Justice League of America Annual #2 (12/84)
Writer - Gerry Conway Editor - Alan Gold
Penciller - Chuck Patton Inker - Dave Hunt
Cover Art – Chuck Patton & Dick Giordano
“... The END of the Justice League!"

Lets deal with that cover first.
I love it!
With the DC Bullet top left, the ANNUAL masthead and the issue indica top right these were perfectly framed books.
This entire cover is a classic one, heroes collected on rooftop but with the old guard in the clouds the sense of batton-passing is so reminicent of the All-New X-Men (Giant-Size X-Men #1) it's bordering on an homage!
What is really nice to see is that the interior artist - Chuck Patton - is given the introductory front cover rather than relying on a perhaps more well-known or popular artist for the 'new-direction'.
This visually interesting cover however completely ruins most of the tension in the storyline, as these things often do, as it shows right from the offset who is going to be in this new team regardless of any red herrings or mis-directions of the plot.
(I cannot let the cover go by without mentioning that the lack of any visible body for Elongated Man irks me!)

The strangest thing of all is perhaps the editorial decision to relaunch the JLA at this point - in the second Annual issue..?
That may not be that difficult to understand once we look a little closer, as this 'relaunch' is embedded deep in recent JLA history and produced very much as a continuation of the current series (indeed this book sits in continuity between #230 and #233. (231-232 being an annoying fill-in)) - no renumbering/new volume here!

The book opens, then with that continuity being addressed in a prologue...
The pre-existing Justice League Satellite has been destroyed and some of the last remaining recent members of the team discuss the chances of rebuilding 'it' (both the Satellite and the League) -- Aquaman announces the title of the book , while we get an instant follow up proclamation indicating the real purpose of this all... "Beginning A NEW Chapter In The 24-Year History of the World's Greatest Heroes!"
(Your mileage may vary.)

We are reminded/informed that it was a recent war between Mars and Earth that, amongst other things, caused the destruction of the Satellite and Aquaman equates that with the end of the League despite positive attitudes from members such as the Green Arrow. (Positive but not on the cover notice.)
Before a planned meeting at the United Nations in a week, Aquaman finds his wife has left him. (She cites his wanting to be with his team rather than his wife in the recent battle as the catalyst for her exit but both accept their strains relates back to the death of their son. (Aquaman. Death of A Prince. - one of the best comicbook stories ever in my opinion.)
This clearly leaves Aquaman available to direct all his attention to any new team, should he feel the need...

That UN Meeting does not trigger a new League however, Aquaman (suprisingly?) disbands the League after reminding everyone that the big-hitter members had been conspicuous by their absence when the team needed them. Most members present don't like the idea but in the shadows J'Onn J'Onnz nods.
Despite Firestorm's anger (I much preferred this original Firestorm meld of Ronnie Raymond and Prof. Stein than any since), Aquaman explains his point of view, "The world needs a committed fighting force -- a team of full-time, active members, living together, training together -- sharing a common purpose, a common duty." - which sounds like he's saying the world needs -- the X-Men.

Aquaman challenges the teammates to commit totally to the team and stalwarts such as Red Tornado, Green Arrow and Black Canary conceed they cannot do so. (I get it with the latter two with their helping the little man on the crime-ridden streets etc, but why not Reddy? His 'family-life' could have worked with the team couldn't it?) Hawkman and Hawkwoman have their allegiance to Thanagar first but even that's a bit thin as an excuse.

Zatanna signs up to this new commitment as does Elongated Man, dragging his wife Sue with him. Firestorm surprises  by announcing he will commit only to be overruled by Prof Stein. (see, he wasn't on that cover either was he?)
As the old guard leave and we are reminded of others having gone before, J'Onn J'Onnz steps forward and joins up. Zatanna nudges Aquaman to lead the team and Ralph announces their foursome as... "We're The NEW Justice League!"

Time to meet new faces on that cover? A military (old)-man called Heywood hears of this new League and calls for his Grandson...
Model Mari McCabe hears the news and quits her job and an abandoned factory has lights turn on...
The four JLA members and Sue Dibney get to know each other and are, apparently attacked by ... the Vixen (Mari McCabe in a new-look costume than her debuts in Action Comics #521 and DC Comics Presents #68)
"I want to join up, what else?"
"Count me in too." "The name's Steel" Steel arrives and offers a new HQ.
Steel is the grandson we were nudged about earlier and at this point I as a reader had no idea who he may be, had no knowledge of his pedigree or where he was getting all his toys from but that cover kind of let me know he was going to be staying around.
(How did Vixen and Steel know where our heroes were staying by the way?)

