(This is a preview from my new book Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. It has been reformatted slightly for the web. Part two of the preview is available here; the full table of contents is here.)
JLA (1996-2000) transformed Morrison from a Vertigo writer with a cult following into one of the most successful creators in superhero comics. At the time the series was Morrison’s highest-profile work in American comics, giving him access to DC Comics’ most popular characters and, through them, to a new audience of superhero readers. JLA reunited Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter, the original line-up of the Justice League of America, but its focus was not purely retrospective; with Morrison’s inventive storylines and Howard Porter’s kinetic, hyperactive art, well-suited to readers raised on Marvel and Image comics, the series was poised to appeal to new and old readers alike. Despite its cast of tightly controlled corporate properties and its position at the center of the shared DC Comics continuity, JLA attempts to revitalize the superhero genre by aligning it with egalitarian rather than authoritarian politics and pursuing novelty over nostalgia. The end result was a comic that thrived in a direct market dominated by superhero titles even as it challenged the superhero genre to outgrow its past practices.
Although they occupied very different positions in the comics market, JLA bears many similarities to The Invisibles. The two series were written contemporaneously, ending within a month of each other in March and April of 2000. Each series represents, albeit from slightly different angles, Morrison’s efforts at remaking popular genres. Much as The Invisibles preserves the core semantics of the superhero genre beneath its spy, science fiction, and conspiracy elements, JLA adapts superhero conventions to dramatize concepts far outside the genre’s usual concerns. The series filters The Invisibles’ ideas about linguistic determinism through the archetypes of fantasy and science fiction, including a pair of primitive demons who reshape reality by manipulating symbolic icons (JLA 7), angels who view the world as a holy text they can rewrite at will (JLA 6), and an android who struggles to achieve free will even though her programmers have omitted the word “freedom” from her vocabulary (JLA 5). Both series draw on a common mythology: the JLA battles two different evil stars or “anti-suns,” paralleling the eclipsed sun that presides over the finale of “The Invisible Kingdom” and tying into a larger Morrison cosmology that extends back to the sinister Black Sun in Zenith. The Flash describes his “speed field” as a world of “Silver, morphing hyper-dimensional gels” (3.6), recalling the magic mirror, and Green Lantern compares an odyssey across space and time to an alien abduction (12.2), echoing Morrison’s Kathmandu experience.
Jason Tondro has shown how JLA’s “Rock of Ages” storyline and volume three of The Invisibles both restage Arthurian legends of the quest for the Holy Grail. These stories also build up to apocalyptic events that transpire on December 22, 2012, although The Invisibles imagines that eschaton as a mass elevation of consciousness whereas JLA depicts a more literal Ragnarok provoked by the tyrant god Darkseid. The JLA and Darkseid battle for possession of the Worlogog, a mystical artifact that reflects all of space and time in a holographic scale model, and it is JLA, not The Invisibles, that features Morrison’s most concise description of holographic structure when Superman explains that “Each fragment of a hologram contains all the information of the whole but on a smaller scale” (10.11). The more accessible and commercially successful JLA not only raises many of the same ideas as The Invisibles, it provides a useful gloss on its difficult contemporary and on Morrison’s work in general.
The series would establish a more contentious relationship with other superhero comics, including its peers and successors in the retro and widescreen movements. JLA advertises its break from its contemporaries in the first storyline, which takes aim at the increasingly common plot of superheroes abandoning their reactive posture and taking proactive steps to change the world, even to the point of becoming dictators and using their unmatched power to rule humanity. Peter Coogan observes that this is a characteristic plot of the revisionist era (216) and cites several examples: Moore’s Miracleman and Watchmen, Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and Mark Gruenwald and Bob Hall’s Squadron Supreme (1985-86). This plot also surfaces in the nostalgic Kingdom Come before it becomes one of the signal features of The Authority. As superhero comics have become more aware of the ideological implications of their “might makes right” philosophy, they have shown increasing attention to these fascistic tendencies, whether to criticize them or arguably, in the case of the later widescreen comics, to indulge in them.
Aaron Taylor sees these tendencies in Morrison’s JLA as well; noting that the trade paperback collecting the first storyline is titled JLA: New World Order, he states “the title of the comic takes on an ominous tone” and asks “Will [the JLA’s] ‘New World Order’ emulate the supremacist and interventionist policies of certain government administrations?” (347). The title may offer ample opportunity for such readings but it provides scant evidence to support them, as it was devised specifically for the trade paperback and does not appear anywhere in the storyline’s original, periodical publication. New World Order is not wholly inappropriate to the stories it collects, however, as Morrison’s introductory arc does center on a group of super-beings who propose to reshape the planet with their interventionist policies and who eventually attempt an outright takeover of the world—but these are the antagonists, not the heroes.
