With Grant Morrison’s departure from JLA in 2000, DC made the absolute best decisions possible for the title’s new creative team.
As writer, DC chose Mark Waid. Waid had written Kingdom Come (which had inspired Morrison’s JLA), co-written Justice League of America: A Midsummer’s Nightmare (which led into Morrison’s run), co-written JLA: Year One, and written several fill-ins during Morrison’s run. Waid had also helped pioneer Morrison’s reconstructionist take through his work on Flash.
Morrison’s penciler Howard Porter would remain on the title for Waid’s first storyline, helping to bridge the gap. For a permanent penciler, DC tapped Bryan Hitch, hot off helping to turn WildStorm’s The Authority into a major title. Hitch’s realistic artwork, while very different than Howard Porter’s, catered even more than Porter’s to exactly the sort of big-scale super-hero action that had made JLA such a success. Hitch was also a big name, whereas Porter hadn’t been when assuming his job on JLA – and didn’t really become one from his work on that title. A more perfect team to follow Morrison and Porter could hardly have been imagined.
To launch the two as a team, DC would offer a treasury-sized, softcover graphic novel by the two, entitled JLA: Heaven’s Ladder and released at the end of Waid’s issues with Porter. Its oversized format would allow Hitch’s detailed artwork room to shine as never before. Moreover, whereas Morrison had deviated from the League’s original seven members, this new run would restore that line-up. One could hardly imagine a more perfect publishing plan, and the pair seemed poised to take on Morrison and Porter’s as the definitive run on JLA.
Unfortunately, things seldom work out as planned.
After a single fill-in issue (JLA #42, June 2000, scripted by D. Curtis Johnson), Waid began his run with the four-issue “Tower of Babel” (JLA #43-46, July-Oct 2000), mostly penciled by Porter (who bowed out for the final issue). The startling story saw Batman villain Ra’s al Ghul take out the League one member at a time, doing so inventively and intelligently – a plot worthy of Morrison’s run. But in a twist, the villain’s ideas for doing so came from none other than Batman, who was revealed to have kept files on how to defeat his powerful colleagues, were they ever to go rogue – a perfectly logical move, typical of Batman’s controlling, slightly paranoid personality. Of course, the League rallied and defeated Ra’s, but it took Batman’s plans as a betrayal, not least of the League’s trust, and kicked him out. Waid thus offered a perfectly Morrisonian plot, fitting the characters as his predecessor had depicted them, while also offering real change. Ironically, while this was planned only as the prelude to Waid’s run, it would prove his finest and most fondly-remembered story.
The treasury-sized JLA: Heaven’s Ladder (Oct 2000) began audaciously enough, with an enormous spacecraft that dwarfs the Earth simply flying past and stealing it. The story seemed designed to provide Bryan Hitch ample opportunity to illustrate super-hero action on a huge scale, but Waid filled it with so many crazy, vivid ideas that it felt cluttered, rather than copying the expansive, “decompressed” feel of The Authority. But Waid at least demonstrated that he knew how to play to Hitch’s strengths – and that doing so would be part of his job, if his JLA were to succeed.
Hitch took over the regular title with #47 (Nov 2000), which began a story pitting the League against the Queen of Fables, who transformed Manhattan into a fairy-tale forest. The fairy-tale elements seemed out-of-place with the League, and instead of Morrisonian twists, readers got Wonder Woman placed in glass like Snow White, only to be awakened by Aquaman’s kiss. After this three-issue fiasco, JLA #50 (Feb 2001) told a lackluster story revolving around Dr. Destiny and characters’ dream selves. The fifth week event “Justice Leagues” took place next (all issues Mar 2001), without Waid or Hitch. Issues #51-54 (Apr-July 2001) told a story in which the Leaguers were separated from their civilian alter egos. The villains were new inventions named the Cathexis and the Id. In the story’s conclusion, the League merged again with its alter egos… by acknowledging that they’re only parts of a whole. After these disappointing villains, “Terror Incognita” (#55-58, Aug-Nov 2001) saw the return of the White Martians from Morrison’s first storyline (“New World Order”), seemingly upping the ante and refocusing on wide-scale super-hero action.
But by then, it was already too late. Almost from the beginning, Bryan Hitch reportedly found himself at odds with Waid over the series’s tone. While Heaven’s Ladder had exploited Hitch’s strengths, subsequent storylines had been more silly than melodramatic, clashing with Hitch’s realistic style. It didn’t help that every story after “Tower of Babel” involved either illusions or characters meeting portions of themselves, which lowered the stakes. After penciling #47 (his first issue), Hitch only partially illustrated #48-49, only a few pages of #50, and none of #51 – and this despite the title running a month late, partially to give him more time. Hitch returned to illustrate #52-55, then quit the title completely, having fully penciled a mere five issues and not a single complete story, outside of Heaven’s Ladder. What had been designed as a lead-in to Waid and Hitch’s League had actually proven its high point.
Sales had plummeted, and Waid didn’t last much longer than Hitch. He stepped away for issue #59, a fill-in tying into the “Joker: Last Laugh” crossover. Waid’s final issue, #60 (Jan 2002), was a Christmas issue. Thus, what should have been a great run came to an inglorious end.
In the history of great runs that should have been, Waid on Hitch’s JLA ranks high. It should have been great. All the ingredients were there. It even started well. But in the complexity of creative chemistry and the vagaries of monthly super-hero books, it was simply not to be.