Today’s Super Comic — Justice League of America #171 (1979)

justice_league_of_america_vol_1_171I always loved the “satellite era” of the Justice League of America, particularly when I was first discovering comics as a kid in the early ‘90s. Those late ‘70s/early ‘80s JLA books were always a treat to find in the quarter bins.

Justice League of America #171 is a good example. It begins with a joint meeting of the JLA and Justice Society of America (visiting all the way from the parallel world of Earth-2), and it ends by kicking off a locked-room murder mystery aboard the satellite HQ.

It’s harder to recommend for adults (other than for nostalgic reasons), but it shows what makes these classic JLA stories great for kids. These superheroes are adults and consummate professionals, and they respect and trust each other enough to freely share their secret identities. After the meeting, writer Gerry Conway takes time to show the two teams simply enjoying each other’s company, like a bunch of firefighters hanging out in the fire hall between calls, having forged close bonds in the course of their dangerous work. But when disaster strikes, they drop everything and leap into action.

If you’ve got kids interested in superheroes, show them old Justice League of America books from circa 1980. You’ll be giving them terrific role models.

Writer: Gerry Conway

Artists: Dick Dillan and Frank McLaughlin

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 8 and up

Today’s Super Comics — JLA #1-4 (1997)

JLA_1This is how you do a classic-style Justice League of America story with a modern sensibility.

In 1997, DC Comics injected fresh energy into the franchise by relaunching the title as JLA and reuniting the original lineup from the early ‘60s (the current versions of those characters, anyway). For probably the first since those earliest days, the Justice League consisted exclusively of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash (Wally West, not Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner, not Hal Jordan), Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter. All A-listers.

First on the itinerary is—what else?—thwarting an alien invasion. The aliens claim to be benevolent superheroes here to save the world, and they instantly get the public on their side. But of course things aren’t what they seem.

This entire JLA lineup, except poor Martian Manhunter, had their own series, so no major character developments were allowed in these pages. The trick to a great JLA story, then, is to simply let the characters be their awesome selves and interact with their awesome teammates as they awesomely save the world. Split them up, pair them off, knock them down, and let them get back up again and heroically prevail. Writer Grant Morrison gives everyone moments to shine, and artist Howard Porter makes them look suitably epic as they do so (he draws a particularly excellent Batman).

I remember when this series first came out. It was exciting, and I looked forward to each next issue. It’s good guys being good guys—exactly how the JLA should be.

Writer: Grant Morrison

Penciler: Howard Porter

Inker: John Dell

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; JLA: New World Order (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comics — JLA: Year One #1-12 (1998)

JLA_Year_One_1I loved this miniseries when it first came out, and it still holds up excellently. Written by Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn, JLA: Year One chronicles the formative days of the Justice League of America, when five novice superheroes—each destined for greatness—were learning how to be a team.

The Justice League tends to fall into a certain trap from time to time, one laid not by any super-villain but by its stars’ respective ongoing titles. Any major developments in Superman’s life, for example, should ideally happen in Superman’s solo books, and the Justice League title merely gets to borrow him at whatever his current status quo is. Nothing wrong with that necessarily; there is plenty of fun to be had in seeing DC’s greatest characters teaming-up and interacting in character as they save the world. Many a thrilling JLA story has followed the blockbuster format to superb effect.

But JLA: Year One enjoys the best of both worlds. It stars five great DC characters—the Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Black Canary, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter. They’re all portrayed perfectly in character, but the series takes place in the past, minimizing the need to coordinate and share with other books. Sure, they can’t contradict their present-day counterparts, and you know none of them are going to die (because some are scheduled to die later), but they have no competing contemporary versions—hardly even in back issues either, thanks to DC’s mid-‘80s continuity reboot.

Thus, the characters are free to drive the story, and over the course of a year we get to watch them grow and develop as heroes. The big world-shaking events are still there, of course, but the characters come first. And they are terrific, classic characters indeed.

If this had been an ongoing series, I would’ve kept reading it.

Writers: Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn

Artist: Barry Kitson

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; JLA: Year One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comics — JLA/Avengers #1-4 (2003-04)

JLA_Avengers_1_CoverTwo major comic book movies this year have featured superheroes facing off against each other. Batman vs. Superman in one corner. Captain America vs. Iron Man in the other. And one of those movies was even good.

But in terms of sheer scope, both are downright pedestrian compared to the JLA/Avengers miniseries, the intercompany crossover that had been in the works for many years before it finally materialized thirteen years ago.

Marvel and DC could have phoned this one in and still sold a ton of copies, but instead they called in the big guns: Kurt Busiek and George Perez. Busiek is a fantastic superhero writer who understands the genre better than most. And if there’s a better artist than Perez when it comes to drawing crowded pages full of classic superheroes, well, that would be news to me.

So yes, JLA/Avengers is the ultimate comic book summer blockbuster. It offers no new insights about these characters, but why would it? The fun is seeing our favorite Avengers and Justice Leaguers interact, and sounding and behaving in-character as they do so. The book performs that task wonderfully, but it does go the extra mile by contrasting these two great superhero universes. The most interesting part is how the Justice League views the Marvel Universe as practically dystopian while the Avengers view the DC Universe as nearly utopian.

But seeing, for example, Superman going into battle while carrying Captain America’s shield and Thor’s hammer? It’s not high art, but it’s Superman going into battle carrying Captain America’s shield and Thor’s hammer. And really, that’s what it’s all about.

A grand fun time.

Writer: Kurt Busiek

Artist: George Perez

Publishers: DC & Marvel

How to Read It: back issues; JLA/Avengers (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up