Sunday, October 18, 2015

Retro Review: JLA Top 5 - Obsidian Age

As Joe Kelly's JLA ran began in 2002, the team ran into powerful magic users in separate, seemingly-unrelated incidents. Kyle Rayner started having nightmares and visions that showed the JLA dying in battle. With unprecedented planning and foresight, Kelly used his first eight issues to set up the central storyline of his run, a story called "Obsidian Age" that took the team through the lowest lows and highest highs they ever faced. At its darkest point, Superman's skeleton and a mocking note served notice that the team was dead. The population of Atlantis was enslaved. We see Wally West captive with his neck broken and legs amputated, and then the whole team dies in battle. After that happened in the past, a seemingly-undefeatable witch in the present is about to make the Earth fall into the Sun. It's bad. It's very bad.

This sets up a finale when a staggering number of heroes in a greatly-expanded roster go on precisely the winning streak that saving the day requires, everyone playing a key role in a victory that cheats death several times, gives half a dozen characters arguably their finest moments, and then finally moves the Earth. There's a pause before the finale where a ghostly, undead Kyle Rayner tells Nightwing, "You're doing a hell of a job, by the way." It's impossible to reach that moment unmoved by the sentiment behind it.

But it began with the preparation earlier in Kelly's run. After the JLA had tangled with a Central Asian ruler/magician named Rama Khan, the story begins in earnest when two powerful opponents representing ancient Mexico and an unspecified Native American culture materialize at Disneyland and use their combined magic in an attempt to kill the JLA. They nearly succeed when Batman awakens from a spell that is supposed to keep any human asleep, and Kyle Rayner arrives in time to blindside the attackers, who escape where Atlantis used to be. This begins a mystery in which the JLA begins to search for Aquaman on the spot where Atlantis has, apparently, disappeared into the past. With Batman and Kyle expressing strong misgivings, they go 3,000 years into the past, and then things turn sour.

Kelly divides the story into parallel narration of the past, in even-numbered issues, and present, in odd-numbered issues. While the Big Seven plus Plastic Man gradually realize they are in over their heads in 1000 BC, a new replacement team led by Nightwing faces existential threats in the present, eventually realizing that their problems and the disappearance of the main JLA are related.

The split narration makes it all a mystery for readers to unravel, too. We know the JLA is missing before we know they are dead, and we know they are dead before we know why. The invocation of time travel makes it a little hard to unravel even at the end, but the flow of events goes like this:

In 1000 BC, a malevolent Atlantean sorceress named Gamemnae unites forces with Rama Khan, the forerunner of the Central Asian mystic whom the JLA had encountered in the present. Rama Khan in 1000 BC has visions of a seven-headed destroyer from the future. This is interpreted as being the JLA, but will eventually prove to be Gamemnae herself. The two of them gather a team of rather formidable super-beings from around the world and prepare to lure the JLA into the past and ambush them. Rama Khan and other members of the team do so believing that the JLA really is evil. Gamemnae, however, does so to facilitate her conquest of the Earth and manipulates the rest of the "League of Ancients" into eliminating the JLA for her.

Aquaman and the citizens of modern day Atlantic travel into the past as a refuge from the "Our Worlds at War" crisis. Arthur the first to fall, trusting Gamemnae before he is turned into a disembodied water wraith trapped in a pool. Then she raises the underwater city back to the surface and leads the ancient Atlanteans in enslaving the modern-day Atlanteans. Two of the League of Ancients travel to the present to battle the JLA, which succeeds in luring them back to their time, and into a very well-prepared trap.

In the past, the JLA covertly investigate Atlantis, trying to avoid walking into a trap. However, when they think they understand the situation, they do not, and the League of Ancients has mutilated the Flash in a separate ambush before the other heroes make their appearance. Behind the scenes, however, the Native American magician Manitou found out that Batman was unharmed by a weapon that could not harm a just person, a discovery that begins to win Manitou over to the JLA side. This is too late, however, for the rest of the team, who go down hard in the face of Gamemnae's perfect battle plan. Martian Manhunter is lit afire, Plastic Man shredded, and Superman physically beaten to death. Kyle Rayner is the only one who wins his matchup, using his ring to save Atlanteans who seem to be his enemy; this is the act of mercy that definitively brings Manitou to the JLA side, and in a brilliantly ambiguous moment, Kyle allows Manitou to rip his heart from his chest as part of a magical spell that's necessary for the league's resurrection.

With the JLA dead, Gamemnae turns against her allies, absorbing them into her own body with magic, which gives her the sum of all of their powers, all but that of Manitou, who hides the spirits of the JLA in Kyle's heart for three thousand years.

