By Scott Tipton
Previously, in Comics 101: We’ve been exploring the Justice League’s return to greatness under the tenure of writer Grant Morrison and artist Howard Porter, which included not only a restoration of the series’ epic scale, but also an unprecedented membership drive, doubling the team’s numbers from seven to fourteen. As you may recall, the expansion was prompted by a warning from the New God Metron that “terrible times are coming,” echoing an earlier piece of advice from Know Man, their adversary in the reunited Justice League’s first adventure together. What exactly would the Justice League face? Stick around, and we’ll find out…
Morrison and Porter set the stage for their six-part magnum opus with a prelude in JLA #34, in which a massive prison riot at Belle Reve Penitentiary is engineered by the League’s enemy Prometheus, who, it turns out, has joined up with Lex Luthor in organizing a New Injustice Gang. Why the riot? Just to get Kyle Rayner’s Green Lantern ring away from him for a few minutes, for some intensive study and analysis.
There’s something else going on at Belle Reve, though, as the riot had been psionically instigated by another longtime League adversary, Hector Hammond, who, the League discovers, was under the psychic control of some sort of alien creature, which Zauriel mysteriously refers to as “an emissary.”
Miracle and Orion finally put a name to the threat, “Mageddon,” and give the first hint to its origins, as some sort of primal weapon from the days before the birth of the New Gods and the universe as well.
And even worse for the League, Luthor and Prometheus’ New Injustice Gang has found its final two members, the alien Queen Bee and, rescued from deep space, General Eiling, still in the Shaggy Man’s unstoppable body.
Although the League is tipped off by Zauriel’s discovery that Prometheus’ helmet is missing from the JLA Trophy Room, they’re unable to react before the Injustice Gang attacks, with the General and the Queen Bee invading the Watchtower while Luthor sets off a series of bombs throughout the lunar headquarters, and Prometheus looks to cripple the League’s coordination by taking out Oracle personally.
Prometheus offers to heal Barbara Gordon’s paralysis if she’ll turn on the League and work with him, and when she refuses, he blows her out of the Clock Tower window:
Meanwhile, the Leaguers still on the Watchtower begin to fall victim to the Queen Bee’s mind-control powers, while her mechano-drones head to Earth to subjugate the population. Luckily, Huntress is able to talk Kyle Rayner into using sheer willpower to break free of the Queen Bee’s control.
When Kyle begins to search the Watchtower for more of the Injustice Gang, he finds Luthor, with a creature on his head similar to the one on Hector Hammond’s noggin a few months earlier.
Things get even more frenzied as the story continues, with Aquaman returning to Atlantis to unify his warring people (also feeling the effects of Mageddon, along with the rest of Earth’s population)…
..while Plastic Man, Barda, Wonder Woman and Steel contend with the Queen Bee’s new hive, built by mind-controlled New Yorkers in the middle of Manhattan…
…Mr. Miracle assembles the rest of Earth’s superheroes to deal with Mageddon’s threat…
And Superman, Batman and J’onn J’onnz pursue the General to Prometheus’ interdimensional hideout, leaving the Watchtower set to explode, thanks to Luthor’s bombs…
With Zauriel still aboard, it seems…
And all this was only at the story’s halfway point. Morrison had done his normal masterful job at moving forward multiple plot streams at a breakneck pace, only here with an even more high-stakes feeling of tension and dread than usual. And as usual, the storyline is sprinkled with extremely cool character moments, such as Batman’s … unusual way of defeating Prometheus, by secretly reprogramming his cybernetic helmet with the physical characteristics and fighting skills of someone else entirely: Professor Stephen Hawking:
Things escalate to an even higher pitch in JLA #39, as Aztek returns from an encounter with Mageddon, defeated, disconsolate and blinded from the experience. Meanwhile, Batman terminates Huntress from the League for her attempt to murder the beaten Prometheus…
…While Superman and Orion head off via Boom Tube directly into the heart of Mageddon in an attempt to take out the anti-sun from within. At the same time, Steel and Plastic Man’s team take out the Queen Bee and her army. And Oracle’s role as the coordinator of the Justice League is taken to its ultimate with the assistance of a Mother Box on loan from Metron, which bonds with her own computer systems and her own mind, granting her digital telepathy with Earth’s entire superhuman community, allowing her to coordinate the actions of hundreds of superheroes worldwide who are attempting to quell the countless actions of the planet’s armies, who have already begun warring among themselves.
There’s so much good stuff here, I’m loath to give away the ending, but I don’t mind giving you a few high points of the climax, just to encourage you to go pick this up yourself. In typical Grant Morrison style, it’s his old favorite Animal Man who comes along with the key to beating Mageddon…
And a mental probe from J’onn reveals what’s now imprisoned within the heart of Mageddon:
It’s also revealed what’s happened to Zauriel: he intentionally allowed himself to die so that he could catch an express ticket to Heaven and plead humanity’s case. Although his request is at first refused, he soon finds more allies than he expected:
Aquaman, meanwhile, puts an end to much of the global conflict by flexing his own military muscle.
In an attempt to free Superman, who’s overcome by Mageddon’s internal waves of despair, J’onn links Batman’s mind with his, in the most basic and cerebral “World’s Finest teamup” ever. And to buy Superman the time to rally his strength, Aztek fulfills his destiny and makes the ultimate sacrifice:
And in the biggest membership drive ever, Wonder Woman leads into battle the Justice League Reserves: the entire population of Earth, temporarily granted superpowers in a brilliant and intricate maneuver you’ll just have to read about for yourself.
In his final JLA storyline, Grant Morrison came through with the cosmic storyline to top all others, successfully living up to the years of anticipation and build-up with a truly epic adventure that was like nothing else the Justice League had ever faced, giving all of the core JLA members their due while still allowing his personal favorites and creations like Animal Man, Zauriel and Aztek their moments in the sun. It would have been a tough tale to top, and wisely Morrison doesn’t even try, instead choosing to exit the stage, instead leaving the difficult task of following up probably the best-reviewed and most popular JLA run in decades to the next writer on deck, one Mr. Mark Waid.
As it happens, around the time of Morrison’s JLA run in the comics, Hasbro was putting out a DC Comics-based action-figure line entitled “Total Justice.” Soon enough, though, the line had been converted into a strictly JLA line, with Morrison mainstays like Plastic Man, Steel, Huntress, Connor Hawke and even Zauriel hitting the shelves. (Sadly, no Aztek, which would have to wait a few more years.)
There were even a series of box sets featuring the hard-light hologram JLA Revenge Squad from “Rock of Ages,” a truly innovative re-use of action-figure molds that actually made sense for once. Despite the overly muscled and posed sculpts here, it’s a sweet little line when put together on display, and is worth picking up cheap at a con or on eBay.