Fifty Years of Imagination


I don’t know the exact date, only that it was a Saturday, in March 1966. So only now can I say, without fear of inaccuracy, that the Fiftieth Anniversary has passed. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the most mind-blowing experience a ten year old boy ever had in reading.

I’ve written about it before, so forgive me for repeating myself, but a lifetime of experience flows on from this one tiny thing. Many are the consequences, including – not entirely fancifully – a marriage.

Fifty years ago, in March 1966, I was living in Brigham Street, Openshaw, in East Manchester, a working class area of terraced streets, between a local park and the Steel Wall, the wall enclosing the vast grounds of the English Steel Corporation. Though my eleventh birthday wouldn’t come until November, some ten weeks past the cut-off point of September 1, my Primary School Headmaster organised for me to sit the last Eleven-Plus exams, allowing me to go on to a Grammar School education that, a year later, would have been swept away by the Comprehensive System.

The Eleven-Plus consisted of half a dozen exams in basic subjects such as Maths and English, held at Varna Street School, a thirty minute walk away from home, and on the far side of Ashton Old Road, the major traffic route nearest to our backwater terrace. At first, my cautious mother escorted me there and back, but by the time of the last exam, on a sunny March Friday afternoon, she had enough confidence in me to trust me to get there and back without being knocked down and killed crossing the Old Road. Her confidence was not misplaced, given that I’ve lasted long enough to type this.

It was Friday afternoon. I was only allowed to cross the Old Road at Zebra crossings, and circumstances dictated that I should cross at the one just below the bridge over the canal branch, and turn right into Victoria Street to get through to the little warren of streets Back o’th’Park.

Our newsagents was on that side of the Old Road, further down, and they had American comics (exclusively DC) in their windows. So, being a dutiful child, I couldn’t go past Victoria Street to look, but I would get round it by carying on down the Old Road to the Zebra just above the Vicarage, and walking back up, past the newsagents window.

I had been reading American comics for, at best, a couple of years before this time. My parents didn’t approve of them, didn’t think they were worth the shilling they’d recently gone up to, but every now and then I was able to talk them into letting me have one, and with a naive cynicism way beyond my years, I figured that completing my first set of Exams was a good opportunity to argue for a reward.

It was no more than a general thought, but when I arrived at the window, it became an urgent and specific desire for Justice League of America 37.

There wasn’t a single Justice League member on the cover. It even boasted, incredulously, that there wasn’t. Instead, it featured five members of the Justice Society of America. I gaped in amazement. I’d never heard of the Justice Society and I seriously wanted to know. And what fuelled that desire was the incredible fact that the JSA had a Flash, Green Lantern and Atom, but they were completely different in costume and, in Green Lantern’s case, hair-colour!

I had to have it. I mentioned it to my mother as soon as I got home, to my father as soon as he got home, and again during the evening, and yet again on Saturday morning, in case they’d forgotten overnight, and one more time for good luck before we set out at 12.30pm to go to Granny and Grandad’s in Droylsden for dinner (this was the proper Northern Dinner: the evening meal was Tea).

And Dad parked round the corner and let me lead him to the newsagents where I pointed out the (thankfully unsold) comic, and we went in and the newsagent got it out of the window for me and I held it in my hands all the way to Droylsden.

I wasn’t allowed to look at it in the car – reading in the car ruined your eyes – and I couldn’t start then because we always arrived at 12.55pm for a one o’clock mealtime, and what with all in all, it was gone two o’clock before I was allowed to leave the table, scoop up my comic and race into the parlour to read it in peace and quiet.

Forgive me again, but I need to relish the memories. First I was introduced to the idea of Earth-2, a separate but parallel Earth, where things were not as they were in our reality, despite its familiarity. The strangeness of the idea, the concept of a place where things were different from how they were around me, took hold of me immediately, and it has been a lifelong fascination. Even before I met them, I fell for the sheer concept of the Justice Society. They were something magical, set against the ‘mundane’ reality of the Justice League that appeared every day, everywhere.

I was immediately hungry to know more, ever more, about these alternate figures, even though at first I could only see Johnny Thunder, the JSA’s equivalent to Snapper Carr as comic relief (as I’ve said before, when mentioning Snapper, don’t ask. DON’T ask.)

