The Justice League at 60, Part 8: Fantasy Drafts

In this edition, Tom Bondurant dives into the “Crisis Cycle” era that defined the Justice League before the New 52 kicked in.

For a series which only lasted five years, there’s a lot to talk about with regard to Justice League of America volume 2. Much of this involves events outside the series, both in DC’s other comics and with the people producing them. Meanwhile, the “comics blogosphere” came into its own, intensifying fan scrutiny and offering real-time commentary on controversies. This post won’t go too deeply into all that extratextual drama; but rest assured it was there, and it crept inevitably into the work.

With that said, let’s get started.

The Legends miniseries begat Justice League International and the Justice League: A Midsummer’s Nightmare miniseries begat JLA. The 2006-2011 Justice League of America similarly traced its roots to 2004’s Identity Crisis, written by novelist Brad Meltzer, pencilled by Rags Morales and inked by Michael Bair. Featuring the murder of a superhero’s spouse and reaching back into the League’s hidden history, Identity Crisis kicked off a “Crisis cycle” that churned through DC books for the next several years.

Identity Crisis ran for seven issues (August 2004-February 2005) and was marketed as a standalone mystery designed to appeal to the unicorn-esque audience of shy comics readers. In theory, Meltzer’s name would attract enough attention for a general audience to rediscover the joy of DC Comics. In practice, Identity Crisis turned out to be an exploitative, unsavory blend of retroactive continuity and gratuitous violence that did the publisher’s image no favors. Nevertheless, it sold well, and its effects rippled out into the larger superhero line, laying the foundation for other game-changing miniseries.

At long last, the League; from Justice League of America #12 by Brad Meltzer, Ed Benes and Sandra Hope

We’ll get into the details in a minute. By 2006 Meltzer, a self-proclaimed superfan, would be writing the new Justice League of America. In addition to peppering his novels with DC-related Easter eggs, Meltzer’s comics bona fides were bolstered by a couple of sources. The inspiration for Identity Crisis’ plot was a 1979 Gerry Conway/Dick Dillin Secret Society of Super-Villains three-parter in Justice League of America #166-68; and Meltzer had also written a continuity-conscious Green Arrow arc drawn by Phil Hester and Ande Parks (issues #16-21, October 2002-April 2003).

As it happens, although DC launched Justice League of America volume 2 basically on the strength of Meltzer’s reputation, he only wrote the first 13 issues (#0 to #12). Dwayne McDuffie, who had helped guide the 2001-06 Justice League animated series, then wrote 20 issues (including the Green Arrow/Black Canary Wedding Special); and James Robinson wrote 23, plus the 7-issue Cry For Justice miniseries. By the time JLofA volume 2 published its final issue (October 2011’s #60), it had become a much different book than Meltzer had set up. Arguably it had gotten a lot more interesting.

Part of that had to do with the aforementioned Crisis cycle, which both justified the series’ existence and then ended up killing it. From 2004 through 2011, DC’s superhero line was consumed by one Big Event after another, often recovering from one while preparing for the next. 2004’s Identity Crisis led into 2005-06’s Infinite Crisis, which was so traumatic that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League basically took a year off. That year was chronicled in 2006-07’s 52, a well-received miniseries that head honcho Dan DiDio nevertheless decided to “improve upon” with 2007-08’s almost-universally-panned Countdown. Next was Final Crisis (2008-09); and after it came 2009-10’s Green Lantern-centric Blackest Night. 2010-11’s follow-ups Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost each appeared to set the stage for a revitalized DC Universe; but Flashpoint came along in the summer of 2011 and kneecapped those plans with the line-wide New 52 relaunch.

We can see the Crisis cycle working behind the scenes of JLofA volume 2. Chronologically, it began after 52‘s sabbatical year, with Meltzer’s dream Justice League centered around the well-rested Trinity (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman). By the time Meltzer left in 2007, Countdown was underway and Dwayne McDuffie’s plots were tweaked to reflect the superhero books’ editorially-encouraged interrelations. Green Arrow and Black Canary got married in their new ongoing series, so that relationship informed BC’s leadership of the League. When the government sent supervillains to a distant prison planet (chronicled in the Salvation Run miniseries), it rippled into a fight between the JLA and Suicide Squad. Final Crisis led basically to a seismic membership shift, leaving the League Trinity-less and split in two. Incoming writer James Robinson then rebuilt the team with legacy characters, in part reflecting then-current status quo shakeups in the Superman and Batman books.

