Like many classic comics from the 1980s onward, JLA: Earth 2 (the 1999 original graphic novel written by Grant Morrison with art by Frank Quitely) plays with comics history in a postmodern way, offering new observations on familiar tropes. But in the case of Earth 2, these observations take the form of metafictional conceits – ones that aren’t understood as such by the main characters and don’t disrupt the story. Instead, these metafictional conceits acknowledge the genre’s limitations and turn them into physical laws.
In terms of comics history, the story plays with the notion of multiple dimensions or parallel universes, a staple of much science fiction. In the DC Universe, prior to its reconstitution in 1985-1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, these multiple universes took the form of a system of “multiple Earths.” Of these, the main DC Universe, continuous since the late 1950s, was labeled Earth-1, while the company’s older Golden Age characters, from the late 1930s to the 1950s, were retroactively said to live on Earth-2. Beyond these two main universes were innumerable others, including Earth-3, inhabited by the Crime Syndicate of America, an evil version of the Justice League. Populating parallel universes with evil versions of main characters is an old (and often fun) trope: think of Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror,” with its bearded, evil Spock. Earth-3, first introduced in Justice League of America #29 (August 1964), was conceived as a universe in opposition: thus, President John Wilkes Booth was assassinated by Abraham Lincoln. Originally, Earth-3 had no super-heroes, and the Crime Syndicate found themselves bored at the lack of adversaries – thus motivating their challenge of the Justice League, as well as Earth-2’s Justice Society, in their first appearance. But as Earth-3 developed in subsequent appearances, Lex Luthor became the world’s first super-hero, challenging the Crime Syndicate. All of this silly fun ended, of course, with Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which Earth-3 was literally destroyed, prior to the DC Universe being reconstructed without multiple universes.
15 years after their disappearance, JLA: Earth 2 reintroduced the Crime Syndicate, now of Amerika. Whereas the original Crime Syndicate had simply staged crimes, unable to conquer their world, Morrison’s version ruled its world tyrannically. Other writers had played with super-heroes taking over the world: most notably, Mark Gruenwald in his 1985-1986 Squadron Supreme mini-series, starring Marvel’s Justice League analogues, and Alan Moore in his brilliant 1989 conclusion to Miracleman. But Morrison’s version was filled with his trademarked postmodern, paranoid twists. Ultraman, the Crime Syndicate’s evil version of Superman, watches the planet’s every move, vaporizing dissidents with his heat vision, the culprit unseen and in the heavens, like a vengeful, Old-Testament God who sees all and punishes people utterly, though at a remove.
The evil Justice League’s outer space headquarters is even called the Panopticon, an allusion to the 1785 prison design of social theorist Jeremy Bentham which allowed a guard to watch all prisoners simultaneously. Because prisoners could not know if a guard was watching their behavior at any given time, prisoners would theoretically become coerced to behave as if under surveillance even when not. In his 1975 classic Discipline and Punish, French postmodern theorist Michel Foucault invoked the Panopticon as an exemplar of the use of surveillance to enforce social norms as a means of control. Beyond merely suggesting the Crime Syndicate’s totalitarian rule, evoking the Panopticon places their Earth’s inverted morality in a new, postmodern context, in which social norms are constructed and only thought “natural.” This severely limits any culture’s ability to claim itself to be intrinsically superior.
In this respect, it’s key that the characters come to call our familiar DC Universe “Earth-2,” while the Crime Syndicate inhabits “Earth-1.” After all, these are only arbitrary designations, yet the “Earth-1” designation always made the DC Universe seem the norm, while the Crime Syndicate’s topsy-turvy world was obviously a derivation. But “topsy-turvy” assumes one position is “right side up.” In Morrison’s reimagining, neither universe has privileged status. If anything, our familiar Justice League enters the Crime Syndicate’s “Earth-1” as outsiders, as marginalized figures.
Despite their conquest of Earth, the Crime Syndicate certainly don’t appear contented. If anything, they seem bored. Ultraman plays tricks on the populace to amuse himself, like dropping fake dollar bills. Owlman, the evil version of Superman, has allowed opposition to remain in Gotham City; rather than seeking control as Batman usually does, Owlman seems to enjoy the challenge. Owlman also expresses sexual affection for Superwoman, the evil version of Wonder Woman, whom Ultraman has claimed; the couple must thus hide from his nearly omniscient gaze, like most of the planet’s population. Ultraman dominates the Crime Syndicate, like the entire planet, through fear.
The story actually begins before all of these fun and clever flourishes, as Alexander Luthor, the sole opponent of the Crime Syndicate, comes to Earth-2 to ask for the Justice League’s help. In a normal super-hero story, the Justice League wouldn’t hesitate. But in this smarter, updated version, the League debates both the morality and the practicality of such intervention: they would be, after all, invading a parallel world and enforcing their own moral standards, much as Ultraman has enforced his. The League agrees, leaving Aquaman and Martian Manhunter behind, while Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Flash travel to Earth-1.
