Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | A League that looks like America

Note: Actual Leaguers may vary from those depicted on cover

In the immediate wake of the 2012 election, the emerging story is “demographics.” Specifically, the electorate of 2012 seems almost to have duplicated the coalition of 2008 that first elected President Obama. In fact, this year saw a slight increase in the number of Latino and Asian-American voters, and a corresponding decrease in the number of white voters. The next Congress will include 20 female senators; and for the first time in history, white men will be in the minority of the Democratic side of the House of Representatives.

It’s probably a coincidence that this week, DC Comics announced two new ongoing series, one for the Latino hero Vibe and one for the Asian heroine Katana. Each was created in the early 1980s, Vibe by Gerry Conway and Chuck Patton for Justice League of America, and Katana by Mike Barr and Jim Aparo for Batman and the Outsiders; and each will be in the new Justice League of America series debuting in February.

Meanwhile, though, a lack of diversity is almost hard-wired into the main Justice League. While the new series may mitigate that, it could just be a venue for more “edgy” fare. We’ll know more in a few months, but today I want to look at the League’s attempts to integrate.

* * *

As regular readers of this space know, I believe the Justice League is DC Comics’ superhero line in microcosm. It brings together disparate characters representing distinct genres, and thereby facilitates the blending of those genres into a cohesive shared universe.

Within the context of that universe, the Justice League is the A-list of superhero teams. The Leaguers are, by reputation if not by definition, the world’s greatest superheroes. Accordingly, whoever makes up the League is responsible for maintaining its high standards.

The Justice League turned 50 a couple of years ago, and for all but about 10 of those years, it’s been organized around the “Big Seven” charter members: Aquaman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Superman and Wonder Woman. This is no surprise, as these include some of DC’s most familiar and most popular characters. (We might even say they’re so familiar and/or popular at least in part thanks to their League memberships.) However, for the most part, they’re not a terribly diverse bunch. There’s only one woman, and depending on which Green Lantern you have, and how you view J’Onn J’Onzz, they may be all white.

Of course, this is a product of the League’s original publishing climate, when all of DC’s main characters were white (including having white alter egos like John Jones) and hardly any headliners were female. Recent League relaunches have tried to address this by substituting different characters. The animated League used John Stewart as Green Lantern, gave J’Onn J’Onzz the voice of the African-American Carl Lumbly, and swapped out Aquaman in favor of Hawkgirl. The New-52 League has basically traded J’Onn for Cyborg (although we learned later that J’Onn was once a Leaguer).

Still, for a long time the League expanded largely with white male characters. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the League added six men (Green Arrow, the Atom, Hawkman, the Phantom Stranger, the Elongated Man and Red Tornado) and three women (Black Canary, Hawkgirl and Zatanna). Black Canary replaced Wonder Woman (who rejoined about five years later), and Hawkgirl and Zatanna joined about a year apart. Eighteen months after Zatanna, Firestorm became the last inductee of the “Satellite Era.”

However, a few months before Firestorm, writer Gerry Conway and artists Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin presented a two-parter (Issues 173-74, December 1979-January 1980) that teased the idea of Black Lightning joining the League. It dealt with the League’s lack of ethnic diversity pretty directly, even having The Flash argue against recruiting a “token” member — but Black Lightning turned the team down, citing his preference for working alone. As it happens, a few years later, Batman recruited both Black Lightning and Metamorpho (who’d turned down League membership in the mid-‘60s) for his new team of Outsiders.

Thus, the first Justice Leaguers of color were all part of the “Detroit League”: Vibe, the African heroine Vixen, and the support-staffer Dale Gunn. The Detroit League’s diversity (which included five men and four women) was due in part to its nontraditional structure. The original League was a product of the shared universe, because each member already had his or her own feature(s). (This would have fit Black Lightning as well.) However, when those solo careers took them away from the League, Aquaman disbanded the team and reorganized it around those who were willing to make more definite commitments. Naturally, these included Conway’s own creations Vixen, Vibe, Steel and Gypsy, plus J’Onn J’Onzz, Zatanna, the Elongated Man and occasionally Batman.

