(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 one of the preview is available here; the full table of contents is here.)
JLA proves highly critical of nostalgia even though it superficially bears all the trappings of the retro-Silver Age style. Morrison restores the Justice League’s original membership and briefly uses the compartmentalized plot structures established by their first writer, Gardner Fox: in the second issue the team splits into smaller groups to investigate mysterious developments in three remote locales, a Fox staple (Jones and Jacobs 42). The JLA confronts many of the original Justice League’s villains—Starro the Conqueror, the White Martians, Professor Ivo and T.O. Morrow, the Demons Three, the Key, the Injustice Gang, Vandal Savage, the Shaggy Man, the Queen Bee, the Crime Syndicate—and Morrison even resurrects devices as minor as the scientific “Flash Facts” that once peppered John Broome’s Flash comics. The series advertises Morrison’s familiarity with and affection for DC’s Silver Age, but it never mistakes that affection for nostalgia; in JLA, only the antagonists pine for an idealized past. The leader of the Hyperclan reminisces about the days when Martians ruled the Earth, saying “Life was good then. Life will be better” (1.18) as he excavates a buried Martian city. When Morrison reveals that the Hyperclan experimented with terrestrial life, sabotaged humanity’s evolutionary future, and view mankind as their property (4.12), he exposes their nostalgia as an adjunct to their ideology of despotism and racial supremacy, nothing more than a desire to regain the power they once abused.
The next story is even more explicit in its problematization of nostalgia. T.O. Morrow and Professor Ivo, two vintage mad scientists, create a sentient android programmed to infiltrate and destroy the JLA. After their plan fails, as they await their inevitable recapture, Ivo pours the last of the Dom Perignon and proposes “the one toast that never goes out of style… to the good old days!” (5.21). The toast is hardly the first sign of their yearning for the past: Ivo and Morrow have deliberately restaged a classic superhero storyline of betrayal and rebellion, one that Morrow himself first enacted with the android Red Tornado in Justice League of America 64-65 (1968). Morrow takes considerable pride in re-enacting that story, creating another android who can develop a conscience, defy her instructions, and thwart his plans simply so he can boast of his superior programming skills (5.18, 5.20). He does not care that he has created a sentient being only to watch her destroy herself; the nostalgia of JLA’s antagonists is callous and self-centered when it is not downright reactionary. It is also self-defeating, as Morrow’s fidelity to his past achievements trumps his desire to destroy the JLA.
While excessive nostalgia is either reactionary or fatalistic, the wholesale rejection of the past is no better; one hero’s struggle to shed the burdens of tradition causes him to lose his ethical moorings and drives him to treachery. DC One Million (1998), a multi-series crossover conceived and authored by Morrison and centered on the JLA, introduces a new cast of superheroes from the 853rd century who have modeled themselves on the protectors of the late twentieth century. Because publishing imperatives required that these new characters be recognizable to contemporary readers—many of the future heroes took over the starring roles in their predecessors’ books for one month—the heroes of the future assume a depressing familiarity. The DC universe of 85,271 looks uncomfortably like the DC universe of 1998, as even the most transient properties like Chase and Young Heroes in Love have apparently survived eighty-three thousand years into the future despite their cancellation immediately after the end of the crossover. With the future offering nothing more than the replication of the distant past, it is no surprise that one hero should rebel against this monotony. The Starman of the 853rd century betrays his teammates, his ancestors, and his entire society as a means of escaping his hereditary role in a stifling family tradition of heroism that stretches back to the 1940s; in a tie-in issue of Starman written by James Robinson, he briefly contemplates killing his ancestor Ted Knight, the first Starman, as punishment for founding his lineage.
The future Starman also rebels against his role as chief computer technician for a society that “organizes itself around the processing of information” (DCOM 1.8), trading in ideas rather than goods. Contrary to its initial, utopian presentation, the 853rd century circulates and recirculates concepts with such frictionless ease that ideas themselves have become devalued. Starman confesses, “In the System, nothing meant anything because everything was possible. I sold my soul to Solaris because I couldn’t think of anything better to do” (DCOM 3.18). Klock attributes this disloyalty to the century’s freedom from artistic influence and tradition (133-34), but Starman’s other statements and actions indicate that he is motivated by the excessive burdens of eighty-three thousand years of influence and the impossibility of living wholly free of tradition. He repents his defection and is moved to perform an authentically heroic act of self-sacrifice after he meets Ted Knight: “In the end, what made me turn was remembering that light in Old Man Knight’s eyes. The costume. The heritage. Like it was all still new and meaningful” (DCOM 3.18). The burdens of inheritance and the devaluation of recycled ideas drive the future Starman to treason, yet his reconciliation with his family tradition—just one generation past its inception, when it was still novel—redeems him. Morrison furnishes no better example to support Klock’s argument that the JLA regularly confronts “Text, overdetermination, and the limits of handling information overload” (132); like so many other characters in JLA, the future Starman struggles to find meaning in a narrative tradition menaced by the sheer weight of its own accumulated history.
