Let's take a trip back to the year 2000 when Mark Waid and Bryan Hitch taking over JLA seemed like the best thing that could ever happen in mainstream superhero comics. Okay, so we were all wrong. It happens. Spoilers follow, of course.
Grant Morrison left JLA and his replacement was Mark Waid, pretty much everyone's #1 pick to take over after a few impressive fill-in stories during Morrison's run. Waid's first arc, "Tower of Babel" was to be illustrated (for the most part) by Howard Porter, the artist for (most of) Morrison's run, but, after Porter... the art team (one of the few collaborations of penciller/inker/colourist known as a team) of Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary, and Laura Depuy (now Laura Martin) hot off The Authority, a book whose art defined "widescreen superhero action" over 12 issues. It seemed like it couldn't miss. Hell, in retrospect, it still seems hard to believe that the Waid/Hitch/Near/Depuy run never quite caught on since all of the elements are there, but... it just didn't work out that way. Despite hitting the deadlines on The Authority (to the point where Hitch did a fill-in issue of Wildcats at the same time--to make it, what, 13 issues in a year?), his JLA work needed a lot of fill-in work. Waid's opening arc with Porter, "Tower of Babel" was pretty damn good, but his first arc with Hitch involved fairy tales and... wasn't that great. It was a weak way to begin the run on JLA proper.
But, the run didn't begin there. No, it began in a 72-page oversized graphic novel, which I'll be looking at today: JLA: Heaven's Ladder by Mark Waid, Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary, and Laura Depuy.
Or, if you prefer to see the full cover art:
Heaven's Ladder features the JLA line-up of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner), Aquaman, Flash (Wally West), Martian Manhunter, Steel, Plastic Man, and the Atom (Ray Palmer). (And, yes, it's fantastic to feel the need to tell you who some of the heroes' secret identities are...) No time is wasted getting into the concept with a giant, giant, GIANT spaceship zooming into the solar system, skewering Earth, and leaving with it. The JLA managed to teleport themselves back to Earth just in time and discover that the Earth is but one of many planets taken by these aliens. They discover that these are the oldest living beings in the universe, the first creatures to live after the Big Bang. Their life-cycle is finally at an end and they are terrified of what happens next, so they've taken all of these planets, which each have a sleeper agent from their race, to learn from a multitude of races about the concept of faith and an afterlife as a means to build a heaven for them when they die. However, one faction of this race (red) is against the plan, considering it to go against everything the race believed in and is doing everything it can to sabotage the plan. The JLA help the main (blue) group of aliens as that will result in Earth being returned to where it belongs.
I didn't think much of this book when I first got it. That I brought it with me when I moved to Windsor instead of leaving it at my parents' house and hadn't reread it until now speaks to that. It's the problem I spoke of above regarding the Waid/Hitch run: you want it to be good, you hope it will be good, but it just kind of isn't. That's Heaven's Ladder in a nutshell.
The art is gorgeous, of course. (Because of the oversized format and squarebound printing, I won't be providing any scans. Sorry.) Releasing the book in the oversized format was a really smart move, giving the Hitch/Neary/Depuy art team a proper format to really show off. For that reason alone, Heaven's Ladder is worth checking out. They take advantage of the larger pages to showcase some of the expansive shots, like the complete view of the aliens' spaceship when it takes Earth -- though that page suffers from the combination of drawing and image with it unclear at first what the spaceship is doing to Earth since an actual picture of Earth is used.
Waid's writing here really leaves me cold, but that comes down to a liberal use of "superhero logic" to ignore some of the bigger problems in the plot. The alien race that steals all of these planets for the purpose of building heaven (which, I'll admit, is a cool concept) is helped by the JLA in a pragmatic decision that it will return Earth to its proper place. However, never is it addressed that the so-called "zealots" (the faction that opposes the plan to build heaven) are actually on their side -- they never wanted to steal any of the planets in the first place! The JLA have sided with the actual villains only because that seems the easiest way to fix things -- now, the "zealots" also view any contact with lesser life forms as damaging, so they may have just killed everyone, but that the JLA simply jumps aboard with this plan rings false somewhere. If there were some discussion about the reality of the situation and that they were acting pragmatically, it might work better, but it comes off as "Oh, you're not evil, you're just scared of the unknown! That's okay! We'll help you!" which is rather simplistic and a tad bit stupid.
The issue of faith is big in this story and it's also problematic that only the "zealots" put forth the idea that there is no afterlife, no god, just existence and non-existence. The story seems to make the atheists villains -- I won't say that it does or is actually an attack on atheists, because that would be reading too much into what happens here. But, the promotion of some sort of belief system does go very far and is dangerously close to suggesting that if you don't have faith in some sort of grander reality or existence beyond any sort of proof, then there's something wrong with you.
