Power, sharing: the JLA at fifty

The Justice League of America turned fifty about a month ago, and somehow in the midst of our New Year’s revelry I missed it.

As many of you know, I am a child of the Satellite Era, and specifically of the mid-to-late ‘70s, when virtually every issue was pencilled by Dick Dillin and inked by Frank McLaughlin. I first got into the League in earnest during Steve Englehart’s short tenure as writer, and stayed for a good bit of Gerry Conway’s several-year run as regular writer. There is a certain sameness to the Conway/Dillin/McLaughlin issues, as if all their fantastic settings and sequences are just part of an average JLA workday. That’s comforting, but also a bit confining, and one can certainly argue that after Dillin died and his successor George Pérez left, Conway should have turned over the writing reins to someone else. Still, if I were doing a “fifty stories for fifty years” post, like I did for Batman’s 70th last spring, I think he would be reasonably represented.

That brings me to “The Fiend With Five Faces” from JLofA vol. 1 #156 (June 1978), an entertaining 34-pager from early in Conway’s tenure. It opens with the dramatic sight of a beaten Aquaman crawling out of the Pacific onto a Honolulu pier, gasping out the story’s title. Now, half-dead superheroes are nothing new these days, so I want to emphasize that Dillin and McLaughlin’s Aquaman, like the rest of their figures, had real weight and dimension. You could believe that he’d swum across half the ocean to get to Hawaii, because Dillin and McLaughlin gave him that lean, muscular frame. Likewise, you could appreciate whatever it was that laid him low, because it must’ve been something else.

By the way, this sequence takes four pages. That’s four pages of Aquaman beating up a couple of muggers and getting a cab driver to help him to the top floor of a local hotel, but it works fine. Again, it tells the reader how tough Aquaman is.

Anyway, after Aquaman’s made it to the Hawaii transport tube (and Conway’s made a Steve McQueen joke), we learn what happened. Just over two weeks ago, while investigating an undersea earthquake (and the ensuing sperm-whale stampede), Aquaman discovered a newly-risen island, complete with classical-style temple and giant five-headed figure. Eyebeams from the heads zapped the Sea King but good, and he lit out for the closest transporter station.

Before too long the League sees what the statue-folk are up to. The Flash and Green Lantern have been waylaid by Tane, a forest-god who’s cultivated a new Pacific Northwest jungle. NATO and Warsaw Pact troops are about to square off in Europe -- courtesy of war-god Ku and trickster-god Rongo -- so Superman, Black Canary, and the Elongated Man head there. That leaves Batman, the Atom, Red Tornado, and the Phantom Stranger (making a not-uncommon-for-the-time JLA appearance) to check out the FW5F’s island.

The “fiends” turn out to be the Five Gods of Oceania (the other two are Mauri the love-goddess and Tangora the leader), who lived in harmony on their little island while the rest of humanity was climbing down from the trees. When the island started sinking, Tangora took it as a sign that “the time for gods was past,” so to save themselves, they combined into a five-headed giant. Somehow, two weeks ago, they got free, and trapped wet blanket Tangora on their newly-risen island. It’s a pretty standard “you mortals are our playthings” plot.

As it turns out, the gods go down pretty easily. Rongo turns Elongated Man into a tree, and Ku stuns Superman with a magic sword, but Black Canary’s point-blank sonic cry shatters Rongo’s eardrum. Flash’s distraction earns him a whipping from Tane, but it lets Green Lantern use his power ring to poison Tane remotely. (GL alters Tane’s metabolism so that sunlight harms instead of feeds him -- pretty nasty, I thought.) On the island, the Atom gets his colleagues past the first guardian, but the Phantom Stranger needs Red Tornado’s help to free Tangora.

Once Tangora is loose, he summons the other four (and the other Leaguers) and orders them to “join up” again. Tangora explains that this happens more often than you’d think, but the other four think every time is the first one (Groundhog Day!); so they get into trouble and sooner or later, Tangora has to set everything straight. The “Fiend” comes together once again, the island sinks, and the League spends the last two pages of the story helping the Atom with some pre-marital jitters. (Ray Palmer marries Jean Loring in the very next issue, which was supposed to put a period on Conway’s “Search For Jean Loring” storyline from Super-Team Family.)

Accordingly, the Five Gods are only as tough as the story needs them to be. However, the interesting thing about “The Fiend With Five Faces” is the degree to which this builds up the League. In the previous issue, the League had to deal both with the natural disasters caused by an extra Moon, and with said extra Moon’s inhabitants. This meant page after page of well-rendered disaster relief, and a page or so of “Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern defeat an alien army.” It’s a little strange to think that beings styled as “the Five Gods of Oceania” wouldn’t be quite as dangerous, but ... well, they weren’t. For a story with such a promising setup, the League seems to get off rather easily.

