Sunday, January 30, 2005

Comics: JLA Classified 1-3

I don't buy many individual issues of comics these days - I don't feel like I get enough story for my $3 to make buying individual issues worth it [1]. I generally stick to trade paperbacks or checking things out at the library before I buy them to make sure that what I'm buying is worth owning.

There are always exceptions though. There are certain creators who have proven to me that their stories will be worth looking at on a monthly basis. I also look over reviews on the Internet to find quality opinions on the books that are out on the newsstands (check out the sidebar for some of these review sites). I don't always AGREE with the reviewers I read, but I have come to appreciate their judgment.

Grant Morrison definitely fits into the first category. He's a writer that generally understands what I want from a single-issue superhero comic book. He has a reputation for filling his books full of weird ideas (which is true, and I love the weird ideas), but he also crams his superhero books so full of action and story that I never feel cheated out of my $3.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I have been picking up Grant Morrison's JLA: Classified story arc. Since the final issue of this arc came out this week, I thought I'd give my thoughts on the arc as a whole, since even though each issue really is worth reading on its own, its really worth commenting on the whole arc.

For those who missed it, a slightly spoiler-ish summary of the story as a whole:

Issue 1 starts the story out with a bang, and really sets the tone for the entire arc. Morrison drops us right into the story, where the International Ultramarine Corps are attempting to rescue the African city of Kinshasa from a takeover attempt by Super-Gorilla Grodd. It quickly becomes obvious that the Ultramarines are out of their league with Grodd, and the first chapter ends with most of the Ultramarines captured and one of them escaping to get help from the Justice league only to find out that most of the League is currently MIA.

Issue 2 catches us up to what the League is doing as Batman attempts to take on Gorilla Grodd and his group of mind-controlled Ultramarines. Meanwhile, the remaining free Ultramarine attempts to contact the Justice League to get them back from their "off-universe" mission to save the Earth from Grodd and his new cosmic ally - Neb-Uh-Loh. Chapter two ends with Batman facing certain death and the Justice League successfully returning from their off-universe mission.

Issue 3 is the final chapter of the arc. The Justice League faces off against the Ultramarines and Grodd in a large-scale "battle-royale." This being a Justice League comic, it really isn't a spoiler to say that the Justice League kicks the mind-controlled Ultramarines and Grodd's tails into the ground and save the day. The League then gets to deal with the punishment of Grodd, his gorilla henchmen, and the final fate of the International Ultramarine Corps.

WARNING: This commentary will contain SPOILERS. You have been warned!

If my write-up above makes the whole thing sound like standard super-hero fare, well it is. This is about a group of superheroes triumphing in the face of adversity. Its about evil supervillains plotting nasty things both for the world and for the heroes. Its a visceral, all-out action, superhero story that keeps you on the edge of your seat and makes you want to come back and find out "what happens next!"

Now, I'm not going to say that the story doesn't have flaws. The fast-pace of the story and the fairly dense layout makes it sometimes a little confusing to tell what is going on from panel to panel. For some reason I didn't realize until the final issue that Grodd was not the only gorilla in the Ultramarine's flying fortress.

The action sequences in the third chapter also have a definite "Morrison" feel to them. Most of Morrison's super-hero work has the property that when the all-out action fight sequence between heroes and villains comes, the heroes are going to win, so get it over with quickly and get to the aftermath. The heroes do some clever things to take out the Ultramarines and get to Grodd in this chapter, but there really isn't any tension. You KNOW they're going to win and there are very few sequences where Morrison has them even fail to take out a single opponent quickly. In fact, only the Martian Manhunter (DC's perpetual JLA whipping boy [2]) loses against his initial opponent and fails to take out anyone, really. All of the other Leaguers quickly take out their opponents and move us quickly to the end of the story.

And, for those who feel that "characterization is king" in stories, well, you may feel like something is missing here. This is not a character piece - it is an all-out action plot-fest. There's nothing wrong with the way any of the characters are presented - despite references to Batman's "sci-fi closet" [3] none of them feel like they're being written "out of character" - but there really isn't much depth to their presentation. Morrison writes these DC "big gun" characters as icons. They don't just have powers that put them beyond normal people, their "moral compass" is also superior to that of normal people. Morrison's take on these characters makes it hard to really "get into their heads" and see them as people.

But, that's not really a flaw if that is what the writer is attempting, and I believe that in this case it is. Morrison's take on the League seems to be that they ARE the "icons" - they are superhuman in both power and morality and that is what separates them from the villains that they fight. Taken in that light, Superman's "lecture" to the Ultramarines before consigning them to their fate makes much more sense. Morrison is speaking through Superman, saying that a world like the DC Universe doesn't need to have heroes like the Ultramarines because its moral compass SHOULDN'T be as complex as that of the "real world". The League's world is one where good triumphs over evil because its the type of fictional universe where "GOOD TRIUMPHS OVER EVIL" is a universal law.

Meanwhile, the infant universe of QWEWQ is a different sort of fictional universe - a world where good and evil are more intertwined and shades of grey exist instead of clearly defined borders. In chapter two, the members of the League are obviously uncomfortable in QWEWQ because of how creepy the world feels to them. People are still people, still capable of both good and evil, but there is no assurance that good will win, making it a dark and creepy place for the League.

Morrison has explored this before with the League. In some ways it is similar to the work he did on "Earth 2", where the League visited a world where the universal law was "EVIL TRIUMPHS OVER GOOD". Much of Morrison's other work has dealt with fictional universes and their impact on each other and on the real world (see Animal Man, Invisibles, Flex Mentallo, and even the first story arc of his Doom Patrol run for other examples), so its not suprising to see this theme come up again here.

And, reading the story at this level, it brings up another interesting thought. Neb-Uh-Loh was revealed in the last issue to be the infant universe of QWEWQ grown up and having traveled backwards in time to assault the DC Universe. He comes to bring the "end of the world" and he talks about "his people" and his "queen of terror". At the micro-level, I think this is Morrison setting up his "Seven Soldiers" run that will be coming in 2005. The hints of the Nebula-Man/Seven Soldiers connection are too much to overlook.

However, at a larger level, it is interesting to see that Morrison is kind of suggesting that the more "realistic" fictional universe of QWEWQ is trying to destroy the more fantastic DC universe. Is this unconscious or conscious commentary on Morrison's part about the take of a more "grim-and-gritty" approach to superheroics trying to destroy the fantastic world of the more traditional superheroes, or am I reading too much into this? I try not to read too much metaphor or meaning into things, but Morrison makes it hard not to.

Regardless, despite a somewhat weaker finish, the story as a whole works. Even without the level of "meta-commentary" this is a fun, action-adventure superhero fest. I highly recommend this entire arc to anyone who enjoys old-style superhero smash-em-ups.

[1] I know, I'm killing the industry. All by myself. I'll deal with it. I'm also a grad student on an extremely limited budget with an incredibly understanding wife. I don't make the kind of money I did when my comic-buying habit was at it most extreme, and I have a lot more that my money needs to be spent on now than I did then. My roughly 10 to 20 dollars per month on comics is my budget for the foreseeable future.

[2] J'Onn is my favorite DC superhero. Why is it that NO ONE lets him have his due? Even Morrison who writes these heroes as "the best of the best" seems to consign J'Onn to be the one who screws up.

[3] I know people complained about this, but I loved it. Morrison writes one of the best versions of Batman, in my opinion, and I'd love to see him take a stab at the All-Star version once Miller and Lee are done with their run and he and Quitely are done with their Superman run.

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