The Justice League at 60, Part Four: Conway’s Corner

Tom Bondurant continues his look back at 60 years of the Justice League.

Check out part one, part two and part three of this series!

Ask a Marvel fan about Gerry Conway and you’re likely to get an answer involving Gwen Stacy. Ask a DC fan about Conway and the answer may well involve his eight years as regular writer of Justice League of America. We’ve mentioned his statistics already, but they bear repeating: Gerry Conway wrote 102 of JLA‘s 261 issues (including 81 in the Satellite Era), plus one of its three annuals. Original JLA writer Gardner F. Fox is in second place with 65 issues.

Between Fox and Conway, an assortment of writers worked with the scarily dependable penciller Dick Dillin. Denny O’Neil, Mike Friedrich and Len Wein each contributed solid, multi-year runs before writing duties were shared among a bullpen for three years. After that was Conway’s immediate predecessor Steve Englehart, whose 10 oversized issues successfully combined existing DC lore with new characters and relationship-driven subplots. Included in the latter was friction between Flash, Green Arrow and Wonder Woman over her alleged bossiness (in reality mind-manipulation from new villain The Construct). Englehart left everyone on good terms, but it was awkward and a little bumpy getting there.

Accordingly, when Gerry Conway took over as regular writer with February 1978’s issue #151, generally this sort of friction continued, for good and ill. Issue #151 involved Amos Fortune kidnapping Wonder Woman for use in a bad-luck machine (don’t ask; it’s complicated) which would transfer the Leaguers’ powers and abilities into random people. It took place against a male-female divide brought about by the bachelor party the guys were throwing for the newly-engaged Ray “Atom” Palmer. Englehart’s gender politics weren’t exactly subtle, and this issue showed that Conway’s, however well-intentioned, might not be much better.

Major monologuing; from JLA #152, by Gerry Conway, Dick Dillin & Frank McLaughlin

Indeed, in #152 the villain was Major Macabre, a South American warlord with a Speedy Gonzalez accent whose toxic masculinity was blamed on his “culture.” (Not the best look, even for a villain.) The story itself was a Three Wise Men allegory where the Leaguers were racing to retrieve three powerful extraterrestrial objects. On a happier note, it also introduced Traya, an orphaned girl from a war zone who effectively became Red Tornado’s adopted child. Although the gender divide continued in the next few issues, the stories got better. Issue #153 (a rare non-Dillin issue penciled by George Tuska) introduced Earth-Prime’s first superhero, Ultraa, while issue #154 revealed the new-look Doctor Destiny. Issue #155 saw the League scrambling to stop the Earth from coming apart once a second moon appeared in orbit; and #156 had a group of old gods return to cause trouble as the “Fiend With Five Faces.”

Let’s take a brief digression: During the mid-1970s, the writer/editor began curating “Conway’s Corner,” a little meadow in the larger DC Comics forest which got razed by the DC Implosion of 1978. Prior to and concurrent with his taking over JLA, Conway’s writing portfolio included:

  • Hercules Unbound (#1-6, October-November 1975 to August-September 1976);
  • the revived All-Star Comics (#58-62, January-February to September-October 1976);
  • Secret Society of Super-Villains (#1-2 and #8-14, May-June to July-August 1976 and September 1977 to April-May 1978);
  • the post-Jack Kirby Kamandi (#38-46, February-October 1976);
  • the revived Challengers of the Unknown (#81-87, June-July 1977 to June-July 1978);
  • Green Arrow, Black Canary and Wonder Woman features in the expanded World’s Finest Comics (#245-54, June-July 1977 to December 1978-January 1979);
  • the main Wonder Woman book (#233-41, July 1977 to March 1978);
  • the revived New Gods (#12-19, July 1977 to July-August 1978);
  • the original Firestorm and Steel the Indestructible Man series (each five issues, March to October-November 1978); and
  • Weird Western Tales featuring the unfortunately-named Scalphunter (#45-51, March-April 1978 to January 1979).

