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Committed: Grant Morrison’s JLA is a great birthday present

by  in Comic News Comment

Last week I finally read a large chunk of Grant Morrison’s ’90’s run on JLA. It was something I’d been really looking forward, saving up to read when I felt like I deserved it. I knew it was going to be good, I just didn’t realize how much so. It was my birthday last week. Well, not quite my birthday, the day after my birthday, but I still wanted to keep celebrating in a low key way, so I took a very relaxing 2 hour hot bath and I dived into Grant Morrison’s run on JLA.

I had this whole plan about what I was going to write this week. I kept thinking of things to add to it, making odd notes and discussing it with friends. But I sprained my ankle on Friday and right now pain makes thinking hard, so you’re not going to get that article. It might seem as if I write these Wednesday pieces in a completely random and haphazard way, and in a way that’s true. I do want to talk about comic books organically, about how they impact every day of my life… But sometimes I want to write about things that aren’t just a part of the surface of my life, but are part of the bones and structure of it.

I’ll tell you this. Being a woman reading about female superheroes is one of those big picture parts of my life. It’s too big and gritty for me to write about it when I’m altered like this, but I wanted to talk more about women at work, being single-mindedly immersed in the job of heroing. But right now my brain is all fogged with hurting and this is too important a subject to just let it slip out, unformed. Maybe I’ll find other ways to write about it when I feel better, more elegant ones. Right now, instead, I’ll tell you about how terrifically engaging it was to sit in the bath for nearly 2 hours and read Morrison’s JLA.

Over the years, a few people have told me to read his JLA run. They know that I like the Justice League and Grant Morrison, and that I missed some good comics in the ’90’s. Back then I wasn’t really following writers, but artists. Because of that oversight, I missed some good books and these JLA’s are among them. I’d been looking forward to finding some completely uninterrupted time to read them and I was wise to do so. Once I got started, I really didn’t want to stop, in fact I had to add more hot water to the bath twice in order to stay put. And it was worth it.

In retrospect, despite some occasionally dodgy art, it is blatantly obvious why everyone talks about these comic books. Right away I found myself totally engaged in every single character, even people I’d rarely heard of before. This is far from just a vehicle for DC’s big guns, and while this is some of the best characterizations of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, it is the rest of the crew who just shine. If Morrison’s JLA were a movie, I’d tell him that the casting was terrific. I’ve read quite a lot of Morrison over the years and he definitely has a knack for writing relatable characters with unique voices. What he does is particularly difficult to do with a team book. One reason I usually like solo books more is because it is often easier for the writer to give you more background on a single character, where the focus isn’t as dispersed.

Somehow Morrison makes it look natural. While I read Morrison’s JLA I lost myself in the stories of each character and the act of intertwining their dramas never felt forced or clunky, he lets events unfold at a perfect pace. He manages to give us just enough of each character’s story to get us hooked and invested in their future, we care. Morrison’s ability to create sympathetic characters aside, he simultaneously gives us just enough inside information about everyone (even the most unlikeable characters) that he keeps the tension constantly taught. And not just for the heroes, the universe is also so intricate, there is so much rich content hinted at. If I’d been reading these comics back when they were coming out, I’d have had to know what the characters did next, and definitely would have been reading more DC books. Morrison could have made me buy all sorts of solo titles because he did such an effective job of hinting at all sorts of backstory and excitement to come. There’s a slew of ridiculous detail, covering every aspect of each story.

Over the years, I’ve come to associate the kind of attention to detail and swashbuckling abandon that Morrison invests in these JLA comic books with creator-owned comic books. I’m not used to this kind of intimate, relaxed, human writing on corporately owned characters with massively constrictive continuities. There was nothing about JLA that reminded you of the importance of any given character or their history, they just interacted like people, each one with their own unique, distinct voice and journey.

Wonder Woman’s warrior mentality and god-like roots, Superman’s do-gooder omnipotence, Batman’s uncompromising mistrust were all absolutely and completely refreshing. He writes them like they are, i.e. How I see them. And he manages to make me look past that blue Superman thing! It is just insane. Not only that, he made me like long-haired, one-armed Aquaman, a lot. But it’s the little characters who surprised me, like Green Arrow’s son is forced to step into his father’s shoes (or arrows) and discovers himself in the process, Green Lantern’s replacement Kyle Rayner is brash and stupid, but funny and excited too, or the new Flash, Wally West, with his rapidly growing battery of skills. I’m wasn’t a fan of them, but the way Morrison wrote them enthralled me. He took untried young, new heroes and let me travel with them on their journey, learning who they were by excelling at their work. With their predecessors dead and out of action, these new guys sold me on the new. It made me question why the old guys had to come back, why would we ever bring back dead characters if we had such rich new pastures? Instead of tiptoeing around established icons, Morrison wrote the characters iconically, straightforward and human, committed to their work, their team, and their humanity.