Originally published at ComicsBulletin.com
Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s celebrated run on JLA is full of notable moments. The Hyperclan and Martian invasion of “New World Order” set the tone for big, epic storytelling worthy of DC’s “Big Seven.” That tone carried over to “American Dreams”, which not only saw the Justice League expand its membership, but also deliver character defining interpretations of Connor Hawke and Zauriel. Morrison and Porter built upon the foundation of those two arcs to deliver “Rock of Ages”, a battle of wits as the JLA attempts to thwart their own corporate takeover by Lex Luthor’s Injustice Gang. Along the way, the League makes a trip to an alternate future, presenting one of the best versions of Darkseid in the evil god’s illustrious career.
The massive scope of the previous story arcs, with their tendency to build upon each other, makes the fourth volume in JLA – “Strength in Numbers” – a peculiar interlude among the madness. It eschews the grand scope of the previous arcs for a set of smaller, two-issue stories. The first story, set in the JLA Watchtower’s “media day” sees DC’s champions of justice nearly undone single-handedly by a cunning and calculating foe, rather than a cosmic-level threat. Prometheus, like the hero Aztek before him, is a Grant Morrison creation that serves to highlight the abilities of the Justice League’s under heralded members.
The fall of the JLA under Prometheus is a startling experience. It’s not that he accomplishes such a goal, but that he manages to do so with remarkable efficiency. He bypasses the League’s vetting protocols after assuming the identity of fan-created hero Retro (swiftly killed off in a one-shot tie in), turns Martian Manhunter into a puddle of living goo, neutralizes Steel, and decimates the Watchtower’s life-support systems within the space of a couple pages. He then proceeds to send Zauriel into limbo and incapacitate both Huntress and Batman.
In seeing him take down each Leaguer with surgical precision, a pattern begins to emerge. Each member of the League he has taken out has been in an isolated, one-on-one environment. An oversight in Batman’s abilities – a running gag throughout Morrison and Porter’s run – and a lack of knowledge regarding Superman’s electric state enable the team to recover and reverse Prometheus’s fortunes. His entire plan falls apart as the heroes give Prometheus a taste of his own medicine, striking with calculated efficiency. As quickly as Prometheus disassembled the JLA, they had him incapacitated.
The next two mini-arcs see Morrison hand the reins of the series over to another comics legend (and walking, talking DC Comics encyclopedia) Mark Waid. Like Morrison, Waid has a fondness for DC’s history, and he digs deep into the annals of their past for the foundation of his work. He also writes arguably the craziest story of his career in JLA #18-19, bringing the League up against a probability-manipulating foe.
Throughout the JLA’s battle against Julian September, I had to keep checking to make sure it was Waid that had written this story, and not Morrison. At the time, Waid had built a reputation as a character-building superhero writer, thanks to his extended runs writing The Flash and Fantastic Four. However, the taught, character-focused storytelling that Waid was known for was tossed aside. Keep in mind that this is pure speculation, but it’s as if Waid felt the pressure to match reader’s expectations for a Morrison-like story, and that’s exactly what he delivers.
Within the tapestry of the DC Universe, Waid’s tale is a history lesson in the role of probability and mathematics on the development of civilization. A genius move is great amount of emphasis is placed on the number 7. Not only is 7 a significant number in the world of mathematics [in that it’s a prime number, the number of fundamental catastrophes, the sides of a heptagon], but it also holds significance in throughout a wide array of studies. There are references to the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Classical Planets, the colors of a rainbow, the Seven Seas, the days of the week, and so forth.
Waid takes this weighty number and shapes its importance within the context of the DC Universe. With regards to the Justice League, the foundation has never been the Trinity, but a core group of seven members. Hell, the fundamental premise and appeal of JLA was bringing back the team of the publisher’s heavy hitters. And while the Big Seven are not present throughout this arc, the idea that the Justice League does not function when fewer than seven members is profound and, to a degree, metatextual. The League needs to be seven members deep, otherwise there is no point to the book’s existence. Characters can be swapped in an out, but the team cannot function as intended if roles are simply eliminated.
Waid would continue on for another two-issue arc in which the JLA would be captured and placed into slave labor by Adam Strange. While the art by Arnie Jorgensen (pencils), Dave Meikis (inks), and Pat Garrahy (colors) give the book an aesthetic that combines 1950s science-fiction with 1970s exploitation films, the premise again sees the team working together, despite their clashing personalities and abilities, towards a common goal.
With their abilities neutralized, a greater reliance is placed upon their wits, which in turn plays to Waid’s strengths. With his knowledge of the DC Universe, he has an intimate understanding of each character’s personality is evident, from Superman’s calm leadership, to Orion’s incessant rage. Again, it is another story that allows the team to work together to overcome a seemingly impossible situation.
Grant Morrison and Howard Porter return the final two issues of this volume, as JLA #22-23 sees the JLA take on their original foe from The Brave and the Bold #28 – Starro. Rather than having the team punch their way to victory, Morrison incorporates a beloved character from DC’s Vertigo line – Sandman – as a gateway to victory. With the world overcome by Starro’s minions and a full-scale invasion being imminent, Sandman invites the JLA to enter the world of dreams to battle this enemy on a supernatural plane.
Throughout JLA: Strength in Numbers, readers are treated to two masters of the superhero genre, Morrison and Waid, trying their best to one-up each other within the confines of a shared universe’s continuity. There are a great many elements, both small and large, that happened to these characters outside of the JLA title which needed to be explained, and they managed to do so in a seamless manner. Why does Superman go from his Electric Blue form back to the classic look? Don’t worry, they explain that. Why is Hippolyta filling in as Wonder Woman? They’ll cover that. It’s a delicate balance that the writers manage to strike, in collaboration with the various art teams, to keep the story moving forward while catching up new readers. Like the JLA in this volume, the creative teams embraced the power of teamwork to create something magical.