The Atom’s engagement carried over from Conway’s work on Super-Team Family, an anthology title onto which Conway had grafted a continuing plotline (issues #11-14, June-July 1977 to December 1977-January 1978). It had the Tiny Titan chasing after his fianceé Jean Loring as she was bounced across the universe by conveniently frustrating cosmic energy. Along the way he teamed up with Flash, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Captain Comet, Aquaman and Wonder Woman. Issues #13 and #14 also tied into the Conway-written Secret Society of Super-Villains, with Wonder Woman and Atom squaring off against the baddies in #14. The Atom’s actual wedding in August 1978’s JLA #157 was almost derailed by a female love goddess (introduced in #156) who enchanted the male Leaguers before being defeated by Wonder Woman, Black Canary and Supergirl. Needless to say, the Loring-Palmer nuptials would not be the last Conway plot steered into JLA from another title.

However, in #158 the Injustice Gang was back, along with Ultraa. Issues #159-60 were Conway’s first Justice League/Justice Society team-up, pitting the team against the Lord of Time and a group of “historical” DC characters including Jonah Hex, Viking Prince and Enemy Ace. When Zatanna finally joined the team in #161 she got her own subplot, running in the background of issues #161-63 before taking over the main plot of issues #164-65. After that was a Secret Society three-parter (#166-68) which picked up a dangling thread from SSOSV‘s cancellation and ended up being retconned into the backstory of 2004’s infamous Identity Crisis miniseries.

Black Lightning says no; from JLA #173 by Gerry Conway, Dick Dillin & Frank McLaughlin

Zatanna was still a rookie, but more membership shenanigans dominated the next several issues. Ultraa’s return in #169-70 suggested that Conway hadn’t quite worked out what he wanted to with the character, which may well have included his joining. Issues #173-74 featured another membership flirtation, with Black Lightning declining an offer from the all-white League. Conway’s co-creation Firestorm did join in #179, over a year after the Firestorm series had been cancelled; but then Green Arrow quit in #181-82. All this played out among more traditional fare: 1979’s JLA/JSA team-up in #171-72 (a murder mystery aboard the JLA Satellite), and a pair of two-parters featuring Doctor Destiny (#175-76) and Despero (#177-78).

Meanwhile, in the real world, Dick Dillin died after completing October 1980’s #183. That issue kicked off a 3-part Justice League/Justice Society/New Gods team-up which resolved more of Conway’s unfinished business, this time with his Fourth World revival.

Dick Dillin draws the New Gods from JLA #183; written by Gerry Conway and inked by Frank McLaughlin

George Pérez became regular penciller as of #184, which came out in the same month as the first issue of his other regular DC gig, New Teen Titans. Since Pérez was also penciling Avengers, this gave him a team-book trifecta; although he would leave Earth’s Mightiest Heroes after December 1980’s #202. Pérez ended up penciling 10 issues of JLA from #184 through #200, including a nifty Shaggy Man vs. the USSR one-off (#186), Red Tornado’s expanded origin (#192-93), and the 1981 JLA/JSA team-up (#195-97).

To fill the gaps, Don Heck and Rich Buckler stepped in for two and three issues each, and Heck ended up penciling 14 of the 19 issues between #198 and #216. This included a Lord of Time two-parter in #198-99, in which a passel of Leaguers found themselves in the Old West alongside Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, Cinnamon and Conway’s old charge Scalphunter. Starting with #217, Chuck Patton became the book’s regular penciller, sticking with the series (notwithstanding a few issues from Alan Kupperberg) through its transition into the Detroit League.

