Last week, we began our exploration of DC Comics’ premier super-team with a look at the JLA’s inception and origin. This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at the League itself; specifically, what made the team so popular in the first place: its membership…
Unlike a series like Marvel’s AVENGERS, which boasted a fluid, rotating membership as one of its strengths, for decades, the hallmark of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA was stability. Members weren’t added easily or haphazardly, and by and large, once a hero joined up, they generally stayed, with very few exceptions. As a result, membership in the Justice League, at least to this reader, seemed far more exclusive and impressive.
This was the top echelon of the DC Universe, the absolute best the company had to offer. Sometimes it seemed like anybody who hung around the mansion long enough could become an Avenger, but if a character was inducted into the JLA, it meant that the character wasn’t going anywhere, and that readers would most likely be seeing them steadily for years to come. Let’s take a look at the full roster of the original Justice League of America, when they were invited to join and generally how they fit into the scheme of things, starting with the “Big 7.”
Superman: A member from the very beginning, in BRAVE AND THE BOLD #28. As discussed last week, Superman was little utilized early in the series due to his editor’s fear of overexposure for the character, but that was changed early on, and soon Superman was a fixture in the series. It can be tricky to utilize a character as powerful as Superman within a team dynamic, which accounts for the many times when the less powerful Justice Leaguers are on their own due to Superman’s being on the ever-pressing “outer space mission.” It also seemed like Superman tended to run into either Kryptonite or magic a lot more often in the pages of JLA than he did in his own books. (Kind of makes you wonder why he kept hanging out with them…)
While never really expressly stated, it was always implicitly understood (at least in my reading) that Superman was in charge. Sure, they had rotating chairmen and all, but it always seemed like lip service to me – who’s going to order Superman around?
Batman: Like Superman, Batman was held back to cameo appearances and barred from the magazine’s cover early in the series’ run, despite being a founding member. Once the editorial fiat was lifted, however, unlike Superman, Batman was utilized much more often in the team’s adventures and was far more easily incorporated into the storylines.
Batman’s role as a detective came into play fairly often, as no one else in the original team was much known for deductive reasoning, so frequently writer Gardner Fox would use Batman to explain the whodunit or twist ending at adventure’s end. As the years went on, it felt like the Batman in JLA was almost a different guy than the character appearing in his own books, particularly as the character received a back-to-basics approach in the 1970s, restoring his status as a dark urban vigilante. Meanwhile, over in the pages of JUSTICE LEAGUE, you’d find Batman outside the JLA Satellite in a spacesuit doing repair work and maintenance, and getting turned into a wolf-creature by alien doctors. (And I’m not kidding, either. Check out JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #202.)
And when it seemed like an attempt was made to address the issues in the 1980s by having Batman quit the League when they refused to intervene in world politics, it was only an avenue to put Batman in an even more uncharacteristic role, as founder of his own high-profile super-hero team, the Outsiders, as seen in their new series BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS, which always sounded to me like Batman had decided to form a rockabilly band.
(Although I did think it was a clever idea, as a sort of final twist-of-the-knife to the JLA, that two of Batman’s new Outsider recruits were the only two heroes to reject League membership: Metamorpho and Black Lightning.)
Wonder Woman: For years the only woman in the League, Wonder Woman remained highly visible throughout the team’s existence, not only functioning as a fully equal member of the team, but also managing to avoid (with only a few glaring exceptions) the unintentionally sexist treatment her 1940s counterpart suffered in her first few years with the Justice Society, relegated to the subordinate position of secretary.
Wonder Woman was one of the few Leaguers to briefly leave the team in its original run, for a time period starting in 1968 corresponding with goings-on in her own book when she was rendered powerless and was knocking out spies with judo chops while wearing a funky polyester pantsuit.
Flash: Another founding member, the Flash appeared continuously throughout the entirety of the League’s run, but since most of his character development took place in his own series, his League appearances are fairly straightforward. Later writers did dabble with some characterization late in the run, after the death of Barry Allen’s wife Iris, in which Flash began a flirtation with Zatanna (more about her in a bit), but it didn’t really amount to much.
