Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Justice League Detroit - Passing The Torch

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? Why the hell not.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #237 - #239 written by Gerry Conway with art by Chuck Patton and Mike Machlan.

When Jason Todd took over from Dick Grayson as Robin, readers didn't much care for him and we all know how that ended up. Tim Drake, though, was embraced from the outset and the most oft-cited reason for that is that he had Dick Grayson's blessing.

With the introductory arc over (see last week) the new League was coming to terms with itself, the members beginning to gel as a team though there was still plenty of work to be done. However there was one thing that still hadn't been addressed: most of the old League were there when Aquaman disbanded it but where have Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash been?

#237 starts with Vixen and Aquaman discussing the fact that his wife Mera has recently left him, giving us an insight as to why he's been acting like such a jerk recently. But the whereabouts of his three former team members has also been weighing heavily on him. As luck would have it, his old friends turn up at the remains of the satellite headquarters pretty much on cue.

It's worth mentioning here that Superman and the others missed the whole of the Earth/Mars war that precipitated the new League's formation because they were off on Earth-2 having an adventure with the Justice Society. Returning to Earth-1, they're puzzled by the evident destruction of their old HQ (which was ruined during the interplanetary war) and while investigating find a spy satellite drifting through the rubble. Attempting to investigate it, Superman triggers a self destruct but that's hardly going to stop him, is it?

One quick reassemble later and Wonder Woman's able to deduce that it's of Soviet Russian design. Leaping to conclusions, the three heroes head to the USSR in order to find out whether the Russians had anything to do with the destruction of their own satellite. While the heroes try to be nice, the Russians attack first and ask questions later.

Despite Superman saving the pilot of the plane and Wonder Woman asking to be taken to their leader (no, really, she actually said it) the Russians send in a decidedly unmilitary looking fellow with a familiar looking keyboard which produces a unique effect:

And within moments, two of the strongest superheroes on Earth (and Flash) are captured by the Russians.

The League had tracked them to Russia but, of course, had no idea why they were heading there so Steel, along with Elongated Man and Dale Gunn, elect to visit Steel's grandafther who has connections in the CIA. This is the first time we get to interact with Henry Heywood since the new League came together and his extreme views about the membership of the team quickly reveal he's not a willing ally.

Steel joined the League at Heywood's demand but with the inclusion of Vibe and Gypsy (both of whom have criminal records) Heywood feels it may be better for Steel to either join another team or to strike out on his own. Needless to say it's not something Steel's interested in doing though picking his grandfather up and hurling him through a window may seem an over-reaction. Heywood, though, is unhurt and apparently "weighs a ton", hinting at something unusual about him.

Back in Russia, the League come face to face with their captor, a rather run-of-the-mill general who wants to take over Russia and is willing to use the death of the Leaguers as an illustration of his power.

For all of Heywood's misgivings, it's revealed in #238 that his CIA contacts are able to furnish the League with the location of the captured heroes and, not surprisingly, they head out to rescue them. On the way, though, the question of how the Russians were able to capture them is raised which allows for some meta-commentary on the new League from Steel:

Hindsight may be skewing my view here, but does that sound like writer Gerry Conway taking a swipe at negative press to you?

There's a brief interlude concerning General Maksai who's after Vixen's power source before we rejoin the League who come under fire as soon as they enter Russian airspace which leads to a revelation. J'onn J'onzz and Zatanna leave the League's ship to deal with the Russain planes, and upon their return, Vixen pretty much throws herself at the big Martian.

There's a whispered conversation between Zatanna and Elongated Man where Zatanna admits that despite her best attempts, she cannot bring herself to like her new team-mate.

During this time, Superman, Wonder Woman and Flash have been trying to escape, aided by an old enemy of the League, Anton Allegro, who had also ended up as a prisoner of the Russians. It's revealed that it was his keyboard the Maestro had used to imprison the heroes in the previous issue. Just as the escape attempt is foiled by the Russians, the new League arrive and attack:

Needless to say the League trounce the bad Communists until Maestro starts playing that darned keyboard of his again. Just as the tide turns, Allegro steps up and smashes the musical weapon but is then killed in turn by the Russian general. In anger, Gypsy discovers she can project a mental image into his mind, causing him to breakdown.

Despite Allegro's death and the Maestro still being at large (although with a damaged keyboard) the League pile into their plane and head off back to the bunker where, in #239, a long overdue conversation takes place between the new League and the old. Aquaman explains his decisions to disband the League due to a lack of commitment on the part of the more senior members and despite some initial reservations, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash have to admit that they agree with him and his decision.

