The Justice League has been DC’s flagship superhero team for decades. After fighting against injustice for more than 50 years, it’s no surprise the League’s history has accumulated some odd details.
Some of those moments are charming, like the Atom’s tiny flying chair at JLA meetings. Some of them stem from a writer trying to shake things up (that badass Batman secretly plots to destroy his team!) or coming up with a quirky story (a teenage boy figures how to kill the JLA). Sometimes it’s the passage of time that makes what once seemed unremarkable now look quaint, like the Silver Age JLA’s old-fashioned methods of finding crimes to stop. Of course, the passage of time also makes things like the long years without any minority members look embarrassing by today’s standards.
The Justice League movie coming out this summer is just the latest development in a long, heroic, and sometimes outright crazy history. Read on for 16 fun facts from the JLA’s colorful past.
16. Superman Kills An Alien In The JLA’s Origin, Then Jokes About It
Superman’s code against killing has been a fundamental part of his character for decades. When he does kill, it’s usually a big, big deal, as in the climax of the 2013 Man of Steel movie, or executing three Kryptonian criminals in Superman #22. And then there’s Justice League of America #9.
The story is a flashback as the team tells honorary member Snapper Carr how they first came together fighting aliens from the planet Appellax. The ETs weren’t conquering Earth, just fighting a war of succession here to spare their own planet the damage. The Appellaxian fighting Superman is a diamond creature, so Superman reverses his old trick of squeezing coal into diamonds. Instead, he rubs the alien’s diamond body until it turns into coal and dies. When Snapper asks how that’s even possible, Superman quips that he “rubbed the diamond creature the wrong way.” Of course, the rest of the team killed the other Appellaxians just as dead, but none of them laughed about it.
15. Malcolm Merlyn On Arrow Is Based On A JLA Villain, Not a Green Arrow Foe
John Barrowman’s Malcolm Merlyn has been one of Arrow’s most memorable villains, a role he’s now extended to DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. It would be logical to think he’s based on one of Green Arrow’s comic-book villains, but that’s not the case. Merlyn was actually one of the JLA’s foes, and a D-lister at that.
When the JLA first meets Merlyn (Justice League of America #94), Green Arrow remembers competing against him in an archery tournament years ago. GA lost, but he makes up for it at the story’s climax by outshooting Merlyn, preventing his assassination of Batman. Most of Merlyn’s subsequent appearances involved more fights against the League, for example as a member of the assassin team the Killer Elite. None of them were against Green Arrow one on one, and none of them made him interesting. Arrow did, so it’s no surprise there’s now a new, TV-influenced Merlyn in the comics. And this Merlyn is finally taking a personal interest in fighting Green Arrow.
14. The Silver Age JLA Learned About Crimes From Snail Mail And Radio News
1960s Justice League adventures could start several ways. Sometimes, the villain came after them, as in Justice League of America #3. Sometimes, one member discovered a major threat and called in the team (#1). And every so often, they heard about it on Snapper Carr’s transistor radio.
In #31, for instance, the team sit around their meeting table until they hear a radio news report about a gang of untouchable thieves. They wouldn’t have known nuclear war was breaking out in #40 if not for a radio news bulletin.
Concerned citizens also alerted the JLA by mail. In #6, for instance, a museum curator writes for their help catching an invisible thief. In #45, they get a letter about an alien monster threatening the Earth — but as the mail plane crashed, they get it two years late. The world’s probably lucky that the team later switched to more high-tech methods of monitoring.
Still, the old-school approach did add a human touch. In #6, the League also answers a letter from a woman who needs their help to find a lost fortune and save her family’s home. Even the best computer surveillance system wouldn’t have red-flagged that one.
