Sunday, June 08, 2008

Way too many words about JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

I was originally planning on reviewing JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told and Shazam!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told together, perhaps in the “Delayed Reaction” format I often use when writing about books that have been out for a while that I’m getting around to a little late. But when I started writing about the JLA one, and considering why the stories that were chose were chosen, it became evident that almost all of them were there to represent particular eras of the team, and I soon found myself getting sidetracked, and, well, this grew in the writing.

So, if you’ve got the patience, this is going to be one hella long post, I’m afraid.

As with all of DC’s Greatest Stories Ever Told collections, this is really more of a Greatest Short Stories From a Variety of Different Times and Creators That Don’t Belong in Any Other Trades Really So We Put ‘Em In Here collection. None of these are among the greatest JLA stories ever told, but they are, for the most part, pretty decent, and are all good examples of the contributions of particular creators.

It’s really more of a sample platter of Justice League history. If you like the Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky story, you’ll want to read Showcase Presents: Justice League of America Vol 1. If you like the Giffen/DeMatteis story, they have a JLI trade (or two) out (or coming out). Like the JLA stories? Every issue of that run is in trade. Like the Satellite Era stories? Well, tough; none of ‘em are in trade yet.

The book begins with a two-page origin of the League by Gerry Conway, George Perez and Brett Breeding, a story which is kind of like a condensed version of the Mark Waid/Barry Kitson JLA: Year One story, only with Wonder Woman standing in for Black Canary, who was standing in for Wonder Woman. That’s followed by a pretty thorough four page overview of Justice League publishing history by Mike Tiefenbacher, and then it’s on to seven stories spanning 40 years of publishing history, and a nice set of contributors’ bios at the end, which should be helpful to any new readers wanting to see what else this Grant Morrison character has written, for example.

Here’s what DC decided to include, and way too many words about each story…

“The Super-Exiles of Earth” (Justice League of America #19)

This 1963 Gardner Fox/Mike Sekowsky story is typical of Fox’s run, in that it is simultaneously stupid and brilliant at the same time, depending on what angle you regard it from. Recurring villain Dr. Destiny, whose powers are ever-changing and vague—but always derived from dreams and reality shaping—has caused the Leaguers to dream of themselves, and then bring their dream versions of themselves to life.

This created a League of “super-super heroes” who are “naturally” wicked, since Destiny is himself wicked. The wicked Dream League defeat the true League, since they are those heroes but slightly better, and then go about robbing banks. The real Justice League members are brought before a judge for the crimes, but settle on exile, since no prison can hold them.

Presiding over the case is future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia:

Ultimately, the League decides to return to earth but, so as not to break their promise to Scalia, they do so in their secret identities. At this point, the Leaguers didn’t know one another’s secret IDs, so this is a pretty big moment. It’s revealed in a wonderful two-panel sequence:

Good thing their spaceship had a hallway with eight rooms in it!

The secret identities fight the dream League, but are again outmatched, ultimately only triumphing when The Atom shrinks to microscopic size in order “to enter our dream selves’ brains undetected and unfelt—and perform delicate ‘operations’!”

So, essentially he lobotomizes them all, to the point they can’t control their bodies, and Superman heroically suggests the rest of them then “finish off” the feeble-minded versions of themselves.

This issue is pretty representative of the breathless, dream-like storytelling Fox engaged in, and the casual savagery of superheroics. Even in this era where “crime” consisted solely of bank robberies, and rape and murder weren’t on anyone’s minds, you still have the heroes triumphing through stealth lobotomy.

Rereading the from today’s perspective, what stands out most to me is that Fox’s hyperbolic storytelling was more or less standard for the era, but in today’s super-comics scene, it seems extraordinarily weird. People always talk about how insane Grant Morrison’s stories are—not just his Justice League stories, but all his superhero stories—and yet Morrison’s really just writing like a Fox in a post-Dark Knight/Watchmen/Maus world. In tone, pace, scope and scale, this reads just like a Morrison story, albeit one with much more narration and explanatory dialogue.

The other striking thing about this story is the way in which Fox undoes whatever changed in his story. Story-to-story continuity existed at that point—Dr. Destiny is in jail, right where the League sent him in a previous adventure—but changes came pretty slow back then. Here, the League out themselves to each other, but the last two panels have Superman explaining his going to fetch some Amnesium from his fortress to erase that info from all of their minds.

