For those who came in late: In recent weeks, we’ve been exploring the origins and membership of DC Comics’ trademark superteam, the Justice League of America, in its original and purest form, the Silver Age run spanning the team’s debut in the 1960s until its less than noble dissolution in the mid-1980s. Last time, we covered the inductions of such Leaguers as the Black Canary, the Elongated Man and the Red Tornado, who had a peculiar habit of dying in the line of duty. Being an android, the Tornado’s resurrections were more easily accomplished than most, and one of those resurrections led to the induction of a new Justice Leaguer whose membership was long overdue…
Hawkgirl: Shayera Hol, a.k.a. Shiera Hall, Hawkman’s wife and longtime partner, had long been held back from League membership, despite often pitching in on League missions over the years. For a time, it seemed that Hawkgirl was doomed to follow in the footsteps of her Earth-2 counterpart, who had never been invited to join the Justice Society of America despite years of partnership with Earth-2’s Hawkman. It even seemed that the rationale for keeping Shayera out would change; at first, she was told that only one member at a time could be admitted, so when Hawkman joined up, she was left on the sidelines. Later, an even more harebrained excuse emerged, some nonsense about not allowing any “duplication of powers.” (If that were the case, it’d be a pretty lonely team, with just Superman, the Elongated Man and the Atom, as Superman can do pretty much everything that the rest of the League can…) Things would finally change for Shayera Hol in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #146 (September 1977), in “Inner Mission!” by writer Steve Englehart and artist Dick Dillin. As the story opens, the League’s sometime-member the Phantom Stranger had just assisted Superman and Hawkman in returning from beyond the grave, only to find they’d returned another unexpected member: the Red Tornado, who had died in battle over a year earlier.
Superman remains suspicious, and in interrogating the Tornado discovers that his body is actually being reanimated by the Construct, the evil electronic intelligence that can possess any machine.
With a battle with the Construct on the horizon, Hawkman proposes that Shayera be voted into the League, reasoning that they’ll need all the help they can get.
Superman refuses outright, again citing the ridiculous “no duplication of powers” rule. Hawkman finally does what he should have done years ago, standing up for his wife and declaring that the League can either have both of them or neither.
The matter is instead tabled, and the League splits into teams to investigate the Construct. Hawkgirl’s presence proves valuable when the Red Tornado awakens once more and desperately tries to prove to the League that he’s the genuine article.
It’s the Tornado’s plea to Shayera that convinces her fellow Leaguers to trust him, and in turn it’s the Tornado’s presence that turns the tide against the Construct. In the wake of the battle, an election is held, and Hawkgirl is at last made a member of the Justice League.
Hawkgirl’s tenure with the Justice League was primarily served at her husband’s side, although she would occasionally go on League missions without Hawkman. The presence of a married couple in the membership provided an opportunity to explore some interesting dynamics within the team, but it was rarely explored. Still, it was just refreshing to have another woman on the team. Hawkgirl stayed with the League until its dissolution in 1984, and the two briefly served in the later Justice League International team in the 1990s, before editorial revisions pretty much wiped them from the team’s history.
Zatanna the Magician: Despite often facing mystical foes throughout its history, the Justice League had always been lacking in any sort of sorcerous firepower, not having an in-house wizard or sorcerer among the membership. This would change in 1978, when Zatanna the Magician was inducted into the JLA. Zatanna was no stranger to the League, having guest-starred in many of the Leaguers’ solo books throughout the 1960s, in an unprecedented magazine-spanning storyline in which Zatanna appeared in various cities throughout the DC Universe searching for clues to the location of her missing father, the Golden-Age DC character Zatara the Magician.
Over a three-year period from 1964 to 1967, Zatanna searched for her father in the pages of HAWKMAN, DETECTIVE COMICS, THE ATOM and GREEN LANTERN, before finally being reunited with him in the pages of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #51. (These comics, by the way, are currently available collected in the trade paperback JLA: ZATANNA’S SEARCH.)
Zatanna would occasionally appear in a guest-starring role in various DC comics over the next few years, utilizing her trademark backwards-speaking magic spells against the forces of evil, all while wearing her original costume: top hat, tuxedo and tails, with high heels and fishnet stockings, an outfit which has still remained her most popular to this very day, for fairly obvious reasons.
That, however, was not the costume JUSTICE LEAGUE readers would see when Zatanna was finally made a member of the team, in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #161 (December 1978), “The Reverse-Spells of Zatanna’s Magic,” by writer Gerry Conway and artist Dick Dillin.
The tale begins with the League casting ballots for the election of their newest member, having apparently realized following the election of Shayera that maybe a little new blood wouldn’t be a bad idea. Just as the votes are about to be counted, Zatanna appears in a burst of light (and sporting a new costume, a low-cut skintight number complete with high-collared cape and ponytail), and haughtily refuses membership, setting the ballots aflame with a wave of her hand and a rhyming spell (curiously, not spoken backwards…) , further telling the League that she doesn’t want to follow in her father’s footsteps, that she doesn’t want the League’s help, and that she particularly doesn’t want Green Lantern’s help.
