This column originally appeared January 12, 2005.
If it worked before, it’ll work again.
That was what DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz must have been thinking in late 1959, as he prepared for the debut of the latest feature in his burgeoning line of super-hero titles. He had already revived the Flash and Green Lantern in the pages of the anthology book SHOWCASE, both of which had attained such success at the cash register that they had received (or were about to receive, in Green Lantern’s case) their own magazine. So what next? The choice for Schwartz was obvious: one of the biggest successes for National Comics in the 1940s, the Justice Society of America. However, he wasn’t crazy about the name. “To me, ‘Society’ meant something you found on Park Avenue. I felt that ‘League’ was a stronger word, one that the readers could identify with because of baseball leagues,” explained Schwartz in 1977 (in issue #14 of the in-house DC fan magazine THE AMAZING WORLD OF DC COMICS). So then was born the team that would solidify DC Comics’ full-time return to the superhero business, and whose success would not only herald the introduction of scores more superhero titles at DC, but also inspire DC’s rival Martin Goodman at Marvel to instruct Stan Lee to create their own superhero team, thereby kickstarting the Marvel Universe as well. Of course, I’m talking about the Justice League of America.
While the name was changing, the basic concept was not. So who then would be drafted into Schwartz’s new “Justice League of America”? To start with, Flash and Green Lantern, Schwartz’s new rising stars, were a given. Wonder Woman still had her own solo magazine, so she was included as well. Aquaman was nestled into a monthly spot backing up Superboy in ADVENTURE COMICS, so he got the call, as did J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. Who, you ask? Ah, yes; J’onn J’onzz, the “Pete Best” of the Justice League as far as the general public is concerned.
J’onn, a.k.a. the Martian Manhunter, was a holdover from the sci-fi craze in comics in the late 1950s. Premiering in 1955 as a backup feature in DETECTIVE COMICS, J’Onn was a Martian accidentally teleported to Earth by the well-intentioned if somewhat skittish scientist Professor Mark Erdel, who dropped dead from shock at the sight of the newly arrived Martian.
Stranded on Earth but basically a decent sort, J’onn anglicized his name to the more American-sounding John Jones, and made use of his Martian ability to shapechange to pose as a human. J’onn began work as a police detective, occasionally acting in public in his Martian form as well, using his other Martian powers in superheroic fashion. And there were quite a few of them – aside from the shapechanging, J’onn could fly, turn invisible, read minds, and he was super-strong. Plus, there was the ill-defined and infrequently used Martian vision and Martian breath. However, J’onn wasn’t infallible, and in fact was extremely vulnerable to fire. Anyway, by the time JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA was being created, J’onn J’onzz had been a monthly six-page fixture in the back of DETECTIVE COMICS for over five years, which certainly qualified him for a spot on the team. Unfortunately, the character had been written out of the book by the time Hanna-Barbara premiered its first animated version of the Justice League in the first season of the Saturday-morning series SUPERFRIENDS in 1973, so several generations of youngsters who would later become comics fans would no doubt eventually pick up a Justice League comic and go “Who’s the bald green guy?”
As it turned out, there was some resistance to the inclusion of the Big Two in Schwartz’s new League, namely from Superman editor Mort Weisinger and Batman editor Jack Schiff. In that same issue of AMAZING WORLD OF DC COMICS, Schwartz recalled that the two editors, fiercely protective of their own successful territory, were against the inclusion, arguing that “the heroes might become overused and it would take away from sales on their books.” A compromise was struck, in which Superman and Batman were included as full members, but would play decidedly small parts in the adventures (often being busy in outer space or on other missions) and would not appear on the cover. Schwartz diplomatically handled the inevitable questions from fans asking about Superman and Batman’s absence, writing in the first JLA letter column in the team’s third appearance that “these two popular heroes appear in so many other DC magazines that we thought it would be more appropriate to play up the other members.” As the story goes, this policy continued throughout much of the series’ first year of publication, until DC’s publisher at the time asked Schwartz why he never saw Superman or Batman on the cover of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA – didn’t he think it’d be good for sales? Sheepishly, Schwartz explained the agreement he’d made with his fellow editors, to which the publisher roared, “You go tell those so-and-so’s that DC Comics owns Superman and Batman, and not Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff!” Whether the story is true or not, it wasn’t too long before both Superman and Batman were taking part in the adventures and being featured prominently on the covers.
