The Justice League at 60, Part 6: Globetrotters

Take a look back at the “International” era of the Justice League that brought new faces, more titles and lots of laughs to the team.

Check out part one, part two, part three, part four and part five of this series.

Folks, we’ve got a lot to get through today, so I’m going to give it to you straight: Some of this stuff was just a mess. Much of it was good and some of that was great. Some of it we can look at as “the ’90s.” However, some of it was, again, just a mess. I’m going to start in the middle and end with the beginning, so we can go out on a not-so-bad note.

Now then: Among the random bits of weirdness in this extended Justice League International period of 1986-1996 are the not-insignificant contributions of Slave Labor Graphics publisher Dan Vado. Starting in Early August 1993 (after Dan Jurgens left), he wrote 14 issues of Justice League America and then wrote the first 8 issues of Extreme Justice. Vado and his artistic collaborators Mike Collins, Kevin West and Marc Campos presided over a two-year stretch of League history, which threatens to be overlooked between the Jurgens and Gerard Jones/Chuck Wojtkiewicz runs.

[Having mentioned Gerard Jones, let’s note that his work on DC’s superhero books is not likely to be reprinted or made digitally available anytime soon, thanks to his extremely poor life choices.]

Although Vado’s work centered around a philosophical rift between Wonder Woman and Captain Atom, a good bit of it seemed concerned with the characters most identified with the JLI. Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Fire and Ice had each been incapacitated for months, so Vado got them back in shape. Eventually Vado took “his” League – led by Captain Atom and including Beetle and Booster – into its own title, where it could be free to play by its own rules.

Passive aggression and posing in Justice League America #86, by Dan Vado, Marc Campos and Ken Branch

Still, for a while it was like Vado was rolling back JLA‘s clock to the pre-“Death of Superman” days. Jurgens had added Superman, Maxima and rookie Bloodwynd to the comedic core of Beetle, Booster, Fire, Ice and Guy Gardner, creating a sort of macro-tension between those two groups. While he didn’t try to copy Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ schtick, the latter five were still the “funny” ones in comparison with the “serious” newcomers. Under Vado, Wonder Woman had replaced Superman (a Jurgens move) and everyone was recovering from various traumas, so they were collectively less funny than before. In practice that meant almost no jokes, as opposed to fewer jokes under Jurgens. Regardless, there was still more consistency than one might have expected.

“More consistency than you might expect” serves pretty well as an overview of this period. The Steel/Vibe/Gypsy days transitioned fairly well into the Giffen Administration, which in turn flowed decently into a nostalgia-fueled successor. Vado and Justice League Europe‘s Jones each had his own League title for a few years, basically switching books in midstream; and then it was 1996 and DC was overhauling the Justice League again. Therefore, the Dan Vado days aren’t easily dismissed, because they are a nexus between Jurgens and Jones’ more traditional takes and the ’90s edge that Extreme Justice and Justice League Task Force offered.

Here’s a timeline with a little more detail (all dates are cover dates):

  • May 1987: First issue of plain old Justice League. Plotter Keith Giffen and penciller Kevin Maguire join scripter J. Marc DeMatteis and editor Andy Helfer, who had worked on the final issues of Justice League of America.
  • November 1987: JL‘s title changes to Justice League International with issue #7.
  • April 1989: First issue of Justice League Europe, from Giffen & DeMatteis and penciller Bart Sears.
  • May 1989: JLI‘s title changes to Justice League America with issue #25.
  • Winter (Dec) 1990: First issue of the 80-page Justice League Quarterly, featuring a 72-page story by Giffen & DeMatteis and penciller Chris Sprouse.
  • August 1991-March 1992: “Breakdowns” begins in JLA #53 and runs through both titles, ending in March 1992’s JLA #60 (with an epilogue by Jones and penciller Chris Wozniak in JLE #36).
  • March 1992: Justice League Spectacular introduces the new creative teams and rosters (including Dan Jurgens and Rick Burchett on JLA and Gerard Jones and Ron Randall on JLE). Brian Augustyn succeeds Andy Helfer as editor.
  • January 1993: The “Death of Superman” runs through JLA #70 on its way to Superman #75, shaking up the JLA roster something fierce.
  • June 1993: First issue of Justice League Task Force, featuring rotating creative teams and rosters. Also, Justice League Europe reclaims the Justice League International title with issue #51.
  • Early August 1993: Dan Vado becomes the new JLA writer with issue #78.
  • September 1994: Final issue of Justice League International (#68).
  • October 1994: Jones and penciller Chuck Wojtkiewicz move to JLA, while JLTF (under writer Mark Waid and penciller Sal Velluto) switches to a Leaguers-in-training format.
  • Winter (Dec) 1994: Final issue of Justice League Quarterly (#17), featuring a 38-page Global Guardians story, a 12-page Captain Atom story and a 12-page Maxima story.
  • January 1995: First issue of Extreme Justice (#0), Captain Atom’s team of disaffected ex-Leaguers. Ruben Diaz becomes JLTF‘s editor.
  • August 1995: Ruben Diaz becomes Extreme Justice‘s editor.
  • July 1996: Final issue of Extreme Justice (#18).
  • August 1996: Final issues of Justice League America (#113) and Justice League Task Force (#37).
  • (October) 1996: Final issue of the JLI Era, a far-future standalone story in Justice League America Annual #10.

