[Warning: In this post I will probably misuse horribly the word "metatextual" at least once.]
If you’re reading this, odds are you have a favorite superhero team. More than likely, that superhero team has a high-concept hook, like “teenagers in the future,” “hated and feared by the world they’ve sworn to protect,” or “creating heroic legacies since the 1940s.”
Now think about the Justice League.
There is nothing like that at the heart of the Justice League.
But … “The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes!” Look, it’s right there on the cover of issue #25! Yes, there’s that; but what does that mean? It’s not a concept in the same way that “Marvel’s First Family” or “Batman’s hand-picked supergroup” is. It doesn’t stand on its own, it stands in relation to the rest of DC’s superheroes, and so I say it is empty by comparison.
Look, I am a huge fan of the Justice League. If I chose to read only one DC superhero comic book, it would be Justice League of America. A few years ago I drew up a spreadsheet calculating, based on publishing history, which members actually deserved League membership. (Should I be more ashamed that I did it in the first place, or that I haven’t kept it up-to-date?) I love the idea of the Justice League … but that idea depends more on “real-world” factors than it does in-story rationales.
What was at the heart of the original Justice League? The market. According to TwoMorrows’ Justice League Companion (edited by Michael Eury), “[editor Julie] Schwartz’s rule for JLA eligibility, which he stated in an interview in The Amazing World Of DC Comics (AWODCC) #14 (Mar. 1977), was ‘to use all of DC’s super-heroes running [in their own titles or features] at the time.’” Now, as the book goes on to point out, this was not exactly compatible with DC’s editorial model.
In the dawning years of the Silver Age of Comics, the late 1950s, DC Comics’ super-hero editors — Mort Weisinger on the Superman franchise, Jack Schiff on the Batman titles, Robert Kanigher on Wonder Woman, and Julius Schwartz on the just-revived The Flash, Green Lantern … and space heroes Adam Strange and Captain Comet — worked autonomously, and with so few heroes in their respective camps, character intermingling wasn’t their primary objective — maintaining their [editorial] fiefdoms was. Outside of the coexistence of Superman and Batman …, DC stories rarely addressed the fact that these heroes even lived on the same world.
For example, the JL Companion notes that a pre-JLA Aquaman/Green Arrow story from Adventure Comics #267 (December 1959) was apparently facilitated greatly by the fact that both characters were currently Adventure features (and therefore both edited by Mort Weisinger). This was the exception, though, as characters other than Superman and Batman stayed separate even within editorial “fiefdoms.” Mort Weisinger controlled both Aquaman and Superman, same as Jack Schiff with Batman and the Martian Manhunter (still a Detective Comics backup feature in early 1960), but none of them shared the same story until the League’s debut in The Brave and the Bold vol. 1 #28 (February-March 1960). Indeed, the familiar Silver Age Flash/Green Lantern team-ups didn’t begin until Green Lantern vol. 2 #13 (June 1962). Therefore, one could argue that the League’s debut represented the point at which the modern-day “DC Universe” really started to take shape.
To me it all makes the Justice League something of a metatextual work — a comic book about comic book characters — so it has nothing really in the way of a central in-story theme. The Justice League does help facilitate the idea of a shared universe, but its all-star nature is best expressed in that context. Still, because that’s all Justice League is, that makes it better suited to compare and contrast different creative approaches and genres: not just Schiff and Schwartz or Sprang and Infantino, but fantasy (Wonder Woman) and science-hero (the Flash). This is not to say that the Justice League always consciously exploited (or exploits) a kind of proto-Planetary potential, but I think it’s always been there.