But before I even got to see the Justice Society, to see more of those strange Flash, GL, and Atom characters (plus a Hawkman in a cloth hood), we and the story got diverted to Earth-1, and its Johnny Thunder. And the bad Thunder knocked out the good Johnny and took over his Magic Thunderbolt and sent him out to rob a payroll. But The Flash stopped him, our Flash, the one I knew, I mean. So Thunder came up with the most mind-blowing idea of all time.

No matter how often I describe it, I’ve still not to my mind established how awesome what came next was. Nothing I’ve ever read in my life has had a comparable effect upon me. It expanded my mind more than any other thing has ever done, it opened up my imagination to a vastness of possibility.

Because Bad Thunder instructed his Magic Bolt to zip back in time and interfere with the origins of the Justice League, to change history, to undo what had been done and turn the world, the very earth on which we set out feet every day, into something incredibly strange. The very idea that such things could happen, a possibility that had never ever occurred to me beforehand, could have scared me to death. Instead, it encouraged, taught me to dream that things need not be as we see them, that to everything there was always an alternative, that for every path taken there was always a path, multitudes of paths untaken, and worlds that did not exist but which might have, in which we can see ourselves from angles undreamt of.

It was two pages of open-mouthed awe. A stormy night over Central City, a lightning bolt intercepted, Barry Allen goes home, still a slowpoke. Krypton’s unstable uranium core converted to lead, no planetary destruction, no rocket to Earth for baby Kal-El. A blast of yellow radiation intercepted, Abin Sur’s spacecraft undamaged, no power ring for Hal Jordan. A fragment of white dwarf star matter smashed, no discovery of size and weight controls for Ray Palmer. Dr Erdel’s Robot Brain shorts out, the Martian Manhunter is never teleported from Mars.

And, in the re-drawing of a panel drawn by Bob Kane twenty-six years earlier, the first appearance of Batman, the Bolt helps two anonymous thugs beat the crap – and the idea of being a crimefighter  – out of Bruce Wayne.

It was a lesson that, despite its instant impact, took me decades to understand fully. At the time, I just marveled at the way in which an established fictional world had just been turned over. Later, I would see what I had not understood at the time, that had almost certainly never been intended by Messrs Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs: that life itself, the inevitability of everything around us, depends on infinitessimal influences, that everything we are and do could be undone by the most minute of changes, and that it need not be the life-changing moments that need to be changed to change our lives, but the most common, most insignificant that can have the longest shadows.

I used to be married. I don’t talk about it here, because marriage involves two people and I respect her privacy. But it is at least fifty percent true that, if this comic had not been in the newsagents’ window on that day fifty years ago, I would almost certainly never have met her. It’s only fifty percent, because there is a later point which is absolutely crucial to that seemingly trivial chain of events, that depends on my having discovered the Justice Society, and there were other opportunities after Justice League of America 37 where I could have done that, where I would probably – but only probably – been just as fascinated by them.

But maybe not. Those later comics, fantastic though they were on both senses, lacked the scope of this particular issue. Maybe, if my introduction had come a year later, the same sense of mind-expansion may not have followed it, may not have resulted in the same degree of interest, might have meant that that later point was no point at all.

It’s an extreme example, but all of our lives are based in an unending sequence of such things. What we see and do at every moment – which in itself is influenced by what others, endlessly removed from you, have done – shifts your life this way and that. A man living fifty miles away from you oversleeps by five minutes. As a result, leaving for work three minutes later than he might otherwise means that he misses his train. Instead, he drives. The extra car on the road subtly changes traffic patterns. Someone misses a green light, is held up thirty seconds, loses more time on their journey. As a result, they take a short cut to work. By not stopping for a coffee at their usual shop, they don’t end up next to you at the counter. You don’t exchange sarky comments about the service. The meeting that would have led to your marriage, to the birth of your three children, never happens, because you never bump into each other again.

The world is made up of such things. We are all connected because we all affect each other in ways we can barely imagine, in ways most of us would never recognise. Understanding this affects your philosophies of life, your beliefs, your politics.

A comic. In a window, fifty years ago this month just passed. If someone had bought that comic, five minutes before I passed, on the way home from Varna Street, the deliberate long way round, what might those fifty years have been instead?