The "zealots" replace Earth's sleeper agent with one of their own, so when the sleepers combine, the "zealot" takes over as a giant, bald figure that the JLA jokingly/mockingly call "God." He is outraged at the plan, expressing in words everything he finds repulsive about the actions of the rest of the race:
HOW DID IT COME TO THIS? CAN'T THEY SEE THIS MADNESS OF THEIR "SOLUTION"?
AN END TO FREE WILL? TO ANY CLAIM OF BEING UNIQUE?
THERE MUST BE ANOTHER ANSWER!
ASSIMILATION IS NOT LIFE!
When confronted with a statement that the race's life-cycle is coming to an end, he responds, "THEN I SHALL FACE IT WITH PRIDE! / I SHALL FACE IT AS MYSELF!" The JLA, being more concerned with saving lives fails to address his statements directly, arguing that it's just pride and the "zealots" should just fall in line. It's an odd and rather insulting approach for the heroes to take, doing little but further cementing their role as status quo preservers, agents of conformity, and destroyers of independent thought. That the book ends with the "God zealot" accepting the newfound beliefs of his people and everything being all right is... again, problematic. At least for this atheist.
For a comic about faith, there is very little discussion about the absurdity of the idea for some beyond a few words from the villain. Nor is it addressed that the alien race turns to the concept of faith only because they're scared of dying. Now, there's something to be said for subtly getting that message across, which Waid does -- but since every explicit piece of dialogue seems to champion faith, it gets lost ultimately.
Of course, in the DCU, there is a God, a Heaven, angels, the whole bit... so it has been established that faith is right (which really means there isn't any use for faith since it's now fact). So why address it as an unknown? Waid hints at this when Plastic Man mentions Zauriel, the angel who was a member of the JLA, wondering if he taught anyone anything and J'onn responds, "YES, PLASTIC MAN. HE TAUGHT US TO RESPECT ONE ANOTHER'S BELIEFS." But, uh, isn't that crap? Isn't that an attempt to graft our contemporary Western society's concept that all belief systems are equal and valid and to be respected onto a world where there is literal proof of a specific God? How does that work? The fictional DCU is constructed in a manner that's so different from our world that, in some areas, it can't properly address real world issues.
Despite the explicit approvals of faith, everything that goes wrong in this comic stems from religious beliefs. So, is it all a criticism disguised as an approval? That's hard to say. Earth descends into chaos, because everyone's tiny little minds are blown by this alien race that is so beyond us as to be like gods (them moving planets is explained to be like our manipulating electrons)... if anything, doesn't this comic show how disastrous belief systems are? How they lead to violence and division and the creation of "us and them" mentalities? I don't know, because those elements are there. It's really about the conflict between text and subtext with each saying contradictory things. There's no unified message or meaning here beyond the idea that, yeah, whatever you want to believe is fine, which is kind of... not just hokey but dangerous, too.
The JLA are strangely unified here. There is no bickering of any kind (at least over the concept of faith) and that rings false, too. One of the most divisive subjects every dealt with by humanity and this group that includes five "proper" humans, one human/Atlantean hybrid, one Amazon made out of clay, and two different aliens has no conflicts over their beliefs? Despite being representative of humanity, they seem strangely boring and simple. You could argue that they're meant to be the best of us, above such things, but Waid goes the opposite direction in JLA by demonstrating how human and flawed they are. How easily to devolve into bickering, paranoia, and distrust. Here, they are flawless and the book suffers.
Beyond that, given that the main flaw of the "zealots" is their pride, the JLA are remarkably prideful in that horrible way that the heroes always are when they encounter beings who are genuinely their superiors. In trying to bring these beings down off their high horses, they elevate humanity at the same time, like humanity is something so special that it must be looked upon as such. There's that element of "Who the hell do you think you are? We're humanity and we're the best there is! Fuck off!" throughout the comic. That's something that is consistent with the characters and a bit beyond Waid's control since it's such a staple of this sort of story, but it always irks me. Especially since pride is given as the flaw of the villains of the book.
That isn't to say there aren't some nice moments, but that's all they are: nice little moments that don't quite combine for an effective, good read. I like the bit where Superman and the Atom travel to the 5th dimension, which uses the flat, comic-book visual scheme that Morrison and Porter established in "Crisis Times Five" where we learn that heaven is vowels for the 5th dimensional beings. The sleeper there keeps says "OW!" which is their heaven -- it's really "AEIOU." A lot of the rescues of sleepers are solid moments where all of the problems of the book slip away, but not for long.
It's a shame since the Waid/Hitch run did get better with JLA #50 and the following arc where the JLA are split in two: the superheroes and the secret identities, which allows Waid to explore the two aspects of each character. It was very good. Their run ultimately fizzled out with a White Martian story that had more fill-ins on art. Now, it's a barely remembered run. Still hard to believe.