The Justice League at 60, Part Five: The Experiment

You gotta lose your mind as Tom Bondurant dives into the infamous ‘Detroit League’ of the late 1980s.

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

There’s a lot crammed into the 40-page story writer Gerry Conway, penciller Chuck Patton and inker Dave Hunt tell in 1984’s Justice League of America Annual #2. The issue charts the official end of the JLA (as Aquaman exercises his founding-member privilege to disband it) and the subsequent creation of a new, ostensibly more focused team. Along the way the Leaguers say goodbye to their ruined satellite headquarters and hello to “the Bunker,” a mall-sized fallout shelter in the middle of Detroit, built by an ex-superhero who apparently saw too many movies about NORAD. Everything that happens in the annual happens quickly: four experienced Leaguers decide to re-form the team moments after dissolving the original; the new League gains two new members who each saw the re-forming happen on live television; and the third and fourth new members basically break into the supposedly impregnable new headquarters. The issue ends with a block party, welcoming the Justice League to this particular run-down part of town.

The entire Detroit Era is kind of overstuffed like that. It ran for 29 issues and two Annuals, from the October 1984 JLA Annual #2 and December 1984’s issue #233 to the end of the series in April 1987’s #261. (By comparison, the Gardner Fox/Mike Sekowsky Silver Age was about twice as long.) We’ll call it the Detroit Era even though the team gets kicked out of Detroit just about halfway through. Conway continued as regular writer until J.M. DeMatteis took over with #256; and Patton pencilled the first seven issues and that 1984 Annual. Following three issues from George Tuska, Luke McDonnell then became the regular penciller with #245. The book changed editors in mid-run, with incumbent Alan Gold in charge through #244 and Andrew Helfer finishing out the series. Finally, a little over a year into the Detroit Era, the anniversary issue #250 teased the return of an original Leaguer (spoiler: Batman) who would help train the new folks and boost the book’s profile.

Detail from Justice League of America #236, by Gerry Conway, Chuck Patton and Rick Magyar

Again, that all happened within two and a half years. Still, they were consequential years for DC as a whole. Within six months of the Detroit League’s debut, DC kicked off Crisis On Infinite Earths, an event whose name recalled the annual Justice League/Justice Society team-ups (“Crisis On Earth-One,” “Crisis In Yesterday,” etc.) and which started with a scene aboard the wrecked JLA Satellite. The heroic Alexander Luthor of Earth-Three had sent his infant son to Earth-One in hopes of his being found by the Justice League; but the old League was gone, and Crisis didn’t bring it back. Indeed, the League’s Earth-Three counterparts had just been vaporized by Crisis‘ antimatter waves.

Of course, the architects of Crisis were writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez. Their New Teen Titans had launched to tremendous success in the summer of 1980, when Pérez was winding down on Avengers and just getting started on JLA. Indeed, those Titans told off the Justice League in NTT issue #4, explaining in no uncertain terms that they weren’t just a collection of sidekicks anymore. While New Teen Titans did have Robin, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash and Beast Boy/Changeling, they mixed with new characters created specifically for the series. The series’ success clearly inspired Batman and the Outsiders, which launched a few years later and featured Black Lightning and Metamorpho (two characters who had famously turned down JLA membership) alongside a handful of heroes created specifically for the series.

Therefore, it’s hard not to see the Detroit League as following the same formula. The four returning Leaguers – Aquaman, Elongated Man, Martian Manhunter and Zatanna – were joined by Conway’s co-creations Vixen and Steel, plus original characters Vibe and Gypsy. Conway and Bob Oksner created Vixen for an unpublished 1970s series, and she finally appeared in July 1981’s Action Comics issue #521. (That delay may have prevented her from joining the League any earlier.) Steel was the grandson of a character Conway and Don Heck created for his own five-issue series, which debuted in March 1978.

In fact, March 1978 also saw the first issue of Conway and Al Milgrom’s Firestorm, which ran for exactly as many issues as Steel. In June 1980, two years after Conway started as regular JLA writer (and well over a year after Firestorm and Steel had both become victims of the “DC Implosion”), he brought Firestorm into the League. Appearances of nepotism aside, this continued the tradition of Justice Leaguers who had debuted originally somewhere else. It was also the inverse of Red Tornado, whose debut and pre-membership appearances all happened in JLA; but who was created by Gardner Fox and Dick Dillin as a new member of the Justice Society, and joined the Justice League under writer Len Wein. Put another way, Firestorm was created by the then-current JLA writer but brought in from “outside” (as was Vixen, and arguably Steel); while Reddy was “internal” but co-created by a previous JLA writer.

