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A League Of My Own

April 12th, 2006

Recently, for no purpose outside of exercising my geek muscles, I found myself contemplating the following: “What would be the ideal membership of the Justice League of America?” I know what you’re thinking, but honestly, it gets boring driving around town, and my mind tends to wander.

The JLA is DC Comics’ premiere superhero team. Not always its most popular, but certainly the one with the longest continuous publishing schedule. In various forms, it’s been around since 1960.

The League was itself a reworking of the original superhero alliance, 1940’s Justice Society of America, which was created as a marketing ploy to bolster the World War II era heroes published by DC and its affiliated company, All-American Comics. At the time, its ever-changing roster usually featured heroes which did not have their own title. For that reason, Superman and Batman remained honorary members, and Flash and Green Lantern left the group once they got their own books.

When DC revived the concept for the Space Age, they initially made it more straightforward. The JLA were “The World’s Greatest Superheroes,” and the roster was made up of the company’s heavy hitters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter. Green Arrow, the Atom and Hawkman were added soon after. That lineup remained fairly consistent for years, though later they were joined by the Elongated Man (think Plastic Man with a stupid name), Black Canary (herself a former member of the Justice Society), the Red Tornado (an android whirlwind named after a ’40s superhero spoof), Firestorm the Nuclear Man, Zatanna (a leggy sorceress who casts spells by speaking reverse English) and Hawkgirl (because one hawkperson is not enough).

That was the “classic” lineup for the first couple of decades, until a boneheaded editorial decision replaced many of the iconic characters with fresh, young heroes. The book was cancelled soon afterward, but since has been brought back under a variety of titles, with perhaps a hundred different members over time.

All of this serves as an introduction to the central question that kept me occupied in the car: Who deserves to be in the Justice League?

First off, the absolute essentials have to be the three core DC characters: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Some have argued that their prominence elsewhere limits their effectiveness in a team book. I say bullshit. These are the big names, and no assemblage of “The World’s Greatest Superheroes” could be without them.

Next, I would include Green Lantern and the Flash, for their prominence, longevity (at least in concept, even though various characters have carried those names) and power. Though Silver Age test pilot Hal Jordan was the Green Lantern of my youth, I would follow the lead of the producers of the Justice League cartoon and go with John Stewart. Stewart is one of DC’s few prominent black superheroes–hell, he’s one of the few non-whites–and while it might smell of tokenism, I’d like my League to have at least a bit of diversity.

My first exclusion would be Aquaman. Yes, it seems wrong. The man was one of the “Super Friends,” for goodness’ sake. But the old criticisms of Aquaman still (erm) hold water; swimming and talking to fish aren’t that useful on dry land. Sure, put him on speed dial, but otherwise send him back to his finny friends.

Next to go would be Hawkman. Don’t misunderstand. I like Hawkman, but his superpowers are flying and swinging a mace. Most of the League members can fly, even Batman if you count his Batplane, Batgyro and Batwhathaveyou. Being able to fly is almost a requirement of membership. And a mace might make a decent weapon against the Tattooed Man, but not against the sort of world conquerers the League typically faces. See you later, Hawkdude, and take your girlfriend with you!

Then there’s Green Arrow. Yes, he has almost as long a history as Hawkman, but he’s been accurately described as “Batman with a bow.” There’s really nothing that Green Arrow can accomplish that Batman can’t, so long as Bats has a fully-stocked utility belt and an assload of Batarangs. You might say, “But what if the JLA needs to win an archery contest?” Well, as a trained Amazon warrior, Wonder Woman surely could fill in. Back to your Arrowcave, Green Arrow!

I have mixed feelings about the Atom. The JLA doesn’t always need someone who can shrink to microscopic size, but when it does, no one else will do. I’d cast him as the team’s scientific advisor. Keep him in the satellite until some really tiny aliens need a good punching.

The Martian Manhunter is even more of a question. He’s one of the original seven Leagures, and he’s got powers–lots of them. In fact, between his super-strength, flight, nigh-invulnerability, Martian vision, super-breath, telepathy, shapeshifting, invisibility and intangibility, you barely need anyone else. Which is why I have a problem with him as part of a team. Still, he seems too good to not have around.

I’d definitely ditch Black Canary and Red Tornado. Canary is “Batman with better legs.” Her sonic scream is a plus, but again, Superman and the Martian have that covered. And poor Red Tornado never gets a break; what’s the point of being a robotic vortex of wind when the Flash can create his own twisters just by spinning in place?

The League needs someone to deal with magical threats, and while my head says Doctor Fate, the gold-helmeted adventurer with power to spare and one of the all-time cool costumes, my heart belongs to Zatanna, if only to add a second woman to the team and to fill the fishnet stocking void vacated by Black Canary.

For the sake of versatility, I think it’s important for one of the Leaguers to be able to absorb and redirect energy. It’s a good skill to have, for example, when a Russian nuclear reactor goes into overload. Here I’m torn between Firestorm the Nuclear Man and Captain Atom. Atom, for my money, is clearly the more powerful of the two, plus he has military connections that might prove useful. However, from my perspective, he’s not really a DC character; he was purchased from the defunct Charlton Comics in the early ’80s. Firestorm was part of the original League, plus he’s a DC creation. Verdict: Firestorm, come on down!

I also think it would be good to have a technology-based hero, ala Marvel Comics’ Iron Man. The best thing about this is that both of my top contenders are black. Cyborg is one of the founding members of the New Teen Titans, and has also made TV appearances in the waning days of the “Super Friends,” as well as a recent turn on Smallville. My main concern is that he’s too closely associated with the Titans, and thus I turn to Steel, the armor-wearing, hammer-wielding John Henry Irons, who built his own super-suit to replace the temporarily-deceased Superman. Sure, his reputation was besmirched by a crappy feature film starring Shaquille O’Neal, but I won’t hold it against him.

Finally, every team needs a wisecracking stretchy dude. The old League had the Elongated Man, whose ability to extend himself was matched only by the crappiness of his super-name. The ’90s JLA hired Plastic Man as comic relief, and while that’s certainly a step in the right direction, my money’s on Metamorpho, who can match EM and PM in terms of elasticity and turn into a cloud of nitrous oxide, an iron wall, or an oozing glob of bromine. Ironically, Metamorpho was offered membership in the JLA back in the ’60s, but turned it down, citing his desire to become a normal human again.

So, there you have it: the ultimate Justice League, at least according to me. Superman! Batman! Wonder Woman! The Flash! Green Lantern! The Martian Manhunter! Zatanna! Firestorm! Steel! Metamorpho! Co-starring the Atom as scientific advisor, and Aquaman on speed dial!

Hmm…what would be the ideal membership of the Legion of Doom?

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