By around 1984, the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA book definitely needed some sort of shot in the arm. Frequent guest writers had robbed the book of any sense of long-term storytelling, unremarkable villains like Paragon and Hellrazer weren’t bringing in new readers, and an ever-rotating stable of pencillers denied the series any sense of artistic continuity. So certainly, some changes were in order. And changes readers would get, beginning with JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #228 (July 1984), in “War – of the World?”, by Gerry Conway and artist George Tuska.
Herein we find long-absent JLA member J’onn J’onzz returning to Earth with a warning: the rest of his people have fallen under the sway of a dictator called the Marshal, who has convinced the surviving Martians to abandon their inhospitable adopted planet Mars II, in favor of a much more lush and welcoming planet: Earth. Conveniently, the League’s big guns are mysteriously absent during this crisis, namely Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Flash (Batman having already quit the team and founded his own group, the Outsiders), leaving the Hawks, Zatanna, Aquaman, Red Tornado, Firestorm, Elongated Man, Green Arrow and Black Canary, along with the returned Martian Manhunter, to face the threat of Martian invasion.
A spokesman for the Martians, the Challenger, arrives on Earth and delivers an ultimatum, that humanity will be permitted to survive in internment camps for a single generation, if surrender is agreed to. If not, then all will die immediately.
Naturally, the Martians’ demands are rejected by the U.N., and the world prepares for war, in “Bitter Ashes,” appearing in JLA #229 (August 1984), by Conway and artist Alan Kupperberg, whose shaky anatomy and sketchy rendition of the Leaguers is a good match for the equally shaky plot. The Justice League seems pretty much ready to roll over and die when it comes to the prospect of battling the Martians, and while much is made of the nations of the Earth preparing for war, every other superhero on Earth seems to be sitting this one out.
It’s a bit much to accept that the Titans, the Outsiders, the Global Guardians and the dozens of other super-types populating the planet are all out to lunch at the moment, not to mention Superman, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash. Meanwhile, in a bit of telegraphed plot advancement for issues to come, Aquaman finds himself resenting the repeated absence of many League members when they’re needed most.
Anyway, the Martian fleet arrives stealthily and wastes no time in blowing the holy hell out of the Justice League Satellite, with most of the JLA aboard, which seems to me pretty poor strategy on the Justice League’s part, since the Satellite has never been shown to have any offensive weapons.
What were they going to do when the Martians got there, wave at them?
Even worse, it looks as though Firestorm’s suspicions about where J’onn’s loyalties lie may bear out, as J’onn attacks Firestorm, blasts his way through the hull, abandons the wounded Satellite and takes off in a JLA cruiser, leaving Firestorm and the rest of the League to fend for themselves in the vacuum of space.
(And by the way, how bad is the art here? I’m usually not one to dwell on the negative, but Kupperberg’s work here is so substandard, I’m amazed DC published it, especially in a book as important as the company felt this was. Have another look, such as this particularly atrocious rendering of Aquaman.)
So while the particularly ineffectual League members don spacesuits for some meaningless hand-to-hand combat with a squadron of Martians who board the Satellite, and the Hawks engage a few Martian ships in battle, Earth’s governments prepare to use nuclear force against the invaders, despite the havoc it might wreak on Earth’s environment. Meanwhile, we discover why J’onn abandoned the Satellite (although not why he risked all his friends’ lives by blasting a hole in the hull and flying a ship through it, instead of just opening the docking bay as it was designed to be used and leaving the Satellite normally): to reach the Martian flagship and challenge the Marshal to a duel of honor. So if this could all be stopped by a fistfight between J’onn and the Martian Marshal (Dude. He’s the Martian Marshal. How lame does that sound? Martian Marshal…), why didn’t J’onn do this back on Mars rather than running to Earth and letting his countrymen blow up the Satellite and murder thousands of Earth’s soldiers? The plotting here is abysmal, and the storytelling isn’t much better. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this sequence from the climactic duel of honor between J’onn and the Martian Marshal, in which it’s noted that the Marshal is using invisibility in combat, which is, we’re told, normally a violation of the strict rules of conduct for these sort of encounters.