Steel ships the team out to (under) Lake Michigan and Detroit to show them around a perfectly purposed building he offers as a new HQ for the team, while remaining secretive about it's origins.
The team is attacked by a mystery man in an armoured suit and Steel shows his abilities while defeating him and revealing the man inside as being like a father figure to him called Dale Gunn, (were we supposed to recognise him or the name? I didn't.) This leads Steel to explain his grandfather General Hank Heywood had the place built preparing for trouble. (we also get an idea that grandfather was behind Steel's abilities too as even Mr Gunn remarks, "How did you get so strong?"
"It boils down to one word Dale: Grandpa".

There are still some unknown faces on that cover right? The action moves to downtown Motown and we see street violence and graffiti artist Paco Ramone (Vibe) who has possibly the worst and most annoying 'accent' ever in comics (other perhaps than Gambit?) "Wha'chu think? Fresh, huh? 'Vibe', That's chill." breaks up the mobs with a kind of vibration-power and some breakdancing moves. (I know - the 80s!).
Steel and Vixen, out of costume, see this Vibe and recommend him as a potential recruit to leader Aquaman who refuses to consider the suggestion opening up potential team-control issues between him and Steel.
Vibe however then arrives anyway and Aquaman reconsiders.
I did like the "Wonderful. Our first day and already our 'secret' headquarters is no secret" comment"

(Anyone notice Aquaman thanking Gunn for his new wet-suit-like, well... wet-suit? I take it this is kind of like Namor's blue-suit - is the 'every hour he needs water' trope gone?)

While we get to know a little more about Vibe and his family (and accent) we meet another local resident coincidentally also with powers, the last one from the cover - Gypsy who appears to be a thief able to turn invisible.

Hank meets Paco's sister and is smitten while Dale Gunn is propositioned by Zatanna "Do you snore in your sleep...?" (Who knew she would be so forward?) while Vixen does warn she is interested in him too!
Gypsy breaks into the HQ, J'Onn can see her although after she spins a yarn she disappears all together - nit quite a member yet then.
The local residents welcome the team as 'good neighbours' and a s apart breaks out the New Justice League begins...
"None of this is working out as I planned."

So there we have it. A new team for a new Era. As much as this resembles the All-New-X-Men it also evokes memories of the 'Cap's Kooky Quartet' days of the Avengers with a depowered team and leadership quibbles.
New members Vibe and Gypsy are awfully generic at this point, Steel not much more interesting but with more planning for a background while Vixen is so-far-so-Tigra.
Old members Elongated Man seems to be likely to be given comedy-lines while Aquaman plays Captain America/Cyclops.
I know I was always in the minority - but I really liked Zatanna's costume here!
Up to this point I knew very little about J'Onn J'Onnz as he really had not been in the spotlight much but I found him somewhat overpowerful and yet a tad dull.
Did we the readers know what we were in for? Could the title survive without the traditional League members?

Has anyone any comments as we launch into a (hopefully) fairly regular read-along of the entire Detroit-Era JLA..?

Next issue -- "The Beginning..." (which is, of course, Justice League of America #233 if you want to get ahead and look it up.!)

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The Detroit era JLA is far better and more interesting than one would assume from its reputation.

More focus in character development and lots more room to attain it, with the new and exclusive characters.

I also liked the clear storytelling and continuing plotlines.

In retrospect, it seems to have been quite the daring move for the time.  I understand that JLA had not been a very good seller for quite a while, and rarely if ever got much critical acclaim either.  The book's existence was justified, apparently, mostly as a reliable, stable showcase for DC's varsity team of superheroes.

Except that this was a time of rapid change and experimentation for DC.  This annual came less than six months before Crisis #1, and as pointed out in the story itself, the JLA had been feeling the effects of changes elsewhere.  The New Titans were all the rage, and that ought to have brought some attention to other Direct Market oriented books, including the Batman-led Outsiders.  Keeping the course would risk making the JLA an ever diminishing property.

To this day I think of the Detroit JLA as vastly superior to the much-praised JL (later JLI) that followed it.  But that qualifies as even bolder change, I suppose, keeping (most of) the name and none of the characterization even for the characters that bled over.

I feel that JLDetroit could have succeeded, were it not for a most unfortunate time of launching.  Besides having arrived late at a renewal party at DC Editorial, it also had considerable trouble deciding how much of a departure it wanted to be.  The letters column itself went back and forth on whether the more traditional members would come back or not, and there was a lot of "guest starring" from classic members in the first year of the new team.  And with Crisis redefining understandings and priorities left and right, the decisions became that much more difficult.

That said, there were some clear mistakes from early on. Gypsy and Vibe were not inspired creations, for instance.

Thanks for commenting Luis

Luis Olavo de Moura Dantas said:

The Detroit era JLA is far better and more interesting than one would assume from its reputation.

