The Justice League books needed an overhaul, and badly.
After a few years of second and third-stringers manning a quartet of different Justice League teams, branches and spinoffs, DC finally seemed to realize that they had wandered too far away from the book’s central concept, a simple tenet that for years was plastered across the top of every issue: “The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes.” This was what the book needed. The “Big Guns.” The founders. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter. This was about to be remedied.
The first step was to get the new team together, since, although the names were the same, this particular gathering, including the successor Flash Wally West and the new Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, had never before assembled. Doing the honors for this historic reunion were writers Mark Waid and Fabian Nicieza and artists Jeff Johnson and Darick Robertson, who collectively did a bang-up job on the new JLA’s debut miniseries: JUSTICE LEAGUE: MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTMARE (September-November 1996).
In a clever premise, the reader is introduced to the Leaguers as Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, Wally West, Kyle Rayner, and Arthur Curry, all living lives of quiet desperation as six of the few normal, non-superpowered people left on an Earth more and more rapidly populated with supers thanks to the mysterious happenings known as “sparks,” which were granting more people superpowers by the day.
Clark, Wally and Kyle find themselves in their usual civilian lives, despite a sinking feeling that something’s not right. Some of the others find themselves in entirely different surroundings, such as Arthur, a VP in charge of environmental concerns at a big fishery corporation, or Diana, a teacher at an upper-class girls’ school. Then there’s Bruce, who has the only thing he’s ever wanted: his parents, alive – yet still can’t allow himself to be happy.
And what about J’onn? Well, perhaps because he’s the only Leaguer so completely without happiness in his real life, he’s the only one completely happy in his new (and as they’ll discover, false) life, back on Mars (in his true Martian form) with his family.
It doesn’t take long for the two pillars of the League to regain their rightful identities, first Clark, when he finds himself acting like a Superman despite what he believes to be his all-too-mortal limitations:
Then Bruce, when faced with a solid wall behind the grandfather clock where the entrance to the Batcave should be, manages to see what’s really there, with a little nudge from a red-and-blue-garbed visitor:
Realizing that they would require reinforcements in figuring out what has happened to them, Superman and Batman decide to locate some of their former associates, and manage to track down Diana and Arthur. Superman visits Diana at the girls’ school and tries to gently introduce her to her proper identity…
While Batman takes a, shall we say, less subtle approach to re-awakening Aquaman’s sense of self.
Meanwhile, Wally West has tracked down Kyle Rayner, having grown obsessed with Kyle’s “GREEN LANTERN” comic-book work, and the two manage to discover on their own that they both carry more than they had realized beneath the surface:
Soon six of the seven have come together, and deduced who’s most likely behind their forced mental relocation: the League’s old dream-altering enemy Doctor Destiny. Without the telepathic powers of their teammate J’onn J’onzz, the League is at a definite disadvantage, and thanks to a hunch from Superman, they’re able to track him down in, of all places, an air force hangar in Roswell, New Mexico, with his supposed Martian homeworld being nothing more than a soundstage in which he and his imaginary family had been living.
Despite the entreaties of Superman and Batman, J’onn refuses to leave, preferring a false life with his family to a real one alone. It’s only when a group of superhuman “sparkers” attacks the hangar and sets it ablaze, killing J’onn’s wife and child, that an enraged Martian Manhunter re-assumes his familiar form.
J’onn, by the way, is none too pleased at what he’s lost for the sake of the team:
J’onn uses his mental powers to pluck Dr. Destiny’s location from Kyle’s subconscious (he’d been writing and drawing about Destiny in his comics work, not realizing why), and the League is off , with J’onn surmising that Dr. Destiny in fact wanted to be found, deliberately planting hints in the Leaguers’ subconscious. Turns out J’onn was right, with Destiny having been under the control of an even more powerful entity calling himself Know Man, a Neanderthal granted an immeasurable thirst for knowledge and virtual immortality, so that he might one day protect the planet from an unspecified apocalyptic threat.
As the centuries passed, Know Man decided the planet’s superhero population was too limited in vision to do what needed to be done to save the planet and used Dr. Destiny’s powers to get them out of the way while granting powers to everyone else, in the hopes of creating enough raw power to protect the Earth.
By linking J’onn and Aquaman’s telepathic powers to Dr. Destiny, the League is able to nudge the world out of its dreamstate and return the planet to normalcy, after which Know Man vanishes, with a final warning, that without the race of superpowered defenders he had tried to create, the task of protecting Earth from the oncoming threat has fallen to them:
In the aftermath, the big seven realize the advantage inherent in their assembly, and with that, it’s official: the Justice League lives again.
MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTMARE was a great re-introduction to the League, giving us a good look at the Leaguers both in and out of costume, introducing this new version of the JLA to each other for the first time, and cementing the relationships between new characters and old, both building on old characterizations and charmingly introducing a new wrinkle to the team dynamic with the younger Flash and rookie Green Lantern. As for the art, Jeff Johnson’s work here is top-notch, vital and visually appealing.
So the Justice League was back, thanks to Mark Waid and Fabian Nicieza. However, that was nothing compared with what was to come. If Waid and Nicieza opened the door for the new JLA, Grant Morrison marched right through it and claimed the joint for his own. Morrison’s approach to the series can best be described as “powerplotting” – Morrison crams many ideas and concepts into a storyline (enough that lesser writers would use for two or three story arcs), then moves the story forward at breakneck speed, carrying the reader along for the ride with a whirlwind sense of feet-off-the-floor excitement.