I’m not positive why this particular story was chosen over all the other Fox/Sekowsky ones; if I had to guess, I would guess that this issue was chosen in large part because featured the whole League (the Big Seven, plus Green Arrow and the Atom).

It sure gives Sekowsky a lot to draw. In addition to the full line-up—two full line-ups actually—he gets to draw two sets of the heroes in their secret identities, including some great panels of the evil secret identities (I particularly like evil Bruce Wayne in his ascot), and some cool shit like a cutaway of the crust of the earth after the bad League imprisons the good League under it, and a small army of Aquaman’s octopus friends carrying “art treasures” over their heads.
(Can you spot the billionaire in the above panel?)

I can’t think of an instance of DC later re-doing this story, or following up on it, but the scenes of the Silver Age League looting and robbing reminded me of Ty Templeton’s cover for Silver Age: Justice League of America #1, and during Mark Waid’s too-brief run on JLA, he wrote a four-part story in which the Justice Leaguers’ secret identities had to defeat self-dreamed versions of themselves.

“Snapper Carr—Super Traitor!” (Justice League of America #77)

The next story in the collection is from a 1969 issue, scripted by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Dick Dillin and Joe Giella.

Tonally, the book (like a lot of DC’s superhero comics) is now in that gawky, awkward phase, where they were becoming less full-on zany, and more imitative of Marvel’s superheroes-as-soap-operas-for-teenage-boys approach. The sensibilities were thus growing a lot more modern, but often these books seem more grating than Fox’s, if only because their more literary aspirations and their relative weaknesses give them an aura of pretentiousness (I don’t mean that in a bad way, necessarily; O’Neil’s pretentiousness at the time give his work here and elsewhere—particularly on the classic Green Lantern run—a particular, peculiar charm).

The story involves Snapper Carr, the only teenager who looks older and squarer than Jimmy Olsen, getting hassled for hanging out with those “freaks” like Superman and Wonder Woman. If it seems insane that the Justice League could be vilified as if they were the X-Men in the Marvel Universe, well, I thought so too—you can’t get any more establishment and mainstream than the JLA, even though they let Green Arrow stick around after he grew his goatee.

But hang on, O’Neil explains why they’re being vilified. These bullies are followers of John Dough, “otherwise known as ”Mr. Average”!-- The most normal man in America!” Dough is conducting a two-pronged PR campaign against the League; one-part propaganda, one-part mind-control technology. He got his hooks in the Justice League’s mascot Snapper Carr, turning him traitor.

It’s a pretty fleet story, and while it’s certainly not one of “the greatest,” it is something of a turning point in League history, ending with Green Arrow bemoaning the problems John Dough has caused them: “We’ve got to establish a new secret H.Q…our mascot is having the biggest trouble of his life…”

The League would shortly move to their space satellite headquarters, and things would be queered with Snapper from then on (this is his only appearances in this book, for example).

I don’t know how influential this particular issue was on the stories that followed; it came up in that stupid story involving the, um, Star Tsar, and was re-explored at length in an issue of Hourman, one of the best superhero comics DC ever cancelled.

“The Great Identity Crisis” (Justice League of America #122)

So, does that title sound familiar? And guess who the villain of the piece is? That’s right; Dr. Light. This story isn’t one that Brad Meltzer references in his Identity Crisis, but we’ll get to that one soon enough.

This is “an untold tale from the Justice League of America Casebook,” a short story by Martin Pasko, Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin pitting seven Leaguers against Dr. Light in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, where the villain has launched an incredibly stupid plan (particularly for 1975).

He uses a mind-light gun, the aforementioned chunk of Amnesium and a special prism to steal the secret identities of the Justice Leaguers and then—and this is an idea with great story potential—completely scrambles them. So Oliver Queen puts on a lab coat and shows up at Ray “The Atom” Palmer’s university lab, thinking he’s research scientist Ray Palmer; billionaire Bruce Wayne thinks he’s Queen, and shows up at the tenement Ollie lives in, getting friendly with his poor neighbor, and so on.

Now, there are probably all kinds of ways to turn a profit and/or make life miserable for the Leaguers once you know their secret identities, but Light opts to bump them all off with elaborately prepared light traps.

They, of course, survive, and use the Amnesium to wipe Dr. Light’s mind (Hey, that sounds familiar), before Superman KRUNNNCHs it so it “will never confuse anyone again!” and Green Arrow proposes the Leaguers all learn one another’s secret IDs to prevent troubles like this in the future.