It takes a bit of deduction by the Atom to realize that Zatanna wasn’t casting her spells backwards, and that accordingly, everything she said was the opposite of what she meant. I know, it’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s the kind of crystal-clear logic that only seems to make sense in comic books. After an attack on the Atom by a Green Lantern imposter, the League follows the trail to Cambodia, where the ersatz GL is revealed as the Warlock of Ys, Zatanna’s deadliest foe, who had planned to use Green Lantern’s ring to free himself from his mystical prison. Or something like that. Honestly, it’s all a little unclear. Zatanna, meanwhile, has traveled to the mystical realm of Ys, where she manages to free the real Green Lantern, and the two swiftly travel back to Earth and kayo the Warlord before he can do the League any permanent damage.
With everyone safe and sound, League membership is proposed to Zatanna once more, and this time she accepts, becoming only the fourth woman on the team, and the first member with a distinctly non-science-fiction background.
Zatanna took center stage in the series for the next few months, kicking off a multi-part story involving Zatanna searching for her heretofore never-discussed mother. After a brief distraction with a truly chesseball supervillain named Anton Allegro (who, and I swear I’m not kidding, terrorized the innocent with a magical accordion), Zatanna and the League (with the help of Zatara) finally discover Zatanna’s mother Sindella, a sorceress from a hidden race of sorcerers known as Homo Magi, who had magically transformed Zatanna’s costume as a means of calling Zatara for help. By the time the League arrives, Sindella is enmeshed in a power struggle among the Magi, and winds up dying to save her daughter’s life.
Wanting to emerge from the shadows of both her parents, Zatanna would later give up her Homo Magi-inspired costume for a third design, one uniquely her own, a combination of flowing robes and thigh-high boots, which she would continue to wear throughout her tenure with the original JLA.
Zatanna served with the League until its dissolution in 1984, and then served with the team’s short-lived Detroit-based follow-up, but soon departed from that group as well. In the ensuing years, Zatanna hadn’t been utilized all that much, appearing primarily in DC’s Vertigo imprint in series like SWAMP THING and THE BOOKS OF MAGIC. Also, not long ago, writer Paul Dini and artist Rick Mays produced an excellent one-shot Zatanna special entitled EVERYDAY MAGIC that’s well worth picking up. However, the blockbuster DC miniseries IDENTITY CRISIS has catapulted Zatanna back into the spotlight, with her controversial actions as a League member serving as a prime catalyst for the series, and it looks as though whatever DC has up its sleeve for 2005, it’s a good bet that she’ll be in the thick of it.
Firestorm: The League’s last recruit, Firestorm joined up in 1980, in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #180 (June 1980), “The Siren Song of the Satin Satan,” by writer Gerry Conway and artist Dick Dillin.
Unlike nearly every League recruit in recent memory, Firestorm’s induction came as a complete surprise, having never before worked with the League and having no connections with any of the members. So how’d he get in? Let’s see if a bit of backstory on the character can’t answer that question…
Firestorm had actually debuted two years earlier in his own heavily promoted new series, FIRESTORM, THE NUCLEAR MAN. Created by writer Gerry Conway and artist Al Milgrom, Firestorm was actually a very innovative and promising new character, combined with a visually striking and unique design. The central hook of the series was that Firestorm was actually two men: high-school student Ronnie Raymond and physics professor Martin Stein, who are caught in a radioactive nuclear blast during a terrorist bombing of a nuclear power plant.
Rather than being vaporized instantly as one would expect, the two men were combined into the massively powerful flame-headed being later dubbed Firestorm, who had the near-limitless ability to alter the molecular structure of any object.
The catch was that, since Stein was unconscious when the two men were merged, he has no control over Firestorm, and only existed as a presence in Firestorm’s mind, while Ronnie Raymond was in control of Firestorm’s body. Even worse for Stein, he had no memory of his activities as Firestorm, and would often be summoned out of his daily life when he least expected it, merging with Raymond to become Firestorm, then later returned to his own body, having no idea what had happened to him. (Eventually, Raymond did the right thing and let Stein know that he was secretly one half of a superhero. If nothing else, it must have helped him plan his day a little better.)
The dual-identity gimmick made for some very interesting character play in FIRESTORM, as the physics-prof Stein proved invaluable in helping Raymond use his newfound nuclear powers to their fullest potential. As for the character’s look, Milgrom’s unusual design (probably his best ever) was an eye-catcher: between the flaming skullcap, the maskless cowl, the heavily shadowed yet blank eyes, the billowing sleeves and the lack of a traditional chest emblem, Firestorm looked like no one else DC was publishing at the time. Truth be told, he looked like a Marvel character.