Other characters try to manage the contradictory benefits and burdens of tradition by striking a balance between novelty and nostalgia, viewing the past with ironic self-consciousness. The Key, a longtime foe who has realized the Justice League will always defeat him, constructs a plot that depends on their ability to escape one of his traps (JLA 8-9); aware of his own history, an astute reader of his past failures, he tries to avoid repeating the past instead of recreating it in loving detail as Morrow does. Klock observes that this plot, which locks the JLA in a series of false narrative continuities vaguely modeled on past phases of their publishing history, also banks on the JLA’s ability to recognize they are trapped in fictions—that is, to become at least partially aware of their own fictional status (131-32). In that same story, the new Green Arrow, stripped of his own weapons, is forced to use his father’s fanciful trick arrows, ridiculous Golden and Silver Age contrivances like the boomerang arrow and the boxing glove arrow, weapons that did not suit the revisionist era’s preference for realistic violence. Initially unable to fire these atavistic oddities with any accuracy, Green Arrow learns to master them and stops the Key by accepting the more ludicrous parts of his father’s legacy. He does not fully revert to that tradition, however, nor does he completely shed his embarrassment at his father’s designs, and the next story finds him using regular arrows once again. The Key storyline suggests that traditions are important, but best handled with a distancing self-consciousness that can acknowledge the past without reconstructing it uncritically.
Perhaps the most direct expression of Morrison’s ambivalent relationship with nostalgia and tradition comes in his first issue when, in order to make way for his restoration of the original membership, he must first wipe the slate clean by hospitalizing the previous Justice League and destroying their satellite headquarters. The most prominent detail mentioned in Morrison’s narration, a synecdoche for the loss of the satellite and a metonymy for the abolition of the Justice League it housed, is the explosion of the trophy room and the expulsion of its mementos into the void: “Fantastic debris spills into the darkness; spirit jars, a giant hourglass, deadly playing cards, all the trophies of countless, forgotten adventures, emptied into a well of endless ink” (1.17). Significantly, these trophies commemorate the adventures of the original Justice League of America, such as the giant hourglasses that confined several members on the cover of Justice League of America 26 (1964)—adventures that the narration specifies were already “forgotten” even before the explosion scattered them into space. Their fate serves as a wry commentary on the DC Comics of the mid-nineties, which (prior to Morrison’s JLA) sought to ignore, rewrite, or erase the company’s Silver Age traditions in the interests of modernizing their characters and competing with Marvel and Image. Viewed in this context, Morrison’s metaphor for the depths of space is equally telling: the trophies vanish into a “well of endless ink,” their memories figuratively diluted or blotted out by the same medium (typically India ink) that delineates every shape on the comics page. The comics of the eighties and nineties have already annihilated the Justice League’s history; Morrison simply makes the destruction official so he can begin again. His narration expresses a palpable regret at the loss of these stories, yet his plotting positions such losses as a necessary prelude to his own resuscitation of the Justice League and his reintroduction—with an ironic, self-conscious twist—of venerable Silver Age characters and conventions.
Despite its emphasis on action and spectacle, JLA is more complex than it first seems, a widescreen comic that rejects the exuberantly authoritarian ideology of later widescreen comics and a retro comic that opens with the destruction of its own past. Highly skeptical of the ideological implications of both of these movements, JLA attempts to rejuvenate the superhero genre through self-conscious attention to its traditions, updating some and ignoring or altering others to suit Morrison’s politics as well as his aesthetics. Contrary to his revisionist predecessors, his retro peers, and his widescreen successors, Morrison attempts to write a politically progressive superhero comic by prescribing a limited role for superheroes and holding humanity responsible for its own fate. Though its narrative scope and its focus on iconic characters were much imitated, Morrison’s JLA is not much like its successors—not even Morrison’s next projects.
 Just one month after this story ended, Marvel Comics published a similar storyline in The Avengers 57-58 (1968), cementing it as a standard plotline for superhero teams.
 As just one example, of the seven original members of the Justice League of America, two (Green Lantern and the Flash) had been killed and replaced, one (Aquaman) had a hand amputated, and three others (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) had their memberships retroactively erased from continuity.
Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics is out this week from the University Press of Mississippi.