Vixen gets fired; from Justice League of America #22 by Dwayne McDuffie, Ed Benes and Sandra Hope

Still, regardless of writer, relationships were once again integral to Justice League of America. For Meltzer, the Trinity’s bond was at the heart of the team, although it was contrasted subtly with another trio of Black Canary, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and Roy “Red Arrow” Harper. For McDuffie, the Trinity was a well-intentioned but still exclusionary clique that had its own secret meeting room within JLA headquarters. Although McDuffie presided over the first big membership change, he still managed to cultivate interesting interpersonal dynamics, both with the holdovers from Meltzer and the post-shakeup remnants. At the same time, Robinson was building a competing League using Hal, Green Arrow and the Atom (Ray Palmer) in the Cry For Justice miniseries. (Ironically, a different set of relationships would be key to Robinson’s run.)

Next was the Justice League being at the center of the superhero community. This played out in comparison to rival teams – the expanded Injustice League, the Suicide Squad, and heroes from the former Milestone universe – and by having the League’s image change along with its membership. For much of the book’s first three years (all of Meltzer and much of McDuffie), the team was built around a classic lineup that gave it a certain elitist cachet. Robinson then used as series of membership moves to re-examine what the League meant both to its new members and to the world at large.

Since this series was guided by three different writers, let’s look first at Brad Meltzer’s 13 issues, pencilled mostly by Ed Benes. To put it bluntly, not much happened across these issues. (McDuffie has Hal Jordan say as much in issue #31.) There were two main arcs, the six-part “Tornado’s Path” (#1-6) and the five-part “Lightning Saga” (#8-10, crossing into Justice Society of America #5-6. The JSA issues were written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Fernando Pasarin and Dale Eaglesham). In “Tornado’s Path,” the League stopped Amazo from possessing Red Tornado – a sexy Red Tornado, for those of you who may be interested – and in “Lightning Saga,” the League and Justice Society basically watched the time-traveling Legion of Super-Heroes retrieve Wally West from his post-Infinite Crisis exile. Otherwise, issue #0 was the Trinity’s nonlinear tour through Justice Leagues past and future; issue #7 set up the new team’s two headquarters (the Hall of Justice in Washington, D.C., and the orbiting Watchtower); issue #11 was a claustrophobic tale of Red Arrow and Vixen surviving a collapsing building; and issue #12 was another trip around the horn showing the individual Leaguers on monitor duty.

Spoiler: the character they agree on doesn’t join, and maybe never gets asked. From Justice League of America #1, by Brad Meltzer, Ed Benes and Sandra Hope

Although Meltzer’s work demonstrated a lot of thought and affection, not much of it really landed. (As anyone who’s had to deal with severe weather can tell you, a tornado’s path is often random and produces unintended consequences.) First was the use of the Trinity itself. Issue #0 focused almost exclusively on Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, who then spent the better part of issues #1-3 sitting at a card table in the Batcave going over their picks for League membership. While the Trinity essentially built the new team around their insular consensus, their colleagues were tracking down supervillains and trying to figure out what was going on with Red Tornado. That created an obvious tension; but again, Meltzer seemed happy to leave it at that; while McDuffie saw it and had characters act upon it.

