The Best and Worst Justice League Lineups of the Past 50 Years!
After months of anticipation, this Wednesday finally sees the launch of the new DC Universe with Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League #1! Over the past 50 years, DC’s premier super-team has gone through multiple incarnations, from the powerhouse that battled against ancient gods from beyond the edge of the universe all the way down to a team of rookies battling evil in the heart of Detroit through the power of breakdancing. So today, as we all get ready to see how the new group stacks up, I’m heading into the back issue boxes for a look back as ComicsAlliance Ranks The Best, Worst and Weirdest Justice League Line-Ups of the Past 50 Year
Way back in 1940, someone at National — the company that would later come to be known as DC Comics — had the bright idea of taking all of their most popular super-heroes and putting them in one magazine, and in the process, they created the Justice Society of America. Twenty years later, well after the JSA had worn out their welcome and shuffled off to wait for their inevitable return, a (mostly) new crop of super-heroes had come to prominence, and DC decided to revive the concept, but with a new name that would call to mind all the senses-shattering heroics of your dad’s bowling team: The Justice League of America! A team of mighty heroes who came together because of a telepathic starfish from space.
The original line-up that debuted in The Brave and the Bold #28 consisted of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter and Aquaman, who was presumably involved solely because the story involved a starfish, yet somehow managed to inexplicably hang onto membership for the next five decades. I’m pretty sure if you go back and read those stories, there’s one where they try to kick him out, and he starts yelling about how they’ll be sorry if they have to fight another telepathic space-fish, and how likely that scenario was in the Silver Age DC Universe. It’s the only explanation I can come up with.
The roster would later expand to include other heroes like Green Arrow and the Atom, which gave the creators, Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky, the challenge of thinking up things that could present a viable threat to both a guy who could withstand an atomic blast, lift planets and shoot lasers out of his eyes, and a guy with a store-bought Robin Hood costume who was pretty good at aiming things.
The solution, which of course seems obvious in retrospect: Space-Chess and the creeping communist threat of labor unions:
Regardless, the team was a hit, and created an undeniable legacy, both as DC’s most prominent team and as the first (and for the next 30-odd years, only) super-hero group to ever be based out of Rhode Island.
By the end of their first decade, the League relocated to — as a truly incredible number of caption boxes would point out over the next 14 years — a satellite in geosynchronous orbit 23,300 miles above Earth. The reason? At this point, the roster had gained so many new members that, as shocking as it might sound, they had actually outgrown Rhode Island.
In addition to the members that had already been established, the larger roster included:
Green Lantern John Stewart, occasionally pinch-hitting for Hal Jordan when he did things like fall in the shower and knock himself unconscious, which happened with alarming regularity for a guy with a magic wishing ring on his finger.
Firestorm, who was actually two people who were joined together with the power to alter molecular structures and qualify for the car pool lane.
Zatanna, the backwards-talking spellcaster who, at this time, had ditched her beloved top hat/bowtie/fishnet stockings attire for a more generically super-heroic ensemble that involved wearing a snake on her head for reasons I have never been able to understand.
Black Canary, who had taken up the burden of being the Justice League’s resident fishnet stocking enthusiast after commuting from Earth-2, setting off a series of retcons that would eventually re-establish the character as her own daughter after Crisis On Infinite Earths.
Hawkman and Hawkgirl, early in their career when they only sort of didn’t make any sense.
The Elongated Man, who had stretchy powers and solved mysteries, most of which could’ve been accomplished just as easily without the use of stretchy powers.
And for some reason, Red Tornado, the worst robot ever, who sucks in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
Seriously, Red Tornado is just awful. It takes a lot to make me hate a character who is a robot who went back in time to punch Hitler, but when he spent the rest of the ’70s sitting around a satellite crying — actually crying! A robot! — then that’ll do it.