Nothing is insignificant. Thanks for that comic, Messrs Schwartz, Fox, Sekowsky and Sachs. Fifty years is too little a time to have enjoyed that moment.

JLA Incarnations 7: The End of the Line


Suitably moody

And then there was seven.
And yes, this Justice League of America, going out under that full title for the first time since before Crisis on Infinite Earths, was the seventh incarnation, even if when it debuted it was half a year before the 52 version would come and go in a week.
There wasn’t even a pretence that DC were going to do without a Justice League: a new series started with the by now commmon Zero Issue, as part of One Year Later, immediately after Infinite Crisis had reached its transformative ending. Indeed, New York Times best selling Thriller writer Brad Meltzer, writer of the controversial 2004 crossover series, Identity Crisis, was signed up to write the first thirteen issues.
That Zero issue was an intriguing introduction. It was part Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman getting together, after their year of absence that had/would be/been told in 52, to agree on a line-up for the new Justice League, and half flashforwards to future points: future points that have not been seen and never will be seen, dealing as they do with such things as Diana’s marriage to a man Clark and Bruce think is beneath her and Clark’s funeral. In doing so, Meltzer was laying trails that other writers, now or in the future of the DC Universe, could pick up on should they choose (though really that ought to be should editorial allow them) and partly weaving the idea of the DC Universe as a continuum with a past and a present and a future, no matter whether the same is revealed.
For the actual series itself, Meltzer was paired with the excellent Ed Benes, and did a good job of a first year that included transforming the Red Tornado, albeit temporarily, into human flesh for the first time, not to mention a crossover with the latest incarnation of the Justice Society and some time-wandering members of the Legion of Superheroes. It was fun, it was fast-paced and it was well-drawn.
What it was not was particularly distinguished. Unlike his Green Arrow story, ‘The Archer’s Quest’, or Identity Crisis, Meltzer brought no new ideas to the series, no novelist’s perceptions that might have broadened the scope of the series, given the Justice League something new to work upon. It was just comics, just a superhero team. Nor did the series offer any sense of enjoyment, of the rush a good superhero comic can offer.
Nor did things improve when Meltzer moved on and the writing reins were handed to a full-time comics writer in Dwayne McDuffie. If anything, things got worse, not that I would know as I was not reading the series anymore. Indeed, by the time Final Crisis appeared I was reading virtually no DC titles at all, and after Final Crisis that became none.
Perhaps it was just that I had gotten too old, had finally grown out of superheroes nearly four decades after I would normally have expected to do so. A more nuanced take on that might be that I could see, unconsciously at first, that DC Comics were on their way to a place I didn’t want to go.
The company that, in the Eighties, had accepted its minority-share of the market with Marvel and had instead concentrated upon quality, upon creators as opposed to characters, were rapidly slipping back to the old days of editorial control.
What’s worse is that, where that editorial control in the Fifties and Sixties was spread among a number of editorial stables, now DC’s reins of power were increasingly being gathered into the hands of Managing Editor, later Publisher, Dan DiDio and DC’s first ever Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns, narrowing the company’s output to the range that appealed to these two people only.
Though I didn’t read the new Justice League of America series, I continued to follow the comics news. So I was aware of one writer being abruptly removed from the series after complaining publisly about the number of times already approved storylines had to be junked or radically re-written to accommodate later editorial directives.
And of the spin-off series featuring a splinter JLA that – the same old chestnut – intended to take a more proactive line in getting supervillains before they committed crimes. That was supposed to be ongoing, ended up a limited series thanks – again – to editorial direction.
And the constant problems that led, all those years back, to Gerry Conway arguing to create Justice League Detroit, just to be able to write stories that didn’t have to be twisted into pretzels to adapt to whatever was happening in someone’s sole series.
And McDuffie would lose his job as writer after publicly commenting on the level of editorial interference.
The last Incarnation came to an end when Flashpoint occurred in 2011. The last Justice League of America was disbanded by Batman on the same grounds that Aquanan disbanded the first. Then everything was swept away. History did not so much change as dissolve.
Now there is not and never has been any incarnations of the Justice League – America, Unlimited, Europe, Antarctica, Task Force, Elite – in the New 52 Universe. Now there’s only a Justice League that formed only five years ago, and which operates under suspicion and has no sanction from anyone within the New 52 except their own. And, as you know, I do not go there.
So that’s the end of the Justice League of America as far as I am concerned. If anyone gets the level of fun out of the New 52 League or any of its offshoots as I did over these seven Incarnations, I wish them joy of it. Can’t see it myself, mind, but these things are no longer being written or drawn with me in mind.

