Throughout the 1960s, Justice League of America was the standard-bearer for DC Comics’ superhero teams. In the 1970s, the series boasted an expanded roster and solid, steady Dick Dillin art. The 1980s brought sweeping, lasting changes, from Detroit to the JLI; and the early ’90s turned the League into a franchise. Still, was any of that ever really cool?
I can’t tell you for sure, but I can say this: starting in the summer of 1996, the Justice League was cool enough for Wizard. The breathless self-appointed arbiter of mainstream superhero comics’ cutting edge was all over JLA in the series’ early years, including a 1997 special issue devoted entirely to the title. It was a super-high concept executed by Grant Morrison, one of the era’s hottest writers. Of course Wizard was going to notice.
Specifically, after many years DC had finally managed to wrangle the seven “original” Justice Leaguers back onto the team, and matched them with a writer who a) genuinely loved DC’s Silver Age and b) had amassed a ton of critical acclaim, including proto-Vertigo work on Animal Man and Doom Patrol. What probably seemed like a no-brainer to the fan community must have been the product of massive editorial goodwill – compare Batman overlord Denny O’Neil’s very grounded “urban legend” approach to Morrison’s “most dangerous man on Earth” – but it was simple and efficient.
Following the end of the JLI era in cover-date August 1996, the Justice League went from three titles and 20-odd members to one book with a cast of seven. The relaunched League would feature the 1996 versions of the founding members, namely Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, the Wally West Flash, and the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern; and they would tackle menaces as big and as crazy as Morrison and penciller Howard Porter could devise. Even the JLA title was too cool to be spelled out.
JLA‘s run of 126 monthly issues (cover dates January 1997-April 2006), spanning over nine years, can be divided into a few big chunks. First was the Morrison/Porter period (including high-profile guest writers Mark Waid and Mark Millar, as well as a bullpen of guest artists), which ended with May 2000’s issue #41. Waid was the next regular writer, starting with July 2000’s #43 and lasting until January 2002’s #60; and Joe Kelly was its last, from February 2002’s #61 to January 2004’s #90.
JLA had three editors across its run. Ruben Diaz, who was the editor on Extreme Justice and Justice League Task Force, edited the Midsummer’s Nightmare miniseries and the first 8 issues of JLA before leaving for Marvel. Dan Raspler then became the book’s editor for almost six years, from early September 1997’s #9 through June 2003’s #80. Mike Carlin finished out the series’ run, starting with July 2003’s #81 and going through April 2006’s #125.
Starting with #91 the book basically became an anthology featuring rotating creative teams. Kurt Busiek and Ron Garney contributed the longest arc, eight issues involving the Crime Syndicate (December 2004-July 2005’s #107-114); and I seem to remember a rumor that they were supposed to be the new regular creative team. Obviously that didn’t happen, so two of the last three years of JLA featured standalone arcs from Dennis O’Neil and Tan Eng Huat (#91-93); Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Jerry Ordway (rebooting the Doom Patrol in #94-99); and Chuck Austen and Ron Garney (#101-06). After Busiek and Garney came two arcs tying into 2005-06’s big event Infinite Crisis – one from writers Geoff Johns & Allan Heinberg and penciller Chris Batista (#115-19), and the other from writer Bob Harras and penciller Tom Derenick (#120-25). In hindsight, it looks like Infinite Crisis may have derailed whatever plans Busiek and Garney might have had for the book, but that’s just speculation on my part. (Busiek did revisit one subplot in 2008-09’s weekly Trinity miniseries.) There were four annuals, none by the regular creative teams and none of which tied into an ongoing storyline. However, each of the four Secret Files specials had a story relevant to the ongoing series.
Although JLA didn’t exactly start a Justice League International-style franchise, it did produce a few spinoffs. Morrison wrote and Val Semeiks pencilled the JLA/WildCATS one-shot, as well as November 1998’s 4-issue weekly crossover event DC One Million. Morrison also wrote February 2000’s JLA: Earth 2 graphic novel, which was drawn by Frank Quitely. Likewise, December 2000’s oversized graphic novel JLA: Heaven’s Ladder was written by Waid and penciller Bryan Hitch as part of their run. Kelly and penciller Doug Mahnke extended their League work with the 12-issue Justice League Elite miniseries (September 2004-August 2005), which used characters they had introduced in March 2001’s Action Comics #775 and revisited in August 2004’s JLA #100. This period also saw several standalone Justice League specials and miniseries by various creative teams – including Waid and Barry Kitson’s 12-issue JLA: Year One (1998-99); the 7-issue JLA: Incarnations from John Ostrander and Semeiks (2001-02); David Goyer, Geoff Johns and Carlos Pacheco’s JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice (2002); and the long, long-awaited JLA/Avengers from Busiek and George Pérez (2003-04) – but sadly, those are beyond the scope of this post.
