The long and storied history of the Justice League of America.
As the Justice League gets its latest Rebirth revamp this year, David Barnett traces the history of the ultimate super-team
Super-teams typically come together to face off against a villain that none of the heroes could vanquish
individually. For the Avengers, it was nothing less than an Asgardian god, Loki. The X-Men’s first mission was to prevent evil mutant Magneto from wreaking havoc after taking control of a missile base. The new-found cosmic-ray-imbued powers of the Fantastic Four were given an airing to halt the Mole Man attacking the surface world with the aid of gigantic beasts bursting out of the sidewalk. The Justice League? They had a giant, one-eyed starfish. But hey, this was the dawn of the ’60s, and the B-movies of the previous decade meant that no-one batted an eyelid at the likes of Starro the Conqueror, come to Earth to have his wicked intergalactic way, so an evil extraterrestrial echinoderm was an entirely suitable foe for this gathering of comics’ finest.
In these modern times when superheroes regularly band together just to nip down to the supermarket for a weekly shop, the idea of the super-team is nothing new. But back in 1960, it was a thrilling thing for readers. The Justice League was the idea of Julius Schwartz, editor at National Periodical Publications (as DC was then officially known), who had been gradually re-introducing Golden Age DC characters since the middle of the 1950s, repackaging and updating them from their roots in the ’30s and ’40s. Superheroes had fallen out of fashion in the early ’50s but DC’s revived characters were now all doing well in their individual titles: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern. But even issue-to- issue continuity was a haphazard thing in those days, when readers could not be sure to find successive issues on the newsstand. As for shared universes? Wonder Woman or Superman might regularly save the world with no sign or mention of the planet’s other super-powered champions.
Schwartz, in an interview with writer Roy Thomas for
Alter Ego magazine, recalled the process that led to the birth of the Justice League: “After The Flash proved successful, they said, ‘What do you want to do next?’. I
said, ‘I want to do Green Lantern,’ because that was really a favourite of mine. When Green Lantern proved successful, they said, ‘What do you want to do next?’ I said, ‘I’d like to do The Justice Society of America, but I don’t like the word Society, because it’s like a social group, and I want to use the word League, because it’s a more familiar word to young readers, like the National League and American League.’ And that’s how that happened.”
Schwartz got together with star writer Gardner Fox, under whose hand the old Justice Society had enjoyed some success back in the 1940s, and the updated baseball-leagueinspired version of the classic superhero team got its first outing in The Brave and The
Bold #28, in spring 1960, Starro and all.
The team was an instant hit, and by November the Justice League of America had their own title, revolving around the core seven heroes but adding new members to the roster, including Atom, Hawkman and Green Arrow.
Although Superman and Batman were the most recognisable properties in the line-up, they didn’t even appear on that first cover, and often not at all in the stories, allowing the other characters room to breathe and develop. Despite being launched in the white heat of the space race years, the Justice League were also a long way from getting their satellite headquarters in orbit around Earth. In the early days they operated out of a cave (Batman’s influence?) and were followed around by a teenager named Snapper Carr, who became the League’s “mascot” and, presumably, someone for the young readers to identify with in this world of costumed champions.
In fact, it was Carr who put the mockers on the cosy cave set-up, inadvertently letting its location slip to the Joker. After ten years of adventures, the Justice League had to bid farewell to their subterranean hangout and finally, in 1970, they got the orbital clubhouse they deserved.
The book’s success had been out of this world, too, even after Gardner Fox’s departure. He was replaced on writing duties by Denny O’Neill, who wasted no time in shaking up what would become an everchanging roster. Out went Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter. In came Black Canary, Elongated Man, Red Tornado and other mainstays of the ’70s League, and there followed a stellar series of writers including Len Wein, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin.
The Justice League of America ran for 261 issues, right up to 1986, with the final storyline seeing the deaths of JLA members Steel and Vibe and widespread resignations as part of the Legends multi-title crossover event, which paved the way for one of the most significant reboots of the team in its history.
The Legends crossover came on the back of the epic
‘Legends’ paved the way for one of the biggest reboots of the team in its history
Crisis On Infinite Earths, DC’s huge bid in the ’80s to try to make sense of an impossibly tangled continuity nightmare that was like a three-way road crash involving lorries carrying string, spaghetti and rubber bands. Crisis had simplified the DC multiverse’s umpteen parallel worlds and brought a lot of heroes who’d inhabited different Earths all in one place, meaning there could be a fresh new line-up for the new title, beginning again with issue one. The new
Justice League dropped the “America”, and as well as bringing in some new – often surprising – faces, also injected a healthy dose of comedy, courtesy of writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis and artist Kevin Maguire.
The seemingly everincreasing roster featured a long-suffering Batman trying to whip into shape a diverse team of individualists including Martian Manhunter, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Doctor Light, Black Canary, Captain Atom, Fire and Ice, Green Lantern Guy Gardner, and even Rocket Red. (Who would have thought the Russians could have any influence on America’s highest super-powered office?)
The tone was quirky and tongue-in-cheek, the dialogue snappy as the characters bounced off each other. The approach proved popular and the book – eventually morphing into Justice League
International – ran for five years under the GiffenDeMatteis writing team, and another five years after that.
By 1996, however, sales were on the wane, and it was time to go back to basics. Grant Morrison was brought in to revamp the League, which he did by returning it to its original line-up. The issue numbering was once again reset to zero and the title renamed simply JLA. Morrison took a big-screen approach to the storytelling, taking the idea back to its central concept: the team existed to tackle huge threats that nobody else could.