So what’s the problem? Look at the art; He’s entirely visible. Was anyone even looking at this book before it went out?
So anyway, J’onn punches out the Martian Marshal, and apparently shames the remaining Martians into leaving the planet (although we don’t get to hear his stirring oratory that convinces them to depart, I guess because that would be interesting), although he himself remains behind forever, ostracized from his people. The next two issues explain exactly where Superman, Supergirl, Flash and Wonder Woman were during this whole Martian business, a wholly forgettable JLA/JSA crossover by Kurt Busiek and Alan Kupperberg. After that would come JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA ANNUAL #2 by Gerry Conway and Chuck Patton, in which everything would really change, and about which a necessary disclaimer is required.
You won’t be seeing the usual analysis and images from JLA ANNUAL #2. That’s because I don’t have it. Now, that’s not to say I haven’t read it. In point of fact, when Li’l Scott saw this at the Quik Stop back in 1985, he read through it at the rack, thought to himself “Man, this sucks. This isn’t the JLA. Not buying that,” and no doubt headed to the register with the newest issue of MICRONAUTS instead. In recent years, I’ve accumulated a good-sized stack of the JL: Detroit run in quarter bins, mostly out of morbid curiosity, and we’ll be looking at those in some detail. But I haven’t run across ANNUAL #2. Therefore, my discussion of the nuts and bolts of the group’s inception comes primarily from secondary sources, mostly DC’s WHO’S WHO and references in succeeding issues of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA.
So anyway, in this JLA ANNUAL, apparently Aquaman, all horked off at Superman and company no-showing the Martian invasion (although maybe they just got an advance look at the script and thought better of it), exercises a little-known clause in the Justice League of America charter (little known because Conway had just invented it), allowing him as a founding member to dissolve the team, and re-form it, only accepting those members who were willing to make a full-time commitment to the Justice League. Which is, when you think about it, a pretty nebulous and pissy demand to make. How do you define “full-time”? Does that mean members can’t have a job or a social life? Should Superman ignore the comet hurtling towards Katmandu because freakin’ Aquaman wants to take roll call? Aquaman comes off more like an overly needy boyfriend than a resolute leader. And even more weaselly, Aquaman pulls this maneuver while Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Flash are still missing. So rather than say, investigating the disappearance of four of his closest friends, Aquaman throws a hissy-fit of a power play. In response, Hawkman, Hawkwoman, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Red Tornado and Firestorm walk away from the team, while Zatanna, the Elongated Man and the now homeless J’onn J’onzz are the only ones who elect to stay on with Aquaman’s new “No-Life Squadron.”
With the Justice League Satellite now an orbiting hunk of wreckage, Aquaman’s team is looking for a new base of operations, and accepts an offer from an unknown neophyte superhero named Steel, giving the League a headquarters in an abandoned factory in Detroit known as “The Bunker,” in exchange for Steel’s membership in the new League. The Bunker also comes with an in-house technician named Dale Gunn, who would serve as a quasi-member of the League as well. Once the team has moved into their new digs, they encounter Vixen, a little-known heroine who had battled poachers alongside Superman, and recruit her as a member. Vixen and Steel in turn encounter the teenaged gang leader and breakdancer Vibe on the streets of Detroit, and when they witness him using his sonic powers, they recruit him for the team, despite Aquaman’s objections. Finally, a teenaged runaway calling herself Gypsy uses her camouflage powers to infiltrate the Bunker, shadowing the group until finally being discovered by J’onn J’onzz, and later choosing to assist the team in battle, becoming an official member.
So there’s your team: Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Elongated Man, Zatanna, Steel, Vixen, Vibe and Gypsy. When you look at it, it’s a calculated move by Conway (and one must assume, DC editorial) to try to cash in on the most popular trend in comics of the time. The two most popular books those days were Marvel’s UNCANNY X-MEN and DC’s NEW TEEN TITANS, both series about troubled super-powered teens. What do we suddenly have in the pages of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA? Troubled super-powered teens. Funny how that works.
