The Justice League at 60, Part Two: Setting The Standard

Tom Bondurant continues his look at the different eras that have defined the Justice League with an overview of the team’s early years.

Check out part one in this series here!

On or about Dec. 29, 1959, newsstands received new issues of 10 comics series. Next to the four different Archie Comics titles and two Prize Comics romance series were four DC books: Sugar & Spike #27, Detective Comics #276, Strange Adventures #113 and (cover-dated February-March 1960) The Brave and the Bold #28. Like its fellow DC series Showcase, B&B had switched to rotating features and had just concluded three issues’ worth of the spy-centric Suicide Squad. Therefore, dominating B&B‘s cover this month was the title of the newest feature, Justice League of America.

Thanks to Strange Adventures #113, Starro the Conqueror was not the only tentacled menace on that day’s newsstands; but he was the only one being fought by a quintet of familiar superheroes. Martian Manhunter had been around for a few years in Detective; just a few days before, DC had published new issues of Flash and Wonder Woman; and on New Year’s Eve, readers would find a new Aquaman tale in Adventure Comics #269. The relaunched Green Lantern was the newest of the group, having concluded his three-issue tryout a month or so earlier, in Showcase #24. (GL’s solo book wouldn’t start until May 24, 1960.)

Tentacle porn, December 1959

Of course, the Justice League was itself the latest reinvention of a feature from DC’s Golden Age. It picked up where the Justice Society of America had signed off (apparently for good) nine years prior, in February-March 1951’s All-Star Comics #57. Gardner F. Fox, who had written all of the JSA’s adventures and co-created many of its members, returned for this new incarnation, bringing with him the JSA’s story structure of individual missions with an ensemble finish. Instead of having each character’s signature artist handle the individual chapters, though, the League’s adventures were penciled entirely by Mike Sekowsky. Fox and Sekowsky collaborated on 63 JLA stories, from B&B #28 through Sekowsky’s departure with JLA #63 (three issues of the ongoing series were all reprints). Fox only wrote two more issues, which (as it happened) started penciller Dick Dillin’s lengthy JLA tenure.

Anyway, as mentioned in the overview for this particular series of posts, I’ll be considering each Justice League era with regard to four factors: Scope (including the membership’s overall all-star status), Routine, Team Chemistry and Execution.

Let’s start with the all-star question. These were DC’s greatest superheroes almost by default, because DC at this point didn’t have a whole lot of active superheroes. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman had been around since the Golden Age. Martian Manhunter was the most recent original creation, having debuted in November 1955’s Detective #255. That predated the Flash relaunch (September-October 1956’s Showcase #4); but the original Flash and Green Lantern had been in the Justice Society, as had Wonder Woman. As illustrated (literally) by JLA #144’s revisionist history, DC’s other solo stars included Congorilla, the original Robotman, and Green Arrow; and the latter would join soon enough (JLA #4). So yes, I’m satisfied that the charter Leaguers deserved their spots on the team. The relaunched Atom joined not long after Green Arrow (issue #14) and Hawkman followed in issue #31.

As for the overall scope of their adventures, the League fought alien conquerors (Starro, Despero, Kanjar Ro), time-traveling baddies (the Weapons Master, the Lord of Time) and especially evil scientists (Professor Ivo and his android Amazo, T.O. Morrow, Amos Fortune). Doctor Destiny started out as a mad scientist (issue #5) but in his second appearance developed his dream-controlling schtick (issue #19) and showed up twice more in the Fox/Sekowsky run (issues #34 and #61). Amos Fortune also went through some growth from his first couple of solo appearances (issues #6 and #14) to his next two as leader of the Royal Flush Gang (issues #43 and #54). The League stopped the Lovecraftian Demons Three from destroying the Earth (issues #10-11 and #35) and along the way met sorcerer Felix Faust (issue #10) who became a recurring foe (issues #21-22, #49).

It’s undeniable, however, that eventually Fox and Sekowsky produced annual spectacles too big for one Earth to contain. The Justice League/Justice Society team-ups were integral parts of DC’s world-building (no pun intended) and no doubt introduced a new generation of readers to the publisher’s original slate of super-people. Starting with August-September 1963’s issues #21-22, there were six Silver Age team-ups, each spanning two issues (including #29-30, #37-38, #46-47, #55-56 and #64-65). In fact, Fox’s final two issues were a JLA/JSA team-up. Since JLA was only published eight times a year, that meant the JSA’s annual visit took up a quarter of that year’s output. These team-ups often involved fielding opposing supervillain teams, including the Crime Champions (established villains from both Earths), Earth-Three’s Crime Syndicate (an evil League), and Earth-A’s Lawless League (crooks endowed magically with the Leaguers’ powers and costumes). The 1966 crossover had no villain team, but made up for it with one of the series’ most audacious images: the Spectre physically separating the colliding Earth-One and Earth-Two while the JLA and JSA fought the giant Anti-Matter Man.

Unfortunately, that two-parter (issues #46-47) also featured some of the most cringeworthy mid-’60s attempts at “hip” dialogue this side of a Bob Haney Teen Titans. Anti-Matter Man was a striking Sekowsky design: gaunt with a bulbous head, dead eyes, black-and-white body and orange clothes. Nevertheless, at one point the omniscient narrator describes him as a “contra-cat” (referring to his “contra-energy”) and a “claw-happy fighter who relishes a bang-up rock ’em sock ’em rhubarb!” Considering Justice League‘s fairly square reputation, this was decidedly off-brand, and it demonstrated the tension between sticking with what had worked and trying to stay relevant. Although Justice League inspired other series who were perhaps better-suited to go a little wacky, in a way that made it a victim of its own success. By 1966 JLA wasn’t only competing with Fantastic Four and Avengers, it had to try and capitalize on the Batman TV show’s runaway popularity. The latter is probably why issue #47’s cover showed a giant Batman fighting Anti-Matter Man in space while his colleagues looked on.

