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.

12 comments:

  1. I am really curious what the next one is going to be! :)

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  2. I really loved this story. It made me notice so much foreshadowing for later Morrison works. It's the first appearance of Kal Kent. Also the scene where Metrom rides through more and more psychedelic dimensional planes from Earth to Wonder World, to a bubble blown by a giant boy in a garden, until reaching The Source Wall. To me, that is the coolest cosmology. It must be seen.

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  3. I may post the final one next week, Jonny. I have to re-read a lot of issues to review the story as well as its lead-up.

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    1. Ooh, makes me think you are going to do either Infinite Crisis or Final Crisis. I am guessing the latter, but am really excited to find out :D

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    2. Reviewing Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis has been on my to-do list for years, and the time when that occurs is drawing nearer: I'm approaching them chronologically and logically. But neither of them are on this list; I wouldn't quite classify those as Justice League stories, though Final Crisis is, to an extent.

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  4. Those are nice highlights, Jacob. The story covers so much ground and I tried to focus on the most plot-essential elements, even while the Wonderworld scenes and the journeys of Kyle, Wally, and Arthur to and from there are well worthy of mention, too.

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  5. My prediction is Obsidian Age. Thanks, Rikdad, for bringing these great old stories back to life.

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    1. ManWithTenEyes, you got it. IMO, there's no question that Obsidian Age, Rock of Ages, and the Manhunters story belong on the list. They're all towering achievements.

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  6. Hmm what is Rikdad's favorite Justice League comic. I suspect it's another Morrison. DC One Million, American Dream, World War Three or Earth 2

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    1. DC One Million is a great event, though it goes beyond just the Justice League.

      WW3 has some of the greatest dialogue, when Batman gives Superman a "pep talk" through telepathic link.

      Earth 2 is another fun one, and very inventive.

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  7. Called it! I demand all the internet monies! All!

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  8. In all seriousness though, I consider this to be nothing less than the peak JLA story. You take the best writer in comics, add the magnificent seven of DC's top heroes, and charge them against their greatest foes in a time travel spanning epic and Rock of Ages is the cake that cums out of that oven.

    It's the ultimate testament to each one of it's characters. The world going to hell with Superman dead. J'onn navigating the indecipherable maze that is the Joker's mind. Batman's fuck you to Darkseid. Wonder Woman's fight to the death. Kyle Rayner belying his rookie status and representing Earth among the gods of Wonder World.

    This one's got it all true believers!

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