If you were a DC super-hero in the Silver Age, you knew you had made the big time when you were asked to join the Justice League of America.
Every Silver-Age super-team had its own method for inducting new members---and I’m going to be sprinkling in looks at most of them over the next few months---but it was the Justice League’s which was the most formalised. There wasn’t a more exclusive club of super-heroes. You couldn’t set out to join. There wasn’t an application process. The JLA would decide if it wanted you.
The idea was that the Justice League was an elite group, the best of the best. That was the principle on which its membership process was based. It was also a matter of fiction following real life.
When editor Julius Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox set out to resurrect the old super-team concept which had proved so popular back with the Golden Age’s Justice Society of America, they went with the DC characters that had proved to be most popular with the fans. The newly revived Flash was an obvious choice. The modern Scarlet Speedster’s appearances in Showcase had sold before the spinner racks could stop turning and had kicked off the Silver Age of comics. The updated Green Lantern had also captured the enthusiasm of DC’s readership, so he was in the club.
Four other heroes were chosen for the group based on longevity. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were the only members of DC’s long-underwear crowd to have their titles continuously published from their beginnings, back in the late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s. Aquaman, while never having graduated to his own title (that would come, in 1962), had been a reliable back-up series, appearing in More Fun Comics and Adventure Comics since 1941. Clearly these characters had legs enough to survive even the super-hero doldrums following the ebb of the Golden Age.
For the final member, Schwartz and Fox selected J’onn J’onzz, the Manhunter from Mars. In some ways, he was a curious choice. The Manhunter was one of the few costumed stars to be introduced in that interregnum between the Golden and Silver Ages, having debuted as a back-up strip in Detective Comics # 225 (Nov., 1955). He had been a constant presence ever since, but probably because for most of his existence, he had been only technically a super-hero. In the beginning, J’onn J’onzz was a Martian stranded on Earth, and he had taken the human form of John Jones, police detective. For the first few years of the series, the focus was on John Jones, secretly using his Martian abilities to help solve his cases. His normal, more super-hero-like appearance was rarely seen for more than a couple of panels in each story, and sometimes, not at all.
After the Flash’s revival in 1956 indicated that super-heroes were “in” again, the thrust of the Manhunter’s adventures were adjusted accordingly. He performed more and more of his feats as J’onn J’onzz (albeit most of the time while invisible, still concealing his presence on Earth), and Detective Jones began to take a back seat. Finally, in Detective Comics # 273 (Nov., 1959), he was publically “outed” and from then on, operated openly as an honest-to-god super-hero. (His revealing came only three months before the Justice League debuted in The Brave and the Bold # 28, cover-dated Feb.-Mar., 1960. Coïncidence, or collusion between editors Julie Schwartz and Jack Schiff? I’ve never come across anything definitive; maybe one of you folks can tell me.)
So, the Martian Manhunter’s fan-popularity was “kinda sorta”. Given that, in 1960, DC’s stable of super-heroes was pretty small to begin with, MM seemed enough of a favourite to get the last seat at the council table. Except for the fact that the Green Arrow had a strong claim, too. Like Aquaman, the Emerald Archer had never been a headliner, but also like the Sea King, he had been continuously published as a back-up series since 1941.
JLA mavens have discussed this for decades. Why did J’onn J’onzz get the nod, instead of Green Arrow? Or why not just include them both and have eight charter members, instead of seven? Again, nobody seems to know for sure, at least not that has appeared in print, and we can’t ask Schwartz or Fox.
But, for whatever reason, the Manhunter was considered a bigger fan draw, and the membership of the JLA was composed of DC’s seven most popular super-heroes, at least as Julie Schwartz saw it.
This was the standard used by Schwartz and Fox to determine who would be added to the group as new members. As DC began to crank out more and more costumed heroes, a greater base of potential membership candidates developed. Schwartz could afford to be more discriminating in his selections for JLA-hood.
As best he could, Fox installed in his Justice League stories a cachet which reflected the real-life standards that went into choosing new members. Guest-stars and hangers-on didn’t get invited on the team just because they helped out. You couldn’t even ask to join. You had to be invited.