Next was Meltzer’s use of specific characters, including Red Arrow, Red Tornado and Black Lightning. Red Tornado represented the collegial, if not outright familial, aspects of the League; especially the extent to which its members looked out for each other. (This was also drilled into readers through frequent flashbacks to previous League eras.) Red Arrow embodied the role of legacies within the League, and seemed to voice Meltzer’s love of DC’s third generation (i.e., the original Teen Titans). His relationships with Green Lantern and Black Canary were designed to remind readers of the “Hard-Traveling Heroes” era, and his romance with Kendra “Hawkgirl” Saunders could be seen as a counterpoint to Green Arrow’s friendly rivalry with Hawkman. (Roy even called Kendra “pretty bird,” his mentor’s nickname for Black Canary.) Finally, Black Lightning represented the group of veteran superheroes who, for whatever reason, hadn’t yet joined the Justice League despite having the chops for it. Meltzer used Black Lightning’s civilian ties to Lex Luthor (he was President Luthor’s Secretary of Education) as an avenue into the supervillain underworld, which gave the character both a unique position on the team and a unique perspective on it as well.

However, Red Arrow and Red Tornado’s respective roles weren’t handled with quite as much skill. Their cumulative effect was to remind the reader that Brad Meltzer loved DC’s Bronze Age generally and the Justice League and New Teen Titans in particular. Eventually that got to be a bit much. It would have been one thing if Meltzer had put these characters in grander stories, but with the stakes for these two arcs set relatively low – personal consequences as opposed to global/universal – they ended up feeling indulgent.

Dwayne McDuffie’s run started with an army-sized Injustice League (as told in the Mike McKone-pencilled Wedding Special, plus issues #13-15). A standalone story reintroducing the Tangent Universe (#16, pencilled by Joe Benitez) was followed by a politically tinged scuffle with the Suicide Squad (#17-19). After a couple more standalone stories featuring the Flash (#20, drawn by Ethan van Sciver) and a Final Crisis prelude (#21, drawn by Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino), issues #22-26 wrapped up the lingering Amazo/Red Tornado subplot from “The Tornado’s Path” and introduced Anansi, a reality-warping being who could alter Vixen and Animal Man’s abilities. After that came eight issues (#27-34) involving various Milestone heroes (Icon, Hardware, the Shadow Cabinet), the Shadow Thief and Starbreaker.

Hal’s not happy; from Justice League of America #31 by Dwayne McDuffie, Shane Davis and Sandra Hope

That was McDuffie’s last arc, and it included a lot. Ultimately it involved Dharma, the Shadow Cabinet’s mysterious benefactor, trying to stabilize the group’s presence on the main DC-Earth after the multiverse-affecting conclusion of Final Crisis. However, almost literally in the middle of the arc came Batman’s apparent death and the rumblings of Cry For Justice. Three issues later, McDuffie’s run was over and the League consisted of Doctor Light (Kimiyo Hoshi), Firestorm (Jason Rusch and Gehenna), Green Lantern John Stewart, Vixen and Zatanna, with Superman as a guest-star.

Now, even without Superman, that’s not a bad core for a Justice League by any means. It’s three women and two men (four women if you count Gehenna); four people of color (again, five with Gehenna); and four veterans of previous Leagues. This team (plus Hardware, Superman and his Milestone analogue Icon) had to face down Starbreaker in full-on cosmic devourer form, so right away the stakes were huge.

After some 13 years of a classic-lineup Justice League, this roster was definitely a departure — but a welcome one. Although the League offered Black Lightning membership in 1979 – almost 20 years into its existence – after he refused, it took another five years for the regular roster to include persons of color (namely Vixen and Vibe). I’m pretty sure McDuffie fielded the most diverse League roster in the feature’s history, at least to that point; and the characters all played off one another pretty well to boot. Doctor Light wasn’t exactly a reluctant superhero, but she was a little rusty. Vixen had been struggling with unpredictable powers, and Firestorm was still pretty brash. Green Lantern and Zatanna were the most experienced, but they didn’t lord it over the others.

Again, though, the membership shakeup resulted from more externally dictated changes, making the Dharma/Starbreaker arc flabbier and choppier. The arc started in issue #27, but a line-wide focus on villains resulted in #29 flashing back to Starbreaker’s origin (from writer Len Wein and artist ChrisCross). Issue #31 was the interlude that reorganized the team, setting up McDuffie’s final three issues. Wein and penciller Tom Derenick then produced a four-issue story (#35-38) featuring the new League against the Royal Flush Gang, Amos Fortune and Roulette; and that took the book up to the next event, Blackest Night. The new team of writer James Robinson and penciller Mark Bagley came in with the two BN crossover issues (#39-40); and they would pretty much close out the title.

