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A Lifetime of Superhero Comics — 1982 — Justice League of America 200
In which I discuss value for money propositions, pseudo-religion and geosynchronous orbits.
Written by Gerry Conway
Pencils by George Perez (and friends)
Cover date: March 1982
Warning: spoilers for the issue follow
Part of the value proposition of superhero team comics is a superheroes/dollar spent. To my way of thinking as an eleven-year-old, this was just sound comic book sense. If you get a team book, you don’t get to just see Superman in action. Or Batman. And you don’t even have to settle for a Superman/Batman team up. You can get all kinds of heroes in the one story, many of whom aren’t Superman or Batman at all!
It should probably come as no surprise that for an established DC fanboy such as my younger self, my preferred superhero team at this age was the Justice League of America. The JLA was, after all, the team that contained the aforementioned Superman and Batman. And Clark and Bruce were still my favourite superheroes. I was a superhero traditionalist in this sense.
(Actually, as I’ve previously revealed, my favourite version of Superman was Superboy. But it was near impossible to find comic books that featured Superboy and Batman in action together. (But only near impossible. Because this is comics, and in an infinite DC universe, everybody teams up with everybody else at some point or another.) Mostly, however, if I wanted Superboy team books, I needed to delve into the futuristic superhero team book set in the 30th Century, The Legion of Super Heroes. But I’ll talk more of the Legion, appropriately enough, in the future (although, hopefully, we won’t have to wait a thousand years until we get to them).)
Apart from the Legion of Super Heroes, I was also dabbling with The Teen Titans and The X-Men around this time. But it was mostly just dabbling. When it came time to actually hand over my limited pocket money funds in exchange for actual comic book entertainment, then the JLA were always difficult to go past.
You might think that, as a wee Australian boy, the ‘of America’ bit might deter my enthusiasm for the team. But such American jingoism never worried me. I was used to their cultural dominance. Most of the sitcoms I watched were from the USA (with a smattering of British shows mixed in), as were the action TV shows. There were Australian alternatives, but the American ones were more plentiful and typically of higher quality. Could the adventures of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo really compare to Knight Rider or The A Team or even Manimal? Answer: obviously not.
No, the ‘of America’ bit of ‘Justice League of America’ was fine with me. (Later, however, more inclusive editorial teams at DC would look to appeal to international readers who were less easy-going about such matters. The Justice League of America would become the Justice League. Then, shortly thereafter, Justice League International. Then Justice League: America (to distinguish from Justice League: Europe, both of which were subcategories of Justice League International). Then just plain old acronymified JLA. And so on and so forth. Which is fine too. Whatever makes the most people happy, I guess. It’s just a name. And we’ll get to some of these variants later.)
But of all the comic book stories associated with all of the JLA name variants, Justice League of America 200 was, and is, my favourite. There were obviously other tales I reread over and over as a youngster. The crossovers with the Justice Society of America were also favourites. (The JSA were the JLA counterparts from Earth-2, which, if you’ll recall, was where the original versions of Superman, Batman, et al — the ones who adventured during the 1940s and 1950s — were deemed to live.) Because if a superhero team book was appealing to eleven-year-old me, a team-up of superhero teams was that much more appealing.
But issue 200 was even more beloved than the JLA-JSA crossovers. “This is it!” the cover bellowed at me. “The super-sized, star-studded 200th issue of Justice League of America.”
Not that the words on the cover were the first thing you saw. Or, if they were, there was something deeply and fundamentally wrong with you. Because the cover was a hypnotic wrap-around piece of gorgeousness from artist George Perez showing the various members of the JLA fighting with one another. Superman triumphantly lifted an unconscious Hawkman above his head. Wonder Woman had Zatanna tied up in her magic lasso. The Atom dived in to smack Green Lantern in the jaw. And the Flash had punched the rubbery Elongated Man so hard that his head flew all the way across the front cover into the back cover where the other heroes continued the fight. Firestorm and the Martian Manhunter were squaring off. Aquaman was trying to wrestle Red Tornado to ground. And Batman was preparing to pounce on Green Arrow and Black Canary. A stunningly beautiful cover. One I defy any eleven-year-old to resist.
