The Justice League at 60, Part Three: Into Orbit

Tom Bondurant jumps into the ‘Satellite Era’ of the 1970s and ’80s this week, as he continues his look 60 years of the Justice League.

Check out part one and part two of this series!

What we’re calling the “Satellite Era” of Justice League of America began in November 1968’s issue #66, several issues before the team would move into its new headquarters stationed geosynchronously 22,300 miles above Metropolis. Still, writer Gardner Fox’s departure with #65 was the end of an era which stretched arguably back to the Justice Society; and successor Denny O’Neil was making changes even before the satellite was built.

Just as the Silver Age was dominated by Fox and artist Mike Sekowsky, the Satellite Era would be directed mostly by writer Gerry Conway and artist Dick Dillin. This period lasted until November 1984’s issue #232 (after which the team had moved out of the satellite for good); and of those 164 regular issues and two Annuals, Conway wrote 81 and Dillin pencilled 116. Because Conway arrived long after Dillin started, the two only collaborated on 39 issues. Nevertheless, one or the other was part of just about every JLA issue from November 1968 through February 1984.

Ironically, many of the changes in the early Satellite Era became routine in its latter period. Along with certain other status-quo-reinforcing developments – you can’t spell “satellite” without “settle,” after all – this left the overall impression that the era was stable at best and boring at worst. We’ll see about that, looking at at the Satellite League through the lens of Scope, Routine, Team Chemistry and Execution; but not just yet. These sixteen years contain so much, they need their own timeline.

Monitor duty takes some getting used to; from JLA #80 by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella
  • Issue #66 (Nov 1968): Denny O’Neil starts as the regular writer (17 issues).
  • Wonder Woman #179 (Nov-Dec 1968): thanks to O’Neil and Mike Sekowsky, Wonder Woman gives up her super-powers.
  • Issue #71 (May 1969): Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter officially leave the team.
  • Issue #75 (Nov 1969): Black Canary joins.
  • Issue #78 (February 1970): The team moves into the Satellite Sanctuary.
  • Issue #86 (Dec 1970): After Bob Kanigher writes one issue – #84, followed by an all-reprints issue – Mike Friedrich starts as the regular writer (14 issues).
  • Issue #100 (Aug 1972): Len Wein starts as the regular writer (15 issues).
  • Issue #103 (Dec 1972): Phantom Stranger joins.
  • Issue #105 (Apr-May 1973): Elongated Man joins.
  • Issue #106 (Jul-Aug 1973): Red Tornado joins.
  • Issue #115 (Jan/Feb 1975): Rotating writers begin with O’Neil (1 issue), Cary Bates (2.5 issues, including the first story in #139), Elliot S! Maggin (5 issues), Martin Pasko (4 issues), Maggin & Bates (2 issues), Gerry Conway (7 issues), and E. Nelson Bridwell & Martin Pasko (3 issues).
  • Wonder Woman #222 (Feb-Mar 1976): Wonder Woman rejoins.
  • Issue #139 (Feb 1977): With the second story in the newly-oversized issue, Steve Englehart starts as regular writer (10 issues).
  • Issue #146 (Sept 1977): Hawkgirl joins.
  • Issues #147-48 (Oct-Nov 1977): Paul Levitz & Martin Pasko write the Justice League/Justice Society team-up, guest-starring the Legion of Super-Heroes.
  • Issues #149-50 (Dec 1977-Jan 1978): Englehart’s final arc.
  • Issue #151 (Feb 1978): Gerry Conway starts as regular writer (74 issues).
  • Issue #161 (Dec 1978): Zatanna joins.
  • Issue #165 (April 1979): Julius Schwartz’s last issue as editor, after 19+ years. Ross Andru succeeds him (11 issues).
  • Issue #177 (April 1980): Len Wein’s first issue as editor (48 issues and an Annual).
  • Issue #179 (June 1980): Firestorm joins.
  • Issue #181 (Aug 1980): Green Arrow resigns.
  • Issue #183 (Oct 1980): Dick Dillin’s last issue.
  • Issue #184 (Nov 1980): George Pérez starts as regular penciller (10 issues).
  • Issue #200 (March 1982): Green Arrow rejoins. Pérez’s last issue as penciller.
  • Green Lantern #151 (April 1982): Hal Jordan begins an extended assignment to anywhere in his space sector but Earth.
  • Batman and the Outsiders #1; Flash #324 (August 1983): Batman resigns; the Flash accidentally kills the Reverse-Flash.
  • Green Lantern #172 (Jan 1984): Hal Jordan returns to Earth.
  • Issue #224 (March 1984): “Final” Satellite Era appearances of the Flash, Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman. Except for GL, they would appear in #231-32, in a story concurrent with #228-230.
  • Issue #225 (April 1984): Alan Gold’s first issue as editor (20 issues and 2 Annuals).
  • Issue #228 (July 1984): Martian Manhunter returns.
  • Issue #230 (Sept 1984): Justice League Satellite wrecked beyond repair.