And if that roster’s not enough, this era of the Justice League was also the one that was mostly marked with the annual “Crisis” team-ups from across DC’s Multiverse, including the Freedom Fighters, the New Gods, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and most prominently, the resurrected Justice Society:
With that many characters to work with, the creators figured out that the best way to tell stories was to break the team down into smaller teams in each story, pitting them against multiple threats at once that could be tailored for two or three characters at a time. It became the Justice League’s trademark move, and provided some pretty awesome stories that still stand as one of the high marks for the team.
Even if they did involve Red Tornado.
By the mid ’80s, the overpowered, unstoppable heroics of the Satellite Era had fallen out of fashion in favor of more youth-oriented, soap-opera style teams like the Teen Titans and Marvel’s X-Men. As a result, the decision came down to ditch most of the big-name characters and relaunch it with a new cast, led by…
…Aquaman! Because that’s who the kids are into, right? Aquaman? They were also relocated from the satellite to what was thought to be an easier location for the kids to relate to: Detroit. As if that city didn’t have enough problems without a gang of third-string X-Men knockoffs running around.
In addition to ol’ Fishsticks up there, Zatanna, the Martian Manhunter and the Elongated Man stuck around, but the focus was on the new team:
Vixen, who was a fashion model by day, because when I think of high fashion, I think of two things: One, the haute couture runway shows of Detroit, and two, bright red Wolverine haircuts. She could channel the powers of various animals, and was unquestionably the breakout star of the book, returning to the Justice League on a few occasions and going on to be featured in both the Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoons in recent years.
Gypsy, a purple robot who controlled the higher functions of the Satellite of Love teenage runaway who could turn invisible and constantly looked like she was on her way to the RenFaire.
Steel, who was… I don’t know, a robot, maybe? Seriously, no one has ever cared about this guy, and I’m not about to start now.
And of course, Vibe, a Puerto Rican gang member and breakdancer who had the power to vibrate things, a character concept that I think you’ll all agree has withstood the test of time.
The Detroit League has often been blasted for being one of the low points in comic book history, but is it really as bad as its reputation? Yes. Yes it is. But at the same time, it is pretty notable for having one of the best Justice League stories ever, a four-part saga that featured Batman and revitalized long-time Justice League foe Despero in Justice League of America #251 – 254. It’s actually really good — as evidenced by the fact that two subsequent creative teams, including relauncher Geoff Johns, revisited in sequels — but believe me, it’s the exception.
All right, stop me if you’ve heard this one: In an effort to attract new readers, DC restructured their universe and put together a bold new team for the new era of the Justice League! The more things change, folks.
Anyway, the first time that happened was in 1987 in the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and like the Detroit League, the goal was to build a new team that could exist without a lot of the A-List characters. The difference, though, was that instead of creating an all-new roster, Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire built their League mostly out of pre-existing characters that weren’t getting a lot of attention elsewhere:
In addition to Batman and the Martian Manhunter — the one constant in the League from 1960 to about 2005 — the new League had a roster that took full advantage of the new playground provided by the streamlined DC Universe:
Black Canary was a new version of the character, Crisis having split her into the older woman who teamed with the Justice Society back in the ’40s and her young daughter who was on the League in the present. See how much less complex that is?
Captain Atom had previously been owned by Charlton Comics, whose characters were acquired by DC and folded into the DCU thanks to the Crisis, a time-lost military man with atomic powers and very, very shiny skin.
Blue Beetle was in the same ex-Charlton boat, having been created by Steve Ditko in 1966 as a legacy character, but it was in this book that pretty much defined him by forging comics’ greatest bromance with..
Booster Gold, a time-traveling glory-hound who roped Blue Beetle into his get-rich-quick schemes that at on point involved founding a super-powered resort island frequented by villains. He’d been created by Dan Jurgens a few years earlier, but with his solo series ending in early 1988, the League (and the partnership with Blue Beetle) fit him like a glove.
Green Lantern Guy Gardner, who was also virtually defined by this run as the obnoxious loudmouth that GL fans love and everyone else tolerates.