Speaking of the Justice Society, JLA‘s “old names and current faces” approach soon inspired a few related team-book relaunches. The Teen Titans revamp Young Justice spun out of the two-issue JLA: World Without Grown-Ups miniseries (August-September 1998); the 3-issue JLA/Titans miniseries (December 1998-February 1999) birthed the New Titans sequel series Titans; and JSA picked up after the Justice Society’s appearance in JLA #28-31 (April-July 1999).
Finally, DC launched a dedicated ongoing anthology series with January 2005’s JLA Classified #1. It kicked off with three issues from Morrison and penciller Ed McGuinness and then saw the return of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire for the first of their two six-issue JLI reunions. JLA Classified outlived JLA itself, so for now we’ll just note that subsequent creative teams included Warren Ellis and Butch Guice (#10-15), Gail Simone and José Luis Garcia-Lopéz (#16-21), and Steve Englehart and Tom Derenick (a Detroit League flashback in #22-25).
All of this goes back, of course, to the three-issue Justice League: A Midsummer’s Nightmare miniseries (cover dates September-November 1996), written by Mark Waid and Fabian Nicieza and pencilled by Jeff Johnson and Darick Robertson. Its final boss was KnowMan, a caveman given immortality and smarts by the Controllers (relatives of the Guardians of the Universe) and charged with creating a super-army for Earth’s space sector. Eventually, KnowMan used Doctor Destiny’s reality-warping powers to make every current and former superhero forget their abilities, while empowering everyone else. The goal was to stop a mysterious but terrifying “warbringer” which, unbeknownst to readers at the time, Morrison’s final arc would reveal.
The more immediate point was to bring these particular characters together again for the first time. Wonder Woman and Flash had been in the most recent Justice League and Martian Manhunter was training the JL Task Force. Superman had been a reserve member of the original JLA (as per the 1986 reboot), only going full-time when Dan Jurgens took over Justice League America; and Kyle Rayner had been working with the New Titans. Therefore, since Martian Manhunter’s voluminous history with the League remained unchanged, that left him, Aquaman and Batman as the only original Leaguers who were part of the new JLA. (For whatever it’s worth, those three characters also led the Detroit League at various points.)
Morrison and Porter started strongly with a 4-parter featuring the duplicitous Hyperclan (issues #1-4), and followed it with an effective tale of android heroine Tomorrow Woman (issue #5). After that were a couple of two-parters, the first centered around fallen angels (#6-7) and the second (#8-9, pencilled by Oscar Jimenez) involving alternate realities and old foe The Key. The 6-part epic “Rock Of Ages” shot the book into its second year (#10-15) with an all-star Injustice League and a nightmare alt-future ruled by Darkseid. Along the way the League added the new Green Arrow (Connor Hawke) and Morrison and Mark Millar’s creation Aztek, whose solo series launched about the same time as JLA did.
Those first 15 issues were energizing, but not perfect. Both JL: AMN and the Hyperclan story featured antagonistic League counterparts. “Rock of Ages” not only assembled its Injustice League from the JLA’s arch-enemies, it then had them create evil duplicates of the Leaguers themselves. Alternate timelines also figured into AMN, JLA/WildCATS, the Key two-parter and “Rock of Ages.” However, Morrison managed to elevate these adventures onto a higher plane by emphasizing their oddities and strangeness. Green Lantern was starstruck by his new teammates (“it’s like playing with the Beatles,” he remarked in issue #1), as was the Flash when he beheld Superman wrestling an angel. The angels, and the ancient superbeings of “ROA’s” Wonderworld, were also reminders that as powerful as the Leaguers were, they weren’t close to the top of the food chain.
