Uzumeri x Godel #9: Teen Angel (JLA 6-9, JLA Secret Files 1)
Godel: Hello again! As always, I’m Addison Godel, DC comics amateur, and this is David Uzumeri, leading me on a journey through the mind of Grant Morrison. This week, we follow the Justice League through a few more adventures in JLA #6-9, and JLA Secret Files #1.
Uzumeri: In other words, we’re doing the second half of the first JLA hardcover. We’re look at two arcs and a oneshot here — the first arc features the introduction of Zauriel and follows up on plot points from the previous year’s Underworld Unleashed miniseries by Mark Waid and Howard Porter, and its stand-in Satan villain, Neron. The second arc is honestly one of my favorite arcs of the run, with fantastic guest art by Oscar Jimenez, and features old-school JLA villain the Key back from a self-induced psychedelic coma with one of the best villainous plans I’ve ever heard: placing the JLA in a situation where, if they win, HE wins, using their own competence against themselves.
Finally, there’s this story from the Secret Files that was published between #9 and #10, and cowritten by Mark Millar – a flashback to the formation of the new JLA, costarring the Spectre and the original Justice League’s very first enemy, the infamous Starro the Conqueror.
Kicking it off with the angel arc, it’s a pretty straightforward story: there’s an angel, Asmodel, who wants to fuck up God and pull a Lucifer, and only Zauriel knows it, so he bids for mortality in an attempt to escape Asmodel’s angelic hit squads. They come to Earth anyway.
I’ve honestly never read Underworld Unleashed, but it gets referenced quite a few times coming up in both JLA and Morrison’s Flash, so I’m beginning to think I really should.
Godel: I never knew it existed, and now I kind of wish I had, because maybe it would make the angel story make even a slight amount of sense. As it is, it’s probably the first story we’ve done in this project that I just straight up disliked. “Pretty straightforward story?!”
Uzumeri: Haha, well, in comparison to some later stories we’re going to hit, this is See Spot Run.
Godel: I’ll give you that the Zauriel thread did, basically, make sense, in isolation. And it’s a nice followup to the whole “we refuse to be gods” thing from the opening arc. But this story was mired in confusion on several levels. Panel-to-panel, things are often quite choppy – which I’m going to blame less on Porter and more on Morrison trying to do too much in too few issues. The characters constantly have to describe important things which aren’t shown; for example, I gather there’s a pyramid force field sealing in San Francisco (a la X-Men: Second Coming) – could we, maybe, get an establishing shot of that? We see it just once – from the inside – so it just seems sort of unreal.
But zooming back from that, things get muddled because we’re not just seeing the Zauriel story – there’s also the Neron thing, and the relationship of that subplot to what’s going on in the angel fight is, to put it mildly, unclear. Are they pulling the strings, or being pulled? Then there’s the Key waking up from his coma – is that part of Neron’s plan, or a side effect of everything else that’s happened? Or is it all a big, triple coincidence?
Uzumeri: That’s a really good point about Neron. He’s just a separate malevolent force largely unrelated to the goings-on. It does seem to be two totally separate disasters – Asmodel’s arrival coinciding with Neron screwing up the moon.
Actually, now that you point this out, fuck, this arc really is a mess. But it DOES feature Superman wrestling an angel, and even more importantly introduces Zauriel, who I’m honestly pretty fond of. The character’s entire gimmick is that he LOOKS like he should be speaking in shitty faux-Thor Shakespearean haughty dialogue, but instead he pretty much jokes around and acts like a regular dude.
Godel: Yeah, that’s a nice idea: the mighty angel from another dimension, who chose to clip his wings and fall to Earth… to check out Wonder Woman’s butt.
“This is MAJOR.” Most cosmic beings in comics seem like they were sculpted by Michelangelo Buonarroti; this guy seems like he’s voiced by Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle.
Uzumeri: Don’t forget his mission on Earth: to introduce himself to a chick he fell in love with watching from Heaven. It’d be romantic if it weren’t also pretty fucking creepy.
Godel: Is that what happened? I didn’t know who she was at all; the only person I’d seen watching her was Neron. But anyway.
Uzumeri: It’s a shame – ever since JLA, basically every writer has had Zauriel going “Heed my words, o great ones! Let us fight, for the glory of Heaven!” and shit like that.
Another thing: as you can probably see when Aquaman calls him “Katar” and people refer to him as hawklike, Morrison put him in because editorial wouldn’t let him use Hawkman.
Godel: Yeah, it’s pretty cute, especially when Superman tries to recruit him.
