The Justice League at 60, Part 10: Rebirth on repeat

Tom Bondurant wraps up (for now) his series looking back at 60 years of the Justice League with a look at the most recent era.

Check out part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, part eight and part nine of this series!

The New 52 lasted four years and nine months, from August 31, 2011 to May 25, 2016. On each of those Wednesdays, DC Comics released one universe-changing big-event issue and one issue of Justice League. In 2011 it was Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1; and in 2016 it was Justice League #50 and the DC Universe Rebirth special. All were written by Geoff Johns, still one of DC’s main guiding forces even as his attention shifted away from comics. The DCU Rebirth issue kicked off a months-long apology-in-print marked by “Rebirth” banners on all of the superhero books’ covers. This publishing strategy aimed to reintroduce elements of the DC Universe which the New 52 had stripped away, including the pre-New 52 Superman – who, as a distinct character, had been living in a sort of multiversal fishbowl – and the classic version of Wally “Flash” West. Among other things, this meant that Superman was now the newest member of the Justice League, since he replaced his late New 52 predecessor.

Although those cover banners were gone by February 2018, in terms of continuity we may still be in the “Rebirth” era today. Among other things, DCU Rebirth set up Doomsday Clock, the 12-issue miniseries from Johns and Gary Frank. Going on sale November 22, 2017 (cover date January 2018), it would explain how Watchmen‘s Doctor Manhattan had changed the DC timeline into the New 52, and how he would change it back.

Well, back-ish.

See, Doomsday Clock turned out to be the first salvo in a set of universe-altering Big Event miniseries which don’t really fit into Rebirth’s early years. After D-Clock came Dark Nights: Metal, from the New 52 Batman team of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. Counting a couple of lead-in specials, Metal lasted some 9 ½ months (August 2017-May 2018). The currently running sequel, Dark Nights: Death Metal (August 2020-February 2021), is scheduled to end in December 2020. Bridging the gap between Metal and Death Metal was the bulk of the current run of Justice League. The series had relaunched with a weekly introductory miniseries (July 2018’s Justice League: No Justice) and new No. 1 issue, six weeks after Metal ended and not quite two years after the previous volume had started.

Sometimes you’ve got to blast the giant bug-ship; from the Justice League Rebirth special by Bryan Hitch, Daniel Henriques and Scott Hanna

That’s where we are now, but that’s not where DC was in the summer of 2016. Eventually the Justice League titles which started in 2016 and ’17 each nodded to D-Clock and Metal, but weren’t really of a piece with either event. Therefore, this post concentrates on the Rebirthed Justice League and its companion series, Justice League of America Volume 5, each of which ended in June 2018. The main series was guided mostly by Bryan Hitch, who wrote (and sometimes drew) issues #1-31 and the introductory Justice League: Rebirth special. Writer Christopher Priest and artist Pete Woods became the series’ second and final regular creative team (issues #34-43).

Meanwhile, February-March 2017’s six-issue weekly Justice League Vs. Suicide Squad miniseries – written by Joshua Williamson and drawn by six different artists – set up Justice League of America vol. 5. Readers also got to know this new League through March 2017’s series of character-specific Rebirth specials. Steve Orlando wrote everything, working with a series of artists including Ivan Reis (the series’ Rebirth special plus issues #1, 4, 12-14 and 17), Felipe Watanabe (#2, 8-9 and 15-16), Diogenes Neves (#3), Andy MacDonald (the Atom special plus issues #5-6 and 10), Jamal Campbell (the Vixen special plus issue #7), Neil Edwards (#11, 22-24), Hugo Petrus (#18-20, 27-29), Kelley Jones (the Lobo-focused Annual), Stephen Byrne (the Ray special plus issue #21), Miguel Mendonca (issues #25-26) and Minkyu Jung (#26). Accordingly, in less than two years the two League titles and the Suicide Squad crossover accounted for 85 single issues – 43 biweekly issues of Justice League plus a Rebirth special; the 6-issue JLvsSS miniseries; and 29 biweekly issues of JLofA plus 5 Rebirth specials and an Annual. Whew!

Since Bryan Hitch carried over from the New 52 days, we begin with him. Starting in August 2015, Hitch wrote and drew a separate Justice League series that appeared to be called JLA: Justice League of America. (More on that in a minute.) Ostensibly ongoing, and featuring the New 52’s original seven members, it ran for 10 issues; but even with issue #5’s fill-in, the series fell behind. Instead of ending in May 2016, issue #10 was cover-dated January 2017, and came out a week before issue #10 of the (again, biweekly) Rebirthed Justice League. The 2015 series basically told a single 9-part story about the Kryptonian deity Rao coming to Earth and checking off all the usual boxes. Since Hitch pencilled the first 8 installments and laid out the finale, it looked great; and it served more as a showcase for big superhero action than for any serious commentary on faith or religion. Nevertheless, it seemed to have gotten Hitch the job as regular JL writer.

