When the comprehensive history of DC Comics is written, I hope it goes into exhaustive detail on the conception, execution and ultimate retraction of the New 52. Let’s be clear right from the beginning: I did not love the New 52, but I didn’t hate it either. It represented DC’s willingness – although maybe not its best efforts – to try new approaches with key characters and to revive non-superhero genres.
As the spring of 2011 wound down, DC was wrapping up a couple of year-long biweekly series, Brightest Day (co-written by Geoff Johns) and Justice League: Generation Lost. The former followed a handful of superheroes who had been revived in Blackest Night – including Justice League stalwarts Aquaman, Hawkman, Firestorm and Martian Manhunter – while the latter was a Justice League International reunion that saw them trying to stop their old buddy-turned-baddie Maxwell Lord. Meanwhile, the Bat-books, Superman and Wonder Woman were each in the middle of altered-status-quo storylines.
Speaking of status-quo-altering, into this mix came Flashpoint, a five-issue miniseries from Johns and artist Andy Kubert about a new nightmare-fuel timeline. Flashpoint and its spinoffs gave readers a summer’s worth of war, piracy, black magic and grisly character reversals. Although the Flash undid it all at the end of August, he returned to a not-quite familiar DC-Earth.
This was the New 52, DC’s grandest experiment in relaunching since Crisis On Infinite Earths. Everything had a new No. 1 issue, including the never-before-renumbered Action Comics and Detective Comics. Leading the way – and launched a week early to go along with the conclusion of Flashpoint – was Justice League #1 from Johns and penciller Jim Lee. At the start of the New 52, Johns had three series, and he ended up writing 28 issues of Aquaman and 21 issues of Green Lantern. However, on Justice League he stayed for almost its entire 52-issue run. Among the inaugural New 52 creative teams, only Batman‘s Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo were more consistent.
The initial New 52 lineup also included a couple of other League titles, the occult-themed Justice League Dark (written and drawn initially by Peter Milligan and Mikel Janin) and a new version of Justice League International (written by Dan Jurgens and pencilled by Aaron Lopresti). Neither of them had much to do with the main JL book, and JLI was cancelled after 12 issues (November 2011-October 2012) and an annual written by Johns and Dan DiDio and drawn by Jason Fabok. However, JL Dark lasted some 40 issues (November 2011-May 2015), with a concept durable enough to have produced a successor series.
Into the JLI-shaped hole went Johns and David Finch’s Justice League of America volume 3, a U.S.-sponsored superhero team designed to defeat the main League. It lasted 14 issues (April 2013-July 2014), all of which either led up to, or tied in with, 2013’s Forever Evil. After that miniseries concluded, JLofA was relaunched as Justice League United under writer Jeff Lemire and penciller Mike McKone. JLU then ran for 17 issues (June 2014-February 2016) and an annual. Meanwhile, writer/artist Bryan Hitch had his own JLA book, which turned out to be more of a miniseries (10 issues, August 2015-January 2017).
Probably the strangest League title was Justice League 3000, a 31st-Century reimagining of the team from franchise veterans Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Howard Porter. JL 3000 and its second volume, Justice League 3001, ran for 15 and 12 issues, respectively, from February 2014 to July 2016. It never crossed over with the main-line DC Universe, and there were even indications that it was the future of a pre-New 52 DC-Earth. Accordingly, despite all the shared branding and attempts at synergy, the Johns-written Justice League ended up standing alone. That’s why this post is going to stick largely to that main series.
For years there had been rumors of a DC reboot along the lines of Marvel’s “Heroes Reborn” or Ultimate Universe, and the Johns/Lee Justice League came closest to that. The six-issue “Origin” pitted the embryonic team against Darkseid while revamping Cyborg’s origin with cameos from once-and-future mad scientists Anthony Ivo and T.O. Morrow. Johns and Lee’s initial League consisted of Batman, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Superman, the Flash (Barry Allen), Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Cyborg. Lee redesigned each Leaguer’s outfit with some combination of cadet collars, piping and seams of questionable purpose. Meanwhile, Johns amped up Green Lantern’s cockiness and Wonder Woman’s confidence in battle, and continued to lampshade Aquaman’s perceived unpopularity.