JLA Incarnations 6: The Old 52, or, Blink and you’ll miss them


I present this without comment

This one’s a joke, but we’d better include it.
After Infinite Crisis, the whole DC Universe moved One Year Later, paving the way to form a new Justice League.
The idea was that, during that year, there’d been no Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, no Justice League or Society. Things changed, the One Year Later issues presented a new status quo that you had to piece together. And in the meantime, there was 52.
52 was DC’s first official weekly series, written by a quartet of writers (Waid, Morrison, Johns and Greg Rucka), each issue covering seven days of the missing year. It was intended to fill in the pieces. Unfortunately, nobody foresaw that they were throwing four competitive writers into a story with an already fixed ending (i.e., the first month of One Year Later) and that if these guys were going to be writing this for twelve months…
But let’s pass over what became of 52 and instead focus upon issue 24, in which Firestorm reforms the Justice League in its Sixth Incarnation. He recruits Firehawk, Super-Chief, Bulleteer and Ambush Bug (and if the last of these didn’t tell you that this wouldn’t be a serious League, you’re hopeless). Much is made over a couple of preceding issues of the origin of the new Super-Chief (a revival of a very short-lived Western character in the very early Sixties, immediately before the Silver Age superheroes started their inexorable march to dominance) only for him to be killed in the League’s first – and only – battle, after which Firestorm disbanded this League.
Only the Detroit League welcomed this little snoozer: now they’re no longer the JL’s nadir.

JLA Incarnations 5: The Bad-Ass League… and after


The Fifth Incarnation of the Justice League will always be automatically associated with Grant Morrison, and rightly so, but it was actually created by Mark Waid, in a mini-series, Justice League: A Midsummer Nightmare, with art from Fabian Nicsieza.
In truth, it wasn’t a very impressive story, being dependant upon the logic defying concept that the villain is able to brainwash the hero into not only forgetting that he or she is a superhero, but even that said superhero does not even exist. It’s difficult enough to pull off with one character, but with seven simultaneously credulity is strained unmercifully.
Nevertheless, seven heroes – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, The Martian Manhunter and Aquaman – had collectively forgotten who and what they were, but eventually remembered and set everything right again, after which they decided to reform the Justice League.
It’s terribly weak for a writer like Waid, and it was impliedly airbrushed from continuity in the JLA Incarnations mini-series, but it did what was required: it restored the Justice League, and it reset it with the ‘Big Seven’ that Helfer and Giffen had been unable to utilise a decade earlier. Their adventures would be published under the stream-lined title of JLA.
It wasn’t quite the original Big Seven of Brave & Bold 28. There was no Barry Allen nor Hal Jordan, and their places were taken by their heirs, Wally West and Kyle Rayner. And the Big Three had all been revamped, post-Crisis. And the Martian Manhunter’s history had been substantially tinkered with. And Aquaman had lost a hand and replaced it with a pike.
But this is comics, and we should know by now that it is the mask, the symbol, that is the core of being. The Justice League was back, with a vengeance.
And vengeance it was. This was the Big Seven, the legends, the mightiest of the mighty, and Morrison’s intention was to demonstrate that at every turned. The League met in the Watchtower, on the Moon, issuing forth to guard the planet against the worst that could be thrown at it. Conspicuous power demanded conspicuous menace. To confront it, Morrison plunged headlong into fast-paced, balls-out action, with rapid-fire dialogue. If these were the Over-men, then they wuld be the Over-men to the hilt.
Yet the underlying theme was not the fascistic impulse from which superheroes spring. Instead, Morrison hinted at a paganistic Pantheon; heroes as Gods – not in the religious sense of a being to worship, but rather the Aspects that overcame ordinary human strengths.
The continuity problems that had dogged the League since the late stages of its first Incarnation were dealt with largely by ignoring them. The JLA existed above and outside the DC Universe, increasing the pantheistic element. Or rather it was that the League’s battles rarely spilled over into the wider Universe.
Though the writers and their writing styles were poles apart, Morrison’s JLA was the closest DC had come to the glorious years of Gardner Fox and Julius Schwarz. Superheroes were big, they were fun, they were exciting. Though one wrote from innocence and the other out of a sly knowingness, Fox and Morrison made the League feel important, feel like the pinnacle.
Morrison even managed to fit in a Justice League/Justice Society cross-over, even though the Justice Society didn’t actually exist that year!
It was fun, it was ballistic, but it wasn’t to be forever. Including a couple of fill-ins, Morrison and his artist Howard Porter produced 41 issues before handing the reins over to Mark Waid, a superb choice. Waid had shone himself with the brilliant 12-issue series, JLA:Year One, creating a new post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour foundational myth for the original League. But after Waid finished his run, the inevitable set in.
Unlike past Incarnations, there’s no way to separate the Morrison/Waid JLA from the rest of the run. This title was the League’s third series, and despite changes of direction or form, the League it depicted was one thing, whole and entire. So all the other stories in the 125 issue run belong in this Incarnation.
It was the same old story: a running out of steam, an unwillingness or inability to create the excitement and thrust of the Morrison template, a changing litany of writers, a chaning of moods. There was the same old dilution of the brand, with spin-off titles and themes. At first this had been benign: JLA:Classified, begun by Morrison himself, a non-continuity series telling stories that might belong to any part of the League’s mythos, bound by nothing in the main title. But then there was the 12 issue parallel Justice League Elite, featuring a ‘black ops’ team that took a proactive as opposed to reactive stance to villains, and aimed to kill rather than imprison them.
The momentum drained away. A fresh start was needed, which meant killing the series and killing the JLA. By now, widespread editorial control, expressed in company-focussed stories was beginning to reassert itself. Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis had opened a can of worms with its revelation of mind-wiping  and memory-tinkering by the original League, included the robbing of ten minutes of Batman’s life (warning: never do this to a high-functioning sociopathic paranoid!)
Batman’s response to the rediscovery of his memories was one of several strands woven together to set-up Infinite Crisis, an 20 year sequel to the original. Things fell apart, the centre could not hold and, despite Green Arrow’s attempts to keep it going, the League fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
It would be back. It would aways, never fear, be back.

