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Author Topic: Is it just me, or has the JLA just never...worked?  (Read 17201 times)
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JulianPerez
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« on: January 03, 2007, 11:05:56 AM »

Don't get me wrong, JLA has had some incredible high points - Steve Englehart's JLA run in the 1970s, from 140-149 being one, and Kurt Busiek's underrated, detail-packed JLA run a couple years ago is another.

But is it me, or has the concept just never worked? Ironic, since JLA's concept, of a company putting their solo heroes together in a single book, has been the most widely duplicated team idea ever, from MIGHTY CRUSADERS to the King Features DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH.

The concept of JLA is, I think, to some extent a broken, unworkable one.

In a team assembled out of characters that are teamed up from elsewhere, there are going to be problems. If you do a story with Aquaman and Batman, the story has to be contorted and twisted this way and that so that these characters can reasonably participate and contribute. Whenever the alien invaders dispatch the pods or whatever to earth, there's always ONE that hits the bottom of the sea, allowing Aquaman to justify his existence and dispatch it. Likewise, Batman has to have his one moment where he uses brains to outshine the muscle boys (which is not 100% fair to smart guys like Superman and Green Lantern).

This just isn't a problem in Aquaman's solo book, where Aquaman pretty much lives underwater and doesn't have to bother with nonsense like being useless because the League's fight against the Wizard and Icicle of Earth-2 is on land. Likewise, Batman works just fine in his detective/crimefighting context, less so when he has to fight Starro the Conqueror.

Then again, you have the other extreme. To be as blunt as possible...Superman just doesn't need the rest of the team. It is from JLA that we get nonsense like Kryptonite being annoyingly everywhere, not Superman's own books.

The JLA has never really "gelled" as a team with a solid reason for existing, because of its very concept as "the best heroes in the world." People call the Defenders the team of loners, but at least Valkyrie, Dr. Strange, and Nighthawk bonded and relied on each other. Kurt Busiek pointed out that the difference between the Avengers and JLA is that if Hawkeye or Wasp encounter trouble, they'd go around a corner and hit their Avengers Communicard. But if a JLAer had a problem, they'd try to solve it by themselves.

This "loner problem" got worse when Batman started to become a very different character than the other JLAers in terms of method and outlook. His participation was to be expected as a hero of great renown back in the Silver Age, when he had more or less the same "serve and protect" mentality as the other white male characters. Batman getting his own team in that Mike W. Barr book, BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS, was a true to life characterization...and to some extent inevitable. But because he was there at the start, writers keep roping him back in, no matter how little it makes sense.

The only members for which there was some degree of cameraderie were the characters that didn't have any other book: Green Arrow and Hawkman being rivals then friends, Black Canary and Hawkwoman as girlfriends, the Green Lantern/ Elongated Man with Sue and Barry, Zatanna, Red Tornado, and so on.
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« Reply #1 on: January 05, 2007, 03:58:57 AM »

Is it just me, or has the JLA just never...worked?

It's just you.

You can't go past the great early stories by such master writers as Gardner Fox. And I also really like the comics from the great Len Wein around the mid-70s.

I think at their best they "gelled" in this way: The mission was the thing. If Wonder Woman was feeling under-dressed, if Batman had cowl rash, if Superman was horny for Lois, if Aquaman had a water-logged ear, if Flash had corns, if Martian Manhunter had a longing for home, if Green Arrow had dry rot in the mansion, or if Green Lantern was feeling a little yellow, they didn't dwell on it. They got on with the job (and drove a great plot). Maybe they discussed all their petty problems back in the meeting room. Good writers made it work because they understood there isn't anything as unifying as a common cause.
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« Reply #2 on: January 05, 2007, 04:15:38 AM »

Quote
Don't get me wrong, JLA has had some incredible high points - Steve Englehart's JLA run in the 1970s, from 140-149 being one, and Kurt Busiek's underrated, detail-packed JLA run a couple years ago is another.