...there was a lot of "guest starring" from classic members in the first year of the new team.

I can't say I remember much of this so I'm intrigued... 

That said, there were some clear mistakes from early on. Gypsy and Vibe were not inspired creations, for instance.

It pains me to think Gerry Conway created these two - he has such good pedigree.

I think almost all of this is available on Comixology, so I may have to look into reading this that way. I know I have several issues from back issue bins, too. I'd look forward to reading this.

I may be a little distracted while I'm reading my way through the Batman Eternal trades, but I'd be interested in looking into this other blank spot in my comics reading history.

Some data on the JL Detroit.

By my account, Marv Wolfman wrote cameos of the team in Crisis (notably #9) and Roy Thomas wrote them in the crossover with Infinity Inc., which other than giving the team a reason to leave Detroit was even less consequential for the JL Detroit than the Crisis cameos. 

Other than those two and a surprising number of flashbacks since, the only writers that JL Detroit ever had were Gerry Conway, who seems to have tried hard, and J.M.DeMatteis, who seems to have been hired to close up the shop.  #255 was the transitional issue between the two writers. 

The transition seems to have been rushed and/or not entirely harmonious, since both Vixen and J'onn leave behind unresolved plots.  Most notably, Vixen reveals in #251 that she knows Batman's secret identity or at least his backstory.  I don't think anything is ever done with that.

It may be relevant to point out that there was something of a "putting down the ship" phase in DC those days.  Flash's book, for instance, was concluding its 350-issue run, and the New Titans went through a very turbulent phase of their own.

If you leave aside flashback cameos such as that in Infinity Inc. #25,JL Detroit had very little in the way of crossovers. I think it has been referenced a lot more since it ended than during its brief existence.  Come to think of it, all of its crossovers happen during what I consider the dismantling phase of the team, which in fact begins with Infinity Inc. #19 and follows directly into Justice League of America #244.

Aquaman leaves in #243, the last issue which is still clearly attempting to establish the new JLA as something to endure.  After that comes the crossover with Infinity Inc., which results in leaving Detroit for good in #246.  Gone, too, are the supporting characters such as Dale Gunn and Steel's grandfather and Vibe's family.  After that the team is headquartered in the original JLA HQ nearby Metropolis, and gives up on the premise of full dedication that Aquaman had established.

Batman joins in #250 and leaves, nearly without any remark, between #255 and #256.

Zatanna leaves formally in #257, but spends all of #248-#256 caught up in her own separate plot, which is very much a decompressed placeholder - and one that makes a victim of her for nearly all of its length, to boot.  I get the sense that Gerry Conway wanted to keep her in the book but was not granted permission to have her participate in the main stories of the time.  Post-Crisis, her membership in JL Detroit is nearly entirely abstract; after #247, she only even meets the other JLAers, in the resolution of her plot in #256-#257.

Elongated Man and Sue leave in #258, which is the first issue of the final story.  The series ends with #261.  His new lavender costume is introduced in #253.  I don't think there is any acknowledgement of it on panel.

I find myself thinking a lot about JL Detroit, in an analytical way.  So did I back in the day, ever since I saw the cover of #245, with the apparent incongruousness of the highly visible JLA logo right over the face of this Steel guy who I could not possibly be expected to recognize.

Which is probably why I bought the issue.  As it turns out, the first isse of JLA that I ever bought.  If nothing else, I was certainly intrigued by what could have happened for the JLA to have become unrecognizable after literal decades of being a reliably predictable corner of the DCU.  And since it was a Crisis tie-in as well, maybe I could learn a bit about that storyline that everyone seemed to be talking about.

In retrospect, this period of the JLA feels a lot like Gerry Conway's (and Alan Gold's?) shot at wider recognition.  Much like the JLA itself, Gerry felt reliable and confortable at this point in time.  Probably too confortable for his own good. 

Apparently lending a page from the succesfull relaunch of the Titans some five years earlier, he decided to focus on characterization and introduced four new characters (while Marv Wolfman created three and reintroduced Changeling) who among them could generate a lot of interesting stories.  Aquaman's edict that the JLA needed exclusive dedication had a very meta nature to it. 

It was now possible to take characters that went largely unused for years and actually do something with them.  Even Aquaman himself was, remarkably, still dealing with the consequences of the death of his son some seven years prior.  Elongated Man, Zatanna and Martian Manhunter were likewise not being used elsewhere and could go through some measure of development while also being a link to a better known JLA and its own history, supporting characters and enemies.

The formula was reasonable enough.  But ultimately, it did not make a lot of impact, and to a large extent it was let go as quietly as possible arguably since the first post-Crisis issue (#246).