A character moment amongst the exposition; from Justice League of America #42 by James Robinson, Mark Bagley and Rob Hunter

Since this post is getting a little flabby itself, let’s refocus with Scope, Routine, Team Chemistry and Execution. Scope started a mile wide and an inch deep, with Meltzer using some C-list villains (Signalman, Plastique, Electrocutioner) in “Tornado’s Path” and sending the JLA and JSA all over DC-Earth in “The Lightning Saga.” The book’s sweep widened appreciably under McDuffie, first with the beefed-up Injustice League and then by using the Tangent and Milestone characters. Robinson’s arcs were all fairly big: “The Dark Things” and “The Rise of Eclipso” both featured an evil entity controlling DC’s magical characters from the Moon; and “Omega” had a universe-hopping bad guy and the Crime Syndicate. The Cry For Justice miniseries built to a nationwide threat that even the League couldn’t stop, but we’ll get to that. In any event, Scope started iffy but finished strongly.

One quick thing before we move off this topic: I don’t think there were any internally generated Justice Leaguers in this entire run. That would be a first for the feature, since each of the various series to date included at least one character created within the book specifically to join the team (e.g., Vibe, Gypsy, Crimson Fox, Zauriel, Manitou Raven). Robinson did use the Shade and Mikaal Tomas, both of which were big parts of his Starman run, and he seemed to enjoy putting Congorilla on the team. But all of those characters were preexisting. Therefore, JLofA volume 2 was entirely all-star.

As it happens, this particular series also kept the same headquarters for the bulk of its run, which I think is also a first. The original Justice League of America had the Secret Sanctuary, the Satellite Sanctuary, and the Detroit Bunker; Justice League International first had embassies and then separate American and European facilities; and both of JLA‘s lunar Watchtowers were destroyed. Issue #7 of this series established two bases, the Hall of Justice in Washington and the Watchtower satellite, both of which made it to the end of the series. That’s a plus for this series’ Routine, which gets a pretty good score generally from me. Meltzer’s tenure was invested fairly heavily in the Justice League’s inner workings, and ended with a story titled “Monitor Duty.”

For that matter, both McDuffie and Robinson had to deal with rebuilding the League and addressing the particulars of its mission. McDuffie’s Suicide Squad arc set the team against the United States government. Later, after Robinson had (apparently) worked out his “proactive team” impulses via Cry For Justice, his regular-series arcs each emphasized that the League rosters deserved respect, no matter how fluid or short-lived they were.

Detail from the cover of Justice League of America #53, by Mark Bagley and Rob Hunter

Indeed, Robinson’s League went through a number of changes, almost from arc to arc.

  • Ad hoc Cry For Justice team: Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Green Arrow, Atom (Ray Palmer), Starman (Mikaal Tomas), Congorilla, Supergirl
  • Issues #41-44: Atom, Batman (Dick Grayson), Congorilla, Cyborg, Troia, Doctor Light (Kimiyo Hoshi), Guardian (Jim Harper), Green Lantern, Mon-El, Red Tornado, Starfire, Starman
  • Issues #45-60: Batman, Congorilla, Jade, Jesse Quick, Starman, Supergirl, Troia; with Atom, Doctor Light, Cyborg and Red Tornado as reserves

That brings us to Team Chemistry, and particularly to the outside disruptions that rocked McDuffie’s tenure. The reality-altering character of Anansi was McDuffie expressing his frustrations with various Leaguers being taken out of Justice League of America so that they could attend to their own business. When McDuffie explained himself online, he was fired.

As a result, we can’t look back on McDuffie’s JLA without recognizing that he didn’t get to write the book he wanted. Certainly this was neither new nor unique. Going back to the very beginning of the feature, the Superman and Batman editors were initially reluctant to let Julius Schwartz use those characters. Decades later, the same kinds of external demands led to Gerry Conway starting over in Detroit; and similar post-Crisis practicalities prevented Keith Giffen from fielding a League with Superman and Wonder Woman. The 1996 JLA series was built around an A-list roster, which Meltzer continued.