In the present, Gamemnae, now hideously monstrous, absorbs Tempest and Zatanna before the new JLA shows up in force, and she begins to pick them off, too. President Lex Luthor nukes the battle site, appearing to kill the heroes even while Gamemnae is unaffected. And after that bleak point, everything turns around.

Kyle Rayner, who has survived as a combination ghost / power ring entity for three thousand years, uses his ring power to save the new JLA, who put Manitou's plan into action. Nightwing declares, "I don't know jack about magic, but I do know people. If Gamemnae does have a weakness, it's her strength. It makes her confident, and will blind her." That observation is the pivot in the confrontation. Nightwing's people skills, his ability to lead the replacement JLA, ultimately turns the tide against a villain so powerful that she is basically a god.

The six dead JLAers bond as ghosts on the spirit plane, with Batman playing the chess master, directing Manitou to animate them as skeletal forms that are immune to Gamemnae's magic, and as the undead JLA begin to fight the witch, Kelly unveils some of his best dialogue…

Gamemnae: What good are a handful of shades against the force of Earth's gods?!?
Batman: You're about to find out.
Firestorm (to Manitou): I didn't think it was possible… but you actually made Batman scarier.

Attacks by the undead Superman and Wonder Woman manipulate Gamemnae into using her magic to bring the Leaguers back to life, while Batman whispers, "The chess match has begun. Force the move."

Meanwhile, the replacement Justice League under Nightwing try to find a way to beat Gamemnae. Jason Blood sacrifices himself in order to liberate Zatanna from Gamemnae, the Atom makes himself too small for magic to affect him, and the demon Etrigan and a Kelly creation named Faith lead a delaying attack before Firestorm uses his matter-transmuting powers to connect the pool confining Aquaman with the sea, in effect giving him command over the entire ocean.

At this point, with the teams in the past and present both at impressive levels of power, they win a double battle against the sorceress, with Manitou's magic, Aquaman's power, and the resurrected JLA beating her into submission.

Kelly uses the extremely traumatic events in the story not as a gimmick to impress the reader but as a means of bringing out the personalities of the characters. And so, we're not asked to believe in Wally West's nobility because he is running fast, nor even because he is risking danger. We feel it when he's being held by his broken neck, legs amputated, at the mercy of a merciless enemy, and he tells his comrades, trying to save their lives at the cost of his, "Run. Please. Just run." J'onn's death transforms Plastic Man's zaniness into fury, driving him to suffocate Rama Khan and yell, "You like burning?!? How about the burning inside your lungs as they choke for air?!? LIKE THAT?!?!" Superman tries to reason with the League of Ancients even as they try to kill him. Firestorm and Zatanna are frustrated by not knowing how their powers can be used to beat Gamemnae, then figure it out at the last minute. We see Kyle Rayner grimly whisper, "Be alive, be alive" before falling silent when he sees that every one of his teammates is dead.

And it hurts. It hurts Kyle and it hurts us. Seeing the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash die is a shock, one that might be a cheap stunt if handled differently. Joe Kelly, yes, brings them back to life, cancelling out those deaths as he certainly had to do, but he uses the death-and-resurrection to achieve a grand narrative payoff in the rich characterization it allows.

Kelly gets it. Death in comics isn't a moment for the writer to step back, quit writing, and hope the penciller can imitate Michelangelo's Pietà. Death isn't a moment at all. It's a process, an event, a beginning rather than an ending. Kelly wrote a story around the JLA's death, but it's neither cheap nor lazy. It's a tangled story that started setting things up twelve issues before their deaths and kept unspooling the consequences for several issues longer. It's obvious that he worked not only smarter but also harder than writers usually do, and the result was what I consider probably the finest Justice League story ever written.

Rikdad's JLA Top 5 Stories (in chronological order)
Steve Englehart – No Man Escapes the Manhunters
Steve Englehart – The Origin of the Justice League Minus One
Grant Morrison – New World Order
Grant Morrison – Rock of Ages
Joe Kelly – Obsidian Age

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Retro Review: JLA Top 5 – Rock of Ages

Things start off dire, then get much worse. Then more powerful and ominous players enter the story, then almost unimaginably powerful beings, and the stakes become even higher, the consequences infinitely bleak, and salvation almost unimaginable. Then, the heroes battle back from so many disadvantages that the reader has almost lost track of what it takes to stave off total destruction, much less get back to square, but they have more resources than we could have imagined, and by the end, the world is remade and the dead resurrected.

