The Comic Book Origins of the Justice League

From America, the team went international, crossed genres, but eventually returned to its roots.
DC Comics

This month's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will lay the groundwork for the (arguably overdue) cinematic debut of DC Entertainment's Justice League — an Avengers-esque collection of superheroes that predates Marvel's collective by some years, and has gone from being the flagship of the company's comic book line to laughing stock, and back again.

The first Justice League of America story appeared in 1960's The Brave and the Bold No. 28, but the roots of the team stretch far further back — the League is an update of the Justice Society of America, the first superhero team in comic book history, which debuted in 1940's All-Star Comics #3. Unlike that earlier group — created as a framing device for an anthology title intended to promote the solo series of the group's members — the Justice League was a full-on team that worked together to take on a number of menaces too great for each individual hero to take on.

And what a group of heroes they were! Initially teaming seven of the publisher's most successful heroes — well, six and the Martian Manhunter, to be blunt — the lineup of the Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Superman and Batman was soon joined by a succession of newcomers: Green Arrow, the Atom, Hawkman and the Black Canary signed on within the first decade of the series, with far more following. Unlike Marvel's Avengers, the initial incarnation of the League didn't change lineups, per se, for the first 24 years of its run — it simply kept adding members, until the Justice League looked more like a Justice Legion.

The concept, which quickly moved from The Brave and the Bold to its own series (Justice League of America was launched just months after the team's debut), was a smash hit, with its success prompting publisher Martin Goodman to tell then-neophyte editor Stan Lee to think about creating a superhero team, a direction that led to Lee and artist Jack Kirby creating Fantastic Four, which launched the Marvel line of comic books.

At DC, however, Justice League became overshadowed by newer, more successful team books like New Teen Titans and Marvel's X-Men, leading to writer Gerry Conway and artist Chuck Patton making a bold move in 1984: dropping all but four members of the team — including all of the big names — and replacing them with a group of all-new teen characters in an attempt to ramp up the soap operatics and give the series a shot in the arm. The "Justice League Detroit," as fans would call the group (after the location of the group's new headquarters), wasn't enough of a success, and in 1986, after 261 issues, the Justice League of America series was canceled.

(Fans of the CW's Arrow and The Flash series should note that Vibe was one of the new characters created for this era of the series, and Vixen was another member of the team during this time.)

The cancellation didn't last long; a new series — called initially just Justice League before being retitled Justice League International with its seventh issue — was launched within months of the end of Justice League of America, and offered a take on superheroics that was very different from anything else on the market at the time. Under the guiding hand of writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, the new Justice League was … well, silly.

The new series was a sitcom, playing up the inherent ridiculousness of the genre as far as it could without breaking the characters for other creators; as a reaction against the uber-seriousness of fan-favorite contemporary works like Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, it quickly found enough of an audience to result in a number of spinoff series, including Justice League Europe, Justice League Quarterly and solo series for members Mister Miracle and Doctor Fate.

That take faded in time for the speculator market boom of the 1990s, which saw comedy be replaced by a new self-consciousness that perhaps explained new spinoffs with titles like Extreme Justice. Unfortunately, this wasn't enough to convince readers to stick with the franchise, and the primary title — now renamed Justice League America — was cancelled a second time in 1996 with its 113th issue.

Again, this cancellation was temporary; five months after the end of Justice League America, DC launched JLA, a repositioning of the core concept that restored the original members for the first time in over a decade and offered large scale superheroics with no apologies; threats included alien invasions, fifth-dimensional magical beings and an attack by the forces of Heaven itself. Once again, the initial run of issues captured the imagination of readers, leading to a number of spinoff series (Martian Manhunter, Hourman, a JSA series featuring a revived Justice Society), before settling into a slow, steady decline in sales.

The core Justice League series has since been relaunched twice — 2006's Justice League of America Vol. 2, and 2011's Justice League, the latter part of DC's line-wide New 52 reboot — but the legacy of JLA's back-to-basics approach has stuck: each of the subsequent relaunches has ensured that a core of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is present, usually with Green Lantern and/or the Flash, and the tone has been one of grand adventure and epic superheroics.

That would appear to be what will be on offer in the movie version of the concept, with a team featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. While details about the movie remain under wraps — and are likely to do so until far closer to its late 2017 release — fans should pay close attention to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for teases as to who the team will be facing, and what to expect in terms of plot. 

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