When it came to choosing a creative team, Schwartz went right to his best and most obvious choice for a writer: Gardner Fox, longtime writer of the original comic-book super-team, the Justice Society of America. Fox had established a sturdy formula for this type of team book back in the 1940s, in which the JSA would gather at the beginning of the issue when the threat appeared, break up into solo or smaller-group adventures and then reunite for the grand finale. No need to mess with a good thing, as that would become the schematic for countless JLA stories to come, whether by Fox or one of his many successors.
As for the art, Schwartz selected Mike Sekowsky, who had been working primarily on DC’s science-fiction titles before being pressed into service on this, certainly one of the more high-profile assignments at the company. Sekowsky’s art is far from flashy, and yet there’s a crude brilliance to it that seems a perfect fit for the title; it somehow seems to be simultaneously both futuristic and fairy-tale simple.
Sekowsky’s figures weren’t the most heroically cut – sometimes the Justice League looked like a bunch of middle-aged businessmen dressed up for a Kiwanis Club masquerade party – his backgrounds were usually sparsely detailed and occasionally his anatomy could get a little, shall we say, creative.
Still, his JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA looked like nothing else in the rack at the time, and I think the fact the League members looked decidedly different in the pages of JLA compared to their solo books actually helped break out the series as its own animal, and did much more for its success than having a flashier, more polished artist would have.
Schwartz scheduled the series for a three-issue tryout in the pages of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, another of DC’s anthology books, and in March 1960, B&B #28 featured the first appearance of the Justice League of America in their debut adventure, facing off against the alien threat of Starro the Conqueror in the logically named story “Starro the Conqueror!”
As was a bit more common at the time than it is now, editor Schwartz and writer Fox dispensed with an origin story, instead dropping the reader into the action at a point after the League had already formed and been in service for some time, at least long enough to have already passed out signal devices and constructed a secret (and, for the time, rather stylish) headquarters. As the story begins, Aquaman is warned by a friendly puffer fish of the arrival of a mysterious giant starfish. From space. As the puffer fish explains to Aquaman, the giant starfish arrived and swiftly changed three local starfish into duplicates of itself, introducing himself as “Starro,” and declaring his intention to conquer the planet. Naturally concerned, Aquaman summons his fellow Justice League members, who convene at their headquarters to discuss the matter (with the glaring exception of Superman and Batman – Superman is stopping a meteor shower, while Batman is tracking down two suspiciously vague “archenemies.” Sounds like something you say when you’re trying to get out of dinner plans…).
The League members split up to handle Starro’s three newly created starfish deputies, with Green Lantern defeating one in the Rocky Mountains, Wonder Woman and J’onn J’onzz taking out a second one in Science City, and Flash tackling the third in the small coastal community of Happy Harbor.
Flash discovers Starro’s main power, aside from being, well, a really big starfish: mind control. Starro’s deputy has mentally enslaved the entire population of Happy Harbor, except for one person: the teen hipster “Snapper” Carr, who remains mysteriously immune. After Flash defeats the giant starfish, he heads off to confront Starro, with the annoying Snapper in tow. Snapper, by the way, received his nickname for his incessant habit of snapping his fingers in appreciation of anything he liked. I think nowadays that’s considered a mild form of autism…
The assembled Justice League attacks Starro, who’s considerably more formidable than his invertebrate underlings, having mentally received all the knowledge and experience from their battles with the League. Starro reads Green Lantern’s mind and learns of his weakness against yellow, and quickly changes his skin color so as to render GL’s ring useless.
Flash, meanwhile, is still mulling over why Snapper would be immune to Starro’s mind control, and after a quick chemical analysis detects traces of lime adhering to Snapper’s body and clothes. (Apparently “lime-ing” the lawn was a necessary chore in the’60s…)
Realizing that fishermen use quicklime to eliminate starfish and oysters (a fact you’d think Aquaman would be a little more angry about), Green Lantern borrows some barrels of lime from some nearby farmers and encase Starro in an unbreakable shell of lime, helpfully applied by J’onn J’onzz in a rare use of his “Martian breath.”
