With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals and things that go bump in the night. This week, we’re talking about the beginnings of one of the greatest superhero runs in history.
When the Justice League of America launched, it was comprised of DC Comics’ greatest heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, etc. At some point in the 1980s though, the team was pared back, and some of those familiar faces were replaced by lesser known heroes. Although some of those runs were well-regarded, by the mid-90s the Justice League had lost some of their shine.
In 1997 that changed with JLA, a relaunch which put DC’s greatest heroes front and center again with a young rising star creative team: writer Grant Morrison, artists Howard Porter and John Dell, color artist Pat Garrahy, and letterer Ken Lopez. But it was more than that as the series featured genuine character growth, building relationships, fantastical ideas, and huge superhero action. This was the template for the JLA for years to follow.
Today we’re taking a look at the opening arc — issues #1-5 — usually collected as JLA: New World Order. When a group of mysterious alien superheroes called the Hyperclan arrive on Earth, public sentiment is quickly turned against the Justice League. This new league knows something is amiss though. Can they discover the secret of the Hyperclan? And once they’ve solved that crisis, they must face the mystery of Tomorrow Woman!
Tony Thornley: So we’ve kind of approached this one backwards. The first of Morrison’s stories we talked about was actually a coda on their run — JLA: Earth 2. That was kind of a thematic conclusion to the heroic mythology that they built over the course of their three-ish year run on JLA. This arc is the beginning of that and … frankly, I’m always glad to revisit this story.
Now this is clearly the creative team’s first big book, so there’s some growing pains we’ll get into. But good grief, this is good superhero storytelling overall. What did you think?
Brendan Allen: I always feel like I need to lead with the disclaimer that superhero stories are not my typical fare. I don’t want to be unfair to the book just because it’s not one of my pocket genres, or to come off as being overly critical. I did like the JLA book, because it kind of flips the superhero tropes inside out in a fun, self-satirical way. This one has a lot of those same elements, but it is a little rougher around the edges, and it feels a little rushed through in parts.
Tony: Prior to this story, Morrison had only really dabbled in the main DC Universe. They were best known for their Brit comics and mature readers work, like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Zenith and various stories for 2000AD. I think their only real works in the DCU proper before this were Arkham Asylum, Batman: Gothic, and Aztek. So this was a big swing for them.
I think they needed to get their footing a little, but overall, this just nailed it. On the negative side, I think the Hyperclan is really poorly developed. Their plan kinda switches from peaceful benevolence to world conquerors on a dime. Then some of the JLA’s character voices are off a bit as they get used to them. But this is a first arc, their first time writing almost everyone but Batman, so since you see growth with them, you can forgive it.
Brendan: Right. They could have drawn that out over a couple of arcs, and the whole twist of really evil baddies masquerading as heroes? It seems like they were hiding their true intentions, and then just weren’t. There was an opportunity to make it really vague, like, is Superman losing his mind? Is he just that insecure? But instead it was more like, Superman has suspicions, and on the next page, those suspicions turn out to be true. Does that make sense?
Tony: Yeah, exactly. Even if it was another issue or two longer, that might have worked a little better.
But what works right? First of all, the League feels like modern gods. There’s this mythic quality to them, but they also feel incredibly approachable. Wally and Kyle feel like humans who are starting to climb Olympus, while Clark, Bruce, Arthur and Diana all feel like these deities who know how to be human.
Then, when they begin to tear the Hyperclan apart? I really enjoyed it. That ranged from creative use of the League’s powers (the Flash’s speed force punch especially) to Batman and Superman both outsmarting them. I just dug it.
Brendan: I actually liked the fact that I had no idea what the hell Flash was talking about during that bit. There’s a canonical pseudoscience that goes along with all that speed force business, and I kind of dig that there’s this whole explanation for what he’s doing that flies right over my head. ‘I’m going to do x,y, and z, and punch this dude really hard in the face.’ Yes. Do that. Punch that dude.
Tony: Literally the only thing in that scene that made sense is “when you approach the speed of light you have equivalent mass” or whatever and when that line clicked I was just like “oh, super speed punch hurts more!” It was great.
Brendan: Punches at super speed hurt more. I’ll buy that.
Tony: Porter and Dell did a lot of good work here. They have the same learning curve that Morrison does, but over the course of the arc, they get it. The first issue is extremely exaggerated and hyper deformed in some places, but by the fourth issue, they get it. Porter has gone on to do some really iconic work on the Flash, and you can see a foundation for that in this issue.
It’s generally good-to-great superhero work. I think they get stronger and stronger as the series goes on. I think if we read the arc that follows this one, you see the high standard they reach and pretty much stay at for the remainder of the run.
Also in that arc, Superman wrestles an angel.
Brendan: With a cast as big as this, it’s easy to kind of get lost in the fight scenes, and lose your place in the action. I did appreciate the layouts and the linear storytelling while there were multiple scenes playing out at once. There are a couple spots where backgrounds are just completely missing, but I think those were almost necessary to keep some of the pages clean and avoid clutter.
Tony: Yeah, I noticed that too. I think that was a common style choice in the 90s sometimes, but again, this team just grew more and more as time went on.
Brendan: I obviously missed a lot of what was going on over at DC in the early 2000s. I don’t think I had ever seen Superman with long hair. That’s definitely a look. And then in the stand-alone chapter five, he’s gone electric. I think I recall something about that whole period vaguely. Didn’t he get split into a red and blue version sometime after this?
Tony: Yeah, and that’s why I wanted us to be sure to read issue #5 too, even when the New World Order arc technically ends on #4. Morrison and Porter’s entire run is about rolling with the punches. First they had to deal with electric Superman (which is just great). Then later Wonder Woman “dies” for a little while and is replaced by her mom. Batman has to deal with Gotham being wrecked by an earthquake. Stuff like that. And they just roll with it all along.
Brendan: Huh. Yeah, I remember none of that.
Tony: The late 90s were wild at DC. This series, though, was this rock in the middle of it. No matter what happened to the Flash, Aquaman, Batman, whatever, the JLA was still there.
This doesn’t even get into the League’s expansion. Or even how the series was just as responsible for establishing Wally and Kyle as the best possible successors to the names of the Flash and Green Lantern as their individual titles were. You can see the foundation of that in this arc, and it just builds from here.
Brendan: I did notice there was a little bit of showboating there, like they were still trying to prove their value to the team, and probably to themselves. That makes sense, then.
Tony: Yeah definitely, and over the course of the series they grow from immature rivals to best friends. It’s strong character work.
Tony: So, I know it’s not the best superhero story we’ve talked about, but I’m feeling like you enjoyed it quite a bit. Where do you fall in the end?
Brendan: I did. Probably more for the experimental nature of the thing than anything else. I think one of the things that turns me off most to the genre is that most of the stories have several elements in them that are reused to death, and this one really does take things in new directions, which is hard. I am also sure there are things in this book that pissed off some diehard readers for that exact reason.
Tony: Yeah I agree. When we talked about Dark Phoenix Saga, we chatted about how it was probably the biggest superhero book of that era. I would say this is the equivalent of Claremont/Cockrum/Smith/Byrne’s X-Men for the late 90s. It’s just great superhero comics.
So what do we have next?
Brendan: Let’s serve up some horror for October. Cullen Bunn did a book with Andy MacDonald called Rogue Planet. It’s all razor rock, poisonous vapors, and elder gods.
JLA: New World Order is collected in several print and digital formats and is available now from DC Comics.