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Morrison's JLA - Part 1

Posted in Comics, Powers For Good

Morrison’s run on JLA pretty much defines superhero comics to me, so I’m going to start out with a few posts about his run on JLA starting in 1997. If you haven’t heard of them before, the JLA is the Justice League of America, the premier superhero team in the DC comics universe. In part 1, we’re going to look at the first two collected volumes, which for some odd reason are titled New World Order and American Dreams. Oh, Grant Morrison, you crazy Scotsman you.

Anyway, odd names that have little to do with the stories aside, these are some great comics. New World order collects the first four issues of 1997’s JLA, which spun out of 1996’s JLA: A Midsummer’s Nightmare and marked a return of A-list heroes to the JLA lineup. The first four issue arc deals with the appearance of a rival alien superteam that wins over the public with spectacles, miracles, and a little mind control. The reader’s never really left in much doubt that these aliens, known as the Hyperclan, are bad guys, but it isn’t until near the end of issue 3 that they’re revealed to by white martians, militaristic conquerers with the same powers as the Martian Manhunter.

Yeah, the white aliens are the Hyperclan. I can see why they referred to them as pale martians later on.

Racial overtones aside, it’s a nice little arc that sets up the team well. We get quick character sketches of each of the heroes (Aquaman is grumpy, Green Lantern is the new guy, Flash and Green Lantern have a friendly rivalry, etc.), an epic battle for the fate of humanity, and a statement of why the JLA exists.

There’s a few standout moments. Probably the best moment of the arc goes to Batman. After the rest of the team is defeated, Batman is loose in the Hyperclan’s base, and of course has figured out they’re martians. He proceeds to take down four shapeshifting telepathic aliens with power on par with Superman (for reference, Superman takes the better part of an issue to beat one pale martian). This is why having Superman and Batman in the same game is not a problem.

There are also a lot of character moments mixed in with the superpowered combat and stunts. The real key to defeating the martian invasion is not that the JLA could beat the Hyperclan, but that Superman could inspire humanity to fight back against the alien invaders landing in every major city. The characters are all heroes that inspire others. This is not a B-list team.

It’s also worth noting that even in this arc, Morrison is planting the seeds of the Maggedon storyline which will finally happen over 40 issues later. Actually, the roots go back even further, as the villain of Midsummer’s Nightmare mentions Mageddon’s coming. It’s something I didn’t really notice as the comics were coming out, but the entire late 90’s JLA relaunch is really all one big story, just with very discrete arcs.

Following the pale martian invasion we get a few issues of smaller arcs, which have been collected as JLA vol. 2, American Dreams. The first arc in this volume is just one issue, the only one issue arc Morrison did during his JLA run. It’s almost more of a science fiction story, centering on an android created by two old JLA villains, Dr. Ivo and Dr. T.O. Morrow, to infiltrate the JLA. The android, named Tomorrow Woman, fights alongside the JLA against a future weapon, eventually using the EMP embedded inside her which was supposed to kill the JLA to defeat the future weapon.

This story’s an interesting diversion, but it’s not so much a superhero team story. It’s a Tomorrow Woman story that uses the JLA as a backdrop. The JLA aren’t even really the protagonists, except in the sense that their heroism inspires a robot to develop sentience, but I don’t know if that’s enough to actually make this a playable story.

Next up is a two issue arc where the JLA takes on a heavenly invasion. Coming to the aid of Zauriel, and angel who’s just been cast out of Heaven of his own free will, the JLA find themselves in the path of a angelic invasion of Earth, led by an archangel who intends to succeed where Lucifer failed.

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for the religious angle, but these two issues form a sharp arc that I always wish there was more of (and there kind of is, Zauriel returns to the JLA in a miniseries and appears with the team in later arcs). This is the arc that first made me look at these kind of superhero stories as modern takes on epics of earlier cultures, like Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and maybe even Journey to the West. Superman withstands an angle’s gaze because he is pure, Wonder Woman destroys a heavenly chariot while the touch of Heaven burns her. If you took away the spandex and Porter’s distinctive art style, this could be a heroic epic.

The final arc of volume 2 deals with the return of an old villain, the Key. A brilliant scientist who experimented on himself with mind-expanding drugs (don’t try this at home, kids!), the Key has been in a coma for years as his mind developed. He wakes up as the heavenly invasion ends, shows up in the JLA’s Watchtower (on the moon, cause that’s where superheroes hang out), and knocks everyone out in a surprise attack.

The Key places the heroes in mental simulations of alternate worlds as part of his dastardly plan. His real goal is not to keep them restrained, but to use the mental power they will generate as they wake up to open a doorway to another dimension where he’ll gain unstoppable power. Typical supervillain stuff. The cool bit is that the Key knows the JLA will win, and he’s using their inevitable triumph to fuel his plans.

Of course the JLA defeats the Key, due in part to Batman figuring out the Key’s plan (of course) and in part because the Key wasn’t ready for the JLA’s newest member, Green Arrow, who teleports up to the Watchtower after the JLA has been put in to the key’s simulations.

Green Arrow’s exploits in the real world are interesting, but the best part here is the classic alternate universe trope used in such a way that it matters to the rest of the plot. We get Kal-El, Green Lantern of Krypton, Old Man Batman, a take on the Flash that I really wish would become it’s own series. Stuff like this, the incredibly awesome ideas that are used for just a few pages and then dropped, are an important part of epic comics. I want a rules system that supports this kind of creativity without punishing me by making me come up with stats for a Kryptonian with a power ring.

And that’s it for the first two volumes. At the risk of losing people with short attention spans, I want to tie everything up with a thought on one thing I can apply to gaming that I learned in these comics. Why just one thing? So I don’t double the length of the post.

Gaming Idea

Pretty much every fight here is broken down into just a few exchanges of powers, attack and counter. On top of that, each power pretty much only gets used once. I guess that makes a lot of sense: drawings of Superman using heat vision against every enemy would get pretty boring and not add much to the plot. The only time I need to see the hundred punches that it took to take a guy down is when the Flash delivers them in a split second.

So, fights in Morrison’s JLA: just a few exchanges of powers, attack and counter, no repetition. I wish all RPG battles were like that .

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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