Grant Morrison's Superman Saga, Part II

Wed, February 18th, 2009 at 4:55pm PST | Updated: February 19th, 2009 at 12:14pm

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Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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Grant Morrison's "JLA" run is available in collected editions such as "JLA: The Deluxe Edition" Vol. 1

In Part I of GRANT MORRISON’S SUPERMAN SAGA, we looked at the story of Morrison's Superman continuity beginning with his young Clark Kent in "All-Star Superman" #6 through a long-forgotten story from the UK "Superman Annual 1986" and into "Animal Man" and "Doom Patrol." Those adventures might be termed the "early years" of Morrison's Superman Saga, even when they displayed, as they often did, a supremely powerful, confident man of steel.

If those were the "early years," then the middle years begin with Morrison's auspicious re-launch of the Justice League franchise in “JLA,” and the new origin story presented in 1997's "JLA Secret Files and Origins." In "Star Seed," the key heroes of Earth rise up against the threat of the intergalactic sea star/conqueror known as Starro. With the possible threat of Starro's mind control drones taking over Earth's most mighty heroes, Superman turns to the supernatural aid of The Spectre. He requests that the god-like Spectre strip the heroes of their powers and abilities, to prevent Starro from using their powers in his attempt to conquer the planet. "Then we could help," says Superman, "without endangering the world, right?"

Morrison quickly establishes what kind of Superman we're dealing with in this new phase of the JLA -- one who is a "super" man even without the benefit of his immense powers.

Ultimately, it's the human hero Batman who saves the planet (with the help of The Flash), and the episode reminds the assembled superhumans (now re-powered) why the JLA is so essential to the safety of Earth. Superman's role in the origin story is a small one, but even so, he's the lynchpin of the team.

Morrison's "JLA" adventures continued for another three years, pitting the team against a variety of adversaries, and often giving Superman the job of acting as the team's moral center -- the voice of reason and unerring hope in a world facing corruption from all sides.

In the opening "JLA" arc, featured in issues #1-4 from 1997, the long-haired Superman (as was the fashion in the regular Superman comics of the time, unfortunately enough) stands on the White House lawn, firmly opposing the populist new heroes called the Hyperclan. Morrison's Superman -- especially throughout the JLA era -- constantly acts as an inspiration for humanity, but even in this first arc, he quickly establishes that humankind must accomplish things on its own. "Is humankind really willing," Superman asks, "to become the pampered lapdog of superhuman beings and squander its own potential?" The Hyperclan seem willing to take care of humanity, but even if they have no ulterior motive -- and, of course, they do -- then their coddling of humankind is a destructive act in and of itself. So says Superman.

The birth of the new JLA

Because Superman is so supremely powerful, Morrison tends to find ways to incapacitate him, to remove him from the action in these stories involving other superhumans, so that the other characters have a chance to participate. And that's what happens in this Hyperclan story, as Superman is knocked out by what he thinks is Kryptonite poisoning. It's all in his mind, he realizes -- a psychic attack by White Martians who have pretended to be the Hyperclan "heroes." And after Superman breaks free from the mental attack, he baffles the Martian with his devotion to the lowly humans. In response to the Martian questioning, Superman says, "[The people of Earth] believe in me. And in my heart I believe in them."

Superman broadcasts his belief, telling the humans to stand firm. "Right now," Superman says to humanity, "courage is all that can light this darkness." But, he reminds everyone, "the Justice League of America won't let you down."

By the end of the arc, after the White Martians have been defeated, Superman restates his belief in the relationship between humanity and its heroes: "Humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny," he says. "We can't carry them there." The Flash, Wally West, wonders, if that's the case, "Why they should need [the JLA] at all?"

"To catch them if they fall," replies Superman, underscoring the role of the superhuman in Morrison's version of the DC Universe.

Throughout his "JLA" run, Morrison has to adapt to the ever-changing Superman status-quo in the DCU at large, particularly in the transition from the opening story arc to issue #5, when long-haired Superman is replaced by electric blue Superman. Morrison doesn't spend much time on justifying the new look -- one clearly handed to him from the Superman family of titles at the time. In "JLA" #5, Batman simply says, "interesting outfit." "Interesting times," replies Superman.

Indeed, Morrison gives Superman a self-conscious humor about the whole situation, commenting to Green Lantern, "So you thought I needed a haircut, Kyle? Did I go too far?"

Superman leads a recruitment drive in the issue (recalling old-fashioned Legion of Super-Heroes tryouts), ultimately inducting the robotic Tomorrow Woman who, by the end of the story, sacrifices herself to save the planet. Perhaps it was Tomorrow Woman's heroic sacrifice or just the general weight of the fictional world on his shoulders, but by "JLA" #6-7, Morrison's Superman begins to express some serious doubts about his own capabilities. "I worry," says Superman, "because everyone seems to look up to me and it's making me a little uncomfortable. I can try, but I can't solve every problem. I don't know if I can live up to this…myth they want me to be."

