HEAT VISION

'Justice League of America' Writer Dissects a Year of Storytelling

Justice League of America - DC Entertainment - H 2018
Courtesy of Ivan Reis/DC Entertainment
Steve Orlando looks at how his series transformed DC's heroes.

This week sees the release of Justice League of America No. 29, which ends the current comic book series — and the Justice League of America itself, as the group shifts its focus and becomes something else entirely as it heads into the future. (Don’t worry; DC Entertainment is relaunching the Justice League comic book franchise with the upcoming weekly Justice League: No Justice series, beginning next month.)

The transformation of the Justice League of America into the Justice Foundation was just the culmination of a series that combined traditional superheroics with a number of elements pushing at the boundaries of the concept, with characters including Batman, Black Canary and Vixen not only facing off against a number of superpowered villains, but also dealing with more abstract problems like criminal rehabilitation and community action along the way.

To mark the end of the series, Heat Vision talked to series writer Steve Orlando about the run, evolving the superhero idea and what makes a good Justice League story.

Justice League of America officially lasted 29 issues, although the actual figure is closer to 37 once you factor in the Rebirth prologues, the annual and the Doom Patrol crossover — it’s been just over a year of concentrated storytelling that’s at once been “traditional” in structure and surface, but also really addressing a lot of superhero tropes underneath. Was that always the aim?

Absolutely! With JLA, we wanted to return to that lightning-paced Silver Age style of storytelling that’s rich with fun, absurdity and ideas in every issue, on every page. At the same time, the world that Silver Age storytelling existed in has grown and evolved since its heyday; it's become better, stronger, more diverse and more thought-provoking. The 2017-2018 JLA had to grow and evolve to match the pulsing zeitgeist we're living in right now. We used that Silver Age storytelling to tackle the problems facing JLA's readers right now, and combated those problems with the same anything-can-happen wonder that was present at the birth of the Justice League of America. It's Gardner Fox  [original Justice League writer and co-creator] logistics in a Peak TV world that demands mature, progressive and electric storytelling at every level. Superhero tropes need to change with the world those icons are heroes to, and thus JLA was always going to be a book about evolving the superhero idea.

Let’s talk about the team lineup. Beyond the obvious Batman draw, the group was made up of a number of, well, B-level characters inside the DC comic book universe, albeit many with awareness outside of comics, thanks to their appearances in the CW shows: Vixen, the Atom, Killer Frost, even the Ray. Was that an intentional choice? 

Honestly, not really, with the exception of knowing The Ray was going to be getting a debut on CW Seed and could use all the energy and boost possible as a gay superhero breaking out into the cross-media world. JLA for me was always about continuing and building on the foundation started in the very first Gardner Fox series, which is why it was set in Happy Harbor (and why we eventually built to the reveal that Happy Harbor is where the concept of the superhero itself impregnated the Earth). The thought for me was more to enlist members that had been part of the team in past eras and return them to their rightful place on the Justice League, in the spotlight. This goes for Vixen, the Ray, the Atom, Black Canary, and of course Batman. Lobo and Killer Frost played different roles, but were both there to embody different facets of the core theme of the book: evolving the superhero idea.

Key to evolution, also known as a form of change? Concepts embodied by Lobo and Frost. Disruption (Lobo) and Redemption (Frost). We have to disrupt the system, and open ourselves redemption in order to grow as a society, so too did this Justice League, and superheroics itself. 

In that light, the final storyline in the comic, where the team meet the “God of Super-Heroes” — who gives the group his seal of approval, and sees his inspiration in their efforts — feels particularly important, because it implicitly puts an emphasis on the continuity of the concept. The heroes in this team are an evolution, not a revolution. There’s a throughline, instead of a diversion. That he’s saved by Ryan Choi, a character the villain dismisses as, essentially, not measuring up to the heroic ideal created by his predecessor, feels like you’re underscoring the idea, as well; the bad guys are the ones who can’t see the evolution, or see it as something else. Am I reading too much in there? 

