Saturday, September 26, 2015

Retro Review: JLA Top 5 – New World Order

The phrase "New World Order" is used to describe a new society which may be, variously, either a dream or a nightmare, heaven or hell. The first story in 1997's new JLA monthly written by Grant Morrison used that title to denote an alien invasion that would subject humanity to tyranny, but it also, with a wink, referred to the new version of the Justice League, one which Morrison did his best to make into the ideal of a superhero team.

The opening scenes of the story interweave several ongoing events, with an alien spacecraft approaching the White House as members of the previous Justice League pack up to make space for "the A-team." In sly, understated fashion, Morrison notes that two superheroes with fire-based powers have gotten sick, a clue as to the identity of the story's villains. When they arrive, however, the Hyperclan and their leader, Protex, portray themselves as Earth's new benefactors, and they immediately go to work improving the planet as part of a darker plan to earn the support of Earth's human population before trying to destroy their superheroes.

Neither the readers nor the JLA trust the Hyperclan, who launch a surprise attack or two even while they continue to win over the Earth's population with massive projects like cultivating the desert. Soon, they use mind control as well as good deeds to further their P.R. assault on the JLA's primacy. When the all-out attack begins, it is vicious, with groups of 2 and 3 Hyperclan members taking out equal numbers of JLAers, leaving them all captured and incapacitated – or so it seems – except Batman.

JLA #3 is perhaps the pivotal issue in the development of the Bat-God concept of Batman. In a sequence that is intercut with the struggles of the rest of the JLA, Batman delivers an internal monologue describing how the Hyperclan believes that he is their inferior when he is actually their superior. He breaks into their headquarters, and takes down four of the super-powered beings, at first patiently listening to their boasts, then taunting them before revealing that he knows that they are Martians, and that their weakness is fire. In a brilliantly-written scene, when one of the Martians says that he can't harm them with one lit match, he replies, "Maybe you're right," as he flips the match through the air to the floor, whereupon it lights gasoline upon landing, disabling the Martians at once. Throughout the issue, various characters cheerlead Batman's victory, a captive Superman smirking when Protex yells out in panic, "Batman! Batman! He's only a man!" and later calling him, "The most dangerous man on Earth." Finally, when Batman appears, dragging four subdued Martians behind him, Kyle Rayner comments sarcastically, "Only four of 'em, Batman? You're slowing down." Morrison not only shows Batman winning the fight, he also shows those who know him expecting him to, and the Martians being proven fools in their multiple proclamations of Batman's limitations. Now consider the narrative effect of this: Batman not only wins a fight; he wins a fight against super-powered beings despite his lack of powers. He not only beats one of them; he beats four. He not only does so in this one specific instance; it is the outcome his JLA peers expect. And, it is not only one writer's plausible interpretation of Batman; the contrary viewpoint is put into the mouths of fools and shown to be folly.

So, while Morrison's showing us the superior of Batman as a fighter, he also shows off storytelling techniques far superior to those shown in the vast majority of earlier comics, and much of what's come since. He doesn't merely state things about the heroes; he develops them thoroughly. And, he doesn't merely repeat the statement; he shows it from all sides: With action, with narration, from multiple points of view.

Elsewhere, Morrison shows his skills in a scene depicting the Flash joining Green Lantern in defeating one of the Martians. As Kyle contemplates all of the ring-powered forms he can use to beat his opponent, Flash states, in one panel, "Hold that thought." In the next panel, the Martian is surrounded by dozens of previously unseen burning candles, and Flash continues speaking with, "There, candles. Your move." Compared to earlier traditions of narration, this is wonderfully spare and wonderfully effective. A 1970s Barry Allen comic, like a 1940s Jay Garrick comic, would have been absolutely bound to describe exactly how the Flash had obtained the candles, exactly why, and the exact nature of the result. Morrison knows that the reader doesn't need that. If Aquaman or Blue Beetle were the hero in that situation, it would be bizarre, and unexplainable. When it's the Flash, any reader minimally familiar with the character can write the explanation in their own head: Obviously, he ran somewhere, obtained the candles, lit them, and put them in place faster than any other character could perceive. Obviously, he did so because fire weakens Martians. Obviously, it makes Kyle's task an easier one. Morrison spares us the unnecessary details, and so the reader has the more active and vivid experience of providing their own explanation. It also provides us with an impression that the more tedious explanation would have cost us: A realization that other characters witness the Flash's operations as a kind of magic, the results coming in an instant, with no middle steps visible. With the simple use of streamlined narration, Morrison takes stock of the fact that JLA readers have by and large grown up since the Seventies and don't need every detail spelled out for them. The effect is to create excitement not only about the Flash, but also about the new kind of storytelling.

