The world of cape-comics has a rather tortured relationship with certain sets of words used to describe a character, creator or project. ‘Iconic,’ for instance, is probably one of the most overused words in our field. In the age of the Marvel movies, where characters once obscure are now widely known, it’s an easy term to draw upon to make a short sentence a little longer and to deliver that sweet sweet clickbait.
Look, I don’t prescribe to the notion that words, once coined, should always refer to the same thing. I’m not going to pull out a dictionary prove that these characters can’t be iconic because the world relates to images of saints or some such nonsense. By any modern usage Superman is iconic; so is Batman; so is Spider-Man. These characters stood the (or at least ‘a’) test of time. I’m drawing the line at Groot though; and not because I dislike that talking-tree, but selling tons of action figures of the popularity of a series of movies doesn’t make you an icon. For example, essentially nobody talks about the iconic characters of Avatar – marine guy, alien lady, actress-from-better-films.
And yet the Marvel solicitations for the month of July 2019, the last round of previews when I started writing this piece, contain variations of the word ‘icon’ no less than eight times. One instance refers to a character called IG-88 (who was on-screen for all of two minutes during Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back). The other strong competitor for the title of most over / badly used word in comics discourse is ‘essential.’ At this point I will honor my BA English Lit. roots by pulling out a dictionary and quoting a rather agreed-upon set of definitions: “of the utmost importance,” or “Absolutely necessary; extremely important” and “Fundamental or central to the nature of something or someone.”
And yet the long-published ‘Essential Marvel’ line actually includes pretty much everything that Marvel ever published that they could bring back in cheap-o black and white. This is not a knock on the quality of the comics involved, I berate myself daily for failing to pick up Essential Marvel Godzilla (a title that should have awards named after it much like Will Eisner or Harvey Kurtzman), but on the general presumption of the terminology. There is no universe in which having a collection of Dazzler is essential; but for Marvel it’s not enough – there are two collections of Essential Dazzler, which means that every single comic-book published with the word “Dazzler” in the title is essential. I remain skeptical. If I’m searching for Essential Dickens on Amazon the first result is a collection containing Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. No one invites me to also purchase volume 2 which will contain No Thoroughfare.
But now Marvel have expunged the word ‘Essential’ (in favor of the “Epic Collection”) which means DC Comics has their swing at it. Their “DC Essential Editions” are, at least, trying to be picky about what gets invited to the shindig. Some of these are stories that, again, have actually withstood critical scrutiny over the years. While it’s true that Neil Gaiman’s light has been somewhat diminished in recent years as his shtick has gorwn overused and the limitations of his cool-storyteller persona have become obvious, still, one cannot deny the long term success of Sandman (forever in print, constantly getting new and upgraded editions), nor that Season of Mists is a decent choice as a mostly-standalone arc that could be marketed as mass-appeal story for the fantasy crowd.
Other choices are weirder – who in their right mind believes Final Crisis, a crossover that sums-up about 70 years of continuity in a confused overtly-dense mess, is new-reader friendly? If Marvel believed ‘essential’ to be a byword for ‘old’, DC seems deathly afraid of including titles whose style might be anything but contemporary; so much so that one of the oldest picks (through not the oldest) I could find was JLA: New World Order which collects the first nine issues of the mid ‘90s JLA run by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter.
I’ve spent all these words as a roundabout preparation to answer the question “what does it mean to call Grant Morrison’s JLA: New World Order essential?”
The idea of ‘’90s comics’ (1990s superhero comics to be precise) is a rather loaded one. The term conjures images of the overtly-muscled, poorly choreographed, lower-than-low-brow stylings of the Image Generation. That’s an exaggeration, both of Image comics themselves and for how long the phenomenon it described survived. ‘’90s comics’ as a trend seems to represent a stretch of less than five years; New World Order’s sense of design certainly shows its age (more on that later), but in terms ethos it’s the exact opposite of titles like Youngblood and WildCATs and New Men. Morrison seems to find the very idea of these behind these Image comics repellent, and like any good superhero writer he’s going to represent this philosophical debate in the form of a slugfest.
As the story starts, the alien Hyperclan land on earth and quickly prove themselves to be more popular than the old-fashioned regular DC heroes, with Superman in particular playing the out-of-touch old man. These new heroes with their strange names (“’Armek’, ‘Zenturion’! they sound like a line of cheap toys! Why don’t they get themselves regular names like any joe spandex?” cries Green Lantern in a knowing line) start doing things like fixing the ozone layer, making it rain in the deserts and executing super criminals. After gaining popularity as the hot-new-thing (TM) they are soon revealed to be evil alien invaders (because that’s what made the Justice League join forces in their original appearance) whose efforts are foiled. The Hyperclan’s supposed good works on earth prove unstable and quickly collapsing before Wonder Woman and Superman deliver the massage directly to the reader
So, first things first: this is still a really fun comic-book. Morrison knows how to keep things ticking and his brisk pacing is basically a series of escalating problems building up to the final confrontation; and despite the linear nature of this storytelling choices, small fights working towards a massive climax, Morrison knows how to create a series of set pieces for the heroes to fight through that each feel like an event by themselves. It’s old-fashioned, but in the way really cool muscle-car is old fashioned – it’s built to last.
