Justice League In 1987: How Does It Fit The Grim & Gritty Context?

by Andrew Edwards

Following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths (April 1985 – March 1986), the Legends six issue mini-series by John Ostrander, Len Wein and John Byrne (November 1986 – May 1987) afforded the opportunity to see the new DC universe in action. Issue #6 saw the debut of the new Justice League team, who received their own ongoing title, starting with a new #1 (May 1987).  Due to ongoing changes in some of DCs core characters and former JLA members – including Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash – their respective series’ editors would not let them appear in this new incarnation of the League. Batman, however, would feature in the early issues, joined by former JLA members like Martian Manhunter and Black Canary, and lower profile heroes like Guy Gardner, Blue Beetle and Mister Miracle.

Such jarring, seemingly incompatible characters, thrown together more out of necessity that the demands of coherence, could have led to a tonally disparate and dysfunctional superhero action-adventure series. While there was action, the interaction of the characters’ personalities became the driving force of the series. Readers like me cared about Ted Kord and Scott Free more than whether Blue Beetle or Mister Miracle  would defeat the villain. This was a shift into a type of realism based on human relationships, rather than the dour or violent realism supposedly represented by books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (February – June 1986) and, to some extent, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen (September 1986 – October 1987).

These comics were buzzing with adults themes, tropes and realism through 1986 and into 1987. Miller’s Dark Knight gave us an older, darker Batman, while Watchmen pushed the envelope for superhero realism through its examining the effects such characters would have in a real world setting as a kind of comic book thought experiment. Realism would also drive the impetus to rationalize the convoluted DC continuity through Crisis and retool Superman for modern readers in Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series.

Looking back at this historical context, it can be difficult to see where the Justice League fits in; the work of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire, or rather the reputation of this work, seems at odds with the grim and gritty aesthetic that was in vogue at the time. However, the early issues of Justice League and the later issues of Watchmen were published concurrently. Justice League – later renamed Justice League International (JLI) between #7 and #25, before settling on Justice League America (JLA) from #26 onwards – is often primarily remembered as a series that featured  second rate heroes in situations played for laughs and punctuated with excessive levels of Bwah-ha-ha-ness. Yes, humour was an undeniable and central element of the series’ success, but it operated within the context of a number of other elements that it shared with Watchmen, its DC comics’ stablemate, albeit in an inverted form.

Both series featured manipulative businessmen who had ulterior motives for the superheroes: while Adrian Veidt moves from being a superhero to the villain of Watchmen, Maxwell Lord inverts this process in becoming a trusted colleague and manager of the JLI, following his earlier manipulation of the team. Both series feature characters of disturbing morality: Rorschach moves from being a hero to suffering a psychotic breakdown that leads to him becoming a sociopath, while Guy Gardner shifts between exhibiting similar anti-social tendencies and experiencing a radical change of personality,  becoming a sweet and guileless innocent.

Both series feature characters whose lack of humanity is a distinctive trait: Dr. Manhattan becomes less human and more distant from humanity, while Martian Manhunter  becomes more human through his interaction with the team, developing a dry sense of humour and a penchant for Oreos. In addition, both series feature engineers who fly airships: Ted Kord, with the Blue Beetles’ Bug, and Daniel Dreiberg, with the Nite Owl’s airship nicknamed ‘Archie’. While Nite Owl becomes more heroic as he regains his taste for adventure by breaking Rorschach out of jail and discovering Veidt is the villain, Blue Beetle becomes less of a heroic presence and more of a comedic character, partnered with Booster Gold to provide much of the series’ humour.

While the reputations of Justice League and Watchmen often seem at odds with each other, these common themes mirror each other and bring both series a little closer together and, as such, they offer the reader a much more complete view of the nature of mid-1980s superhero comic culture.

Andrew Edwards

Dr Andrew Edwards has been writing about comics since 2007, completing reviews, encyclopedia entries and articles for a number of publishers including Sequart, ABC-Clio/Greenwood and Comicon.com. With a background in teaching and librarianship, Andrew has also undertaken scholarly research into intertextuality and gender in the work of Alan Moore, for which he received his PhD in 2018. He is currently writing his first book on the Moore-Bissette-Totleben-Veitch issues of Swamp Thing for Sequart.