13. One Of The Justice League’s Arch-Enemies Was One Of Dream’s First Foes In Sandman
In Justice League of America #5, criminal scientist Dr. Destiny has the bright idea to destroy the Justice League before he launches his crime career. He lost, of course, but he didn’t give up. Instead, he developed a technology that allowed him to manipulate dreams and bring them into reality. Creating adversaries from the JLA’s own nightmares, Dr. Destiny bedeviled them repeatedly throughout the Silver Age and beyond. So it’s not surprising that Destiny’s big non-JLA adversary was Morpheus, AKA Dream, the protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
The opening issue of Sandman established that Dream had been trapped by an occult group years earlier (not intentionally; they’d been trying for his sister, death). When Morpheus finally breaks free, he spends the next few issues looking for the talismans that the cult stole from him. Dr. Destiny is actually the son of the cult leader’s mistress, and his exposure to one of the talismans gave him his uncanny power over dreams. Naturally, when Destiny realizes the full power of the talisman, he has no intention of giving it back. When the talisman gets trashed, however, Morpheus regains his full power and moves on to fresh adventures.
12. The Justice League Went 23 Years Without A Black Member
One of the things that tarnishes the Silver Age is how very, very, very white it was. White heroes. White teams of heroes. Mostly white supporting casts. At Marvel, the Avengers finally inducted the Black Panther as a member in 1968. The JLA lagged way behind, inducting its first black member in 1984, when writer Gerry Conway introduced the “Detroit League.”
Conway hoped to improve the series, and its sales, by replacing heroes with their own books, such as Superman and Batman, in favor of characters he alone would control. Those included Vixen, a black superhero he’d created several years earlier, and the all-new Latino hero Vibe. While the diversity was welcome, the change in direction wasn’t. The Detroit era plodded along until the series expired three years later, followed by a new series and creative team. It would take The CW’s slate of super-series to make Vixen and Vibe into hits.
11. Cyborg Joined The Justice League On TV 25 Years Before Joining Them In Comics
In the New 52 Victor Stone, AKA Cyborg, is a founding member and mainstay of the Justice League. In 1985, he was still a member of the Teen Titans — but not on TV.
In 1985’s Super-Powers Team: Galactic Guardians cartoon, the Justice League — rechristened as the Super-Powers Team — battles against various schemes of the alien god Darkseid. Teen Titans was a hot book at the time, so it made sense to add Cyborg to the ‘toon’s cast. In the first episode, he turns down League membership to continue his work with handicapped kids (something he did in Teen Titans, too). Cyborg tells Firestorm that as he has no secret identity, becoming a superhero would be something he’d never be able to turn off. He doesn’t want that.
Just the same, when Darkseid attacks Earth again, Cyborg agrees to use his built-in tech to hack Darkseid’s computers and thwart his plans. When the adventure ends, Cyborg concedes he belongs on the Super-Powers Team after all.
10. A Teenage Boy With No Powers Once Killed Off The Justice League
Relax, it was only on paper.
In #16, the criminal Maestro uses body-controlling music to keep people, including the JLA, dancing helplessly during his robberies. Not being idiots, the JLA plug their ears before the big showdown — and learn that’s what the Maestro counted on. The music was a misdirection: his real weapon is a ray that hits the motor centers of the brain. With no defense against it, the JLA members helplessly dance themselves to death.
Then comes the real twist: this is actually a comic book story written by teenage fan Jerry Thomas (named for real-world fans Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas). After dreaming up the Maestro, Jerry became terrified his scheme would actually work. Turning it into a comic book, he sent it to the League (by mail, of course) and asked them to find a solution. The heroes are genuinely worried the Maestro would have won, until they realize he made a slip-up that would have given the game away. Phew, they’d have beaten him! Snapper Carr writes back to tell Jerry that he’s not a world-class mastermind after all.
9. After Writing A Mourning Scene, A JLA Writer Learned The Character Wasn’t Dead
The late Dwayne McDuffie wrote a number of excellent stories for the Justice League cartoons. His 2007-09 run on their comic book, however, was much less successful. Reading the issues made it obvious McDuffie was stuck steering the plots to wherever DC’s big events and crossovers needed the book to be. McDuffie later confirmed his own plans were repeatedly overruled because of what was happening elsewhere in the DCU.
The most extreme example involved Hawkgirl. She’d been on the team, without Hawkman, when McDuffie took over the book. He had plans for her character arc, then he learned he’d have to put them on hold because Grant Morrison decided to kill her in Final Crisis. McDuffie wrote a mourning scene with Hawkgirl’s ex-boyfriend Arsenal, but after it was illustrated, Geoff Johns overruled Morrison. Hawkgirl had to survive Final Crisis so that Johns could kill her and Hawkman in Blackest Night instead, and McDuffie had to rewrite Arsenal’s dialog accordingly.