Absolutely not! This has been a book about the next step in superheroics, and as with any step or leap forward, there are always people who fear the change and who give in to the inertia. Chronos is guilty of that and it costs him everything. Even his rivalry with Palmer, one that represents his blue-collar resentment of the college educated elite, is a throwback to tensions of the past. As we saw in [the Doom Patrol crossover] Milk Wars and further issues of Doom Patrol, the God of Superheroes is a deity born of comics and superhero stories himself, elevated to his position by extradimensional beings. So, in essence, in bringing his idea to Earth, giving us superheroes, and being born of superhero comics, he is creating himself. He is setting into motion the chain reaction that will cause his creation, and that medium is superheroics, the superheroes of the DC Universe, which he sees are diverse, powerful, ever evolving variations of his core concept. Evolution always leads to the next generation usurping the previous one, and in seeing the Justice League, Ahl knows that's okay, because his idea will only become stronger and more refined.

The team also was more diverse than… well, most superhero teams in general, in terms of gender, race and sexuality. (I say that, but it was still majority straight/white, which is perhaps a commentary on how non-diverse all the other teams feel.) There’s a temptation to expect that was intentional, coming from the writer of Midnighter, but was that particularly present when coming up with the line-up?

I think the look of the team was beholden to two things. The first is about returning to the idea that this book is about forcing the superhero concept to evolve. The way to drive that is to have people from different backgrounds who might have different viewpoints on superheroes and superheroics. So you need a diverse team to affect change, because uniformity of thought, coincidentally, does not force people to think.

The second thing brings us back to the idea of doing that Silver Age type of storytelling, but updating it to match the modern world. This is the Justice League of America, and so, from the outset, it was important to me that this be a team of heroes that actually represents what America looks like. America’s a country for whom diversity is a strength, is in no way uniform, and is in the long run more learned, reflective, tempered, and empowered for it. People deserved a Justice League of America that looked like the America they know, the America outside their window.

Straight from the start of the run, the book investigated the idea of what it meant to be a hero, whether it was the questions of whether Caitlin Frost or Lobo belonged on the team, whether the Extremists were heroes gone too far or outright villains, and so on — it’s an idea that continued all the way through the end of the book, with the evolution of the team into the Justice Foundation. Even the Doom Patrol crossover issues touched on it. Is this intrinsic in the idea of a “Justice League” story for you, or something else? Why continually return to the idea?

I think it's without a doubt intrinsic to the idea of a "Justice League." Some other guy somewhere is always talking about power and responsibility, but I couldn't say who that is. The point it, there's an immense responsibility in being a Justice Leaguer, being the icons for the citizens of the DCU, and for readers from across a broad swath of life experiences. 

To me, to be a hero and thus to be a superhero is to constantly be conscious of your power, and what that means. To properly wield power is to properly self-interrogate. A superhero should always be considering what it means to be a hero, which is really saying they should be considering the needs of the communities they serve, which can change over time. This might seem high concept, but it's something we can all use in our lives. One need only see the pile-on that occurs when someone with 1 million-plus followers responds to someone with 200 on social media to know the idea of interrogating the power dynamics of one's life is vital not just in comics, but in real life's seething moment.

It’s a strange thing to say, but in today’s climate, there’s almost something political about that attitude. Were you concerned about pushback — from anywhere, editors or fans — about that, or about using such a high-profile title as Justice League of America to evolve the idea of the superhero? Isn’t there an expectation that a legacy title like that is “supposed” to be something more traditional?

I wasn't concerned, to be honest, about pushback. Yes, I was thinking there could be some. But as with Chronos, some folks are slower to see that ideas need to change and evolve. But they get there eventually, through compassion and patience. I think it's antithetical to the concept of "legacy" that things don't change. We are not our parents or grandparents, yet we are an intrinsic part of their legacy. It must evolve, it must develop, or there is no legacy. There is nothing new to pass on, no greater knowledge to bequeath the next generation. This, to me, is what a Justice League of America had to be: open, inviting, exciting, and unflinching in its dedication to pushing the concept of the superhero forward into tomorrow.