Eventually, though, the convergence of storylines born out of the still-roiling Crisis cycle took its toll, and for whatever reason, DC’s editors decided that they didn’t have to defer to McDuffie. Since we haven’t mentioned him yet, JLofA itself was edited by Eddie Berganza, who was responsible for a number of other DC titles including Teen Titans, Green Lantern, Flash and Supergirl. His own interpersonal issues are by now well-documented. (I’m not sure of the timing, but it’s ironic that JLofA couldn’t use certain characters and its editor was eventually prohibited from working with women.)

The Justice League, Hardware and Icon take down Starbreaker; from Justice League of America #34 by Dwayne McDuffie, Ardian Syaf and Eddy Barrows

Regardless, McDuffie and Robinson each created some nice interpersonal dynamics out of their various casts. McDuffie emphasized the leadership qualities of Black Canary and Vixen, cast Firestorm as eager but inexperienced (and a little inappropriate), and established Green Lantern and Zatanna as seasoned professionals. McDuffie also had Black Canary call out her longtime colleagues for acting on their own impulses, whether it was for the Trinity using that secret meeting room, or Hal and Ollie recruiting a separate team.

For his part, Robinson made Starman and Congorilla into a well-matched duo, using the events of Cry For Justice to bring them together over shared losses, and then contrasting Congorilla’s bravado with Starman’s insecurities. Robinson also relied on the close friendship of Dick Grayson and Donna Troy, and actually had Donna and Jade bond over their mutual ex-boyfriend Kyle Rayner. When Jesse Quick joined, she was mostly among peers, so generally everyone got along fairly well. Dick’s struggle with being the League’s new leader rang a little false given his years of experience with the Titans (and with the League itself in “The Obsidian Age”), but that was more in the context of his taking over for Bruce Wayne generally.

Ironically, while Meltzer seemed to value team chemistry, it was more assumed than shown. Yes, the Trinity had an eternal, nigh-unbreakable bond. Yes, all the characters who you thought were friends (based on your years of reading DC Comics) were still friends. Yes, everyone was glad to see Wally back on Earth with his family. Yes, Superman cherished his teenage years as a Legionnaire. However, like the rest of Meltzer’s run, these relationships were conveyed with self-evident shorthand, like he expected the reader to be satisfied merely with their collective existence.

Now we’re in Execution territory. Since we’ve been talking about the writers’ merits for a while, let’s move on to the artists, Ed Benes pencilled 18 of the book’s first 27 issues, with guest artists like Joe Benitez (#13 and #16), Jose Luis (#28 and #30) and to a certain extent Shane Davis (#8 and #31) not straying very far from his Jim Lee-esque style. Inked often by Sandra Hope, Benes soon became notorious for drawing “brokeback” women whose anatomically-impossible poses displayed all their attributes at once. Not helping the overabundant male gaze were Michael Turner’s covers, the most egregious of which (issue #10) had to be altered in subsequent printings to de-emphasize Power Girl’s breasts.

Do waists work that way? From Justice League of America #15, by Dwayne McDuffie, Ed Benes and Sandra Hope

It’s not that the art was incomprehensibly bad – Benes and company were fine storytellers who could handle large, action-prone casts – but it didn’t do much to distinguish itself in a positive manner. When Rags Morales and Eddy Barrows pencilled McDuffie’s final three issues (#32-33 and #34, respectively), the contrast was clear. Their figures had more depth and dimension, and not in a brokeback way. By that point the League was mostly female, so Morales and Barrows made them more distinct from each other as well.

After three issues pencilled by Tom Derenick (#35-37), whose work always reminds me of Sal Buscema, Mark Bagley became the book’s new regular penciller. Although Bagley’s details were not always consistent from panel to panel (does Alan Scott’s mask cover his nose, or not?), he had a well-deserved reputation for consistency and reliability; and he was a good fit for Justice League. Bagley left after #53, so the very Image-y Brett Booth pencilled #54-57; and Daniel Sampere – whose work was somewhere in between – finished up the series with #58-60.