Unfortunately, how you feel about non-razor-winged Angel in X-Men is about how I feel about winged characters in comics generally. He looks like he should be a late addition to my party in Shining Force.
Uzumeri: Bahahahaha. Morrison does his best with the idea of the character, yeah, but… okay, wow, I had no idea about this. Apparently, Asmodel and Neron ended up joining forces in a three-issue miniseries written by Mark Millar. JLA: Paradise Lost.
Godel: Tell you what, you read that one and let me know how it goes.
Uzumeri: I’ll… maybe. That’s kind of shitty, actually, that Morrison basically spent two issues setting up his buddy’s completely separate miniseries.
Godel: I mean, that’s comics, right? Give something a plug and a buildup in the book that’s selling well, etc.
Uzumeri: And he did need to introduce Zauriel, since he ended up using him a lot in the run anyways. But yeah, I just Googled it and I honestly had no idea this story existed.
Godel: But we’re digressing – I haven’t finished griping about this story! Flipping back through – what was the point of the Flash being immobilized for most of the story? Would he have made a big difference? Are the angels vulnerable to speed?
And is Asmodel’s plan really to create a diversion in order to fool omniscient God, the Almighty? Like…good luck with that, dude.
Uzumeri: Well, I think the diversion ends up becoming a big deal later. I’m not sure if it’s actually it, but the “unlikely event at the fringes of creation” could be the unleashing of Mageddon. I honestly don’t know, though. I don’t think it’s ever explicitly stated.
I also don’t understand where the actual Christian God fits into the DC Universe cosmology, you know? Is he more powerful than, say, Zeus?
Godel: What about Rao?
Uzumeri: The Kryptonian Sun-God? Well, he’s probably pretty fucked since he has, like, two worshippers, who only worship him out of trying to keep their cultural identity.
Godel: Is Sandman DCU canon? I know Death has shown up in Superman…
Uzumeri: Sandman was absolutely set in the DCU – Martian Manhunter appears in the first arc. Hell, a later arc of this run features the second Dream from Sandman.
Godel: So Lucifer and God are pre-existing characters. Maybe the JLA can go through Dante’s Inferno next arc.
Now that would be a great way to stage a crossover with Marvel – the one thing they have in common is a kind of vague attachment to a Judeo-Christian cosmology that somehow overlaps all the Greek gods, Norse gods, New Gods, Eternals and Endless they have running around.
Uzumeri: I think it’s pretty certain that the Endless are above all of the actual cosmologies, though, even the New Gods. Sandman pretty clearly stated that God and the Devil were both basically the Endless’s bitches.
Godel: Okay, so maybe what’s actually going on with the angels in this story is that they just have a really overinflated sense of their own importance. Because, y’know, Zauriel won’t shut up about how the angels are unstoppable forces operating at the level of reality’s fundamental frequencies… but then everybody is able to fight them just like they’re any old supervillains. We go from “THE HICCUP OF HEAVEN WOULD ATOMIZE THE MARROW OF YOUR BONES” to “Hit him harder, Aquaman! I think he’s weakening!”
But maybe Zauriel is just wrong. And that’s why Martian Manhunter can go toe-to-toe with Asmodel (who apparently hasn’t heard about the fire thing).
Uzumeri: Yeah, doesn’t Asmodel have a flaming sword? Isn’t that kind of, like, a thing angry angels have? Flaming swords?
Asmodel also doesn’t look like an angel at all, he looks like a psychedelic minotaur with a wardrobe designed by Gaga. Zauriel at least looks like this sort of heavenly superscience version of a traditional angel.
Godel: I kind of like Asmodel’s look – the peacock-eye tunic is cool. Kind of reminds me of Namulith from Nausicaa, and it least suggests some kind of impossible weirdness. Although again Porter maybe isn’t the best artist to carry off impossible weirdness.
Uzumeri: Yeah, that’s the thing, he’s such a straightforward superhero artist. I wonder what this would look like if, like, a Quitely or Williams had handled it. Or even a Bachalo.
Godel: Anybody with a little more imagination and sense of grandeur. Jerome Opena gave much lower-level villains way way more gravitas and creepiness in Uncanny X-Force recently, for example. Can we send him back in time?
Uzumeri: Overall – it’s very different from the next arc we’ll hit, “Rock of Ages,” where I think Morrison way, way, way more effectively portrays the idea of Earth just being completely fucked up by beings beyond our comprehension.
Godel: If you ask me, this here is how NOT to write a cosmic-level superhero story. I love a lot of the IDEAS here, and he’s having fun rendering angels in semi-sci-fi language (a la Evangelion), but the stakes just don’t feel as high as they’re supposed to.
