Thursday, February 24, 2005

Why does Aquaman look so sad?

JLA Classified #1-3

You will have to look hard to find a more enjoyable modern mainstream superhero comic than Grant Morrison's run on DC's JLA during the late 90s. Yeah, the last third was pretty weak, and Howard Porter's art is still a matter of taste, but storylines like "Rock of Ages" and "DC 1,000,000" were, and remain even to my jaded eyes, simply wonderful. If there must be superhero books, then by God, they should all aspire to be that good.

So when I heard that Morrison was planning to return to the JLA for a three-issue mini - the inaugural run of DC's new JLA Classified anthology - I was slightly excited. Now, as I said, it is true that the last year or so of Morrison's JLA weren't worth the paper they were printed on. But he's been on a role lately, with his well-received run on X-Men (slightly overrated but it did get me to buy an X-book for the first time since . . . hmmm, I'll say "a while" and leave it at that), The Filth (which I lauded in the pages of no less than The Comics Journal), not to mention the double-whammy of Seaguy and We3 . . . so the little tickling skepticism in the back of my head - the one that said maybe a return to the well-tilled soil of the Justice League franchise was ill-conceived - was silenced for the time being.

Well, turns out my skepticism in this instance was well-founded. JLA Classified #1-3 is the one of the most uselessly self-indulgent failures I've seen in quite a long time - an almost total creative short-circuit. It fills me with grave doubts as to the wisdom of Morrison's new Seven Soldiers meta-crossover . . . if, as has been implied, this JLA story laid seeds that will bear fruit in the Seven Soldiers event, perhaps said event will indeed suck.

There's more information packed into these three comics than was present in the entirety of his X-Men run. Not only is it densely packed, but it's also maddeningly cursory. There is just so much stuff going on that it is just about impossible to get your bearings at any point during the three issues. The sensation is not unlike that of walking into a movie after having missed the first reel - but the feeling persists for the entirety of the story. You never get the chance to catch-up because by the time you're starting to grasp one thing that was thrown out to explain a key plot point two panels back, there's another insanely elaborate plot device waiting to be thrown at the reader like a rubber chicken. Not very aerodynamic.

Morrison's attempt at "ultra-compressed" storytelling just doesn't work. Storytelling in a visual medium is dependent on rhythm. Rhythm in narrative gives the story it's structure and shape. Once you have a grasp of this structure and shape, then you can manipulate the rhythms to interesting effect: inevitably, form follows function. But the how of storytelling should never supersede they what - elsewise, what's the point? To show off this really cool post-post-modern structural gimmick you developed? Reading this story made me think that Morrison concocted the structure and shape of the story before actually figuring out what the story was all about, and while that may impress a few semiotics professors in the audience, it doesn't impress me.

What we have here is effectively an action film with all the parts that don't contain explosions or witty quips edited out: all the necessary exposition, all the character drama, all the little things that make the story distinctive and memorable to most people are gone. Imagine a prose story composed only of verbs and occasional nouns: it would perhaps be an interesting experiment, but I have a hard time thinking that anyone would want to read it.
Batman flies Pluto robots fight explode run explode hit quip jump punch monkey quip.

The essential minimum of information might be broadcast, but it's a staccato and unpleasant effect - like a symphony of crescendos, without any room for the audience to catch their breaths. They used to put a lot of information in stories back in the "Golden" and "Silver" ages, too, but they also allowed themselves the use of copious expository devices such as narration and thought balloons.

There is something inherently cynical about this type of delivery. It almost strikes me as passive-aggressive on Morrison's part: the fans want the cool moments and Batman's sly quips, so how about we write a story composed of nothing but clever quips and pin-ups? Certainly, from that point of view it's little different from what many of the Image founders were doing - look at something like Youngblood, especially the early, unformed issues that were nearly incoherent. (Thankfully, I got my issues out of the quarter box when I became morbidly fascinated with Liefeld's Image-era output.) It's much the same thing, only without the sheen of intellectually playful formalism: strip down the superhero story to the bare bones necessary to communicate the "cool" moments that the fanboys wet themselves over.

Morrison is one of the few interesting mainstream writers who seem genuinely enthused by the storytelling possibilities of the superhero genre - despite my critical misgivings, he succeeds in wringing blood from the proverbial stone on a regular basis. I'll certainly give him the credit for producing consistently interesting books, without the cynical baggage that accompanies the comparative work of peers like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis. It's obvious to anyone paying attention that Ellis would much rather be writing hard sci-fi and speculative fiction than comparatively pasteurized fare like Iron Man, and only does the one in order to better enable him to do the other. Ennis seems to enjoy writing the Punisher, but every time he has been talked into trying a more conventional superhero, the results have been halfway between stilted and cynical. This is a man who told no less an authority than Wizard that he loathed superheroes - and looking at the passion and discipline he brings to his war comics, its hard to see why he should be bothered writing superheroes if he doesn't feel like it.

Morrison doesn't loathe superheroes: he is very publicly in love with them. Why, then, has his return to the JLA struck me as so atypically cynical and uninteresting? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Seaguy and We3 and The Filth were essentially creations cut from a whole cloth. At the end of the day, the Seven Soldiers project will be judged a success by how ably it succeeds in refitting a slew of third- and fourth-tier copyrights for DC - when discussing the project, I've read Morrison discussing how much he relished the storytelling challenges presented by the books, but I have never seen one mention of the actual characters or concepts involved. Could it be that, like his JLA Classified, the Seven Soldiers is less a story than an experiment? If that turns out to be the case (and really, we can't know that for a good while yet), then I don't suppose I will be the only one who walks away disappointed.

Of course, there are a certain number of readers who will be immediately repulsed by any mention of the corporate nature of superhero comics, choosing instead to believe that they are spontaneously-formed emissions from the artistic Godhead, but in the sense that the corporately-driven editorial mandate influences the creative output, it remains an important distinction to draw. Ignoring this supremely important factor in the books' genesis would be akin to refusing to acknowledge that Dickens' works were created for serial publication, or that George Eliot was really - gasp! - a dame! Morrison left DC after his first run on JLA in part over dissatisfaction stemming from the stories he wasn't allowed to tell: no Hyper-Crisis or whatever, no definitive Superman with his writer buddies. Well, he's getting his chance to do Superman, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to predict that he'll be on a tight leash with DC's long-awaited "Ultimate" line: Brian Michael Bendis didn't get to turn Uncle Ben into a child molester, and Morrison is probably not going to be allowed to make Jimmy Olsen a chain-smoking Klan member.

Working with the "really cool" superhero properties that carry significant narrative heft on account of their cumulative history carries a hefty price tag. Just ask John Byrne, of all people, why he left his "Ultimate" Superman. Morrison may never get to tell the Superman stories he wants to tell, whatever type of Mega-Meta-Monkey-Crisis-on-Infinite-Infinities he wants to write, for whatever reason. Maybe a project like Seven Soldiers is his consolation prize, on account of the fact that he can conceivably do pretty much anything with limbo-jockeys like these and still remain in the confines of the corporate playground he likes so much?

I expect that I will continue to enjoy Morrison's (comparatively) independent work more than his mainstream superhero books. I would dearly love to be surprised in this manner, but somehow I don't think that that will happen. I will read and probably enjoy the Seven Soldiers books, to an extent, but don't expect to see me camping out in front of the comic shop until they announce the Seaguy sequel.

hey! It's the Global Guardians! I know, like, five people who were waiting for them to make a come back...

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