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Justice League battle Dr. Light and wind up in outer space

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA:
from the classic sixties comic books to "Justice League Unlimited" on Cartoon Network, you can't keep these heroes down! The enduring appeal of the "world's greatest heroes" as they go from one "super-star spectacular" to another!

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Brave and Bold # 29 -- 1st appearance of Justice League

 JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA  

First there was the Justice Society of America, which appeared in All-Star Comics in the 1940's. This group consisted of several of DC's (Detective Comics) top heroes including Green Lantern and The Flash teaming together to battle major menaces, such as the InJustice Society and many others. By the mid-fifties, readers had become less interested in super-hero characters, and most of these titles were canceled or changed, with the exception of old stalwarts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. At the end of the fifties the powers-that-be thought it might be a good idea to bring some of these characters back to bolster the Big Three, and in special comics with titles such as The Brave and the Bold and Showcase new versions of the aforementioned Green Lantern and Flash were introduced to the comics-reading public. When it was apparent that reader reaction was very strong, it seemed a natural idea to reintroduce the Justice Society, only now it would be a Justice League, featuring not only the second string super-heroes but also the Big Three – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman – for added sales appeal. The Justice League of America was introduced in The Brave and the Bold # 28 (Feb. 1960) and comic books were never quite the same.

Their first opponent was an outer space menace called Starro the Conqueror, a huge flying starfish with great visual potential (the cover portrays The Flash running up one tentacle even as the other heroes grapple with the other tentacles). After two more appearances in The Brave and the Bold, the Justice League was given its own title in October of 1960, which featured the villainy of three-eyed Despero, forcing Flash to play chess for the lives of the league in “World of No Return!” Most of the JLA stories were written by Gardner Fox, who would frequently divide them into groups and have them tackle different aspects of a menace before regrouping for the big finale. The artwork was by Mike Sekowsky, a master of composition, who could take a dozen heroes and often as many villains and combine them in highly eye-appealing configurations in each panel; his work was both vibrant and cinematic. Each issue would have the JLA caught in some fantastic doom-trap: Shot into the air by anti-gravity in “When Gravity Went Wild” (#5/the cover scene only occupied one panel in the inside story); spun around on a “Wheel of Misfortune” in issue # 6 (inspired by a similar Justice Society story and cover); transformed into fun-house mirror grotesques in issue # 7 (“The Cosmic Fun-House”); or slowly turned into trees in issue # 9 (“The Origin of the Justice League”). One of the cleverest covers of all time showed the league members growing out of the tips of a villain's fingers in “The Fantastic Fingers of Felix Faust” (# 10).

Along the way there were stories that really did live up to their hype as “super-star spectaculars.” Issue # 12 featured the first appearance of Dr. Light as he not only led the group on a merry chase for ancient relics and monuments across the globe but also doom-trapped them on several alien planets. “Riddle of the Robot Justice League” in issue # 13 (my personal favorite) had the JLA fighting for the very future of the earth against robot duplicates of themselves in outer space. This main plot was sandwiched between opening and closing segments depicting the league fighting various super-villains in a story that today would have been stretched out over several issues. The Atom was indoctrinated into the league in issue # 14, “Menace of the Atom Bomb,” which not only had a memorable doom-trap (the atom is put into a bowling ball filled with an explosive gas and rolled toward the JLA standing like ten pins at the end of an alley), and featured a gallery of interesting arch-foes, but also unmasked the main villain as – Batman! It turned out Batman was under the control of the same Amos Fortune who invented the aforementioned Wheel of Misfortune.

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JLA vs. Tornado Tyrant -- great cover!
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The Justice League goes on strike!
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Menace of the
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Fantastic Fingers of Felix Faust
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one of the JLA's most striking concepts
Justice League in Cosmic Funhouse
Justice League in Cosmic Funhouse
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Riddle of the Robot Justice League
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Origin of the Justice League of America
JLA # 9 presented origin of the group

     A memorable annual tradition was initiated in issues #21 – 22 when the Justice Society came out of retirement and traveled from their alternate earth to ours (and vice versa) so that they could interact with the JLA and battle each other's villains. The second annual JLA-JSA adventure (# 29 – 30) introduced the evil Crime Syndicate of Earth-3, with characters that resemble Superman (Ultra Man), Batman (Owl Man), Wonder Woman (Superwoman), Flash (Johnny Quick) , and Green Lantern (Power Ring). [Forty years later these same villains are to be featured in the current issues of Justice League of America!]