* * *

And by way of segueing into the present-day portion of our program, “getting off easily” is something the Justice League hasn’t enjoyed in a while. From inter-team turmoil to real-world creative shuffles, the team’s Satellite Era stability is at least five years gone. Current League writer James Robinson acknowledges as much in the text piece of this week’s Cry For Justice #6:

[CFJ] is what it is. A singular work if nothing else. Dark. Maybe the darkest tale the JLA have ever been a part of. And I offer no apologies. For the amount of times characters call for justice, for the dialogue, the death, the torture, the maiming of an archer. For any of it. It’s a book I began knowing the kind of tone it would have, and by God I’ve stayed true to my intentions. The book has fans ... and detractors. And to all of you, fans and detractors alike, I say thank you for being a part of this grim romp.

Robinson goes on to mention “new (and brighter) adventures” for the JLA in the ongoing monthly; and thankfully, he’s not wrong.

(MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW for this week’s Justice League of America #41.)

I was afraid that Robinson’s first arc with the new team would move slowly, as CFJ had, such that it would take six issues for everyone to sign up. Here, though, the majority of the team is at least recruited by the end of the 30-page issue. It’s a pleasant change from both CFJ’s pace and Brad Meltzer’s photos-and-card-table process. Even better, Robinson uses the turmoil of CFJ productively, treating it as a bad memory. The new Leaguers don’t want to wallow in it, or use its horrible dark-side mojo to wreak furious vengeance on their enemies -- man, I have been reading too much Robinson! -- but instead they are recognizing its implications and moving on.

Whenever DC announces it’s going to rethink/revamp/re-whatever the Justice League, I get a little queasy, because there really isn’t much to the group beyond its elite status. The idea of the “world’s greatest superheroes” is the fictionalized rationalization for a book starring DC’s most marketable super-characters, and it’s an idea which has been copied (if not outright parodied) in various diverse works. Now, to be sure, there are different ways to approach this idea. The ‘70s had a veneer of professionalism. Justice League International incorporated a lot of comedy. Grant Morrison’s League recognized its nigh-divine responsibility to the people of Earth.

For his part, Robinson’s League appears to be built on mutual interdependence. Specifically, it’s the notion that each member has been through enough in his or her career that he or she needs an environment of supportive colleagues, and by the way that environment also carries the ego-boosting prestige of the planet’s greatest superhero team. It’s the sort of thing which can be cloying and hokey, and thanks to a couple of familiar “no way am I being a superhero again” scenes Robinson comes close. Still, the spring in this book’s step (which was barely felt in Cry For Justice) helps sell the new perspective, as does Mark Bagley’s brighter, more energetic work. Without resorting to the usual multi-issue arc explaining their merger, Robinson has knitted together the team’s Titans, CFJ, and “Metropolis” factions fairly well. By way of introducing an upcoming group of villains (already known to us solicitation-readers), he even includes an intriguing interlude involving Revolutionary War-era characters Tomahawk and Miss Liberty.

Let’s be clear: I thought much of Cry For Justice was a hot mess, filled to bursting with stilted dialogue, stiff artwork, and haphazard storytelling. A good bit of Robinson and Bagley’s inaugural JLA arc, tying into Blackest Night, suffered similarly (although I liked Bagley’s work a lot more). This is different, and it’s better. It reads like the work of a team -- whether creative or super -- which is more than happy to put all the drama behind it and get on with the adventuring.

* * *

At the top of this post I mentioned a “fifty stories for fifty years” list, but all things considered I don’t know how fair it would be to compile one for the Justice League. Undoubtedly a significant part of my frustration with the book over these past few years has come from its problems with consistency and direction. Time was when the JLA changed only incrementally, and even then only every several years. The ‘60s belonged to Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky, the ‘70s were Dillin’s, and the first half of the ‘80s was all Conway. Heck, Giffen and DeMatteis lasted five years, and Grant Morrison and Joe Kelly each put in a little over three years. Therefore, a decade-by-decade list would likely end up dominated by these long-term creative teams. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it changes the way you look at the book. The basic idea may come from circular reasoning and mass appeal, so the execution makes the difference. Over the years, the League’s creative teams figured out how to keep the book running smoothly, giving it periodic tuneups whenever things got rough. As Robinson and Bagley start their run in earnest, they seem to have smoothed out the ride.

So here we are, fifty years and a month later, and what is the state of the Justice League? Cautiously optimistic, I’d say. JLA #41 waters the seeds of the spring’s Green Arrow arc, which means Ollie’s probably not long for the team. Mon-El’s membership is similarly temporary. That’s almost beside the point, though; because we know this lineup isn’t immutable. I’m encouraged not just by the book’s more sunny, can-do attitude; but also by the fact that Robinson and Bagley are crafting a story which is uniquely the League’s. This issue may come between Blackest Night and “The Fall Of Green Arrow,” but it’s not just a series of vignettes bridging that gap. For most of its fifty years, Justice League told stories -- even over-too-soon ones like “The Fiend With Five Faces” -- which sought to do right by the League’s roll call. Robinson and Bagley have a good lineup and they’re teasing an entertaining story. Here’s hoping they do right by the League.

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