Brad Meltzer calls them “ego characters” — those who, in his words, are put on the team so that everyone remembers them. “It’s in just about every run of every Justice League and it’s in just about every run of every Avengers,” he told Brian Bendis in an interview earlier this week.
Meltzer wants his run on Justice League of America vol. 2 to be ego-character-free, and while history has yet to evaluate the wisdom of his picks, at least he’s not stacking the lineup with his own creations.
Indeed, virtually every Justice League has included ego characters, but some of those are what I call “inbred.” These are characters created by the book’s then-current writer specifically to join the team. Closely related are “vanity” characters, created by the League book’s then-current writer, and brought into the League at some later date.
Firestorm is a good example of a vanity character. Created by Gerry Conway and Al Milgrom in March 1978′s Firestorm, The Nuclear Man #1, his book lasted a mere five issues. However, by June 1980, ‘Stormy had a few guest appearances and a backup series in Flash (by Conway and George Perez) under his belt. Conway was well into his tenure as League writer, and clearly thought Firestorm was up to the group’s standards. Indeed, by 1982 his time with the JLA had helped him get a new solo title.
Firestorm was the last member to join the original team before its 1984 dissolution, but he wasn’t the last Gerry Conway creation to join a Justice League. Steel, Vibe, and Gypsy were all created by Conway specifically for the Detroit League, and Vixen joined about three years after Conway had introduced her. Moreover, while Steel wasn’t a vanity character, strictly speaking, he was the grandson of another Conway character, the similarly-named star of his own five-issue 1978 series. Thus, most of the new Detroit Leaguers were excellent examples of “inbreds,” with a couple of “vanity” elements thrown in for good measure.
Now, I understand that the Detroit League was DC’s attempt to remake its flagship team into something more closely resembling the New Teen Titans or Batman’s Outsiders, with a mix of established heroes and newly-created characters. Unfortunately, this missed the point of the Justice League almost entirely. Every member of the original team had been established, mostly (except for Red Tornado) outside of the JLA book. Thus, although one can argue that a writer has to be able to create new characters for particular dramatic purposes, in this situation an “inbred” teammate faces a potentially hostile reception.
Still, the Detroit League’s successor, Justice League International, also had its share of inbred characters. The first was G’Nort, who never technically joined the team (unless you count JL Antarctica). Keith Giffen and his collaborators later gave the JLI Crimson Fox (two for the price of one!) and General Glory.
In a way, Justice League International became an exercise in using ego characters. The initial lineup was filled with veterans and stars of their own series, except for the second Doctor Light, who only lasted a couple of issues. Rocket Red was, perhaps, the second ego character (and, in terms of Dimitri Pushkin, the guy in the RR suit, might also have been considered inbred). Green Flame and Ice Maiden were almost definitely ego characters, plucked from the relative obscurity of the Global Guardians. Similarly, Blue Jay and Silver Sorceress were Avengers analogues from a one-time pseudo-crossover, in limbo for around fifteen years. Regardless, under Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Bill Messner-Loebs, and Gerard Jones, the two Justice League teams tried to break new ground with regard to stories and character interactions, and DC’s B- and C-list heroes often provided good material.
After the Giffen Administration ended, Dan Jurgens and Gerard Jones each used their own creations on their respective books. Looking to the friendly confines of the Superman titles, Jurgens contributed Agent Liberty as a vanity character, and recruited former villain Maxima (created by George Perez) as an ego character. Jurgens’ inbred character was Bloodwynd. His Justice League America successor Dan Vado contributed a new Amazing-Man as an inbred character, and as the League franchise prepared for Zero Hour, every book had to deal with the new inbred character Triumph.
(I’m not sure exactly how to count the Extreme Justice versions of Zan and Jayna. In the context of that book, they were created to join the team, but obviously they were (sigh) xtreme! versions of the TV characters. However, those characters were, in turn, created specifically to join the Super Friends….)
While on Justice League Europe, Gerard Jones created a few inbreds: Maya the teenage archer, Erewhon the ghost, and Lionheart, a modern-day knight. (Lionheart was part of a Bloodlines story, so he was almost guaranteed to be lame.) They didn’t follow him over to Justice League America, but after the move, Jones brought in his version of El Diablo as a vanity character. Depending on how much stock one puts in fans’ influence, Jones’ induction of Blue Devil was either long overdue or another ego-character instance. Jones also created Civet, a cat-woman, and The Yazz, a bird-like alien who oversaw the JLA’s new satellite headquarters.
During his JLA tenure, Grant Morrison had one inbred character (Zauriel) and one vanity character (Aztek). Arguably, Plastic Man might be seen as an ego character, since the Leaguers themselves commented on including him over the Elongated Man. Mark Waid’s tenure was short enough that he didn’t have any ego characters, but Joe Kelly made up for that with the inbred Faith and Manitou Raven, not to mention using Vera Black and her colleagues as vanity characters in Justice League Elite.
While these ego characters probably benefit from the accumulated goodwill of their particular team(s), perhaps the truest test of an ego character’s popularity is his/her use by later writers. Gypsy, Vixen, and Fire all have regular gigs. There is a new Firestorm and a new Crimson Fox, and apparently the new Justice Society will have its own version of the Detroit Leaguer Steel (as opposed to the John Henry/Natasha Irons version). G’Nort will be a significant part of the new Guy Gardner miniseries, Faith appears in the current JLA Classified arc, starting this week, and hey! there’s Blue Jay, arguing for a leadership role in this week’s Action Comics! (Still, is it really an accomplishment to have Kurt Busiek remember you?)
Ego characters also tend to symbolize the era in which they joined the League. Firestorm recalls the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the Satellite League was winding down. The Detroit and JLI characters are likewise easily recognizable. However, nobody looks at Agent Liberty and thinks “Dan Jurgens’ post-Doomsday Justice League,” nor do they associate Blue Devil with Gerry Jones’ pre-Morrison JLA. Regardless, ego characters will be somebody’s shorthand, even if they signify “lame.”
Given his relatively small amount of DC work, and his tendency to use existing characters, I’d say it would be pretty simple for Brad Meltzer to avoid using vanity characters and/or inbred characters. He hasn’t created any new heroes to import into the League, nor does he seem likely to create a character just to join the team. In this respect he’s breaking with tradition, albeit a tradition that tends to be viewed suspiciously. Even so, while it may be too early to tell how Meltzer’s run will be remembered, it seems certain that his ego characters will help define it.