All told, in under 10 years the Justice League franchise ended up producing some 275 monthly, quarterly, annual and special issues across five ongoing series – about a dozen more issues than Justice League of America put out in 27 years. Not surprisingly, the membership exploded, with over 20 Leaguers participating in 1994’s intertitle crossover. However, following the post-crossover housecleaning the overall numbers basically stayed the same, with the reorganized JLA getting about half of the personnel and 5-6 members each going to Extreme Justice and the Justice League Task Force.

Double-page (man)spread(ing) in Justice League Task Force #14, courtesy of Mark Waid, Sal Velluto and Jeff Albrecht

Still, over 50 characters were part of at least one League team during this period. That’s not even counting folks like the Creeper and Lobo, who showed up for an arc and then left; or most of the specialists called in for early Justice League Task Force missions. It definitely doesn’t count Justice League Antarctica (which absorbed the hapless Injustice League). Only a few members were created specifically to join their particular Leagues: Crimson Fox, Bloodwynd, Maya and Triumph. Jurgens and Jones each brought in their own creations from other series (Agent Liberty from Superman and El Diablo from his own book), and Jurgens had frequent Superman antagonist Maxima join the team. Otherwise, the League books leaned hard into the feature’s all-star component.

That emphasis goes back to the JLI’s origin in November 1986-April 1987’s six-issue Legends. As DC’s first big event following 1985’s mammoth Crisis On Infinite Earths, both it and the new League spotlighted the revised singular timeline. Joining longtime Leaguers Batman, Black Canary and Martian Manhunter were former residents of parallel Earths (Earth-S’s Captain Marvel, Earth-Two’s Doctor Fate and Earth-Four’s Captain Atom), and three characters who basically didn’t exist before Crisis. Doctor Light was introduced in July 1985’s COIE #4, Guy Gardner became a full-time Green Lantern in December 1985’s COIE #9, and the eponymous Booster Gold series started in February 1986, basically after the dust had cleared. Finally, in the wake of Jack Kirby’s farewell to the Fourth World (in 1985’s Hunger Dogs graphic novel), his creations started mixing more freely with the main DC universe; and that meant Mister Miracle in the Justice League.

(As it happens, the two-issue History of the DC Universe miniseries may have spoiled the roster for alert readers. HOTDCU #2 came out on November 4, 1986, showing the new League two months before Legends issue #6 introduced it officially on January 6, 1987. Justice League #1 came out a week later.)

Spoilers in History of the DC Universe #2, by Marv Wolfman, George Perez and Karl Kesel

Therefore, plotter/breakdown artist Keith Giffen and editor Andy Helfer took a representative sample of DC’s streamlined status quo – launched from a miniseries that featured a very “superheroes in the real world” plot – and made a workplace comedy out of it. To be sure, in its first seven issues the Justice League did Justice League-y things: saved the United Nations, fought some “Avengers” from Mike Friedrich and Dick Dillin’s Justice League of America #87, defeated the Royal Flush Gang and helped Doctor Fate stop a renegade agent of the Lords of Order. The “International” upgrade happened in issue #7, when the League stopped a mysterious death-ray-wielding satellite basically on live TV.

Nevertheless, readers responded enthusiastically to the character work, like Batman’s draconian leadership, Guy Gardner’s boorishness and Martian Manhunter’s deadpan humor. This was arguably the biggest change from the Detroit League, which tried hard – but a bit too earnestly – to build up its homegrown characters. By contrast, JLI divided established characters basically into groups of “irreverent” (Beetle, Guy) and “sober” (Batman, J’Onn). These weren’t hard and fast assignments, and some characters like Mister Miracle and Black Canary stayed pretty much between those extremes. Still, when Green Flame and Ice Maiden joined in issue #14, they also came in as a comedic pair, as did Hawkman and Hawkwoman and Orion and Lightray during their particular (and brief) stints with the team.

