Grant Morrison’s JLA (1997) #1: “Them!” (part 1 of 4)

“Comics sucked in the ‘90s!” has been thought by many to be “common knowledge”. And I get it, because I was caught saying the same thing a time or two when I looked back at some of the dreck I purchased during that period. Oh sure, the first issue of Youngblood looked all sorts of awesome… until you actually tried reading it and came to realize Rob Liefield couldn’t draw backgrounds. Or feet. The point, is the first half of the 1990s was a rough time, what with Image Comics artists thinking they could write, and poor creative choices, and outside forces compelling writers and editors at Marvel to drag out the Clone Saga far longer than it needed to, and DC killing off Superman in what was arguably the most egregious cash grab of the latter 20th century, and Heroes Reborn… Hey, give me a few days, and I’m sure I could find another dozen examples of why that decade was a dark time for the industry.

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And yet it wasn’t all bad. Sure, it might seem that way, but if you looked for them you could find some good stories. Most of Neil Gaiman’s run on Sandman happened during the ’90s. Preacher was wildly popular, and there were the Alex Ross projects Kingdom Come and Marvels. There was the Infinity Saga, Garth Ennis’ run on Hellblazer, Sin City, Hellboy, The Maxx, The Age of Apocalypse, and just about anything from the team of Loeb and Sale. If you look for them, you’ll find some good stuff out there. And among the good stuff was Grant Morrison’s Justice League, or JLA. Grant had had a fantastic run on Doom Patrol during the ’80s, of which I touched on some time ago. JLA was arguably the most high profile project Grant had taken on for DC, because unlike Doom Patrol where there was relatively low risk, here he was given the task of writing some of DC’s biggest heroes all in one book. The question was, was Grant up to the task? Does his first story still hold up? Let’s find out!

Our story opens at the White House with the president, who is not Bill Clinton. Since this comic came out in ’97, I’m wondering if they went this route because at the time the comic was being written and illustrated, they didn’t know who was going to win the election. Honestly, I prefer it when they use fictional characters as elected officials, because the stories feel less timely and more timeless: Reagan showing up in Legends was cute, but ultimately did nothing to enhance the story.

President Not-Clinton complains he’s got to do damage control over what some general said, and he wonders where his superhuman escort is, which he needs in order to impress some South/Central American despot. It turns out said escort is Firehawk, who had to bow out due to a sudden loss of superpowers. Ah, Firehawk; she was a Firestorm supporting character, and damn, that comic was awesome back in the day. It’s then that a massive flying saucer appears over the White House. The president tells someone to call the Justice League.

High above in the Justice League satellite, the JLA is on the case. Uh, sort of. It seems they’re shutting things down as a new team takes over.

Huh. Nuklo was a member of the Justice League? And that’s Ice in the background? Ice, as in Guy Gardner’s sometimes girlfriend? She looks so different; I’m guessing it’s another Ice? Either I had quit buying Justice League America at this point, or the stories were so forgettable that I have no recollection whatsoever of this pre-Morrison era. Let me check the cover of the last issue of the run prior to this.

Yeah. Wow. This is ringing zero bells for me. I mean, Obsidian was on the team with Nuklo? I guess they were trying to suck in the old Infinity Inc. fanbase or something. And that’s Blue Devil, I think. I miss his old look; this one looks too busy. And damn, Starman. See? There’s another outstanding ’90s title. But back to the story at hand.

Ice notes that Fire called in sick and might be having trouble with her powers. A second fire-based hero is having trouble keeping her pilot lights on? Hmm. Fortunately, the old Justice League isn’t needed because Superman is on the scene, bracketed by a couple members of Checkmate. For those not in the know, Checkmate was sort of DC’s answer to SHIELD, although there were a lot of shady and legit government agencies around back then. Maybe someday I’ll take a look at the eleven-part Janus Directive storyline that featured them. Some giant silvery eggs have landed moments before Superman arrives, and soon they hatch, unleashing…

Comic fans, I give you the Hyperclan, an utterly delightful parody of Image Comics. It looks like almost every Image super-team ever created, along with a Spawn knockoff. Their leader, Protex, explains how their homeworld was destroyed by greed, and they’ve sworn they won’t let that happen again. The Flash (ver. Wally West) watches on TV while his significant other Linda Park asks him to pick up her drycleaning. Man, even super-husbands have to run errands for their wives. Wally humorously zips in and out in about a picosecond to pick up her jacket. Elsewhere, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (ver. Kyle Rayner) and the Martian Manhunter all watch as well.

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Later, Protex triggers a massive storm over the Sahara along with his fellow Hyperclan members Primaid and the armored Armek, while shield-toting Zenturion and Spawn clone A-Mortal show up with tons of topsoil culled from the ocean floor. Then the speedy Zum, energy-blasting Tronix, and shape-changing Fluxus (I’m so digging these names, by the way) turn the Sahara into a verdant paradise. But Superman points out it’s not that easy and it seems like a short-term solution and he gets booed for his pessimism. Protex gives Supes a backhanded compliment and blows him off with a smug smile on his oh-so-punchable face. No lie; Morrison and artist Howard Porter have in the span of a few panels made me loathe this shiny gold jerk. I don’t care if he turns out to be a good guy; I want to see Batman do to him what he did to Guy Gardner a decade earlier:

The Hyperclan then take time out of their busy schedule of making the world a better place and making Earth heroes look lame by doing a little judging, jurying, and execution-ing.