8. Marvel Published Its Own JLA Series In The 1980s
Not officially, of course, but when the excellent Squadron Supreme launched in 1985, it was obviously “What if the Justice League took over the world to save it?”
Existing on a parallel world to the main Marvel Universe, the Squadron Supreme debuted in Avengers #85. The members included Hyperion (Superman), Nighthawk (Batman), and Dr. Spectrum (Green Lantern), and later added characters such as Power Princess (Wonder Woman) and Amphibion (Aquaman). Meeting them confused the Avengers, as a similar villain team, the Squadron Sinister, existed back on the Avengers’ own Earth. The heroic teams worked things out, but every time they met after that, they still wound up punching each other out.
Squadron Supreme made the team even more JLA-ish: Nighthawk is as indomitable a Dark Knight as Batman, for instance. DC understandably didn’t feel the love, and threatened to sue. As the Squadron had been around so long, the statute of limitations thwarted DC, but low sales killed the book anyway. A radical reboot, Supreme Power, ran for 18 issues starting in 2003.
7. The New 52 Origin For the Justice League Was The First Complete Reboot In 50 Years
The Justice League’s battle with the Appellaxians isn’t considered one of the great origins. It’s not bad, but nobody ranks it with classics like Superman, Batman, or Captain America. Nevertheless, it survived five decades without more than minor adjustments. Mostly what changed was membership. DC’s line-wide reboot in the mid-eighties shuffled the original line-up — Black Canary in, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman out — but the Appellaxian invasion stayed canon. Wonder Woman got retconned back in later.
In 2011, however, the first issue of the New 52’s Justice League tossed the Appellaxians out. The heroes come together not to fight Appellax, but Darkseid. On top of that, the individual members were new and green, and the world didn’t know whether to trust them yet. Cyborg was now one of the founding members, replacing the Martian Manhunter. Of course, DC’s ongoing Rebirth event may leave us with the original origin, both origins, or neither.
6. The Martian Manhunter Spied On His Teammates To Learn Their Secrets
JLA Year One was a 12-issue retcon series showing how the original Justice League team — not the original original team, but the Black Canary original team — learned to work together despite their different outlooks and personalities. It was a rocky adjustment, and nobody had it rockier than J’Onn J’Onzz.
From J’Onn’s perspective, he was an alien on a world that didn’t seem to like aliens much. He hoped his new teammates would be more accepting, but their response to alien invaders wasn’t to negotiate, it was “kill that sucker!” And sometimes mount the corpse in the JLA Trophy Room. And a Martian vulnerable to fire would be easy to overcome…
Rather than use telepathy to probe their minds, J’Onn used his shapeshifting powers and detective skills to spy on them, as he’d done with other Earth super-heroes. The League was outraged when they found out, but they eventually understood J’Onn’s motivations. When the Appellaxians, back for a rematch, use J’Onn’s files to take out all of Earth’s superheroes, the League finally gels as a team. The Appellaxians go down hard.
5. An Award-Winning JLA Story Was Written To Retcon A Continuity Error
In Justice League of America #4, the Leaguers discuss whether to pick Hawkman, Green Arrow, or Adam Strange as their new member. Readers objected, correctly, that none of the JLA could know who Adam Strange was. Adam, who appeared in Mystery in Space, was an Earthman who visited the planet Rann via the teleporting Zeta Beam. On Rann, he was the great planetary defender; on Earth, he was just Adam Strange, archeologist.
As Justice League editor Julius Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox also worked on Adam’s strip, they retconned an answer. In Mystery in Space #75, the alien tyrant Kanjar Ro uses Rann’s triple sun to give him solar-based powers like Superman’s, but at triple strength. When the JLA arrives on Rann, Kanjar Ro cleans their clocks, but Adam’s true strength is his quick wits. He deduces Kanjar Ro’s weakness, hits him with it, and saves the day. That convinced Flash to nominate him for membership, but Adam ended up losing out to Green Arrow. The story, however, was a winner in 1960s fandom’s Alley Awards, picking up the 1962 Alley for “Best Book-Length Story.”