The cast of "New World Order" is new, but also very old. In the DCU between COIE and Infinite Crisis, this group had never before served together, but it is exactly the same – if one lists the heroes by name ­– as the original JLA from 1960, but with Wally West and Kyle Rayner taking the place of Barry Allen and Hal Jordan. Morrison makes the most of the substitutions: White Martians try to use Hal's yellow weakness against Kyle, and he exults in not having that weakness. And, Wally reaches deep into his memory of Barry to dredge up some scientific knowledge so that he can employ Einstein's special relativity to give one Martian a knockout punch. And again, we are given notice that the characters are new and better than those we had before, and the writer is also more adept than his predecessors. And the villains, too, are not novel. We should not regard as sheer coincidence that Morrison's choice of villain for his first JLA story is the same as Engelhart's in the last installment on my top five list.

The common people (of Earth) are pivotal to the plot and larger theme of "New World Order." At several intervals throughout the story, the relationship between superheroes and the general public is discussed. First, in the derision with which the White Martians discuss Batman's humanity. Later, Protex, in an effort to demoralize Superman, tells him that regular humans fear and hate him because of his power, and that he also despises him because they are inferior to him. Superman counters that they believe in him, and he believes in them. After losing in battle, Protex makes a desperate plea to have the JLA join the White Martians in ruling the "maggots" who are humanity. Here, the story breaks with convention by having the JLA turn to ordinary humans to win the most critical portion of the war, capitalizing on the Martians' weakness to fire; one panel shows ordinary people holding up lit lighters in bold opposition to the Martian invasion. This proves to hold off the Martians until the JLA can perform the mop-up operation. In a final dialogue, the JLA discuss the relationship between themselves and humanity, and Superman summarizes it thus: "To catch them if they fall." Yet there is another statement about humanity: The JLA end the White Martian threat by placing them in the lives of ordinary humans, hypnotized to forget their original identities. Ordinary people figure large in Morrison's JLA run, also saving the day in the final story of the run. This is a theme he also considered in Flex Mentallo, a year before "New World Order."

But for all that Morrison celebrates the common person, and Batman as a representative of our race, he puts a keener focus on the extraordinary qualities of the Leaguers than the decades of writers who came before him, showing a gift for making their powers seem less like an amplification of human abilities and more like magic. He celebrates their excellent as something ultimate, something in their definition, absolute invincibility, as though it were a rule of the universe that the Justice League win. This run opened up with "New World Order" and it served notice to the readers that something remarkable had begun.

This story was published 20 years after the previous installment on my top-5 list, but the next selection in the list came very shortly after this one.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Retro Review: JLA Top 5 – Origin of the JLA Minus One

Earthquakes take place after tectonic plates have pushed against one another for a long time, building up tension in response to movement far below. Finally, the tension becomes too great, and something snaps.

15 years after the JLA's origin was first told in JLA #9, Steve Englehart rewrote the history book, offering an entirely new origin which asserted that the earlier version was just a ruse.

The JLA #9 story, by Gardner Fox, posited that the seven original JLA members independently battled seven Appallaxian aliens who invaded the Earth, each with the power to transmute living beings into some material such as gold, glass, or mercury.

After five encounters that stuck to an almost perfectly formulaic script describing five one-alien-vs-one-hero battles, the heroes united in various combinations to take on the last two Appallaxians, ending with a meeting that put all the heroes in the same place at the same time, whereupon they formed a team.

Englehart's later version of the JLA origin, in JLA #144, reveals that the heroes' real first meeting was several months earlier, to stop a different alien invasion – by White Martians. Englehart's story has Superman and Green Lantern reveal in 1977 to non-charter-member Green Arrow that the JLA had offered the Appallaxian tale as a cover-up of the more politically-sensitive Martian invasion and that the JLA had pretended, to their non-charter members, that the first published mention of White Martians in JLA #71 had actually been the second time that the JLA had encountered Commander Blanx and the other evil Martians.