The Detroit League lasted about two years before giving way to Justice League International. Although the JLI expanded to include several female members (among them Ice Maiden/Ice, Huntress, Power Girl, Crimson Fox, Maxima, and Silver Sorceress), they too were mostly white. Aside from one longtime member, the Brazilian Green Flame/Fire (whose ethnicity never really played a big part in the stories), neither the Japanese Doctor Light nor the Indian Maya were with the League for very long. The same applied on the male side: the Native American Black Condor, the gay Blue Jay and Tasmanian Devil, and the African-American Bloodwynd were each short-timers.

By this time in the ‘90s, there were up to three Justice League teams operating concurrently, which naturally expanded the membership pool. Joining during this period were Obsidian and the original Ice Maiden (both gay, although Obsidian came out later), the African-American Amazing-Man, and the Korean-American Mystek. When the “Morrison League” whittled this all down to one team, organized around the seven original names, its diverse membership included the mixed-race Green Arrow, the African-Americans Steel and Green Lantern (John Stewart), and the Native American Manitou Raven, as well as Oracle, Big Barda and Faith. The post-Final Crisis League added the gay Mikaal “Starman” Tomas, the African-Americans Firestorm, Black Lightning and Cyborg, and the Asian-American Atom, as well as Donna Troy, Starfire and Supergirl.

Again, the need to cast the Justice League in “world’s greatest” terms has historically meant tension between a relatively static core of Superman, Wonder Woman, et al., and a more malleable group of lesser lights. The problem is that the more faithful DC is to the core group, the less diverse it will be, and — however unintentionally — the more the League’s creative teams may have to work to convince readers of the roster’s bona fides. Justice League International initially got around this by using the Legends miniseries to establish the new group’s credibility. The late Dwayne McDuffie used the fallout from Final Crisis to draft a team with no white men (John Stewart, Vixen, Doctor Light, Firestorm and Zatanna). James Robinson’s final roster (the last League of the pre-Flashpoint era) used Supergirl, Jade and Jesse Quick in place of their male counterparts.

Still, none of those was as iconic as the originals, so the New 52 reunited Aquaman, Batman, Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Superman and Wonder Woman, and folded Cyborg’s origin into the League’s first adventure. Writer Geoff Johns has promised an expanded roster, which apparently will include Shazam, Element Girl and the Ryan Choi Atom; but the new Justice League of America book may be more diverse.

In fact, the new JLA shares the original’s all-star structure. Six of its nine members (Catwoman, Hawkman, Green Lantern Simon Baz, Green Arrow, Vibe and Katana) either have or will have their own series, and the other three (Steve Trevor, Stargirl and J’Onn J’Onzz) are similarly well-established. Most are closely associated with previous teams, and Catwoman is even arguably a Batman counterpart. It’s a more ethnically-diverse lineup, but Johns emphasized their “underdog” nature to MTV:

I’ve always loved working with the less known or less popular DC characters [...]. There’s a real opportunity to unlock the potential in every hero — no matter how obscure they are — in fact, it’s a challenge that I always find compelling. Anyone can be A-List and that’s what the Justice League of America is about. [...]

If the Justice League is about the world’s greatest super heroes, the Justice League of America is about the world’s most dangerous — and that’s because they’re underrated, unpredictable and, before this, unwanted.

That last part makes me think this is another “alternative” League book along the lines of Extreme Justice or Justice League Elite, and that Johns may even build it around the hoary old “government-sponsored” and/or “proactive superheroes” tropes. I hope that’s not the case. Not only would it be fairly predictable, it downplays the clear parallels between this new title and its ancestral namesake. If the two League books ended up mashed together — maybe into a single JLA title in the wake of “Trinity War” — the combined roster might be a nicely balanced cross-section of the superhero line.

* * *

Although the League’s rosters have been reliably expansive over the years, now is a particularly appropriate time for it to reflect not just the New 52′s diversity, but the diversity of its potential readership. The New 52 features several books with female headliners (Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Birds of Prey and Worlds’ Finest), a few with gay stars (Stormwatch, Earth 2, Teen Titans, Batwoman), and a handful with non-white stars (Green Lantern, GL Corps, Fury of Firestorm, Blue Beetle and Batwing), so the Vibe and Katana series will have some company on the shelves. That’s important, because it lets potential readers know they might see something of themselves in those characters. Consequently, it’s important that at least some of those characters find their way to the Justice League, because of what the League represents.

