9:00am PT by Graeme McMillan
'Justice League Detroit': The Failed Comic Behind the CW's Superhero Future
Throughout the long and illustrious history of DC Entertainment’s Justice League of America — a team that debuted in 1960 and has been in near-continuous publication ever since — one era in particular stands out for many comic book fans as the nadir of the concept, a time when an attempted reinvention failed to such a degree that the series was actually cancelled. But, thirty years later, that period has proven to be source material for the CW’s The Flash, Cartoon Network’s DC Nation and the upcoming Vixen animated digital series on CW Seed. Could this be the second life of the Justice League Detroit?
The “Detroit Era” of the Justice League was the creation of writer Gerry Conway, who wrote the Justice League of America series from 1978 through 1986. Late in his run, with the series beginning to be eclipsed in popularity by companion titles The New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes — both of which centered around teenage soap operatics — Conway decided to revamp the League by replacing established characters like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman with his own, younger, creations.
“I wanted to do something I hadn’t seen at DC, which was a ground-level superhero team that was rooted in a neighborhood,” he’d explain to Back Issue Magazine years later. The result was a storyline that launched in 1986’s Justice League of America Annual No. 2, in which Aquaman disbanded the original League and created a new one that would be dedicated full-time to the job of saving the planet. “The world needs a committed fighting force,” Conway had him explain. “A team of full-time, active members, living together, training together — sharing a common purpose, a common duty.” That that description not only defined Conway’s new League, but also the Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes and competitor Marvel’s uber-successful X-Men, did not go amiss.
Conway’s new League — relocated from a satellite headquarters to inner-city Detroit — consisted of existing DC characters Aquaman, the Elongated Man, the Martian Manhunter and Zatanna, in addition to his own creations, Steel — an angst-ridden cyborg teen who visually resembled Captain America — teenage runaway Gypsy, supermodel-turned-crimefighter Vixen and the breakdancing Vibe. To say that it was an underwhelming line-up in comparison to what it replaced is an understatement; in a later letter column that appeared in the Justice League of America series, the editor described fan response as “moderate,” and that was undoubtedly the peak of excitement surrounding the change. Within two years, the series would end as a result of low sales, Conway having been replaced as writer some months earlier.
The final storyline in the series might point towards the feeling towards the “Detroit League” — whereas other superhero teams might come to an end with the heroes going their separate ways to allow them to be used again in the future, both Steel and Vibe were swiftly murdered in the final issues, with the other characters resigning in the aftermath and — with just a couple of exceptions — fading into obscurity for years afterwards. Within months, DC relaunched the Justice League series (ditching “of America” from the title for almost two decades) and the Detroit team became little more than a footnote or butt of many fan jokes about bad ideas and unsuccessful relaunches… until 2012.
That year saw the first signs that Geoff Johns — DC Entertainment chief creative officer and, notably, a Detroit native — had an affinity for the short-lived Justice League that existed in his hometown, with Vibe, arguably the most derided of all of the Detroit League thanks to his association with the short-lived breakdancing craze, receiving both his own series of shorts as part of Cartoon Network’s DC Nation block of programming and his own (short-lived) comic book series, Justice League of America’s Vibe. The character would later show up, in depowered, secret-identity form, as Cisco on the CW’s The Flash. Vixen, similarly, will become part of the Arrow/Flash universe with the recently-announced animated series for the CW’s online sibling CW Seed, overseen by Arrow executive producer Marc Guggenheim.
In fact, of the Justice League Detroit’s eight-strong line-up, only two members haven’t made it into a live-action spin-off or adjacent project (Aquaman, Zatanna and the Martian Manhunter all appeared in Smallville, with Aquaman obviously preparing for his own big-screen debut in next year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). That’s an impressive batting average for what was viewed by many to be a “failed” team — for DC characters, it beats the Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes, Doom Patrol or almost any other super team outside of the “classic” Justice League line-up of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman and Green Lantern — and a testament to the fact that no character or concept is beyond salvation if someone is dedicated enough to make it happen.
Of course, now we need someone to work on getting Steel and the Elongated Man out of the comics and onto our screens. Surely someone can come up with a pitch for a detective who has stretching powers…?
Updated to correct the name of Vibe's character on The Flash.