Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wednesday Comics: The Justice League of America!

Hey, Kids, Comics!

This particular comic-book is specifically responsible for me being the man I am today! I have The Super Friends and my good buddy Brian F to thank for it, too. Let me tell you a story....

In the fall of 1974 I would have been ten years old. The Super Friends were on TV and I loved them. I already knew who Superman and Batman and Robin were. I knew *they* had comic books but I hadn't really thought they were all that interesting (Curt Swan and Carmine Infantino didn't do anything for my ten year old sensibilities). When Brian brought this comic to school, though, I was floored. I had not realized that there was an entire universe above and beyond Superman and Batman!! I begged him to lend it to me. I then either bought it off him or told him I lost it and kept it...(sorry, Bri!) Either way, I tore out the subscription tag inside and wrote off to subscribe to this wonderful book. It was the first comic book I actually remember reading.
That started my love of THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA that I really haven't ever gotten over! They are still my favorite characters all interacting with each other; what's not to love?!

They've been around since 1960. They helped in some small part create the Marvel Universe. (As the story goes, the JLA comic was selling well, so the publisher of Marvel told some staffer named Stan Lee to come up with a group of heroes for Marvel. He ended up creating The Fantastic Four. And the rest as they say is history.) They are still the benchmark for all other super-hero groups, even though they were not the first (that honor goes to their friends the Justice Society of America). Thanks to cartoons like SUPER FRIENDS and JUSTICE LEAGUE most of them have high-profile mass media recognition.

Plus they're really, really fun.

I'm not going to talk on and on about how I love these comic characters. I'm just going to share a few of my favorite issues out of the 40 plus years that they've been published. Coincidentally, they are all several years old. Is it true that you never forget your first love? ;-)

Of course, I would be amiss if I didn't point that that there have been several incarnations of The Justice League over the years. My favorite was and always will be the *original* JLA started by Aquaman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Superman, and Wonder Woman. They later voted in Green Arrow, the Atom, Hawkman, Black Canary, the Elongated Man, Red Tornado, Hawkwoman, Zatanna, and Firestorm. This, to me, is the comic equivalent of Classic Coke.
I know that other eras have their fans, and I did in fact read most of them, but to me these characters these stories these comics ARE the Justice League of America.

The first 80+ issues have been collected in full-color ARCHIVE EDITIONS (such as Volume 7, shown here, with a cover by the artist I met at the Baltimore Con, Mr. John Workman)  and in black-and-white SHOWCASE editions. One or both should be available at your local library. Check them out! So without further ado here are some of my favorite issues, in chronological order:

JLA #59 is a representative story from the Gardner Fox era of the book. Mr. Fox was the first writer of the series, and as such created a lot of what became "iconic" about the book. Juggling a dozen characters or more in any given story, Mr. Fox would play up the plot to the detriment of characterization. The criticism most levelled at him is that all of his characters were interchangeable. To some extent that is true, but in his defense I can say that times were different then. Anyway, this is one of my favorites because 1. it features Aquaman and 2. it has the JLA overcoming IMPOSSIBLE odds to save the day and 3. it featured beautiful art by original JLA artist Mike Sekowsky. His art was, shall we say, unique? Sometimes I didn't care for it at all, but usually it was dynamic and fun. This was one of those times.

JLA #111 was the beginning of the issue I just talked about. Several years later I managed to track down a copy and BOY it was almost as good as its conclusion! It didn't feature the whole group, which was basically the only thing wrong with it. Aquaman had a huge part in the story as he fought off Flash foe Mirror Master and Batman foe Poison Ivy. Good stuff, Maynard! Plus it featured what ended up being my favorite art team: the late great Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano. What's not to like!? Note: several years ago I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Len Wien, the writer of these comics, and I got him to autograph them for me. You can see his name clearly on this one, as well as in silver (but nowhere near as clear) on the issue above.