The evolution of the Justice League into the Justice Foundation in the last issue — and the fact that Frost and Vixen explicitly consider it an evolution — is a fascinating idea; it speaks to the potential for more than a small group (a league!) to do good, but also the importance of… organized activism, if that isn’t too much of a stretch? In many ways, it reminds me of Tom King’s Sanctuary idea, that there’s a different way for superheroes to inspire change. What is the Justice Foundation, in your eyes? 

I think it's not too much of a stretch at all. It's the culmination of everything we've talked about here, and the culmination of the journey Batman and Vixen began in Justice League of America: Rebirth [issue]. The Justice Foundation is the next plateau in superheroics, to me. Batman and Vixen started this team to inspire people, him knowing Dark Nights: Metal was on its way, knowing the Queen of Fables was on her way, and that people were going to need to find faith in each other rather than the icons they've been looking to. And so, he knew what he had to do, change what Batman and the Justice League mean to the citizens of the DCU. But, as with any of us, knowing what has to be done and doing it are two different things.

So there was this time of evolution, and that time was the Justice League of America, a group setting out to address problems differently with a community mindset. But it wasn't far enough, it was still the old superheroics, the old superhero ways of fighting supervillains and property damage (even if they tried to contain it). They had to realize their own fallibility, their own mortality, accept it and move on from the old way of doing things, no matter how painful.

The Justice Foundation is what they found on the other side of that personal growth. It's a locus for innovation. The world needs old-school superheroes, and there are Justice Leagues for that. But sometimes there are bigger, broader, more innovative solutions that go beyond winning a battle.

You win the war, and secure the future, with the superpower of better ideas ... and that's what the Justice Foundation will do. 

So where does the Justice Foundation go next? Not in terms of “What comic will they appear in next,” as much as that seems the obvious question, but superhero fiction tends towards the conservative when it comes to social issues, because traditionally, it’s difficult to have superpowers address real life problems without breaking the universe for everyone else. In that the Justice Foundation is, in my reading at least, about collaboration and inspiration instead of top-down solutions from metaphorical Mount Olympuses, does it bypass that problem? Should readers assume that the Justice Foundation is working in the background of future DC stories to improve people’s lives on a day-to-day level?

Where the Justice Foundation goes next is indeed a challenge. But it's not unheard of for such a concept to flourish and, by the way, continue to evolve. We saw it with [early 2000s series] WILDCATS 3.0 to amazing affect, and that was a book as much about how the Halo Corporation could change the worlds as it was about those who'd try to stop them. So, there is story, vital story, both in the success of the Justice Foundation, and its potential failure. 

But yes, the goal is for them to be there, collaborating and listening and being part of a whole instead of outside the community. There is no Olympus for the Justice Foundation. They are there in the future of the DC Universe offering new solutions, raising the quality of life in the DC Universe for its heroes and citizens and fostering a true sense of community beyond lip-service. Is the future set, now that they exist? Would something like the Morticoccus Virus that led to the Great Disaster in [Jack Kirby’s classic series] Kamandi ever come to pass now that the Justice Foundation exists? Their change of perspective, so deeply linked to Promethea's inspiration and Frost's growth from who she was into who she is, is a seismic shift in how superheroes solve problems...and what that means for the DC Universe now, as well as the ramifications for the future, has only begun to be revealed.

What’s the takeaway of Justice League of America, for you? What were the highlights, and also, what do you think you managed to achieve on the book…?

We achieved a new kind of Justice League, but when we got there, we realized that it meant it couldn't be a Justice League anymore ... and so the Justice Foundation was born. To me, doing something additive to the DC Universe and affirmative of its ongoing legacy of superheroics with many faces, which the God of Superheroes notes in the finale, is an honorable achievement. 

The highlights to me were numerous, but the best part of any book is where you get to build. And we built so much here, and explored so many new parts of the DC Universe. We crafted the Microverse, we built a bridge to Immateria, we unearthed the Imprint, we turned a Sanctuary into a Workshop, we saved an entire universe in Angor's rebirth, and we redefined heroes as inexorably linked to innovation.

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