Accentuating the process was JLA artist Howard Porter, whose modern, fluid style gave the JLA a vitality they’d lacked for years. Between Morrison’s scripts and Porter’s images, this was a JLA that seemed to readers to be all new, while Morrison still managed to keep the book steeped in a slightly Silver Age sensibility, with a 21st-century sheen to it. Morrison also returned the series to its epic Silver-Age proportions, with the League truly facing world-shattering threats that none of them could handle alone.
Morrison and Porter started things off a little slower in their first story arc, a 4-issue invasion story later titled “New World Order” that appeared in JLA #1-4 (January – April 1997). Here the Justice League has to contend with the Hyperclan, a supposedly altruistic group of alien supertypes who arrive on Earth with the sole stated intention of being a proactive force to save the planet.
And they’re soon as good as their word, seeding and fertilizing the Sahara Desert, turning it into a lush gardenland. While Superman raises some concerns, the people’s mood begins to shift:
Not long after, the Justice League Satellite (not the original, but a new one used by the previous JL team) finds itself under attack from mysterious armored assailants. While Kyle and Wonder Woman try to repel the attackers, previous League holdover Metamorpho tries to get the rest of his former fellow Leaguers Nuklon, Obsidian and Icemaiden safely back to Earth before the satellite is destroyed.
Metamorpho manages to get them through the atmosphere alive, but at the cost of his own life (not to worry, though – It’s Metamorpho. He dies more often than Tom Arnold on open mike night, and always comes back, which he did in this case a few years later).
Spurred by the destruction of the satellite, Batman begins to investigate and discovers orbital mind-control devices, subtly turning the world’s population against the Justice League and in favor of the Hyperclan. When the Hyperclan sets up Earth-based command centers, the League splits up to investigate and finds itself swiftly outmatched by the alien superheroes, with Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash and Green Lantern defeated in combat and about to be executed on worldwide television, the Batplane shot down and left a pile of flaming wreckage, and most disturbing, J’onn J’onzz seemingly considering betraying the team.
Naturally, of course, Batman had escaped the fiery crash of the Batplane, and infiltrates the Hyperclan’s compound where they have the now helpless Justice League held captive. Even better, the crash of his plane provides the final clue for the Darknight Detective to figure out who the Hyperclan really are. Soon, Batman begins picking off the Hyperclan one by one…thanks to his most powerful weapon: his mind, which has deduced the Hyperclan’s true nature, and sole weakness.
Yes, the Hyperclan are Martians, and just like J’onn J’onzz, they’re extremely vulnerable to fire. Superman (immobilized by Kryptonite poisoning) realizes Batman is alive and tries to rattle the Hyperclan’s leader Protek, who unfortunately has another ace up his sleeve: 70 more Martians, each with the power of Superman or J’onn, about to mount a full invasion of Earth.
Superman, meanwhile realizes that since he can hear the alarms all over the world going off in response to the invasion force, he must therefore still have his super-hearing, which means he’s not in the vicinity of actual Kryptonite. Putting that together with the use of mind control, he too deduces the Hyperclan’s Martian origins, and blasts Protek with some fiery heat vision.
Meanwhile, a disguised J’onn, who naturally did not betray the team, frees the rest of the League, and soon the JLA is triumphant (in a great little throwaway moment, Batman comes strolling in having kayoed four of them). However, the 70 new Martians are still about to invade. Superman makes use of the television cameras that were meant to broadcast their execution, and warns the world of the Martians’ vulnerability to fire. In the face of three billion flame-bearing Earthmen, the Martians surrender.
As the League looks over the already-dying gardenland in the Sahara, the League questions their place in the world, but Superman already has the answer:
And with that, the League cements their new commitment to the team with a new headquarters: the moon-based Justice League Watchtower.
Morrison had a lot of characterization to establish in this first storyline, and he did a marvelous job of it. Superman and Wonder Woman stand out as the team’s pillars of strength, while J’onn remains the heart of the team. Aquaman is portrayed as the distracted monarch unhappy with constantly being called away from his people, while Flash and Green Lantern’s love-hate relationship (early on, mostly hate) serves as enjoyable comic relief, and Kyle’s constant nervousness as he slowly grows out of his role as the team’s rookie would prove to be one of the most satisfying character bits (and truth be told, his portrayal here would be the factor that would finally allow me to turn the corner on accepting Kyle as the new Green Lantern).
And Morrison’s use of Batman was genius. It was here that the idea of Batman being such a master planner that he could out-strategize everyone and anyone, including the League, really took root. Morrison’s Batman is a perpetually irritated, distracted mastermind, always three steps ahead of the rest of the team. I think it was Morrison who said that he thought Batman could take out Galactus if he had a week to plan. Under Morrison’s pen, Batman also developed an odd affectation of making this weird grunt of acknowledgment or satisfaction: “HH.”
An aside: the first summer after Grant Morrison’s JLA really hit it big, he attended the San Diego Comic-Con, and I remember being in a packed panel where someone asked him what that weird noise was Batman was making now. Morrison demonstrated the noise, a guttural kind of breathy grunt. Why was he doing that, another fan asked. Morrison’s response? “It just seemed like an odd, scary thing for Batman to do. Come on, everyone do it with me!” The crowd played along, and the room rang out with a resounding grunt. Morrison: “Someone just walked into the back of the room and said to himself, ‘Aaaah! It’s 300 Batmen!’”
Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s first JLA arc was a winner; sharply written and exciting, a welcome return to greatness for the Justice League series. And the good news was, they were just getting warmed up.