At first glance, this all seems very busy and plot-heavy. Why bother replacing one alien invasion story with another alien invasion story, creating layers of claim and counterclaim? Subsequent versions of JLA history have taken sides, with the Appallaxian origin being cited by a couple of later writers, and the White Martians resurfacing elsewhere. Did Englehart's origin serve only to complicate the history for no good reason?

In fact, Englehart's story is superb – more entertaining than the original, more mature, and deeper than it looks. While Fox's story used a highly formulaic structure that he had developed for Justice Society stories in the Forties, Englehart's gives numerous characters privileged roles in an intricate plot offering social commentary and a grand statement about DC continuity. J'onn J'onzz is the character most pivotal to the plot, as he is being hunted somewhat privately by his fellow Martians. The Flash is the first terrestrial superhero to enter the fray, and who escalates the conflict to a larger set of superheroes. Superman's fame and power are celebrated by the story as he is the greatest among not-quite-equals. Green Arrow kicks off the framing story, as he detects the inconsistency in dates that indicates that the Appallaxian story must be false. But perhaps the key character to it all is Green Lantern, as the unnamed "one" in the title of the story, "The Origin of the Justice League – Minus One."

Both the dates and the singling out of Hal Jordan point to Englehart's higher purpose in this story. While DC Comics had a concept of continuity that formed only gradually as the Silver Age went by, Englehart used JLA #144 to impose his notion of a deeply interconnected and shared universe. He did this by making an executive decision on how dates should be interpreted in DC stories. He has his characters in 1977 refer to explicit dates in the late 1950s for various moments in their careers. While this implies that the heroes are much older than they obviously seem to be, this is excused by Englehart and an editor's note from Julie Schwartz as the way time works in the DCU – young men can have a history as young men going back a couple of decades and we shouldn't worry about the details of why they didn't age. This is a controversial interpretation, and one that DC writers have come to reject, but one must admire that Englehart had any vision at all for how continuity should work, instead of the indifference that seemed to guide questions of continuity from 1938 up through the Seventies. Just a few years later, DC's creators would begin to scrap much of their existing history in COIE, but Englehart began an alternate approach, writing old stories into current continuity, resolving contradictions with deliberate creative decisions. And so, Englehart addressed the glitch in Hal Jordan's debut and the JLA origin story by writing a special story, referring to Jordan in the title, that explained the discrepancy. Englehart made a declaration in this story that publishing dates could be considered absolute dates within the DCU, so that Superman or Batman might refer to their adventures using the same month and year that a fan could see on the cover of their old comics.

How seriously did Englehart take this approach? JLA #144 is full of panels where a character refers to an adventure in their past and Englehart/Schwartz append asterisked notes indicating the issue in which these adventures took place – and they are all correctly chosen from the right month according to cover date, setting the JLA origin story right at February, 1959, the same month that Barry Allen first appeared in the Flash title, after his initial appearances in Showcase. This is because the origin in February 1962's JLA #9 claimed that their origin had taken place 3 years earlier. Englehart has many of his heroes (or in Superman's case, a TV news anchor) note what they were doing in their recent past, and draws all of these details from early 1959.

He also includes a much bigger cast – the people investigating the case of the White Martians includes not only the six original JLA members (plus Robin and a pre-power-ring Hal Jordan), but also Congorilla, Plastic Man, the Blackhawks, the Challengers of the Unknown, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Robotman, Roy Raymond, and more. Along the way, they accidentally run into Adam Strange and Rip Hunter while looking for Martians. Why? Because all of these – Lois and Jimmy included – were all the stars of features in early 1959. DC didn't have a seriously consistent cross-feature continuity in 1959, but Englehart, in 1977, retroactively declared that they did. 9 years before splash pages in COIE showed off DC's new post-Multiverse lineup onstage together, Englehart put DC's old (but retroactive) lineup onstage together.