(I would later discover that the JLA comics that were most beloved to me from this time were pretty much all drawn by Perez during his relatively brief run on the book. The Teen Titans books I occasionally dabbled in were also drawn by Perez. He (along with John Byrne over on the X-Men) set a baseline standard of artistic quality that I would only much later realise was an impossible standard for other artists to match.)
The extra-sized story within the wraparound cover was just as much fun as the cover itself. From the moment J’onn J’onnz — the at-the-time obscure Martian Manhunter — showed up and beat the snot out of Firestorm, we were away.
The J’onn-Firestorm fight fulfilled the promise of the cover. This was to be a series of Justice Leaguer v Justice Leaguer battles. And the prospect of this was thrilling. At this stage of my comic book reading journey, I was only dimly aware that heroes fighting one another was a classic trope. Because while it may have been a classic trope over at Marvel, where mistaken identities and other petty misunderstandings pretty much always justified fisticuffs between superheroes before they realised their mistake and teamed up to etcetera and so forth, over in DC where I tended to reside, things were much more civilised. Superheroes simply fought with one another much less often. They’d usually skip to the team up bit whenever they met. Y’know, like grown ups do.
But not in JLA 200. The first seven chapters of this book were a series of one-on-one battles between the brainwashed original JLA members (J’onn, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman) and the new members (all the others).
What made this even more of a celebration of the history of the book were the different art teams for each of the chapters. I had zero appreciation for the reputations of the artists on each of these one-on-one battles at the time. But I would later learn that these were artists widely considered as greats. Artists who had defined the interpretation and look of the classic versions of these heroes that formed the original JLA. Gil Kane on Green Lantern, Carmine Infantino on The Flash, Jim Aparo drawing the Phantom Stranger and so forth.
From an adult perspective, I can appreciate this as yet another ingenious way of celebrating the history of the JLA in this anniversary book. As a kid, I just found some of the art a bit weird and not up to the standard set by Perez.
Indeed, the only artist who I liked as much as Perez turned out to be the least experienced of them all. Brian Bolland’s chapter, in which Batman defeated both Green Arrow and Black Canary, was one of his first pieces of interior art for DC, and contained some images so iconic that I use them as iPhone backgrounds to this day. (Bolland was wonderful, but was too slow an artist to do all the art required for a monthly book. This meant that, with rare exceptions — *cough* The Killing Joke *cough* — he would go on to do mostly just beautiful covers for DC. But we’ll get to Animal Man in a few months’ time.)
Bolland’s more detailed artwork appealed to my eye far more than the more stylised drawings of the others. (I would grow to appreciate different styles of art over the years. At this point, however, I was a simple lad who wanted the most ‘realistic’ art possible.) But regardless of my unsophisticated assessment of the artistic merits of each chapter, the story itself rollicked along thrillingly.
We had the seven brainwashed original JLA members each searching for their individual MacGuffins — buried meteorites from the origin story of the JLA revealed all the way back in the ninth issue of Justice League of America. While recovering their rocks, they successfully fought off the newer JLA members who were trying to prevent them from gathering the rocks.
(Even as a child, I found much humour in the fact that Gerry Conway could write a scenario in which pretty much every old hero successfully defeated their newer counterpart, except for stupid old Aquaman, who, as always, was a dud. Captain Fish-Head could only defeat Red Tornado with assistance from The Phantom Stranger. Mysterious assistance, of course, because The Phantom Stranger provides no other kind of assistance.)
Anyway, once the seven brainwashed original members gathered together all their MacGuffin rocks, those rocks hatched and rebirthed the seven monsters from the JLA origin story. There’s some pseudo-scientific gibberish explanation for this that includes post-hypnotic triggers and DNA sampling. But it’s not important. The point is that the aliens that brought the JLA together in the first place are back on Earth to wreak havoc and it’s up to the JLA to stop them again.
A rematch with the original foes of the JLA is a perfect way to celebrate the team’s history. And even though, in the greater scheme of JLA history, I was a relative newcomer to the team — one who was only just hearing about these horrid aliens for the first time, in fact— I wholly bought into the nostalgia.