A lot of it may have been simple lack of proper environment and editorial support.  JL Detroit was the headliner in exactly 29 issues of its own title (Annual 2, #233-#239, #241-#261) and it had a lot of serious competition for rack space at the time.  #240 did not feature the current team at all, even as a cameo or establishing sequence. #246 had the unceremonious dumping of the whole set-up and realocation to the original JLA HQ.  Figuratively and literally, at this point the team was grasping for purpose. As of #250, it was reduced to asking for Batman to give them a chance to remain existing.  The writing was on the wall.

The "New" Justice League echoed the "New" Teen Titans in many regards such as:

  • Steel's bitter, half-human, half-machine gimmick matches up with Cyborg
  • Vixen's mystical and dangerous nature is similar to Raven
  • Vibe's comedic wise-acre persona is a lot like Changeling's
  • Gypsy's tragic ingenue role lines up with Starfire

Gerry Conway wanted a team that he could control without outside interference. The JLA brand was supposedly strong enough for this to work so he brought back a redesigned Vixen and a new version of Steel, two of his late 70s creations. The problem was that they weren't as interesting as the older characters and they were all B-listers at best at that time.

Plus they had a very small role in Crisis, something that wouldn't have happened with the original JLA.

When you say "The Avengers" or "The Justice League," it means the big guns. 

The thought that DC could pull off a Justice League title without the big guns was delusional. And to do it by making it a blatant copy of one of DC's own titles, The New Teen Titans, as noted above, was sheer hubris. 

Maybe that is the current perception.

But for many years the Justice League was very much dominated by second and third tier names and new characters that hardly anyone who did not follow the book would recognize.

Apparently that turned out to be a success recipe for the Keith Giffen / Kevin Maguide / J.M.DeMatteis JL/JLI, although to this day I wonder if it was not simply a matter of DC supporting the concept to the last.

ClarkKent_DC said:

When you say "The Avengers" or "The Justice League," it means the big guns. 

The thought that DC could pull off a Justice League title without the big guns was delusional. And to do it by making it a blatant copy of one of DC's own titles, The New Teen Titans, as noted above, was sheer hubris. 

I haven't read any of the Justice League Detroit run(s). In the early days of the JLA when they weren't using Superman and Batman, Gardner Fox wrote J'onn J'onzz as if his powers were almost identical to the always-too-busy Superman. Did the Detroit run emphasize his invisibility and shape-shifting? 

   I'm hoping we'll learn this kind of thing as we go along Richard, 

Richard Willis said:

I haven't read any of the Justice League Detroit run(s). In the early days of the JLA when they weren't using Superman and Batman, Gardner Fox wrote J'onn J'onzz as if his powers were almost identical to the always-too-busy Superman. Did the Detroit run emphasize his invisibility and shape-shifting? 

Sorry for jumping the gun, Richard.

Richard Mantle said:

   I'm hoping we'll learn this kind of thing as we go along Richard, 

Richard Willis said:

I haven't read any of the Justice League Detroit run(s). In the early days of the JLA when they weren't using Superman and Batman, Gardner Fox wrote J'onn J'onzz as if his powers were almost identical to the always-too-busy Superman. Did the Detroit run emphasize his invisibility and shape-shifting? 

Although some of my very first comic books were Justice League of America (in the #110s) and, by the time I was in college, I had accumulated a healthy number of low-numbered issues, I didn’t start collecting JLA until Annual #2. Gerry Conway was never among my favorite writers, although I have gained a new respect for him in more recent years. The “Detroit League” is probably my favorite of the series he has written, certainly my favorite of his at the time it was current. I always admired Chuck Patton’s crisp, clean style.

I bought the omnibus edition of the Detroit League two years ago. It includes not only issues #233-239, 241-261 and Annual #2, but JLA Classified #22-25, JSA Classified #14-16, Infinity, Inc. #19 and DC Retroactive: JLA - The ‘80s as well. Speaking of covers, it has a pretty good one, too, but you have to see the entire wraparound to appreciate the composition. The front cover features Aquaman, Batman, Martian Manhunter, Elongated Man, Vizen and Zatanna; Atom (small) and Flash (midground) are on the binding; on the back cover are Vibe, Gypsy and Steele in the foreground, Wonder Woman (flying) in the midground, and very, very tiny figures of Firestorm, Superman, Green Lantern and Green Arrow in the background. Whereas one mught have hoped or expected to see Vibe, Gypsy and Steele on the front cover along with Vixen, I think they are well-represented, in the foreground, of the overall composition. That was a good compromise for DC to make. They are going to want more recognizable characters on the front cover, without misrepresenting what’s inside (by putting superman front cover foreground, for example).

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