Then they all hold hands and agree:

This one may have been included in part to get another Dillin-drawn story in the trade. With an influential 12-year run on JLoA, he’s probably still the definitive Justice League artist; given how rarely most DC artists can draw 12 consecutive issues of a particular title, chances are that’s not going to change any time soon. (The current volume of Justice League of America has only been around for 22 issues so far, but in that time has had eight different pencil artists working on it).

I imagine Meltzer’s Identity Crisis had a lot to do with it too, given the mind-wiping, Dr. Light and the title and, perhaps, the revelation that the Leaguers know one another’s secret identities after all (one of the bigger stumbling blocks in the mystery aspects of IC was that it assumed that the Leaguers’ IDs were widely known among the superhero community and their loved ones, which wasn’t actually the case since the early ‘80s).

“The League That Defeated Itself" (Justice League of America #166-#168)

Now this, this is the story that seemed to have influenced Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis. In this 1979 three-parter by longtime League scribe Gerry Conway and the art team of Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin, The Secret Society of Super-Villains get their evil hands on a Bronze Age statue of a gryphon, and use its magical properties to switch their minds with those of some of the Justice Leaguers, Freaky Friday style.

So now The Wizard, Star Sapphire, The Reverse Flash, The Floronic Man and Blockbuster reside in the bodies of Superman, Zatanna, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Wonder Woman and Batman, and vice versa.

This is the story alluded to in flashback in the pages of Identity Crisis, in the discussion of how the Leaguers had to occasionally wipe minds to keep on Justice League-ing. There’s a scene where a character points out that of course the SSOSV peeked under the masks of Batman and Hal Jordan while they were in their bodies; it wouldn’t have made sense for them not to take advantage of the situation to do so.

I think this was one of the fundamental conceptual flaws of Identity Crisis, because the world of the Justice League need only work according to what’s logical there, not what’s logical in our world. It doesn’t make sense for the villains not to discover the heroes’ identities? Okay. It doesn’t make sense for the villains to imprison the heroes in a giant green diamond and throw it into the sun to kill them instead of just slitting their throats either. It doesn’t make sense for The Wizard-in-Superman’s-body to plan an elaborate museum heist when he could just fly around taking what he wanted in Superman’s body. It doesn’t make sense for him to try and trick and trap the other Justice Leaguers, when he could kill them all at super-speed in about ten seconds, tops.

You really have to be careful when you start pulling threads on these old stories, because it doesn’t take too long to unravel the whole thing.

At any rate, I’m sure the fondness Meltzer had for this story is the main reason its included here, as Conway and company had plenty of other stories to choose from if the idea was simply to showcase their run on the League, and show some of the Satellite Era members like Zatanna, Elongated Man and Red Tornado in a story (Poor Red Tornado gets defeated, like, three times in this story).

I don’t have it in front of me, so I’m not 100% positive, but I think this may also be the old Satellite Era adventure that was referenced in the Geoff Johns, Allan Heinberg, Chris Batista and Mark Farmer story arc “Crisis of Conscience,” which is an additional reason for inclusion.

“Born Again" (Justice League #1)

You’ll get no arguments from me that this is an issue that belongs in a trade called The Greatest Stories Ever Told. This is the first issue of the seminal Keith Giffen/J.M.DeMatteis run on Justice League, one of the creative highpoints of the franchise’s 40+ year history.

This first issue, drawn by Kevin Maguire and Terry Austin over Giffen’s breakdowns, is awfully early in the writers’ five-year run. Some of the team members introduced here won’t stick around on a full-time basis very long (Dr. Fate, Black Canary and Captain Marvel will be gone in a matter of issues), and some of the characters most associated with the JLI Era don’t appear here at all (Booster Gold, Fire, Ice).

But despite the somewhat opening ending—who is this mysterious Max Lord character who seems to be manipulating events and talking like he’s going to be taking over the Justice League?—this first issue is full of classic moments. There’s Green Lantern Guy Gardner rehearsing his nominating himself for leadership; there’s Guy picking a fight with the rest of the team; there’s Batman shutting him up with a dirty look and a few sharp words; there’s Blue Beetle casting about for a comedy partner to bounce his jokes off of; there’s the mix of character humor, superhero action and occasional melodrama that would make the next few years worth of Justice League stories among the best ever.