Superman wrestles with an angel within

Other than the young Clark Kent story from "All-Star" #6, this is the only time Morrison presents a Superman who expresses sincere doubt about his own ability. It's all a set up for the conclusion of the arc, which leads to Superman proving his mettle by literally wrestling with an angel.

The story also introduces Zauriel into the DCU and reinforces another Morrisonian theme that would culminate years later in "Final Crisis:" the notion that Superman's universe is a fictional realm (a notion first explored in the culmination of Morrison's "Animal Man" run when the fictional Buddy Baker met his writer -- a Chas Truog-drawn version of Morrison himself). The angels, the "Pax Dei" as they're called, plan to erase Zauriel from "The Book." As Zauriel explains, "'The Book' is what they call the world."

Though it's a throwaway line in that particular issue, it's fundamental to Morrison's metafictional concept of the DC Universe and Superman's transcendent power. Or at least it seems fundamental from the post-"Final Crisis" perspective, as we later (much later) see Superman struggle against the bonds of his fictional reality. But Morrison doesn't explore the metaphysical conceit in the remainder of his "JLA" run, and between the Pax Dei story, which ends in issue #7, and the follow-up issues of "JLA," he takes Superman on a cross-company detour in 1997's "JLA/WildC.A.T.S."

In that tale, electric blue Superman and the JLA battle a self-proclaimed "Lord of Time" who uses a Chrono-Cube to send the JLA back to 33 AD. When the team rigs a way to return to their own era, they find that they've crossed into a parallel universe (at a time when travel between universes in the DCU was rare -- the multiverse had been destroyed in the "Crisis on Infinite Earths," after all). Teaming up with the WildC.A.T.S. superteam from the parallel Earth, the JLA defeats the Lord of Time and imprisons him in his own Time Cube, setting up a temporal loop from which he cannot escape.

It's a forgettable adventure, even for Superman himself, who makes no mention of having met the WildC.A.T.S. in any future episode.

Superman doesn't play much of a role in the next Justice League story, a two-parter from "JLA" #8-9 in which the villainous Key uses a neural virus to trap the JLA in dream-like reveries, and young Connor Hawke (the son of Green Arrow who had recently adopted his father's mantle) must use his skills to save the incapacitated heroes. The only interesting Superman-related moment comes during the man of steel's dream -- a dream in which he imagines that he's the Green Lantern of sector 2813. His sense of legacy and responsibility is underscored when he's asked, in the dreamworld, "Don't you ever think you're trying too hard to live up to your father's unrealistic expectations of you?" But as earlier Morrison-penned Superman stories (and later ones, for that matter) have proven, there's no expectation that Superman cannot live up to, no matter how unrealistic.

JLA Revenge Squad

In "JLA" #10-15, Morrison presents the "Rock of Ages" arc, a thematic precursor to "Final Crisis" and a story which presents the utmost challenge to Superman and the assembled heroes. It opens with an attack of the "JLA Revenge Squad," hard light constructs who look like the heroes but act in a most destructive manner. Electric blue Superman uses his new energy-based powers to absorb his attacking doppelganger, and we discover that the assault was masterminded by a newly formed Injustice Gang, lead by Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor.

Morrison makes the Superman/Luthor dichotomy explicit in "Rock of Ages," as Luthor constantly justifies his actions in response to his enemy's. "I take his leadership of this preposterous team of alpha males," says Luthor early on, "as a direct challenge, a throwing down of the gauntlet, a clear and deliberate escalation of the hostilities between us."

In the epic tale, Morrison gives us a glimpse of a future without Superman, as we flash forward 15 years to see a world in which Darkseid "is." The evil lord of Apokalips has taken over the Earth with the Anti-Life, and the dark future is supposedly caused by Superman's destruction of the Philosopher's Stone in the past. The Luthor-led Injustice Gang is a pale threat compared to the larger, promised-in-the-future threat of Darkseid. A future without a Superman has no chance in overcoming Darkseid's supreme evil.

Ultimately, through a complex series of events and story twists -- involving Plastic Man disguised as The Joker, a radio-wave-transformed Superman bouncing off a Jupiter space probe, and the timely intervention of the Martian Manhunter -- the Philosopher Stone is saved, and Darkseid's threat diverted (for now).

Morrison gives Luthor and Superman a final face-to-face moment as Luthor says, "What a clever conqueror you are.” Superman, the ever-patient paragon of goodness, replies, "Not all of us want to rule the world, Luthor.” "Only," says Luthor," because some of us already do."