Justice League International‘s signature style was distinctive enough that returning to a more serious atmosphere was a significant departure. However, that’s what Justice League Europe aimed for when it launched in the spring of 1989. Its first arc set the team against DC’s lesser-known, but longer-running international super-group, the Global Guardians; and issues #15-19 told a fairly epic story about the unstoppable Extremists (more Marvel pastiches) invading DC-Earth. JLE moved Captain Atom and Rocket Red to Paris along with Metamorpho, Elongated Man, Animal Man, Power Girl and the Wally West Flash. (Wonder Woman was supposed to join but ended up basically as a cameo at the end of issue #1.) Ironically, characters like Metamorpho, Elongated Man, Animal Man and Flash were already pretty loosey-goosey, so their comedic contributions were more natural and less schtick-y.

Also contributing to JLE‘s different tone was a change in scripters. J.M. DeMatteis wrote issues #1-10, #13 and the first Annual; but William Messner-Loebs (then writing Flash) scripted #11-12 before Gerard Jones started with May 1990’s #14. Jones stayed with the franchise until the end of Justice League America in 1996, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Talk of worms in Justice League Europe #24, by Keith Giffen, Gerard Jones and Bart Sears

For the next few years, JLA and JLE settled into comfortable grooves. Kevin Maguire left JLA after issue #24 and was followed by Adam Hughes and then Linda Medley; while Bart Sears remained JLE‘s regular penciller. However, in the spring of 1991 the “Breakdowns” crossover – note the pun on Giffen’s artistic role – served basically as a farewell tour, checking in with old friends and foes one last time. Its conclusion in March 1992’s Justice League America #60 reunited Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire.

JLA‘s Jurgens and Burchett and JLE‘s Jones and Randall then collaborated on a one-shot Justice League Spectacular which reshuffled the rosters, bringing back some A-list Leaguers for yet another fight against the Royal Flush Gang. The ongoing series then leaned into Silver Age homages, from covers to scene recreations and obscure villains (specifically, Fox & Sekowsky’s Weapons Master and Friedrich & Dillin’s Starbreaker). All the nostalgia was for the return of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern Hal Jordan, plus Doctor Light and Maxima as full-time members. It was pitched as the best of the JLI, with added star power.

The Weapons Master steals from Despero in Justice League America #61, by Dan Jurgens and Rick Burchett

Overall the books were decent-to-good. Jurgens was also writing and pencilling Superman, so his JLA occasionally felt like an adjunct of the four Super-books. (Indeed, their just-concluded “Panic In The Sky” crossover featured a small army of super-people, very much like a JL team, repelling an invasion from Brainiac and Warworld.) Jurgens also had to convince readers that he could do Blue Beetle and Booster Gold as well as Giffen and DeMatteis, which was ironic considering that he’d created Booster. On top of that were the tie-ins to other DC titles, including Guy Gardner getting kicked out of the GL Corps and getting a yellow power ring – plus the aforementioned death of Superman, which occurred almost exactly halfway into Jurgens’ 18-issue run. That event sidelined a number of Leaguers and brought in Wonder Woman, Agent Liberty, and new versions of the Ray and Black Condor (previously assigned to Earth-X in the pre-Crisis days).

Meanwhile, Jones and Randall were free to tell more straightforward stories with a more stable group of Leaguers. Indeed, after Giffen and DeMatteis, Jones was the most prolific League writer, penning 55 issues of JLE/I and JLA either solo or (for 13 issues) with longtime collaborator Will Jacobs. Since Jones’ League involvement went back to the second year of JLE, and ended with the final issue of JLA, he was part of the franchise for over six years.

Deconstructo strategy session from Justice League Europe #39, by Gerard Jones, Ron Randall and Romeo Tanghal

Jones’ work as JLE‘s regular writer started off well and then took a turn into the odd and quirky. His first actual post-Giffen issue (#37) introduced Deconstructo, a villain in the proud tradition of Villain Names Ending In “O,” who could reorder reality to suit his post-postmodern artistic tastes. Next was an ancient earth-mother goddess whom the League defeated with Wonder Woman’s help. After that came the six-part “Red Winter,” taking the group back to Russia to face the Rocket Reds and Global Guardians. However, Jones had also seeded subplots like Power Girl’s crushes on Aquaman and Hal Jordan, and mysteries surrounding Crimson Fox’s husband and Power Girl’s pregnancy. Despite traditional superhero fare involving time travel and monstrous invasions, these subplots persisted well into Jones’ JLA days. There, Jones added Nuklon and Obsidian from Infinity, Inc., but again gave them various degrees of romantic success (including Fire’s crush on Nuklon). While none of this was bad on its own, in the aggregate it was a little much. On a more positive note, Jones did have a good feel for the more established characters, especially Elongated Man, Hal Jordan (since he was also writing Green Lantern) and Wally West.