It’s a constantly on-the-move comic-book, helped immensely by Howard Porter’s art. I wasn’t a fan of his when I first read the comics – too many sharp edges, characters always going for exaggerated crouching positions (sometimes for no discernible reason) and pages that often felt on the brink of comprehensibility edging towards chaos. Also, this book has both mullet-headed Superman and blue-costume Electric-Superman which make it immediately as dated a Bob Haney Teen Titans story.
Yet, now I find myself enjoying this style much more. It feels appropriate for the kind of story New World Order is trying to tell – old school plotting meets new school art sensibilities. Porter plays here like the bastard offspring of Jim Lee and Jack Kirby – taking on the strong poses and overtly-heroic musculature of all the male characters (geeky pencil-pusher Green Lantern has biceps as wide as his head) of the former, with the sense of mayhem that suggest even more wild action just beyond the page of the latter.
Lee and his ilk’s pages often felt like they were less interesting than telling a story than selling a dynamic page for the reader: whether the page actually flows with the rest of issue or tells a story was secondary. Porter is definitely playing for the same crowds here – every page is a crescendo – but his work is never dull and you can tell he does it with a wink and a nudge.
The wink and nudge thing is definitely something that Morrison is pushing through as a writer. And that’s also when re-reading this comic, reading it as something that was decided was ‘essential’ on a company scale, gets a bit weird. JLA: New World Order is a very reactionary comic-book; and I’m not just talking about the generic sense in which superhero stories as a genre (and part of a corporate system) came to represent a sense of conservatism. This is a story whose direct massage is that newcomers with their new ideas cannot be trusted and that things are pretty much OK as they are and shouldn’t be changed.
The Hypercaln are presented as young and sexy compared to the old soggy Justice League (leader Protex is named “Sexiest Man Alive” in the first issue); their betrayal of humanity and downfall are the triumph of grown up respectability over teenaged punkdom. I’m sure it wasn’t meant to be read like that, but in 2019 hearing Superman saying that there are no magic solutions to environmental issues sounds less like a call to an alternative solution and more like conservative voices shrugging their shoulders in response to slow destruction of planet – ‘Your ideas are too radical, we’d rather just do nothing.’ The “catch them if they fall” line is rather meaningless, it implies Superman and co. magically ‘know’ what is the right time to intervene (alien invasions – yes, global conflicts – no). The reader might know the alien invasion is the odd one out, but as far as the people of DC Universe are concerned, alien invasions probably seem as common as conflicts in the Middle East.
And while you won’t catch me defending the artistic quality of earliest Image comics, The Maxx notwithstanding, there’s something rather galling about comics’ own self-proclaimed rock-star Grant Morrison calling out the young creators who decided to leave the corporate umbrella and strike a blow for creator’s rights. Sure, they did it out of concern for pocket first, but they did it nonetheless. Creators nowadays, who can take a check from Marvel and DC one day and do self-owned stuff via Aftershock, Vault, Boom, Ahoy etc. owe these Image folk a debt.
Like many a-young man getting seriously into superheroes I had my infatuation with Grant Morrison, more than most in fact. A large chunk of Morrison’s writing is, in fact, comics about comics – which gives it a strong thematic heft which appeals exactly to the type of reader that’s drawn to cape-comics. It makes you feel clever for engaging with it while keeping itself concerned mostly with itself.
Several years later the Superman story “What’s so Funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way” (Action Comics #775) by Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo made the same point with a new group of modern-and-popular anti-heroes called The Elite winning over the public only to end-up getting a right trouncing from Superman. That comic was a reaction to then-then popular Authority series from Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch (Marvel, canny as they are – chose the ‘can’t beat’em than join’em’ strategy and hired Hitch to draw their take on modern ultra-violent heroes The Ultimates). The Elite’s leader is a shameless male version of The Authority’s Jenny Sparks; confusingly the female Elite member Menagerie was drawn in a Witchblade-esq manner – either confusing two different eras of cape-comics or showing that there really isn’t much of a difference.
Despite differences in quality, the spirit of the two is very much the same – comics about comics. Comics that lecture their reader for reading the wrong sort of superhero punch-outs. In retrospect it’s plain weird not just that we bought but that we hailed it as some genius move. In January 2001, worrying about what type of comics we read might have been a major issue, but it stopped being one eight months later and it is certainly isn’t one now.
Superhero comics can, and have been, about stuff in the real world. They could be careless, they could be too earnest for their own good, they could be wrongheaded… but they don’t have to be. Superman, in his very first days, wasn’t a conservative figure – he was a New Deal firebrand, he took on the rich and wealthy (sometime with rather extreme violence) and he certainly wasn’t down with the attitude of ‘things are pretty fine as they are so don’t rock the boat too much.’
New World Order is as joyous a read today as it was when it was first published, possibly even more when compared to over twenty years of Justice League stories that fail to come close to the Morrison / Porter run. There are certainly things still in print from these halcyon days whose massages ended-up worse; but putting this story back in print as something ‘essential’ is a statement, and not the best one. Looking at DCs line-up today, their obsessive I-hate-you-please-notice-me relation to Watchmen as expressed in Doomsday Clock, you can certainly see this trend continue. In that I guess New World Order is essential, but for all the wrong reasons; we shouldn’t be telling the same story twenty-five years apart. If you are going to write story after story espousing why we need a Superman, you should probably make Superman into something that’s a bit more than a comforting care bear for the status quo.