JLA: Rock of Ages
I thought it would be interesting (for myself anyway) to take out of the library all the Grant Morrison comic collections I can and chart my progression of reading them on the Underground Film Journal.
I’ve been doing something similar at the library with novelists whom I felt I should finally get acquainted with, e.g. taking out several books at a time by Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick. However, in regards to authors like that, I don’t know what I could contribute to the already copious amounts of reviews and commentary out there on them so I’m not going to bother reviewing their books. (Plus, I don’t know if I have the time to.)
But here’s the trouble with reviewing a serial superhero author over a novelist. Like with Dick, I don’t mind skipping around his oeuvre because each book is a standalone adventure that can be enjoyed all on its own. Sure, I could read all of Dick’s books in progression of when he wrote them to chart his progress as a writer and see how he deals precisely with recurring themes, but that’s not necessary to viewing each book as a whole and complete story. I can’t do that with Morrison.
Several years ago, DC Comics used to regularly published standalone stories they called “Elseworld” tales. These books would place regular DC characters in wild, alternative situations, such as “what if Batman lived in the 1800s” or “what if Superman crash landed in the USSR instead of the U.S. as a baby.” Even though JLA: Rock of Ages takes place within regular DC “continuity”–originally published in serial comics from in 1997-98–it’s as bizarre and foreign to someone who read DC comics as a teenager and picked this book up twenty years later.
At the time, Superman was a blue being made out of pure energy, Aquaman has a harpoon instead of a left hand, Green Arrow is actually the son of the original hero and Green Lantern is some kid named Kyle Rayner wearing a horrible costume instead of the classic Hal Jordan. The term “JLA” is even an alternate name to the original superhero team, Justice League of America, without whom there probably wouldn’t have been a Fantastic Four. But that’s a story for another day.
But the modern superhero is written solely for the modern superhero comic fan, making them almost impenetrable to occasional readers. In order to keep those fans continually interested in buying the same books every month for years on end, DC comics feels it needs to take drastic measures to make the tried and true concepts continually interesting, like making Superman blue. Maybe it was interesting at the time, but it seems ridiculous now. (I think he’s back to being flesh colored these days.)
Rock of Ages is also allegedly a “self-contained” tale, but since it reprints issues ten through fifteen of JLA. So, a lot of baggage begins with the book. Wonder Woman is dead although nobody really mourns here. In Chapter One, much reference is made to the Flash being horribly injured, but in Chapter Two he appears with no mention to him healing from his injuries. Chapter One also heavily involves a giant “wave” moving through space towards Earth and ends with the heroes flying off to stop it. When Chapter Two starts, there is one mention of the “Genesis Wave,” but that story has nothing to do with Rock of Ages‘s main plot. (A quick Internet search reveals Genesis was some sort of mini-series published at the same time as JLA–Thank you Grand Comic Book Database!)
However, despite the ridiculous corporate restraints forced upon Morrison, he makes the whole thing work. The book is filled with so many insane situations and outre concepts, combined with an outlandish breakneck plot that irrelevant details like who killed Wonder Woman or the Genesis Wave go by in such a flash they don’t matter. For one ingenious sequence, Morrison takes nine pages out of the normal storyline to show us how the universe might end.
The plotting is also reminiscent of Alan Moore where a seemingly small event gradually builds into a universe-destroying storyline. A seemingly innocuous rock wielded by Lex Luthor to “destroy” the JLA–a fairly conventional superhero story set-up–turns out to be a philosopher’s stone, which is traditionally an object that can transmute matter. But Morrison elevates the philosopher’s stone fable from a simple gold-making device into a one that can change the very substance of the universe. So not only does Morrison give a little tweaking to the concept of superheroes he does the same with the myths of his homeland. (Morrison hails from Scotland.)
Finally, Rock of Ages also ends on a fairly frustrating note, not atypical of monthly comics where one major story ends the next one must begin in overlapping fashion. This is fine in the monthly comics, but when DC is trying to sell a “complete” book, this isn’t the way to do it.