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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

JLA Deluxe Vol. 1 -- The Justice League as a concept was worn out and creatively bankrupt at the time Grant Morrison and Howard Porter came along and reinvigorated the series, starting with a new #1 and the simple idea of bringing back the original seven team members, which seemed novel at the time simply because it had been so long since anyone had done so.

"Novel" is what Grant Morrison is about, at his best, and he brings just enough of his imagination to the party to make these stories vibrate with nervous energy. Nostalgia for the simpler time these seven characters represent is not invoked by the creators, but perhaps imbued by readers familiar with their earlier eras. Morrison first throws weird, even somewhat perverse opponents at the League in the first storyline, and re-reading the stories in this new collection I was struck by how cleverly he managed to both hide their true identities and make it obvious in retrospect. Clues abound, but they come so quickly that they're easy to miss. Of course these issues blew readers' minds: Morrison was actually trying to create good and inventive stories, something rarely done with the JLA.

The best story in the book comes in the standalone fifth chapter, reprinting the series' fifth issue. "Tomorrow Woman" tells the tale of a mysterious new heroine who joins the League to battle against an implacable, unstoppable foe. She comes at a time when help is sorely needed, but she has a secret. The secret is kept from the JLA, but not from us, and Morrison has some fun with the true villains of the piece. Their final line is priceless, and as close to nostalgia (the poison in the well of most present-day superhero comics) as Morrison's scripts ever get.

Artist Howard Porter is a fascinating conundrum to me. His work here is awkward, static and oftentimes outright unappealing, when considered apart from Morrison's words. Morrison is a writer whose work, from Animal Man to New X-Men to the current Final Crisis is often compromised by the presence of less-than-ideal artistic choices. On the surface you might think Porter would qualify for that description; the two chapters here drawn by Oscar Jimenez are clearly visually superior. But somehow they lack the urgency and sense of modernity that Porter brings to the other stories in the book. Howard Porter, somehow, was the perfect choice for Morrison's JLA, and a decade on these stories still, in their own paradoxical way, look exciting and fresh despite Porter's deficits as artist qua artist.

The biggest compromises, then, in JLA Deluxe Vol. 1 are not artistic. Rather, they are the same compromises that plague corporate superhero comics year after year.

As the book begins, Superman has long hair and his traditional blue, red and yellow costume. Why does he have long hair? A few chapters later, he is made of electricity and is blue and white. Not just his costume, his entire body. Morrison does some hand-waving with a line like "We live in interesting times," but only longtime readers like myself will even remember the reason for this and other strange differences from the current DC Universe. Why is Green Arrow so young? Why does Green Lantern have a crab on his face? Later on, in chapters in future volumes in this series, Wonder Woman's mom will take over for her for a while. Wonder Woman's mom.

It's not that these inconsistencies, all born out of "big events" happening in other titles at the time these stories originally saw print, hurt Morrison and Porter's narrative. Morrison is a strong enough writer that these tales hold up despite the compromises forced on the creative team. But it's a good example of why series like Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman seem so much more inventive and timeless. Writers and artists should be free to tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want to tell them. Having to dump The Electric Superman or Wonder Woman's Mom into the middle of your otherwise meticulously-planned narrative really looks kinda stupid ten years later when your stories are collected in a deluxe hardcover.

Despite all that, though, these are JLA comics that deserve the upscale treatment. They are as close as you'll get in printed comics to the creative heights reached by the Justice League animated series, which is the very best use of these characters in any medium (and highly recommended if you've never watched the series). Morrison and Porter's run on JLA (it should take another three or four volumes to reprint the entire series) was a blast, and it actually gets better from here, with storylines bringing back The Injustice League and, oh, the end of the universe, if you haven't heard. It gets much wilder from here, but this first volume lays a strong foundation for what is to come, with unpredictable adventures that make good use of some of the most well-known superheroes in the world.

Buy JLA Deluxe Vol. 1 from amazon.com.

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Blogger Johnny B said...

In all fairness, that WAS the way Superman was being represented in every DC comic he appeared in at the time, an attempt to freshen up the stale concept (or that's the way it was perceived- still is) and you bet your ass that if people had responded to him the way they hoped, that's the Supes we'd still be seeing today.

That said, your bigger-picture point is correct, of course.

20 January, 2009 08:30  
Blogger The Estate of Tim O'Neil said...

I have always been baffled by the very vocal segment of the readership who hate Howard Porter's work. His work on JLA was - well - simply perfect, in tone and execution. Morrison writes to his artists (when he is able) and his stories complimented Porter's strengths and weaknesses perfectly.

However, every time I've ever seen his work on another project, all the flaws come to the fore and it seems static, gross and lifeless. I can't even remember another non-JLA project he's ever done.

20 January, 2009 13:48  
Blogger Comics007 said...

I've read this and definitely enjoyed it, primarily for Morrison's story though I am shamelessly one who doesn't care much for Porter's work. It seemed a bit rushed and there were plenty of times where arms were ridiculously elongated. I'm a fan of cartoon styles, but having those proportional issues to an almost goofy degree didn't quite fit the seriousness of the story.

I will give the rest of Morrison's run a shot though. I've only read the "Brave New World" TPB and then jumped to the Waid/Hitch run (which I'm a big fan of, especially "Tower of Babel").

21 January, 2009 12:59  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

There's also a panel where Aquaman first shows up where his arm, the one with the harpoon, is ludicrously shortened. I think Porter was going for foreshortening, and just didn't have the chops.

It really is amazing how good the entire Morrison/Porter run is and how well it holds up, despite the objectively bad elements in his art.

21 January, 2009 13:02  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...


Porter did a digitally painted Shazam thing within the past three or four years that was quite hideous and managed to lack even the facile charms of his JLA stuff.

21 January, 2009 13:03  

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