In comics, many different versions of the Justice League (or the Justice League of America) have thrilled super hero fanatics for generations and there have been many different comic book rosters that have been billed as the Justice League. Some of these rosters have become the stuff of comic book legend while others are fascinating looks at the trends that made up each era of super hero action. And of course, some rosters are just downright silly.
So let’s hop into our time bubbles and take a look at some of the more memorable eras of DC’s greatest team..
Before we begin paying tribute to the greatest (and not so greatest) League lineups, we have to acknowledge the super team that started it all – the Justice Society of America. Starting in All-Star Comics #3 (1940), the Justice Society set the standard for the super hero team.
Most JSA stories began with the team gathering to face some crisis, breaking off individually (usually with the artist of the hero’s strip drawing that chapter of the adventure), and coming back together to solve the problem. Think of the JSA as the prototype of what would become the Justice League (and the Avengers for that matter). DC put its biggest stars in the Justice Society including Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, Wildcat, Doctor Fate, Spectre, Johnny Thunder, Starman, Hourman, Doctor Mid-Nite, and many more. Black Canary and Mister Terrific also joined the team, but oddly, the Golden Age DC relegated Superman and Batman to honorary members that barely shared the spotlight with the JSA.
The Original Justice League of America
When DC began its superhero revival of the late ’50s and early ’60s the company reintroduced such classic characters as Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, and Hawkman. Each successive revival showed the world that superheroes were back in vogue after the near death of the genre in the early ’50s, and the next logical step was to put DC’s new champions in a new super team. The Justice League of America introduced in The Brave and the Bold #28 (1960) was a gathering of DC’s greatest and most beloved heroes. Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter joined with the old DC stalwarts Aquaman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman to form the greatest collection of colorful crime fighters the modern era ever witnessed. Flash and DC’s newer heroes took center stage with Superman and Batman rarely even appearing on covers in those early years. The team faced such menaces as Starro the Conqueror, Despero, Kanjar Ro, the Key, and many more adversaries that would all go on to become DC staples.
Soon, Hawkman, Atom, and Green Arrow would join the party as the legend the Justice League of America continued to grow. In Justice League of America #21 and #22 (1963), the new Justice League met the Justice Society for the very first time. This team up of champions from two eras became an annual event as the length and breadth of the DC universe grew in every issue of the JLA. The era wrapped up after Black Canary moved to the Justice League’s Earth 1 from the JSA’s Earth 2. Between the villains introduced, the constant journeys to Earth 2, and the interplay between members of the JLA, the original Justice League contained some of the most timeless and legendary stories of the Silver Age.
The Satellite Era
The era nostalgically known as the Satellite Era began in Justice League of America #78 (1970) and saw the team grow to a tremendous size as the DC Universe continued to evolve and mature. From their satellite in orbit 22,300 miles above Earth, the League protects humanity. Joining the original Leaguers were Elongated Man, the Red Tornado, Hawkgirl, Zatanna, Firestormm and kinda sorta the Phantom Stranger.
This era is legendary for crossovers with not only the classic JSA, but encounters with then forgotten heroes like the original Seven Soldiers of Victory, the Quality Comics heroes of Earth X (an Earth where Nazi rule the modern age, soon to be the setting of the next CW DC crossover), and the heroes of Earth S (Shazam). As huge as all these crossovers were, this era is best known for the personal interactions between Leaguers. From the romance between Black Canary and Green Arrow to the League helping Red Tornado find his humanity to young Firestorm trying to prove his worthiness to his seasoned team ups and to the constant friendships between Green Arrow and Green Lantern, Green Lantern and Flash, Flash and Elongated Man, and Hawkman and Atom. Not to mention the begrudging friendship between lefty leaning Green Arrow and the right leaning Hawkman, the satellite era of the Justice League defined the interpersonal dynamics of DC’s main pantheon for generations to come.
I can still hear Ted Knight’s narration: “Meanwhile…at the Hall of Justice!”
The Super Friends debuted in 1973 on ABC and lasted 9 seasons. Super Friends was a kid friendly cartoon that featured the adventures of Superman, Batman, Robin, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman. Joining the League was, at first, kid sidekicks Wendy and Marvin and later, super powered sidekicks the Wonder Twins. Over the years, Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern, and Atom were brought in and out of the show while the show’s producers Hanna Barbara created a core team of diverse heroes like Apache Chief, Samurai, Black Vulcan, and El Dorado.
The most beloved era of the show came when they took on the Legion of Doom as Challenge of the Super Friends. Ask any fan of a certain age, and they’ll tell you that Super Friends was vitally important to super hero history and made them fall in love with the DC pantheon.
The Detroit League
Trying to catch onto the trend of young, hip, diverse super teams begun by the X-Men and the Teen Titans, DC decided to drastically alter the Justice League roster. Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Firestorm were replaced by long time Leaguers Aquaman, Zatanna, Martian Manhunter along with new members Vibe, Gypsy, Steel, and Vixen. This team made its debut in Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984) and was created by Gerry Conway and Chuck Patton. This new League didn’t operate 22,300 miles above Earth but in the heart of the great city of Detroit. Everything about this League was scaled back and the
DC fans at the time did not really take kindly to this transition away from the Justice League of old. Vibe’s dialogue is still cringeworthy and the fact that the most popular League members were MIA did not exactly win the hearts of the 1984 DC faithful. In a few short years, DC would abandon the Detroit League as a failed experiment, but, the fact that Vixen, Gypsy, Steel, and Vibe live on as beloved parts of CW’s Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Arrow speaks to the durability of these magnificent characters that were once deemed disposable.
