Grumpy Old Fan | A League that looks like America

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | A League that looks like America

In the immediate wake of the 2012 election, the emerging story is “demographics.” Specifically, the electorate of 2012 seems almost to have duplicated the coalition of 2008 that first elected President Obama. In fact, this year saw a slight increase in the number of Latino and Asian-American voters, and a corresponding decrease in the number of white voters. The next Congress will include 20 female senators; and for the first time in history, white men will be in the minority of the Democratic side of the House of Representatives.

It’s probably a coincidence that this week, DC Comics announced two new ongoing series, one for the Latino hero Vibe and one for the Asian heroine Katana. Each was created in the early 1980s, Vibe by Gerry Conway and Chuck Patton for Justice League of America, and Katana by Mike Barr and Jim Aparo for Batman and the Outsiders; and each will be in the new Justice League of America series debuting in February.

Meanwhile, though, a lack of diversity is almost hard-wired into the main Justice League. While the new series may mitigate that, it could just be a venue for more “edgy” fare. We’ll know more in a few months, but today I want to look at the League’s attempts to integrate.

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As regular readers of this space know, I believe the Justice League is DC Comics’ superhero line in microcosm. It brings together disparate characters representing distinct genres, and thereby facilitates the blending of those genres into a cohesive shared universe.

Within the context of that universe, the Justice League is the A-list of superhero teams. The Leaguers are, by reputation if not by definition, the world’s greatest superheroes. Accordingly, whoever makes up the League is responsible for maintaining its high standards.

The Justice League turned 50 a couple of years ago, and for all but about 10 of those years, it’s been organized around the “Big Seven” charter members: Aquaman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Superman and Wonder Woman. This is no surprise, as these include some of DC’s most familiar and most popular characters. (We might even say they’re so familiar and/or popular at least in part thanks to their League memberships.) However, for the most part, they’re not a terribly diverse bunch. There’s only one woman, and depending on which Green Lantern you have, and how you view J’Onn J’Onzz, they may be all white.

Of course, this is a product of the League’s original publishing climate, when all of DC’s main characters were white (including having white alter egos like John Jones) and hardly any headliners were female. Recent League relaunches have tried to address this by substituting different characters. The animated League used John Stewart as Green Lantern, gave J’Onn J’Onzz the voice of the African-American Carl Lumbly, and swapped out Aquaman in favor of Hawkgirl. The New-52 League has basically traded J’Onn for Cyborg (although we learned later that J’Onn was once a Leaguer).

Still, for a long time the League expanded largely with white male characters. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the League added six men (Green Arrow, the Atom, Hawkman, the Phantom Stranger, the Elongated Man and Red Tornado) and three women (Black Canary, Hawkgirl and Zatanna). Black Canary replaced Wonder Woman (who rejoined about five years later), and Hawkgirl and Zatanna joined about a year apart. Eighteen months after Zatanna, Firestorm became the last inductee of the “Satellite Era.”

However, a few months before Firestorm, writer Gerry Conway and artists Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin presented a two-parter (Issues 173-74, December 1979-January 1980) that teased the idea of Black Lightning joining the League. It dealt with the League’s lack of ethnic diversity pretty directly, even having The Flash argue against recruiting a “token” member — but Black Lightning turned the team down, citing his preference for working alone. As it happens, a few years later, Batman recruited both Black Lightning and Metamorpho (who’d turned down League membership in the mid-‘60s) for his new team of Outsiders.

Thus, the first Justice Leaguers of color were all part of the “Detroit League”: Vibe, the African heroine Vixen, and the support-staffer Dale Gunn. The Detroit League’s diversity (which included five men and four women) was due in part to its nontraditional structure. The original League was a product of the shared universe, because each member already had his or her own feature(s). (This would have fit Black Lightning as well.) However, when those solo careers took them away from the League, Aquaman disbanded the team and reorganized it around those who were willing to make more definite commitments. Naturally, these included Conway’s own creations Vixen, Vibe, Steel and Gypsy, plus J’Onn J’Onzz, Zatanna, the Elongated Man and occasionally Batman.

The Detroit League lasted about two years before giving way to Justice League International. Although the JLI expanded to include several female members (among them Ice Maiden/Ice, Huntress, Power Girl, Crimson Fox, Maxima, and Silver Sorceress), they too were mostly white. Aside from one longtime member, the Brazilian Green Flame/Fire (whose ethnicity never really played a big part in the stories), neither the Japanese Doctor Light nor the Indian Maya were with the League for very long. The same applied on the male side: the Native American Black Condor, the gay Blue Jay and Tasmanian Devil, and the African-American Bloodwynd were each short-timers.

By this time in the ‘90s, there were up to three Justice League teams operating concurrently, which naturally expanded the membership pool. Joining during this period were Obsidian and the original Ice Maiden (both gay, although Obsidian came out later), the African-American Amazing-Man, and the Korean-American Mystek. When the “Morrison League” whittled this all down to one team, organized around the seven original names, its diverse membership included the mixed-race Green Arrow, the African-Americans Steel and Green Lantern (John Stewart), and the Native American Manitou Raven, as well as Oracle, Big Barda and Faith. The post-Final Crisis League added the gay Mikaal “Starman” Tomas, the African-Americans Firestorm, Black Lightning and Cyborg, and the Asian-American Atom, as well as Donna Troy, Starfire and Supergirl.