While the most familiar Justice League might be its original seven-member lineup, the book’s real strength doesn’t depend on a rigid adherence to structure. Instead, it comes from a willingness not just to cross genre boundaries, but to explore every corner of DC’s shared superhero universe. In more practical terms, it’s expressed in what Gail Simone once called the “Fox Maneuver” — the time-honored practice of the League switching foes, so that one teammate’s strengths took advantage of another enemy’s weaknesses. You might laugh, but I was reminded of the Fox Maneuver during President Obama’s election-night speech:

What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. [...]

I am hopeful tonight because I’ve seen the spirit at work in America. I’ve seen it in the family business whose owners would rather cut their own pay than lay off their neighbors, and in the workers who would rather cut back their hours than see a friend lose a job.

I’ve seen it in the soldiers who reenlist after losing a limb and in those SEALs who charged up the stairs into darkness and danger because they knew there was a buddy behind them watching their back.

I’ve seen it on the shores of New Jersey and New York, where leaders from every party and level of government have swept aside their differences to help a community rebuild from the wreckage of a terrible storm. [...]

We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.

Gardner Fox might not have intended it, but that’s the kind of thing I think of when I think about the name “Justice League of America.” The original League might not be all-American, but to me it’s “of America” because it represents that all-for-one spirit. Ideally, it would represent the country’s diversity in more than just genre origins. Like it says on our currency, E pluribus unum: “out of many, one.” More to the point, like Geoff Johns said, anyone can be an A-lister — and that’s an all-American sentiment if I ever heard one.

I’ve always loved the Justice League, both for what it is and for what it could be. Here’s hoping the new League lives up to its heritage, and to that of the country for which it’s named.

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31 Comments

‘Not only would it be fairly predictable’

‘Predictable’ is the perfect word to define Johns writing.

Lets be fair now, the original league included a Martian, Kryptonian and Atlantean. the Red Tornado was an android, the Hawks were Thanagarians. Big Barda, Mr Miracle and Orion were New Gods. Powergirl was either an atlantean or a kryptonian.

Oh, and Amazing Man was a Roy Thomas creation from the early 80′s.

New 52………. DC didnt need this Gimick (which it clearly is at this point). You have the worlds greatest Heroes. The most popular and beloved characters. Just put your efforts into make good freaking comics!!!

DC jumped the shark with “One Year Later”. They’ve been a disjointed mess ever since IMO.

@Paul
And THAT’S why we either need time travel (not really happening anytime soon) or a coup d’tat in the management of DC Comics (which could happen if we as the fan community could just try). We need to really, really organize the fan community to make it really known how we really feel about this mess. Sure, the New 52 may be successful for now, but what will they do in the long run if, all of a sudden, all of their creative talent went on strike, they hired hackneyed writers, which result in terrible stories, resulting in terrible sales numbers? Face it, DC Comics, like any big corporation, needs to be lobotomized and bound to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

I’m all for a ‘coup d’tat in the management of DC Comics’.

Take a look at this scenario:

Morrison is leaving Action Comics… Lobdell is writing Superman (and Teen Titans, that once was a great title)… Bob Harras is EiC… and Justice League written by Johns is downright mediocre.

I’m sorry for good writers like Snyder and Lemire, who are trapped in this mess called New 52.

Tom, for the Justice League to be representative of America, we need FAT super-heroes. Add in some heroes that are ignorant rednecks, and some religious kooks, and we’ll be getting close to the American demographic.

And all you guys that want a coup d’etat at DC — count me in. Know any good grassy knolls where we can meet?

@Jake and Irish_Warrior
A NON-violent coup d’tat, though. We don’t want to be seen in a bad light. What needs to be done is we issue a challenge (a game would be one such) to DC’s upper management, and if they lose the challenge, we get a chance to make some changes for the better.

@ Acer I’m all for the coup d’tat! If it means exercising DiDio/Lee/Johns from DC altogether

And we need assholes who lump everyone into one biased personal generalization as well Jake.

@Kory S – Don’t forget Harras & his friends.

@Kory
Spread the word, on all comic book-related boards. Tell the fandom it’s time for a coup d’tat in DC’s management to happen, BEFORE THIS YEAR IS OUT, or right when the new year begins. I mean it! (And it’s excising, not exercising…not to be rude or anything.) I agree, Johns should’ve stuck to writing, and Lee to being a writer/artist. They should’ve never let all that power/authority go to their heads (manufactured statements aside).