Considering these different art styles, the two-and-a-half years from #201 through #230 were somewhat uneven. Conway finally gave Ultraa some closure in #201, the Royal Flush Gang recruited Hector Hammond for #203-05, Carmine Infantino pencilled a Demons Three one-off in #206, a Buckler-pencilled story from 1978 was repurposed for #210-12, and the Atom got another spotlight in #213-16. Conway took occasional breaks, thanks to guest writers Paul Kupperberg (#217) and Cary Burkett (#218); while Kurt Busiek wrote #224 and the 1984 JLA/JSA team-up in #231-32, and Joey Cavalieri wrote #225-27. Paul Levitz and Len Wein also wrote the first Justice League of America Annual in 1983. Although none of it was that bad, it wasn’t especially memorable either.

By contrast, the Justice Society team-ups of 1982 and 1983 were fairly significant, not least because each was co-written by Golden Age guru Roy Thomas. In #207-09, the book crossed over with Thomas’ All-Star Squadron for a time-hopping mission to stop a nuclear war; and in #219-20, Black Canary’s history was split in two, with the mother (Dinah Drake Lance) taking the Golden Age and the “newfound” daughter (Dinah Laurel Lance) jumping Earths to join the League. Ironically, this solution was soon to be rendered moot by DC’s upcoming housecleaning.

The JLA and JSA mop up the Crime Champions; from JLA #220 by Roy Thomas, Chuck Patton, Pablo Marcos and Romeo Tanghal

In the early 1980s the Leaguers were also pulled in different directions. April 1982’s Green Lantern #151 saw the Guardians of the Universe exile Hal Jordan from Earth so he could focus on the rest of his space sector. After his return in January 1984’s GL #172, Hal appeared in 3 issues of JLA before quitting the Corps in GL #181. By that time Batman had quit (his last Satellite Era appearance was July 1983’s JLA #216, a month before the debut of Batman and the Outsiders); and the two-year “Trial of the Flash” storyline had kicked off with the Reverse-Flash’s death in August 1983’s Flash #324. Not long afterward, though, the Scarlet Speedster did appear in JLA issues #219-224. Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t have any comparable events in their own books, but after appearing in #217-19 and #221-24, with their last big-group appearance (along with Flash and Green Lantern) in March 1984’s #224.

With five founding members unavailable, the most consistent Leaguers of 1984 turned out to be Black Canary, Green Arrow, the Hawks, Zatanna and Red Tornado. Along with Aquaman, Elongated Man and Firestorm, this lineup joined the returning Martian Manhunter in repelling a 3-issue Martian invasion (July-September 1984’s #228-30) which wrecked the JLA Satellite and effectively ended this era. The final Satellite Era story was a Justice Society team-up in #231-32 which only involved three Leaguers (Flash, Superman and Wonder Woman) plus Supergirl; and took place on a parallel Earth at the same time as the Martians were invading Earth-One.

So … how to sum up 16 years and over 160 issues? Well, it’s hard to argue that the Satellite Era lacked Scope. Many of the JLA/JSA team-ups expanded to three issues, with 1982’s five-parter an actual inter-title crossover. The book itself went giant-sized for 20 issues; and – late departures aside – the roster expanded appropriately and remained consistent throughout. There were even some potential members who didn’t work out, including Manhunter, Black Lightning and (reading between the lines) Ultraa. We haven’t touched on Routine, but the move to the satellite seems to have solidified practices like monitor duty (seen first in #80) and the use of Earthbound teleport tubes (debuting in #78).

It may be more Execution than Routine, but it’s hard to overstate Dick Dillin’s role in establishing a standard JLA look and tone. Although Dillin’s figures could be stiff, and his choreography wasn’t always fluid, his pencils conveyed the sense of detached professionalism that JLA seemed to be going for generally. Eventually the Satellite League came to act like a group of seasoned superheroes who were like the board of directors for Earth-One’s costumed community. Most of them had their own gigs, but they met regularly to work together on the really big problems.

Such professionalism took a few years and a couple of writers to establish. Throughout the Silver Age, JLA imagined itself, fairly or not, as the preeminent team title of the superhero resurgence. By the start of the 1970s, though, rival titles like Fantastic Four and Avengers, and DC fan-favorites like Doom Patrol and Teen Titans, eventually caused JLA‘s creative teams to double down on the book’s stodginess. Steve Englehart injected some necessary narrative elements into this formula, but didn’t institute any real structural change; and Gerry Conway took the book as far as it could go before external forces (including editorial limitations) forced JLA into some real changes.