All this called particular attention to everything that was new and different about Justice League. “Origin” read like an unproduced Justice League movie, or like the only DC superhero comic anyone would need; and the series proceeded from there. (Issue #3 included a Wonder Woman-eats-ice-cream scene that found its way into the Wonder Woman movie.) In fact, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s rebooted Wonder Woman series was off in its own corner of the New 52, telling basically a standalone story about Diana protecting a human from the whims of the gods. Since Wonder Woman didn’t have Steve Trevor, Etta Candy or the Cheetah, Johns and artists Gene Ha and Tony Daniel introduced them in Justice League.
Likewise, with the New 52 saying basically that the original Teen Titans never got together (in part because some of them had never existed), Johns was free to do what he wanted with Cyborg. He also reimagined the Doom Patrol and Metal Men for Justice League storylines; and nodded to the New Gods’ appearances in Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern books when he brought them into Justice League. (Matt Idelson was the Wonder Woman and Green Lantern editor for those books’ storylines, while Eddie Berganza edited the first two issues of Justice League and Brian Cunningham was in charge of the rest.)
Johns’ storylines flowed into one another, connected by subplots and recurring characters, but Justice League consisted mainly of epic arcs:
- “Origin” (issues #1-6);
- “The Villain’s Journey,” introducing a new villain who tortured the League with visions of their dead loved ones (issues #9-12);
- “Throne Of Atlantis,” wherein Ocean Master marshaled Atlantis’ military against the United States (issues #15-17 and Aquaman issues #15-16);
- “Trinity War,” a crossover with the other League titles that saw Superman framed for killing Doctor Light and ended with the Crime Syndicate’s arrival on the main DC-Earth (issues #18-20 and #22-23, plus Justice League of America #6-7 and Justice League Dark #22-23);
- Forever Evil, a 7-issue miniseries (November 2013-July 2014) detailing the Crime Syndicate’s takeover of Earth and tying into issues #24-29;
- “Injustice League,” outlining Lex Luthor’s League induction and guest-starring the Doom Patrol (issues #30-34);
- “The Amazo Virus,” involving a superpower-granting killer disease (issues #35-39); and
- “The Darkseid War,” which put Earth in the middle of a universe-shaking fight among the Lord of Apokolips, the Anti-Monitor and a rogue Amazon (issues #40-50).
Sprinkled among these were one- and two-issue stories featuring Steve Trevor (#7), Green Arrow (#8) and the Cheetah (#13-14). Issues #0 and #21 were part of Johns and Gary Frank’s “Shazam” backup feature, which started in issue #7. Therefore, with the start of “Trinity War” in #22, Justice League began snowballing toward a truly monumental conclusion in #50. The final two issues were largely unrelated: Issue #51 was a Robin-oriented flashback from writer Dan Abnett and penciller Paul Pelletier, while #52 was a spotlight on the newly-heroic Luthor from writer Dan Jurgens and penciller Tom Grummett. Johns had moved on to the DC Universe Rebirth special, which pretty much ended the New 52 and set up Doomsday Clock.
All that gives Justice League an air of finality that its predecessors lacked. Each of the preceding series ended with a sense that their successors weren’t far behind. Even the previous series’ teases, on the eve of the New 52, helped ease the reader into this next era. To be clear, Justice League #50 didn’t draw any bright lines between the New 52 and Rebirth; characters like Jessica Cruz and Lex Luthor would pick up pretty much where they left off. Nevertheless, Johns had written all 50 issues (and some tie-ins), and was now bringing it to a close. Other series had become arguably just as emblematic of the New 52, but since Justice League was the first, its ending felt like a real conclusion.
Accordingly, re-reading Justice League on its own terms, without the instant reactions and lingering anxieties of monthly installments, makes the book easier to take. Reminders of the New 52’s quirks, like Superman’s terminal exposure to the Apokoliptian fire-pits, also set this series apart. Johns gets more comfortable with characters and pacing as he goes along, such that the 11-issue “Darkseid War” is propulsive and breathtaking. By the end, Justice League lives up to its widescreen legacy not just by expanding on “Origin’s” battle with Darkseid, but by showing how these characters – who in that arc were the-same-but-different – have come into their own.