Having already discussed Dan Vado and company, let’s touch briefly on their Extreme Justice successors. Vado and Campos kicked off EJ with a tsunami of speed lines and hair-manes; and three issues from writer Ivan Velez Jr. and pencillers Al Rio and Pascual Ferry only toned things down a little. All these years later, EJ‘s well-deserved reputation as an emblematic 1990s superhero series is intact; but thankfully writer Robert L. Washington III and penciller Tom Morgan wrapped up the book with seven much more readable issues. EJ was noteworthy for patching up Captain Atom’s continuity, returning Booster Gold and Firestorm to more familiar forms, and introducing a version of the Wonder Twins to the main DC universe. Still, it was a tough read.

In this issue Captain Atom gets a haircut (seriously): Extreme Justice #14 by Robert L. Washington III, Tom Morgan and Ken Branch

That leaves the ancillary titles Justice League Quarterly and Justice League Task Force. The former was an anthology series which featured main stories combining League teams, plus occasional shorter features. The latter was a quasi-anthology pencilled largely by Sal Velluto, but with different writers and mission-specific rosters for each arc. David Michelinie, Denny O’Neil, Peter David and Michael Jan Friedman each contributed scripts; and Mark Waid wrote several issues transitioning through a format change to a group of trainees. Christopher Priest took over from Waid and Ramon Bernardo eventually succeeded Velluto.

In fact, JLTF‘s soft reboot gave the League franchise another crack at a Detroit-style team, not least because it featured two Detroit-era characters, Martian Manhunter and Gypsy. (It also featured fill-in pencils from Ed Benes, Jim Cheung and Roger Robinson.) Like the Detroit League, the Priest-written JLTF was about a group of lesser lights hoping to justify their aspirations. However, mostly it was about Triumph, a peer of the original JLAers who was lost in time for ten years and wanted people to recognize what he’d been through; and the Ray, an impetuous legacy hero balancing superheroics with his tumultuous personal life.

Tough love in Justice League Task Force #33, by Christopher Priest, Ramon Bernardo, Chip Wallace and Nick Napolitano

That made the book long on attitude, and it soon descended into plots about the team itself. Characters fought with each other and were fired and/or quit. Frequently the stories referenced events in other series, especially the Ray’s solo title and Triumph’s miniseries. It was a little stretched out to a lot, and it never quite earned the scrappy-underdog vibe it seemed to be going for. (The Judge Ito, Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark parodies from the trial of Despero have also not aged well.) The series’ last big arc was a 3-issue trip to the Warlord world of Skartaris, and for the most part it snapped everyone out of the free-form jazz solo JLTF had been playing for the past year or so.

So instead of ending in the summer of 1996, with an eccentric JLA, a turning-into-the-skid Extreme Justice and a too-cool JLTF, let’s wrap up by going back to the original Justice League International. Hype on the cover of issue #1 proclaimed it “a return to greatness,” and Giffen alluded to that in a 1989 Amazing Heroes interview:

I don’t mean to denigrate anybody, but the book was not doing that great during its latter days. I always looked at the Justice League as being DC’s flagship team title, if not their flagship title. […] I guess, in my own egotistical way, I really thought I could do good for the book. [It needed] a little craziness, I guess. It had to be sparked a bit. I don’t know if people had fallen into a Justice League formula or people thought, It’s been around for so long, there’s nothing we can do with it. But I just hoped that on Justice League I could approach it from a different viewpoint … sort of come at it from left field, so to speak. A slightly different approach from the one that was being used.

Giffen recognized that the Justice League offered readers superhero relationships that they might not otherwise have gotten; and JLI made those relationships funny. Again, the JLI itself didn’t lose much of its predecessor’s scope. At the start of its second year the book split its focus between infiltrating a rogue state and going into space, with everyone reuniting for a big fight on Apokolips. After that were the Invasion! tie-ins, the JLE launch, a couple of shorter stories focused on Blue Beetle, a supernatural JLA/JLE crossover, and the devastating return of Despero. Probably the most navel-gazing JLA ever did was the 3-part “Club JLI” arc in issues #33-35, and even that involved bringing in Aquaman to deal with a sentient island.