But! That being said! The arc wasn’t all bad. The one big set piece, with Electric Superman giving the moon an EM field to push it back from the Earth, is totally brilliant in a lunatic Silver Age way.
And the idea of Green Lantern making a treadmill for the Flash is also great, although (of course) we don’t actually see the gizmo’s effects.
And with that off my chest, I will say that the next arc, with the Key, is easily my favorite so far.
Uzumeri: It’s really fantastic, an absolutely top-flight superhero story. I mean, first off, the Key is a really funny villain, because Morrison completely, absolutely, writes him as an acid casualty hippie burnout.
Like, this is a villain whose superpower is drugs.
Godel: Yeah, I love how his monologues explaining his evil plan come out all jumbled-together and out of order, so that even his robot minions don’t seem to know what he’s actually trying to do.
Uzumeri: I wonder how much of my appreciation of this arc is due to Oscar Jimenez’s art. I don’t know if this arc would have been as good if Porter had drawn it.
Godel: It’s really solid art – - not flashy, but not a hair out of place. He has fun with the dream worlds, and it’s nice to see some controlled range with facial expressions. Honestly, I think Porter could have pulled it off… it just might have missed some of the nuances.
The great thing is how this (once again) takes a standard superhero story and puts a twist on it, with the twist being right at the center of the story rather than just being window-dressing to freshen things up. Everybody’s in a mind control thing that makes them think they’re living in other realities; as you’d expect, they have to figure out it’s not real, and use their willpower to heroically break free. Except that’s exactly what the Key wants them to do, because this breaking-free releases some kind of energy that powers his world-conquering…thingy.
Uzumeri: There are just some great ingredients here: A great villain, a really well-thought-out high concept that allows for both a really well-plotted villainous plan AND a bunch of really entertaining and effective character work, and a fantastic way to convince us that the new Green Arrow is pretty cool and deserves a seat at the table.
Godel: And in the meantime you get some really cute alternate realities, again in the grand Silver Age tradition. I’m thinking there especially of Kal-El of Krypton becoming Green Lantern.
The new Green Arrow is great, I’m totally sold on him just from this one story. If Kyle Rayner is the newbie with relationship at all to his predecessor, and Wally West was raised from childhood to be the next Flash, this guy here comes off as sort of the prodigal son, stepping into his dad’s shoes but not really knowing or understanding what he did for a living.
Uzumeri: He’s also such a great contrast to his dad, while still having his overwhelming anger against social injustice. Ollie was a great hero, but he was also kind of a shitty human being, an absolute dog sometimes. Like, he saves the world all the time but he’s also a womanizing hedonist who runs away from responsibility constantly.
Connor, on the other hand, is a straight-up virginal, meditative Buddhist monk.
Godel: Which we don’t see in this story except for his general Boy-Scoutish quality, but it’s not a story set up to really give you out-of-the-costume material. I was disappointed not to see any green vinyl hoodie-vests, though.
Uzumeri: And sunglasses and a voice modulator, don’t forget!
Godel: Maybe Batman will hook him up with those.
Uzumeri: But yeah, this really sold me on Connor as a character, especially his frustration with the way his dad operated. “How about just ONE! POINTED! ARROW! DAD!”
Godel: Once again, we get that vibe of sort of sending up old-school superheroics but in this really loving, fannish way.
Uzumeri: In a way, I wonder — if Connor had gotten into the machine, would his dream world be that much different from his actual fight in the Watchtower? It seemed almost as if his sequences kind of dug into his character and his relationship (or non-relationship) with his dad as much as the other characters’ sequences did for them.
Godel: I dunno – I mean, we learn basically nothing about Flash from his vignette. I like that Aquaman’s heart’s desire is to be in Waterworld, and Wonder Woman’s is to be Indiana Jones.
Uzumeri: Actually, Wonder Woman’s is to be the first season of the old TV show. The setup’s almost identical, just traveling around with Steve Trevor fighting Nazis.
Uzumeri: And yeah, Flash’s and Green Lantern’s don’t really dig into the characters – although a detail in Flash’s alternate reality does become a big plot point in Morrison’s first Flash arc, which will be our next installment.
Godel: For me, this was really Green Arrow’s character story, and the alternate realities were mostly just played for grins. Batman’s is the only one with a really emotional narrative, and the whole point is that Batman’s so cool that he figures out he’s not really feeling any of those emotions.
Uzumeri: I don’t know, I thought Superman had one, too. There’s something about Kal-El being this dude who lives on Krypton who just can’t match the expectations of his famous father, who saved the world.