Take Steve Englehart, Dick Dillin, and Frank McLaughlin’s “Origin Of the Justice League — Minus One!” in JLofA vol. 1 #144 (July 1977). In that story (which I’ve mentioned in this space before), it’s the late 1950s and Earth-1′s super-population consists only of the characters DC was publishing at the time (or acquired later). When the “discovery” of a Martian invasion (actually a group of White Martians flushing J’Onn J’Onzz out of hiding) stirs up nationwide panic, said population swings into action. Foreshadowing classic JLA formula, the assembled superheroes split into groups, but this time, they split pretty much according to who has a secret identity and who doesn’t. The Challengers of the Unknown, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, Plastic Man, Congorilla, and the Blackhawks cover a UFO sighting which we learn is actually a combination of Adam Strange and Rip Hunter, Time Master. (Adam stays hidden because his feature was still fairly new, and Rip’s hadn’t premiered yet.) Meanwhile, Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Aquaman track J’Onn J’Onzz to a launch pad — where, with test pilot Hal Jordan looking on, the real action goes down. (The pre-GL Hal is the “minus one” of the title.) JLofA #144 therefore takes its source material very seriously, not just in terms of “historical accuracy” (using publishing dates as part of the story) but also with regard to separating the super-characters from the “mere” adventurers. That’s a pretty simple genre dividing line, but it’s still there.
Another example (maybe a contrapositive) comes in JLA’s two “No Man’s Land” tie-in issues, #s 32 and 33 (August-September 1999). Written by Mark Waid and Devin Grayson, pencilled by Mark Pajarillo, and inked by Walden Wong, they deal with the tension between Batman’s role in the League and his (and fellow Leaguer the Huntress’) responsibilities to quake-devastated Gotham City. They also address why the League hasn’t taken a few days (okay, maybe a week) to rebuild Gotham entirely, like it did after Metropolis was mostly destroyed in Action Comics #700. These were stories which reinforced the barriers between the Bat-books and Batman’s involvement in the more cosmic side of things; but in so doing, they acknowledged that Batman crossed genres every time he appeared with the League.
Again, though, it’s not just Batman, the Huntress, Green Arrow, et al., who are doing the genre-crossing. Because the Justice League can, in theory, handle as many genres as its members bring into the book, it can become a clearinghouse for all kinds of stories. For the most part it’s been a science-fiction or space-opera title, with the Leaguers fighting aliens and traveling to alternate Earths, but I don’t think it can be pigeonholed that easily. It’s done fantasy, mystery, comedy, horror, and at least one Western.
Naturally, over the years the Justice League has picked up various “reasons for being”: the origin story (fighting aliens, of course) in Justice League of America vol. 1 #9; the place-in-history overtones of the “minus one” story and The New Frontier; the revisions outlined in JLA: Year One; and the Trinity-reinforcing flashbacks of JLofA vol. 2 #0. Ultimately, though, because the JLA is DC’s top team of all-stars, it has nothing really to fall back on except … being DC’s top team of all-stars. The Justice Society also has an after-acquired origin (courtesy of Paul Levitz and Joe Staton in 1977′s DC Special #29), but at least it connects the team to World War II. Even the Avengers can claim to be part of Stan & Jack’s “master plan,” ‘way back when. Moreover, with the Avengers, the shared universe came first, so the group (and the book) can be seen as an outgrowth of that environment.
Now, let’s be clear: the JLA may be fan-entitlement dramatized, but with the right approach that’s hardly a bad thing. A book which practically winks at the reader from every page can build a good deal of fan loyalty on top of just being fun; and from what I have read, over the years Justice League of America did exactly those things. Add the inherent marketing pitch, and you’ve got a heck of a gateway book for the rest of the DC superhero line.
At least, that’s what Justice League was to Young Tom … and oh noes, here comes the old-guy nostalgia, but I think I can justify it this time. The title was about sixteen years old by the time I started reading, well into the so-called Satellite Era, so to me these characters were seasoned professionals. No wonder fans today talk about how great the Justice League is/was/will be: by the time most of us came along, the JLA’s greatness (or at least what made it great) was a given. In this way the League’s fortunes were tied directly to fan expectations, and those expectations didn’t involve radical roster changes. Accordingly, in the 1980s, when Batman quit and the Flash went on trial and Green Lantern spent that year in space (oh, and George Pérez left), Justice League suffered.
