JLA (Justice League of America)

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By A. David Lewis

In his book Real Boys, psychologist Dr. William Pollack contends American society does its growing boys a disservice by presenting and holding them to impossible, invulnerable heroes. Stoic, unflinching role-models like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, he says, have created generations of fractured, repressed men. More modern examples, like hard-core gangsta-rappers and sports stars, still convey much the same message to boys: It’s not manly to show your pain, your emotions, or your limitations. In short, never let ‘em see you sweat.

Now, that could be a little simplistic, since there always have been alternatives to rock-hard brand of hero. For every dashing Cary Grant, there’s been a lanky Jimmy Stewart. For every sleek Ian Fleming spy, there’s an all-too-sane, all-too-scared Yossarian of Catch-22 or Winston Smith of 1984. But the battle doesn’t end at rock-men versus wimps. With Rambo and Miami Vice‘s Sonny Crockett as the exceptions that prove the rule, the ‘80s brought an amalgamated black-and-blue hero en vogue. The best example of the new, pummeled protagonist: Indiana Jones. In one movie alone, Indy gets shot, dragged, buried, hit with a mirror, cooked on a stake, pummeled by a virtual army of Nazis, and sprayed with boxer entrails. Yet, he’s a hero, not because he seems invulnerable, but because he endures. Similar to the Greek heroes of old, our society now expects its rock-men to suffer a few chips, dents, and tragedies on their way to victory — or to failure. By the end of his action movies, Bruce Willis has to be either bloody, dead, or both. Simply, it shouldn’t come easy.

Of course, all three brands of hero still exist in today’s media in some capacity, on television, in film, and in novels. But, the comic book medium has only ever had experience with two of the three models. And, success with either one has been tricky as audiences’ moods shift. In the early, Golden Age of comic books, every hero was infallible. Invulnerable. Incredible. In fact, Superman’s bane of kryptonite was created 10 years after his debut. The Batman moved through shadows too fast for bullets to touch. And, what couldn’t Wonder Woman’s bracelets deflect?

When DC Comics brought its main heroes together to form the Justice League of America super-team, the roster was an assemblage of juggernauts. The “Big 7” — Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, and Flash — epitomized the favored, untouchable model of heroes. The JLA became a miraculous pantheon of the perfect…

...And that got boring to read after a while. So, over the years, more of the third variety , the mortal, struggling hero, infected the ranks of the JLA. The new members fought the good fight despite their less-than-powerhouse abilities. Since roughly 6 of the Big 7 were featured in comic titles of their own, their inclusion in the JLA became complex. The fan base was becoming more savvy; keeping track of continuity (“How can Superman be with the JLA in Metropolis, if, in his own book, he’s in Sector Zeta-2?”), they were suspending disbelief less readily. These sensibilities led to a roster of 2nd string, all-too-human heroes filling the pages of the four Justice League titles. Though this worked for a brief time, during the era of a depowered Superman and a gravely injured Batman, sales eventually slumped, and a new order was required.

But, a new incarnation of the Justice League of America had to be handled carefully; it had to do and be something different. In 1997, writer Grant Morrison, the man who had reinvented both Animal Man and Doom Patrol, was given the daunting task of making the new JLA reboot exciting, dramatic, and believable. He had to find a new way to stir the mix. As his 41-issue run on the wildly successful JLA comes to a close, one is left to ask: What kind of heroes did he give us? Certainly, it began as a return to the Big 7. A back-from-the-dead Superman — you heard about that in Time, didn’t you? A more relentless-than-ever, franchise-fueled Batman.

The Flash and Green Lantern were younger and more powerful than their predecessors. Wonder Woman and Aquaman were being fully explored as royalty, and Martian Manhunter (think of a green Superman with telepathy) was…well…finally being given respect a Superman-with-telepathy should be! They were the Bigger 7, idolized by their peers, feared by villains, and more icon-like than ever before. Moreover, regardless of what happened in their own series, the characters still played their roles without alternation. It was as if these characters had become so legendary — such pieces of the collective unconscious — that details hardly mattered. When he briefly became Electro-Superman, the Man of Steel still operated as his would with little tailoring. When Wonder Woman “died,” her ageless mother Hippolyta easily stepped in to fill her bodice. And, when the Flash went missing, his other-dimensional Dark Flash counterpart did the job just as well. At first glance, one could argue that Morrison reaffirmed and further bolstered the invincible, iconic hero-model. But, this JLA arguably constituted a fourth class of hero: the human icon.

Green Lantern was wracked with insecurity and anxiety about being a rookie in “the big leagues.” The regal, biased tendencies of Aquaman (King of Atlantis) and Wonder Woman (Princess of the Amazons) were given as much attention as their heroism. Martian Manhunter’s status as an outsider, Flash’s dangerous gusto to live up to his predecessors, and Batman and Superman’s uneasy alliance all took center stage. The Justice League of America was as powerful and legendary as ever, but so were their emotions and beliefs. And, the challenges were greater than ever as well.

Morrison threw literally heaven, hell, the future (twice!), and alien invasion at the heroes. Though their powers seldom failed, it was usually this extra component — emotions and intelligence — that helped the JLA turn the tide. The dichotomy is best summarized in issue 38 of JLA. Their arch-enemies, the Injustice Gang, have waged a rather successful offensive against the team and have caused the heroes to abandon their base, the Watchtower. Superman gives the traditional iconic comment, but laced with sadness:

“...Wrecked. Everything in ruins…They succeeded in the end…They smashed the League to pieces…” Even though he shows emotion, itself a rather revolutionary development, he sees even a minor set-back like the destruction of their base as a failure. The JLA has proven not to be indestructible. Batman disagrees, being stoic and unassailable, but offering a more human opinion: “Don’t be sentimental. You…can build another headquarters in ten minutes. Forget the Watchtower…They didn’t get us.”

Best of all, the Martian Manhunter stands between them like the embodiment of Morrison’s JLA. Half Superman’s emotion, half Batman’s acceptance of vulnerability. Perhaps the best lesson, either for raising boys or just for writing comics, is that even icons can be human. It doesn’t weaken one to show emotion and pain. In fact, based on the sales of JLA, vulnerability in the powerful has great appeal. It would do role-models, from fictional super-heroes to real-life ones like mothers and fathers, well to remember that.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jla/