That means it’s time to go through our four categories, Scope, Routine, Team Chemistry and Execution. Scope started big (Darkseid invades!) and ended bigger (Darkseid vs. Anti-Monitor!). Along the way Atlantis attacked the East Coast, Despero crashed the Watchtower satellite headquarters, the Crime Syndicate took over the world and the Amazo Virus led to a global pandemic. Internally created members included a new Element Woman (Emily Sung), Atom (Rhonda Pineda) and Power Ring (Jessica Cruz), but the first two weren’t with the League for long. Otherwise, Shazam, Lex Luthor and Captain Cold all joined the team – although the latter didn’t stay long either, and worked more for Luthor than with the group.
If you count political wrangling as part of Routine, as I seem to have been doing lately, then it was a significant plot point over the first couple of years. After “Origin,” Johns played up the notion of the League as literal global overseers, watching humanity from their satellite headquarters. As liaison to ARGUS, the federal superhero monitoring agency, Steve Trevor lobbied on the team’s behalf, intimidating members of Congress on at least one occasion (issue #7). In “Villain’s Journey,” a fight between Green Lantern and Wonder Woman went viral, tarnishing the team’s otherwise stellar reputation. This inspired Steve’s colleague Amanda Waller to create a Justice League “of America” as an opposing force if the original League ever went rogue; but it never really came to that. Indeed, one of Forever Evil‘s missed opportunities was that this JLA never got the chance to test out its raison d’etre against the Crime Syndicate, an actual evil Justice League.
Anyway, after Forever Evil this subplot kind of went away, superseded by the notion that Lex Luthor had almost single-handedly defeated the Crime Syndicate without any help from either League. This made Luthor so popular that the League practically had to admit him, which in turn appeared to restore the group’s popularity generally. (It had taken a further hit after Aquaman’s perceived involvement in the Atlantean invasion.) Of course, the other Leaguers never really trusted Luthor, particularly after learning that he’d created the Amazo Virus, which gives you superpowers before it kills you. Apparently none of that reached the general public, and the book didn’t discuss the League’s popularity or political standing again.
Luthor provides a good entry into Team Chemistry, an area Johns touched upon early. As mentioned above, Johns wrote Hal Jordan as a huge d-bag, which is somewhat surprising considering his years as Green Lantern writer and all-around Hal fan. To be fair, Hal was mainly a d-bag to Batman, which picked up on a character trait Johns gave Hal in 2004’s Green Lantern Rebirth miniseries. “Origin” began with Batman and Green Lantern clashing, then Green Lantern and Superman fighting, and pivoted to Aquaman having to prove himself, before everyone finally teamed up against Darkseid. All this friction stood out early on, as did Wonder Woman’s unorthodox perspectives on Patriarch’s World and Batman’s need to be in charge. The others were portrayed fairly positively, with Aquaman making the not-unreasonable case that he, an actual world leader, should lead the team.
Element Woman, Atom and Firestorm were each fairly young when they came aboard around issue #18, so they were all written as kind of wide-eyed, Element Woman especially. The same was mostly true for Shazam, who joined after Forever Evil, but a somewhat bratty attitude balanced out his idealism. Conversely, Luthor’s overwhelming self-confidence was juxtaposed against his recognition that no one liked him. However, by that point the rest of the team had learned to get along. Therefore, the group that worked the least well turned out to be the original seven, and when Green Lantern saw that he was the biggest troublemaker, he quit.
I almost forgot about the infamous Superman/Wonder Woman romance, which began in issue #12 and petered out a little while later (probably in the pages of a Superman book I hadn’t re-read in a while). Justice League presented it in the context of Steve Trevor’s unrequited love for Wonder Woman, which came to a head in Johns and Lee’s second arc. There, the new villain Graves kidnapped Steve and left him for dead in order to hurt Wonder Woman. When she and Steve were finally reunited, she broke up with him. Therefore, for her, Superman was a kind of rebound. At this point in the reboot Superman wasn’t involved with Lois Lane, Lana Lang or any other traditional partner, and wasn’t quite as mature as readers were used to either; so for him, Wonder Woman probably just moved from being a colleague and fellow stranger on Earth to something more serious. In any event, after “Trinity War” and Forever Evil the book didn’t comment much on their romance. In that respect it was a brief flirtation in more ways than one.