The JLA underwent quite a few changes over the years. They ran for several hundred issues, which ended with most of the members being replaced by more relevant, hipper – and less interesting -- younger heroes in a Detroit setting. The JLA was then restarted with a new first issue and most of the same old heroes, although it soon degenerated into a parody comic book which had its amusing aspects but was too self-consciously (instead of charmingly) silly. Many new characters of widely varying effectiveness were created or added to the group. These comics were popular, however, and created such spin offs as Justice League Europe and Justice League International, which were a little more serious at times. These, too, were eventually canceled, and the series was started all over again, this time told straight, but with so many different artists, writers, and directions over the years it has had trouble maintaining any kind of consistency. Still, the comic remains popular.

Meanwhile on television, the Cartoon Network introduced a rather excellent series entitled Justice League. An uneven, but quite classy cartoon show for kids of all ages, the series was lovingly presented by obvious fans who knew all about the rich history of the league (in fact, most children probably couldn't appreciate how carefully the writers of the series “borrowed” concepts and characters from stories originally published in comic books decades before they were born). Of course, not every episode was memorable, but some were remarkably excellent, including the JLA's battles with the Secret Society of Super-Villains; a battle in the past against the sinister and ancient Vandal Savage (guest-starring the Blackhawks); a story involving a plague that would kill off every man (and only men) in the world; and a show entitled “Paradise Lost,” which featured a genuinely thrilling battle between the JLA and demonic forces under Wonder Woman's Paradise Island. “Legends” introduced a new group of heroes, The Justice Guild, which turned out to be the materialization of a boy's fantasies on a dead planet. One episode featured a more ruthless version of the JLA from an alternate time line, and another had them interacting with the evil Darkseid and other characters created by artist-writer Jack Kirby in the 1970's.

This wonderful show has recently been replaced by a new series entitled Justice League Unlimited, which is a dumbed-down and disappointing new showcase for these great characters. JLU features dozens of heroes, so many that it's impossible for the viewer to form any kind of attachment to any of them, and some stories focus on forgettable characters such as Hawk and Dove. None of the stories that have aired so far this season are especially noteworthy, and they aren't drawn and directed with as much panache and skill as the Justice League series. Let's hope that there's some improvement over time. {UPDATE: There has been improvement on JLU, which has recently featured some excellent episodes. These include a two-parter starring The Atom and his arch-enemy Chronos; a battle royal between Superman and Captain Marvel; an attack from the deadly Doomsday; and a story wherein Task Force X invades the Justice League satellite, among others. Good show!}

Whatever happens on Cartoon Network, the Justice League of America is still going strong in the comic books, and undoubtedly will continue to do so in one form or another for many, many years to come.

-- William Schoell


Justice League and individual members copyright DC comics.

All comics reproductions from privately owned collection.


JLA vs. evil Crime Syndicate
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1st appearance of the Earth 3 Crime Syndicate
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First teaming of Justice League with J. Society
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JLA # 107
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The Crime Syndicate returned in 2004 - 2005

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GRAPHIC NOVEL: JLA Rock of Ages.
 
This trade paperback collects the stories from the series JLA [only the initials were used for the title of this particular Justice League series] # 10 – 15, originally published in 1997 and 1998. “Rock of Ages” is an involved six issue story line wherein Lex Luthor leads the Injustice Gang (Joker, Mirror Master, Circe, Ocean Master, Dr. Light) on another attack on the JLA. The story takes place when Superman was in his blue energy form, and minor characters like Aztek were JLA members. As Luthor attempts to wipe out his enemies, some of the members of the JLA wind up in a weird place called Wonderworld where giant Gods dwell. After this they are transported to the future where their minds inhabit the bodies of their older selves. Darkseid has taken over the Earth and our heroes are told they must prevent the JLA from destroying the powerful Philosopher's Stone that is in Luthor's possession, although its destruction seems mandatory, if they are to prevent this dreadful future from occurring. Unlike the Justice League of the sixties, these characters are more dimensional but also more unpleasant, squabbling with one another and projecting attitude to spare. Grant Morrison's script and story are inventive and absorbing. Howard Porter's pencils (inked by John Dell for the most part) are not as impressive, but the cluttered panels do manage to pull one into the story well enough.