Fighting the Parasite in Justice League of America (2015) #1, by Bryan Hitch and Daniel Henriques

That 2015-2017 series – whose story was titled “Power And Glory” – was hard to pin down in the larger New 52 continuity, because it started right around the time that most of the Leaguers were going through significant (albeit temporary) changes. Also, its official title was Justice League of America (which would make it Volume 4) but the logo emphasized JLA; and as mentioned above, it all looked like JLA: Justice League of America. Anyway, as New 52 readers were well aware, there had already been a Justice League of America which didn’t involve any of the A-listers, because it was designed to take them down if necessary. I suppose this meant that the main League appropriated “of America,” but naturally this was never discussed in Justice League itself. Indeed, the Rebirthed book was called simply Justice League, picking up where the New 52 series had left off.

That’s not just a turn of phrase. At the end of the Darkseid War (July 2016’s JL #50), the League included Batman, Cyborg, Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lanterns Hal Jordan and Jessica Cruz, Lex Luthor, Shazam, Superman (New 52 edition) and Wonder Woman. Between that issue and September 2016’s Justice League Rebirth special, Superman died, Hal went into space, and Luthor and Shazam resigned. Therefore, as much as “Rebirth” restored, it was still basically rooted in the New 52. The final issue of Hitch’s 2015 series even alluded to the New 52 Superman’s impending death.

In any event, Hitch’s new Justice League (pencilled initially by Tony Daniel) now featured Aquaman, Batman, Cyborg, Flash, Green Lanterns Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz, Wonder Woman and the new/old Superman. However, early on Superman had to be coaxed into action; and Jessica also spent an issue or two away from the team, dealing with her own insecurities. Neither subplot lasted long, as both Superman and Jessica soon became regular players.

A good double-page spread from Justice League #21, by Bryan Hitch, Daniel Henriques and Scott Hanna

Hitch’s regular-series arcs were reminiscent of, and eventually connected to, “Power And Glory.” They included

  • stopping the extraterrestrial Kindred from taking over the Earth (the Rebirth special and issues #1-5);
  • facing a fear-based creature centered on Jessica (#6-7);
  • tracking down a mysterious hacker who turns the League’s equipment against it and unleashes a supervillain army (#8-11);
  • solving the mystery of the Timeless, which involved stealing super-energy sources in order to wipe out superheroes (#15-19);
  • untangling a deadly time loop (#20-21); and
  • teaming up with their alternate-future children to stop said future’s despotic ruler (#26-31).

Other issues involved crossovers (with the Suicide Squad in #12-13 and with Metal in #32-33) or were day-in-the-life standalone stories (#14 and 25). Guest creative teams produced #22-24 (Shea Fontana and Philippe Briones, Tom DeFalco and Tom Derenick, and Dan Abnett and Ian Churchill). Each of those were also standalone character-study issues.

Time travel played a big part in Hitch’s run. It was central to “Power And Glory,” which had the Flash and Green Lantern being sent to different eras related to Rao’s journey. The “Timeless” arc of issues #15-19 foreshadowed the “Legacy” arc which closed out Hitch’s run; and the two issues between were the “Endless” time-loop story. Essentially, the back half of Hitch’s tenure was all timey-wimey, and kind of wound back around to “Power And Glory”; which helped give everything an oddly disconnected tone.

Justice League TNG; from Justice League #27 by Bryan Hitch, Fernando Pasarin & Oclair Albert

Priest and Woods’ issues (#34-43) also had a particular theme, but it was much more grounded. Where Hitch and company depicted grand adventures, Priest and Woods poked at the underpinnings of the group itself. Starting with a Civil War-style accident where a terrorist uses Wonder Woman’s sword to kill an innocent bystander, Priest and Woods showed the League investigated by Congress, assailed on social media, and embroiled in racially- and ethnically-charged conflicts at home and abroad. They introduced a new villain, the Fan (an engineer who learned all the League’s secrets and then assassinated its supposed “enemies”); and brought in Deathstroke and the Red Lion from Priest’s Deathstroke series. It was a dark, mostly downbeat run which, while well-written and full of insightful moments, never seemed to cut the League much slack. JLofA also employed a self-satisfied “look how prepared” villain when it brought back Prometheus, but he got some on-screen comeuppance.