I remember getting a distinct “Bishop” vibe off this guy, even though the resemblance is only superficial. Maybe it’s because there’s just something so ’90s about this dude, and Cable Bishop was arguably the most ’90s of the mainstream comics characters, what with his insane physique and massive gun. It turns out the guy is named “Judgment”, a fire-and-forget JLA villain from a period when I stopped caring. The others burning at the stake here are parodies of the X-Men, with one character having Storm’s white hair, and another having Wolverine’s distinct hairdo. But the other guy in the armor and green cape facing his doom? Doesn’t ring a bell; I’m sure it’ll come to me.

A large percentage of the population are onboard with these executions, while Superman says they won’t be happening again. Man, with the way the populace is just falling all over themselves and loving these extreme new heroes and forgetting about the old ones, it’s almost like Grant is delivering some sort of message about the fickle nature of the comic fanbase, and how they ultimately keep coming back to tried and true, well-written and well-crafted characters. Or… that could just be me trying to find something profound to talk about in my illustrated periodicals.

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Meanwhile up above, Metamorpho gripes to the other Leaguers about what’s going on, and we see Kyle and Wonder Woman are members of this team. Green Lantern pokes a little fun at Metamorpho and asks him if he should be “building sand castles” with the Teen Titans. I remember that; it seemed they had no idea what to do with Kyle so they stuck him on the Titans as they were  inexorably winding down… or maybe they thought putting him on the team would boost sales. But before Metamorpho can verbally bury Kyle any more, the satellite comes under attack by six beings in red space suits of armor. As they breach the hull, Nuklo is certain it’s the Hyperclan, but Kyle’s not so sure. Metamorpho, the pragmatist, really doesn’t care who it is, and just wants to get the air-breathers off the station while there still is one. Kyle offers to fly them down to Earth, but Metamorpho points out the guys attacking aren’t going to just let him do that; Kyle has to hold them off while the man of innumerable elements and compounds rescues his team.

I appreciate Morrison’s professionalism, as he seems to have done his homework all around, with the references to Teen Titans, Kyle’s fertile imagination in creating constructs, Metamorpho talking like a veteran hero and taking charge with the kids; I appreciate it when a writer gives enough of a damn about the product that he considers little things like continuity and consistent characterization. But Kyle is not fighting alone; Wonder Woman puts on an breathing device and takes to space with Green Lantern to fight the invaders. Meanwhile, Metamorpho gets the rest of the team to the shuttle bay.

With the shuttles down, Metamorpho goes with Plan B and pulls a Groot, making himself into a living escape pod. Actually, I should say Groot pulled a Metamorpho, seeing as he did it first. Meanwhile, out in space.

God, what a wordsmith. Morrison’s writing is always a pleasure to behold with my mortal eyes. My fingers turn to clumsy monkey digits as they pound impotently upon my keyboard in a futile effort to do justice to the potency of Morrison’s prose.

Kyle and Wonder Woman are unable to stop the satellite from exploding. All their fantastic trophies from a hundred past adventures—spirit jars, a giant hourglass, Kanjar Ro’s Gamma Gong—are reduced to mundane meteorites as the Justice League’s home burns. Metamorpho hurtles towards Earth, and inside of him, Ice attempts to cool him down as the elemental hero forms a heat shield, desperately settling on creating one out of sapphire. Damn, that reminds me of my old Moon Zero Two recap. This is what happens when you get old; everything reminds you of something else.

Meanwhile, Protex and Tronix are in the Antarctic—

—thinking back upon the good ol’ days as the pair unearth a temple called Z’onn Z’orr.

Elsewhere, Rex fills himself up with shock absorbing fluid to protect his team mates as he crashes into the ground. The result…

…ain’t pretty. Later, Superman and the Flash race to meet with other Leaguers, and Superman explains to Wally that Metamorpho is now “inert”. Oh no, not Metamorpho! It’s so sad that we’ll never see Metamorpho ever again! I’m not sure, but it felt like I typed that with a straight face.

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Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and J’onn J’onnz (hmm, the way Martian Manhunter spells his name with apostrophes reminds me of something we just saw a few pages ago…) meet up at a undisclosed location. They watch the news explain that despite the fact that the League has been attacked, public opinion is against them. Superman reports that he met with Protex, who denied involvement, but Supes knows the golden bastard was lying. Aquaman hasn’t reported in yet, nor has Bat—

—Oh. Never mind. Batman’s been here for an hour, even though Superman wasn’t able to detect his heartbeat; it seems Bats has a new toy. But couldn’t Supes have detected Batman’s breathing? Unless said new toy is some sort of auditory cloaking device, like a white sound generator. That would be a handy gadget to have, but I’m guessing it would end up like almost every technological innovation ever seen on Star Trek, in that we’ll never see it again. Batman’s got a theory, and he asks Superman to check for microwaves. Superman detects them coming from satellites in orbit, and beaming down to Earth on human mental wavelengths: Mankind is being mind-controlled. Batman notes that the bad guys got the first hit in, but now it’s time to make plans and hit back, because this is war.

Next time: Part two, as Aquaman makes an appearance and the Justice League fights back.

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