Mr. Miracle, a master escape artist from the planet Apokolips and one of the legendary Jack Kirby’s greatest creations who was once mistaken for dead when an android simulacrum was killed after he was kidnapped by an interplanetary traveling salesman.
Captain Marvel was a part of the team briefly as evidence of DC’s smoother universe; before the Crisis he’d been on a parallel world called Earth-S with the rest of the Marvel Family characters DC’d acquired from Fawcett Publications.
Fire and Ice, formerly of DC’s rarely seen Global Guardians, whose powers are pretty self-explanatory and who provided readers with just as much subtext as Booster and Beetle did.
And Rocket Red, a new character created for the International era, an extremely friendly, likeable Soviet Russian soldier in a suit of awesomely chunky power armor that looks like it was built to look like an Apple IIe (and probably was).
The book was a hit, and after two years it split into two comics — Justice League America and Justice League Europe, giving even more characters a shot at being revived into the bigtime. The European branch saw Animal Man, an all-but-forgotten ’60s character who had been revitalized by Grant Morrison, Metamorpho, another semi-obscure ’60s character who had recently made a comeback in Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo’s Batman and the Outsiders, and Power Girl, who needed a new origin after the Crisis and ended up with something that was somehow even more complex than being Superman’s cousin from another dimension.
The International era is commonly remembered today for the sitcom-style comedy that Giffen and DeMatteis infused with the book, but while it certainly had that, there was plenty of action, too. This is, after all, a comic that named a fictional country after a character from a Mel Brooks movie (Bialya) and then had that country’s comedically inept leader get violently killed in a takeover by a super-villain who would later return to break up the whole team.
It wasn’t just a funny book, it was a comic that proved stories could be action-packed and funny, and still turn out great.
The ’90s brought with them a new style in comics that hit the Justice League and its attendant Task Forces pretty hard. There wasn’t any more time for the jokes and fun of the International era — that day was over. And now it was time to get Extreme.
Thus: Extreme Justice, a thankfully short-lived spin-off of the main Justice League title that’s notable for a) being one of the most stereotypical comics of the era, right down to the fact that it hit in ’95, when everyone was starting to get sick of comics that looked like this, and b) being one of the absolute worst comics I have ever read.
The new lineup featured Booster Gold in an awesome suit of Power Armor, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and some other characters nobody cares about, but in the interest of keeping everyone informed, I think this panel just about sums it up.
Yeah, I’d say that anatomy is definitely “remarkable.” Probably not in the way they meant, though.
Fortunately, once things hit rock bottom with Extreme Justice, they were ready to be built back up again, which is exactly what happened when Grant Morrison and Howard Porter relaunched the team as JLA.
Huntress, a Mafia princess turned vigilante, brought into the League by Batman to learn how to be a hero without shooting people in the face with a crossbow.
Zauriel, an actual Guardian Angel who came to Earth because he fell in love with the woman he was guarding and was recruited to fill the important role of “the guy with wings.”
Aztek, a warrior with mystic super-technology designed to allow him to fight the shadow god Tezcatlipoca. He was created by Morrison and Mark Millar in his own solo title, but in typical League fashion, joined up when that book was canceled, eventually finishing out his arc pretty spectacularly.
Steel, the brilliant scientist and super-powered weapons designer who was inspired by Superman to fight evil with a suit of armor and a giant hammer.
Big Barda and Orion, of Jack Kirby’s New Gods.
Plastic Man, who used his shape-shifting powers in slightly more unscrupulous ways than Elongated Man, like, say, turning himself into a dress for Barda to wear. Just goes to show, if Batman vouches for you, you’re in.
It was a pretty high-powered team, and Morrison and Porter (along with fill-in writer Mark Waid) delivered the kind of high-stakes stories that kind of a team demanded. In one story, the League fights the Injustice Gang led by Lex Luthor and the Joker and Darkseid across two different timelines all at once, and in Morrison’s final story, everyone on the planet Earth gets super-powers and goes off to space to fight a god-killing sentient computer from beyond time named Mageddon the Anti-Sun. That’s a pretty tough act to follow.
