As some of you know, I’m a shameless Grant Morrison fanboy. One of the major reasons I like Morrison’s work is because it is more complex than your average superhero story. Unlike many comic book writers, Morrison does not spoon feed explanations to the reader. They are also not afraid to engage with complex fictional elements like alternate realities, higher dimensions, and time travel. Personally, I love this and I love art like this because it engages my brain, gets me to think, and allows me to draw conclusions that bring me in touch with my inner-self and why I enjoy the art in question.
Unfortunately, this is not for everyone and has opened Morrison up to their most consistent criticism: Their stories are too confusing. One of Morrison’s most divisive stories in this regard is Rock of Ages which spanned JLA issues #10 through 15. This story is constantly brought up when readers make the claim of Morrison being too confusing or too much. Therefore, I’m going to attempt to explain the more confusing elements of Rock of Ages. This is being done to show that most of the answers are actually there and to illustrate how Morrison’s writing style works. I doubt I’ll change any minds, but let’s get to work.
The Basic Plot:
The first thing I want to do is go over a general recap of Rock of Ages. I will say that the basic plot of Rock of Ages is actually not THAT complex. Essentially, it’s two common superhero plots in one: The Ultimate Hero Team vs. The Ultimate Villain Team AND The Alternate Dystopian Future. Think The Super Friends fighting the Legion of Doom meets Days of Future Past.
Basically, there are two plot threads to follow in one story. First, Lex Luthor forms a new Injustice Gang to destroy the Justice League. Lex is using a powerful artifact called the Philosopher’s Stone to manipulate Jemm, Son of Saturn, who is using his psychic abilities to control the members of the Injustice Gang and mess with the Justice League. Eventually, Lex realizes the Stone is even more powerful and can be used to manipulate reality. The Justice League is troubled by the Injustice Gang’s attacks, but Batman devises a strategy to defeat them.
Second, the alternate future storyline comes in when Metron warns the League that Darkseid is searching for the Philosopher’s Stone and will conquer creation if he finds it. Metron sends Flash, Aquaman, and Kyle Rayner through space and time to try to find it before Darkseid does. However, Metron tricked them and sent them on a wild goose chase to the ends of space and time. When they try to return to Earth, the three heroes accidentally arrive 15 years in the future. This future is dark because the JLA defeated the Injustice Gang and destroyed the Philosopher’s Stone which allowed Darkseid to conquer the universe. The heroes stage an attack on Darkseid so they can return to the present and prevent the JLA from destroying the Philosopher’s stone.
Those are the two basics plots within Rock of Ages. Because they are both built from common superhero plot tropes, I don’t think they are too out there. I believe that the confusion comes from the hows and whys of the story. Like, how did Morrison reach their conclusions? Now that I have covered the basic plot, I’ll go over the things that I found to be the most challenging.
1) What was that cosmic wave at the end of JLA #10?
At the end of JLA #10, the first issue of the Rock of Ages story, J’onn comes across a wave of cosmic energy that causes him great distress and despair:
This may be a bit confusing to readers since in the next issue J’onn is fine and the cosmic wave isn’t mentioned again. However, it wasn’t intended to be mentioned again in Rock of Ages. The cosmic wave is the Godwave from the DC crossover Genesis. That moment in JLA #10 is actually just a bit of editorial upkeep to signify that the Genesis crossover takes place between JLA #10 and #11. They probably felt this was necessary because both Genesis and Rock of Ages use the New Gods. However, this may have added to reader confusion since Genesis was released a little after Rock of Ages (editorial mistake or delayed comics?) and would definitely be confusing to new readers since Genesis was from 1997 is not the most well-known or well-regarded DC crossover. In the end, though, it is just a moment of editorial upkeep that unfortunately may have contributed to confusion.
2) Why does the destruction of the Philosopher’s Stone allow Darkseid to conquer the universe?
To me, this is the big question and its answer unlocks the entire story. First, we need to establish what the Philosopher’s Stone is and why it can manipulate reality. We are actually given the answer by Metron in JLA #11:
Metron explains that the Philosopher’s Stone is like a handheld version of all of reality. Everything that has ever existed, currently exists, and will exist as well as everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen is reflected within the Philosopher’s Stone. This allows anyone who holds it to bend reality to their will. Their thoughts change the reflection within the Philosopher’s Stone which, in turn, changes reality.