Entrepreneurs, in Justice League America #33 from Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Adam Hughes and Jose Marzan Jr.

Of course, critical to JLI‘s success were artists who could handle both comedy and superheroes. Starting with Kevin Maguire’s skill at facial expressions and the well-honed talents of regular guest artist Ty Templeton, JLI‘s pencils complemented DeMatteis’ scripts perfectly. The words themselves (and the sound effects) were brought to understated, almost deadpan life by letterer Bob Lappan; and everything received a professional finish from inkers Al Gordon and Joe Rubenstein. (JLE penciller Bart Sears’ work was similar but more stylized.) After Maguire left, Adam Hughes brought a little more realism to the book; and his successor Linda Medley gave JLA a bright, energetic appeal.

Again, though, it was all in service to the series’ relationships. By the end of the Giffen Adminstration, readers had come to expect Beetle, Booster, Fire, Ice and Guy in the Justice League, so for the most part, those characters stayed with the franchise (one way or another) until the end. Ice’s death in 1994’s “Judgment Day” crossover was enough to relaunch all three monthly titles, Icemaiden’s arrival in JLA gave Fire a two-year subplot, and Guy’s return in JLA #100 was a big enough deal that it was trumpeted on the cover but only happened on the last page. Meanwhile, Beetle and Booster went through breakups and makeups of their own for the better part of six years. If JLI has a failing, it may be in caring too much about these interactions at the expense of growing the series in other directions.

Herding cats in Justice League International #21, from Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Ty Templeton and Joe Rubenstein

Let’s wrap up for real, then, with brief summaries of Scope, Routine, Team Chemistry and Execution. As discussed already, the main books get high marks for Scope, since each “went big” except for occasional digressions with Justice League Antarctica or Power Girl’s cat. However, after the last round of reshuffling (1994-96), the books did get more insular, especially EJ and JLTF.

All those characters, teams and series helped the sense of Routine. The original JLI had embassy headquarters all over the world, from New York and Paris to Sydney and Moscow. Members had monitor duty and mixed and matched for particular missions. As with the original JLA, if you had a signal device, you were on the team. American entrepreneur Maxwell Lord – can’t believe we haven’t talked about him yet – and French liaison Catherine Cobert were the civilian bosses, with longtime supporting characters Oberon and Sue Dibny doing administrative work. The aforementioned Captain Atom/Wonder Woman split was an argument about Routine writ large. After that reached its peak in “Judgment Day,” the JLI lost its United Nations backing, so the new JLA moved back into an orbiting satellite and set up business as usual. The first arc of Extreme Justice was also concerned with claiming a new headquarters; and the post-1994 JL Task Force never really got over its growing pains. Therefore, Routine was good for everyone except the latter-day JLTF.

We’ve talked all around Team Chemistry, but I think it’s safe to say that it was at its best – and definitely its most entertaining – under the Giffen Administration, with the Jones-written JLE/I and JLA a solid second. Jurgens and Vado were determined to make particular members antagonistic (Guy Gardner and Captain Atom, respectively; although Guy’s wasn’t his fault); and again, the late-stage JLTF never really stopped squabbling for very long. Still, Team Chemistry was the hallmark of this era, even if it was front-loaded.

Anniversary antics in Justice League America #100, by Gerard Jones, Chuck Wojtkiewicz, Bob Dvorak & Doug Selogy

Finally, Execution. I hate to keep picking on Dan Vado and his artistic collaborators, but their work has not aged particularly well. Penciller Kevin West was a solid storyteller whose figures were just a hair too stiff and whose faces were just a bit too static; and Marc Campos shifted quickly into a very 1990s high gear. JLE pencillers Bart Sears and Ron Randall each had quirks that occasionally distracted from their storytelling; but they both made the most of extended runs on the title. Chuck Wojtkiewicz was a good addition to the latter-day JLI/JLA creative team, bringing a distinctive style which fit the disparate characters and settings very well. Giffen and Helfer assembled a very talented group (including additional fill-ins from artists Steve Leialoha, Bill Willingham and Mike McKone); and the writers and artists under editor Brian Augustyn started strongly and finished only less so.

Justice League International began as a response to the diminished stature of Justice League of America. It ended as a fractured franchise, divided among three series each trying to build upon some aspect of the League’s legacy. Once again the feature needed to go back to basics, but this time would be the biggest yet.

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