The biggest problem is that the new Leaguers just weren’t all that interesting, and yet they were getting the lion’s share of the focus. Steel, for example, has the most unjust and inappropriate origin I can think of for a teen hero, having been unnecessarily mutilated and operated on for years by his clearly insane grandfather, the former Commander Steel, grafting cybernetic implants and artificial body parts onto his formerly normal and healthy body, just to create a new hero to carry on the family tradition.
And worse, rather than rebelling at this obvious abuse, Hank Heywood just goes along with it, allowing his grandfather to buy him a place on the Justice League with a ready-made headquarters. Even with all this twisted background to work with, Steel comes off as a rather stiff character, just another generic strongman added to the team, because, well, every team needs a strongman.
Vixen had appeared earlier in ACTION COMICS, and here in JLA was given the “sexually aggressive female” role, constantly flirting with male team members and raising the hackles of her teammate Zatanna, who was apparently accustomed to being the League’s young hottie. Vixen’s power to utilize the powers of any animal through her Tantu Totem never seemed to be utilized to its full potential, and much of her subplots in JLA revolved around her battle with the African despot General Maksai, who wanted the Tantu Totem for himself.
Compared to the cosmic threats and epic scale of the old JLA stories, this stuff seemed pretty low-rent.
Then again, Vixen was practically Wonder Woman in comparison to Vibe, a.k.a. Paco Ramone, the leader of the local Detroit street gang “Los Lobos,” who in addition to his mutant power of generating sonic blasts, was also, according to DC’s WHO’S WHO, “a superb breakdancer.” Count the stereotypes in that sentence. And by the way, isn’t breakdancing really what you’re looking for in a Justice Leaguer? “Sure, you’re super-strong and you can fly, but how’s your popping and locking?”
The book’s editor Alan Gold defended this obvious bit of topical pandering in the letter column, saying that JLA writer Conway incorporated Vibe’s breakin’ because he “likes the look and the good feeling that goes with breakdancing.” Ooookay. Even worse, Mr. Electric Boogaloo was given the “tough-guy-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder” role in the team, with Vibe constantly butting heads with J’onn, Aquaman, Ralph and the occasional ex-JLAer like Batman or Green Arrow. It’s pretty hard to take someone seriously as a tough guy when they’re wearing a red scarf and parachute pants. However, it did occasionally make for a very satisfying moment, such as when Green Arrow has had just about enough of Vibe’s lip and cold-cocks the little punk.
Probably the least objectionable of the new Leaguers was Gypsy, a runaway from an abusive home with camouflage abilities and a vaguely defined illusion-casting power. Again, not a lot of power added to a team that used to be, with no exaggeration, “the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes,” but at this point probably could get taken out by the Nuclear Family.
Still, Gypsy was the most likable of the new characters, and eventually formed a father-daughter-like bond with J’onn J’onzz that would be one of the few pieces of lasting characterization to result from this run.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that the new Leaguers were getting most of the attention, it seemed like Conway had forgotten how to write the remaining old-school Justice League members. Aquaman, for example, continues to behave like a first-class jerk in his new role as team leader, as seen in this moment from JLA #235, when he brusquely dismisses a perfectly rational suggestion from Sue Dibny.
Even worse, here we see Aquaman making use of his telepathy (which is only supposed to work on fish, by the way) to mentally dull the objections of Steel, a bit of unwilling mind-control that seems pretty out of character to me.
Here’s the kicker: after all his crying and moaning about Justice League members not giving the team a full-time commitment, who’s the first to leave? Aquaman. Why? So he can spend more time with his wife. I guess this was an attempt at irony, but it just makes the character look like the “World’s Greatest Hypocrite.”
Aquaman got off light compared to the way poor Zatanna was mistreated. The character was derailed for months on end in an interminably lengthy subplot involving Zatanna being kidnapped and tortured (in often disturbing detail) by cultists looking to extract her genetic code so they can pass it on to Adam, their insane leader. Even worse, when the now immensely powerful Adam links minds with some sort of all-knowing hoodoo called the Godhead, Zatanna merges minds as well, and by the end of it, Zatanna and her torturer Adam are happily holding hands and disappearing off into the cosmic vapor, spouting some malarkey about how all of the abuse and torture was meant to be, so that makes it okay, and now they “have a destiny together.”