Again, overall I found that this series improved significantly once McDuffie became its regular writer. Even if he didn’t get to do exactly what he wanted, he still managed to turn into the skids and make the book a worthwhile read. Indeed, despite his truncated tenure, his departure from the book might have avoided a whole other series in the overwrought Cry For Justice style.

That miniseries – with mannered, painted art from Mauro Cascioli – was at best a “test of character” in the no-win Kobayashi Maru sense, and at worst an excuse to have Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen and Ray Palmer flaunt some toxic masculinity. It involved Prometheus, Grant Morrison’s “anti-Batman,” planting city-destroying bombs nationwide and taunting the League until they let him go. Since Prometheus had thought of every way to prevent the Leaguers from defusing the bombs, and since the Leaguers couldn’t come up with any solution otherwise, they did so. Nevertheless, Prometheus set off Star City’s bombs, and Roy Harper’s daughter was among the casualties. Therefore, DC published a Justice League story that ended with Roy being maimed and his daughter murdered, and Green Arrow killing Prometheus. Throw in some inappropriate comments about Hal’s sex life, and it was Power Girl’s chest all over again. (Roy probably got the worst of it, thanks to his drug-addled relapse in the trainwreck Rise Of Arsenal miniseries.)

Starman and Congorilla in a Blackhawk fighter plane, from Justice League: Cry For Justice #2 by James Robinson and Mauro Cascioli

Nevertheless, by the time Robinson became JLofA‘s regular writer, apparently all that was out of his system. What remained was a lot of Starman-style deep dives into DC obscura (Revolutionary War heroes! Uncle Sam and the Blackhawks! The Starheart!) and a neat squad of new villains who were basically evil versions of the New Gods. To be fair, the latter took their cues from Doctor Impossible, who Meltzer and Benes had created as an evil version of Mister Miracle. Perhaps Robinson would adopted this more pleasant tone if he weren’t writing the flagship Justice League book, but I tend to think that he recognized the responsibility of writing JLofA, realized that CFJ‘s attitude wasn’t sustainable and adapted accordingly. Meltzer and Benes’ team had three legacy heroes (Red Arrow, Flash and Hawkgirl); but Robinson and Bagley ended up with almost all legacy heroes. Once again the Justice League had a Batman, an Amazon, a super-speedster, a green-energy projector and a Kryptonian, even if they weren’t the ones most folks thought of.

[A quick digression: As mentioned last time, JLA Classified‘s 54-issue run overlapped JLofA‘s first couple of years. Edited by Mike Carlin, it featured stories from Howard Chaykin and Killian Plunkett (#26-31), Dan Slott and Dan Jurgens (#32-36), Justin Gray and Rick Leonardi (#42-46), Mike W. Barr and Randy Green (#47-48), Andrew Kreisberg and Paulo Siqueira (#49), and Roger Stern and John Byrne (#50-54). Probably the most memorable was “Kid Amazo” by Peter Milligan and Carlos D’Anda (#37-41), which was just what it sounds like – a darkly offbeat tale of a teenager who finds out he’s the next generation of the JLA’s old foe.]

Justice League of America volume 2 ended with teases of adventures that readers would probably never see, since the DC Universe was about to be returned to square one. It had started with a sort of blue-sky look at what was possible, in the form of the Trinity’s recruitment discussions, but halfway through it ran into a buzzsaw of practical concerns that forced its writers down particular avenues. Ultimately I think it worked out as well as it could have. McDuffie & Benes and Robinson & Bagley (and their respective guest artists) each gave readers arcs which, by and large, lived up to the Justice League’s standards.

However, DC’s superhero line was facing some hard choices generally. The post-Crisis On Infinite Earths streamlining had itself gotten a little unwieldy, and yadda yadda yadda, DC decided to just chuck everything and start over. The New 52’s Justice League reunited most of the traditional lineup under the guidance of a superstar creative team. That had to be good … right?

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