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.