So how does that affect the Detroit League’s all-star status? Is it even instructive to think of them in those terms, if they are relative outliers compared to the rest of the group? Indeed, was the Detroit League really intended to continue the series’ all-star format?

The short answer to the last question seems to be “no”; which renders the other questions moot. If the Detroit League was supposed to be a blend of existing and new characters like the Titans and Outsiders, that made its all-star status a lot less relevant. Since we’re using that status as an indicator of Scope, so far that also makes the Detroit League a lot less grand than its predecessor eras. In its first arc (#233-36), the League fought the Cadre, a group of fairly generic supervillains led by an extraterrestrial who imagined himself the arbiter of Earth’s development. Next (#237-38) the team traveled to the USSR to rescue Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash, who had returned from issues #231-32 to find the JLA Satellite destroyed. Issue #239 wrapped up a Vixen subplot; issue #240 was a fill-in flashback to the old League; and issues #241-43 pitted the team (mostly minus Aquaman) against Amazo. We are compelled to note that the League defeated Amazo with a clever variation on the old Star Trek “you are illogical” tactic. Aquaman left the League after that adventure, in order to work on his marriage with Mera.

The book crossed over with Crisis On Infinite Earths in JLA Annual #3 (written by Dan Mishkin and pencilled by Rick Hoberg) and issues #244-45 (which also featured the official JLA/JSA crossover, courtesy of Infinity Inc.). In #246-47 the team got kicked out of Detroit and moved back into the original Secret Sanctuary. After #248’s spotlight on Martian Manhunter, #249-250 had the team deal with an “aging” disease which brought several classic members back. Batman stayed on for #251-54, which featured the return of Despero. (He had quit the Outsiders a couple of months before, as referenced in November 1985’s Outsiders #1 and chronicled in April 1986’s Batman and the Outsiders #32.) Issues #255-57 were centered around Zatanna and a magic-hungry cult leader; and issues #258-61 were the four-part series finale involving Professor Ivo and the deaths of Steel and Vibe.

Gearing up to face Despero; from Justice League of America #252 by Gerry Conway, Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray

Accordingly, Scope also suffered due to the League’s new focus. The Soviet trip and the Amazo and Despero arcs (and the Crisis crossovers, to a certain extent) were deliberate contrasts with the classic JLA, so they were naturally of a larger scale. However, because character subplots were more of a factor in this era, and because the characters themselves were not as outsized as their predecessors, they kept the stories from getting too big. When Vixen dealt with her father’s murderer, she had to go against Aquaman, who didn’t want her to sully the League’s reputation. Likewise, when Aquaman eventually left the team to be with Mera, it was mostly a matter of self-care, not an epic globe-spanning quest. Vibe put down a burgeoning gang war in his home neighborhood, while Steel and Vibe’s sister explored their mutual attraction. Steel himself ran afoul of his super-powered grandfather, who had become basically a reactionary doomsday prepper. Later, Zatanna’s investigation of her friend’s disappearance led her to that cult. These were not bad narratives in and of themselves (although we’ll talk about how well they were handled in Execution); but they were part of the massive tonal shift Conway had implemented.

And not to belabor the point, but character subplots don’t need to restrict the scope of a super-team title. New Teen Titans‘ characters had a few epic-level arcs built into their backstories, starting with Raven’s father Trigon trying to take over the Earth, Changeling’s adoptive father searching for the Doom Patrol’s killers, and Starfire’s sister becoming an intergalactic warlord. In its first 25 issues (and one Annual), the Titans had dispatched Trigon, tangled with the classic JLA, defeated the Titans of Myth, given the martyred Doom Patrol some closure, infiltrated a globe-spanning cult, and fought a war in another solar system. Probably the closest the new-look JLA came to recapturing the sweep of its predecessor was #251-54’s Despero arc, which was worth the buildup. Maybe Conway was trying to rebuild the Justice League on his own terms; and maybe he was mindful of not trying to copy NTT too closely. Either way, generally the JLA looked smaller by comparison.