I thought the Katana series was only a mini?

The new JLA roster sounds real appealing,and Finch is a great plus. But the fact Johns is writing it makes me thinking its going to be boring and decompressed. He JL, to me, is one of the worst books on the stands. I wouldn’t read it if it was free. His JSA was great – but I’m gonna credit Goyer more so, as his issues/arc were the standouts.
I’d rather have a new Batman and the Outsiders!!! Or even “Justice League Outsiders” if they think that will make it sell!! ;-) But with a different writer. They were a great team with minorities and women applenty!! And it worked a treat! Katana, Black Lightning and Geo-Force (European), and then we have Halo, Katana (again), Looker and Windfall. Batman was the only white male (unless you count Atomic Knight, who was on the team for 5 minutes).

I agree with this article whole heartedly. Not due to race but because other than batman, all of the “big” 7 are rather boring characters anyway.
more diversity and new characters are better because it would bring in more readers if handeled coreectly…
which given DC’s recent history, is highly doubtful.

If the stories aren’t interesting, no amount of ‘diversity’ can really rescue a series. The ‘diversity’ of the early League was in the powers held by the various members. Neither skin color nor gender affected the structure of the plot. Tell a decent story and make the hero’s (or heroine’s) inclusion crucial and it works.

Morrison’s JLA over Johns’s JLA, anytime anyday.

Coup d’etat
Coup d’etat
Say it with me coup d’etat

DC has made obvious efforts over the years to add ethnic heroes. I prefer the ones for whom the ethnicity isn’t part and parcel of who they are. I really loved the way Jamie Reyes has been handled in his series as Blue Beetle. His heritage was there, but it wasn’t the foundation of the series. I’m wishing he could find his place in the DCU the way Kyle Rayner and John Stewart have.

One correction: As much as I liked the “Morrison League,” it wasn’t “diverse”: It featured Kyle Rayner GL, not John Stewart. The latter gained well-deserved prominence from the Justice League Unlimited animated series.

I didn’t even bother reading this article – I clicked on the picture of the JLA cover and started laughing loudly.

I have decided to incorporate “jive bunch of turkeys” into my daily dialogues as much as possible. Gold!!

“That last part makes me think this is another “alternative” League book along the lines of Extreme Justice or Justice League Elite, and that Johns may even build it around the hoary old “government-sponsored” and/or “proactive superheroes” tropes. I hope that’s not the case.”

______________________________________

I’m pretty sure that is exactly the case.

I’ll probably draw fire for this, but I like Geoff Johns JL.
I agree the first arc was a boring and decompressed story.
The second arc was a little better apart from the Shazam back up.
However, the last few issues have been quite strong, I’ll keep reading.

The Super Friends had more diversity than most JLA incarnations over the last 25 years! Ditto the recent Justice League cartoons. To be fair, DC had the Legion of Super-Heroes which indeed, “Looked like America”. It just seems easier at both DC and Marvel to create a diverse cast when they are dealing with self-contained series like the Legion, THE NEW TEEN TITANS and THE X-MEN. Whereas with a title like JLA, most of the team members have their own comic series.

Over at Marvel, I don’t know if Ororo (Storm) has staying power enough as a character to have her own book, (perhaps a mini-series?) but Marvel writers have done a heckuva lot more with her than DC has with most of their heroines–including Wonder Woman, who as far as I know, has NEVER LED THE JLA! Heck, even DREAM GIRL has her beat on that one! But from the point of ethnic variety does DC even have an equivalent to Storm?

Vixen? PUH- LEEEZZZ….

Arguing that Superman is “Kryptonian” and therefore diverse doesn’t work. As written, Superman, the Hawks, Wonder Woman, Aquaman… they’re all white. Let’s just admit it and move on.

Personally, I think there was a big opportunity missed with the New 52 to make the line more diverse by design, and it stems from Johns’ unimaginative and slavish dedication to the Super Friends.

