Saturday, November 12, 2011

NEW TO ME: JLA Strength in Numbers

This fourth volume of the (then)-revitalized JLA was a near-complete blast. My journey back to the late 90s that I missed – at least as far as big, superhero comics of the time – has been interesting thus far. These collected volumes of JLA feel a bit like the Star Trek movie franchise (the best ones are the even numbered ones). But of all the collections to date, this one, by far, is my favorite of the bunch. With the end of each chapter, I eagerly wanted to read the next one, and often did – devouring a fair chunk of stories straight through on a Sunday morning, from the end of the Prometheus Unbound arc up through the four issues penned by Mark Waid. JLA: Strength in Numbers showcases the best about this iteration of everyone’s favorite DC team.

The first thing I discovered, when I opened the book, was that Yanick Paquette used to be a Mike Mignola clone (which puts him in good stead, as Ryan Sook is another Mignola clone who has gone on to become an amazing comic artist, in his own right). This first tale, written by Christopher Priest for the second JLA Secret Files, brings together a new league (consisting of many who were part of the league disbanded at the end of the previous collection). There’s a nice call-back to the Bwa-ha-ha league with Guy Gardner, in his Guy Gardner Warrior We don’t get a one punch moment like the one provided by DeMatteis, Giffen, & Maguire, back in 1987, but we do get Batman silently putting Guy in his place. guise, assuming the pose he did then, as he prepared to tell everyone he was going to lead.

But this story, though well done, is disappointing. Why did Morrison bother to have the league disband in the prior issue, if there was only going to be a relatively unchanged roster in the next one? Sure, there are some new recruits like Huntress and Zauriel and Steel, but these are all in addition to the Big Seven. The quick reversal on Superman’s part just rings hollow and makes the ending of the “Rock of Ages” story arc feel forced and contrived. But that’s a minor nitpick because the stories with this newer, bigger, stronger JLA are a whole lot of fun.

First, we get Grant Morrison writing a three-issue arc titled “Prometheus Unbound.” In this narrative, readers get to see a new villain who appears to have thought his take-down of the JLA through completely. Stealing himself aboard the satellite by taking the place of someone who’d won a contest to be a superhero for a day with the JLA (thanks to Morrison being way ahead of the curve with regards to reality television), Prometheus takes down the members of the JLA with impressive efficiency, dispatching Steel, J’onn J’onnz, and Batman with relative ease.

Prometheus puts the rest of the league on their heels, utilizing the fact that a hundred journalists had also been invited to see the JLA Watchtower as leverage against the heroes, but is defeated through the ingenuity of the newer members like Steel and Huntress, as well as the surprise appearance of Catwoman (who stole onto the Watchtower disguised as Cat Grant). The arrival of Catwoman comes out of left field and doesn’t feel fully earned on Morrison’s part, but the way the rest of the team members managed to come together to overcome Prometheus, along with his meltdown due to an overload of information, saves it for me.

This story arc is followed by two two-issue tales from guest writer Mark Waid. Despite this being known as Morrison’s JLA, these are the best stories of the bunch and some of the best from this entire run, to date. Waid offers a story of probability gone wrong followed by an adventure with Adam Strange on an enslaved Rann. Waid employs big ideas as well as Morrison does, but there’s a definite tonal shift. Waid’s stories feel more lively and fantastic with a less serious undercurrent than is found in Morrison’s JLA work. Waid, like Morrison, understands these characters intimately and, though I might question his portrayal of Orion, his offerings in this collection are reminiscent of silver age comics, with the wonder and fun often found in those old stories. And, with the climax of the Adam Strange two-parter, Waid injects some very real emotion through Adam Strange’s sacrifice that really elevates this tale.

After those four issues written by Waid, which also included Superman’s re-integration into his traditional form, Morrison returns to write the final two-part story of this collection, wherein Starro the Conqueror returns to plague the JLA. It’s another typically well-written tale, with big ideas and the heroes’ ability to think overriding their brawn in order to send Starro away. And, despite the tonal shift to a darker, more serious narrative style, the climax is rather humorous, as it basically involves the heroes playing a prank on Starro and its invading force.

I wish there were more superhero comics like this. And I don’t just mean the high level of writing on display, but I also wish there were more two-part stories rather than the often laborious six-part “epics” that fit snugly into a trade paperback. JLA Strength in Numbers includes a single-issue story, a three-part story, and three two-part tales. They race along at a nice clip and both Morrison and Waid, along with Christopher Priest, pack a lot of story – relative to what we’ve become accustomed to in this current comic market – into the pages provided. For my money, I felt like I got far more value from this book, which has five different adventures in it, than I did in the previous volume “Rock of Ages,” which was a single six-issue storyline.

Now, I can’t wait for the next trade.


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