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Skid Marks: The JLA Effect

Written by Zenguru on Sunday, July 26 2009 and posted in Columns
Justice League of America.  The book that set the standard for all team books to follow.  So why doesn't it work?

Like a prairie dog, some opinions just won't stay in the hole.  So here goes.

 The Justice League is not the original team book.  That honor is held by the Justice Society.  But JLA is the one people usually think of when team books come to mind.  It's the book that teams up the best heroes in the line.  Or at least, the best available.  Ever-changing rosters have kept the book fresh in readers' eyes.  Members have been grouped according to popularity and power levels in order to barely edge out a victory over their foe.  Yet no matter how many times the JLA triumphs over Kanjar-Ro, Starro the Conquerer, Starbreaker, or Despero, there is one "foe" that no combination of heroes may overcome.

 That foe is The Editor. 

At the beginning, JLA was a grouping of DC's most popular heroes.  Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Flash, and Green Lantern.  With many others to follow.  But the original lineup composed what we've come to know as the Big 7 or Magnificent Seven.  The main icons of the DC Universe.

The stories were pure Silver Age.  Continuity was not as much in the forefront of DC's mind as it is these days.  The JLA could have an adventure with Adam Strange in one issue.  And, in the same month, Batman would be knocking out thugs in Gotham City.  Or Superman could be catching Lois Lane off the ledge of the Daily Planet.  No explanation was offered as to how all seven heroes could be saving the universe one second and punishing crime in their respective back alleys the next.

None was needed.  Readers back then didn't demand continuity.  They simply enjoyed the stories.  But through the years, continuity became more and more important.  Flashbacks from some writers prompted the necessity of a sequence of events from editors.  Events from heroes own books began to be referenced in JLA.

And then Crisis happened.  Fifty plus years of continuity was balled into one humungous mass and disseminated into various multiple universes.  Then balled up again into one big blob of continuity.  The happenings of several or more earths were bunched up into a single earth.  This was a quick way for DC to incorporate the Charlton heroes into their continuity after having purchased the rights to them.

But readers didn't understand that.  All they knew is that Batman now knew Blue Beetle.  Captain Atom could now interact with Firestorm.  But I'm getting away from my topic.

I've talked about changing rosters.  As some characters were added, some also left.  The Big 7 eventually mutated into perhaps the most loved league since:  The Satellite League.  This membership included much of the Big 7.  But now you saw heroes like Elongated Man, Red Tornado, Firestorm, and Zatanna.  The '70s were taking over.

For this era, continuity became a little tighter, but it was still not as rigid as it would one day be.  When the '80s came along, Aquaman (of all people) disbanded the league because most of the Big 7 (notably Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash) had other duties that needed attending to.  In other words, they had too much going on in their own books to be busy with appearing in JLA.  So Aquaman formed the Detroit League.

What was significant about this League was that no one in the book "had other duties that needed attending to."  Meaning this was the only book in which they were appearing.  And that made them relatively free from editorial edict.  The writer did not need to do as much collaboration with other editors.  He didn't need to call the editors of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman, yadda yadda to see if it was all right if they did such-n-such thing in one issue.  With a lineup like Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Vibe, Gypsy, Vixen, Steel, and Elongated Man, a writer could pen adventures virtually carte blanche. 

But the continuity beast bit again eventually when the Justice League went international.  And not so coincidentally, right after Legends, the mop-up mini after Crisis.  The continuity vise squeezed yet a bit tighter.  Even though, DC's big guns were notably absent for the most part.  That gave the writers more freedom to take the League places they had never been before.  A new element was introduced to the World's Greatest Heroes:  Slapstick.  From then on, the mere mention of "bwah-hah-hah!" evoked images of Laurel & Hardy, Keystone Cop-like antics.  The likes of which your favorite heroes would almost certainly never take part.

Well, that League ran its course, of course.  DC decided to really take the League seriously by bringing in scribe Grant Morrison.  The noted writer of Doom Patrol and other Vertigo-like books of the day.  The Magnificent Seven would be making a grand return to the pages of JLA.  No more bwah-hah-hah.  No more revolving door membership.  No more satellites.  This League would go to the moon.

Continuity would bare its shiny teeth in this incarnation. 

If readers may recall, this is the mid-nineties.  Right after Superman came back from the dead, with a fashionable mullet to boot.  Right after Hal Jordan went buggo and tried to kill the remnants of the Green Lantern Corps and take over the universe.  Right after Aquaman's hand got gnawed off by some mighty hungry pirahna.  And right before Superman got that snazzy electric blue suit.

Now I enjoyed Morrison's take on JLA.  But raise your hands if you'd rather see him write a JLA with Hal Jordan and Barry Allen in it.  Raise your hands if you'd rather have had Superman look like Superman.  Raise your hands if you'd rather have an Aquaman that didn't look like he belonged in an undersea sex club.

This incarnation ran its course, too.  A lot of continuities were eventually ironed out during the book's run.  And membership managed to include most, if not all, of the Magnificent Seven for the rest of the title's run.  But no one can tell me that Grant Morrison was not frustrated even a little bit.  He wanted to write the World's Greatest Heroes.  But for some (meaning me, and perhaps others) the bulk of his run came off as a bad '90s hodge podge.

Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed Morrison's run.  I just happen to believe it was overhampered.  By things happening in his book and all the other adjacent books.  Morrison's purpose was clear.  He started out with good footing.  But he got tripped up in a tanglewire, perhaps, of clashing personalities.

 This is only an assumption on my part, but let's look at something here.  Morrison did not write every single issue of his run.  There were frequent guest-stints by Mark Waid and others.  That could have been because Morrison's stories deserved an intermission of sorts between them.  Or his hassles, personal or professional, kept him from keeping his run on an even flow.  Whatever the reason for those guest-stints, they did disrupt the flow.  And the personality switch from Morrison to Waid and back served only to confuse this reader as to the title's ultimate purpose.

The current JLA title restarted in grand fashion with Brad Meltzer at the helm.  The idea of DC's Trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman being the motivating force behind the JLA was pleasing.  The Magnificent Seven was pared down to the Big 3.  Continuity was as tight as ever, but that didn't seem so bad.  Membership was not as revolving as it used to be.  Some stories focused only on a few members at a time.  I began to think this was the right way to do things on this book. 

But Meltzer could not stay forever.  And the carte blanche he apparently had would not extend to the next writer.  And with yet more changes to core members (Superman going to New Krypton, Dick assuming the Bat-mantle) the title seems to be floundering a bit again. 

A ray of hope does seem to be shining in the form of James Robinson, though.  His mini, Cry for Justice is setting the tone for his upcoming reign.  Confirmed members appear to be Hal Jordan, Dick Grayson, Mon-El, Vixen, and Donna Troy.  Again we have a JLA painted by the brush of continuity.  But Robinson is no slouch.  And unlike the departing and interim writers, he apparently has some clout with editorial.  So I'm encouraged to follow this ray and see how far it shines.

Now that that's done, wasn't I supposed to write about something else?  X-Crossovers?  What?


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About the Author - Zenguru

Zenguru has been an Outhouser since the days it was blue. He's the Rick Jones of The Outhouse. Not always in the mansion, but always around in a pinch. Just don't pinch too hard, okay? He's written a few articles, notably $k!d M@rks, and has published several books of poetry. Lately, he's been writing poems and fiction about diners. He's been reading comics since the mid-70's. He dreams of one day traveling between dimensions to be Jonah Hex's sidekick.

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