I would have strongly preferred to see Hali Jordan, Vicki Stone, Olivia Queen, and J’ane J’onzz. I can’t think of a good female version of Barry Allen’s name, but it’s the same thing for all of these: Why do they have to be male? Why do they have to be white (in the cases where they are)? Other than Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, who are SO iconic that I think many people would reject other-raced versions in the mainstream, skin-color is not really a factor for any of these other characters.

I expect a ton of flames about this, but these would have been some changes that could really have generated different stories and appealed to different readers. Instead, we got the mostly-white, mostly-male League again, which leads to mostly more of the same. :-/

DC comics is in the best place it has been for ages and you say you feel sorry for them and want to get rid of Didio etc. As for diversity…it reflects who buys the books. Comics are a niche market. Face it. It has a particular demo. I would also say I know many people from other countries who are colored and have no problem with skin color because they recognize it is deeds that is universal. It’s why I would buy manga and it would not bother me the color of the character’s skin or their culture. Diversity is alwayss good but let’s face it when DC try to expand, many people don’t buy the books. And the thing is much of these people in this title needed to band wagon the JL brand. Other than Catwoman and Martian Manhunter, who cares really about the others? I am not sure how long this team will last really because to be honest if I pick up a JLA book, I don’t really want to read about them. But saying that, there is no excuse not to try. So good to DC for trying.

I’m glad that Geoff Johns is writing and the characters are more ethnically diverse. There’s no excuse to not eventually use characters like Vixen, John Stewart, Bronze Tiger, and a new Bloodwynd. The Avengers could go further with this comic as well.

Good grief, I couldn’t disagree more with that “it’s a reflection on who buys books” stuff. Utter nonsense. If that were true then why not make ALL COMICS about big chested, big a**ed women and not have ANY male super-heroes at all? If guys want action and fighting, the average Wii or X-Box can take care of that. And why have stories–let em all be about Super-Chicks mud-wrestling or having oiled-up pillow fights since that’s what the “average” young male gives a crap about–and they wouldn’tj even have to raid their dad’s porn collection while both parents are at work!

No.It all comes down to how “broadminded” writers are at coming up with interesting characters from various ethnic groups. Chris Claremont sold a ton of X-Men comics and as I and others have pointed out, many of those issues featured Storm and Psylocke on their covers more often than Rogue or Jean Grey.
Young comic fans of ALL ethnic persuasions just want to read fun and exciting comics–they don’t just want a Storm comic–they want a Storm comic that kicks butt!

The only time this ever becomes an “issue” is whenever we get too many writers who act like they grew up in a vacuum or in a “gated” community where the only non-European person they’ve ever met was a maid or a thug who stole their wallet in the subway!

We’ve got a lot of artists of various ethnicities working in comics now but where are all the writers? That’s part of the problem…

OK, raise your hands. How many people think Vibe will be cancelled within a year? I LOVED the Detroit JLA, but Vibe was an awful character. Although he did bring the much sought after breakdancing market to DC.

I feel as if forcing these charactes down our throats is more important than putting out good stories. If it’s such a big deal to have a non-white male heterosexual JLA why didn’t they change things during the reboot? Make Superman black. Batman can be gay. Wonder Woman could be an Eskimo. Or maybe there can be a race/sexual orientation changing virus that hits the DCU. Every character-gay and not white. Can you imagine the media exposure? It would be awesome.

Just remember this. Everything is a matter of perspective. Globally white males are a minority.So when we talk about ‘minorities’ what are we really talking about?

Beautiful words, but still, it´s a human feeling. You can say that about humanity as a whole.

Those feelings are universal, if you add “America” in excess, sounds like it´s “Justice League of my bedroom”

Justice League of EARTH put simply.

Great article, and interesting comments. The thing about the JL for me is that it seems that certain characters are brought into the team because of who they are rather than what they have done as heroes. Vixen gets included because of diversity instead of helping Batman beat down the Joker in one of his cases, and he thought “this chick is damn good! Maybe she should be in the JL”. I think fans would accept new characters more readily if they were showcased and proved their mettle in the adventure, like Cyborg did in the first arc. The JL should be exclusive in that way, that you have to be really good to be invited.

Frankly I don’t care what colour the Leaguers are, as long as the writing kicks ass.

The current Justice league of Arseholes is like a bad Elseworld. (Mind you, New 52 is a bad Elseworld’s event)

Scrap token quotas and hire suitable writers.

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