Since the roster expanded significantly during this time, we begin with an evaluation of the Satellite League’s all-star bona fides. As detailed above, JLA added seven members over ten years, including three in a four-issue span. Still, as the 1960s ended, there were a total of eight Leaguers: Superman, Batman, the Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Aquaman, Green Arrow, the Atom, and Hawkman.

Green Arrow’s first beam-up; from JLA #78 by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella

Five years and forty issues later, though, Red Tornado’s admission put the number at twelve; including Black Canary, the Phantom Stranger (hardly a regular) and the Elongated Man. From 1976-79, the team grew similarly: Wonder Woman rejoined, and the team added Hawkgirl, Zatanna and Conway’s co-creation Firestorm. After that, two members quit – Green Arrow temporarily, and Batman seemingly for good. Regardless, for several years the Justice League had enough members to rotate in and out as the stories required.

So how did the Satellite Era stack up in terms of star power? Well, Black Canary – who Denny O’Neil brought on to replace Wonder Woman as the lone female – was a Golden Age character revived along with the rest of the Justice Society. She simply moved from Earth-Two to Earth-One after her husband’s death (in the midst of 1969’s JLA/JSA team-up), acquiring shortly thereafter sonic-cry powers and a relationship with Green Arrow. As for the others, the Phantom Stranger had his own solo series twice (6 issues in 1952-53 and 41 in 1969-76); the Elongated Man graduated from a supporting character in Flash to regular backup-feature status in Detective Comics; and Red Tornado had been kicking around with the JSA since his first appearance in the 1968 JLA/JSA team-up.

In fact, let’s talk for a moment about Red Tornado. Gardner Fox and Dick Dillin created the android for August 1968’s issue #64, where he was a pawn of T.O. Morrow in a plan to destroy the Justice League and Justice Society. (This was a couple of months before the Vision debuted as Ultron’s android pawn in October 1968’s Avengers #57.) Reddy joined the JSA in #65 and appeared in each subsequent team-up for the next few years, until he was apparently destroyed at the end of #102. This ended up moving him permanently to Earth-One, where he joined the League in #106.

Accordingly, Red Tornado’s origin and early appearances are all in JLA; but they’re all with the Justice Society. Therefore, while he’s not an “all-star” in the sense that he didn’t come from his own feature, he was not created specifically to join the Justice League. (Technically he’s also – albeit barely – a legacy character, which might help his all-star status.) Reddy was created by Fox and Dillin, appeared with the JSA only in JLA issues written by O’Neil and Len Wein, and joined the JLA in a Wein-written story. While that breaks the pattern of JLA members who first appeared elsewhere, it doesn’t make Reddy the first Leaguer to be created specifically for JLA membership.

Reddy pleads his case in JLA #64; by Gardner Fox, Dick Dillin and Sid Green

Later Leaguers had better qualifications: Hawkgirl was basically Hawkman’s partner, and more of an equal than a sidekick. Zatanna was a legacy character (daughter of the Golden Age magician Zatara) who had been a guest-star in other Silver Age series before getting her own backup features in Adventure Comics and Supergirl. Firestorm debuted in his own solo series, which didn’t last long; but was written by Gerry Conway, who had just become the regular JLA writer. (Firestorm’s backup feature in Flash started shortly after he joined the JLA.)

Therefore, despite one or two asterisks, the Satellite Era’s all-star status checks out; and the stakes were raised accordingly. The JLA/JSA team-ups got especially big, because they started to take the teams around the expanding Multiverse. After bringing back the time-lost Seven Soldiers of Victory in 1972’s issues #100-02, they went to Nazi-ruled Earth-X to help the Freedom Fighters (1973’s #107-08). In 1976 the two teams visited Earth-S and the Marvel Family (issues #135-37); in 1977 they fought alongside the Legion of Super-Heroes (issues #147-48); in 1978 they encountered a group of historical DC characters on the way to stop the Lord of Time (issues #159-60); in 1980 they met the New Gods (issues #183-85); in 1981 they fought a new Secret Society of Super-Villains (issues #195-97); and in 1982 they and the All-Star Squadron mounted a time-traveling attempt to prevent World War III (JLA issues #207-09 and All-Star Squadron issues #14-15).