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BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN. The other members of the Justice League, including Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Captain Marvel, etc., play a big part in this stylish if imperfect adventure, the sequel to Frank Miller's Dark Knight. In a horrible future world where the president is only a computer image, Lex Luthor holds the bottle city of Kandor hostage, preventing Superman from striking out against him and pitting an angry, driven Batman against the Man of Steel, whom he mistakenly sees as traitor, wimp, or both. A fast-moving, entertaining mini-series by Frank Miller, not as “heavy” nor grim as the original, but the flippant, occasionally “campy” technique -- and the rather obvious satirical material (nude newswomen and bimbo superbabes on TV) -- used to tell the story sometimes gets in the way. [There are some moments of gratuitous ugliness, such as a reference to how Arkham asylum inmates eat their hostages, including visiting students and “the day care center.”]. The Batman's young female assistant, in a ludicrous cat costume, helps release many of the Justice League members from captivity so they can help in the Good Fight. A great touch has Ray Palmer, The Atom, unknowingly imprisoned in a petri dish where he has to fight for his life against “gigantic” lower life forms. The artwork is often effective and exciting, although it is also largely crude and devoid of genuine eye-appeal. In a series of semi-erotic full page panels, Superman and Wonder Woman have a notable sexual encounter in space. SPOILER ALERT: An embittered Dick Grayson turns out to be a savage antagonist of Batman's in this.

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Tales to Astonish. Ronin Ro. Bloomsbury.
 
While most people expect there to be all sorts of internecine quarrels behind the scenes of, say, an opera company or sitcom set, they may be surprised at all the squabbling that goes on behind the scenes of a comic book company. This highly entertaining and readable book, ostensibly a biography of Jack Kirby, documents the heady early days and troubled later years of Kirby, his frequent collaborator Stan Lee, Marvel Comics, and the other firms, including DC Comics, that they, especially Kirby, were also involved with as time went by. With Joe Simon, Kirby created Captain America back in the Golden Age of Comics during the forties. In the sixties, he and Lee collaborated on such characters as The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The Avengers, The X-Men, and many others. Kirby became disillusioned, then enraged by the perception that Lee – which he felt Lee fostered -- was the sole creator and writer on these various strips, when Kirby did much of the plotting and creating himself. Eventually Kirby left Marvel for rival DC Comics where he created his own “Fourth World” of comics characters such as The Forever People, Mister Miracle, and The New Gods – but DC Comics was dissatisfied with the books and canceled them prematurely. (Ironically, The Fourth World proved a major influence on the Star Wars movies and most of Kirby's characters, particularly the villainous Darkseid, are now a big part of the DC Comics Mythos.) It was also noted that Kirby's books suffered without the deft scripting of Lee, whose contribution to the Kirby-Lee comics could not, in truth, be underestimated. Still, Lee got too much of the credit as far as Kirby, and many others in the comics industry, felt. Ro's book is full of fascinating details such as how Kirby and Lee disagreed vehemently on the direction taken by the character The Silver Surfer, who had a brief popularity, and the way that DC Editors had another penciller replace Kirby's drawings of Superman's face so that the image would conform to the accepted version of the Man of Steel. While it is utterly ludicrous to compare Kirby to the likes of Michelangelo(!), as one person does, this book makes clear that he was an extremely talented and very influential artist whose imagery and style has resonated throughout the comics industry for generations and will undoubtedly continue to do so for many years to come. -- William Schoell.
 
NOTE: Collection of Kirby-drawn comics covers below.

Kirby co-created Captain America and Red Skull
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classic Kirby cover re-introducing Captain America
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First issue of Kirby's NEW GODS
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Kirby's FOREVER PEOPLE
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CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN Archive Editions; Volume One. DC Comics.
 