Believe in Superman

Superman magnanimously decrees that the Injustice Gang is "free to go," because though their plans were certainly evil, they didn't actually accomplish of them. And the story ends with the JLA officially disbanding, shaken to the core by their experiences in "Rock of Ages."

But it doesn't take long for Morrison to reform the Justice League, as the very next story arc (from "JLA" #16-17) launches another recruitment drive for the JLA's new restructuring phase. New hero Retro joins the team, and his induction is followed by a gaggle of reporters, including the Daily Planet's own Lois Lane. When Retro turns out to be the villain Prometheus in disguise, Superman shows his concern for the assembled media representatives -- and his wife -- by saying, "I’ll do whatever it takes to get these people home safely.” Superman acts as a super-protector as Prometheus is defeated by the JLA, and the two-parter ends with the public announcement of the new JLA, featuring new members like Orion and Big Barda from New Genesis.

Morrison's next Superman story -- and by this point, Superman had returned to his classic costume and appearance -- is 1998's "JLA" tale from issues #22-23 in which a child, Michael Haney, tries to give shape to "something" that's missing in the world. His crayon drawing is crude, but the image is unmistakable: it's Superman, and something has removed his presence from reality (although it's worth noting that the drawing of Superman foreshadows the look of the Superman from the 853rd century, a character we would soon be introduced to in the final months of 1998). It's another of Morrison's world-without-a-Superman stories, but this one takes place seemingly inside a dream. It's all a Starro plot, actually, and the dreams intersect with reality in dangerous ways, leading the Neil Gaiman-created Daniel, King of Dreams, to intervene, telling young Michael Haney, "Believe and you will be saved."

After Superman and the JLA -- without their powers -- save the world, Michael addresses the man of steel: "I knew you were real.” Superman replies, "And your belief saved us." Morrison uses a "real" boy's belief in the "fictional" Superman to energize reality, although in this story, it's all wrapped up inside a larger fictional world.

The next story in Morrison's larger Superman Saga features the arrival of visitors from the 853rd century. In "DC One Million," from late 1998, Superman and the JLA spend most of their time hanging out in the distant future as their descendents/future counterparts help to defeat the threat of Solaris, the tyrant sun. If we're plotting this adventure out on some grand Morrisonian Superman timeline, it takes place near the very end, so I'll save further discussion of it until its appropriate moment, chronologically. The Superman from 1998 doesn't play a large role in the story, but he does meet his distant-future self, after the Prime Superman (Superman himself) emerges from the sun, before Superman returns to his own time.

Superman inspires Humanity to rise up

Though the implications of "DC One Million" and the future of the Prime Superman and the Superman Squad would resonate more deeply in later Morrison stories, Morrison gets back to "JLA" basics with issues #24-26, when the President of the United States declares a new superhuman "arms race." Like the opening "JLA" arc in which the Hyperclan replaced the JLA as perceived saviors of the planet, the state-sponsored Ultramarines of this arc are seen as an alternative to the independently minded Justice League members.

Warmaker One, of the Ultramarines -- clearly a more militaristic version of the superhero archetype, in name and in function -- tells Superman, "You betrayed your country. I have orders to execute you." Superman nobly replies, "I have never betrayed anyone in my life." With the U.S. Army gunning for him, Superman stands tall as bullets bounce off him. He doesn't retaliate with force against the misguided soldiers, and eventually he uses his super-senses and super-logic to talk the Ultramarines down. He can sense their enhancements have brought about their own accelerated death, and by reasoning with them, Superman averts catastrophe.

For the next few issues, Morrison pits the JLA against strong opponents, but Superman doesn't play an essential role. In 1999's "JLA" #28-30, Superman spends much of the time unconscious, knocked out by Captain Marvel who doesn't want Superman to risk his own life by traveling to the Fifth Dimension to stop a threat from beyond. Captain Marvel figures that the world needs Superman more than it needs him, so he'll take the risk. Superman does wake up in time to throw a few punches, but the story largely progresses without his participation.

Superman plays a larger role in Morrison's next "JLA" story, from issue #34, when Superman saves the crew of a falling satellite before making an appearance at Belle Reve prison. The rioting prisoners have taken over the super-jail, and when Superman swoops down and sternly declares, "That's enough," the riot stops. Morrison presents Superman as a kind of super-dad in the story, slapping the hands of the juvenile miscreants with forceful words, and leaving them to sulk back into their concrete rooms.

Superman goes to the Antimatter Universe

Morrison's "JLA" run concludes in epic fashion with the six-part "World War III" story in "JLA" #36-41. Mageddon, the "Anti-Sun," the "Primordial Annihilator," is the opposite of everything Superman represents. He is destruction while Superman is salvation. He is despair while Superman is hope. Though Morrison gives Superman plenty of (relatively) minor distractions in this climactic arc -- like a revived Injustice Gang, Luthor blowing up parts of the JLA Watchtower, and the physical threat of Shaggy Man General Eiling -- it's Mageddon who poses "the greatest threat of all," according to Superman. "This is why we formed the league," he says, "We vowed to protect Earth and its people, even if it cost us our lives."