Moreover, Morrison’s villains were coolly evil, from the slow-to-anger Hyperclan to the casually malevolent Neron and (two of the) Demons Three in issues #6-7. Even the mad-scientist duo of T.O. Morrow and Professor Ivo (issue #5) had internalized their hatred of the League so completely that they took their inevitable defeat in stride. Naturally, this all reached its peak in “Rock of Ages,” which combined Luthor’s schemes with the vision of a metropolitan Anti-Life hellscape. The simple proclamation “Darkseid is” thus became a diabolical distillation.
In this respect Porter’s angular, idiosyncratic figures were eccentric enough to complement Morrison’s heightened unreality. The slow push into the demons’ lair at the start of issue #6, and the way that scene ends, is genuinely unnerving; and there’s lots more similar creepiness in “Rock of Ages” and the two-part Starro story in issues #22-23. Although Porter’s style softened a little after that, by then he was well into a comfortable groove.
After “Rock of Ages,” the membership expanded significantly, with Green Arrow and Aztek leaving but Big Barda, Orion, Huntress, Oracle, Plastic Man, Zauriel (introduced in #6), and Steel (John Henry Irons) joining. By way of introducing the new members, in issues #16-17 Morrison, Porter and guest penciller Arnie Jorgensen used Prometheus as an “anti-Batman” (criminal parents killed by cops) capable of defeating each Leaguer. Mark Waid guest-wrote issues #18-21, about which more later. Morrison then returned with a two-parter guest-starring the still-new Sandman (#22-23), and followed that with a trip to the far future in DC One Million, pencilled by Val Semeiks. Issues #24-26 introduced the “proactive” Ultramarines and a more terrifying Shaggy Man; and (following #27’s Amazo one-off from Mark Millar and Mark Pajarillo) the four-part Justice Society team-up “Crisis Times Five.” After a few issues guest-written by Waid & Devin Grayson (#32-33) and J.M. DeMatteis (#35, pencilled by Pajarillo), Morrison’s final arc, “World War III,” began in issue #36.
The “always something bigger” theme ran throughout Morrison’s JLA. The WildCATS team-up special involved psychedelic time-hopping and far-future armies. “Rock of Ages” introduced the superbeings of Wonderworld and teased the 853rd Century’s Justice Legion A, whom readers got to know in DC One Million. Issues #22-23 took the League into the Dreaming to defeat the Star Conquerors, continent-sized creatures bent on harvesting the Earth. Prometheus and the Ultramarines each imagined themselves as the next generation of super-people; and “Crisis Times Five” concerned an invasion from the Fifth Dimension. “World War III” topped all of this, starting with a devastating Injustice League attack and then revealing that both KnowMan and the New Gods had been preparing to defend the Earth against the juggernaut Mageddon. That arc ended as A Midsummer’s Nightmare began, with the civilians of Earth gaining super-powers to face off against the warbringer.
Both with his guest-shots and as regular writer, Mark Waid shifted the focus to more puzzle-oriented stories. Issues #18-19 concerned subatomic changes that eventually threatened all of reality, manifesting in coincidences involving the number 7. That’s an abstract description of a story that plays out like a Gardner Fox acid trip. More Silver Age homage emerged in issues #20-21 (pencilled by Jorgensen) – which had Adam Strange kidnap the League to fortify Rann against invasion – and in issue #50’s battles with Doctor Destiny. Shifting to more street-level concerns, Waid, co-writer Devin Grayson and penciller Mark Pajarillo contributed a couple of issues addressing the League’s response to an earthquake-ravaged Gotham City (#32-33).
Waid and Porter returned to the Bat-mythology for the first, and probably best-remembered, story of Waid’s JLA run – the four-part “Tower of Babel” (#43-46), which introduced Batman’s secret plans to subdue every Justice Leaguer. (It was also Howard Porter’s swan song as JLA penciller.) Stolen and implemented by Rã’s al-Ghūl, the general idea was later adopted thematically by subsequent writers in other series. Bat-plans gone wrong appeared in the Bat-books’ “War Games” event, in 2005’s OMAC Project miniseries, and more recently in the cruel calculations of the Dark Multiverse’s various Batmen. In Waid’s JLA, though, it had immediate consequences: Batman was voted off of the team, and it took the double-sized issue #50 to convince them to take him back.