On the cover of JLA vol 3 #10, Grant Morrison calls this story "the ultimate JLA epic." That claim is made with some justification. A team of evil JLA counterparts, equal to them in power but committed to death and destruction, is only the starting point of "Rock of Ages." There, an earlier JLA story might have climaxed, but for this story, it is only half the prologue. The evil seven counterparts are merely hard light constructs, powerful physical bodies controlled by the minds of seven more familiar villains such as Lex Luthor, Joker, and the Mirror Master. There, an earlier JLA story might have concluded, but Luthor's plan was deeper, based on the tactics of corporate takeover. Luthor believes the JLA doesn't even see the depths of his plan, and we see that he is right – until much later, we find out that Batman was playing an even larger game, large enough to outflank Luthor's design.

But this is merely a distraction from the real threat. We soon find out that, unbeknownst to Luthor or anyone else in the present time, the Injustice Gang's attack on the JLA is destined to fail, but to set in motion a chain of events that will end with Darkseid conquering the Earth and subjugating all humanity to degradation and slavery, now and forever. We see a future in which Superman is dead, Wonder Woman is a fugitive, and the power of the Justice League has been rendered insignificant in the face of Apokolips' assault. This future, when it is seen, makes Luthor's attack seem, by comparison, like a mild inconvenience, and yet either would be sufficient to destroy the Justice League, and nobody who sees the scope of the combined threat is in a position to act to stop it.

It goes like this: Luthor has a plan to destroy the Justice League, and Batman – or rather, Bruce Wayne – has a counterplan that can beat it, with Luthor's two moles inside the Justice League being trumped by Batman's three moles inside the Injustice Gang. And with neither of Luthor's moles actually loyal to him, Batman wins the chess game three pieces to none. Check and checkmate. With Superman and Martian Manhunter running the maze of the Joker's mind and escaping a deathtrap, and Batman's three plants inside Luthor's plot playing their parts, the JLA wins. Superman destroys Luthor's secret weapon, an artifact called the Worlogog made by the New Gods. A happy ending except that Aquaman, Green Lantern, and the Flash discover that the Worlogog's destruction preordains Darkseid's conquest of the Earth. An evil version of Metron who was created by Darkseid in that dark future travels back to ensure that it all comes to pass. In effect, the evil future timeline has arranged to create itself.

In the present, Luthor is compelling, written as well as he's ever been written. An eloquent internal monologue explains how he sees himself as noble in his opposition to Superman. Luthor later attempts to blackmail Aztek into submission, explaining to him that he's compelled to serve Luthor because of Aztek's belief that he must survive in order to oppose a "shadow god," and that the argument is compelling even though Luthor doesn't believe in such a thing, because Aztek does. It's later in the story when the reader can see that Darkseid is the shadow god, and Aztek is correct: His future counterpart does indeed help defeat the true shadow god, and he's not the only hero to best a god. During the battle on the Injustice Gang's satellite, Plastic Man uses his unique power to defeat the magic of a Greek goddess; when she calls him "Dionysus," Morrison is developing his thesis that the DC superheroes truly are a pantheon, an idea that climaxes at the end of his run when a foe who kills gods cannot beat the JLA.

Beating gods becomes a habit in "Rock of Ages." Batman tricks the corrupted Metron into making himself human so that the caped crusader can take him out with a sucker punch. The Atom deduces that light can penetrate an Apokoliptan force field and uses that fact to defeat Darkseid from the inside of his brain. The waylaid trio of Aquaman, Green Lantern, and Flash deal with the superbeings of Wonderworld, endure Darkseid's occupation of Earth, and live to ride Metron's chair back to the present, where a split-second telepathic message relayed by J'onn to Superman pulls off the critical save in the last moment, and undoes a future where Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all died along with the world's liberty – a scenario that foreshadows Final Crisis, right down to Darkseid zapping Batman with the Omega beams. Back in the real timeline, one wish on the Worlogog brings back to life the civilians whom the hard-light JLA duplicates killed in the story's opening scene and just like that, every bit of bad done in the story is undone.

No reader sees the alternate timeline featuring Darkseid's conquest of Earth and believes that the DCU will come to that end, but Morrison puts the JLA into such a deeply-nested pit of misfortunes that the difficult road they travel to salvation is virtually impossible to foresee, so the reader is drawn into the predicaments and watches with admiration as the superheroes work their way out of it, miracle after miracle. If "Rock of Ages" isn't the ultimate JLA epic, it certainly belongs on a very short list.

Coming up next time, the last on the list of my five favorite JLA stories, which is perhaps the best of them all.