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.

JLA Incarnations 2: Justice League Detroit


I’m no fan of Gerry Conway as a writer. To me, he started off with a clear and precocious talent, but rapidly preferred to write regular series in which his tendency towards sloppiness could be mostly overlooked. The end of the first Justice League and the career of the second were, to me, characteristic of his work. And there is a strong element of the change being made for Conway’s personal convenience.
From 1980 onwards, from the success of Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans, with its first successful merger of Marvel-style dynamism and conflict with DC’s traditional, classic style, the company as a whole began, at long last, to take seriously the parameters of a DC Universe/Multiverse. Given the amount of time Conway had spent at Marvel (where he had been editor-in-Chief, albeit for about three weeks), this was a natural move. However, it was to have unwelcome consequences for him in respect of the Justice League.
Where, once upon a time, a Batman, Superman, Flash etc. adventure involving a serious departure from the DC status quo would be explained away as happening at a different time than the rest of the company’s stories, the adoption of the principle of a Universe denied this convenient explanation. What affected a character in their home mag now HAD to be contemporary.
With Conway also leading the Justice League in the direction of longer-term continuity, it became irritating and frustrating to him that he was having to adjust his plans around developments in a character’s own series that made them unavailable to the League for various periods. The classic example of this was The Flash: with his title planned for cancellation in the forthcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths, Cary Bates commenced a long storyline based on the Flash being tried for the murder of the Reverse-Flash, which took the Scarlet Speedster out of the picture.
Conway began pushing for a radical change to the Justice League, a membership consisting only of characters under his control. In 1983, this was agreed, and Conway set to bringing about the end of the first Justice League, along with artist Chuck Patton.
In some ways it was a typically Conway ending, superficially dramatic as the League repels an invasion by White Martians, preceded by the return of the Martian Manhunter from an exile that had started back in 1969, when he was considered to be an outmoded, unnecessary character (repeat after me: There is no such thing as a bad character). It’s a close-run thing, with the League taken by surprise, despite having had opportunities to learn about the planned invasion at an earlier stage.
Aquaman, who had been through several painful experiences, with an enemy killing his infant son, his wife Mera leaving him to return to her home dimension and being effectively deposed as King of Atlantis, blows up at his team-mates, who have all allowed personal concerns and demands to distract their attention, thus exacerbating the crisis. When he demands they commit themselves to full-time activity with the League, they refuse. So Arthur invokes a previously unknown provision of the League’s charter, enabling any of the founding members to irrevocably dissolve it if they believe the League is no longer serving its true purpose. Thus the first Justice League ended, not in action or drama, but as a bureaucratic exercise.
So Aquaman forms a new League, comprised only of heroes who are willing to commit themselves to full-time existence as JLA members. These consist of himself and J’Onn J’Onzz, the Elongated Man and Zatanna, plus four new, young, untried characters. These were Steel, an updating of Conway’s short-lived World War 2 Captain America-lite, Vixen, an intended debutante whose career was wrecked by DC Implosion cancellation before she even appeared, Vibe, a break-dancing Puerto Rican who was every bit as racially stereotypical as you’d imagine, and Gypsy, a barefoot fifteen year old orphan who could turn invisible.
