The Secret Origin of the JLA, and of “Mark Millar” Too:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 11

By Morrison, Porter, Dell et al, from 1996/7’s JLA #1

Continued from last week.

It would be another seven months until Morrison and Millar’s next public collaboration on the Batman. In that time, the new JLA title would establish itself as a remarkably successful reboot. Its first issue had shifted in excess of 100 000 copies before swiftly shedding a third of those numbers. It was and remains the way of the comic book market, and yet Morrison and artist Howard Porter’s storytelling would swiftly reverse the post-debut decline and return the title to six figure sales. By the summer of 1997, DC had, with uncharacteristic good judgement, begun to publish associated titles, while smartly ensuring that Morrison was directly involved with their contents. (The likes of editor Ruben Diaz – who Morrison has always spoken well of – had obviously been willing to gamble ahead of the sales figures arriving that the new League would support a wave of tie-ins.) (*1) The comparatively expensive cross-company team-up JLA/WildC.A.T.S. would be the second best-selling title for DC in July, while the almost-as-costly JLA Secret Files And Origins #1 would become the company’s seventh most-popular comic in the same month. (*2) Less than a year before, the Justice League had appeared moribund, and yet now it was suddenly and indisputably DC’s flagship franchise.

Faced with the need to fill the 50 pages and more of the extra-sized JLA Secret Files And Origins with original content, Morrison reached out to Millar. With the exception of 8 pages of pin-ups and a time-line by Phil Jimenez, everything else in the comic was at the very least co-written by him. The 22 page origin of the reformed League was credited to both Morrison and Millar, while 23 more pages of character profiles, short stories and a text “interview” with the Martian Manhunter was by the younger man. On the one hand, it was the most prestigious showcase that Millar had managed to acquire in a mainstream DCU title, while on the other, it worked to accentuate his role as Morrison’s protégé and adjunct. Credited in a solo context only on the less prestigious features of the special, Millar must surely have been aware that he risked seeming as much the perpetual sidekick as the heir apparent.

By Morrison, Porter, Dell et al, from 1997’s JLA #5

As always, it’s hard to say who was responsible for what in the origin tale. Yet despite Morrison’s name coming first in the credit box, there are grounds for suspecting that – unlike as with Aztek – Millar was closely involved in the story’s script as well as its plot. Despite Morrison being so careful in the monthly book to keep his character’s relationships consistent, the use of the Batman in Star Seed seems, if not entirely askew, then noticeably different. In particular, the Secret Files tale shows a Dark Knight who’s slightly though decisively less laconic, intimidating and distant. In the first nine issues of the JLA, the Batman had only twice referred to a fellow member of the League – Superman and the Martian Manhunter – by their given name rather than by their superheroic title. Yet in the origin, he calls Wonder Woman “Diana” without any obvious need to do so, while also referring several times to the Flash as “Wally”. In the latter case, it could be argued that circumstances demanded such a personal touch, since Batman was trying to reinforce the alien-possessed speedster’s sense of self. But the Dark Knight continues to use West’s first name even after the Flash has been restored to himself, which does, in the light of Morrison’s other JLA scripts, feel atypically intimate. Even given Morrison’s belief that Wally West would, through his youthful friendship with Dick Grayson in the Teen Titans, think fondly of Batman, it’s still an example of friendliness that hadn’t been seen in the JLA itself. (*3) Given that the JLA’s stories were, in terms of continuity, taking place in Star Seed’s future, it’s hard to grasp why that Batman should have become even more distant and apparently indifferent. Though hardly a difference that undermines the new origin’s charm, it does suggest that Morrison was either rushing through its script or delegating significant aspects of it to his colleague. Overall, it’s a mostly seamless and consistently gripping story, and yet those minor inconsistencies are conspicuous.

By Morrison, Millar, Porter, Dell et al, from 1997’s JLA Secret Files & Origins

That aside, Star Seed does successfully continue the process of emphasising how, as Morrison told Matthew Brady, the Batman was “…the team’s problem solver …. In a lot of situations, the team will come to Batman and ask, “What the hell do we do?” (*4) Once again, there’s a sense that Morrison was determined to make the Batman an essential part of the League without undermining his portrayal elsewhere in the DCU. Faced with an invasion by the mid-controlling alien Starro that’s designed to overcome super-powered opposition, it’s left to the Batman – “the most gifted human being on the planet” -  to plot and achieve the Earth’s salvation. (*5) Rather than being an uncomfortably underpowered figure tacked onto the League for the sake of tradition, sentiment and sales, this is a Batman who’s the mind if not exactly the soul of the team.

If the Dark Knight’s supreme importance to the League functions as the spine of Space Seed, the tale as a whole is a storming and direct precursor of what would soon become known as widescreen comics. In it, Morrison and Millar delighted in conspicuously sidelining the slightest hint of soap opera while creating a sequence of attention-focusing episodes which regularly drew on the comics lore of their youth. (*6) (In some ways, this was unavoidable, given that neither man, by their own admission, had read many of the super-books of the Nineties. By contrast, their knowledge of the work of decades before was considerably greater.) If the DCU was to be reshaped, then part of that mission involved the renewal of its more apparently anachronistic oddities. Weaving together a story that involved Wally West’s idyllic, 60’s small-town roots in Blue Valley, the God-charged pontificating of the undead Spectre, and the new and eerily unsettling Starro, Morrison and Millar created a fast-paced and horror-tinged stand-alone episode. Of all of the tales of the new JLA up until that point, it’s the most concise and neophyte-friendly.

from 1999’s Superman Adventures #31, by Millar, Aluir Amancio, Terry Austin et al, which features Millar’s first undeniably widescreen epic.

It’s also the first story with Millar’s name attached which substantially reflects the style of superhero comic that he’d later claim for his own. In essence, JLA Secret Files And Origins #1 stands as the ur-text for the work that would make both Millar’s reputation and fortune. From 1997’s Space Seed can be drawn a straight line to Millar’s epic and distinctly widescreen two-part Family Reunion in 1999’s Superman Adventures #30 and 31, an unjustly little-known saga of alternate dimensions, family loss and marauding Kryptonian doppelgangers. From there, he’d push the same decompressed, deconstructed, cinematic and spectacle-charged approach even further with 2000’s reputation-sealing The Authority, 2001’s Ultimate X-Men and 2002’s The Ultimates. After 8 years as a comics professional, Millar had, through his collaboration with Morrison, finally begun to settle on what would become known as his signature style.

To be continued.


*1:- We’ve discussed how Diaz liaised so productively with the Bat-Office over Morrison’s JLA in previous posts, as GM mentions in Shameless. But it’s touching that even passing references by GM to Diaz tended to be framed in affectionate and respectful terms. For example, in the following interview at, he twins Diaz’s name with the epithet “irrepressible” before describing him as a “very energetic, forward-looking editor”. It was, after all, Diaz who continued to push Morrison proposal for the JLA when editor Eddie Berganza had rejected it, as the latter modestly discusses in his introduction to 2008’s JLA Deluxe Edition volume 1.

*2- according to the figures at Comichron;

*3: Morrison: “He remembers hanging around with Batman when he and Robin were kids, and when Batman was probably a little kinder, and a lot easier to talk to.” pg 59, interview with Matthew Brady, Wizard JLA Special, Wizard Press, 1997

*4: pg 54, ibid

*5:- ibid

*6:- The influence of Morrison’s proto-widescreen storytelling upon Millar and comics in general is one which, of course, we’ll be returning to.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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