Bleah. Just awful, awful stuff.
After Steel finally has a big brouhaha with his psycho grandpa, the League gets evicted from their Detroit bunker and takes up residence in the original Justice League Secret Sanctuary. Unfortunately, there’s a big energy-sucking alien already living there, and it swiftly incapacitates all of the New JLA, forcing Gypsy to call in the original team for help, in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #250 (May 1986).
Thanks to the arrival of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Black Canary, the alien is destroyed and the team is saved, and as a result Batman returns for a short-lived stint as leader of the New League. Not much comes of Batman’s tenure, however, other than a clumsily executed attempt at romance between Bruce Wayne and Vixen.
And speaking of clumsy, here’s a doozy. Readers of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS might remember that the JLA Satellite was blown up in that miniseries. JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA ANNUAL #3 (August 1985) elaborated on the story, showing the flaming wreckage that remained of the Satellite hurtling to Earth, with members of the New JLA working to keep the debris from killing anyone on the ground.
Not a great story, but whatever. Anyway, less than a year later, the creative team and the editor forgot entirely that they’d already blown up the Satellite, and had it come crashing to Earth yet again in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #252 (July 1986), this time bearing some unwelcome cargo: the League’s old enemy Despero. When the letters started to pour in pointing out that the Satellite had already been destroyed, there was a sheepish admission from the editor promising not to destroy it again unless they at least rebuild it first.
By 1987, the writing was on the wall. Sales had dropped by tens of thousands, and there was very little favorable fan response for the new team. As a result, a four-part series began in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #258 (January 1987): “The End of the Justice League of America,” by writer J. M. DeMatteis (who redeems himself here for his part in the earlier abysmal Zatanna storyline) and artist Luke McDonnell.
By this time, everyone had left the League except J’onn J’onnz and the four rookies, who were the only ones remaining to face the wrath of old JLA foe Professor Ivo, who begins sending out numerous android assassins to snuff the young Leaguers, hoping to demoralize his old enemies. First on the block is Vibe, who’s ambushed in the South Bronx, and dies valiantly saving a young boy from one of Ivo’s robots. It’s a credit to DeMatteis and McDonnell that, for the first time since his introduction, they actually made me like Vibe here, just before he pays the ultimate price.
Next targeted is Gypsy, although she manages to escape the noose when the android sent to kill her achieves a level of sentience, and is able to resist his programming, especially since the mentally unstable Ivo had his own doubts about killing the young girl, doubts that were transplanted into the android’s mind. Gypsy instead gives up the superhero life and returns home to her parents, where no doubt the abuse would eventually begin again.
Steel doesn’t get off quite so lucky, facing off against an Ivo android disguised as a policeman, who begins blowing holes in Steel’s cyborg body with devastating energy blasts. The Ivo android soon reaches critical mass, and Steel smothers the explosion with his own body, viciously crippling the young hero in the process.
J’onn arrives to take Steel, in horrible pain, back to his grandfather in Detroit in the hopes of repair, but the damage is too extreme, and the ex-Commander Steel makes the decision to end his grandson’s suffering, a suffering he himself set into motion so many years before.
It’s left to Vixen and J’onn to avenge their friends, with Vixen infiltrating Ivo’s base and fending off dozens of Ivo’s androids before nearly being overwhelmed by their sheer numbers.
Relief comes with the arrival of J’onn J’onzz, and the two destroy Ivo’s remaining androids, only to discover Ivo himself hopelessly insane and locked in a padded room, tormented by his own sins. While Steel and Vibe’s killer is brought to justice, it brings little satisfaction, and Vixen decides to exit the team as well, leaving only J’onn determined to keep the Justice League alive, if only to honor their memories.
That was that for Justice League Detroit. A bad idea executed poorly, and finally brought to a close after 30 painful issues. Although the series ended on a down note, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Justice League fans in 1987, for in the very same issue that put this team to rest, the following promo ad appeared:
Things were definitely looking up.