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JLA: Earth 2
By Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Published by DC Comics

An alternate-Earth version of Lex Luthor comes to the DC Universe to recruit the Justice League to help free his Earth -- which has been virtually enslaved by the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, evil counterparts of "our" JLA.

This gorgeous hardcover book focuses on the concept of alternate worlds, and in particular the DC Multiverse that existed prior to the Crisis On Infinite Earths in the 1980s.

That landmark series supposedly left us with only one universe, but such events as Kingdom Come and The Kingdom, the Marvel vs. DC series and the Hypertime revelation that the Elseworlds stories are "really" happening somewhere have put the lie to that. Maybe the Crisis eliminated all the alternate universes I loved so much, the ones filled with Earth-2, Earth-3 (home of the Pre-Crisis Crime Syndicate) and the rest, but this story proves once and for all that multiple Earths are back, and can provide great stories in the hands of gifted creators.

This is Morrison's strongest JLA story, thanks in no small part to superior artwork than that seen in most of his lengthy run. The plot is complex but not indecipherable, and Morrison does not attempt to shoehorn in any extraneous plot elements. JLA Easrth 2 is lean and mean, and pays excellent tribute to the alternate-Earths concept in general and the Earth-3 stories of old in particular.

Frank Quitely's art and Laura Depuy and Wildstorm FX's colouring combine with truly top-notch production values to bring this story vividly to life. This is what adult superhero comic books can and should be -- exciting, imaginative, subversive and eye-poppingly beautiful.

The tale begins with an amusing variation on the "Baby Kal-El arrives on Earth" scenario, when Alexander Luthor crash lands in a field looking for "the super-people." Quitely draws Luthor as an arrogant, larger than life presence. Morrison establishes the teamwork and camaraderie (and occasional tension -- I love Aquaman's line about the League letting part of the plane drop "on my roof") of the JLA in their opening sequence; the League rescues a crashing plane, only to discover all aboard are dead, and appear not to be of their Earth.

Quitely demonstrates a strong Frank Miller influence. The shot of Wonder Woman on page 9, panel 1 looks like it could have come straight out of The Dark Knight Returns, and many shots of Superman and Batman also are reminiscent of Miller's DKR style. It suits the massiveness of the story being told, which after all is about the meeting (literally) of two worlds.

I like the disorienting manner in which Morrison and Quitely establish that the Alternate Luthor has supplanted his DCU counterpart. I was four pages into the sequence where the JLA confronts Luthor at Lexcorp HQ before I realized what was really going on. It was one cool moment, and one that happens all-too-rarely in my adult comics-reading years.

As the Alternate Luthor persuades the JLA of his true identity and asks them to work with him to free his world, we're shown the depth of the depravity of this world. These Crime Syndicate members are not the mere bank-robbing thugs of the Pre-Crisis Earth-3 tales. These sleazy, powerful beings grope each other, while Ultraman randomly kills humans with from high above the planet in a satellite HQ (his Fortress of Solitude) reminiscent of the JLA's 1970s satellite home. The scene where Ultraman kills one of the people below reminded me of nothing so much as the scene in Schindler's List where Ralph Fiennes, drunk, randomly picks off the concentration camp prisoners with a rifle while his Jewish girlfriend naps in a bed behind him.

The true twist in the plot, which is revealed late in the tale, should have been obvious even in this early sequence, but I was so taken in by the storytelling that I completely missed the setup for the revelation to come. That, too, is an unusual treat for someone who's been reading comics for decades. Morrison and Quitely set up the readers masterfully, and I never even saw it coming. That is a great example of the sense of wonder this story engages in the reader. If you're willing to come along for the ride, Morrison and Quitely are well prepared to give you a good time.

As always with Morrison, one of the best parts of this book is the characterization of Batman. His Owlman, the "evil twin" version of the Dark Knight, is also well done. I loved the throwaway revelation that he is able to keep Ultraman in line because "I have the negatives, remember?" How Morrison; how Batman.

As is fitting, the three members of the CSA we learn the most about are Owlman, Ultraman and Superwoman. A similar focus has been seen in Morrison's regular JLA run, where Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have always seemed a little "more equal," than their partners; since they are the Leaguers most substantially unchanged from their Golden Age days, I can't really dispute their stature in the mythos.

In the CSA, there is a love (if you wanna call it that) triangle set up between the three heavy-hitters; it is quite repulsive, in an entertaining way. Superwoman is apparently in a relationship with Ultraman, but allows Owlman to grope and maul her when they think Ultraman isn't looking. She also has, uh, an interesting relationship with Jimmy Olsen. God, these people are gross.

Johnny Quick and Power Ring are pretty much ciphers, much as in the regular series the Flash and Green Lantern don't get a whole lot to do. Like "our" Kyle and Wally, they pal around together, and there's an amusing scene of the two of them in a men's room together.

The JLA, after some debate, goes with Luthor to the Alternate Earth from the DCU-Earth, which Luthor logically names "Earth-2." (I do wonder, though, why the residents of the alternate Earth would call themselves "Anti-Matter," and yet refer to the DCU Earth as Earth 2, but that's an extremely minor quibble.) The JLA quickly begins to set Luthor's plan into motion, with Green Lantern isolating the CSA's satellite (in a use of his power that I question as more than a minor quibble, but it could have been explained with a throwaway reference to Luthor's somehow enhancing the ring, so I will just pretend that's what happened. Willing suspension, willing suspension...) as the rest of the League sets about righting wrongs on the planet below.

The scenes of the League restoring justice on the CSA's Earth makes for a nice thematic bookend to Morrison's run; after all, the first opponents his JLA faced came to Earth in the very first issue to "save the world" much like Superman and company do here on Luthor's world.

It becomes clear about two-thirds of the way into the story, though, that Luthor and the League (in a likely nod to the naive storytelling tropes of the Silver Age) haven't stopped to consider the consequences of a world where everything appears to be reversed. Morrison uses this conceit, which has been used in one way or another in the DCU for decades ("This am Bizarro World! Here bad am good and good am bad!") as a major plot point. And it's one Luthor and the League don't think of until it's too late to stop the CSA from wreaking havoc on "Earth-2," the DCU's Earth.

The decadent CSA members raise hell on Earth in a manner reminiscent of the scenes in Miracleman where Kid Miracleman finally lets loose in a city- and soul-destroying rampage. The Clintonesque President's reaction to being lassoed by Superwoman amuses with its despair and/or pleasure as he kneels before her.

The true villain and true plot don't stand revealed until well into the story, although I won't spoil that here. The rage of the cuckolded CSA was understandable and believable, as was the way both Earths were returned to their status quo. Morrison plays with the logic of the altered laws of nature in a way that is unexpected, but makes perfect sense. It's a moment much like the early Alan Moore Swamp Things, where Moore turned the usual cliches on their ears.

In a moment of sublime irony, the League learns something from their experience while the CSA alternately learns nothing and immediately returns to its decadent ways, with Ultraman looking especially evil and stupid in the concluding panels, which hint that he will eventually pay once again for his ignorance.

JLA: Earth 2 keeps the promise of everything Morrison set out to do (and did not always succeed at) in the regular series, and serves to make up for a good deal of the unfocused, disappointing tales in the run's latter days. The artwork by Quitely expresses power, corruption and heroism with a sense of elegance and eloquence rarely seen in superhero comics, and the creative energy that shines on every page marks this as one of the finest Justice League stories ever told. Grade: 5/5

-- Alan David Doane



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