But is it me, or has the concept just never worked?

If it Never worked, then how did they have so many incredible high points? That doesn't make any sense!
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« Reply #3 on: January 05, 2007, 02:08:25 PM »

As I understand it, you're positing that a group book is stronger when the members have no great status outside of the group? 

I guess it depends on what you're looking for in a group book.  When the JLA was created, it was a place to find all of DC's heavy-hitters gathered together.  At the time, that was an exciting prospect, as it hadn't been done since the days of the JSA in All-Star (in fact, you could argue it had never been done before...even the JSA was a collection of second-stringers who, in the early days, were actually rotated out of membership if they ever got popular enough to win their own books).

If what you wanted was a place to see Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman all working together, the JLA offered a lot of bang for your buck (well, 12 cents).  It was only with the arrival of the Fantastic Four that we started seeing groups written as groups, which is to say that none of the members on his or her own was interesting enough to carry a book alone, but together they were hot stuff.  The FF, the X-Men, the Avengers and so on shaped our notions of what a group book should be (interrelationships, rivalries, romances, etc) but they all came AFTER the JLA, so I think it's apples and oranges.  The problem comes later when DC decides to emulate Marvel by introducing sub-plots involving Ollie and Dinah, Ollie and Katar, Barry and Diana, and so on.  They always felt tacked on or half-hearted.

I think the JLA was created on the assumption that what readers...kids mostly...wanted to see all the biggest stars of the company working side by side.  And history shows that it DID work.  In fact, the only points in history where the JLA stopped working were when the League was scaled back to rosters of primarily second-stringers, or in the 80s when it devolved into a sorry collection of lame-o nobodies (Vibe? Vixen? Gypsy? What the...?).  Note that even the Avengers have to keep in some combination of Cap, Thor and Iron Man to keep selling...you're one of the few people I've known who cherish the "Cap's Reform School" line-up.

Does the JLA "gel" as well as groups made of characters created just for their respective groups?  Not really.  But I think League fans read the book to see the biggest names at DC tackling the biggest threats imaginable.  If they want soap-opera romance and internal strife, they know which books to read.  Characters like Cyclops, Hawkeye, Ben Grimm and, at DC, Mon-El and Phantom Girl are among my favorites, but I wouldn't pay a nickel to see those characters outside their groups. 

To use a movie analogy, I think of the JLA like those old disaster epics, say "The Poseidon Adventure" or "Towering Inferno."  As a reader/viewer, you're wowed by the threat itself and along the way you're impressed by who shows up ("Look, there's Steve McQueen!  And Charlton Heston!  Hey, it's Fred Astaire!") It doesn't really matter whether Gene Hackman has a meaningful, revealing or insightful character scene with Shelley Winters, the point is all the big names showed up, and they're all working toward the same goal.

And there's another way to judge whether the JLA "worked." Consider: when the League debuted, everyone in the world knew who Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman were, but the Flash and Green Lantern were johnny-come-latelies, while Aquaman had never really taken off in a big way.  Yet suddenly here they are, all together in one group, treated as equals in every way.  And in short order, that's the way we all see them, too.  Yes, the JLA is a grouping of all DC's heavy hitters, but I'd argue it was the JLA book that helped MAKE Hal, Barry and Arthur into "heavy hitters."  Once we saw them in action next to Supes and Bats, we bought into the idea that they were the equal of those guys.  So in that sense, the JLA was wildly successful.

I can't argue with you about the over-use of kryptonite in the JLA stories, but on a planet that's 75% water, I think it's reasonable to assume a lot of things falling to Earth would land in the ocean.  In fact, logically any group devoted even in part to defending Earth from alien threats should have MORE water-based operatives.




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« Reply #4 on: January 05, 2007, 05:21:16 PM »

Perhaps it doesn't work because the JLA has never had prose stories in its comics? Like Johnny Thunder?