The larger roster and bigger action helped liven up a series which was founded on a pretty recognizable formula. Also contributing to that variety – but working within the formula – was a succession of regular writers. Denny O’Neil followed Fox with 17 issues (#66-83); then it was Mike Friedrich for 14 issues (#86-99) and 15 issues from Len Wein (#100-114). For the next 25 issues, editor Julius Schwartz used a rotation of writers, including 1970s stalwarts Elliott S! Maggin, Martin Pasko, Cary Bates and E. Nelson Bridwell; plus O’Neil (for one issue) and Gerry Conway. None contributed more than five issues in a row. It was about six writers spread over three years, following a period of three regular writers in six years. Needless to say, this also brought a procession of styles.

Denny O’Neil never seemed as comfortable on JLA as he did on the Batman books or Green Lantern, and his stories mixed environmental and social cautionary tales with more straightforward superhero fare. O’Neil’s tenure did transform the League in a few significant ways: Black Canary became super-powered; Snapper Carr’s betrayal closed off his relationship with the team, and spurred its move into the satellite; Green Arrow turned into a liberal crusader (setting up his ideological conflict with Hawkman and his romance with Black Canary); and the White Martians came along just as the Martian Manhunter was leaving. However, O’Neil’s work was hardly subtle, starting with his very first villain, General Demmy Gog.

The first Canary Cry; from JLA #75 by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella

Mike Friedrich’s work was of a piece with O’Neil’s, and perhaps a bit more fanciful. For example, his lone JLA/JSA team-up (#91-#92) involved Solomon Grundy and an extradimensional child’s lost pet. His lasting character contributions included the Heroes of Angor (Avengers analogues from #87) and Starbreaker the Cosmic Vampire (#96-#98), all of whom returned during the Justice League International period. Otherwise, Friedrich wrote his share of environmental parables (issues #86, #88, #90, and #95) as well. It is tempting to lump the two runs together as an early 1970s freakout, particularly since O’Neil had titles like “Star Light, Star Bright, Death Star I See Tonight” (#73) and Friedrich gave the world “When Strikes Demonfang?” (#94; note the question mark). However, things never got as goofy as Gardner Fox’s flirtation with “hip” lingo.

All that said, Len Wein’s arrival with issue #100 did calm the waters by using the aforementioned Seven Soldiers arc to reinforce the book’s more traditional elements. These efforts were helped by Wein’s much less (shall we say) adventurous dialogue and Dillin’s tightening pencils. Wein also leaned into nostalgia, beginning the anniversary story in the old Secret Sanctuary and checking in on ex-members like Diana Prince, Martian Manhunter and Snapper Carr. In fact, five of Wein’s fifteen issues were JLA/JSA team-ups (including #100-02) and three more were concerned with introducing new members. In #104 Wein also brought back the Shaggy Man (whom Fox and Sekowsky created for #46) and Silver Age villain Eclipso (who hadn’t fought the League before #109); and created Libra and the all-star Injustice League in #111. If O’Neil and Friedrich were casting around trying to figure how far they could take the book’s format, Wein’s tenure saw those impulses reined in. Indeed, when O’Neil returned for issue #115, he contributed a fairly straightforward Martian Manhunter-centered story.

Superman vs. the Shaggy Man; from JLA #104 by Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano

Among the stories the rotation of writers produced were

  • a Cary Bates one-shot introducing a teenaged Hawkman wannabe (#116);
  • an alien-invasion two-parter by Elliot Maggin (#117-19) which was solved by reference to a previous Hawkman story;
  • a couple of Adam Strange-centered stories (Maggin’s #120-21 and Bates’ #138-39);
  • a truly odd JLA/JSA team-up involving Bates and Maggin themselves (#123-24);
  • a couple of flashback tales from Martin Pasko about secret identities (#122) and building the JLA Satellite (#130); and
  • Conway bringing back Despero (#133-34).

Rounding out this period was that epic JLA/JSA/Fawcett heroes team-up from Bridwell and Pasko (#135-37), which crammed a lot into its three 17-page installments.

