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

9 comments:

  1. This last pick cums as a welcome surprise. Kelly manages to tell an engaging epic spanning centuries while cementing the character drama of a very large cast.

    Yet for all the reasons it’s a good story, the one why it’s close to my heart is the simplest. It’s quite simply the best non-Morrison Kyle Rayner story ever written. The rest of the cast all have there bits to keep them busy, and Batman has a few scene stealing lines, but it’s Kyle who takes center stage is this unusually long 10-part tale. And I enjoyed every moment of it.

    Even after Morrison’s shining of the character, not much was done with him after. He remained a regressed man child in his own title. And as for JLA, Waid has always been open of his dislike for the character which showed in how little Kyle was given to do during his run.

    It’s perhaps fitting that Kyle shined brightest here, since it always felt to me that was his last “real” story. Ironically, or maybe by design, Kyle’s “death” at the end of this story mirrors his real life death. This is his last time as the prominent GL of the JLA whereby he’s replaced by Jon Stewart, both in this book and the Animated Series. Meanwhile his solo title was going thru the motions, telling generic off-world tales solely for the purpose of taking Kyle off the board to bring back Hal Jordan.

    It’s true that Kyle stuck around in the Green Lantern Corps title, his solo title during the New 52 reboot, and various crossovers. But invariably all his tales felt like filler B-list material and even when he appeared in major crossovers after, it was almost always as second fiddle to Hal Jordan, which just served to diminish the character even moar.

    Farewell, Kyle Rayner, you were always my GL. And while you may never have taken off like you deserved, at least Kelly gave you one hell of a send off.

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    1. As a huge Kyle Rayner fan, your description makes me want to read Obsidian Age as much as Rikdad's review does. I will say one thing though, the final issues of Kyle Rayner's solo series were also a good send off. The character had always been about trying to prove himself. By that time he had already proven himself as worthy as any GL, so all that was left was to throw the worst conflicts at him all over again. Facing riots and homophobic attacks against his friend in "Brother's Keeper" then abandoning his job to protect space. Defeating Amon Sur and returning to a home where everyone he knew has moved on. Finally moving in with his mom and facing Major Force (his original worst enemy) one last time. Kyle basically completed his arc as a solo character and it was time to see him shine in Green Lantern Corps as Ion and later as White Lantern. His days as a solo hero in NYC and in JLA are still my favorite and there are plenty of those issues I haven't read yet so I am not mad.

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    2. sakei, it really is, in large part, Kyle's story. I hadn't noticed, as you pointed out, that it's his last JLA story. John Stewart replaces him as soon as it's over, and Hal's rebirth story started two years later.

      One of my first reactions to Obsidian Age was that the JLA never would have gotten killed off if Hal and Barry had been there. But then, if that's true, it wouldn't have been one of the best JLA stories ever.

      Dick Grayson gets the co-star role in the story, and when the two of them meet face to face, one must note that the two are probably about the same age biologically, although Dick has been a superhero for over a decade longer. This story is almost certainly Kyle's finest moment, and I'd be tempted to say that it's perhaps Dick Grayson's finest moment, although that character has a vast number of stories in his history to choose from.

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  2. Rikdad --

    You express eloquently why this story was so rich, deep and moving. In 45 years of comics reading, I've found very few other sagas to be so engaging, engrossing and at times disturbing. Yes, everyone, it is Kyle Rayner's story, one as epic in its own way as "Lord of the Rings."

    My only nit is that the time-frame of the scene near the end where Aquaman is finally freed and the flood happens -- I'm never quite sure when this occurs. 1,000 BC? Some date in between then and the present? But that matters little. This is comics as literature, challenging the heroes and the readers alike on the way to ultimate triumph.

    Thank you, Rikdad. Would love to hear your thoughts someday about some of the JSA's adventures ("Black Reign" in particular) and "52" from nearly a decade ago. But none of those top "Obsidian Age."

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    1. MTWE,

      The "rules" of time travel as implied by the story are somewhere between messy and under-explained. Arthur makes the flood happen in the past, but Gamemnae responds, in the present, to it happening like an event that is unfolding for her abruptly, mid-battle, although it happened 3,000 years ago. The heroes beat Gamemnae in the past, including the flood, which weakens an erstwhile-unbeatable Gamemnae in the present. Instead of the 2002 battle simply having a new past, which is the only one they remember, 2002 Gamemnae feels the past changing, which is interspersed with a reaction shot by 1000 BC Gamemnae who is watching the flood in real time, and curses Arthur for it. Then, in 2002, Manitou tells Gamemnae "Mind the portal," which apparently yanks the 2002 version of her into the past, but we only see one version of her, defeated, sinking into the waves. And then, the 2002 Atlanteans, who were brought through the portal from 1000 BC, and remember everything that happened, put Arthur on trial for re-sinking Atlantis, which literally happened 3000 years ago, but is fresh in their memory like it was yesterday.

      "52" is something I've planned to review, although its scope makes that a vast endeavor or one done quite cursorily!

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    2. A belated thank-you for clarifying the "timeline" of all that. Will go back and read the saga some snowy weekend this winter!

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  3. Great post! I remember I stopped buying the League a little bit after this run, and then picked it up again when Meltzer came on board. By the way, I just read your post about Superman and it was great. You seem to be a bit of an expert in John Byrne. Anyway, I also wrote about Byrne's run in Man of Steel in my blog (wich I encourage you to visit):

    www.artbyarion.blogspot.com

    I hope you enjoy my review, and please feel free to leave me a comment over there or add yourself as a follower (or both), and I promise I'll reciprocate.

    Cheers,

    Arion.

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  4. Thanks, Arion! I first read Obsidian Age around the time of Meltzer's run, and at the time, it felt off in the relatively-distant past, though it was then only about 3 years old! This reminds me of one of my regrets, which is that I was collecting the back issues individually, and started reading it before I had all of them, so I read it out of order. I wish I'd been more patient and had the intended experience, but it was greatly haunting even the way I read it!

    Thanks so much for the Byrne-Superman review! I enjoyed it greatly, and commented more thoughts about that on your site. I also read Man of Steel about 3 years after *it* had originally run, and that also felt like I was coming way late to the game. All very funny in hindsight, now that it's truly decades in the past, and 3 years seems like just a blip.

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  5. Yeah, 3 years is not much. 30 years, on the other hand...

    And now that we're mentioning Meltzer I think next year I should review Justice League.

    I'm glad to see you enjoyed my post. I'm having a lot of fun reading your blog so I'll try to stop by as often as possible.

    By the way, I don't know if you like independent comics, but if you ever want to check out my own comic (and review it), here's a link:

    https://www.comixology.com/Un-American-Chronicles-1/digital-comic/95418

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