Similarly, when the Flash was on trial for manslaughter for killing Professor Zoom (a.k.a. the Reverse-Flash), the man who had murdered Flash’s wife and was about to kill his fiancée, the League was pressured by popular opinion to cast a vote on ejecting the Flash from the Justice League. Flash narrowly won the vote, but it didn’t much matter, as not long after that Flash left for the 30th Century, ostensibly for good, and soon after gave his life fighting the Anti-Monitor in the Crisis.
Green Lantern: Much like the Flash, the presence of Hal Jordan’s solo magazine tended to preclude anything terribly Earth-shattering happening to the character in the pages of JLA. Still, the Green Lantern Corps’ backstory was consistently used as a starting point for Justice League stories, particularly in the creation of recurring JLA foes the Manhunters, an army of killer robots that were created by the Green Lanterns’ bosses as the precursors to the GLs, then abandoned in favor of living law-enforcement agents.
As for Hal Jordan, he remained in a starring role throughout the series’ run.
Aquaman: In so far as group dynamics and featured stories go, Aquaman kind of got the short end of the stick.
Sure, as a founding member, he’s around a lot, and there were certainly plenty of excuses for Aquaman to attack from underwater or patrol the coastline, but without a visually exciting power like Flash or Green Lantern, over time his appearances boiled down to lots of shots of Aquaman running alongside the team, or occasionally riding atop a school of whales to stop a villain from escaping. It wasn’t until the dissolution of the original team that Aquaman really took the spotlight, and even then he managed to screw it up (but we’ll be getting to that down the road a ways…).
J’onn J’onzz: Of the founding members, it was certainly the Martian Manhunter who benefited the most from his inclusion in the group. Having languished in a steady if mostly unseen backup spot in DETECTIVE COMICS for years, being put on equal footing with the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman lent the character a legitimacy he’d never had previously, even with the variety-pack of superpowers at his disposal. The character stuck around consistently until the early 1970s, when he went off in search of his Martian brothers and sisters, and was absent from the series until its conclusion in 1984.
Since then, J’onn has been a fixture in nearly every inception of the Justice League, and in the revising of the continuity that took place after the CRISIS, the notion that he ever left Earth to return to his people has been wiped away, and it’s assumed that he never left the team at all. Despite being the Justice Leaguer least known by the non-comic-reading public (thanks to his exclusion from SUPERFRIENDS and the like), J’onn is probably the character most closely identified with the team within the books themselves.
Snapper Carr: Well, he’s got a signal device, and he appears in practically every issue for the first couple years of the book, so I guess we’ve got to consider him a member, if only an “honorary.” Actually, Snapper isn’t all that bad of a character, mostly a product of a time when middle-aged comic-book editors thought there needed to be a teenager in a series for young readers to identify with, but hadn’t yet had the brainstorm that Stan Lee would come up with in 1963 with AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, when he eliminated the adults altogether and made a teenager the protagonist.
Snapper’s pretty much the DC analogue to Marvel’s Rick Jones, the “professional sidekick,” although Snapper stuck with the “ginchy, with-it” teen lingo a lot longer than Rick did. Snapper’s tenure with the League ended when he was tricked into betraying the League, revealing their headquarters to the Joker in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #77.
Staying away out of shame and remorse, Snapper popped up here and there over the next few decades, returning as the manipulated supervillain the Star-Tsar, and much later gaining teleportation powers during the INVASION! crossover event and serving with a team of alien adventurers known as the Blasters. In more recent years, Snapper has served as a mentor of sorts to both the android Hourman and the teen heroes of Young Justice.
