Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The bush league Justice League: Gerry Conway’s Detroit JLA

I often think that when comic book writers talk about the need to shake up a series they’ve been working on for years, it’s time for them to move on. If they’re sick of the status quo, that may simply mean they’re bored, rather than “This team I’ve been writing really doesn’t work. Time for an overhaul!” Case in point, Gerry Conway’s creation of the Detroit League after seven mostly excellent years of work on Justice League of America.

(This is another crossover post from 2018 on my own blog)

Conway’s writing on the book around the time he introduced the new League had definitely lost some of its zing. His conclusion was that he could improve things and shake the series up by changing out the membership. If he had a League whose members didn’t have their own series he’d have more control over their lives and characterization. New heroes wouldn’t come with the baggage and experience established DC characters did. Instead of a creative rebirth, it turned out to be a complete flop. Rereading it a few years back, it struck me even Conway didn’t seem to think his lineup was worthy of the Justice League name.

In one of those undistinguished stories I mentioned, J’Onn J’Onzz’ people, long resettled on a distant planet, return to our Solar System to conquer Earth (this was before the post-Crisis retcon that established they died long, long ago). J’Onn arrives to warn us but most of the League’s big guns are off on another mission and can’t be reached; the JLA wins, but just barely.

A furious Aquaman declares that if the absent members can’t commit full time to the League, they don’t belong. Oh, look, there’s a never-before-mentioned clause in the League charter that says any of the original members can dissolve the team at will, then start it over (which is exactly the sort of thing the League would write into its charter because …. okay, I got nothing).

Suddenly Superman, Batman, Flash and the other DC stars are out of the book. Zatanna, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman and Elongated Man stay, joined by newbies Vibe, Gypsy, Steel and Vixen (all put to much better use in the CWverse later). Steel’s family offers them a fortified HQ in Detroit and their new adventures begin.

Relocating the team to Detroit was the first problem. Conway, IIRC, wanted to ground them somewhere where they’d be surrounded by everyday people, rather than on a satellite high above the world. It’s not a bad idea per se: I like local, neighborhood-protecting heroes, like the Falcon in Harlem or Wonder Woman during her depowered period. The scenes of the Leaguers interacting with the community are fun. The JLA, however, has never been a local, community-based team: they protect the world. Putting them at ground level like this makes them feel less like the JLA and more like, I don’t know, Wolfpack?

A much bigger problem, as I said above, is that even Conway didn’t seem to believe his team had the right stuff. Conway says his template was the Silver Age Avengers story where Stan Lee wrote out Thor, Giant Man, the Wasp and Iron Man and brought in Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver under Captain America. It’s an instructive comparison. Lee constantly emphasized that the “Kooky Quartet” didn’t have the raw power of the earlier team. Nevertheless, he showed they could fight fearlessly against established foes such as Attuma, the Enchantress, Mole Man and Kang, and through sheer grit and teamwork they’d win.

The Detroit League? They defeat their first foe, the alien Overmaster, only when veteran hero J’Onn J’Onzz figures out it’s an imposter; he telepathically wakes up the real Overmaster who saves the day.

The League later faces the JLA’s old foe, Amazo, but even though his mind has been switched for a drunken bum’s—his idea of a deadly trap is to throw the heroes in a pit and put a rock on top of it—it takes J’Onn to stop him.

The villain in #238 defeats the classic League before facing the new taem. Rereading with little memory of the story, I thought this would be a game-changer, the perfect opportunity for the new kids to prove their mettle. Nope, they go down too. The heroes only win because the villain’s brother shoots him.

The new team doesn’t get into serious heroic mode until it takes on Despero, appearing for the first time in his heavily bulked-up form. Teaming with Batman they show they do have what it takes — but it was too late. As Conway says at the link above, sales had dropped; higher-ups thought he was the problem, not the new team. He got to wrap up this incarnation of the League (Steel and Vibe die, Gypsy and Vixen quit, the JLA dissolves) and left the book.

Several later writers have tried their hand at the Detroit era, as if they could somehow prove it was cool after all. It wasn’t.

