by Bruce Bachand
This new column (thank-you Michael!) will review memorable stories of the Justice League. The JLA title is currently still DCs hottest selling comic book and it is worthwhile to take a look in the past at key tales of the League. As a challenge to you readers, I invite e-mail over the next thirty days for you to tell me of your single favorite Justice League tale/mini-series/storyline. The one that is most requested will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of FANZING.
The first thing that gripped my attention was the cover of Justice League of America (J.L. of A.) #72. The reader is greeted with a picture of the current League assembled on the deck of the JL satellite headquarters. Featured on the cover are Green Arrow, Black Canary, the Martian Manhunter, the Red Tornado, the Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern, and Firestorm. Yes, your eyes are NOT deceiving you! That is the current League. Sort of. Be patient and all will be explained!
Now perhaps you were expecting Wonder Woman, the Ray, Guy Gardner, the Black Condor, the Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Maxima, Peacemaker, and Bloodwynd (and a guest-starring Atom) to be representative of the Leagues line-up for that era. You are correct. Please accept your prize (a free supply of air for the day). And you are also wrong. Sort of. Be patient and all will be explained!
A quick synopsis of the four issues. The first issue basically takes it for granted that the League is comprised of the heroes mentioned in the first paragraph. Except for Green Lantern ( who has graying temples), all of the League-ers look as if they havent aged a day since 1980. But this is a very different group of heroes.
Star Sapphire, Sinestro, and the Wizard are attempting to rob the Gotham Museum. They are interrupted by the Martian Manhunter (who is sporting a JLA emblem on his belt with a lightening bolt blazed across it) who proceeds to vaporize the first and latter of the trio. Only Sinestro escapes (with a freshly broken arm, courtesy of Jonn, along for the ride). Sinestro is caught and we are introduced to Green Lantern, Green Arrow, the Black Canary, Hawkman, the Batman, Commissioner Gordon, the Atom , the Flash, the Red Tornado, and Firestorm over the next 18 pages. Ooops . I almost forgot one other guest. Doctor Destiny! The Lightening Squad (i.e. the new name for the League) is a brutal, despotic agency that acts as police, judge, jury, and executioner in this strange world. China attempts to put things to a halt and has there nuclear bombs detonated own their own soil. No one messes with these dudes and one dude-ette!
The next three issues provide some understanding as to what is going on. This League is apparently an incarnation of a dream that the Atom had one night. Doctor Destiny picked up on the dream and was able to make it real. The real League (i.e. Wonder Woman, the Ray. etc..) is asked by the American military why it has re-established the satellite headquarters in orbit above the Earth. The JLA is as confused by the news. As a response the Ray, Guy, and Bloodwynd go to investigate this strange sight. They end up being captured (except for Bloodwynd) by the cheerless Lightening Squad and are taken to the JLA Incarceration Complex in Nevada. The remaining JLAers have gathered in Nevada (lead by Wonder Woman) to investigate an odd temporal disturbance (could the two situations be related, we ask? But yes!).
Folks, it is a bit difficult to sum up this story because it is fairly detailed in its particulars. Be patient and all will be explained! Almost, that is.
The rogue Lightening Squad is lead (translation: dictated to) by Hawkman. He is an exceptionally vile and loathsome character who enjoys torture, dismemberment, authoritarianism, and as much control as possible. The Batman use to be involved with the Squad but he has since changed his affiliations. The JLA of this world has to deal with a variety of global crisis that the League-ers applied their powers to settle and solve. The problems included mass unemployment, economic collapse, famine, starvation, wars, and riots. After the problems were solved the League grew hungry for more power, control, and an extension of its influence globally. It ended up creating a police/military state. So much for helping things out!
The JLA ends up taking on the Lightening Squad while Doctor Destiny escapes from imprisonment and makes his way to the New York headquarters of the Justice League of America. When there, he attempt to kill the comatose Atom who is supplying the stuff for this alternate dream world to exist. The problem is that it is also killing the Atom to maintain (by Destinys control) this illusory scenario. All events that go on in the dream world are real: injuries or death, included.
Well, sure enough the League is able to overcome the Lightening Squad, Doctor Destiny is thwarted in his attempt to kill the Atom (though just barely), and everyone survives. Oh, and it is revealed that Bloodwynd has actually been Jonn Jonzz for the past year in the League and no one knew until it was revealed in this crisis. That was the REALLY big news, JLA fans!
Jonn had apparently left the League a year earlier after the BREAKDOWNS storyline concluded in J.L. of A. of that year. This was quite a shock when I first read these issues. In hindsight, the writing was on the wall. In fact, enough clues were given in issues #73 and #74 to give the die-hard JLA the inside track as to the identity of this mysterious Bloodwynd (the guy wore a pretty ugly and lame costume). The revealing of his real identity was a great shot of adrenaline for the end of issue #74.
Lets face the plain and simple truth. These issues were great, primarily, because they had the best version of the JLA in them. Why the Elongated Man was missing is a mystery. Regardless, it had been years since we had seen Carter, Ollie, Barry, Bruce, Dinah, Ray, Jonn, Roy and the Red Tornado together. It was the retro-vibe that had hooked me. Damn, I would have bought issue #72 just to have the cover art!
