains...It's like a preview o evolution. All this amazing stuff you're seeing and feeling is what Superman feels like all the time. It's why he wants to save us."
That sums up the whole series right there. The JLA are the ultimate form of humanity, what we hope to be. In a panel right out of Flex Mentallo, but still potent, we see an army of ordinary people flying up to battle Mageddon because they want to thank Superman for saving them. Juxtaposed with this is Superman's crisis of faith while figthing Mageddon. It's this tribute from ordinary people that gives him the strength to absorb the energy of the anti-sun and defeat Mageddon. It reminds me a bit of Buffy's "The Prom," where we see that ordinary people really do notice what these superhumans do for them. It's a really powerful moment that perfectly expresses so much of Morrison's personal philosophy.
For him, superhero comics are a way to examine humanity's future and construct a model of what we want to be. Having the ordinary citizens become superpowered is the equivalent of the reader being brought into the comic to fight alongside the characters. Batman mentions that the JLA always end up winning, and the way the ending is structured implies that it's the reader's faith in the characters that ultimately gives them the power to triumph over evil. On a literal level, the fact that we keep buying the books and seeing the movies means that the characters remain viable properties and there will not die. So, reading the book does keep them alive.
Reading a lot of Morrison JLA can numb you to just how strong his ideas are. But, if you step back, the torrent of crazy concepts in this final issue is unmatched by virtually any other author at any time. And by this point, you just accept it because he's built a world where all this is viable, it's a world where imagination and strength of belief are enough to win the day. Look at Green Lantern, he just has to believe and his ring works again, it's not the ring that matters, it's his belief in the ring.
The series ends with humanity having received a preview of the world it can one day have, and Metron giving the JLA the goal of bringing that world to fruition. One day everyone will be like Superman, and in the world that Morrison's created, great power does not corrupt, it allows you to see the wonder of the world. The bad guys in this series are the ones with petty, individual concerns, the good guys are the ones who can transcend that to fight for the good of the world as a whole. And in the final panel we get one more meta nod to the reader with the hilarious line, "We're the Justice League. You know you love it."
I once heard someone say that Morrison always has problems ending his series. That's absoultely ridiculous, Morrison's endings usually do a wonderful job of wrapping up the loose ends of the series and providing a vision of the characters' future. Animal Man #26, Doom Patrol #63 and The Invisibles #1 are three of the best comics you'll ever read. JLA #41 isn't on that level, but it's still a thoroughly satisfying wrap up to a great run.
Ultimately, World War III suffers from fatigue. By this point, it's very hard for Morrison to surprise us. So he probably made the right choice by exiting the series then. However, the final issue is a wonderful topper to the run, perfectly articulating the thematic concerns that made his work so unique. It was an issue that had me cheering.
Next up, I'm going to do a wrap up of the run as a whole. So, look for that in the next couple of days.