There were certainly one-issue stories during the Giffen/DeMatteis run that I would qualify as greater, but this is probably a pretty perfect introduction to that era, particularly since this is the only story a newcomer to the material could actually continue reading in trade format, since only the first handful of their run was ever collected in trade (Now, there are at least two handfuls of it in trade).

This issue features that classic cover of Maguire’s, which he himself would riff on over and over in the following years. In 1998’s JLA Secret Files & Origins Special #2, Christopher Priest would re-stage a few scenes from this issue beat for beat.

“Star-Seed” (Justice League Secret Files and Origins #1)

This is one of the three—count 'em—three origin stories for the Morrison/Porter League, counting miniseries Justice League: Midsummer's Nightmare and the first story arc of JLA, "New World Order." It originally appeard in the JLA: Sectret Files & Origins Special #1, the very first of DC's SF&O, and by far the most substantial. In additon to this story, there was another one by Mark Millar, an interview with Martian Manhunter by Millar, profile pages of each of the Leaguers featuring pin-ups drawn by the regular artists on their monthlies at the time, two pin-ups by Phil Jimenez featuring every Justice Leaguer ever and every Justice League villain ever, a year-by-fictional year JLA timeline/history and collecters cards.

This story features six of the Big Seven on the Justice League satellite—apparently before the Hyperclan knocked it down in "New World Order"—figuring out what to do about an alien invasion in Blue Valley. These particular aliens are these weird star-shaped, cycloptic face-hugger things, a scarier, slimier version of the old Starro face-huggers. They've taken over the city and The Flash, and is ranting about conquering the world. The U.S. government wants to nuke Blue Valley, and the League wants to save the day, but The Spectre arrives and forbids them. He gives them a vision of the future should they intervene, and they would inevitably be taken over by The Star Conquerer, who would then use them to conquer the universe.

They arrive at a compromise: The Spectre strips them of their superpowers, removing all risk of that future he showed them, and also getting around the Conquerer's defenses, since it was "primed" for super-humans.

As Morrison's League run goes, it's not among his better stories, but it is fairly representative. It demonstrates the Batman as the hero of the heroes, who often ends up saving the day (particularly in "New World Order"), the stakes are as high as they are in every work of his (global apocalyse, if not universal or all reality), and it features Morrison's subtle diddling with the "rules" of superhero conflict, wherein the day is saved by the characters altering some part of the near-mathematical equation that is superhero comics. It also features an ending in which he comes out and offers a sort of mission statement for the League. Story-wise, it also functions as a bit of a preview of a two-parter in which the actual Conquerer comes to earth, and invades and subjugates the human race through their dreams (The Dreaming from The Sandman, who also guest-stars, in one of the rare and now non-existent Vertigo/DCU intersections).

As to why it bore inclusion above all the other stories of the run, I imagine it was a simply matter of space. Morrison and company had quite a few quite excellent two-part arcs—The Zauriel/angel invasion story, The Green Arrow story (although Porter didn't draw it), the Prometheus HQ invasion, the aforementioned fight against the Star Conquerer—but only one single-issue story. That would be JLA #5, which encapsulated a lot of the greatest attributes of the run, but also prominently featured the temporarily blue electric Superman, something that the assemblers of this trade might understandably have wanted to avoid. The Secret Files story worked better in that it avoided Electro-Supes, even if it did feature long-haired mullet Superman, and '90s-style Aquaman (the latter of which I liked, but has ultimately proven short-lived).

“Two-Minute Warning” (JLA #61)

If the Giffen/DeMatteis and Morrison eras were the League’s creative high points, then the creative team of Joe Kelly, Dough Mahnke and Tom Nguyen presided over the end of the success of Morrison’s vision for the team. Neither Kelly nor writer Mark Waid’s runs were quite as good as Morrison’s, but they weren’t bad either, and they kept the basic formula in tact—the JLA was a book about the world’s greatest heroes banning together to stave off apocalypses they couldn’t take alone.

Kelly was the last regular writer to work on a Justice League book. He wrote 29 more or less consecutive issues (there was a single fill-in issue during that time), and then JLA became something of an anthology title: three issues by Denny O’Neil, six issues by John Byrne and Chris Claremont, six issues by Chuck Austen, eight issues by Kurt Busiek, five by Johns and Heinberg, six by Bob Harras. Even when it was relaunched as Justice League of America, Meltzer only stuck around for 13 issues (four stories) and Dwayne McDuffie’s only written five complete issues so far.