The twist in the story of the now-demented JLA as the current-Lightening Squad was genuinely intriguing. I do think that characterization was better with the real JLA than with the Squad. But it was good to see both teams confront each other. It also served to highlight how much the JLA had changed over the years. Guy Gardner never would have made it into the JLA in the 70s! Roy Raymond, AKA Firestorm, was at least teachable and full of respect. The same is true for the Ray (both of whom I think should still be in the current roster). The dynamics of the dark League were still knit together by a strong sense of team camaraderie. The real JLA seemed to be a group of autonomous individuals who merely tolerated working with each other for who knows what reason. I need to give Dan Jurgens more credit for doing some fine, and believable, characterization. Sadly, though, the JLA was still not a world-class superhero team worthy of the title Justice League of America in my opinion. Sheer power they had. Leadership, yes, to a degree. But they needed the devotion and humility, that were integral, to establish a team of mutually committed colleagues. This was sorely lacking. Doomsday shattered the myth that power was all that you needed to survive. tactical strategy, wisdom, and effective, and authoritative, leadership were essential.
The cover art went from good to poor over the four issues. Issue #75 was bland and enemic. Overall, the art was pretty straight forward. Oddly, I do not find the colors to be well rendered at all. They seem haphazard and fragmented. The books have moments of looking good. See page 13, the second panel of issue #74 for a great Neal Adams type of shot of the Batman! I also liked the shots of the JLA/LSs satellite headquarters. It brought back the memories.
Considering who they were confronting (i.e. the original JLA members gone bad) the JLA did fairly well. For a fragmented group, that is. The use of Doctor Destiny was nothing out of the ordinary. Half of the time all he did was mumble. The use of Ray Palmer was out of nowhere. Basically, he was used as a means of doing a retro story. He was probably the easiest ex-JLAer to have manipulated by Destiny. Oh well, worse plots have been done.
I want to take a few moments to discuss one specific idea that was brought into the limelight in this tale: that is, what additional responsibility do the advantaged have in regards to caring for and living with the less or disadvantaged. In this case, we are about meta-humans (super heroes and villains) in a world of mostly non-meta humans. A reasonable analogy, for sake of comparison, is the expectation placed on and assumed of the United States government to be a global police officer, a free loan company, a military protector and defender of the Western nations, and a food bank to the masses. What ever happened to the idea of managing your own home as a first priority? Is the US the rich relative who everyone expects to be able take advantage of?
In the story, this rogue League has assumed greater responsibility and oversight in reaction to a series of global crisis that threaten near-complete instability across the United States. The phrase power corrupts has many centuries of evidence to support its premise. Who really believes that the JLA had responded to the economic and social collapses the way that they did because they were plotting a overthrow of the US government? I dooooooont think so. Yet, that is the result that occurred. People simply change when their circumstances also dramatically change. It cant be avoided. Some experience little or minimal change, whereas others almost seem to become completely different people. Lets take the case of the Lightening Squad.
They were a Justice League of America that saw the world structures crumbling and the possibility of complete anarchy if someone didnt intervene. Being courageous, powerful, capable, willing, and available they seized the moment and made massive changes. Things were good for awhile, at least. Then the human lust for more came in. Their appetites had been wetted and they saw that they could make a lot of really big changes. And they believed that they were right. I think that we have all heard this line from corrupt politicians to fallen religious leaders to zealous radicals of all kinds and sorts. We also believe in division of powers and limiting of power. The challenge for the League was to de-centralize their powers and establish local leadership councils\representatives who would serve their communities.. This didnt happen. And all hell broke loose.
Most dictators believe that they are doing the right thing otherwise they wouldnt try to do it! The important question is what are they trying to do, why are they wanting to, and how extreme of measures will they permit to carry out their dreams. Did you notice that Superman wasnt on the Lightening Squad? He was a man who submitted to principle and truth. He wasnt wishy-washy or weak-willed, either. He was probably killed attempting to resist what had seen start out as a rescue mission and ended up as a concentration camp and despot state. The others were more tolerant and suffered the consequences (as well as the rest of the planet!) that resulted.
What do you think the limitation of powers should be for meta-humans in the DC universe? If we had meta-humans and superheroes in our world what would be the appropriate amount of influence and authority to give them? Would we be able to trust them their heightened mental abilities to know what is best for us? Write to FANZING and give your feedback.
If one considers the way that DCs KINGDOM COME was fleshed out and written with this storyline there really is no comparison. The themes are related. What is the responsible thing for heroes to do if the world goes to hell fast? Both tales offer interpretations of this issue. DESTINYS TALE is plausible but told too fast for my liking. Too much was squeezed into these four issues for the key theme to intelligently dealt with. KINGDOM COME, on the other hand, does a much better job at addressing the question posed. It also gives a more compelling and more mature answer.
As much as these observations are firmly held in my mind, I still really enjoyed the issues as a whole. The use of the retro JLA, the secret of Bloodwynd, and future kind of story, great action scenes, and solid character interplay. There was some pretty dumb dialogue, mind you (e.g. Wonder Woman on the last page of issue #74; Bloodbwynds changed into the Martian Manhunter! But why? What does this mean? Like, uh, duuuuh, Diana!). The issues still were a good read. Entertaining. Not too predictable. A connecting of the past with the present. Good plot twists. Thats what quality escape reading is all about!