Speaking of which, Steve Orlando’s JLofA was even more character-focused. The Suicide Squad crossover had Maxwell Lord and a team of villains steal Eclipso’s Black Diamond. Max then used the diamond to become Eclipso and take over the United States. Eventually Killer Frost stopped him, by creating a prism to concentrate Superman’s solar-powered heat vision against Eclipso. Because this pushed Frost almost to the point of death, her near-sacrifice inspired Batman to field a new League, which also included Black Canary and Lobo. Frost, the Ray, Vixen and the Atom (Ryan Choi) each got their own special-issue spotlights, so it’s not surprising that Orlando focused on them for the bulk of the ongoing series.

Meet the new JLA; from Justice League of America Rebirth by Steve Orlando, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Oclair Albert

JLofA Volume 5 was a collection of (mostly) short story arcs involving old and new villains. The Extremists were the bad guys in issues #1-4 and #25-26, Prometheus squared off against the League in #18-20, the Queen of Fables returned in #22-24 and Atom arch-villain Chronos tried to kill a primordial superhero in #27-29. Orlando also revived Nikos Aegeus, a god-powered anarchist who first appeared in November 1982’s Wonder Woman #297, as an arms dealer for issues #5-6. In a particularly deep cut, issue #7 featured Terrorsmith, from 1993’s not-well-remembered Bloodlines event. (Appropriately enough, he first appeared in the Justice League America Annual.) New antagonists included the barbarian-esque Makson (#8-9), the cosmic-powered Kingbutcher (#10-11) and Aron Aut (#12-17), a scientist who wanted to destroy the Microverse.

Even with all that was going on in those 85 issues, this particular slice of Justice League history feels kind of inessential. It wasn’t bad by any means, but once again it seemed to be building to something which then got derailed. Maybe it’s the inevitable drop-off after the New 52 ended on a fairly high note. In any event, let’s go through Scope, Routine, Team Chemistry and Execution.

At this point Scope may just be a matter of degree. Certainly Hitch and company wanted to show their version of the Justice League in all kinds of wide-ranging adventures. They fought giant extraterrestrial war machines and their big-screen-worthy armies, traveled through time, and defeated scads of supervillains. Priest and Woods came at the League’s status from the other direction, asking what responsibility the team had to the world in light of their self-appointed global mission. Batman’s JLA (which eventually became Vixen’s JLA) didn’t aim as high, but did its share of time- and dimension-hopping. Therefore, while this period’s Scope score isn’t as high as some others, it’s probably above the Detroit League and on par with the JLI.

An awkward discussion from Justice League #36; by Christopher Priest and Pete Woods

This era did lean into Routine, particularly under Priest and Orlando; but Hitch used Superman and Jessica as windows into how the team worked. The main League was back in an orbiting Watchtower for most of the series (until Priest and Woods had it crash in a war-torn region), while the site of the Secret Sanctuary became the ancient birthplace of all superheroes. Although both teams were conscious of their public images, Priest really torpedoed both the League’s status, and superhero conventions generally; with characters asking about “hiding behind masks” and “what happens when you leave.” Priest and Woods’ run basically ended with Deathstroke defeating the League in order to show some local power brokers who was boss. Therefore, it’s hard to score Routine, because Hitch and Orlando used it positively, while Priest and Joshua Williamson (in the Suicide Squad crossover) started from the proposition that the League’s status was high enough to be knocked down a bit.

That brings us to Team Chemistry, which again starts with Superman and Jessica Cruz. While Jessica was almost a reader-identification character, the new/old Superman dynamic existed basically as a sort of benign friction among the Leaguers who had just seen the New 52 Supes die. Additionally, both Hitch and Priest got Jessica involved (to some degree) with fellow Leaguers. Hitch paired her with the Flash, even giving them alt-future children in the “Legacy” arc; but I’m not sure this flirtation extended into either of their solo series. Later, and apparently out of nowhere, Priest and Woods had Jessica kiss Bruce Wayne. He was going through a rough patch, so maybe she felt sorry for him…? Almost instantly she regretted it, and once she bonded with Selina Kyle at Wayne Manor it was over. Priest and Woods also showed GL Simon Baz obsessing for more than a few issues over a promised lunch with Superman. That may have been enough of a “thing” that Priest himself needed to short-circuit it with Jessica’s confession about the Bat-kiss. As for romance in the JLA, Killer Frost and the Atom got together, and the Ray found love with one of Aegeus’ ex-henchmen.