Because this time around, the aliens went on to defeat the original members of the JLA, before heading off to fight one another to decide who would rule their home planet or something. (The details of the aliens’ goals are, as always, unimportant. All we needed to know was that they were up to no good — one of them was made of mercury, for goodness sake! That’s not safe.)
Luckily, however, we weren’t just mired in the nostalgia of the original members and their original fight with their original enemies in their original origin. We were also celebrating the growth of the JLA over their two hundred issues. And so, upon regaining consciousness, the original seven members reconvene with the newer members to go stop the aliens, a feat they accomplish (spoiler!) without too much difficulty.
To further celebrate the Justice League, Perez draws a double page spread of the full team heading off into battle. Conway even takes a sly shot at The Avengers here, pointing out how the JLA has no need of a battle cry (eg, ‘Avengers assemble!’) because they’re too remarkable a team for such trivialities. It’s a fun dig, albeit one that was too subtle for my eleven-year-old, non-Avengers-reading self.
Sly digs or not, I loved this two-hundredth issue celebration of the JLA. These heroes were my pantheon. People who prefer Marvel comics often claim that it’s because they’re just ordinary people who happen to have superpowers as opposed to the godlike heroes of DC. But that rationale was exactly why I preferred DC. I loved the godlike heroes of DC. The raw power appealed to me in ways I can’t fully explain.
It’s possible that, in a way, the godlike heroes of the DC universe were substitute gods for me. I know that by the age of eleven, I’d already decided I was an atheist. (Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, this was also around the time where I was no longer being sent to Sunday School for religious education. It only occurred to me many years later that my mother stopped sending my brothers and me to Sunday School shortly after the death of her mother, a much more religious woman than her. There are dynamics between mothers and grandmothers that small boys don’t always fully understand.)
So I didn’t really believe in God. If I wanted fantastical stories about an all-powerful being determined to save humanity, then why settle for a single nondescript Judeo-Christian God? No, I’d take multiple all-powerful beings in colourful costumes, thanks very much.
The similarities between God and the JLA weren’t limited to their raw power either. This era of the JLA is today remembered fondly by fans as ‘the satellite era’ of the team, so named because the JLA operated from a satellite that was in geosynchronous orbit around Earth. (The JLA satellite was always described as being in ‘geosynchronous orbit’, which, as a result, became my favourite kind of orbit.) These heroes looked down upon the ordinary people below them and offered salvation from the various crises that befell them each month.
Even Batman fighting alongside the rest of the team felt kind of Biblical. Jesus was, according to my understanding, God made flesh — for all practical purposes, a mere mortal. And Batman, too, was just a man. It didn’t make a lick of sense for him to hold his own alongside Kryptonians and Amazons and space cops with magic wishing rings. But he did so anyway. To my way of thinking, this made Batman even more impressive. He was able to build himself into a god — or, at the very least, somebody who could stand beside the gods. Didn’t that say something gloriously hopeful about humanity’s potential?
Obviously, I wasn’t consciously thinking about any of these concepts at the time. The pseudo-religious appeal of the JLA was something that only occurred to me much, much later. But maybe we all need something fantastic and larger than life to believe in. And if you don’t believe in God, then an all-powerful superhero team who gets into thrilling adventures every month will suffice.
Or maybe it was something far less grandiose than these theological pontifications. Maybe it was all just economics again. If comic books were a value for money proposition, then I wanted the biggest battles you could get. And the biggest battles were tussles between the all-powerful. I wasn’t into comic books for their relatability. I knew superheroes didn’t exist. I was into superhero comic books for their action. As long as the heroes’ powers were consistent then they could be as powerful as they wanted to be. I didn’t relate to Superman. I didn’t relate to Batman. Heck, I didn’t even relate to JLA ‘mascot’, Snapper Carr. I just wanted stories of these amazing characters fighting equally amazing foes each and every month.
And Justice League of America 200 had delivered. “This is it!” the comic book had promised. And my eleven-year-old self agreed. As far as comic book superhero action went, this was definitively it.
Next month: Just a lot of animals.