Green Arrow: The League’s first real recruit, Green Arrow was invited to join up in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #4 (May 1961), in “The Doom of the Star Diamond!” I won’t belabor the circumstances of his induction, as we just covered that in the Green Arrow columns, so those of you who missed out can click on back and get the skinny. After a few years of general blandness, writer Denny O’Neil, when he took over the book from Gardner Fox, decided to shake things up with the League’s bowman and gave him a serious attitude adjustment, making him the team’s liberal agitator and resident hothead. The personality transplant was a hit with the fans, especially when combined with his flashy new suit and beard courtesy of artist Neal Adams, and for many years Green Arrow’s presence was a serious selling point for the series, as the fan-favorite character was never quite popular enough to warrant his own book, particularly in the 1970s, when DC was somewhat hesitant to spin off characters into solo series. As I mentioned in an earlier column, Green Arrow was another of the few Leaguers to quit the team, although his return was not long in coming, rejoining only a year and a half after he left.
The Atom: Ray Palmer, a.k.a. the size-changing superhero the Atom, was the Justice League’s next recruit, joining the team in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #14 (September 1962), “The Menace of the ‘Atom’ Bomb,” by the usual JLA creative team of Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky. The Atom’s induction opened with a mystery, as the League votes on the admission of a new member, and are mystified to discover that all the votes are for the Atom, whom none of the members can remotely recall.
When Green Lantern’s power ring gives them the background on the hero, the Justice League sends J’onn J’onzz to Ivy Town, where the Atom is known to operate, in order to contact him and investigate their missing memories. After the League encounters a handful of old enemies, including Hector Hammond, the Pied Piper and (snort) Angle Man, they discover the mysterious cloaked figure behind the scheme, Mister Memory, who manages to capture the League and subject to a lethal bowling death trap, because – hey – who doesn’t enjoy bowling?
After the Atom escapes from the ball, Mister Memory tries to pick up the spare, but the Atom reflects it with a blast from GL’s power ring, and unmasks Mister Memory, to reveal – Batman?
Well, not quite. Batman had also been mindwiped by Mister Memory, with his cloak containing cameras and mikes to allow the real bad guy to see what’s going on. Luckily for everyone, it so happens that J’onn J’onzz’s Martian vision allows him to see broadcast waves, which allow them to track down the real culprit: none other than the JLA’s old foe Professor Amos Fortune, a master criminal and brilliant scientist whose crimes normally revolve around luck. Their memories restored, the League goes about the business of welcoming their newest member, even giving him a special miniaturized chair at the conference table, equipped with magnetic plates that allow the seat to rise to eye level, allowing the Atom to properly participate in League meetings.
The Atom remained a steady member of the League throughout its existence, leaving for a new life in the Amazon jungle only a few issues before the original team is dissolved.
Hawkman: Next to be invited into the Justice League was Hawkman, who, despite being considered for membership way back in JLA #4, didn’t actually make the cut until three years later in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #31 ( November 1964), in “The Riddle of the Runaway Room!” Hawkman receives word of his invitation while at a charity event for orphans, when he reaches into a sack expecting to pull out a doll and instead pulls out the Atom, who promptly extends to Katar Hol an invitation to join (while snubbing his wife Shayera, who’s standing right next to him, but I’ve griped about that enough…)
Hawkman happily accepts and is led to the League’s Secret Sanctuary by the Atom, and quickly introduced to his new teammates, who all seem very pleased at his joining up, including Snapper Carr, who remarks “Like this is a gay-day, man!” Ahh, the Sixties…
Katar is given his standard-issue plaque and signal device, and is quickly enlisted in the League’s next case, in which they battle an ordinary shlub named Joe Parry, who uses an alien wishing machine to rob banks and create a super-powered protector with all the powers of the Justice League. Naturally, it’s Hawkman who saves the day here, outwitting the creature and knocking out Parry.
Hawkman’s inclusion in the League added several factors, including a healthy dose of science-fiction, with the high-tech trappings of his Thanagarian super-science (later put to use in the creation of the JLA’s satellite headquarters), as well as, in later years, some much-needed conflict, as the law-and-order policeman-type Hawkman often squared off with the liberal contrarian Green Arrow.
This seems like a good a place as any to close for now, but make sure to come back next week as we discuss the 1970s Justice League boom, including the addition of some much-needed female Leaguers. See you then.