With the League’s Satellite HQ having been (conveniently) destroyed during the would-be invasion, the new League needed a new base. In keeping with its stated ambition to be nearer to the people it existed to protect, the new team found itself being gifted a base, courtesy of Steel – or rather, the original Steel, Conway’s first creation, grandfather to the new Leaguer.
This consisted of a converted industrial bunker in Hank Heywood’s home town of Detroit. Which of course led almost immediately to the Second League being dubbed Justice League Detroit.
The problems with Justice League Detroit were manifold. It’s adoption of a base in an Industrial Bunker in Detroit imposed an unwanted mundane aspect upon the League, and created a sense of limits by associating them specifically with one American location. Filling half the team with new, untried, indeed somewhat amateurish characters created a whole new dynamic that Conway thought lent an additional dimension to the series, but which the audience rejected as simply inappropriate for the flagship team of the DC ‘Universe’.
And the series’ credibility was irrevocably holed within a few months of its start when Aquaman, who had made such a song and dance of the League having to be comprised of full-time, committed heroes, dedicated solely to its purposes and eschewing all personal considerations, Aquaman, who had dissolved the first league when it had refused to completely ignore personal commitments, Aquaman left the Detroit League to try to get back together with Mera. His wife.
To put it bluntly, the Detroit League was an attempt to rip-off the dynamics and atmosphere of the X-Men, without any understanding of what made the X-Men appeal in the first place, and even less understanding of what was the appeal of the Justice League itself. The DC web-site indicates that the Detroit League appeared in only 34 comics in total – and that includes retrospectives live the the actual JLA Incarnations series.
With sales dropping, and Crisis on Infinite Earths starting up, without a Justice League worth the name of it, DC decided to cancel the series. After 257 issues, for the first time since 1960, there was no Justice League of America.
That wasn’t quite the end of Justice League Detroit. The DC Universe started without an active JLA, but it still existed in theory. DC wanted to launch a new Justice League, and chose to do so on the back of Legends, the first of the annual crossover events that would demonstrate to the world that DC did have a functioning, coherent Universe, so there. But to launch the Third League, the Second had to be definitively exorcised.
So, as part of the crossovers associated with Legends, Justice League of America was restored for a four-issue mini-series, extending its numbering to 261.
Legends was based on the premise that a demagogic orator, G Gordon Godfrey, had successfully turned the American public against superheroes, leading to a Presidential Order banning their operating. It was an interesting theme, with two basic flaws: the first that it was far too obvious that Godfrey was actually the New God, Glorious Godfrey, a minion of Darkseid, and secondly that as the entire creative staff were Americans who’d gotten into the business because they were superhero fans, not one of them could conceive for a second that anyone might have the remotest doubt about how wonderful they are, so were unable to create any conviction over the fickle public turning its head.
But in the meantime, long term League foe Professor Ivo was stalking the four junior members of Justice League Detroit, one per issue of the ‘mini-series’. The ‘mini-series’ did not feature Conway: instead it was written by J M De Matteis, who would be heavily involved in the next incarnation, with art from Luke McDonnell.
Fates split on strict gender lines: the boys were killed, the girls fled. With a heavy heart, the Martian Manhunter officially shut down the League.
The ground was cleared.