The book showed strong promise, but was cancelled before its time by DC’s infamous cost-cutting move in 1978 (later termed “the DC Implosion” by sardonic fanboys) that slashed page counts across the board and lowered the ax on quite a few new and underperforming titles. Firestorm would most likely have been just another of those forgotten books, were it not for the fact that Firestorm’s creator, Gerry Conway, just happened to be the writer of another DC book, one that was in no danger of cancellation: JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Lo and behold, within the year, Firestorm had made his debut in the pages of JLA, with Conway undoubtedly figuring that the monthly exposure would allow him to keep the character in the reader’s eye, and hopefully lead to a new series down the road. Did it work? Like a charm.
Within a few months of his JLA debut, Firestorm received a monthly backup feature in the pages of THE FLASH, and by June 1982 the character’s popularity had grown enough to garner him a new solo series, THE FURY OF FIRESTORM, which would last for a respectable 100-issue run. Furthermore, the character’s JLA membership, however brief in comparison to his teammates, has given him an air of legitimacy as one of the DC Universe’s “big guns” that seems to preclude him ever disappearing into limbo forever, as well as nabbing him a place in primo merchandising avenues, such as a two-season stint on the ABC Saturday-morning SUPERFRIENDS series, action figures (including the recent DC Direct figure, which is probably one of my favorite pieces the company has ever made), you name it. Gerry Conway, ladies and gentlemen: the smartest man in comics? In 1980, I’d have to say yes.
To get back to Firestorm’s induction, it was a rather straightforward affair, with Superman sponsoring him for membership and the eager young hero enthusiastically accepting. The excitement wears off, though, when we get to see for the first time what comes next: Justice League Orientation!
As for Firestorm’s inaugural adventure as a League member, it’s a little underwhelming, truth be told, with Firestorm and the League facing off against the Satin Satan, a disco supermodel-turned-demon sorceress who had been kidnapping hunky dudes from the nearby roller disco to create an army of demonic host bodies. The less said the better. However, succeeding issues revealed that Firestorm’s inclusion was good not only for the Firestorm character, but it was good for the series as well. The introduction of the young exuberant hero brought a breath of fresh air to the team, which, with so many long-running heroes in residence, often felt a little stodgy in comparison to other series like Marvel’s X-Men. Firestorm’s relative inexperience also brought a new dynamic to the League’s relationships, as the more seasoned Leaguers trained Firestorm in everything from acrobatics to battle strategy.
And despite Firestorm’s nearly immeasurable power level, his inexperience and overzealousness often took him out of the game early, so as to not unsettle the team’s balance of power.
Firestorm’s presence also highlighted a new role for the League: that of teacher and mentor. We see for the first time the League accept their responsibility in terms of, for lack of a better term, the superhero community, and take it upon themselves to take in a neophyte hero, recognizing both his need for guidance and the incredible power at his fingertips, power which needs to be properly channeled. More than that, we see the League teaching Firestorm not just how to be a better hero, but how to be a better man, such as this moment from JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #193, after a thoughtless Firestorm mouths off about Aquaman’s slim chances for survival:
Probably Firestorm’s best spotlight as a League member came in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #205 (August 1982), in “The Final Hand!” by writer Gerry Conway and writer Don Heck. In the story, the majority of the JLA, including Firestorm, has been struck comatose by mysterious “Z-radiation” unleashed upon them by the Royal Flush Gang. Little do the remaining Leaguers know that the attacks were engineered by their old foe Hector Hammond, a tremendously powerful psychic trapped in a paralyzed human body. Hammond, nothing more than a psychic presence hovering over the Leaguers, intends to sap the psychic energy from the downed Leaguers for his own nefarious purposes, and all that stands in his way is the psychic presence of Firestorm’s alter ego Martin Stein, hovering over the comatose Firestorm.
Determined to save his teammates who, ironically, don’t even know he exists, Stein creates a psionic body for himself from sheer force of will and engages in a psychic battle with Hector Hammond, with the lives of the Justice League hanging in the balance.
Some good, solid storytelling here from Conway and Heck. Satisfying stuff.
Firestorm left with most of the League in 1984, and has bounced around the DC Universe ever since. Thankfully, even his recent death in the pages of IDENTITY CRISIS doesn’t seem to have kept him down for long, as Ronnie Raymond recently returned once more in the pages of the new FIRESTORM series currently published by DC. The current FIRESTORM series started out a little uneven, but has been steadily improving – it’s worth a look.
And there you have it. That’s the Justice League of America, for my money the single best roster for a superhero team in comics. Maybe the Avengers had more different rosters and more fun combinations, and the X-Men may have been better written at times, and the Legion may have them beat on sheer numbers, but this is the team all others are compared to. It’s got everything. There’s sheer muscle in Superman and Wonder Woman, raw power in Green Lantern and Firestorm, specialists like the Atom, Flash, Aquaman, Zatanna, Black Canary and the Elongated Man, mere mortals who get by on sheer skill and willpower like Batman and Green Arrow, and lost souls looking for a new home like J’onn J’onzz, the Hawks and the Red Tornado. Most of all, it’s got pedigree. It’s got stature. It’s got presence.
Other teams were just superheroes. Back in the day, at least through the eyes of this 10-year-old kid, the Justice League of America felt like legends.