Waid’s other League work involved the lush pencils of Bryan Hitch, lauded by readers for his “widescreen” work on The Authority. Hitch was pretty far away from Porter in terms of style, but he could convey the sweep and grandeur to which JLA readers had become accustomed. His introduction to JLA was supposed to be the tabloid-sized Heaven’s Ladder, in which an extraterrestrial force steals the Earth along with dozens of other planets. However, Hitch’s first monthly issue was issue #47, kicking off a three-parter featuring new villain the Queen of Fables. Hitch then illustrated the bulk of Waid’s ambitious secret-identity arc (Mike Miller pencilled the first part) in #51-54, wherein most of the team was split into “super” and “civilian” personae. (That arc also made the case that “Batman” was just an unfocused mass of id without Bruce Wayne’s guiding intellect, which kind of runs counter to the conventional “Bruce is the mask” approach.) Waid’s final arc was pencilled mostly by Miller, except for Hitch’s #55, and involved the White Martians; and his final issue (#60) was a light-hearted Christmas story featuring Plastic Man and Santa Claus.
Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke’s run was darker and more introspective than either Waid or Morrison’s. After a standalone day-in-the-life issue #61, the new creative team produced a three-part arc about objective truth itself breaking down thanks to Wonder Woman’s crisis of faith. Another standalone issue (#65’s spotlight on Plastic Man) provided a lighthearted buffer before the start of “The Obsidian Age.” Counting a two-issue prologue in #66-67 and a wrapup in #76, the whole thing took eleven issues, included six bi-weekly issues, and brought in guest penciller Yvel Guichet for the present-day adventures of the replacement Justice League. “The Obsidian Age” was an epic involving an ancient super-team that protected the Atlantis of 1,000 BC and saw the Justice League as “destroyers” of the Earth. While searching for Aquaman (lost after the last big crossover), the JLA thought he might have been cast back in time and went to ancient Atlantis to find him. Meanwhile, sensing that this might be the JLA’s final mission, Batman activated a new set of Nightwing-led reserves.
“Obsidian” was filled with striking imagery, much of it centered around the certainty that the JLA had been killed 3,000 years ago. This was a different sort of tone than Morrison and Porter had promulgated, although it fed off a similar “bigger and badder” energy. Kelly, Mahnke and Guichet delivered a gripping tale of (yes) triumph and tragedy, earning the fist-pumping returns of the core JLA and Aquaman, and ending with appropriate levels of catharsis. It set the stage for a revised League lineup, as John Stewart replaced Kyle Rayner and Plastic Man left. (Aquaman wasn’t sticking around regardless, because he had an ongoing series waiting.) The Native American shaman Manitou Raven – introduced as part of the Atlantean team, and hinting at a less problematic Apache Chief – joined in #76, along with ex-reserves Firestorm, Major Disaster, the Atom and the mysterious Faith.
However, the rest of Kelly’s run never reached “Obsidian’s” epic heights. Instead, the JLA faced Iraq War analogues in #78-79 (in outer space, involving Kanjar Ro) and #83 (pencilled by Chriscross); got involved in a militia-style standoff which namechecked 1993’s Waco tragedy (#80-82, pencilled by Duncan Rouleau); and dealt with the global consequences of Martian Manhunter’s vision quest (#84-89). Kelly’s final issue (#90) was pencilled by Chriscross and addressed the simmering – and honestly, somewhat forced – romantic tension between Batman and Wonder Woman. Spoiler: they’re just good friends.
On balance, Kelly’s run was a sort of middle ground between Morrison’s blue-sky plotting and Waid’s naturalistic dialogue. Clearly Kelly saw JLA as a vehicle for exploring real-world politics, and that provided a pragmatic perspective on the League which hadn’t been seen since arguably the Dan Vado days. As for the art, Mahnke’s more stylized pencils took a little getting used to following Hitch’s realistic approach, but his figures had their own heft and power. Wonder Woman in particular looked more “mythological,” for lack of a better term; almost like she stepped off a Grecian urn. Kelly and Mahnke did continue their collaboration with Justice League Elite, but without the cachet of the actual JLA it wasn’t quite the same.