With Starro defeated, the Justice League reward Snapper Carr for essentially standing around and adding little of value, declaring him an honorary member of the League and giving him a JLA signal device.
Little did they know that their kind gesture of pity to a clearly troubled young man would result in this punk practically living in the Justice League’s Secret Sanctuary for the next five years or so.
(As a side note, the League’s first recorded battle with Starro set off a mysterious trend of practically all of the Justice League’s recurring opponents having a name ending in the letter “o.” Starro was followed by Professor Ivo and his android Amazo, after which came Despero, and after that Kanjar Ro. The hidden message here? Gardner Fox liked the letter “O.” That’s all I got.)
Unsurprisingly, the first three-issue Justice League run in BRAVE AND THE BOLD was a big success, leading to the first issue of their own series, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, only two months later, in November 1960. However, it wasn’t until over a year later, in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #9 (February 1962), that we finally learned the team’s origins in the ever-so-logically named “The Origin of the Justice League!” by the usual team of writer Gardner Fox and artist Mike Sekowsky.
The story opens with JLA mascot Snapper Carr being put to work by Wonder Woman in the Secret Sanctuary, mopping the floor and doing some light dusting. While cleaning, Snapper notices a display case filled with wooden splinters, which leads to the story of the Justice League’s first case, which apparently took place three years previously. The action had begun when J’onn J’onzz investigated a nearby town in which all the residents had been turned to stone by a mysterious stone giant.
J’onn reads the giant’s mind to get the 411, and learns that the stone giant is just one of seven aliens from the planet Appellax, who had come to Earth via meteor in order to determine (by combat, naturally) which of them would become the next ruler of their world. J’onn manages to defeat the giant, and after telling the local police to bust him up with sledgehammers (!), he heads off to track down the only Appallaxian that has not yet hatched from its meteor, just off the Carolina coast, only to find himself being transmogrified into wood by whatever is inside the meteor.
It’s the same story for Aquaman, who faces off against a crystal alien deep beneath the surface of the ocean, and Wonder Woman, who battles a liquid mercury creature on Paradise Island. Both heroes defeat their otherworldly opponents, head for Carolina and get themselves “treed.” Ditto for Green Lantern, who vanquishes a giant alien bird, and Flash, who douses an Appallaxian flame giant, both of whom wind up putting down roots next to the other three heroes.
As the trapped heroes watch, the Appallaxian wood creature bursts from the meteor and compels them to follow him, on the march to attack his sole remaining enemy. While marching, the heroes make use of the domino effect to free themselves, with Aquaman scraping the tree bark from GL’s ring, which then frees J’onn’s head, allowing him to use his Martian breath (again with the breath!) to knock Flash into Wonder Woman, putting her partially in range of GL’s ring, freeing her left arm and lasso, which she uses to vibrate the wood creature into splinters, after which the remaining heroes return to normal.
With the information J’onn plucked from the alien’s mind, the heroes head to the location of the last meteor: Greenland. The five heroes speed to the scene, only to find the Appallaxian diamond creature already fighting with none other than Superman and Batman. In a piece of good luck so astronomical it’s staggering, the meteor from which the creature had hatched just happened to be made of Kryptonite, putting Superman on the ropes.
Thanks to a Batplane-powered assist from the Caped Crusader, the Kryptonite is dispatched, allowing Superman to break all known laws of physics and somehow convert the diamond body of the alien back to coal. Yeah, I don’t know, either.
The alien threat averted, the seven heroes realize that “since teamwork alone had enabled us to defeat the meteor-beings, it might be wise for us to unite.” It’s the Flash who makes it official, suggesting they form “a league against evil! Our purpose will be to uphold justice against whatever danger threatens it!” And with that, the Justice League of America was born.
Surely every super-hero team needs new blood every now and again, I hear you ask? Indeed it does, and the Justice League was no exception. Come back next week as we break down the full membership of the original, and still the greatest, Justice League.
Scott Tipton thinks slipping J’onn an Altoid every now and then would probably take care of that Martian breath.