#SFWApro. Covers by Chuck Patton


  1. tomfitz1

    frasherman: I remember reading the end of the Detroit League as the end was a lead into the LEGENDS mini-series and the JLI era (Giffen and DeMaiteis), and a tie-in with CRISIS OF MULTIPLE EARTHS.

    I don’t think I bothered reading the rest of the Detroit League.

  2. Le Messor

    I do like the idea of a team of superheroes that aren’t based in New York City (or a numbers-filed-off version like Metropolis or Gotham), but it sounds like this one didn’t mesh. It’s always bugged me that Marvel writers keep saying ‘we’ve set it in the world outside your window’; sure, it started that way, but if every single comic is set in the same city – one I’ve never even been to – it stops being that way.

    That’s all I have to say. I’ve never read Justice League Detroit. (Cue Kentucky Fried Movie quotes.)

      1. Le Messor

        Well, yeah, most of them lived (and grew up) in NYC, so it’s fully understandable.

        I just want to see the supervillains take over the rest of the country, because there are no superheroes anywhere else. (In What If…? #34, the exact opposite happens – all the superheroes move away from NYC, so the supervillains take over there.)

        1. I remember that was the rationale for La Dama in the Blue Beetle series being crime lord of Albuquerque—it doesn’t bring down the JLA’s attention the way being kingpin of Gotham or NYC does.
          There’s a nice use of that in one Brave and Bold story where she gets the drop on Batman. He looks her in the eye and points out that The Woman Who Killed Batman will never fly under the radar again. She doesn’t shoot.

  3. HAL 2000

    A few points (hopefully taken in the spirit in which they are offered!): Conway didn’t finish the run that was J.M. DeMatteis, he was the one assigned to write out Justice League Detroit (imagine a character like Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop in the league, showing up the squares with his attitude, maybe that’s what Conway should have gone for…but, um, he was just the wrong guy for turning the J.L. into an echt-X-Men/New Teen Titans) and set up what would become the post-Legends Justice League (as tomfitz says above). Conway moved into television – Father Dowling (!) and, later, Law & Order). I read an issue of, uh, Back Issue in which he says he wasn’t pleased with how those great, great characters were treated. Even though Gypsy and Vixen got to survive and the far far superior Justice League International saw its characters traduced, ignored, and/or killed off for years because of some extremely weird petty people at DC. (A version of the unrecognisable later Maxwell Lord turns up in 1984 changed even more which begs the questions, what’s the point? and Geoff Johns: What’s Up with Dat?!)
    It’s peculiar in the extreme that the Berlanti people were forced to change a character who was supposed to be Ted Lord into Ray Palmer. What a nutty world. Of course, The Flash offers a version of Vibe who has little in common with the original apart from being Latino while giving him abilities closer to pre-Crisis Barry Allen Flash or Blink from Marvel. Hm.
    You are totally right about Conway’s mishandling of his own (mostly crappy or embarrassing) characters. One of the villains wielded a keytar, truly the character find of 1980something. If Conway claims DC felt the problem was him and not the team that would not explain why DC booted them at the first opportunity. From my point of view of the old guard who appeared, J’onn is always good to see but Aquaman sucks – take that Geoff Johns! On the other hand: Zatanna… I like Zatanna. (Identity Crisis did a number on her as it did on several others *GAH!*)

    1. You’re right about deMatteis, of course.
      I like Aquaman but sticking him in the middle of Detroit isn’t the best use of his talents.
      the JLI International/Europe era led to shredding the Global Guardians, a team I was fond of.
      Maxwell Lord seems to fall into an uncanny valley — it’s a familiar enough name to use (Supergirl also had a version) but not to well known anyone cares about the comics version.

  4. Darthratzinger

    I guess the best thing that came out of the Detroit Justice League was J`onn´s relationship with Gypsy and how it was fleshed out first in Giffen´s JLA and later Priest´s Justice League Task Force.
    On the other hand, apparently the book was so good that DC released it as an omnibus:-)

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