The JLA: Silver Age to Today
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Bruce Bachand

Every diehard fan of the Justice League of America knows that there is more than one rendition of the current DC title. The original title of the book was The Justice League Of America and it ran from the early 60’s until to the mid 80’s. It was followed, post-Crisis, by Justice League, which eventually was re-namedJustice League America and continued with the Justice League numbering. At this point of the juncture we have the introduction of Justice League Europe, Justice League International, Justice League Task Force, Justice League-related Extreme Justice, etc… all the stuff that leads up to the current status of the League; JLA.

Everyone who has read the title for 5 years or more has a favorite incarnation that they think is\was the best. Me, too! In fact I read Justice League of America #92 way back when I was young, relatively naive, and wholly optimistic. The Justice League of America completely blew me away.

Here were a bunch of superheroes who actually enjoyed working together (aside from Ollie and Carter, that is). They had power, strength, leadership, both sexes represented (though no non-whites; except J’onn J’onzz), and battles\encounters worth reading about. Justice League of America #100 was a great read at the time. Many casual hours were spent as a child reading DC comic books. I ended up also reading Batman, Detective Comics, Superman, Supergirl, some western stuff, and a few others when I could get my hands on them. My elementary school had a “family fair” when I was about 8 years old and I remember bringing home a huge box of comic books that I had purchased. If only I had those comics now…think of the “coin” that they would be worth! As a side note, the only title that Marvel put out that I somewhat enjoyed was… the Avengers! Another team book!

It is important to mention that I grew up on the prairies of Canada as a boy. Getting comic books was a chance to (unconsciously) “escape” the small-town that I lived in, if only for 10-15 minutes in a comic book. My friends and I would exchange comics though we all had our tastes. One guy collected almost all war comics (e.g. Sgt. Rock and the Howling Commandos), another guy was into funny stuff (e.g. Archie), another guy loved westerns (e.g. Two-Gun Kid) and another guy seemed to like everything that (the rest of us agreed) sucked! I would give the war stuff and the western a chance. Archie was read when I wanted to borrow stuff from my sister if I was desperately bored. The superhero titles were my main reading choice. And getting consistent shipments of DC titles to my small Saskatchewan-town was almost next to impossible. Think about the importance of reading all three parts to a three-part story And then think about the frustration of being a kid and never getting to read the ending because it never got shipped to your town!

Regardless, I did everything that I could to guarantee a regular monthly diet of stuff. Needless to say, the Justice League of America was one of my most treasured reads.

After moving, in 1973, to British Columbia (where Vancouver is), I found that the place where I lived had more than one source of comic books. There was the newsstand, the grocery store, the gas station, and the other grocery store. I was in bliss! “Why hadn’t we moved to Kelowna earlier?” I thought.

It was pretty much certain now that I would never have to miss an issue of the JLA again. A time or two I had no cash and had to forfeit the issue to a customer who did. Other than that things went well. I graduated from high school in the early 80’s and was still reading the JLA title. The team was good and had remained relatively stable as far as I could have remembered. The addition of Firestorm was an action that particularly pleased me. He was young, very powerful, and not confident at all. When I think back I also liked the fact that, despite being at each others’ throats most of the time, Green Arrow and Hawkman always remained team players who knew they could count on the other in a crisis situation. Somehow those role-model qualities rub off on readers to some degree.

Suffice it to say, there was a team core (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Hawkman, and Atom) that managed to keep the title popular for years and years. By the mid 80’s the team had fundamentally changed. The immediate pre-Crisis JLA was pathetic. It had no real strength, power, cohesiveness, or leadership (aside from the Martian Manhunter; what that guy has been through!). The last issue of the Justice League of America was one of the most-demanded “kill-these guys-off-or-else-break-them-up” issues from a reader’s perspective. Things had actually got to that point. Sure there was the odd good story. Completely demonizing the series at that point (or any one point) does not do justice to the complex choices made by editors and writers, good or bad. Yet, rote buying is still the only excuse that I can come up with for purchasing so many poorly-written and horribly-drawn issues. Does anyone with sense still long for the days of Vibe to return?!
The Crisis on Infinite Earths was the penultimate series that really changed all the rules, folks. The first issue of the series came out in 1985. Once a month, for a full year, the next issue would come out. Readers were literally teased for 365 days! With each issue I thought “They can’t be doing what I think that they are doing are can they?”. After Barry Allen “bought the bullet” I began to get more concerned. Entire universes were being literally wiped out of existence. Supergirl is also killed. The original and gray-haired Superman is taken out of DC continuity permanently. And we aren’t talking no imaginary story either. This was by far one of the best multi-issues I had ever read. Every character in the DC universe(s) was drawn and included somewhere. George Perez had finally been given a task that would challenge him tremendously. The final results were true excellence. So good that the book is being re-issued in 1998 by DC. It will sport a cover by Alex Ross as well as be completely re-inked. This will be one of “the buys” of ‘98!

In some sense the Crisis-story was the quality of JLA story that should have been written for years. The sad side of things is that the Justice League of America was, for all purposes, a title that had seen glory and was now in a state of decline. Ask the Roman empire about that scenario.

New characters were not keeping the fan base. More “down-to-earth” type of stories weren’t doing what had been hoped for. Even bizarre villains could not keep the title from steadily plummeting toward Earth, as did the JLA’s satellite headquarters during the Crisis.