Great, so that’s how it works. Why does destroying it allow Darkseid to win? In JLA #15, Metron says this:
What he’s saying is that by working his will through the Philosopher’s Stone, Lex is creating the conditions for Darkseid’s victory. How? Well, it seems that the Philosopher’s Stone is sensitive to the intentions of its user. We learn this in the story’s conclusion. Rock of Ages ends with Joker stealing the Philosopher’s Stone to cause havoc on Earth. J’onn uses his psychic powers to temporarily make Joker “sane” while he still holds the Stone. In this moment, Metron notes:
So, the fate of the universe is in Joker’s hands? Great! However, because J’onn is making Joker “sane” and because Lex urges Joker to use the stone to resurrect the people the Injustice Gang had killed, Joker actually saves the universe by making a decision for the greater good:
By using the Philosopher’s Stone for good, Joker sets reality back on the “right” course. However, this would never have happened if the JLA destroyed the Philosopher’s Stone when they first got their hands on it. That Stone was still tainted by the “evil” of Lex’s will. Since Lex tainted the Stone (reality in miniature) with evil, he also tainted all of reality with evil. And who is the god of evil? Darkseid. Tainting reality with Lex’s evil created an evil reality (Darkseid’s reality). Destroying the stone solidified this evil reality because it could not be changed without it. Only by using the Stone with pure motives could cleanse reality and prevent it from creating a world where evil (Darkseid) triumphs.
3) Why is Metron evil and then suddenly good?
It may be a bit strange that Metron first shows up as evil and tricks the JLA only to end the story as a good guy helping them fix reality. The answer to why this is goes back to my answer to question #2. Metron gets tainted by evil just as the Philosopher’s Stone does. Metron is a god and exists, more or less, outside of linear time. When reality is changed to evil by the taint of Lex’s will, Metron turns evil just as he’s meant to do in the reality where Darkseid wins. By preventing the Stone’s destruction, reality resets and Metron returns to normal without the taint of Darkseid’s evil.
And essentially… those are the explanations to the things I found to be the most confusing aspects in Rock of Ages. There may be more elements of the story that confound readers since this is a plot that deals with time travel and dimensional travel. If there are any other confusing moments, please bring them up and I will do my best to unpack them. However, my point is that all of the answers to Rock of Ages are there. They are just given to you in small moments so it takes some concentration and interpretation to reach them.
Inevitably, someone is going to say, “well, I should not have to do that to understand a comic.” Someone always says this when talking about or debating Morrison. To me, it’s not a question of HAVE. In this life, you actually do not HAVE to do anything. It’s a question of want. Personally, I want to take the time to understand Morrison’s work because I find the task of doing so to be engaging and meaningful.
That holds true with Rock of Ages. At its core, Rock of Ages is a story that says, “reality is built on our intentions.” If our intentions are bad then reality is bad, if our intentions are good then reality follows suit. It takes active concentration and thought to maintain good intentions just as it takes those things to unravel this story. The fact that I had to put the work in to get there makes this story more meaningful to me then if Metron popped up in a panel and just explained: “Thinking good thoughts into our world makes it good while thinking bad thoughts makes it bad.” There’s just more art to the way Morrison does it even if it requires more from the reader.
So, yeah, it does bum me out when people write this story off due to its complexity. Not only do they miss out on all of the above, but they also miss out on a lot of other cool elements and Easter eggs that can be found throughout the story. For instance, when Mote takes Kyle through the Museum District of Omnitropolis:
Mote highlights different exhibitions to Kyle and implores him to pay attention to them because they actually all correspond to future threats the JLA will face. But, because they reference future stories, Kyle misses the importance just as readers might unless they do a re-read.
Or, the fact the the dystopian future JLA is headquartered in Detroit:
Rock of Ages is complex, yes. It takes some work to fully understand. However, I believe it’s worth it because its a rich, textured story with a lot of fun concepts and Easter eggs in play. This was a long one, so thank you for sticking with me!