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“Revisiting for the First Time”: I finally read Grant Morrison’s ‘JLA’ (volume 1)

Grant Morrison is the king of ’90s saccharine comics.

We here at AiPT! are officially reviving “Revisiting for the First Time,” in which our writers thoroughly examine a classic comic they somehow missed during its initial release. Does the title hold up? What made it so popular in the first place? Would it still succeed today? Remember: what’s old is always new again. 

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Title: JLA (1997-2006) Volume 1
Issues: #1-9 and Secret Files #1
Creator: Grant Morrison (Animal Man, All-Star Superman, The Invisibles)

What’s the Haps: There’s enough readers who see the Justice League as this perpetual juggernaut of DC’s long-term sales. But for a time in the mid-90s, the franchise hit something of a rough patch. (Perhaps exacerbated by, among other things, the book’s shift toward an unfocused, rotating lineup in the ’80s and a wellspring of super team competition via X-Men and Youngblood). So, DC re-launched the book in 1997 with the aim of getting back to the team’s roots of larger-than-life superheroics. And there’s no better choice for comics fundamentals than Grant “I once wrote a comic about Hitler” Morrison. Yet there’s no denying Morrison’s take on this classic mythology was a success, and his 41-issue (-ish) run helped rejuvenate JLA for a whole new group of open-minded fans.

So 2000 and Late: It confounded even myself as to why I’d avoid JLA up until now. Morrison is certainly a favorite of mine – if not a top contender for my #1 – and his Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight storyline, “Gothic,” is a defining reason for my love of the Dark Knight. It may be a matter of a greater affinity for another DC series from around the same time, Geoff Johns’ JSA, which exemplifies so many upsides of DC’s heroes (the nostalgic sheen, the purposeful cheesiness, chic of overt geekiness, etc.) Of course, there’s no denying that as brilliant and popular as Morrison’s work is, it’s also complicated in nearly every sense of the word. Even playing with such DC pillars, there was an assumption Morrison would take these heroes in directions requiring great thought and patience.

The Long and Short: Volume one is divided into three story arcs: 1) the League takes on the alien Hyperclan, 2) followed by teaming with ex-angel Zauriel to stop Asmodel’s plot to overthrow Heaven, and 3) overcoming a mean psycho-virus brought on by The Key. (Plus, Secret Files, which is mostly worth the read for “Lost Pages” with Blue Superman and “Interview: Martian Manhunter.”) The stories aren’t exactly equal in effectiveness: the Hyperclan saga and battle with Key feel like stifled, slightly hokey re-ups of ’70s storylines (albeit with kooky references), while the Heaven story is amazing if only for the mythos created and the sense of tension and action. But there’s no denying Morrison knows his pacing, and he revs the weirdo RPMs back and forth to forge something new while maintaining the book’s tangible air of comfort. That ability makes these early stories enjoyable, and you’re eager to follow along as he drives toward richer narrative fields. It’s hard to judge a long-standing book by its meager beginnings, but Morrison facilitates nerdy entertainment and universe-building in equal parts.

Connecting the Dots: Just days before I read volume one, I had re-read Morrison’s amazing take on All-Star Superman. With these two books, it’s quite clear just how suited the Scotsman is for mainstream comics. Left to his own devices, he creates amazing, bonkers stuff like The Invisibles, which is clearly niche given its utter scope and unceasing madness. Yet putting Morrison onto mainstream, publisher-supporting titles like JLA and Superman doesn’t so much curtail his wild side, but helps provide some structure. As if he recognizes the scale and importance of these books to a multi-faceted audience, and he responds accordingly with something more familiar in its superheroics. He can still blow your mind with story elements – Aquaman’s ability to control someone’s primal fish brains – but there’s also a certain accessibility and simplicity in the narrative and characterizations that doesn’t exist in Morrison’s other titles. It’s maybe not necessarily his most groundbreaking work – though it’s still wildly impactful – and you get the sense there’s a certain joy experienced in Morrison’s storytelling.

