JLA Incarnations 4: Too Many Leagues


Take your pick

Like the Detroit League, the Fourth Justice League was a new configuration, reconstituted after the formal dissolution of its predecessor, but continuing in the same series as the League that had gone before. The League is dead, long live the League.
This incarnation started with a twin-cover Spectacular, one for each of the dual line-ups that would be involved. Superman agreed to head up the America branch, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan, in his white-templed phase) the European branch, though in a potentially confusing move for future collectors, the JLE quickly renamed their series Justice League International.
To be honest, I don’t have much to say about this version of the League. I read the Spectacular, which made it plain that the sitcom approach of the past five years was being thoroughly rejected: no Bwah-ha-ha, not United Nations, no Max Lord, the League was doing it for itself. We were going to have respectable, serious superheroing again, and anyone who didn’t understand that would be out on their ear, pretty sharpish.
(Though, at some point of which I am unaware, the United Nations came back into the picture, at least for the main JLA and its Task Force: a re-rejection of UN auspices was an underlying dynamic of the final spin-off title).
As the Helfer/Giffen approach had run its course, reverting to drama was the only viable course for the series to take, but for me the Spectacular concentrated more on establishing what it was not going to be than on what it would do. As a result it was all too penny-plain-tuppence-cheerful for its own good. It seemed to promise an end to all the distinctiveness and personality of the lurid but fun years, without setting up anything of its own to substitute.
And the new League(s) were still operating under the same, indeed more so, conditions that had pushed Conway towards the Detroit League, in that bringing the big guns like Superman and Green Lantern meant operating under the restrictions of whatever was affecting them in their home series.
Even if there was now a greater correspondence in tone between between the world of the League and the rest of the DC Universe, the problem remained. What Superman did under his editor Mike Carlin (which, with four monthly titles, operated as a virtual weekly, with stories flowing between the tightly controlled titles and their even more tightly controlled four separate writer/artist teams) was of far greater importance than anything the League needed him for. So he didn’t last long.
Nor did Hal Jordan. The rapidly deteriorating continuity of the Green Lantern universe was soon at the point where a clean sweep was decided on, removing Hal Jordan by turning him into one of the most monstrous villains of the DC Universe, and bringing in Kyle Rayner as a new, untried Green Lantern who would hopefully become as successful as had Wally West in replacing Barry Allen.
The League became home to any number of b-list and passing characters, just to enable the series to continue with a minimum of disruption.
But it remained popular. How else to explain the fact that this incarnation of the League supported another two spin-off series?
The first of these was Justice League Task Force. Technically, this was not a third force. Instead, it was a special squad, headed by the Martian Manhunter, with Gypsy as its only other full-time regular, taking on covert missions with a variety of League members, to tackle cases where the League could not or should not be seen to be operating.
The actual Third Force was portrayed in Extreme Justice, a breakaway Justice League team only semi-officially accepted in the overall League structure. (The series was actually a replacement for Justice League International and Justice League Quarterly, the latter an over-sized title concentrating on one-off stories of varying, sometimes full-length).
This latest dilution of the franchise was headed by Captain Atom, who had recovered from the disaster that was Armageddon 2001, when it had been intended for him to go renegade and become Monarch, until the clues as to who was to become Monarch were deduced far too easily for suspense and a bodge-up was required. Atom’s team never called itself Extreme Justice, but that was its raison d’etre: refusal of UN backing, proactive and violent pre-response.
So: three Justice Leagues of one sort or another. Three team leaders pulling in different directions (Wonder Woman, J’Onn J’Onzz and Captain Atom). Hordes of minor characters milling around (with all due respect to Australians, the day you bring Tasmanian Devil onto a team, the barrel is being firmly scraped). Task Force even became a kind of Junior JLA, training up the younger heroes.
For me, what symbolises this failed Incarnation is the story of Triumph.
Triumph was created by, of all people, the usually very successful Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn, though he’s most associated with Christopher Priest (nothing to do with the British SF writer, this is veteran scripter Jim Owsley who chose a pen name in complete ignorance of it being in use). As a concept, he’s interesting: Triumph is supposed to be an original hero, one of the first of the Silver Age generation. Triumph was founder and leader of the original Justice League of America on its first mission, but he fell into some kind of timewarp that sent him ten years into the future, and which caused the world to forget him completely.
An interesting set-up that fell flat on several grounds, the first being that Triumph at no time looked or felt like a believable late-Fifties/early-Sixties creation, and secondly due to the fact that the man was a complete and utter jerk, from the ground to the roof and back down the other side of the house. This objection may well only be truly pertinent to those of us who were there at or pretty near to the time, and have the smell of Silver Age heroes in our nostrils, but it does appear that nobody or more recent vintage was particularly enamoured of Triumph either.
But that was how that era of the League came over: Nineties comics, with bad art, bad attitudes, bad costumes and bad ideas.
In the end, the ‘brand’ was spread too thin, the audience drawn in too many directions and the sales went into a downfall. Quality and consistency had long since evaporated, and DC decided enough was enough and swept the board clean. The ending was abrupt, and an in-continuity rationale was only given retrospectively, in the 2001 JLA:Incarnations mini-series: Extreme Justice attack Bialya, a Balkan/middle-eastern country that had featured heavily in both the original Justice League International  and Justice League Europe series’ and take out the superweapons Bialya is re-creating, but as a consequence the UN insists all Justice League teams shut down (and Superman insists Extreme Justice follow suit).
A new Justice League was needed, a better Justice League, and what better than to go back to the basics, to the original Big Seven, and renew the League’s foundations for its Fifth Incarnation.

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