Finally, Execution means that (yet again) I’ve spent too much time on the writing and need to talk about the art. Jim Lee and inker Scott Williams are such well-known quantities that many readers will probably have fairly settled opinions on their work. (Ironically, in 2006 Justice League of America featured art from Ed Benes, which could be described as Jim Lee-esque.) They drew 10 of the first 12 issues, with guest artists Gene Ha on #7 and Carlos D’Anda on #8. Having Lee and Williams throughout that first year or so probably heightened the “Heroes Reborn” comparison, since they were the art team on that version of Fantastic Four some 15 years prior.
Following two issues pencilled by Tony Daniel and inked by Sandu Florea (#13-14), the series welcomed Ivan Reis and Joe Prado as the regular art team. They started with #15 and ended with #30, with occasional guest shots from Jesus Saiz (#18), Gene Ha and Andres Guinaldo (#20), Gary Frank (#21) and Doug Mahnke (#25, 29). Mahnke then pencilled #31-33 and #35 (Scott Kolins did #34) before Jason Fabok became the book’s final regular penciller with #35. Kevin Maguire, Jim Lee and assorted other guest artists then contributed to #40’s “Darkseid War” prologue, while Francis Manapul pencilled #45-46. David Finch’s work on Forever Evil also deserves a mention, both for the miniseries’ role in Johns’ tenure and because his style is similar to a more rough-hewn Jim Lee.
That’s a pretty impressive array of artistic talent, especially the Reis-to-Mahnke-to-Fabok procession. Reis and Fabok have different approaches, but both deliver realistic, carefully rendered figures and backgrounds and impressive double-page spreads. Mahnke’s pencils have become much more refined since his earlier JLA stint, and his stylistic quirks worked well in the context of his Doom Patrol/Power Ring arc.
Reis and Fabok each delivered handsomely on their widescreen arcs. In particular, Reis and Prado impressively depicted an aircraft carrier swept into Boston by a massive tidal wave; while Fabok had to choreograph battles involving various combinations of Justice Leaguers, Crime Syndicators, Darkseid and his forces, the Anti-Monitor and his troops, and dozens of Green Lanterns. Again, it sounds counterintuitive to say that a book which began with Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Apokolips invasion could get bigger, but boy did it.
Clearly most of this post has been concerned with Geoff Johns’ singular guidance of Justice League. Counting Forever Evil, Justice League of America and assorted other tie-ins and crossovers, Johns wrote over sixty issues’ worth of New 52 League stories. That puts him in the same tier as other prolific League writers like Gardner Fox, Gerry Conway, and Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. However, Johns’ tenure did have a shaky start. At times “Origin” leaned too hard into its newness, while “Villain’s Journey’s” antagonist wasn’t really that compelling. The arc also moved along the public-opinion/government-oversight subplot, so introducing Graves might have been secondary. Still, staging yet another Leaguer-vs.-Leaguer fight wasn’t the best move for a book less than a year old.
While “Throne of Atlantis” got the book into a solid groove, it was short-lived. The buildup to “Trinity War” gave the series an ominous undertone, and having the Leaguers themselves sidelined for the better part of seven months (in Forever Evil, which ended up focusing just on Luthor, Batman and Catwoman) wasn’t great either. I suppose the tremendous catharsis of “Darkseid War” releases a lot of that angst, and it’s not like anyone today will take seven months to read Forever Evil anyway. Still, you don’t want to look back on four-plus years of a series and think “oh, that’s the year I didn’t really like.”
Ultimately, the New 52 Justice League is a fascinating part of the franchise. It bookends the line-wide relaunch itself, being the first series published and providing the seeds of its eventual reversion. However, it also ignores a lot of what was going on in the characters’ solo series, especially Bruce Wayne losing his Batman memories and Superman losing his powers. Previous Justice League books addressed these sorts of changes directly, even if they were severe disruptions, but Johns just kept on keeping on. While he was powerful enough within DC to do this, it was also basically his only comics work, since he was increasingly more busy with the TV and movie adaptations.
Most importantly, though, eventually Justice League just stops being self-conscious about its relaunch aspects and becomes a great, epic superhero comic. It may happen late (at least after Forever Evil, although I did like “Throne Of Atlantis”), but it does happen. Next week we’ll look at how the Leaguers transitioned into the current “Rebirth” era.