This hardbound volume collects the adventures of the Challengers of the Unknown, drawn by sole creator Jack Kirby, from their first appearances in Showcase in 1957 and the first two issues of their own magazine. The premise of the series was to present four brave men, tops of their respective fields, who “cheat death” by walking away from a plane crash that, frankly, no one should (or could) have survived. No, they're not dead, but they do decide, since they're living “on borrowed time,” to take on any challenge no matter how dangerous, risking death on a continual basis. (Of course most people in their situation might run from dangerous situations, figuring their luck couldn't possibly hold out.) The Challengers' adventures were culled from popular science fiction and monster flicks, among other sources, and always had a certain colorful panache. The stories in the three issues of Showcase were written by Dave Wood, while Kirby himself took over the writing chores for the first two issues of their regular magazine, which each featured two stories instead of one full-length adventure. “The Human Pets” in Challengers #1 is a harrowing tale wherein the heroes try to escape from a towering alien child of tremendous size who wants to keep them for pets. [This may have influenced a similar story on The Twilight Zone, not to mention the TV series Land of the Giants.] Kirby's work is generally quite good (if sometimes rushed and unspectacular) and “Ultivac is Loose” in Showcase # 7 features some particularly dynamic penciling from the artist. The story concerns a giant rampaging and misunderstood robot; when he's turned into a big computer console at the end you almost feel sorry for him. “The Menace of the Ancient Vials” in Showcase # 12 features giant crooks (as in the Doc Savage novel "The Monsters”) and a slithery sea monster called a kraken. Frankly, Challengers of the Unknown was neither a great nor a trend-setting comic book, but for kids of all ages it was fun, chock-full of monsters and maniacs. -- William Schoell

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Monster Masterworks
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Challengers take on Ultivac
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Monster Masterworks
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Challengers versus the dreaded Kraken
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The incredible FIN FANG FOOM

MONSTER MASTERWORKS. By Lee, Kirby, Ditko and Ayers. Marvel Comics trade paperback. This volume reprints stories originally published in the fifties and sixties and reprinted in the late sixties and seventies in such titles as Where Monsters Dwell and Where Creatures Roam. For some strange reason the table of contents lists the reprint title as where the story first appeared instead of the original title, which can sometimes be gleaned at the bottom of the splash page (possibly because the plates where re-used from these reprint titles). Most of these stories appeared in the twilight era between the golden age and silver age when super-heroes had temporarily faded in popularity and science-fiction/horror/monster comics were all the rage. Most of Stan Lee's stories borrow heavily from popular movies of the period, but occasionally he strikes gold, such as a story in which a magic typewriter brings an author's monstrous creations to life; and a tale wherein ancient Aztec “three-dimensional” paint is used to depict on canvas a god-monster which also comes to life. Perhaps the best story is “Titan, the Amphibian from Atlantis,” in which a gigantic, intelligent sea creature looks for an earth traitor to give away all of the world's defense secrets, and a businessman named Cartwright volunteers. Cartwright's name lives in infamy from that moment onward, although the world little dreams that far from being a traitor he “volunteered” to help Titan simply so that he could feed him misinformation, for which he pays the ultimate price. While many of the stories are common, silly retreads of typical monster movies, Lee's heroes aren't generic, but suffer from all manner of woes and insecurities. They aren't always admirable. One dopey guy swallows a potion to make himself bigger to impress his girlfriend, turns into “I am the Brute that Walks,” and after going on a rampage, simply tells everyone that he “defeated” the monster after he changes back into human form. The smart, brave hero of “Fin Fang Foom” is a young Chinese man who releases a gargantuan dragon from his eons-long sleep so that he can defeat the Red Chinese Army and then has a hell of a time getting the intelligent talking beast back into his cavern. (Many years later the dragon Fin Fang Foom appeared in a memorable series of Iron Man stories, which recounted his origin, and introduced a whole slew of dragon monsters from space.) Steve Ditko drew a couple of the tales in this volume, but most were penciled by Jack Kirby, whose work is often dynamic and effective. The monsters are sometimes ludicrous, but often impressive – Fin Fang Foom is certainly a bizarre wonder to behold! Lots of fun, and much more interesting than you might expect. -- William Schoell

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Entire contents copyrighted 2004 - 2005 by William Schoell and Lawrence J. Quirk, except for items written by other authors, in which case said authors retain the copyright of their work . Opinions expressed by individual authors and reviewers are not necessarily the opinions of High and Low NY.