With the help of Orion's Boom Tube technology, Superman emerges inside Mageddon, where he becomes imprisoned within Mageddon's chains of despair. Superman's confidence and forcefulness fall apart as he whines, "No matter how many we'll save we'll never make it right…we'll always be too late to save the ones we most needed to save…" Evoking Superman's own personal despair at the loss of his adoptive father and his inability to save him (as shown in "All-Star Superman" #6), Mageddon turns Superman into a mass of inactive doubt. With the heroic sacrifice of JLA member Aztek and the goading of Batman, Superman eventually breaks free and absorbs the "anti-sunlight" of Mageddon.

"Doomsday is cancelled until further notice," says Superman.

As Superman overcame his own imprisonment-in-despair, the people of Earth rose up against their oppressors. Imbued with superpowers of their own, humanity ascended to confront the forces of death and destruction. Echoing Morrison's own "Flex Mentallo" series from earlier in the decade, everyone became a superhero -- at least temporarily. Superman inspired them, and as Wonder Woman states, "I couldn't stop them. They said Superman had saved them more times than they could count. The implicit promise of humanity reaching their potential becomes explicit in the Mageddon arc, though it's only a hint of what's to come, as the powers don't last, and the humans revert to normalcy. Still, the New God Metron makes a decree in the final pages of Morrison's "JLA" run: "The Fifth World will arise from this planetary cradle.”

With collaborator Frank Quitely, Morrison produced a 2000 graphic novel entitled "JLA Earth 2," and the only place it seems to fit in Morrison's Superman Saga is at the end of his ongoing "JLA" adventures. The composition of the JLA is a bit different in the graphic novel, featuring a traditional-looking Superman accompanied by the classic team: Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc.

Superman wants Qwewq to grow up properly

In the "Earth 2" graphic novel, Morrison introduces his version of the Crime Syndicate of Amerika. Earlier, pre-Morrison, pre-"Crisis" DC continuity placed the team on Earth-3, but Morrison has them inhabit the Antimatter Universe here. The Crime Syndicate members are evil versions of the JLA squad, and, in their world, Alexander Luthor is a great hero. Luthor rockets to the JLA's Earth -- shades of Superman's own origin -- in one of the opening sequences of the book, and a relatively conventional parallel world story fills the rest of the pages. Morrison has the teams switch places, there's some fighting, some attempt by the corrupt President of the Antimatter Universe to bribe Superman -- "I don't accept bribes," he says, as he melts the gold bars with his heat vision -- and by the end of "Earth 2," the villains end up back on their own world and the JLA returns to theirs.

The next time Morrison writes a JLA story, Superman doesn't even appear in the first issue. In 2005's "JLA Classified" #1-3, we find the JLA inhabiting the infant universe of Qwewq as the strange threat of Neh-Buh-Loh (and Gorilla Grodd) pose problems for the DCU Earth. The JLA (with Superman) use a Boom Tube to head back to their reality, where they find that Neh-Buh-Loh is actually the "adult universe of Qwewq" incarnate. Superman has little patience for Neh-Buh-Loh's cosmically threatening antics and says, "So you grew up a time-travelling bully and came back? I'm sorry. But not as sorry as you're going to be."

After stopping the threat of both Gorilla Grodd and Neh-Buh-Loh, Superman gathers the Ultramarines and sends them into the infant universe of Qwewq so they can shepherd its development. Superman doesn't want the little universe to grow up to be that bully Neh-Buh-Loh. It's that super-dad side of Morrison's Superman again.

Though Morrison is credited as one of the writers on the weekly "52" series that spanned 2006-2007, it's unlikely that he wrote many (if any) of the Clark Kent sequences in the comic. Therefore, it's debatable whether or not the events of "52" are part of Morrison's larger Superman Saga, but even if we do include it, there's little of significance that happens to the depowered-Superman in the pages of that series. He mainly acts as a reporter, covering Booster Gold's death and interviewing the new hero Supernova (really a time-travelling Booster Gold). It's an insubstantial part of the larger Morrisonian Superman Saga, at least where Clark Kent is concerned. The emergence of the 52 worlds, however, would lead, perhaps indirectly, toward a new kind of Crisis -- a "Final Crisis" that would require Morrison to give us his most supremely powerful Superman yet.

Join us next time when we take a look at Morrison's Superman Saga from the fragmentation of "Final Crisis" through "All-Star Superman" and beyond.

TAGS:  superman, grant morrison, dc comics

 
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