Like, we only ever know Jor-El as this sainted scientist who sent his kid into space. The idea that he was also kind of an arrogant dick is interesting.
Godel: OK, yeah, there’s that. And I like the idea that, as happy and content as Superman is, he does carry around a longing for the world he never knew and so on. Which I know is not original to this story, but it’s a nice angle on the character.
Uzumeri: It’s also interesting, since this story was set back when Byrne’s Krypton was still in continuity, this cold, heartless world.
Godel: I know nothing about this – has there been a Krypton Retcon?
Uzumeri: Oh, man. Which one?
Godel: School me, o master!
Uzumeri: Silver Age Krypton was this totally utopian planet of brilliant scientists and fantastic culture and these wonderful sights and sounds. But when Byrne came on after Crisis, he retconned Krypton to be the worst place in the world, because he didn’t want Superman to have any emotional attachment to it.
Byrne’s Krypton was a place where computers selected your life-mate, and then you placed your genetic material in a birthing matrix which incubated your child. No sex. This was specifically done so that the Els could shoot Clark’s birthing matrix off rather than the actual born kid. In other words, his actual birth took place in Kansas rather than on Krypton.
Godel: Wow. I mean…I could read a lot into that, given how I feel about Byrne at this point. LAST SON OF
KRYPTON GREAT PLAINS FARM FOLK
Uzumeri: I’m shocked he didn’t take the chance to reintroduce Vathlo, Land of Black Kryptonians from the Silver Age.
Anyway, Byrne’s Krypton stayed in continuity from 1986 until… maybe 1998, when Jeph Loeb retconned it into being a fake history Jor-El concocted to make Krypton seem really shitty so that his son wouldn’t miss his home, and then when he became an adult he got to learn the truth, which was that Krypton was pretty rad.
Godel: Well, that seems kind of – - -
Uzumeri: TWO YEARS LATER, Geoff Johns retconned that into being a fake Krypton created in the Phantom Zone by Brainiac 13. Bringing Byrne’s Krypton back into continuity.
Godel: Not so hard to understand; they probably – - -
Uzumeri: FOUR YEARS LATER, Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu did Superman: Birthright, an Elseworlds, Ultimate Superman kind of story, which COMPLETELY reimagined Superman’s origin, restoring things like Clark’s friendship with Lex in Smallville (another detail Byrne turfed). This included introducing ANOTHER Krypton, with its own aesthetics.
Birthright’s a fucking fantastic book, by the way, if you ever find it.
Godel: But it’s an Elseworlds thing?
Uzumeri: Well, in Superman #200, some kind of time-fuckery led to Superman going home from the future to the wrong timeline, which made Birthright his official history.
Godel: Okay! I’m glad we’ve got that all clea – - -
Uzumeri: TWO YEARS LATER, after Infinite Crisis, they brought back the original Silver Age Krypton, which was reimagined to have a shitload of different cultural “guilds” (basically a caste system), which each had the looks of a different interpretation of Krypton. So the cold, unfeeling Science Guild all looked like Byrne’s Kryptonians, while the Art Guild or whatever were the happy old Silver Age dudes with the gold headbands.
Godel: So all the Kryptons are valid. And Superman has only ever learned about them in isolation from people with weird biases that cause them to leave out the details on the other stuff? That’s actually kind of cool – opens up great potential for stories about going home to the Old Country and so on.
Uzumeri: Yup – this was all revealed when Superman found Kandor and enlarged it, and then the Kandorians made their own New Krypton on the other side of the sun, where Superman lived for a year and tried to bring down the caste system and counterbalance General Zod.
Uzumeri: They then, I kid you not, BLEW UP NEW KRYPTON. And by “they,” I mean “Lois Lane’s dad.”
Godel: Man. Superman comics in the 21st century are way more interesting-sounding than I’d ever assumed.
Uzumeri: It has been something like four or five years since there was a Superman story where he hung out in Metropolis, fought supervillains, banged his wife and worked at the Daily Planet.
Godel: Sounds like it’s high time for Ma Kent to get shot, driving Clark to strike a deal with Asmodel to make everything right again.
Uzumeri: It’s been a pretty bizarre decade for the Big S, I’m not going to lie to you. I liked a lot of the New Krypton story, actually, since it was really interesting to have Clark deal with the fact that Krypton had kind of a fucked-up culture that he didn’t really agree with sometimes. And whenever he’d speak up about it, everyone would go “oh shut the fuck up, Kal, you went native.”
They did a huge amount of really good world building – Greg Rucka was involved – and then just blew it up.
But I digress.