JLA: Incarnations 1.


JLA Secret OriginsHaving written so many words by now on the legendary Justice Society of America, I thought it might be a pleasant change (for me at least) to write something on the Justice League of America for once. After all, but for the personal prejudice of Julius Schwartz, the League would have been a new incarnation of the Society, and the course of comics book history may have run very differently.
As for the title of this series I’m unashamedly stealing it from the excellent and mystifyingly-uncollected 2001 series written by John Ostrander and drawn by Val Semeiks and Prentis Rollins: seven extended issues telling new adventures whilst defining the various eras of the JLA.
By now, in the post-Flashpoint, New 52 Universe, the Justice League is in its seventh distinct incarnation since its debut in 1960. The original Justice League of America series ran for 261 issues, and three succeeding JLA series have each run over 100 issues, not counting any of the increasing number of spin-offs from the basic team concept. The League has changed to reflect the times, but it remains DC’s leading light, the centre of the DC Universe in whatever form it’s currently taking, the central point for the DC Universe’s greatest heroes.
By 1960, Julius Schwartz was probably the hottest editor at National Periodical Publications. Four years before, he’d agreed to take on the task of reviving the 1940s hero, The Flash, although on condition that he be allowed to throw away everything that had been done and start afresh with a new version: new character, new origin, new costume, new approach. The new Flash was a big success, though it took four try-outs over three years before an unconvinced management finally accepted that they had a hit on their hands. Schwartz was then invited to do the same for Green Lantern, who only needed two try-outs.
But before any decision was taken on giving the Hal Jordan version his own series, Schwartz was asked to revive the Justice Society of America.
Schwartz didn’t like the name. Though he’d cut his editorial teeth on the JSA in All-Star Comics, Schwartz had never liked the name Society. Societies were where you got together to drink beer and eat chowder. It did not suit a team of superheroes fighting crime and saving the world. So he changed it to League.
A League was bigger, better, stronger. It suggested strength in togetherness. The kids would understand it instantly, given all the stuff they read about Baseball Leagues and Football Leagues. So they would happily flock to the Justice League.
The JLA made its debut in Brave & Bold 28, the first in a three issue try-out. Brave & Bold had been around for several years as a title featuring derring-do adventures by historical figures, but it had lately been converted into a Showcase-style try-out magazine, alternating monthly. It was never as successful in this guise, not spinning off series the way Showcase regularly did, but it hosted the Justice League and they went massive. The team went straight into their own title, and within a year was the best-selling title in the industry. Somebody boasted of that to rival publisher Martin Goodman, who got back to the office and demanded his cousin-editor create a team book as well. Stan Lee called in his best artist, Jack Kirby. The rest of that story is history.
The League made its debut fully-formed, leaping straight into the action against Starro the Conqueror, an interstellar starfish. The founder members consisted of the big three, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Schwartz’s new Flash and Green Lantern (even though Hal Jordan had only appeared in his two Showcase try-outs so far), Aquaman, who’d been hanging around since the 40s without making an impression, and Joe Samachson’s J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter, who’d been introduced six months before Barry Allen,. but as an SF character, not superhero.
And where the Society had had Johnny Thunder, the League found itself landed with ‘Snapper’ Carr (first name not given for over twenty years). Snapper was the Justice League mascot, a hip-talking, jivey teenager whose nick-name came from his habit of snapping his fingers when he was excited, which was all the time. In reality, Superman would have drop-kicked the lad into a volcano inside three hours, but Snapper lasted until issue 77.
Initially, the League based itself in a secret cave sanctuary, near Snapper’s home town of Happy Harbor in Rhode Island State. In contrast to the JSA, the League did not have a permanent chairman, the post rotating through all its membership from meeting to meeting, nor did it operate with a fixed line-up: the League could add new members without having to push anyone out. Green Arrow, another 40s back-up, joined in JLA 4, the new Atom in issue 14 and the new Hawkman in issue 31.
For the first twenty-five issues or so, all the Justice league appeared in each issue, although Superman and Batman tended to fade into the background, playing minor roles. This was for the same reason the World’s Finest team had been excluded from the Justice Society: Mort Weisinger and his proprietorial hold on Superman. However, after National Publisher asked Schwartz why Superman didn’t appear much in the Justice League, and Schwartz gave him an honest answer, Weisinger was told not to obstruct Schwartz any longer.