In this respect, Routine took on a whole new meaning. With these character-driven stories fueling JLA‘s arcs, the idea of “monitor duty” and regular monthly meetings kind of went out the window. When J’Onn J’Onzz took over as team leader in Aquaman’s absence, he did split the group into teams to search for Amazo; but that was a rather subtle nod to the book’s old format. Membership decisions were made early on, and pretty much on the spot. Again, this may have been a combination of an extended setup (which eventually fizzled out – the Aquaman subplot played out over a year, and the team left Detroit a few issues later) and the need for a bright line between the old rituals and the new style. Routine therefore became a process of discovery, as readers learned gradually what to expect from the cast.

As for Team Chemistry, there were some odd choices, to say the least. Zatanna started off with a weird distaste for Vixen, centered mainly but perhaps not exclusively over their mutual attraction to Bunker caretaker Dale Gunn. (We haven’t mentioned Dale yet, but he was an all-purpose liaison/tech guy with a perfectly pleasant demeanor. Dale helped the League settle into the Bunker, and ushered them out when they were no longer welcome.) Aquaman revealed that he could use his telepathic powers for a little bit of mind-control on humans. Vibe didn’t approve of Steel wooing his sister until he (Steel) asked Vibe for permission. As mentioned above, Vixen and Aquaman clashed over Vixen’s methods in seeing that her father’s murderer – her uncle, also the ruler of their country – was brought to justice. J’Onn J’Onzz played mediator throughout all of this, while Ralph and Sue Dibny relied upon each other.

Accordingly, it may be telling that one of Conway’s better choices was to pair Batman with Vixen starting in #251, and especially to have them go out to dinner as billionaire and high-profile model. For years Justice League existed as a vehicle for relationships that readers might not have gotten out of the characters’ solo series, and this new direction had gotten away from that. With Conway able to do more long-form storytelling, including ongoing subplots and the use of “interludes” for foreshadowing, those eclectic relationships also got replaced by a more standard group dynamic.

Super friends; from Justice League of America #252 by Gerry Conway, Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray

The problem, especially early on, was that the dynamic arose out of – you’ll pardon the expression – the “fish out of water” situation of Aquaman relocating the team to the urban Midwest. Aquaman’s initial inflexibility ran up against things like Steel and Vibe’s particular proprietary perspectives on the JLA coming to Detroit; as well as Vixen’s own experiences as a not-entirely-new superhero. When the mix-and-match relationships between familiar preexisting characters are switched out for a continuing group dynamic, you’d better be sure that the group is consistently entertaining. Ironically, once the team left Detroit (and J’Onn J’Onzz took over), the dynamic improved considerably.

To be sure, both the lineup and the supporting cast were appreciably more diverse than ever before. The four all-white returning Leaguers – counting J’Onn, whose secret identity was still just John Jones, Caucasian Cop – were joined by an African-American woman, a Latinx man, and … basically, a privileged white man and white woman. (Gypsy, it was later revealed, came from some deliberately generic suburbs.) Still, they were located in a diverse neighborhood of Detroit … where they met a borderline-stereotypical wise old African-American woman and ended up fighting an African warlord (who, admittedly, lived in New York). Meanwhile, Vibe’s thick accent turned out to be an affectation, and eventually disappeared. Basically, the Detroit League both reinforced stereotypes and subverted expectations. Its intentions were noble, but in practice they were never quite fulfilled.

That brings us to Execution. If the lettercolumns represented sentiments accurately, Conway both took a lot of heat from fans over the Detroit League; and also enjoyed a good bit of support. In a nutshell, it seemed like the less he tried to justify the new direction, the more effective it was. Over an 11-issue span (from #247 through #257), the League

  • moved back into the original Secret Sanctuary and ran afoul of an alien energy vampire (which required five ex-Leaguers to defeat);
  • apparently destroyed Despero, whose appearance had been teased for five issues before the actual arc began;
  • proved that detective John Jones had been framed for murder; and
  • rescued Zatanna from a cult leader who wanted to steal her powers.

All these plots and subplots wove in and around each other throughout this period. If one ever wanted to lament what might have been, these 11 issues would have been the place to start.

Nevertheless, the 13 prior issues (#233 to #246) were kind of a mess. (Issue #240 was a decent classic-team flashback from Kurt Busiek, Mike Sekowsky and Tom Mandrake.) The four-part “Rebirth” arc featured the forgettable Cadre and a familiar gang-war subplot. When the new Leaguers rescued their predecessors in #237-38, Conway threw in a heavy-handed soliloquy about people who feared change. Issue #239’s Vixen spotlight was fun when it got going, but it was based on unearned tension between her and Aquaman. Although the Amazo arc was entertaining, its main cliffhanger involved the unconscious Leaguers buried alive, so their non-suspenseful escape was fairly anticlimactic.