Again, the need to cast the Justice League in “world’s greatest” terms has historically meant tension between a relatively static core of Superman, Wonder Woman, et al., and a more malleable group of lesser lights. The problem is that the more faithful DC is to the core group, the less diverse it will be, and — however unintentionally — the more the League’s creative teams may have to work to convince readers of the roster’s bona fides. Justice League International initially got around this by using the Legends miniseries to establish the new group’s credibility. The late Dwayne McDuffie used the fallout from Final Crisis to draft a team with no white men (John Stewart, Vixen, Doctor Light, Firestorm and Zatanna). James Robinson’s final roster (the last League of the pre-Flashpoint era) used Supergirl, Jade and Jesse Quick in place of their male counterparts.

Still, none of those was as iconic as the originals, so the New 52 reunited Aquaman, Batman, Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Superman and Wonder Woman, and folded Cyborg’s origin into the League’s first adventure. Writer Geoff Johns has promised an expanded roster, which apparently will include Shazam, Element Girl and the Ryan Choi Atom; but the new Justice League of America book may be more diverse.

In fact, the new JLA shares the original’s all-star structure. Six of its nine members (Catwoman, Hawkman, Green Lantern Simon Baz, Green Arrow, Vibe and Katana) either have or will have their own series, and the other three (Steve Trevor, Stargirl and J’Onn J’Onzz) are similarly well-established. Most are closely associated with previous teams, and Catwoman is even arguably a Batman counterpart. It’s a more ethnically-diverse lineup, but Johns emphasized their “underdog” nature to MTV:

I’ve always loved working with the less known or less popular DC characters […]. There’s a real opportunity to unlock the potential in every hero — no matter how obscure they are — in fact, it’s a challenge that I always find compelling. Anyone can be A-List and that’s what the Justice League of America is about. […]

If the Justice League is about the world’s greatest super heroes, the Justice League of America is about the world’s most dangerous — and that’s because they’re underrated, unpredictable and, before this, unwanted.

That last part makes me think this is another “alternative” League book along the lines of Extreme Justice or Justice League Elite, and that Johns may even build it around the hoary old “government-sponsored” and/or “proactive superheroes” tropes. I hope that’s not the case. Not only would it be fairly predictable, it downplays the clear parallels between this new title and its ancestral namesake. If the two League books ended up mashed together — maybe into a single JLA title in the wake of “Trinity War” — the combined roster might be a nicely balanced cross-section of the superhero line.

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Although the League’s rosters have been reliably expansive over the years, now is a particularly appropriate time for it to reflect not just the New 52’s diversity, but the diversity of its potential readership. The New 52 features several books with female headliners (Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Birds of Prey and Worlds’ Finest), a few with gay stars (Stormwatch, Earth 2, Teen Titans, Batwoman), and a handful with non-white stars (Green Lantern, GL Corps, Fury of Firestorm, Blue Beetle and Batwing), so the Vibe and Katana series will have some company on the shelves. That’s important, because it lets potential readers know they might see something of themselves in those characters. Consequently, it’s important that at least some of those characters find their way to the Justice League, because of what the League represents.

While the most familiar Justice League might be its original seven-member lineup, the book’s real strength doesn’t depend on a rigid adherence to structure. Instead, it comes from a willingness not just to cross genre boundaries, but to explore every corner of DC’s shared superhero universe. In more practical terms, it’s expressed in what Gail Simone once called the “Fox Maneuver” — the time-honored practice of the League switching foes, so that one teammate’s strengths took advantage of another enemy’s weaknesses. You might laugh, but I was reminded of the Fox Maneuver during President Obama’s election-night speech:

What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. […]

I am hopeful tonight because I’ve seen the spirit at work in America. I’ve seen it in the family business whose owners would rather cut their own pay than lay off their neighbors, and in the workers who would rather cut back their hours than see a friend lose a job.

I’ve seen it in the soldiers who reenlist after losing a limb and in those SEALs who charged up the stairs into darkness and danger because they knew there was a buddy behind them watching their back.

I’ve seen it on the shores of New Jersey and New York, where leaders from every party and level of government have swept aside their differences to help a community rebuild from the wreckage of a terrible storm. […]

We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.

Gardner Fox might not have intended it, but that’s the kind of thing I think of when I think about the name “Justice League of America.” The original League might not be all-American, but to me it’s “of America” because it represents that all-for-one spirit. Ideally, it would represent the country’s diversity in more than just genre origins. Like it says on our currency, E pluribus unum: “out of many, one.” More to the point, like Geoff Johns said, anyone can be an A-lister — and that’s an all-American sentiment if I ever heard one.

I’ve always loved the Justice League, both for what it is and for what it could be. Here’s hoping the new League lives up to its heritage, and to that of the country for which it’s named.