And it's not only DC's minor players that appear in the story: There are other nods to the culture of the times. Characters in the story are aware of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast and scare, and the White Martian invasion generates some of the same hysteria. In this story, as in the real world, H. G. Wells' story is fictional, but Orson Welles' broadcast is real. This is precisely the reason why J'onn J'onzz is feared for his Martian origin, and that fear is the reason why, Englehart explains, the JLA's true origin had to be covered up until the public got over the initial panic. He also notes the Red Scare of McCarthyism and the anti-comic-book rhetoric published a few years earlier as Seduction of the Innocent.

When I read JLA #144 for the first time, I was certainly aware that some of the non-superhero characters were from older comics, and that I might presume that the rest were, too, but I had no way of researching that. It was clear that Englehart was capturing a past era of comics, but it is only now that I see what a tight work the story was, from the assiduously-researched issue numbers to Lois Lane's distinctly 1959-ish attire.

What stands out even to a reader who had never picked up a 1959 comic (when Englehart was 11, and before I was born) was that the White Martian origin was a really good story: White Martians hunt down J'onn J'onzz. The Flash tries to help but cannot, so he enlists the help of Superman, who is joined by Batman and Robin. Then the word gets out that people with special abilities are needed and DC's whole lineup splits into teams trying to find the many bad Martians along with the one good one. Ultimately, the chase leads to the launchpad of an early U.S. space rocket (another nod to 1959) and Superman's heat vision, playing on the Martian weakness to fire, ends the threat.

JLA #144 wasn't merely a very good story; it was a vision of how DC's entire universe fit together. Taking, in effect, an editorial pencil to the stories from his childhood, Steve Englehart showed a way forward that could have kept DC's first four decades as part of one seamless continuity going forward. What it took was hard work – the willingness of writers to thumb through old issues and turn those stacks and stacks of older stories into a single, coherent narrative, weaving it together as Englehart did. It might have been something more than a big mess to discard when COIE came around. It might have been a legend.

Somewhere between the little-kid stories of the Sixties and the gruesome artistry of Alan Moore, there is a place for comics that celebrate their tradition without irony. Steve Englehart scripted it to perfection in JLA #144.

The first two selections in my five best JLA stories came only a few months apart. The next choice will come after a big jump ­– two decades later.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Retro Review: JLA Top 5 - No Man Escapes The Manhunters

In a sequence of Retro Reviews, I'm going to count down my five favorite JLA stories of all time. These will be presented in chronological order, not ranked for quality. It begins here with the earliest of them, in JLA vol. 1, #140-141.

There was no World Wide Web in 1977. There was no "buzz." The only evidence in print that the two-issue JLA story by Steve Englehart in issues #140-141 was a great one were the five letters from fans, one by future comics writer Fred Hembeck, giving rave reviews. But it was a great one, perhaps the greatest of its decade, and I re-read it often. When the WWW came about, fans have gone on record expressing their admiration for this story, which was the basis of an animated episode. Englehart's two-parter had the mark of quality, and I wasn't the only one who thought so.

Steve Englehart had just begun his short but important JLA run when he wrote this story, which I will refer to by the title of the first issue, "No Man Escapes The Manhunters," NMETM for short.

Englehart himself noted that it was more powerful to begin a story on a high note than to do the more common thing and end on a high note. NMETM begins with a villain we'd never seen before smashing through a wall to surprise Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Black Canary. There was no previous explanation, and we would have to pick up the backstory as Englehart doled it out. The plot was this: Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) had accidentally destroyed an entire inhabited planet by mistake. Sick and guilty for the deaths of billions, he had decided to accept responsibility and face whatever justice he deserved. Unbeknownst to him, and the reader, he had been framed by the Manhunter Corps as part of a larger scheme to undermine the entire Green Lantern Corps and thus assume a greater share of universe-wide power. The villain who opened the action was just one Manhunter, the earthman Mark Shaw.

As the story unfolds, Jordan surrenders to the Manhunters, but his JLA allies are not willing to accept his imprisonment. Green Arrow and Black Canary are taken hostage along with Jordan, but the potent foursome of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash take up the case. Throughout a series of conflicts, truces, deception, and resumed conflict, the JLAers and Manhunters duel throughout the story, with the Manhunters proving themselves to have resources of immense power and immense scope. They haul their three prisoners away, and place the four other heroes in a death trap that they escape. The Manhunters then pretend to allow the JLA to investigate Jordan's alleged crime, only to spring further traps that nearly take the heroes down.

