Wednesday 4 June 2008

JLA: Ultramarine Corps, Grant Morrison and Ed McGuinness

JLA Confidential, Book 1: Ultramarine CorpsIt seems to me that the pace of many mainstream comics has dropped to the extent where an eight-page Jimmy Olsen story from 1958 will often have as much going on as an entire issue of a modern comic or even a trade paperback. An exception to that rule is the work of Grant Morrison. He writes modern day comics that have as much packed into each panel as those eight-page stories did. The effect is exponential, moment piling upon moment to spin the reader up in a whirlwind: in his superhero comics that creates action adventures with as many beats as the RZA (who has a lot of beats), while in his more leftfield adventures it can come as a dizzying flurry of blows to the mind.

For comparison, try boiling each issue of, say, the Revenge of the Green Lanterns book down to 8pp – it’s pretty easy. Try doing it with this book and you’d be left with an incoherent jumble. Morrison tells his stories with incredible economy, often skating absolutely on the line of the minimum information that the reader needs to be told, and flattering the reader with faith in his or her intelligence. Remarkably, too, for such a writerly writer, and one who reportedly has very little direct contact with his artists, he always gives his collaborators plenty of space to shine – or to fall on their face, as has happened from time to time, though not here. Ed McGuiness’s art is a bit inconsistent (the Flash always looks a bit weird), but has many spectacular moments.

Morrison writes the members of the JLA with a surefootedness that must be the envy of every other writer working in comics right now. For example, his Batman has all the moodiness you would expect of the Dark Knight, and yet Morrison gives him hilarious dialogue without it seeming at all out of character. What’s more, this is a Batman who clearly lives in and could survive in the DC universe. He has access to DC super-science, and uses it when necessary to meet the threats that the JLA faces. He just doesn’t use this stuff in his day to day work – doubtlessly because criminals are more afraid of bats than they are of boom tubes.

It’s a shame that we’re back here with a cleanshaven Aquaman – with what appears to be a hand made of water (crazy – the harpoon on his wrist was both practical and unbelievably cool) – and that Kyle Rayner, Green Lantern during Morrison’s classic JLA run, is AWOL, but as always Morrison makes the best of what he has.

What’s remarkable about Morrison’s JLA is that he has clearly put a lot of thought into the role each character plays in the team. When he was on the main title (this collects issues from the JLA: Classified spinoff series), he talked about (in Wizard’s JLA Special, for example) building a pantheon similar to that of the Greek gods, something that could be seen most clearly in his brilliant recasting (sorry…) of Steel as Hephaestus. He thought very carefully about how each hero slots into the whole to create a unit, whether that’s the Martian Manhunter as a telepathic switchboard, or the Flash on crowd control, and that thought shows through in every JLA story he writes.

Finally getting onto this story in particular: although I enjoyed it very much, my feelings were mixed. It deals with the fate of Superbia, a city founded by the Ultramarines in the story beginning in Morrison’s JLA #24. Now, I’m not as widely read in the DC universe as I used to be, but I can’t help having the feeling that Morrison, having created this cool super-city, and then seen no one use it, felt a bit embarrassed about it hanging around in the air over Montevideo and decided to clear it up. For all I know that could be a totally erroneous conclusion, but either way it seems a shame to have created this place and then… well, no spoilers in this review.

This book also includes the JLA/WildCATs crossover, which was okay, but not as much fun as I remembered it being at the time. It is of interest for one thing, though, and that’s the way Morrison said at the time of its publication that in his mind he had had to work out a way for the two teams to meet, despite their living in different universes, and that in theory his idea could be used to link the DC universe with other worlds of superheroes – presumably he was talking about what came to be called Hypertime. So you could call this story the “Flash of Two Worlds” of the modern age.

JLA: Ultramarine Corps, Grant Morrison and Ed McGuinness, DC, tpb, 144pp.

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