The 1966 JLA/JSA team-up tries too hard (Justice League of America #47)

Although Fox’s Justice League is famous for not having much in the way of characterization (or, put another way, for having a team full of interchangeable characters), it is equally famous for its plot structure. As mentioned above, Fox carried this over from his Justice Society days, using combinations of heroes on preliminary quests before bringing everyone together to compare notes. Fox’s scripts were like narrative puzzles, featuring the Leaguers musing (often out loud) to arrive at the best applications of their powers. In issue #4, the challenge is to flip a lever inside an impenetrable box; in issue #16, a fan crafts an “inescapable” trap for the Leaguers to test; in issue #34, Doctor Destiny saddles the team with devices which frustrate their super-abilities. This was as much a part of Fox’s formula as the act structure, and in the days before characterization mattered, apparently it was enough.

Group rituals also played into the Justice League formula. The first page of a story which inducted a new member included the “certificate” which welcomed him (not yet “her”) into the League and awarded him a signal device and access to the cavernous Secret Sanctuary. Adventures often started either with that month’s League meeting (presided over by a rotating chairman) or with a montage of activating signal devices. It was all very fan clubby; but as with the Justice Society, it reinforced the sense that these characters had lives of their own; so their League activities were something rarified and special.

Accordingly, Fox and Sekowsky never got too high or too low throughout their eight years, establishing Justice League as a reliable baseline for other super-teams to meet and/or exceed. Issue #10 (March 1962) is an early standout. It opens with a moody prologue wherein Felix Faust summons the ancient Demons Three. Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast – unnerving apparitions from the mists of time, whose designs took advantage of Sekowsky’s sometimes fluid approach to anatomy – convince Faust that whoever frees them will be able to control them for 100 years. Faust realizes he can trick the Justice League into retrieving the artifacts he needs, and here’s where the story ramps up. See, the entire League is already storming the Lord of Time’s stronghold, and fighting the time-tossed armies and navies he’s assembled. In the course of this battle the Leaguers unwittingly activate Felix’s magic spells, each falling under his sway. That gets us to page 16; with the next 10 pages showing the Leaguers collecting Felix’s artifacts and foiling his plot. It’s a cliffhanger, though – Felix reveals that his spell worked, the Demons Three are about to rise, and the Lord of Time is still on the loose.

The Demons Three take a meeting with Felix Faust (Justice League of America #10)

May 1962’s issue #11 opens with the League taking six or so pages to defeat the Lord of Time at his far-future headquarters, but afterwards they find a magic wall preventing them from getting back to the present. The Demons Three capture the Leaguers, turn them into mist, and seal each one in a glass jar; but they escape thanks to Green Lantern’s foresight. Aquaman suggests that before they confront the demons again, they disguise themselves as each other, and another League trope is checked off to set up the final battle.

Fifty issues later, not much has changed. The standalone story in March 1968’s issue #61 (“Operation: Jail the Justice League!”) opens with a dramatic hook: Green Arrow is quitting superheroing, but he won’t say why; and he encourages the other Leaguers to do the same! In response, the individual Leaguers each decide to disguise themselves as Green Arrow to investigate this mystery separately. (Wonder Woman sits this one out, realizing that no one will mistake her for the Ace Archer.) Each winds up fighting one of his familiar foes, but the fights each end with the Leaguer switching minds with his enemy, and then being defeated by him. Thus, the Penguin’s mind goes into Batman’s body, which is disguised as Green Arrow, so that “Green Arrow” captures “Penguin”; but really Penguin has captured Batman, etc.

The real Green Arrow then comes out of hiding to find that Doctor Destiny is responsible for the body-switching, because he blames GA for his own defeat back in issue #5. There are some narrative cheats – about half of the battles take place off-panel, and a key part of the puzzle is told, not shown – but by and large it follows the familiar structure, including the opening membership meeting. Again, the tropes pile up: Not only did the other Leaguers find new ways to use their powers (as part of impersonating Green Arrow), they switched opponents in the climactic battle.

Mike Sekowsky and Joe Giella stage a crowded fight scene (Justice League of America #61)

By this time neither plot element would have felt new to the seasoned JLA reader; but Justice League wasn’t necessarily about innovation. In a very practical sense, Fox, Sekowsky and Schwartz’s biggest accomplishment was simply to deliver on the promise of all these solo stars on the same team. They were trying to run new plays (and make sure their players’ stat lines were satisfied) based on what had worked so far.

I’ve jumped around a bit, so let’s start to wrap up. The Fox/Sekowsky team did pretty well on Scope and Routine, and slightly less so on Execution; but what about Team Chemistry? In light of what we’ve discussed so far, it sounds almost like an afterthought. Still, I’m inclined to give this era high marks for this category. There might not have been a lot of personality differences among the League members, but they did all get along. It was a byproduct of the familiarity Fox and Sekowsky underlying the Silver Age Justice League. Although the Justice Society had done it first, for many readers the idea of an all-star super-team was still new and/or exciting; so why burden it with a lot of interpersonal drama?

At the risk of copping out, the bottom line seems to be that the Fox/Sekowsky JLA was content to set a standard and not vary too much from it. This is good for our purposes even though it might not make for the most thrilling reading.

Come back soon as we dive into the Satellite Era, when a new generation of writers meets a nigh-immovable artist and the League as many came to know it is formed!

2 thoughts on “The Justice League at 60, Part Two: Setting The Standard”

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t even make one mention of the team’s “mascot” Snapper Carr. Or how Superman and Batman were usually treated as if they were too busy to attend early in the series. There’s a number of strange quirks that contribute to making this run what it was.

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