JLA #122 featured the death of Aquaman. As a kid I thought he really had been killed...! (Yes, naive=stupid kid) I still get a kick out of how my favorite artist Mike Grell drew Green Lantern crying. I was also lucky enough to meet "Iron Mike" and have him autograph my copy on the bottom left of the JLA logo. You may also notice that there is a fold down the middle of the comic: for subscriptions they FOLDED the comics to mail them!! Sheesh.

JLA #139 featured two stories in one issue: the cover story was the concluding chapter of the JLA-Adam Strange team-up from JLA#138. This was okay, but the real action was the second story, which featured the million dollar debut of Steve Englehart as new "permanent" JLA writer. In this story the entire JLA (yes, all of them!) show up to fight a classic battle against several cold-based foes, with a surprising result. Mr. Englehart in his stories mixed the best of the Gardner Fox-Len Wein adventures with his own brand of characterization, making, to me, the all-time BEST ERA of the JLA. Plus this story features the last (?) JLA cover by super-artist Neal Adams. A definite classic. 

JLA #146 For several years this was my all-time favorite JLA issue for the simple reason that it features two of my favorite characters/members in starring roles. This is the issue that Steve Englehart really pushed the envelope about super-hero sexism when he, through Hawkman, had the members arguing about whether Hawkgirl/woman should be able to join the Justice League. Simultaneously, Red Tornado was apparently back fromt the dead for the second time. And, oh yeah, the Construct (that evil looking robot on the cover) was back to try to take over the world again. A lot happened in this issue, and at the end it was definitely established: Hawkwoman and Red Tornado were IN! 

JLA #192-193 This was the first JLA story illustrated by the great George Perez that I really, really liked. The Master had stepped in when the Great Dick Dillin had died suddenly, but that work was in the middle of a continuing story and the inker etc wasn't changed. By this time it was clear that Mr. Dillin's inker just didn't work well with Mr. Perez's style. So from this issue he got a different inker, Mr. John Beatty, and the art looked much much nicer. The story also was a long time coming: the final, true Secret Origin of the Red Tornado. And it doesn't hurt that Aquaman gets a few kick-ass scenes in this story, too. Although I never liked the idea of Firestorm in the JLA because he was not by their by-laws a "full-time super hero" (he was still in high school!) I have to admit that as drawn by George Perez he never looked better.   

JLA ANNUAL #1 is probably my all-time favorite JLA issue. Why?
Because it actually manages to use EVERY member of the team in ONE super-long story. They fight their old enemy Dr. Destiny (that's him with the skull face on the left) and his plot is so nefarious that it takes all fourteen current members* to defeat him! Art was beautiful, too. (*The role of Green Lantern was played by John Stewart, in one of his few appearances with the group before the JUSTICE LEAGUE cartoon. Hal Jordan was off in space or something so John stepped in to take his place.) 

JLA #217 Not only does this issue feature an iconic cover of most of the current members (no Hawkwoman, of course, geez) but it also features an Aquaman-centric JLA adventure by fantastic JLA artist Chuck Patton. Several issues after this the original JLA disbanded and was replaced by...well, another group of characters. This was one of the last really good stories before that happened. So in hindsight, it represents almost an end of an era.

JUSTICE #1-12 This is a recent story by mega-superstar artist Alex Ross featuring the JLA characters and their world. Basically, the story boils down to: what if the Legion of Doom (from the old Super Friends cartoon) really did try to take over the world from the JLA. It has some super-fun moments and also some shockingly violent moments as well, but if you are fan of these characters you owe it to yourself to read this story. Unfortunately, it hasn't been collected in a trade paperback yet. It is available in a hard-bound version though, so check your local library.
Check out that picture again. There's a reason those seven characters are in the forefront. They truly are The Magnificent Seven.

JUSTICE LEAGUE never died. DC has now re-started their series in the New 52 of DCU and I am reading them, of course. I hope Geoff Johns and Jim Lee can approach the same level of greatness that these older comics represent. Here's hoping!  

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