See, Justice League, in whatever form, has two basic components: characters who have other gigs, and situations which play off those characters appropriately. That might sound pretty basic, but the point of the book is to give the reader something which is orders of magnitude larger than what they would get out of a regular team-up. That’s where the fan expectations come in; and that’s the great, almost unquantifiable, risk any Justice League creative team must take. The best Justice League creative teams have not only used these other books’ characters well, they’ve concocted plots which wouldn’t have otherwise fit in any of those characters’ books.
The best Justice League creative teams have also tended to tell stories about the League itself. Not misty water-colored navel-gazing, mind you; but stories which build on the clash of genres I mentioned above. Grant Morrison’s initial JLA lineup was, arguably, something of an experiment: whether the seven “original” Leaguers worked in 1996 like they did in 1960. Likewise, many of Keith Giffen’s Leaguers were sufficiently self-aware to recognize their particular places in the superhero pecking order. These were more than personality clashes, because they played directly with fan expectations … and those expectations were created, at least in part, by the awareness that those characters had each come from Somewhere Else.
Thus, one might say that the failure of the “Detroit League” was too much insularity, and/or not enough clashes of outside forces. Since none of the returning Leaguers (Aquaman, Elongated Man, J’Onn J’Onzz, Zatanna) had his or her own title, and the others were Gerry Conway creations who by and large hadn’t appeared much of anywhere else, Justice League lost its “event” status.
This is not to say that a Justice League book cannot have meaningful subplots involving at least one character who doesn’t have his or her own title. Englehart gave the Atom an inferiority complex early in his run and had it pay off a few issues later. (That payoff, JLofA vol. 1 #142, was designed specifically to spotlight the team’s perceived dead weight, not just the Atom but Aquaman and the Elongated Man too.) A few years later, Gerry Conway played with the idea of a Flash/Zatanna romance. Of course, the Giffen/DeMatteis years produced the Beetle/Booster and Fire/Ice teams, and the Morrison run was good to both Steel and the Huntress. This week’s issue #25 wraps up the Red Tornado subplots which kicked off the series, and uses Vixen’s power fluctuations as the springboard for the next arc.
However, I maintain that the primary focus of any Justice League book must be the maintenance of those damnable fan-entitlement impulses that every other critical impulse in me decries. The Brad Meltzer run was full of good intentions, but it was too preoccupied with Red Tornado and the Big Three. Justice League of America is, by definition, DC’s year-round sweeps-week summer-blockbuster title. The only way it can deal with the gaping hole at its thematic core is to embrace it — yes, to embrace its very frivolity, its self-serving grandiosity, its shameless marketing impulses — and thereby to exploit fully its metatextual nature.
Now, I’m not saying Mark Millar needs to write it. That would be going too far. (Besides, Millar has already written a very nice standalone issue of JLA, whose ending is either exceptionally stupid or elegantly simple, depending on your mood.)
Furthermore, those shameless marketing impulses have been superseded to a great degree by DC’s Big Events and the League’s other guest-starring roles. In the pre-crossover days, the Justice League explored the odd corners of DC’s domains in grand style, especially in the annual Justice Society team-ups. (For our purposes, maybe the best example of this was 1978′s team-up. In Part 1, most of the superheroes were defeated by a handful of “historical” characters like the Viking Prince and Enemy Ace. In Part 2, the Elongated Man got to save all of creation.) More recently, though, JLofA vol. 2 was facilitating other people’s crossovers while actual Justice League-style adventures were taking place in books like Trinity and Tangent: Superman’s Reign. With what I hope is DC’s decreasing reliance on big-event crossovers (hey — DC = Decreasing Crossovers!), perhaps this aspect of Justice League will reassert itself.
(By the way, I do think that issue #25 was a big step in the right direction. Not only did it take care of the Red Tornado story nicely, but the Vixen/Animal Man/Anansi storyline looks eminently appropriate for the genre-bending the title should be doing.)
As I’ve said many times previously, Justice League of America is DC’s de facto constant-crossover book. It’s both the foundation and the ideal expression of DC’s shared universe. It is the vessel into which any DC superhero fan’s expectations may be poured. Readers shouldn’t feel ashamed to love the Justice League in all of its donut-shaped glory, as long as the book delivers on its self-referential promise.