In the inaugural post of my new blog over at Marvel.com, I talked about being initially exposed as a comics reader (not as a video game player, toy buyer or general consumer of pop culture knowledge) to the X-Men in the backdoor manner of discovering them via the Kings of Pain crossover because I was buying New Warriors, and thus having the first roster I ever encountered consist of Legion, Madrox, Polaris and the rest of the Muir Island misfits who filled in while the real team was momentarily disbanded. I mused on how particularly as a kid the first impression you get of a comic book team is an odd thing and sticks with you even if you first “met” a short-lived and unremembered line-up, which certainly happened a lot in the 90’s.
Take the Justice League.
My actual first experience with the Justice League was as a very young kid when I would go to visit my friend Josiah and he had a big chest in his basement of probably around a hundred old comics he’d gotten from some older relative. They ran the gamut, but were mostly from the later Silver Age with a lot of DC’s, particularly lengthy runs of the Satellite Era Justice League of America. One of my first vivid comic book memories is reading the issue where the JLA fights Jonah Hex and a bunch of other time-displaced heroes who are being manipulated by The Lord of Time.
(Fun fact: It was also at Josiah’s house that I concocted my infamous homemade Flash costume which my mother took a picture of that she later blew up to a poster when I was 18 and has since made its way online if you look hard enough)
I didn’t become a serious comic book fan until the 90’s though, starting with Marvel, primarily New Warriors and the X-Men books. It was the Death of Superman that first got me curious about DC and it was via that storyline that I first came across a contemporary Justice League.
And they got their asses kicked in the first issue of their book I purchased.
Shortly before Superman got killed off, the guy who committed the deed—not Doomsday—writer/artist Dan Jurgens had just taken over Justice League America (“of” was not very 90’s, hence why Legion of Super-Heroes never saw the success it did in the prior decade). He brought Supes in as team leader—a big deal since in that post-Crisis On Infinite Earths/pre-Infinite Crisis period Superman had never been part of the League, his Silver Age stints retroactively wiped out—to a group that included then-mainstays Guy Gardner, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, Fire and Ice, as well as reformed villain Maxima and supposedly all-new character Bloodwynd (spoiler alert: it was Martian Manhunter with amnesia and the most 90’s name this side of X-Treme).
A comic book neophyte, I had no exposure to the glory days of Justice League International and thus no clue why Guy, Booster, Beetle, Fire and Ice were on the team. I had no idea who Maxima and Bloodwynd were. Having read those old 70’s issues and just knowing the big DC heroes via cartoons and lunchboxes and whatnot, Superman was the only guy on the team who made any sense to me, yet he was treated like an odd fit and about to die anyhow.
As I mentioned, this team was not long for the DC Universe. They were served up as cannon fodder to Doomsday in order to demonstrate how badass he was (which as you might imagine didn’t work for me as I was totally unfamiliar with the characters and thus unimpressed that he whooped a guy in bug goggles and girl with green hair). Before all was said and done, Beetle was in a coma, Booster’s power-providing gear was shredded, Fire burned out her abilities and Ice got traumatized into retirement.
Just as soon as I had been introduced to the Justice League, they were shuffled off. The next issue, a new team debuted, led by Wonder Woman—who, remember, like Superman had never technically been in the League before, so this was a big deal—retaining Guy, Maxima and Bloodwynd, then adding Agent Liberty, Black Condor and The Ray. This configuration was also short-lived, with Liberty and Condor taking off after an arc and being replaced by the returning Beetle/Booster/Fire/Ice quartet as well as Captain Atom. As Zero Hour drew near, the Judgment Day crossover came and went, paving the way for consolidation of the various Leagues—there was a Justice League Europe/International as well plus a Task Force led by Martian Manhunter after the Bloodwynd thing ended—for the Gerard Jones era I wasn’t too high on and ended up jumping off of.
The funny thing is it didn’t drop my jaw when the first X-Men I saw was a guy with a Mohawk instead of Wolverine. Likewise it didn’t seem unusual that “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” as far as Marvel was concerned were The Black Knight and Sersi when I started reading comics. I was aware of Marvel, sure, and that’s where I started as a fan, but I had residual sense of how things were “supposed to be” gleaned from cultural osmosis. If the comic I was reading told me that Scott Lang was Ant-Man and also kind of in the Fantastic Four, then I took that at face value, because it was all I knew.
It was different with DC. Whether it was the Batman TV show from the 60’s or Super Friends or coloring books or actions figures or just the old comics from Josiah’s basement, I had a pre-formed opinion of how the DC Universe was supposed to be, and when those Justice League stories didn’t deliver what I was expecting, I felt oddly betrayed. Not by the creators or company, but by the characters themselves. How dare Batman not have time to spend away from Gotham? What the heck were The Flash and Green Lantern doing hanging out in Europe? Did Aquaman seriously have conversations to hold with fish that were more important than fighting Despero?
When I returned to reading comics around 2000, Grant Morrison had brought the Big Seven back to the JLA and all seemed right with the world. Likewise, thanks to Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s work, I now understood that being an Avenger was a bigger deal than Crystal and Deathcry would have had me believe.
It’s somewhat ironic that the current Justice League line-up is closer to the one I grew up reading than the Satellite/Morrison team—and the New Avengers at least aren’t far off from the Bob Harras-penned team I followed in my youth in terms of relative A-listers—but now it seems far more like these quirky teams exist when a creator sees potential, not simply because the characters they really want are preoccupied.
In other words, Aquaman may have snubbed the Justice League 20 years ago because he was playing with his hook hand, but now James Robinson won’t return his calls! Eat it, Sea King!