Of course, with comics being comics, it had to be followed eventually, and after the end of the Morrison/Waid era, writer Joe Kelly and artist Doug Mahnke were tapped to follow it up.
The quality of Kelly’s run is a subject that has very nearly pushed the ComicsAlliance staff into drunken fistfights at the San Diego Comic-Con, but for me, there’s no room for discussion on whether or not the new additions to the League were terrible.
Major Disaster (between Batman and Superman in the image above) was a reformed super-villain who changed his life after Superman gave him a stern talking-to during Kelly’s run on Action Comics. Back in the ’90s, a crossover called Underworld Unleashed saw him gain a new set of powers that involved manipulating causality in a way that was really visually interesting, but that was completely ignored during his time in the JLA in favor of talking about dropping meteors on people.
Manitou Raven (top right) was brought back to the present after a bit of time-spanning nonsense that saw the JLA hanging around ancient Atlantis for a while. His entire presence in the book was one long, torturous set-up for a scene where he said “Inuk chuk!” and grew ten stories tall. See, because it’s like Apache Chief from Super Friends.
Faith (bottom left in the purple and white) was maybe the worst character of all time.
Okay, that last one might require a bit of elaboration: Faith was brought in as part of a replacement league formed to find the time-lost JLA, a new character cast as a “secret weapon” Batman had been keeping in his metaphorical back pocket all these years in a pretty transparent attempt to get her over with fans because hey, Batman said she was cool.
This was the pattern of all of her subsequent appearances, which pretty much just involved everyone talking about how super awesome she was and referring to her as “The Fat Lady,” because when the fat lady sings, it’s over. Except that her powers don’t have anything to do with singing, and I’m not sure that she ever actually used them. Unless her power was an extremely subtle telepathic command to make everyone talk about how great she was to have around, which would make her the most insidious villain in JLA history.
Admittedly, it’s entirely possible that she did use her powers at some point in the book and I just missed it. My eyes glazed over about the second time they dropped that “Fat Lady” joke on us, and the next thing I remembered was three years later.
The league got its most recent relaunch in 2006 with a tribute to the Satellite era that I call The Table League, because the first three or four issues of the comic were all about Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman sitting around a table talking about which heroes they should have adventures with instead of actually going on those adventures.
It was worse than it sounds.
One of the big hooks when the book was announced was that you’d get to see the characters Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman chose for their League, but it turned out that — surprise! — some stuff happpened that brought a bunch of heroes together, so all the table discussions were a moot point anyway. Especially since the lineup ended up being exactly who you’d expect it to be, with the addition of Red Tornado…
… and Red Arrow:
Truly, a force to be reckoned with.
So after five more years of a fluctuating lineup that saw heroes coming and going as they were involved in various crossovers, finally ending with its most recent iteration that stars Jade (the daughter of the Golden Age Green Lantern), Donna Troy (a character with the most unreadably complex backstory in comics), and Congorilla (a gorilla), that brings us to the present and the new team:
The approach here is pretty clearly a streamlined, back-to-basics approach — so far back that Wonder Woman lost the pants she was sporting for a hot minute, it seems. The major new addition comes from Cyborg, upgraded to the League from his slot on the Teen Titans, whose built-in cannon seems to have inspired quite a bit of jealousy from Green Lantern. Seriously, that dude looks hell bent on reminding everyone that he can make as many guns as he wants.
As for how they rate against the others, that remains to be seen, but it’s a solid group of characters that tend to work well together in terms of personality and powers, and who already have a place in the wider pop culture thanks to movies, cartoons, TV and the highly regarded ouvre of John Wesley Shipp. These are unquestionably DC’s most popular, most prominent characters.
Seriously, you cannot get rid of that guy.