(O.K., Snapper Carr got his foot in the door just for some dubious assistance he provided in that first JLA adventure. But that got him only an honorary membership. And Fox was stingy with even those---only one other character received a non-standard membership in the League in the eight years Fox wrote the series.)
Even being considered to join the League required a specific process. There was no “Hey, this hero helped us out on a case---let’s make him a member” nonsense. The Justice League conducted an annual membership meeting. Its by-laws were very exacting on the point that only one new member could be admitted to the group every year. Wonder Woman pointed this out at the first membership meeting shown in JLA # 4 (Apr.-May, 1961). Right there, that cut down on a hero’s chances of getting in---as Hawkgirl learnt in JLA # 31 (Nov., 1965).
During the meeting, a member could nominate anyone he had a mind to, after which the nominees were discussed during a period of “friendly argument”. This process culminated in a closed voting session---the only time we actually saw the actual voting was in JLA # 14 (Sep., 1962)---and the candidate who received the greatest number of votes was offered a place with the Justice League.
That was it---neat, simple, and all Robert’s Rules of Order-ly. Dissent was never an issue---if there ever was any. Two of the newly elected inductees---Green Arrow and the Atom---were shown to have been chosen unanimously. So much so in the case of G.A. that the vote was suspended and he was elected by motion. It was probably so for Metamorpho, too; the discussion for that year’s membership meeting concluded with Green Lantern stating that the Element Man looked “like a shoo-in . . . .” We never saw how the vote went for Hawkman’s admission, but all of the members sure looked happy about it.
It was another acknowledgement to the eliteness of being JLA member that there was no initiation or provisionary period. Once you were in, you were in. The notion was that an individual was admitted to the Justice League based on his past proven performance as a super-hero---they already knew what he could do---and there was no need to test him.
This concept further holds up by examining the nominees who didn’t make the cut. Adam Strange was suggested twice (JLA # 4 and # 42) and the Elongated Man once (JLA # 42). Hawkman was also nominated once, in JLA # 4, but was rejected in favour of Green Arrow. In each of these cases, it’s fairly easy to deduce why they wound up on the “No” pile.
Adam Strange, while the “Champion of Rann”, didn’t operate as a super-hero on Earth. He wasn’t a crime-fighter in the strictest sense. And the Elongated Man really wasn’t in their---ahem---league. The only time he had faced super-villains was while teamed with the Flash; on his own, all he did was solve mysteries and catch a few run-of-the-mill crooks in the process.
As for Hawkman, at the time of his first nomination, he and Hawkgirl had only just arrived on Earth. (At the time that JLA # 4 hit the stands, the Hawks had appeared in only their second issue of Mystery in Space.) Two years later, he had established a track record which earned him a place in the JLA.
Real world, of course, the hero chosen for membership was the one Julius Schwartz felt was the most popular with fans. The thinking went: if the character’s own title was selling huge, putting him in the Justice League would increase the JLA title’s sales.
Once a hero had been selected for JLA membership, the next step was to contact him, notify him of his admittance, and bring him back to the secret sanctuary for some cake and punch. It usually didn’t work out like that. At the time of their elections, Green Arrow and the Atom were smack in the middle of trouble that would require the involvement of the League to clear up. That was also the case with Metamorpho, with the additional wrinkle that he didn’t want to be a JLAer. He walked away from the group with no hard feelings. In fact, the Leaguers opted to make the Element Man a “stand-by member”. Maybe there were hard feelings, after all, because the Justice League never knocked on his door after that, no matter how dire the emergency.
The only time we ever saw the notification part work the way it was supposed to was when Hawkman was elected in JLA # 31. And there was a small bump in that one too, since the Atom had to explain to Hawkgirl why her hubby got a club membership and she didn’t. (That pesky one-member-at-a-time by-law, remember?) She was gracious about the whole thing, though.
We also found out what kind of loot you got for being a JLA member. You got a miniaturised device which broadcast the emergency signal. It also contained a communicator. And you got a golden key which emitted the magnetic impulse to open the door of the secret sanctuary.
There was also a humdinger of a plaque which testified to the hero’s “great deeds and stirring battles” against evil.
Quite a bag of goodies. That plaque would be just thing for my “I love me” wall in my den.