There, Green Lantern comes up with a simple but astounding method of combating the Crime Syndicate: using his energy to enfold the entire moon within two giant grasping hands, trapping the evil team inside their Panopticon. There is certainly an irony to this, as the Panopticon, named after a prison, has become the Syndicate’s own prison. The League then turns to reforming the planet, now that its evil overlords have been removed. As we watch their efforts, a sense unfolds of Carnivale, of social inversion, of the low made high and vice-versa, and this is never more evident than in Gotham City, where the oppressed now have power, aided by Batman.
As the trapped Crime Syndicate contemplates a response, Owlman concludes that they need do nothing: 24 hours after the Justice League arrived, the Crime Syndicate (which lacks analogues for Aquaman and Martian Manhunter) will be transported to Earth-2, as if the universe were correcting an imbalance. This occurs as predicted, and the Crime Syndicate proceeds to attack the White House and destroy much of Washington, D.C., toppling the Washington Monument. All the Justice League has accomplished has been to place their own world in jeopardy.
Aquaman and Martian Manhunter intervene, defeating the Crime Syndicate with surprising ease. Meanwhile, on Earth-1, the Justice League finds that selfishness and corruption seem to be the norm among this population, frustrating the League’s attempts to reform the planet. Given the story’s cultural relativism, we may see an analogue here to the futility of Western interventionism, which finds itself unable to change cultural norms despite military superiority.
Both sets of characters now realize why they have failed: their own universes seem to prefer, as if a physical law, the victory of either good or evil. Just as the Justice League always wins in the end, their evil counterparts do as well, and there is no more sense fighting this than fighting gravity. The villains of the DC Universe are doomed to failure after failure, but heroism on Earth-1 is equally doomed.
Of course, this also expresses and reconfigures a rule of the genre: that the good guys always win. Instead of overturning this silly genre convention (as in revisionism), Morrison celebrates and redeems it: logically, within the fantasy logic of a super-hero universe, that universe’s physical laws demand that good win out. But this is only discovered in juxtaposition to Earth-1, in which the opposite is the case. The two teams are thus at a perfect stalemate, and the Crime Syndicate is arguably the only villains the League can never defeat (at least, not without sacrificing their own equivalent members, who would equally always lose).
Ultimately, Earth-1’s Brainiac is revealed to have been behind Alexander Luthor having broken the dimensional barrier between the two Earths. By transposing the Syndicate and the League, both are rendered impotent. Moreover, the cosmic laws that sends equivalent characters to the opposite Earth will also cause the two Earths to merge, destroying both. Brainiac stands ready to harness the energy from this destruction.
Superman at first attempts to stop the Earth-1 Brainiac, then realizes that this cannot be done; on Earth-1, evil will always win. To defeat Brainiac, the League must merely resign from the fight, just as the Crime Syndicate earlier escaped Green Lantern’s prison by inaction. Flash simply causes both teams to return to their respective Earths, and Ultraman makes quick work of the Earth-1 Brainiac.
Both sets of characters are left contemplating their opposites, which are equally bizarre to them. Nothing has changed; Owlman and Superwoman even continue their secret meetings, though Ultraman seems to have more than a hint about their behavior, suggesting that he tolerates it up to a point, perhaps out of his need for amusement. Throughout the story, either team taking action results in failure, whereas inaction results in success. Yet despite the lack of consequence of any sort but philosophical, the story remains compelling, a startling example of how silly old super-hero stories can be updated in a postmodern context without losing any of their fun or vigor.
And it’s this, perhaps, that is Earth 2’s ultimate message. The reader expects the “Earth-2” of the title to refer to the Crime Syndicate’s world, whereas in fact it refers to the DC Universe. The true subject of JLA: Earth 2 isn’t really the JLA’s adventure fighting the Crime Syndicate. It’s the DC Universe itself (here called “Earth-2”) and how it functions. What Earth 2 examines is nothing less than the rules of the super-hero genre. It demonstrates the reconstructionist agenda wonderfully, celebrating the fun but silly concepts of old while still imbuing them with postmodern intelligence. Instead of readers thinking the League should lose now and then, if only to be more realistic, readers are made to thrill to the implications of the heroes being unbeatable, which turns out to be no less sophisticated.
But if we’re inclined, we may take the two Earths’ dichotomy one step further. Do we not also assume that good tends to win out? It does, owing to an almighty, omni-benevolent deity, according to the major strains of the world’s three main monotheistic religions. Yet history is written by the victors. We celebrate rags-to-riches success stories, as if innate talent or goodness succeeds, little imagining how many equally talented or good individuals failed. When miners trapped after a collapse are freed, newspapers nearly universally proclaim “Miracle!” We have no word for the reverse. Even our vocabulary is that of Earth-2.
Yet we know this at odds with reality: goodness does not ensure victory. Perhaps the story would be better if the merging of the two Earths would not annihilate both but produce our own world, defined not by good or evil but lack of super-heroes and super-villains. A more boring world, perhaps, which seeks to escape into the extremes of Earth-1 and Earth-2.