Nah, I think it works. Consider, if you will, the fact that JLA comics didn't sell when they had so many second-stringers in the early 90s. Then Grant Morrison put the original members back together, and it sold like hotcakes. It worked so well that DC even shot Blue Beetle's freaking head off. Or, just consider the fact that there have been about 15 successful seasons of JLA cartoons.

In order for it to work, though, the stories do need to be self-contained and focused on the mission at hand, as was the case in All-Star Comics with the JSA. And something needs to be done about the villains...an outside threat, usually an alien, is better for the story than say, Lex Luthor and the Joker. The Legion of Doom, as a separate entity appearing only in Justice League stories, works okay too...but the JLA needs its own villains, and for the most part it has them. (like Amazo)

I've always thought the JLA headquarters should be moved to the bottom of the ocean, as a way to redeem Aquaman.
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« Reply #5 on: January 05, 2007, 06:11:59 PM »

Aquaman did not become famous because of the comic, but the Super Friends TV Show. As a result, he has achieved world famous status. Everyone knows who he is! Being mention by Chris Rock in his comedy bits and being a key plot point for the HBO series Entourage. In many ways he is as much as a big of a pop hero as the big three, but his popularity ironically never translated to the comics where he came from!

There is even a whole Wiki entry on this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquaman_in_popular_media
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JulianPerez
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« Reply #6 on: January 06, 2007, 02:38:58 AM »

Quote from: nightwing
And there's another way to judge whether the JLA "worked." Consider: when the League debuted, everyone in the world knew who Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman were, but the Flash and Green Lantern were johnny-come-latelies, while Aquaman had never really taken off in a big way.  Yet suddenly here they are, all together in one group, treated as equals in every way.  And in short order, that's the way we all see them, too.  Yes, the JLA is a grouping of all DC's heavy hitters, but I'd argue it was the JLA book that helped MAKE Hal, Barry and Arthur into "heavy hitters."  Once we saw them in action next to Supes and Bats, we bought into the idea that they were the equal of those guys.  So in that sense, the JLA was wildly successful.

Hmmm, this is an interesting point (though to be fair, Supes and Bats had a high absentee rate). It is interesting the JLA, like the Legion, where Mon-El and Bouncing Boy are side-by-side, has an interesting degree of egalitarianism.

I don't know how true this is, as I hear Green Lantern when he came out was popular (and deservedly so), but to play Devil's Advocate for a moment...what about all the characters that JLA didn't carry to glory and 7-Up glasses? The obvious one would be John Jones. He was there at the ground floor, along with Wonder Woman...yet he started out a backup character and remains to this day a backup character.

Quote from: nightwing
As I understand it, you're positing that a group book is stronger when the members have no great status outside of the group? 

Hmmm, now that you mention it, that statement does indeed ring true. DEFENDERS struggled to find its voice until Englehart's introduction of the Valkyrie, who singlehandedly stole the show. All the memorable DEFENDERS subplots in the Gerber years were about the people that didn't have another book - Valkyrie going to jail, Nighthawk's discovery his money was funding the Sons of the Serpent, etc. I would argue that every subsequent, post-Steve Gerber version of DEFENDERS has not been successful because their emphasis is on the famous marquee names like the Hulk and Namor and the Silver Surfer...which is a more marketable, but emotionally hollow thing to do.

Quote from: Gangbuster Thorul
Consider, if you will, the fact that JLA comics didn't sell when they had so many second-stringers in the early 90s. Then Grant Morrison put the original members back together, and it sold like hotcakes. 

If you mean to say that the JLA works best when it uses large scale heroes...I agree. Though I would hardly consider Red Tornado, Zatanna, Elongated Man, and Hawkman and Hawkwoman to be anything less than first string. If they ever were less, they've earned their current place in the roster (who remembers Elongated Man being the sole JLAer remaining and beating the Lord of Time's supercomputer?). As for Vixen...well, I love what's being done with her by the current writer. She'll make first string in no time, mark my words.