Godel: Color me intrigued! Yeah, uh, anyway, that leaves this little story with a bunch of starfish-like space probes, who aren’t named in the story but whom I gather are an established hive-mind villain named Starro.
Uzumeri: Yeah, it’s bizarre that they’re never named at all, but it’s also like…an alternate version of Starro, which… okay, let’s not worry about that.
Godel: So the Starros have taken over some town, in order to lure in the JLA, a large pool of easily-mind-controlled superbeings handy for universe-conquering. In a “What If?”-esque sequence, we get to see the evil plan succeed.
The JLA then ask the Spectre (who I guess can basically do anything?) to take away their powers, so that they no longer represent such potential danger. Now powerless, they’re easily able to save the day and everybody goes home.
Uzumeri: The Spectre’s basic deal is that he’s the Wrath of God. I don’t know if you’ve ever read a Spectre story, but he’s a spirit that God’s basically tasked with delivering hilariously ironic punishments to criminals and wrongdoers.
Godel: Sounds fun! I’ll refrain from asking which God, exactly, signs his checks.
His role here is to initially play this kind of Watcher-like card, YOU MUST NOT INTERVENE, I WILL SHOW YOU WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF YOU DID, and then be won over by the JLA’s clever plan. It’s a solid done-in-one story with a nice idea, even if once again some of the plot mechanics are really obscure. How does Batman get a building down to absolute zero using the air conditioner?
Uzumeri: I really wonder if this was a story that Mark Millar did from a really vague Morrison plot, or something they wrote together, because the absolute zero/air conditioner thing is EXACTLY the kind of ill-thought-out-but-sounds-badass thing I’d expect to read in a Mark Millar comic.
Godel: I also love that the Starros totally ignore the depowered superheroes, because they’re supposedly programmed to only detect metahumans or something. Note: the Starros doing the ignoring have all possessed completely ordinary police officers, ice cream vendors, bus drivers…
Uzumeri: There’s also the scene at the end where the JLA think they’ve lost their powers forever. Like, when Spectre took away their powers, I didn’t think for a second he wouldn’t give them back, so why did they? The Spectre had just gone on and on about how forming the JLA in the future was important. Were they planning on operating without powers?
Godel: And would it really be the best thing for the universe if the JLA lost all their powers to save one town? There’s this idea that there are no “acceptable losses,” and that the needs of the many DON’T outweigh the needs of the few. Which is an intriguingly Kantian approach to superhero ethics, but in this case I’m going to just go ahead and say “that’s wrong.” Superman saves the entire planet on like a weekly basis – but, ah, screw it, gotta save Hill Valley, goodbye superpowers.
Maybe it would work better as a multi-part story, where them deciding to give up their powers could have a little bit of buildup and be the cliffhanger at the end of the issue. You’d still expect it to be swiftly reversed, but the characters could act like it’s a big deal.
Uzumeri: It really is astonishingly short-sighted. I’d actually never read this story before reading it in this HC, and I have to say, I don’t exactly have an overwhelming urge to ever read it again.
Godel: The thing is, though, I think it’s solidly entertaining in all the ways that the angel story totally falls short. I wouldn’t have felt ripped off bringing this home from the comics shop.
Uzumeri: Definitely not, considering this is only part of the issue – it’s like a 70-page giant-size thing. I’ve never actually read it, but it has the usual mix of pin-ups and character profiles, plus a few other little stories by Millar. Probably worth a read at some point.
Godel: And as just another thing that rounds out the HC, I think it’s fine. I’m definitely enjoying this comic.
Uzumeri: I’m glad to hear it, man. This has been one of our shorter chats, hasn’t it? I guess we got so much of what we had to say about the characters out last arc.
Godel: You know, I always think they’re short and then they keep getting longer every time. But it’s true, too, because – - I mean, this is not X-Men, where in addition to the main story you want to check in on the evolving portrayals of the characters and their relationships and beefs with each other, etc. By nature of the way Morrison treats the characters here, once you get to know them, there’s (usually) not much more to say.
Uzumeri: That’s true – although as the membership grows we’ll start to see a lot more character work. Our next batch, though, is SECRET ORIGINS #50 and FLASH: EMERGENCY STOP, which is chock full of character work. Unlike with JLA, in Flash Morrison basically gets ownership over a single character, rather than using other people’s characters in a series of high-concept superhero stories.
Godel: Woohoo! And before that, NEXT WEEK, we’ll take the X-Men through Uncanny #149, with another string of short stories, featuring the return of Dave Cockrum on pencils.
Uzumeri: COCKRUM HELL YES THANK GOD.