The Justice League at 60, Part One: Eight Eras

With the team’s first appearance arriving in December of 1959, Tom Bondurant looks back at the different eras that have defined the Justice League over the last 60 years.

The Justice League of America debuted on Dec. 29, 1959, in the pages of February-March 1960’s The Brave and the Bold #28. Therefore, since we’re in their 60th anniversary year, and since the feature is going through yet another transition, it’s a good time for a retrospective. This is an overview, so subsequent posts will examine each League era in more detail.

Although the JLA wasn’t the first all-star super-team – the Justice Society of America turns 80 on Nov. 22, 2020 – it casts a very long shadow over those which followed. Everyone from the Avengers to the Zoo Crew compares and contrasts with the League in one way or another. Indeed, there may not have been a Marvel Comics if (as the legend goes) its publisher hadn’t wanted a series to capitalize on the popularity of Justice League of America. Nevertheless, those groups’ successes have turned the League into something of a default. The Teen Titans are younger, the Justice Society is older, the X-Men are persecuted, the Defenders are ad hoc, etc. Over the years the League has tried its own various tweaks in attempts to stay relevant; but ultimately it’s reverted to the mean – a group of the “World’s Greatest Super-Heroes,” matched against comparable threats.

Nevertheless, that deceptively simple premise puts a lot of pressure on creative teams. To frame this particular look back, then, let’s ask a) what factors make up a good Justice League run; and b) who’s done those things best? In this post we’ll lay out the criteria, so that we can go deeper in those era-specific entries.

First, let’s talk scope. The Justice League’s defining trait is its all-star status. In other words, for a good chunk of its history the League’s members had each appeared somewhere else. It took some 24 years for the series to feature characters created within the series specifically to join the team — namely a few new faces in the Detroit League. Even as such characters became more prominent, generally the League has never gotten too far away from DC’s A-list. In turn, this meta-approach tends to dictate the kinds of stories the series will tell; so it’s as much a part of “scope” as anything else. Even when the Justice League books haven’t gone big, they’ve had to grapple with this legacy.

Somewhat inversely related to scope is the idea of routine. From the beginning, the League had certain policies and procedures, including regular meetings, membership drives, and rotating leadership. Eventually the Leaguers started taking turns on “monitor duty,” watching over the Earth like super-powered security guards. This came to a head in the mid-1980s, when a fed-up Aquaman complained that too many members were too busy with their own concerns, and disbanded the team so it could start anew.

To be sure, bureaucracy isn’t the secret sauce keeping the Justice League afloat; but having the Justice League as an institution (both in-universe and for readers) reinforces its rarified nature. As a rule, you don’t just start hanging out with the League – you’ve got to be approved, you get certain perks, and you can be voted out. Whether it’s leaned into or just commented upon, this elite, “set-apart” attitude runs through just about every incarnation of the group in one way or another.

The next factor is team chemistry. The Silver Age League was infamous for having interchangeable personalities, something later creative teams were quick to correct. Needless to say, these character moments didn’t all deliver great insights. Sometimes you get a Blue and Gold bromance, and sometimes you get the awkward, ill-conceived, thankfully short-lived Batman/Black Canary pairing. Over the years, the baseline seems to have settled on a sort of collegial professionalism, where Leaguers with their own significant solo careers treat the team as a gathering of equals.

Finally, there’s execution, as in the quality of the work itself. If the Justice League format tends to revert to the mean, the particular differences in style end up marking the various “eras.” The series’ various incarnations have also been dominated by a relatively small number of writers, artists and editors, further helping to define each new approach.

With that in mind, let’s get into the eight major Justice League eras.

  • The Silver Age, 1959-68 (February-March 1960’s The Brave and the Bold #28 through September 1968’s Justice League of America vol. 1 #65). This is basically the Gardner Fox/Mike Sekowsky/Julius Schwartz Era, since they wrote, penciled and edited just about every JLA adventure for the team’s first 8 ½ years.
  • The Satellite Era, 1968-84 (November 1968’s Justice League of America vol. 1 #66 through November 1984’s issue #232). The League didn’t move into its orbiting headquarters right away, but Fox’s departure pretty much signaled that the Silver Age was over. At 16 years and 167 issues (plus one Annual), this is the longest single era of the League’s publication history, and it is dominated by Dick Dillin’s pencils and Gerry Conway’s scripts.
  • The Detroit Era, 1984-87 (November 1984’s Justice League of America Annual #2 through April 1987’s Justice League of America #261). Infamous for its clunky-at-best attempts at diversity and representation, this soft reboot sought to bring the JLA more in line with the book which had eclipsed it (and most other DC titles), New Teen Titans.
  • Justice League International, 1987-96 (May 1987’s Justice League #1 to August 1996’s Justice League Task Force issue #37). Keith Giffen looms large over much of this era, even after he and his collaborators have left the stage. Plotting and laying out stories for J.M. DeMatteis to script and and Kevin Maguire to pencil, Giffen made the League first into a workplace comedy, and then a franchise. Giffen and company were around for five years; but strong starts from their successors weren’t sustainable, and by the end the books were a hodgepodge of tone and direction.
  • JLA, 1996-2006 (September 1996’s Justice League: A Midsummer’s Nightmare #1 through April 2006’s JLA #125). Writer Grant Morrison reinterpreted Silver Age craziness over three-plus years with an epic-scale JLA. After that, Mark Waid and Joe Kelly each had significant runs as writers; but once again, the era’s last couple of years were filled with interchangeable arcs by various creative teams.
  • Justice League of America 2.0, 2006-11 (September 2006’s Justice League of America vol. 2 #0 to October 2011’s #60). It’s tempting to call this the “Meltzer League,” since DC launched it on the back of novelist and comics fan Brad Meltzer. He wrote the series’ first 13 issues, but his successor Dwayne McDuffie wrote 18, and James Robinson closed things out with 23 issues plus the 7-issue Cry For Justice miniseries. For a book predicated on a return to normalcy after the upheavals of Infinite Crisis and 52, McDuffie and Robinson each introduced daringly different lineups filled with potential.
  • The New 52, 2011-2016 (October 2011’s Justice League vol. 2 #1 to August 2016’s #52). However, the New 52 relaunch cut all that off so that writer Geoff Johns and penciller Jim Lee could roll back the clock. With Jim Lee, Ivan Reis, Doug Mahnke and Jason Fabok providing the art, Johns stayed on Justice League basically from start to finish, eventually turning the book into his own personal corner of the DC Universe. The New 52 also re-expanded the franchise into multiple titles and teams.
  • The Rebirth League, 2016-present (starting with September 2016’s Justice League Rebirth #1). After two years under first Bryan Hitch and then Christopher Priest, writer Scott Snyder headed up a Justice League relaunch which also included a franchise overhaul. Snyder’s run was a three-year-long sequel to the Dark Nights: Metal miniseries, and it has now set up the current Dark Nights: Death Metal miniseries.

Effectively that leaves the League in limbo until 2021. Justice League has been running standalone arcs since Snyder left, which presumably will continue until Death Metal is done with whatever it aims to do. Still, this is not the first time a Justice League book has been left waiting for a new direction. That does present a good opportunity to look back at the last 60 years to see what worked, what didn’t, and what might be ahead.

Speaking of which, next up is a more in-depth look at the League’s foundational era, the Silver Age!