JLA Classified: Ultramarine Corps and Seven Soldiers of Victory Vols. 1-4
Grant Morrison, writer
Ed McGuinness, J.H. Williams III, Cameron Stewart, Frazer Irving, Ryan Sook, Pasqual Ferry, Billy Dallas Patton, Freddie E. Williams II, Yanick Paquette, Doug Mahnke, artists
DC Comics, 2002-2007
JLA: 144 pages
Vols. 1 & 4: 224 pages
Vol. 2 & 3: 176 pages
Inspired by the delightful reading experience of working through the bulk of Grant Morrison’s recent, weird Batman run in one go, I decided to revisit his most ambitious project to date: The interlocking miniseries Klarion the Witch-Boy, Frankenstein, Zatanna, Mister Miracle, The Manhattan Guardian, The Bulleteer, Shining Knight, and Seven Soldiers—known collectively as Seven Soldiers of Victory. I started with the epic’s unofficial prequel, the three-issue JLA Classified miniseries Ultramarine Corps. In a way that earlier title is emblematic of all of Morrison’s output for DC. While nominally it revolves around a StormWatch/Authority-style take-no-prisoners super-team he introduced during his late-’90s JLA tenure and now updated for the Ultimates era, its villain is a revamped golden-age baddie (Nebula Man/Neb-U-Loh) who is now set up to be the ultimate weapon of eventual Seven Soldiers villains the Sheeda; themini also directly references characters and concepts (the Sheeda queen) that Morrison wouldn’t be using for another couple of years, and others that would pop up not just in Seven Soldiers but also in seemingly disconnected books like Batman (the Club of Heroes) and even the non-continuity All Star Superman (the Infant Universe of Qwewq). In other words–and this is fitting given Morrison’s view of spacetime as a single, physical living organism–what looks like a three-issue slushpile Justice League story is in fact simultaneously drawing from Morrison’s past, present, and future at the company. It’s all one big mega-story.
In this day and age of decodable genre entertainments, it’s tempting to spend this review of a re-read making connections and unearthing clues. I certainly did some of this during the re-read itself (one of my pet projects was pinpointing all four elemental golems mentioned by Baby Brain Stargard in the first Guardian issue.) It was also inevitable that I spent much of the re-read just blocking the plot out in my head in a more accurate way than I did the first time around. For example, I now think I have a pretty firm grasp on the exact roles played by the four main villains–Gloriana Tenebrae, Melmoth, Zachary Zor, and “Dark Side,” whereas if you’d asked me a couple days ago I’d have gotten the middle two conflated and had no idea how the first was connected to the fourth. Finally, given how directly the plot of the Mister Miracle mini–Darkseid’s forces win the eternal war of the New Gods and descend to Earth in the form of outwardly normal humans–mirrors what we’re told to expect from Morrison’s Final Crisis, it’s hard to resist trying to puzzle out where that mini fits in with the rest, or where the whole thing fits in with the flow of the DC Universe in general.
But I think the thing that I most want to convey about this re-read is just how affecting it is to read a superhero comic this dense. Everything I just talked about–the scattered Easter eggs, the continuity tweaks, the riot of opposing forces–are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the disparate elements the project comprises.In what almost seems like a self-satirical move, Morrison deliberately tapped an army of artists to illustrate the project (including one, J.H. Williams, who at various points draws in the style of every single other one) rather than allow this to happen through the vagaries of scheduling like it seems to do on all his projects. The effect is dizzying and sensuous, in no small part because this is the strongest set of collaborators he’s ever assembled, even given a hiccup in the production of Mister Miracle. Williams’ mimickry is a tour de force performance, Bianchi is a true otherworldly discovery, Sook and inker Mick Gray’s spotted blacks are sexy as heck, and Irving is a comic genius with color and facial expressions, just to name a few high points. Meanwhile Morrison himself discusses in his intro how he deliberately bounced between genres in the book, to encompass science fiction, fantasy, horror, action, comedy, soap opera, satire and more. So too does he vary up the raison d’etre of his “heroes”–none of them are in it as an exploration of What It Means To Be A Hero, which is an immediately disorienting difference from the norm as it recalibrates our expectations of what the characters will do at any given juncture. All in all it’s a bit like a supercompressed Twin Peaks or Lost–there’s just so much going on and the fun is in not knowing and trying to grok it anyway as you take succor in the crackerjack genre aspects.
The most pleasurable aspect of the project, ultimately, is that it is the challenge that the characters within face. It’s a huge story that’s just slightly too big for us to grasp from our frame of reference, but it gives off the sense that the picture is there to see if you know where and how to look at it–perhaps from the kind of vantage point that enables you to seed story points from a vast span of years into everything you write–rather than the nagging suspicion that the author has deliberately made vital information inaccessible. Trying to absorb and understand what’s going on is like standing on your tippy-toes to grab something on a top shelf, a delicious challenge to exceed your station just a bit and hold on to something outside your usual grasp, and if you don’t succeed this time, no big deal, there are any number of other angles you can come at it from. In that way the final page, one of my favorite endings to any comic ever, is a fittingly euphoric image: one of reaching.