It was an incredibly solid run though. Though did exceptional character work, getting a strong handle on all of the characters, even Martian Manhunter and Plastic Man, two that seem to give a lot of writers trouble. He managed to come up with threats that seemed to be big enough to menace such a powerful team, but he often had a light touch, and wrote in bits of humor that weren’t too far away from what Giffen and DeMatteis might have managed. He seemed like a nice compromise between the two greatest runs on the title, even if his wasn’t as good as either of them.

I didn’t always agree with the decisions he made—particularly giving Plas a bastard son—and I’m sure some were controversial among some elements of fandom (like the Wonder Woman/ Batman almost-romance), but his stories were always big, fun and full of creativity, as JLA stories should be.

This was his first issue on the title, and it seems a good one to represent the post-Morrison era. The team is the exact same as it was during Mark Waid’s run—save that Aquaman was time-lost and presumed dead—but he goes ahead an introduces the characters anyway.

The story jumps back and forth between “two minutes ago” and “now.” He introduces each of the Leaguers in their day-to-day lives, showing what they were doing two minutes before their emergency signals go off (J’onn was meditating in the shape of a sphere, Superman was trying to spend some quality time with Lois, Kyle Rayner was discovering he didn’t have enough cash on him to pay for the expensive coffee and scone he had just ordered, etc) and then jumping ahead to the amazing feats they do when “on the job” (Kyle uses his ring to lift the entire island of Manhattan into the sky, saving it from a tidal wave, Superman lifts an aircraft carrier out of the water, etc), before they all come together to solve the problem…a problem that, naturally, takes all of them working together.
(Above: Two minutes in the life of Wally West)

Kelly presents the Justice League as something like a job (on the first page, J’onn even sighs, “Work,” as alarms start going off), albeit one they are extremely good at and seem to enjoy doing. They’re neither as business-like as they were during Morrison’s run, nor as riddled with internal strife as they were during Waid’s. They all seem to know each other well, and needle one another, giving it that comfortable, just hanging out kind of felling that permeated the JLI days.

(Note that Flash isn't the only character in the first panel who seems shocked that Batman is actually touching him)

It’s a tone that pencil artist Dough Mahnke was well-suited to, as he’d done equal amounts of work in comedy and superheroics. He’s a gifted actor with the pencil, wringing a variety of emotions out of the characters, and draws them with a great deal of variety. J’onn and Superman may be built like body builders, but Kyle and Batman are slimmer, and Flash slimmer still. Plastic Man is tall and skinny, and Wonder Woman imposingly athletic—neither over-muscled nor like a too-thin, big-breasted supermodel. She also has a vaguely ethnic-looking facial structure, which is appropriate, given that she belongs to the vague ethnic group that is the Amazons.

This creative team packs a lot of detail into panels, and these details describe the characters. Plas’ shape-changing and Kyle’s ring-structures are in almost constant flux, moving as quickly as they think (just as they would in real-life), and J’onn’s shape-changing is downright amoeboid, as he contorts to fit emergency situations.

Rereading this at the end of the collection, it seems like a much greater Justice League story than I remember it the first few times through. Divorced from continuity, it’s something else entirely than the then-new creative team’s first issue. It’s not really that great a comic, but it is a great character piece, introducing seven superheroes and, more importantly, their relationships to one another.


SallyP said...

"...big, fun and full of creativity..." pretty much summarizes my favorite versions of the Justice League. I haven't read this book, but it sounds pretty good. I have to admit to a great love of the Giffen/DeMatteis era, but Morrison's and Kelly's were awfully good too.

But there just isn't anything quite like Silver Age insanity is there? My favorite panel has to be from the first story, where they have all gone into their respective dressing rooms and come out in their civilian identities. I have to say that their color schemes are pretty horrible. Clark and J'onn look fairly dapper, but Hal's wearing a purple suit, which is only eclipsed by the outright horror of Bruce's MAGENTA suit. Oh, and the ascot. But Diana's perky little cap is just lovely.

John Cochrane said...

Can't wait to read the review of Captain Marvel.

Anonymous said...

That history of the League at the beginning of the book is the introduction of JLA 200. The issue where the Apellaxians return and take over the minds of the Original Seven Leaguers. Green Arrow rallies the others and winds up returning to active status at the end of the story.

Another of my favorites.