As you might expect, the rotating creative teams had varying degrees of success. Denny O’Neil and Tan Eng Huat’s environmental parable (#91-93) was well-intentioned but meandering. Claremont, Byrne and Ordway’s six-issue Doom Patrol revamp probably could have used some editing as well, since it was basically fighting a vampire cult – with an X-shaped logo, of course – which the Amazons had defeated ‘way back in the day. Chuck Austen and Ron Garney’s six issues each explored a Leaguer’s particular fears; and the two crossover tie-in arcs felt like editorially-mandated marking time. Busiek and Garney’s eight-parter involved the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3, a group of Qwardian bad guys, and another ancient juggernaut called the Void Hound. It used the CSA effectively as an equally powerful anti-League; and its conclusion reached back to the arc’s first issue, tying in an item from the regular JLA checklist as a weapon against the Void Hound.
So, with all that in mind, let’s run through Scope, Routine, Team Chemistry and Execution. Scope should be pretty easy at this point, because the League roster practically guaranteed at least one gigundo widescreen adventure – “World War III,” Heaven’s Ladder, “The Obsidian Age” – per creative team. Although the rosters themselves were heavily all-star, both Morrison & Porter and Mahnke & Kelly added their own creations. Technically, Tomorrow Woman was first (issue #5), but she was a one-off guest star. Next was Zauriel, who debuted in #6 and was a Leaguer as of #16. Although Morrison co-created Aztek with Mark Millar and N. Steven Harris, he had his own series before joining the League. Morrison and Porter’s new version of Hourman cameoed in #12 and worked with the League off and on from #23 through #31. Waid didn’t add any members internally, sticking mostly with the original seven plus Plastic Man. Kelly & Mahnke only added two: telekinetic powerhouse Faith (#69) and time-lost shaman Manitou Raven (#66; joined in #78). Raven’s wife Manitou Dawn debuted in #75 but only worked with Justice League Elite in that eponymous miniseries. Regardless, these characters each fit the blockbuster tone to which JLA readers had become accustomed.
Routine made something of a comeback during this period, as the Leaguers had a couple of formal membership drives (in #5 and between #15 and #16, as shown in JLA Secret Files #2) and voted Batman out in #46. Issues #16-17 offered close looks at the JLA Watchtower and #78 showed the team transitioning between lineups. Aztek #10 even revealed that the JLA used the costume of the Crimson Avenger (at the time considered to be DC-Earth’s first superhero) in its initiation ceremony. Once again, JLA presented a League heavy on spectacle but not ignorant of the rituals which grounded the team.
By and large, Team Chemistry was back to the professionalism of the Satellite Era. While not nearly as entertaining as the JLI days (Plastic Man notwithstanding), it reinforced the workaday vibe of people who were good at their jobs. Morrison made Flash and Green Lantern friendly rivals and introduced a tiny bit of flirtation between Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Orion didn’t get along with anyone, Batman eventually fired Huntress, and as mentioned above, Batman got voted out himself. Joe Kelly probably did the most with interpersonal relationships, giving Plastic Man a deadbeat-dad subplot and centering his final arc around Martian Manhunter’s ill-fated quest to get over his vulnerability to fire. Kelly also made Manitou Raven’s wife something of a swinger, which was weird in its apparent randomness; but he avoided turning Faith into a Mary Sue. Perhaps Kelly’s biggest achievement was putting together an entire alternate Justice League and having them function well as a team, with Nightwing commanding old pros like Green Arrow and Jason Blood.
That brings us to Execution, which at this point is probably okay just to summarize: It started off at a fairly high level and remained there throughout the book’s first 90 issues. Morrison/Porter, Waid/Hitch and Kelly/Mahnke each had strengths and weaknesses, and all told they did right by JLA for the better part of eight years. Still, once JLA got into the rotating creative teams, its quality became uneven, with the Busiek/Garney issues as the high point. Once the crossover tie-ins started, though, the writing was on the wall for the end of this particular era.
Since the early 1980s, when the Satellite Era team started to splinter, DC had been casting around for a workable Justice League format. The Detroit-era underdogs hadn’t panned out and Justice League International started strong but descended into either too quirky or too combative. With JLA, DC had apparently learned that it needed to accommodate the big names on what was potentially its biggest book.
So why the retooling, if JLA wasn’t really broken? Well, in the wake of Infinite Crisis, DC planned for its Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to go on extended vacations so they could get ready to be relaunched themselves. (Among other things, Busiek would be writing Superman and Morrison Batman.) That meant a year without the Justice League – or at least a League in the JLA mode – which naturally set the stage for another high-profile writer to work out his own love of JLA history. Next time we’ll see how successful he and his collaborators were.