Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Justice League Detroit - No Place Like Home

Over the next few weeks on a Tuesday, I'll be working my way through the Justice League of America titles from 1985 to 1987, trying to work out if the Justice League Detroit era really was as bad as we think it was. Why am I doing this? Why the hell not.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #246 - #250, written by Gerry Conway with art by Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray.

As we come out of the Crisis crossovers seen last week, it's been over a year since the new League was formed. The old guard had handed over to them, they'd started to come together against a powerful old League enemy and had managed to survive the Crisis. True, some readers were still vocal in their dislike but others were supportive.

It seems odd, then, that the first captions of #246 are these:

Conway seems to be admitting the Detroit League are not "the World's Greatest Heroes" and that those old guys might come back; his words could be taken as agreement with those who have been arguing that Vibe, Steel and the others are not worthy to be the JLA. Perhaps after a year of negativity, he's beginning to bow to pressure which might explain the next few issues.

While this iteration of the League will forever be known as Justice League Detroit, it's perhaps odd to note that with #246 the League are actually kicked out of the bunker headquarters by a repentant Commander Steel who claims to be doing this for their own good. By evicting them, he's forcing the team, and particularly Steel, to stand on their own two feet. The team say goodbye to their neighbours and Dale Gunn and jump on a plane to New York and, in a conversation between J'onn J'onzz and Zatanna, there's more than a hint of despair:

That's how to bolster confidence in the team and/or readers, Gerry!

Luckily, the team have one member, Vixen, who owns a penthouse in New York and it's there that they re-group and work out what to do next. What they appear to do is split up, starting a couple of sub-plots that will run throughout these issues but, more importantly, reinforcing the perception that the League is no longer a team.

Gypsy invites herself to stay with Vixen in the penthouse, "be like sisters" and "go to parties" with her. Elongated Man and Sue will be house-sitting for some cousins in the suburbs - Westchester to be exact which Ralph describes as boring; I wonder if that's a sneaky jibe at the X-Mansion? Zatanna has a place in the Village which she sublet to a friend, Sheri, and hopes she won't mind her returning three months earlier than expected. That just leaves J'onn, Steel and Vibe to find their own places but, as J'onn points out, even if they find somewhere to live, they will still need to earn money to pay the rent which means one thing: getting a job.

For J'onn that's no real problem. He takes on the persona of John Jones, detective, but can't get a job with the NYPD due to his apparent age; luckily a passing private detective pretty much hires him on the spot. Steel heads out to become an instructor in a gym before being talent spotted by a film producer while Vibe concentrates on finding a place to live first, without luck. Zatanna, meanwhile, is concerned about the apparent disappearance of her friend:

Hmmm, wonder what that pile of dust is . . .

While the hunt for accommodation may not go so well, a new headquarters is no trouble: they simply roll up to the original Secret Sanctuary and get things running again though they are unaware of something else that lurks in the shadows.

Another sub-plot makes its first appearance in an interlude here as we witness an escape from the prison planet Takron-Galtos:

Back at the gym, Steel is finally swayed by the film producer to work as a stunt man while Zatanna begins hunting around for her friend Sheri, finally noticing the pile of dust and wondering if there's a connection. At the Secret Sanctuary, Gypsy lets her guard down while talking to Ralph and for the first time offers up a hint of her real background:

A moment later and we meet the lurker in the shadows of the Sanctuary as Vixen is attacked by an alien creature that spits out black flames, enveloping first her and then Elongated Man. Gypsy manages to evade its attack before striking back at it, revealing it to be little more than an infant:

Before we find out any more about the creature that Gypsy nicknames Junior, we get a glimpse of J'onn in his work as John Jones as he is framed for murder while tracking down a missing girl called Pamela. There's another interlude with our prison escapee who has returned to his home planet:

before we return to Zatanna and her hunt for her missing friend. Vibe's attempts to find a place are successful only for him to run into the local protection gang though he's more than capable of defending himself. Steel's stint as a stuntman is over as quick as it started when he loses his temper and attacks the lead actor, but at least he gets the number of the continuity girl.

At the Sanctuary, Vixen, Gypsy and Ralph attempt to examine Junior but it bolts, only to run into the returning Steel, J'onzz and Vibe. lashing out at them with the same black flames. Despite Gypsy trying to defend Junior, Steel knocks it out before a very unwell Vixen stumbles out to them:

As most of the League treat Vixen, Steel and Vibe attempt to get past Gypsy's emphatic defence of Junior and get it inside for testing. Despite having already been struck by it, Steel and Vibe attack with disastrous results:

As they wonder whether Junior is affecting their minds, it becomes clear that they're not alone in that thought:

Zatanna, meanwhile, is still hunting for her friend and calls in the services of one Mama LaRue who tells her that the dust found in her apartment is not, as suspected, the remains of Sheri herself but rather graveyard dust. It all adds up to someone new in town who Mama LaRue warns Zatanna against:

A witch who uses backwards spoken magic to fly finds it hard to believe in voodoo and black magic!

Sue Dibny turns up with a new outfit for Elongated Man, finding Gypsy and Junior on the way, moments before Steel and Vibe catch up to her as well. As they try to get Junior back to the Sanctuary, Gypsy collapses, looking as old and drained as Vixen does.