There's a nice little throwaway scene at the end of this where, according to Aquaman, Superman and the others have been missing for three weeks but from their point of view they've only been gone a couple of hours. And, to make it worse, Flash has been on trial over the last couple of weeks while they've been missing! The Martian Manhunter posits that they've jumped ahead in time from when they should have returned due to "a growing disturbance in the space-time continuum" which leads to a plug for Crisis on Infinite Earths!

One farewell later and we're soon back with Vixen and her confrontation with General Maksai, her step-uncle who killed her father. Maksai forces a meeting which Vixen is all too ready to go to when Aquaman once again steps over the line and this time J'onzz calls him out on it:

The ramifications of this confrontation have to wait for future issues as the rest of #239 is taken up with Vixen and her battle against Maksai which ends in the villain's death.

These three issues are a changing of the guard - the old League gives the new its blessing, asking readers to give the new guys a chance while admitting that things may be different. Conway's strength is in the character scenes rather than any of the action which is rather staid. Aquaman's behaviour and attitude is still at the forefront and while Mera having left him may provide a reason for his actions, it does not excuse them. Zatanna's outright dislike of Vixen comes a little out of the blue as only a couple of issues ago they were out shopping together while watching Vibe breakdance. Steel's extremist grandfather and why he "weighs a ton" are thrown in as mysteries as well.

It's a bit of a mixed bag but suffers from a lack of any real threat, the same as the introductory arc. While infighting and confrontation is necessary to encourage interaction between the characters, they need something to bring them together, a common focus that they can fight against, but it's not apparent here.

With the time delay between comics being published and letters about those issues appearing, I thought it was worth looking through the reactions to the new League from fans of the time:

Donald J. Riling, Jr, Seattle (JLA #237)
See, it wasn't all bad!

Eric Jones, West Lafayette (JLA #237)
One of an eleven point "Street Dictionary" Eric provided for Gerry Conway.

Susan Murrie, San Diego (JLA #238)
Wha' chu meanin', Susan? Chu cold!

Jeff Gibbs, Middlesex, England (JLA #238)
Jeff Gibbs and his oddly prescient notion of introducing newer, fresher versions of established characters.

Donald G. Shelton, Nicholasville (JLA #238)
A "fad" Donald? Breakdancing? You mean it didn't last longer than a year or so?

Michael Pickens, Utica (JLA #239)
And you thought massive over-reaction and hyperbolic comparisons were only invented by the internet, didn't you? A line-up change in a comic book team is akin to the betrayal of Christ.

Adam Burchess, Greenville (JLA #240)
At least Adam waited until Rebirth was finished.

Adam Burchess, Greenville (JLA #240)
Hey, Dan Didio and Geoff Johns - we didn't want those pesky kids in the mid 80's reading our comics and we don't want them now!

Adam Burchess, Greenville (JLA #240)
Savage She-Vibe #1 - soon to be announced as part of the DC reboot / relaunch! Come on - you know you'd buy it!

Andrew Hoberek, Burgettstown (JLA #240)
And a little balance just to finish up.

Next time, the League faces off against an amazing android.


  1. I think you hit on the major problem with the introduction of the Detroit era: extorted "blessing" and a lack of continuity. In "A Lonely Place of Dying," we saw the end of Batman's downward trajectory as a solo vigilante, recalled the need for a Robin, introduced a solid replacement, and had the predecessor size him up before giving the nod. Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash had been m.i.a. since before the Earth-Mars War, were still a.w.o.l. for the annual, were dumped into an unrelated filler arc, disappeared again for "Rebirth," and finally returned as something of an afterthought. They were then jobbed by Keytar Czar and unduly impressed with the Detroit kids taking out a bunch of regular human soldiers. Besides Steel's metatextual browbeating, the Satellite Era trio were clearly patronizing a critical readership in what reeked of a retroactive backdoor pilot to sate the bloodlust of the mob.

    The smart thing to do would be to a) not create Vibe or Gypsy (or at least revise them heavily before publication and b) have the trio turn out to have been captured by the Cadre. Instead of building Overmaster up for four issues before having Gypsy play Toto to his fraud of a Wizard of Oz, retain his gravitas and have the new guard save the old for a team-up. That way, the turks prove their mettle and have a worthwhile adversary for repeat usage, and the heroic trio have a more solid excuse with cause to truly respect the kids.

  2. Seeing Zatanna so distraught because a leaguer used their power to mind-control somebody is pretty amusing in light of later retcons...

  3. Frank - I like the idea of the Overmaster having captured the original League members rather than the boring Russian general. It would at least have made the Overmaster a threat.

    Snell - ha! Wish I'd thought of that!


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