The past thirteen years has seen a number of ambitious and risky chances taken to re-vitalize the Justice League name. After the Crisis had passed and a “new” slate had been created, the JLA re-formed as the Justice League. Thus, the new era of the JL was ushered in. Zany humor, lighter plots\stories, and an interesting mix of the old-and-new heroes characterized this new League. Things were now the most optimistic that they had been in years for the once-undefeatable DC superhero group.

The Justice League became JL America and JL Europe. The team operated in conjunction with the United Nations and had bases around the globe. Keith Giffen was the key writer who breathed life into the JL and managed to build interest in the title again. In the late 80’s and very early 90’s the League regained a measure of lost respect, prominence, and credibility as a series. Justice League Europe could never quite get away from being thought of by readers as being the second-stringers who didn’t make the JLA team. Once again, the JLE series did sport some good and interesting stories. Unfortunately, though, they were not nearly consistent. And that is death to a title.

When Giffen went on to do other things the title again seemed to wander somewhat aimlessly. Who-should-be-in-charge was even debated in the JLA team before Giffen left. The title was denigrating into a joke once again. The refreshing humor that Giffen brought was now making the team into a B-grade soap opera that lacked focus, leadership, stability, and a redeeming reason to believe that they were the best that DC had to offer. Despite these specific criticisms, Keith Giffen was instrumental in making needed and crucial changes to the JL that added more than they have detracted.
The pre-Morrison JLA of post-Giffen history suffered from the same symptoms of previous eras of JLA flabbiness: the characters were not exercised on the writing-level in ways that interest in them.

Dan Jurgens was now the writer and artist on the series Justice League America. I found a highlight of his run was the story line “Destiny’s Hand” (#72-#75). It featured a version of the JLA of the 70’s which had remained unchanged in 1993.

I really was not too thrilled with the characters. Guy Gardner should have NEVER been a JLA’er! I don’t care what ring he had (it seems highly doubtful he would have been given it in the first place anyway). The team also included some “real” people like; the Blue Beetle who was more human because he struggled with his weight problem; Booster Gold, a man from the future who didn’t seem to learn much while he was there; Maxima, a very powerful woman who was an excellent role model for men and women. There were others but none of them (other than Wonder Woman and J.J.) really connected with me. Disappointment had set in again. And as a footnote, why was it always so bloody difficult for these people to get along?! They were coming across as therapy-group hero wannabes. This has been played too death!

When Superman joined the Jurgens-JLA, his presence seemed to focus the team somewhat. Strong leadership is a quality of importance that cannot be overstated in this writers’ view. Superman is the team player in comic book history. Along with his powers added into the picture, Superman is the perfect leader. He is focused, looks out for the underdog, keeps a watchful eye on the unsure novice, lacks a spotlight-seeking ego, makes sure that the loudmouth egomaniac on the team is kept in check, and never misuses his sexual attractiveness to his advantage. Oh, and he also knows how to delegate authority, responsibility and tactical wisdom. It needs to be said, though, that without the Martian Manhunter the JLA would have been completely annihilated a number of times over. J’onn possesses many of these same qualities. My comments about Superman are in no way intended to be a slam against good old J’onn! His more brooding and somber disposition is the only thing that has kept him from being as inspiring a hero as Supes’.

At this point in the tour we come to Grant Morrison. His stint on JLA has definitely made the Justice League a commercial success for DC Comics. But has his writing for the series demonstrated that the stories are more compelling, the characters actually grow and mature, and that the best of the JLA’s past is blended with new and creative situations\characters? In my opinion, the answer is a solid YES.

He has been working with the new JLA title for almost two years. Almost every issue has been part of mini-series within the title. There was the Martian attack. Then the battle against Asmodel. This was followed by the attack from the Key at the Watchtower. This climaxed in the “Rock of Ages” storyline that lasted for six issues. The most recent two-parter introduced us to the new line-up.

This says something good about Morrison. He knows that it takes time to tell a decent tale. Whether it be two-issues, four-issues, or even six-issues, he will take the length needed to “do it right the first time”. Howard Porter has drawn some very absorbing artwork in which to frame the stories. It is now difficult to think who would have been such a fine interpreter of Morrison’s ideas.

The inking and colors have been truly spectacular, inspiring, and vivid. My baseball cap is tipped to John Dell, Ken Branch, and Pat Garrahy for results that are first-rate from this fan’s perspective. They take advantage of the latest computer color tools to enhance their work even further. Most of the covers of the first seventeen issues of JLA amply provide evidence to support this.

The JLA’s first year-and-a-half has been a whirlwind of action, change, death, love, loyalty, uncertainty, and growth. The League of issue #15 is a team that is more mature than that of issue #1. A mother has replaced her daughter on the roster. New members have come and already gone. Villains of the past JLA have reared their heads along with new and very powerful villains. A sense of continuity prevails that really seems to tie this League with the Leagues of the past. Morrison is forcing himself to sweat on this title. And we, the readers, have a great deal to be thankful for.

The title “JLA” is popular because it is a comic book that is well-written, well-drawn , well-colored\inked, and well-edited. I am optimistic for the first time in about twelve years that the JLA is in hands that will take care of it. They will also take it into the 21st century with a sense of adventure, intrigue, and journeying into the unknown. And that is what keeps us readers willing to pay our few bucks every month for a good read.