That brings us to Steve Englehart. As he tells it, he was recruited by DC publisher Jenette Kahn, who was trying to entice talent away from Marvel. Like his approach to Avengers, Englehart’s arrival in #139 emphasized characterization and continuity. He wedded Jack Kirby’s updated Manhunter cult to the Green Lantern mythology, made Snapper Carr into an associate of Silver Age villain the Key, and brought back the Injustice League. His biggest continuity coup was July 1977’s issue #144, rewriting the team’s origin to fit more seamlessly into its late-1950s debut. Englehart even incorporated some Avengers lore with #142’s appearance from “Willow,” meant to be the next step in the Celestial Madonna’s development.

Characterization was definitely more lively but also more problematic, especially a subplot involving Flash and Green Arrow complaining about Wonder Woman’s bossiness. This didn’t get much better when it was revealed that Englehart’s new villain The Construct was subtly manipulating the Amazing Amazon. More effective was the Willow issue, which had Aquaman, the Atom and the Elongated Man save the day despite being ostensibly the “weak-link” Leaguers. In #146 Hawkman proposed membership for Hawkgirl, despite Superman’s objection (no duplication of powers, a rule which either Superman or Englehart might have gotten from the Legion). That scene also had Green Arrow call out Phantom Stranger for his nebulous involvement with the team. Later, Snapper Carr’s return in #149 was a chance to compare his estrangement with Red Tornado’s need to fit in. The fact that Englehart gave Reddy a couple of sick burns on a potential new member was especially noteworthy.

Membership friction in JLA #146; by Steve Englehart, Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin

However, Englehart’s biggest contribution to JLA might simply have been his run’s cohesion. These new subplots and characters (also including the new Manhunter, Mark Shaw) tied the ten issues together in a way that previous writers hadn’t. While O’Neil gave Black Canary and Green Arrow character arcs (both separately and together), and Len Wein favored Red Tornado, Englehart was able to do that for the team as a whole. Like his contemporaneous Detective Comics run, Englehart’s JLA could be broken into one- and two-part stories which were all part of an overarching plot. In Detective, the plot was about Bruce Wayne’s romance with Silver St. Cloud; while in JLA, the plot was about the tensions within the team generally. Still, it showed that the book didn’t have to be just a series of standalone adventures weaving in and around the members’ solo series.

Englehart was helped by JLA itself expanding into a 48-page “Giant” title. Issue #139 had two 17-page stories, with 33- to 35-page stories starting in #140. From #108 to #117, the stories were 20 pages, then 18 pages from #118-130, and 17 pages from #131-139. (Again according to Englehart, he requested the expanded page count from Jenette Kahn. DC had been doing Giant issues for a few years on ongoing series like Superman Family and Batman Family, so Englehart’s JLA request probably wasn’t that exorbitant.) This continued until #158, when the stories were scaled back to 25 pages, about where they were for the series’ first hundred-plus issues. In any event, because Englehart’s stories were anywhere from 10 to 18 pages longer than his predecessors’, he had more room for both spectacle and subplots; which served him and Dillin well.

Therefore, today the run looks like the culmination of a nine-year process to modernize the JLA‘s storytelling. Where previous writers used characters who didn’t have their own solo features, Englehart spotlighted relationships that probably wouldn’t be seen anywhere else, especially between characters who didn’t have frequent team-ups with their peers. Specifically, Superman and Batman, Flash and Green Lantern, and Green Lantern and Green Arrow all interacted regularly elsewhere; but not Superman and Wonder Woman or Superman and Phantom Stranger. To be sure, Englehart also had JLA-specific characters like Snapper, Reddy and Mark Shaw play off the solo stars as well as each other.

(Speaking of Lucas “Snapper” Carr, the teenager who was Rick Jones before there was a Rick Jones, I regret the error of leaving him out of the Silver Age analysis. Honestly, Snapper deserves his own deep dive, which might happen once this particular series is over.)

As planned, Englehart left Justice League of America with January 1978’s issue #150. Succeeding him was Gerry Conway, who was carving out his own fiefdom at DC and would bring a lot of that into JLA. We’ll get into Conway’s indelible work on the series next time.

One thought on “The Justice League at 60, Part Three: Into Orbit”

  1. I enjoyed these off and on as a kid, and then loved deep diving into them in the late 80s. Was almost like a super-hero soap opera for kids, and young adults. Loved seeing the characters intermingle and clash and get along. Fun stuff. Miss that sort of innocent era of comics.

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