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.