“‘Ridiculous,’ is it? Well, what’s that thing on your head?” From JLA #187, by Gerry Conway, Don Heck and Frank McLaughlin

That brings us, in a roundabout way, to Team Chemistry; which was still generally well-handled but a bit scattered in spots. While you might not be able to unsee the awkward kiss between Batman and Black Canary that one-and-done writer Bob Kanigher had Dillin pencil in November 1970’s #84, thankfully it didn’t represent the team dynamics generally. Again, apart from the Green Arrow/Black Canary romance, the relationships ported in from the solo books, and the general camaraderie, there wasn’t much in the way of interpersonal innovation. Wein and Englehart tried to make Red Tornado sympathetic without coming across as a Vision wannabe; and as mentioned above, Conway gave Reddy a de facto daughter (who still didn’t get a lot of play in JLA itself). Otherwise, Conway emphasized Green Arrow’s liberalism (especially in the details of recruiting Black Lightning), made Firestorm a bit of a fanboy and experimented with a Flash/Zatanna flirtation after Iris Allen had been dead for a respectable period of time. Again, though, mostly everyone behaved like adults taking time out of their regular schedules for volunteer work.

Finally, there’s Execution. Since the writing has gotten a lot of attention, let’s talk art. Dick Dillin started his JLA run inked by Sid Green and Joe Giella; and the result initially was clean and unexceptional, but effective. Because Dillin’s figures and faces weren’t nearly as chaotic as Mike Sekowsky’s, the book lost some restless energy; but Dillin’s implacable approach also sold the title’s developing workaday atmosphere. Dillin was inked by Green from #64 to #74 and Giella from issue #75 to #102, then by Dick Giordano (#103-#116); and, finally and most frequently, Frank McLaughlin (#117-183). While Giordano and McLaughlin’s thin lines emphasized Dillin’s finer details, Dillin was also developing his style to match the characters’ own changes. His Batman and Green Arrow especially became more Neal Adams-esque as the book moved into the mid-1970s.

There’s a compelling argument to be made that Dick Dillin was the definitive Justice League artist, both in terms of craft and output. However – and this might apply to any number of artists by comparison – once George Pérez came aboard, the book went to a whole new level of spectacle. It certainly didn’t hurt that Pérez’s first issue was Part 2 of a 3-part Fourth World saga, guest-starring the Justice Society and taking place on New Genesis and Apokolips. Pérez was much better suited to a Jack Kirby pastiche than Dick Dillin was, particularly having spent all those years drawing the Fantastic Four and Avengers. Although Dillin was no slouch at showing a stealthy Batman or a determined Green Lantern, Pérez pulled off effortless sequences of Batman, Mister Miracle and Huntress breaking into Darkseid’s lab; as well as an angry GL trying to free one of Darkseid’s prisoners. The Fiddler’s mental attacks on Power Girl, Orion and Firestorm were straight out of 1970s psychedelia, and also represented another tool Dillin wouldn’t have wielded so effectively.

The Fiddler freaks out Firestorm, Power Girl and Orion; from JLA #184 by Gerry Conway, George Perez and Frank McLaughlin

Following the fine-to-good work of Rich Buckler and Don Heck (also Avengers alumni), penciller Chuck Patton and his various inkers brought JLA back to where Dillin and Giella started – with clean, efficient storytelling that kept everyone on-model. Not as solid as Dillin, as flashy as Pérez or as idiosyncratic as Heck, Patton and company were good enough for the mid-1980s, post-peak World’s Greatest Super-Heroes.

Ironically, the book wouldn’t have that focus much longer; and in a way, it was because of George Pérez. Come back next week for the Detroit League!

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