Englehart masterfully builds the story to a series of crescendos by placing one, two, or four heroes into isolated skirmishes with the Manhunters and their death traps, and the heroes do not always prevail. Mark Shaw informs us in the opening pages that no Manhunter but one had allowed a witness to his deeds in the last ten centuries. But within pages, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the Flash witness Shaw's escape and track him to a Manhunter base. Englehart allows Batman to make the mocking observation, "In ten centuries, no Manhunter but one ever left a witness, and now he's left four!"

This not only narrates the JLA's feat with wonderful dramatic style, but is also one manifestation of the pioneering characterization in NMETM: While modern comics make some effort to imbue superheroes with distinct personalities, this had been done little and rarely with DC's heroes (not so Marvel's) before Englehart. NMETM, however, establishes the Flash as reserved, not fully socially confident, and quietly intimidated by adventures in space. In contrast, Englehart depicts Batman as assertive and confident almost without limit. This story is arguably a significant point of origin in the characterization of Batman as "Bat God" or "Bat Jerk" as the Caped Crusader lets loose on the villains with verbal barrages while proving instrumental in their defeat even while his more powerful allies lie fallen. The Flash, for his part, demonstrates perfect courage and confidence in battle to offset his being socially intimidated by Wonder Woman.

We will learn in later issues that the Amazon princess, who is abrupt and snippy in this story, is under the effects of mind control, and thus another remarkable innovation in NMETM is for a writer's storyline to span multiple issues, laying out subtle clues early on that come to fruition months later. This more intricate use of the serial medium had long been commonplace in other literature, but was rarely seen in comics before Englehart, and is not so universal even today.

Even while Superman, Wonder Woman, and eventually Green Lantern bash and smash their way through the Manhunters' plans, the real victories go to Batman and the Flash. Batman one-ups the Manhunters each time he encounters them, first surviving Mark Shaw's attempt to kill him, then using his detective skills to prove that Green Lantern was framed. Finally, when Superman is taken down by a kryptonite-armored Supermanhunter, Batman runs roughshod over a whole city of Manhunters, knocking them out of his way, slipping from their grasp, and seemingly running across the tops of their heads in his single-minded mission to reach the control center where he turns off their illusion-projecting machine, thus exposing their plot to the whole world. For him to emerge victorious when Superman had been defeated is arguably, 9 years before Dark Knight Returns, a significant point of origin for the Bat God portrayal of Batman, in which he is virtually undefeatable due to the force of his indomitable will.

The other Justice Leaguer who proves supreme in this story is the Flash, whose speed and determination trump the Manhunters several times – first, in tracking down Mark Shaw to the opposite side of the world, then using his vibration to free his colleagues from two death traps, and finally to defeat a pair of Manhunters, free Green Lantern, and enter the Manhunter headquarters in disguise. When their leader expresses in astonishment, "I saw you fall," the Flash sasses back, "You saw me fake it." His repeated triumphs in action are a counterpoint to the moments early in the story when he is intimidated by quips from Wonder Woman and the very thought of fighting in space.

The complexity of Englehart's work is evident in his copious references to early stories, spanning recent events in Wonder Woman, Green Lantern lore, and much of Justice League history. The story has 18 asterisked notes from editor Julie Schwartz explaining minor details and referring to earlier issues. This is far outside the number of such notes that had previously been normal. Similarly, the abrasive attitude displayed by Wonder Woman sets up stories going forward, with her possession by a machine intelligence being revealed a few issues later.
Between the plotting, characterization, and references to other stories, NMETM was a revolution in more complex storytelling.

In one story, Englehart elevated the sophistication of the Justice League feature to a level that was not exceeded for years. Though his JLA run lasted only a year, and his run on Detective Comics a bit less than that, Steve Englehart had a tremendous impact on the JLA and the medium in general, with his plots adapted by animated series, in Grant Morrison's Final Crisis, and by countless writers' efforts to step up their characterization and plotting. One may argue that DC's transition from entertainment for kids to entertainment for adults took its single biggest step in "No Man Escapes the Manhunters."

The next JLA story in my countdown: A huge step for DC Comics that came a very short time after the issue featured in this post.