While he was on JLA Watchtower duty and also writing Aztek for DC, Morrison was also bending heads out of shape in The
Invisibles for DC’s mature readers line, Vertigo, but the approach he took in the former two books was very different. As he explained to Jay Babcock in a 1996 interview for Arthur magazine: “What I’m doing with JLA and Aztek is going back to the kind of stuff I liked when I was a kid and trying to do an updated version of it for kids now.”
Morrison wrote 41 issues and the title continued until 2005, when the League again provided the conduit for another big DC-wide crossover, this time Infinite
Crisis. It would mean the cancellation of the title with issue 125, but the crew would go out with a bang, quite literally, as their orbiting Watchtower base was sensationally destroyed.
It’s about people who make each other better than they can be on their own
So one year later, it was back to where the Justice League had started, as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman met up for drinks and snacks in a cave – this time the one under Wayne Manor – and decided once again to get the band back together. Oh, and they were putting America back in the title, for volume two of Justice League of America. And, from 2006, things went swimmingly... until the New 52 in 2011.
DC likes to wield the broom and make a clean sweep of things periodically, but the New 52 reset the clock almost like never before. After the Flashpoint crossover, everything went back to year zero. The Justice League ditched the “America” once again and writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee started over from scratch, giving the squad a new origin. But it also expanded the JL family with another stab at Justice League International, plus Justice League Dark, in which occult detective John Constantine, never really known as a team player, nevertheless assembled a motley crew of DC’s supernatural characters. Then, even more confusingly, there was another Justice League of
America title launched, headed up by Suicide Squad’s leading lady Amanda Waller.
Now for rebirth
If the New 52 was meant to simplify things, it certainly threatened to recreate the string-spaghetti-rubber band truck smash for the Justice League titles, and it was no great surprise to anyone that the whole New 52 universe was ceremoniously brought to an end, and by February 2016
DC was in the throes of yet another re-organisation with the titles all being relaunched under the Rebirth banner.
This pretty much brings us up to date. 2017 is a big year for the Justice League, not least because the movie version is set for release at the end of the year – but also because the Justice League gets a Rebirth revamp under the guiding hand of Steve Orlando. The stage was set for a big comeback with the Justice League Vs Suicide Squad miniseries. Like Morrison before him, Orlando wants to take the team back to basics. He told the Comicosity website earlier this year: “Ultimately, putting a JLA together is about finding people who can make each other better – better than they can be on their own. And that goes for everyone. No character in the JLA is perfect, and that’s a big part of it coming out of Justice League Vs Suicide Squad, with even Batman understanding that there are things he can’t do on his own. His way is a great way, but it’s not the only way... Other people need to come in and it needs to mean more than what Batman can do alone. That’s why the JLA is there.”
Batman is the lynchpin in the new Justice League of America, which debuted in February, following a series of Orlando-penned one-shots focussing on some of the fresh roster, a mix of those who might not necessarily be seen as A-list players plus some familiar faces... or familiar names, at least.
These include the Atom, Vixen, the Ray and Killer Frost. But the Atom, for example, is a not the Ray Palmer of old, it’s Palmer’s protégé Ryan Choi, created by Gail Simone and Grant Morrison. The one-shots filled in a lot of post-Rebirth backstory, with Jody Houser joining Orlando to tell the story of businesswoman and fashion icon Mari McCabe’s journey to becoming Vixen, for one. Orlando and Houser teamed up again to tell the story of villain-turned-hero Killer Frost.
Batman has already got some veteran help in the form of Black Canary and Lobo, creating an interesting mix for the new Justice League and a line-up that is altogether more human and down-to-earth than perhaps the “classic” incarnations featuring DC’s biggest hitters. And, in a very neat tie-up right back to the original League, the new JLA title opens with Batman and Killer Frost exploring the long‑abandoned JLA cave from all the way back in the ’60s. But, as Batman observes, the cave is just a relic of a bygone era... The Justice League of America is looking forward now, not backwards.
Like every good super-team, the Justice League is about being stronger together, heroes using their unique skills in concert with each other to defeat the perils and threats that one hero, even Superman, can’t tackle alone.
Or, as DC’s official blurb for the relaunch says: “This is a Justice League that looks like America, that proves Heroism can look like ANYTHING and ANYONE. From February 1960 to February 2017, the mission hasn’t changed. It’s just evolved.”
Above left: Cover by Paquette and Fairbairn for the second issue of the ongoing 2016 series. Above: A lull in the action in Justice League Rebirth #1 by Bryan Hitch. Above right: Giffen and DeMatteis brought a whole new sensibility to the Justice League in the 1986 revamp pencilled by Kevin Maguire.
Above: The New 52 reboot was drawn by fanfavourite artists Jim Lee and Scott Williams. Right: The Rebirth title by Bryan Hitch includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and two new Green Lanterns.
Above: The 2011 “New 52” line-up, like the original Justice League as Julius Schwartz conceived it, included DC’s biggest names.
Left: The newest roster in the JLA ongoing series includes Batman, BlackCanary, the Atom, Vixen, the Ray, Killer Frost and Lobo.
Above right: Rebirth issue 1 variant cover by Tony S. Daniel and Tomev Morey.
Below: The Justice League kicked off with this iconic cover to The Brave And The Bold #28 in 1960, and the first series ran until April 1987. As well as juggling an ever-changing roster of members, it introduced some notable villains, guest stars and continuity challenges.