The Crisis crossover issues were fair to good. The Annual explained, in satisfying detail, that the Anti-Monitor turned Red Tornado into a bad guy in order to control Earth’s weather. (This is something that COIE itself never addressed.) Issue #244’s crossover with Infinity Inc. was instructive mainly because Infinity showed just how much Roy Thomas wanted to be Chris Claremont, and just how experimental young Todd McFarlane imagined himself to be. It’s hard to complain about Conway and Patton being stodgy after you’ve seen Infinity Inc. issue #19. However, that storyline was mostly about how Grandpa (Commander) Steel thought the new League was a bunch of no-good renegades bent on tearing down everything the group had come to stand for. It just happened to take place during the end of the Multiverse.

Finally, issue #245 picked up from an unrelated COIE subplot in which Steel the younger got thrown forward in time a billion years, and met the Lord of Time’s daughter and the aged LOT himself. It was a nice standalone issue which, again, just happened to take place while the entire timestream was at risk but didn’t really touch on that fact. These missed opportunities might not have been within Conway’s control, given all that COIE had to accomplish; but considering Justice League of America‘s central role in the whole “Crisis” experience, they were missed nonetheless.

As for the art, Chuck Patton’s pencils were fine. He worked on Annual #2 and the four-part “Rebirth” (#233-36), and stayed through #239. Bill Anderson inked #233-34, Mike Machlan inked #235 and #237-39, while Rick Magyar inked #236. Machlan and Magyar made Patton’s work softer and sketchier, which loosened it up into something a little more accessible. On a book like Justice League you wanted the characters to look on-model, but you also wanted them to move naturally, like they all belonged together. Patton’s work was reminiscent of Dan Jurgens during this early-’80s timeframe – technically good, but in danger of becoming generic.

Aquaman and Vixen versus Amazo; from Justice League of America #243 by Gerry Conway, George Tuska and Mike Machlan

George Tuska pencilled the Amazo arc in #241-43, and although his storytelling was good, his figures (inked by Machlan) were a little too rough. After Joe Staton pencilled #244, Luke McDonnell became regular penciller and stayed through the end of the series in #261. Again, any regrets about the Detroit League’s potential may well involve McDonnell missing out on pencilling Detroit itself. McDonnell supplied the unique style the new direction had been needing, with smooth choreography, gently angular figures and judicious use of shadows. Chuck Patton wasn’t necessarily bad for Justice League, but Luke McDonnell may have been a better fit for what the series was trying to do.

Finally, Justice League of America ended its 27-year run with writer J.M. DeMatteis. Under the “Michael Ellis” pseudonym, he scripted Conway’s plot for #255, and then wrote all of #256-61. These issues closed out the Zatanna/cult arc and provided a four-issue coda for the Detroit League. It was a melancholy end to say the least, as Professor Ivo sent android duplicates of himself to kill the new Leaguers out of misplaced revenge. By the end of the series, Vibe and Steel were dead, Gypsy was reunited with her family and Vixen was retired.

Readers familiar with DeMatteis’ work won’t find much new in these issues. Zatanna defeats the cult leader by going into his brain and finding that he’s been overwhelmed by the forces he sought to control. When she brings him back to normal, he’s ready to start a new life; and she leaves with him, as his guide. The four-part “End of the Justice League” is similarly full of DeMatteis’ dialogue rhythms and narrative choices. There’s even some nine-panel grid use (although not in my image selections), which seems ironic given what’s to come.

Vibe’s last fight; from Justice League of America #258 by J.M. DeMatteis, Luke McDonnell and Bob Smith

Overall, then, the Detroit League gets low scores for Scope and Routine, but was showing improvement on Team Chemistry and Execution. This is not to say that the ideas behind the new direction were not valid, or that the Justice League should have tried harder to make its classic formula work. Just imagine (as it were) the next creative team tackling the remnants of the League moving into the heart of Detroit. Aquaman would have been the uptight boss, with the other Leaguers as buffers between him and the new hires. They would all have played off the new setting in various ways. Instead, Conway and Patton may have tried to bring too much self-importance to the Detroit era, when what they needed was a little more self-awareness.

Of course, there will be plenty of that to go around as we tackle Justice League International – next week!

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