The Hyperclan are an advance guard for a Martian invasion force who mask their true mission by posing as superheroes and promising to save the world, whether by greening the Sahara desert or executing supervillains on live television. They serve as philosophical foils for the JLA, demonstrating the dangers of authoritarian superheroics, and the storyline ends with Morrison’s unambiguous declaration that the supremacist and interventionist policies of the Hyperclan are neither morally defensible nor terribly effective. Most of the aliens’ actions are aimed at dominating the human race, either by manipulation or conquest; their one act of charity turns out to be superficial and transient as the fertilized Sahara reverts to desert by the final issue. The heroes of the JLA seize this failure as an opportunity to disavow the Hyperclan’s agenda of proactive intervention in human affairs and to define their own mission by contrast:
Superman: The Hyperclan’s garden of Eden, crumbling to dust. They said they would fix the world. It doesn’t work that way.
Wonder Woman: Then where does that leave us? Are we doing too much or too little? When does intervention become domination?
Superman: I can only tell you what I believe, Diana: humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there. (4.19)
Superman takes the Peter St. John position that humanity must be allowed to develop on its own, free from superhuman interference—superheroes are only there “To catch them if they fall” (4.19). The Hyperclan, on the other hand, are as deceptive and domineering as the Horus program. Like Zenith before it, JLA redefines the superhero genre’s maintenance of the societal status quo as a protection of self-determination and a refusal to interfere with and subjugate weaker peoples; Morrison turns the genre’s potential conservatism into a progressive repudiation of the use of force to impose political agendas. His comics place the responsibility for social change on the average citizen, not the superhero.
The finale of the first storyline puts this philosophy into action when the JLA, unable to stop the Martian invasion, can only encourage humanity to save itself. The JLA alerts the world that the Martians are vulnerable to fire and the people of Earth act on this information to subdue the invading force on their own. While Morrison and Porter convey this collective action through the risible shorthand of a crowd igniting matches and cigarette lighters—a scene more suggestive of the encore at a rock concert than a desperate insurgency (4.16)—they nevertheless show humanity taking charge of its own fate, with the superheroes simply acting as guides and guardians. Morrison repeats this plot device again at the end of his tenure on the series, when the JLA turns the entire population of Earth into superhumans to resist destruction by Mageddon, the aforementioned “primordial annihilator” (36.5). The newly empowered human race takes to the skies to rescue Superman and repel Mageddon, briefly reversing the usual formula and showing once again that humanity can assume responsibility for itself (JLA 41).
Morrison’s JLA considers the very questions Taylor and other critics of the superhero genre raise, rewriting genre conventions to reconcile them with Morrison’s progressive politics. Interventionist superheroes such as the Hyperclan and the Ultramarines (JLA 24-26 and JLA Classified 1-3) are invariably antagonists, and opportunities to criticize the proactive, tyrannical heroes who would dominate later widescreen comics such as The Authority. The one time the JLA attempts to enact a large-scale social change—in the graphic novel JLA: Earth 2 (2000), where they try to liberate an alternate Earth run by criminals—they discover they can no longer distinguish between their humanitarian intervention and the imposition of a new, unwelcome political system (57), and their mission ends in failure. While Geoff Klock claims that this refusal to exercise their power makes the JLA “conservative” in contrast to the “radical” Authority (137), his comments confuse the maintenance of genre conventions with political conservatism—and overlook the many ways Morrison’s JLA also insists the superhero genre has to move beyond its past and its traditions.
Tomorrow: T.O. Morrow and the good old days.
 Ironically, Darkseid promises his captive subjects “Freedom from self” (14.2), an offer not so far removed from the Invisibles’ promotion of the MeMePlex a few years later. Darkseid is simply exploiting people’s fear and uncertainty to make their subjugation appear more palatable; his “Anti-Life Equation” annihilates their personalities and places them under his control rather than liberating them into a plenitude of selves. Nevertheless, in a perverse demonstration of Morrison’s ongoing union of opposites—and a sign of just how much his and his characters’ philosophies would change over the course of The Invisibles—the ultimate freedom fighters share a goal, or at least a slogan, with the god of fascism.
 In JLA Classified 1-3 (2004-05), Morrison models the Ultramarines on Mark Millar’s Ultimates (Brady, “Grant Morrison’s Big-Time Return”) and uses their failures to castigate the both the authoritarian superheroes of the widescreen movement and George W. Bush’s policy of preemptive war.