What’s the Deal?!: On the one hand, if you put JLA and/or Morrison on any title, they’re bound to sell at least 100,000 copies (as decried by universal law). However, assuming that alone dismisses something great about Morrison’s work with early JLA. Namely, volume one feels like a pinnacle of ’90s comics, that era where everything was over-the-top and dripping with melodrama and testosterone. Here, Morrison has made use of those same elements and re-purposed them with a bit more nuance and measure. It’s in the wacky power sets, the crazed, monologue-heavy villains (Key), the omnipotent Batman, a chiseled, aw-shucks Superman, comic relief via Kyle Rayner, an angsty Aquaman, and so much else. Something about this book rings true in one’s nostalgia gland, a profoundly more thoughtful and tactful approach to the 1990s’ onslaught of saccharine-rich violence. Part of that is that Morrison really amped up the stakes. The League only dealt with the biggest of baddies, and they’re all ne’er-do-wells who felt evenly matched with the team (as with volume one’s white Martians, who only lose thanks to the deux ex machina that is their weakness to fire). That equality, as it were, matters deeply. These are big stories with a lot going on, and people want to feel as if things can actually be won or lost by our heroes. It makes comics real, or reminds us when they sure felt that way.

Lessons Learned: Aside from being wildly entertaining, volume one provided some ample insights into characters and their respective value both within this book and in a far greater sense. Morrison’s take on Batman is transcendent, this stellar mix of supreme intellect, anti-social behavior, and a dash of Swiss army knife utility (as in, he’s got a tool/resource for damn near every situation). This Uber Batman needs to exist to flourish on a team with an Amazon and the world’s fastest man. There’s something about this characterization of Batman that rings true for other versions, and it’s such an important benchmark in not only why the character is great, but why the character can sometimes fall short. (I quite like the book, but the Batman in White Knight feels stunted and unfocused, and that’s not a fair iteration to work with in such a deeply specific, highly demanding storyline).

Similarly, expertly illuminates why Superman is such a Boy Scout. Sure, it’s easy to hate him, but this version of Superman has a problem similar to Batman – he’s a living god, and if he doesn’t move and behave as such, then he’s got no place on the team. That unwavering dedication to perfection, the representation of so many superhuman ideals, is often as much a prison as Batman’s perceived ineffectiveness. In this way, he ties two iconic characters together, and lets us learn more about the emotion and psychic trauma that comes with trying to save the world.

Odds & Ends:  I don’t envy the task of any artist collaborating with Morrison. Not because he’s a jerk – in interviews he seems downright approachable – but rather it can’t be easy trying to make art from the cyclonic headspace. Still, Howard Porter and Oscar Jimenez provide some damn fine pencils, mirroring that same balance of ’90s beefy heroes with a slight avant garde bent. The whole book features a very European aesthetic, with odd lines and a slightly un-human spin to these superpowered deities. Yet there’s a warmth and power thanks to the work of John Dell (inks) and Pat Garrahy (color), who bring back the characters’ distinctly human qualities and sense of playfulness. The art works wonders because it expands the story’s intentions and fills in the holes in key messages.

The Miracle of Hindsight:  To some extent, I’m rather glad I came to JLA so late. In the last 20-ish years or so, there seems to have been a slow transition for most heroes, especially those within DC. This transformation away from one-note anti-heroes into a kind of depth and complexity that fully mirrors decades of titles and storylines. (And not just, like, through endless, vacant callbacks.) Morrison’s work with JLA really feels like the last great bastion of a certain era. One where you could leap in, no matter at what issue, and feel as if you’re right in the middle of some grand epic. I’m not sure I would have admired the title if I didn’t read it in the here and now, in this space when so many books are connected and take ample space and energy to build up. Morrison is never as coy, and drops readers into the fire from panel one. To some extent, it’s about the impact of such shock and awe tactics. Yet Morrison is a skilled storyteller that can build a universe that feels out of this world and distinctly familiar and inviting.

Final Thoughts: Grant Morrison does superheroes like no one else, with a deft balance of grit and fantasy, nuance and one-dimensional flash. Even if his Aquaman is basically Kurt Cobain + The Brawny Man + Emo Charles Bukowski.

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