4. The Justice League Got Its Name Because An Editor Thought “Justice Society” Sounded Too Fancy
A lot of the shine of the Silver Age came from editor Julius Schwartz and the talents under him (including Fox, Carmine Infantino, John Broome, and Murphy Anderson). They developed successful new versions of Golden Age heroes such as Hawkman, Green Lantern, and Flash, completely reinventing the characters but keeping the names. A new version of the Golden Age Justice Society of America was a logical next step, but this time, the name did change.
“To me ‘society’ meant something you found on Park Avenue,” Schwartz said in The Amazing World of DC Comics #14. “I felt that ‘league’ was a stronger word, one that readers could identify with because of baseball leagues.” After beating the Appellaxians in the origin story, the heroes discuss forming “a club or society” before Flash sums up their mission statement as forming “a league against evil!” Justice League that it’s been ever since. (The “of America” bit has come and gone.) Though, as the Justice Society would later succeed in its own series, apparently readers weren’t bothered by the name as much as Schwartz.
3. The Atom Attended JLA Meetings In A Flying Chair
In Justice League of America #14, the JLA unanimously votes for the six-inch-high crime-fighting Atom to be the newest member … then discover none of them remember who he is. It turns out the issue’s villain, Mr. Memory, has inflicted Atom with amnesia via his de-memorizer. As a side-effect, the rest of the world’s forgotten who the Atom is as well.
Memory’s henchmen successfully turn the entire League into amnesiac drones, but Atom regains his memory and saves them. After locking up Mr. Memory, the JLA return to their HQ and the Atom attends his first meeting. There, he discovers his tiny chair is down on the floor, forcing him to make eye contact with everyone’s ankles. The Atom is kind of bummed until someone tells him to press the button on the chair arm. Surprise! The chair is designed to fly up until Atom’s at face-level with the rest of the team.
2. One Of DC’s Own Writers Fought the JLA To A Standstill
One of the wilder conceits of DC’s original multiverse was that the “real” world was just another universe, named Earth-Prime. The Flash discovered this in Flash #166, when he stumbled into Earth-Prime and turned to DC staffers as the only ones who’d believe his story. Julius Schwartz helped him return home, but the machine Flash used stayed at the DC offices. Several years later, DC writers Cary Bates and Elliott Maggin (Bates has the beard in the photo above) discover the machine still has some power left — enough to send Maggin to Earth-One (the JLA’s world) and Bates to Earth-Two (the JSA’s home).
The criminal Injustice Society took advantage of this by turning Bates into a supervillain. Combining his new powers with his plotting ability, Bates single-handedly killed the Justice Society, then went after the JLA. He did well until Maggin shattered his confidence with a few well-placed insults about Bates’ writing. The JLA won, the JSA recovered, and Maggin and the de-powered Bates returned home. Schwartz grumbled he’d be embarrassed to use a plot that absurd.
1. Batman Made A Plan For Destroying His Teammates, Just In Case
Along with becoming increasingly darker and grimmer, Batman’s become less and less of a team player over time, Even when he’s on a team, he conducts himself like a lone wolf who doesn’t trust anyone (Lego Batman’s obsessive paranoia in the Lego Justice League videos skewers this perfectly). In the JLA’s 2000 “Tower of Babel” arc, it came back to bite him.
Batman began plotting against the League long before the story. After seeing the team repeatedly mind-controlled and duplicated, he figured out ways to cripple or kill them. Zap Superman with red kryptonite, induce water-phobia in Aquaman, and so on. You might think the Caped Crusader could keep all that in his head (“use kryptonite!” isn’t that complicated) but instead, he wrote it all down. Which proved convenient for Ra’s al Ghul, who stole the plan and used it. After the League defeated Ra’s, they and Batman decided to take a little time apart from each other, though they eventually reconciled.
Given some of the things Batman’s done to Robin over the years, perhaps his bad judgment wasn’t that surprising…
There are surely hundreds of other obscure factoids surrounding DC’s greatest group of heroes that casual fans may not know. Be sure to leave the strangest ones you know in the comments!