But after the first Justice Society team-up, with the League eleven strong (counting Snapper) a new policy came in, with the League operating on a fighting weight of five to seven members each issue, making occasions when the entire League were called in a little more special.
Perceptive fans quickly determined that the League seemed to be split into a Big Five (Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman) and a lesser six (Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Atom, Aquaman and Snapper Carr), with appearances weighted in favour of the Big Five.
The induction of Hawkman was the last change for the Justice League for several years, retiring inkers aside. Mountain cave secret sanctuary, Fox plots, an unchanging line-up.
Meanwhile, the comics landscape outside DC was changing rapidly, with Marvel’s growing influence and sales potential. DC’s style became badly outdated as a generation of writers, who’d been in the business for nearly thirty years, found themselves developing concerns as to their future, lacking any kind of employee stability. In the end, the writers were dispersed and dispensed with, in favour of young turks, fans enthusiastic about getting into comics, about bringing their concerns into what had been a purely commercial craft, wanting to turn it into art.
The Justice League monolith was in drastic need of updating, which it got from new writer Denny O’Neil.
In tandem with Schwartz, O’Neil took the JLA through its first transition to a new phase. Out went the Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman and Snapper Carr, along with the cave Sanctuary. In came Black Canary, transferring from Earth-2 and the Justice Society, to fill the need for a female JLAer (the only other possibilities being Batgirl and Supergirl, entirely too derivative, and in breach of the rule against duplicating powers).
And, to firmly initiate the second phase, the Justice League took to the stars, transferring its HQ to a Satellite in geosynchronous orbit, accessible by teleporter tubes (the Atom would have never made it that far by telephone!)
The satellite headquarters, the implied sense of gods overlooking a planet to which they were infinitely superior, changed the dynamics of the team. Alan Moore defined it superbly in Saga of the Swamp Thing: ‘there is a house above the world, where the over-people gather’, though it was Green Arrow who articulated it first, long years after the fact, resigning from the League to deal with what he saw as the more important matters, at street level.
But, despite the change in HQ’s, and the increasing removal of the League from the human level, this still remained the same League, defined by the same members, entrenched in its uninterrupted existence.
Neither O’Neil, nor his successor Mike Friedrich, were entirely comfortable with the League, as evidenced by a sales decline that saw the title cut back from DC’s standard eight-issues-a-year format (applied to all titles using a single, as opposed to multiple pencillers) to bimonthly. The series was then taken over by writer Len Wein, who reinstated the basic Fox/Schwartz feel, this time with personalities and character. The last quarter of his run saw Justice League of America published as a 100 page Giant, 20 pages of new material and 80 of reprint, but after a year of that experiment, the comic was reduced to 32 pages again, but for the first time with a monthly schedule that it has followed ever since.
Wein also presided over a changing membership, inducting both the Elongated Man and, as a second transferred from the JSA, the new Red Tornado, as well as offering membership to his mystery-book character, the Phantom Stranger. Whether the Stranger actually joined or not was left to each individual’s own interpretation.
After Wein, the Justice League entered its first nadir, without a permanent writer. Cary Bates, Elliott S! Maggin and Martin Pasko tag-teamed for the next couple of years, producing professional but uninspired work that was far from what would normally be expected of DC’s flagship title.
This period ended when former Marvel writer Steve Engelhart, committing himself to DC for twelve months, was assigned Justice League of America, having been the long-term writer of The Avengers. Having the advantage of extra page-length due to the comic being promoted to Giant-Size, Engelhart added a degree of dynamism, character conflict and Hawkgirl as a member, sinking the old duplicate power rule. However, Engelhart had specifically limited himself to one year, after which Gerry Conway took over as scripter for the remainder of the first Justice League of America series.
Conway, who added further members such as Zatanna, and his own creation, Firestorm, proved to be the League’s longest-lasting scripter, equalling Gardner Fox’s eight year stint, though writing more stories, due to its increased schedule, though there is little from this period that lifted itself above the mundane.
But it was Conway who was responsible for the end of the first Justice League and the establishment of its second incarnation, the short-lived and much-maligned Justice League Detroit.