I'm not certain what a good idea it was to get the original roster together. Aquaman doesn't work as a League member and despite Busiek's big fat man-crush on him, John Jones is a terminal lame-o that isn't interesting even in a team context.

I found a lot of what Morrison did interesting, but he gets entirely too much credit for doing the single most obvious thing: getting a more classic JLA roster with gravitas instead of the nonsense Giffen and his lackeys subjected us to for nigh ten years. There was some jerkhole a while back that attempted to say that the Doctor Who episode, "The Five Doctors," was his idea. Here's the thing: pairing all the Doctors together is such an obvious idea that no one single person can claim credit for it.

Anyway, with only eight issues, Kurt Busiek blew Morrison out of the water...and Mr. Silver Age did it with a JLA roster that included Power Girl, Elongated Man, and Red Tornado.

Quote from: nightwing
Note that even the Avengers have to keep in some combination of Cap, Thor and Iron Man to keep selling...

True, but that's not the whole story. Avengers has always had a Cap or Iron Man or Thor, but the characters most essential to Avengers identity are the "Cool Whip" characters you wouldn't have on their own: the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, HAWKEYE, Hank Pym, the Wasp, Wonder Man, etc.

Quote from: Aldous
You can't go past the great early stories by such master writers as Gardner Fox.

Gardner Fox is a great writer with a deserved reputation as a legend, but I've never understood the appeal of his JLA. It brought out all of his weaknesses and none of his strengths. Fox set the precedent for the JLA not working, and every flaw I have with his run can be taken as being also true of the JLA concept in general because he's influential enough that everybody repeats his mistakes.

Len Wein's JLA was fantastic, but if you compare Fox's work here to the incredible stuff John Broome was doing in GREEN LANTERN at the same time, Fox comes up short. It isn't just the over-reliance on the JLAers respective weaknesses (must...EVERYTHING...be yellow?) or Green Lantern being responsible for just about every victory, or Wonder Woman's darn lasso "vibrating," or Superman and Batman's monstrous absenteeism (which was not Fox's fault, but still causes the work to suffer), or the unmemorability of the majority of their science fiction and magical foes...

You still are left with superheroes doing things that just don't make any sense. At least GL's victories in his book were clear. Aquaman getting a dolphin to imitate his voice, though? Man, Aquaman must have had a cold that day. I don't know...I've been trying to rationalize that one for a while now and nothing comes up.

Then you have the Mike Sekowsky artwork. In today's climate of Mike Turners and Ethan van Scivers and Jim Lees, Mike comes off as a genius. But surround him with Gil Kane, or Carmine Infantino (you know, back when he still gave a darn what his art looked like) or BRAVE AND THE BOLD-era Joe Kubert, or MYSTERY IN SPACE era Murphy Anderson, and Sekowsky comes up as the bluntest crayon in the DC comics box. While reading my JLA Essential, I actually started to warm up to Sekowsky...until in the middle, they had a MYSTERY IN SPACE issue by Carmine Infantino. After that, it was hard going back to Mike again.

My primary, central objection to the Fox work was its utter predictability. If the Flash/Atom team-up meet disaster and are captured at the hands of the Easter Island headed giants, you know that the same thing will happen to Wonder Woman and John Jones too when it's their turn. If Johnny Quick of the Crime Syndicate lost their battle with the JLA but escaped by saying "Volthoom," you know the same thing will happen in every other CSA battle.

Likewise, Fox was never successful in creating the illusion of fear. Len Wein certainly could create fear (though he was backed up by an overwhelmingly powerful villain like the Construct), but there was never a sense with Fox that the JLAers were in real danger. It's an illusion, but an important illusion a good writer can create. Broome certainly put Hal Jordan in very scary, insurmountable spots where the reader could fear for him, for instance.