The Bwah-Ha-Ha Era
When the Detroit League was put out to pasture, that team of heroes that somewhat failed to win over the hearts of fans was replaced by one of the most beloved Justice League teams of all time. Superman and Wonder Woman were still absent, but Batman was back along with a hilarious grouping of unexpected heroes that formed the most dysfunctional super hero team of all time.
Created by JM DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, and Kevin Maguire in Justice League #1 (1987), the roster of this new Justice League that would soon be known as Justice League International consisted of Black Canary, Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, a new female Asian Doctor Light, Doctor Fate, Martian Manhunter, Mister Miracle, and Guy Gardner, and soon after the team formed, Booster Gold, the armored Russian Rocket Red, Captain Atom, Fire, and Ice would join. The team would spin off into Justice League Europe as Giffen and DeMatteis built a world of super hero parody that also had a huge heroic heart. Despite the humorous tone, underutilized heroes like Captain Marvel and Mister Miracle were given the Justice League spotlight as the legend of the Justice League continued to grow, albeit in a very wacky direction. Bwah-ha-ha, indeed.
The Core 7 Returns
After a failed “Extreme Task Force” era, DC took the Justice League back to its roots with JLA #1 (1997). Gone were morts like Mystek and Triumph as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter gathered again as the JLA, which seemed more like a pantheon of gods than a team of superheroes.
During his time as writer, Grant Morrison introduced huge ideas for the League to face. Morrison may have had Wally West as Flash and Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern (along with the electric blue Superman), but none of that mattered because the Justice League was once again the center of the DCU. In addition to the Big 7, this era added Zauriel, Big Barda, Orion, Huntress, Oracle (Barbara Gordon), Steel (John Henry Irons), Plastic Man, Aztek, Tomorrow Woman, and Green Arrow (Connor Hawke). The core Leaguers and their teammates faced Darkseid and the Legions of Apokolips, a version of Starro that only Morrison could imagine, a new version of the Key, and a new Injustice Gang led by Lex Luthor. This era pushed the boundaries of the comic art form and created a Justice League that told the world that the League is at its best when the big guns are let loose upon the DC Universe.
Justice League Unlimited
Batman: The Animated Series is probably the most important superhero cartoon ever created. Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond followed and added to the rich tapestry that Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and so many more talented creators worked on over the years. How do you top this type of animated perfection? You call the Justice League. The Justice League animated series took the concept of the Core 7 (replacing Aquaman with Hawkgirl) and made a generation of fans fall in love with this very different group of super friends. The League faced the biggest menaces in the DC Universe as the cartoon borrowed from every era of DC awesomeness.
Things only got bigger when a literal legion of super heroes joined the Core 7 to form the Justice League Unlimited. Now, fans got to experience just how cool each and every DC hero could be as the new huge Justice League took on any and all menaces. In JLU, characters like Vigilante and Elongated Man shared screen time with Superman and Batman in a heartfelt tribute to the DC Universe and the results were legendary.
Justice League of America
The Core 7 fought the good fight for a long time after Grant Morrison departed JLA, and the next truly notable era of Justice League began after the Infinite Crisis crossover event. The post-Infinite Crisis era was, how shall we say this diplomatically, problematic. It started out solid enough with writer Brad Meltzer putting together a League consisting of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Black Canary, Red Arrow, Red Tornado, Vixen, Black Lightning, and Hawkgirl. Well, eventually putting together, because the first, four issues consisted of Supes, Bats, and Diana sitting around a table with photos of the eventual League and discussing the best candidates for the League as if joining the world’s greatest team was like casting a margarine commercial. But hey, it was Meltzer so the dialogue was snappy and eventually the whole thing led to a crossover with the JSA and the Legion of Super Heroes plus a superb story featuring Vixen and Red Arrow that should taught in universities, so everything ended up okay.
Brad Meltzer didn’t stick around for long and what followed was one of the most uneven and inconsistent eras in League history. A bunch of writers and heroes would arrive and leave just as quickly. Writer James Robinson took over bringing Supergirl, Captain Marvel Jr., Plastic Man, Congorilla, and a few others with him, but things kind of degenerated into a big depressing mess as Red Arrow’s daughter gets murdered and somehow Red Arrow is left high as a kite and clutching a dead cat that he thought was his dead daughter. Um, yeah. Can we go back to being 22,300 miles above Earth please? Robinson eventually cleaned things up a bit and crafted a fascinating but brief League team with Green Arrow, the Atom, Batman, Mon-El, Donna Troy, Cyborg, Doctor Light, Starfire, Congorilla, and the Guardian. This lineup is notable because of the use of former members of the Teen Titans, especially Cyborg, who, as we know, would be inseparable from the Justice League for years to come. If you’re curious about when exactly Cyborg become part of Justice League lore, here you go.
The New 52
In 2011, post-Flashpoint, the DC Universe was rebooted and leading the way, as always, was the Justice League. Taking the concept of the Core 7 into DC’s new reality, writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee put together a newly designed Justice League consisting of old stalwarts Superman, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Hal Jordan, Flash, Aquaman, along with Cyborg. The New 52 Justice League started out with a bang, taking on Darkseid and ushering in a new heroic reality for a very new and very different DC Universe. With the current Rebirth publishing initiative, the DC Universe has become a sort of amalgamation of classic DC and New 52 DC, but the League established in Johns and Lee’s Justice League continues to be the Justice League, but with new Green Lanterns Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz have replaced Hal Jordan as the GL in residence. Truthfully, isn’t that what the Justice League all about? A place for new characters to rub shoulders with the greatest icons in comics!