When Leagues clash; from Justice League #40 by Christopher Priest and Pete Woods

Overall, though, Team Chemistry was good. Orlando gave his JLAers strong interpersonal relationships, particularly by having Vixen and Black Canary call Batman out. Lobo wasn’t a one-note bully (although his “popsicle hands” nickname for Frost was kind of lame), and had respect for everyone from Batman to Atom. The Ray left the team temporarily for personal reasons, but when he returned he brought a new version of Aztek with him. Similarly, the main League added Mera for a few issues while Aquaman was trapped in Atlantis. Batman’s sometimes-brittle managerial style was a focus of the Priest/Woods issues, so he got a vote of no-confidence in #36 and suggested that Cyborg take over. This turned out to be a good move, not least because it let Cyborg grow as a character.

Finally there’s Execution. Both Hitch and Orlando worked with a bullpen of artists in ways which tended to reinforce each book’s particular tone. Hitch’s artistic collaborators fit mostly within Hitch’s own detailed, realistic style; whereas Orlando’s were either more expressionistic, or they were Ivan Reis. Here’s a breakdown of Hitch’s seven pencillers (across 27 issues).

  • Hitch himself: Rebirth special plus issues #14, 20 and 21;
  • Tony Daniel: issues #1-3 and 5;
  • Jesus Merino: issues #4 and 7;
  • Matthew Clark and Tom Derenick: issue #6;
  • Neil Edwards: issues #8-11;
  • Fernando Pasarin: issues #15-19 and 26-31; and
  • Tom Derenick: issue #25.

During Hitch’s tenure, and prior to Priest and Woods, Justice League had a handful of guest issues: the two Suicide Squad crossovers (written by Tim Seeley, with #12 pencilled by Christian Duce and #13 by Scot Eaton); the two Metal crossovers (#32 written by Robert Venditti and pencilled by Liam Sharp, and #33 written by Joshua Willamson and pencilled by Tyler Kirkham and Mikel Janin). Issues #22-24 featured three guest-creative-team standalone issues, as discussed above. The Priest/Woods run featured three guest artists: Philippe Briones (#37 and 41), Marco Santucci (#38) and Ian Churchill (#39). None got too far away from Woods, which contributed to the run’s unity of tone.

Press conference at Mount Justice; from Justice League of America #5 by Steve Orlando and Andy MacDonald

Earlier I listed JLofA‘s artistic bullpen, so I won’t go into that again. They were all reliable storytellers, with Reis and MacDonald’s distinctive styles breaking through the book’s baseline look. The two series’ biweekly schedules (common for most of the Rebirthed books early on) probably made these artistic armies a requirement. Overseeing almost everything was editor Brian Cunningham, with Jessica Chen and Andy Khouri each editing two of the JLofA Rebirth character specials. Again, I didn’t have a lot of problems with JLofA‘s art, except that the switching took some getting used to.

Back on the main title, the most prolific contributor was Fernando Pasarin (16 issues), followed by Hitch (3 regular issues and the Rebirth special) and Neil Edwards (4 issues). Pasarin’s work featured clean lines, a decent amount of detail, and straightforward pacing, so it complemented Hitch’s scripts fairly well. Ironically, Hitch’s pencils were so picturesque that often I think they slowed down the action. They weren’t over-rendered or stiff, but sometimes they encouraged long looks when they should have been propelling the reader to the next panel. In this respect Daniel, Merino and Derenick served the book better, although their particular styles weren’t as close to Hitch’s as Pasarin’s or Edwards’ were.

Re-reading these two series was a bit odd, because the sheer volume of material – 85 issues in just under two years – belies the publishing reality. These series were biweekly in order to get readers hooked more easily; but they were also marking time while the forces behind Rebirth (both in-universe and real-world) got sorted out. Ultimately that made Justice League feel comfortable but not especially ambitious (at least until Priest/Woods), and it seemed to cut off JLofA just as it had repositioned itself.

A happy ending that went nowhere; from Justice League of America #29 by Steve Orlando and Hugo Petrus

This is why I tend to view these particular series as not necessarily building on the foundation left after the New 52. Obviously Doomsday Clock was in the works while they were running, and I suspect that a Justice League reboot was likely regardless of when D-Clock ended. Having Metal start in the summer of 2017, and lead into a Scott Snyder-written Justice League in the summer of 2018, now seems like the culmination of the post-D-Clock plan.

Accordingly, I am inclined to let the next era-specific spotlight rest for a few months while Death Metal finishes up, and we see whether 2021 might bring yet another Justice League volume. Metal and its follow-ups seem to have kicked off a new mega-arc for the League, so it might be premature to evaluate all those books before their story has ended.

There are still a few posts left in this feature, though: some favorite League stories (including some outside the regular series); a spotlight on Snapper Carr; and discussions of who best did Scope, Routine, Team Chemistry and Execution. Thanks for reading, and I will see you in the home stretch!

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