Monday, August 29, 2011

NEW TO ME: JLA American Dreams – part 3

JLA: American Dreams by Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, Oscar Jimenez, et al.

Forgotten JLA nemesis, the Key, uses his enhanced intelligence to break into the Watchtower and capture the League members, minus J’onn J’onnz. Having paralyzed them with a neural shock, the Key injects them with a programmable psycho-virus that produces structured hallucinations for the heroes, causing them to experience an alternate reality.

The “key” to the Key’s plan is that he realizes the JLA will figure a way out of their predicament and defeat him. Ultimately, the Key wants to use the surge of power that will result from the JLA breaking from their dream states to boost his own powers and allow him to project himself into negative space so that he can completely control our universe. Luckily for the League, Green Arrow shows up and the Flash burns through the virus faster than expected in order to defeat the Key.

These final two issues in the second of Grant Morrison’s JLA collections were fabulous. As I stated in the previous post, the bad taste left in my mouth by the mangled “New World Order” collection (mangled by horrid art from Porter and some marketing intern’s stupid idea to include the plot twist on the back cover copy) is long gone. The stories in this collection are fun and smart and – unlike most superhero comics – excite my imagination.

One of the main things I appreciate about these stories from Morrison is the fact that he’s building on the past to enlighten the present. That is, Morrison is using a lot of old-school storytelling techniques to enliven the narrative. This second collection includes five chapters (issues 5-9) and in those five chapters, Morrison gives us three complete stories. Three! For most trade collections today (and I have to keep reminding myself these comics were originally published in 1997, nearly 15 years ago), this would fall one issue short of the single 6-issue arc passing for comic stories these days.

Too many creators are writing for the trade and give us, the audience, pre-packaged (and overstuffed) six-issue arcs that say little and excite even less. This is one of the things that has turned me off to many current comics and probably why I have been enjoying the “Wait, What?” podcast with Jeff Lester and Graeme McMillan – two comic fans and bloggers who have a great affinity for classic comics.

Decompression – ugh!!

But I digress.

With this iteration of the League, Morrison was trying to tell superhero tales in the grand tradition of comics from the silver age and before, and it is incredibly exciting. Like Chris Claremont and Steve Englehart and Roy Thomas and many writers before him, Morrison lays the groundwork for later stories with subplots in previous ones. With this two-parter involving the Key, the villain is introduced in issue #6, lying in a coma, only to come out of it in the subsequent issue (#7) so that he can trap the JLA in this storyline (#8-9). And the wrench in the works, the new Green Arrow (Connor Hawke), does not feel like some deus ex machina thanks to the recruitment story three issues earlier. Morrison’s deft handling of the storytelling in JLA makes things flow naturally rather than feeling forced. It’s a simple thing to ask, but something that often gets lost in most of today’s comic stories.

Morrison also eschews decompression for a fully packed storytelling style. He understands comics and allows readers to fill in the blanks for things that lie within the gutters of the panels. He isn’t afraid to have us readers jump into the middle of a conversation between characters, especially when the first part of the dialogue would have been nothing but exposition. In his mind, the readership is smart enough to connect the dots, and I applaud Morrison for that. And the density of ideas found in his stories is astounding.

  • Intelligence-enhancing perfume
  • Manta Raiders
  • The use of a clockwise Buddhist swastika and maggots (that devour necrotic tissue) to defeat undead Nazi zombies
  • The Speed Source leaking into the world once every day, causing all the inhabitants to fun as fast as the Flash (in his dream state)
  • The use of the JLA’s power to boost the Key’s own power

It’s all fantastic stuff that many writers would return to again and again until they’d bled the idea dry, but Morrison drops these and other similarly inventive ideas into a single page or even a single panel and then doesn’t return to them because he doesn’t need to. It’s brilliant.

The dream sequences in these two issues were reminiscent of Alan Moore’s & Dave Gibbons’s Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” in Superman Annual #11. But Morrison takes our heroes into far different places and makes this trope – which, if we’re honest, is the same premise utilized in DC’s Elseworlds stories – his own. These new versions of classic characters are extremely interesting, and a part of me wishes that DC had looked to this story for their impending relaunch.

  • Superman as the Green Lantern of his sector
  • Bruce Wayne, with wife Selina Kyle, now standing in for Alfred as Tim Drake and Bruce Jr. fight crime as Batman and Robin
  • the quicksilver-coated Flash

It’s all great stuff.

Morrison also subtly presents the overall theme of his run on JLA (as pointed out to me by Peter Rios) with the characterization of Connor Hawke (the new Green Arrow) in these two issues. Connor is arriving to be inducted into the League and finds the Key already deep into his plan – the members of the League all unconscious and hooked up to the Key’s device. Connor tries to intervene but is driven back and loses his arrows in an explosion.

This leaves him with no recourse other than to utilize his father’s trick arrows, which are stored in the trophy room. But, Connor has no idea how to use the boxing glove or handcuff arrows. He comments that his father was either a madman or a genius. And when the Flash comes out of his stasis, Connor remarks that his father’s arrows are “impossible” to shoot. But Connor doesn’t give up, though we can see in his voice-over that he is pondering it. And, in the end, Connor Hawke does what a superhero is meant to do, he perseveres through the impossible in order to do what is possible and save the day.

It’s a subtle bit of storytelling hidden among the bombast of the Key and the excitement of the heroes’ “other” adventures, but it is at the heart of this two-part story as well as at the heart of Morrison’s approach to the JLA.

And, finally, the art from Oscar Jimenez is a beauty to behold after the horror that is Howard Porter’s JLA (with apologies to Porter, with whom I have no personal grudge; I just have a hard time appreciating his art). Jimenez’s clean, polished style and clear storytelling provide a much-needed injection to the visuals of this series. If only he could stay on, but I’m pretty sure Porter will return with the next collection.

Anyway. I loved this entire collection and am anxiously looking forward to reading more. Can’t wait!


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