Oh, and Snapper Carr is firmly in the company of Jar-Jar Binks, Wesley Crusher, and Scrappy Doo. Thanks for nothing, Fox! This is yet another reason I don't like Gerry Conway: he was responsible for "redeeming" Snapper from being Star-Tsar. Snapper as a troubled youth who blames the JLA for his inability to make sense of his life, was much more interesting than the useless halfwit Fox wrote him as. I can't fault the Tom Peyer HOURMAN for using Snapper as a good guy because the precident had been set, but was that little snot REALLY worth redeeming, Ger?

And last but not least, until Marv Wolfman's TEEN TITANS decades later, no comic jumped the shark as absolutely spectacularly as the Fox JLA. By 1967, he clearly didn't care anymore. The 1967 JLA/JSA Team-Up was especially embarassing, featuring energy spheres from another dimension that turn a man against all sports everywhere (!).

Quote from: SuperMonkey
If it Never worked, then how did they have so many incredible high points? That doesn't make any sense!

The JLA high points I'm talking about worked in spite of the concept, not because of it.

Really, I'd be hard-pressed to find a title like JLA, that is long-running, yet that has had so few truly memorable runs. MIGHTY THOR might be another such title, though people underestimate Roy Thomas and Len Wein's contributions to that book.

Quote from: nightwing
The problem comes later when DC decides to emulate Marvel by introducing sub-plots involving Ollie and Dinah, Ollie and Katar, Barry and Diana, and so on.  They always felt tacked on or half-hearted.

I disagree. These kinds of subplots are when we the reader really started to care about the characters. An old friend of mine used to say that only moment the DC heroes were ever fully three-dimensional was during the Englehart League, and his efforts to give the League warmth and complexity, as he did with his run on AVENGERS, with Ollie as a loveable bigmouth suffering from perpetual foot-in-mouth disorder, Superman as a hardassed alien looking after the League's good name, and Barry as a plain, but gentle and friendly Midwesterner. Certainly, Stanless Steve built on a foundation set by Len Wein, but he also did things even Wein didn't do.

Really, the more I think about it, the more I like the Englehart JLA because of how un-JLAish it really was: it was big and cosmic and involved battles with the Manhunters, to be sure, but it delved into the characters lives in very shocking ways. It was only in line with traditional League stories on the surface. Watching Oliver Queen and Katar Hol lean on each other and get tipsy, clearly drunk (and having their girlfriends get black coffee for them when they get the mission signal), or Superman's personality clashing with Hawkman over Hawkwoman's admission. Even in the fairly straightforward "bad-guy-bash" issues such as the ones where they fought classic foes like the Construct and Doctor Light, the JLA still had an element of cameraderie and warmth that extended beyond being just members  - Wonder Woman teasing Flash about his Midwestern unhipness, for instance.

Quote from: Aldous
I think at their best they "gelled" in this way: The mission was the thing. If Wonder Woman was feeling under-dressed, if Batman had cowl rash, if Superman was horny for Lois, if Aquaman had a water-logged ear, if Flash had corns, if Martian Manhunter had a longing for home, if Green Arrow had dry rot in the mansion, or if Green Lantern was feeling a little yellow, they didn't dwell on it. They got on with the job (and drove a great plot). Maybe they discussed all their petty problems back in the meeting room. Good writers made it work because they understood there isn't anything as unifying as a common cause.

Yeah, but what about the Englehart JLA?

Quote from: Gangbuster Thorul
In order for it to work, though, the stories do need to be self-contained and focused on the mission at hand, as was the case in All-Star Comics with the JSA.

Yeah, but what about the Englehart JLA?
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« Reply #7 on: January 06, 2007, 04:20:18 AM »

The problem comes later when DC decides to emulate Marvel by introducing sub-plots involving Ollie and Dinah, Ollie and Katar, Barry and Diana, and so on.  They always felt tacked on or half-hearted.

I agree. Those sub-plots (for want of a lesser term) were embarrassingly bad. I didn't like those comics the first time around, but I can't even read them now.
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