There's another interlude with our mysterious prison escapee who enters the Flame of Py'Tar in order to gain "wisdom and power beyond imagination." Anyone reading this issue at the time should have been in no doubt as to his identity when seeing the silhouette that enters the flame: that sideways fin could only really belong to one old League enemy, but let's play along and not name him for a moment.

Back at the Sanctuary, J'onn works out, with the aid of the computer, the origin of Junior: inadvertently brought to Earth by Superman following an old League adventure, it's an alien plant that feeds by draining the life force of those around it. As Sue and the others return to the HQ with Junior in tow, Sue finds the heroes drained and as Junior transforms from the tentacled blob into a humanoid figure, she reaches for the JLA alert just as she's struck down:

All of which leads to the 250th issue of Justice League of America which begins with the old League hearing the alert and, those who are able, responding to the call. There they find a restored Gypsy and the withered, drained bodies of her team-mates:

With information from Gypsy, Batman instantly takes charge and sends the old guard out to look for Junior while Black Canary is charged with getting the others to the sick bay.

Meanwhile, Zatanna's sub-plot of finding her friend comes to fruition as she discovers Sheri aboard a yacht which turns out to be a trap . . . for Zatanna herself:

The old Leaguers are succesful in finding Junior who is now a golden skinned man. As Black Canary treats Gypsy and the others, Junior attacks Batman and Superman leading to an interesting thought:

As this is now post-Crisis, Superman and Batman are not the best friends they were before hand, hence Superman's thought of "I may not like him"

A plan is thought up by Batman to restore the others to health. As Junior's body contains their life forces, they need a way to transfer them from Junior and back to the heroes. Cue a string of electrified cables across an elevator shaft connected to another cable held by Superman which will "feed the energy back through the Sanctuary's internal wiring up to the Medi-lab where, with luck, it'll rejuvenate the dying Justice Leaguers."

Comic book science at its best, my friends.

Still, the plan works and the Leaguers are restored and an impromptu celebration held. Obviously the question gets asked: will the old guys rejoin the League full time? The only one who is willing to do so, apparently at Gypsy's insistence, is Batman:

But even that appears to be for reasons other than those stated and which we'll touch on in a couple of weeks.

While the return of Batman is a cause for celebration, there's just time for the reveal of the prison escapee, now changed by the Flame of Py'Tar into:

From the beginning of this storyline, where Conway mutters that his League isn't as good as the old one, through the splitting up of the team members and the reappearance of the classic characters, there's a feeling that the Detroit League simply aren't that good and Conway knows it. Even the cover of #250 proudly proclaims "The triumphant return of the World's Greatest Heroes!" The threat the League faces in Junior is as weak as the Overmaster was in the first story arc but the fact that the old League were needed to overcome it merely emphasises how impotent the Detroit League are. Batman's return can be seen as a sop to the readers demanding the return of the classic line-up, again showing little regard for Vixen and the others.

What happened to the League that rescued Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash from the Russians just a few issues ago? By splitting them up and concentrating more on their attempts to find employment, apartments or missing friends, Conway plays into the hands of the detractors, giving them soap opera rather than superheroics.

The only glimmer of light in these issues is the return, transformation and reappearance of Despero.

Here's what readers of the time were saying:

Chris Robinson, Cincinnati (JLA #246)
See? Not everyone hated the League back then and someone else agreeing that a strong foe brings out the best in the heroes.

John Gerdes, Carbondale (JLA #246)
But not everyone loved them either. At the very least, it shows honesty in Alan Gold's choice of which letters to print.

T. T. Wiles, Roila (JLA #246)
In other words, T.T., quit yer whining!

Barry Reese, Hardwick (JLA #247)
Another positive response to the Amazo storyline.

Steve Wren, Chipping Norton, Australia (JLA #247)
But again, not everyone agrees.

Rand Lee, Key West (JLA #247)
Seriously, my friends, is there any other reason why any of us read comic books? Honestly?

Michael Thorner, Sarnia, Canada (JLA #248)
Not much love for Vibe's appearance in the Justice League of America Annual #3.

Mark Ryan, St Louis (JLA #248)
Really, Mark? You'd buy a foreign car? I thought Americans were genetically disposed against that sort of thing?

Mike Edmiston, Denver (JLA #248)
"Too scientific", Mike? You and I have differing definitions of "scientific" I'm afraid.

Charles D. Brown, Brentwood (JLA #248)
Can someone send a copy of Charles Brown's letter from 1986 to Dan Didio and Geoff Johns, please? That way we might be able to show that side-lining the Justice Society (whether after the Crisis in 1985 or in the DC relaunch in 2011) has never been a good idea.

Seth S. Bate, Fairview Heights (JLA #249)
Sorry, Seth - Olanda has never appeared since.

Kevin Lawless, Kansas City (JLA #250)
That's just what I've been saying in this very article, Kevin.

Mike Maloney, Malden (JLA #250)
So we can stop calling them the Justice League Detroit? Yeah, that's not going to happen.

Next time the League get to deal with their biggest threat: the return of Despero!

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