in the final years of the 1970s, the major comic book companies realized that centennial issues and other similar anniversary issues could be upsized and uppriced and bring in a heck of a lot more money for their respective companies. And so, this was the age where the centennial mega-special was really hatched. And it must be said, especially in these formative years, DC was especially good at them. Marvel did well at them, with releases such as FANTASTIC FOUR #200, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #200, AVENGERS #200 and THOR #300 all having their strong points. But somehow, DC’s equivalent issue were just a little bit stronger overall. This may have something to do with the longer history that DC had as an organization–they had more to celebrate, after all. Or the fact that DC was more comfortable with an anthology approach, which allowed for multiple stories or multiple chapters. While the Marvel entries tended to be the big, climactic finales to massive multi-part epics, the DC Centennials tended to be largely self-contained and stand alone affairs. They had a number of truly excellent Centennial issues during this period–and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #200 is one of the best.
This was the era of what is now looked back upon as the “Satellite League”, which is to say the version that I first came into contact with, and the one that I still like best. Writer Gerry Conway had been on the book for a solid fifty issues at this point, and while his run had its ups and downs, its good issues and weak issues, he was certainly comfortable and in control of his material. He created a nice synthesis between the kind of characterization and higher stakes that Marvel had made their hallmark with the sort of tight plotting that the traditionalists at DC preferred to Marvel’s approach of building most stories around fight scenes rather than plot elements. For JLA #200, Conway set out to celebrate the entire run of the series. And he did so both by going back to the very beginning, and by pulling off a pretty incredible magic trick of casting.
Conway’s story turns on the Origin of the Justice League, originally revealed in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #9 in 1962. in that story, seven alien claimants to an otherworldly throne came to Earth to battle it out for dominance, turning the people around them into their footsoldiers. Individually, the assorted heroes who would become the JLA contended with these creatures, with five of them eventually falling under the sway of the wooden alien from Appellax. But through teamwork, they were able to triumph–and in so doing, they laid the groundwork to remain together as a fighting unit in order to take on threats of a scale that might daunt any one of their individual members. Now, years later, Conway reveals that the Appellax claimants had only been slumbering, and that they had now taken control of the minds of the founding League members, causing them to gather up the original meteors in which they had arrived on Earth. In doing so, the aliens have reset the memories of the founding Leaguers to that era, so they no longer recognize their later-joined comrades. This set up a situation where it was in essence the original League versus the latter day League, a nice, simple through line for a story like this. It wasn’t a deep story, but it was a fun one, and it was very entertaining to watch the DC heroes fight it out with one another in the way that rival Marvel’s characters often did.
Where the book really excels, though, is in the choices of artist for each of the individual chapters in which an original Leaguer battles a later Leaguer. In virtually every instance, Conway and editor Len Wein are able to secure the services of the perfect illustrator for each match-up. Things start off slowly with Pat Broderick depicting the clash between league newbie Firestorm and the Martian Manhunter–Broderick had no real association with the Manhunter, but he was at the time Firestorm’s regular artist, and he does a great job here. This was during a time when J’onn J’Onzz was only an infrequent guest star in JLA, having relocated with is people to New Mars. Nobody knew how central he’d become to the following decade. This is followed up by Jim Aparo illustrating the clash between Aquaman and the Red Tornado (with third spoiler character the Phantom Stranger also added to the mix). Again teh Tornado didn’t really have a regular artist, but Aparo was well associated with Aquaman from his chem drawing that series, as well as the Phantom Stranger. Dick Giordano was pressed into service for the chapter devoted to Wonder Woman battling Zatanna on Paradise Island, a good selection as Dick drew great women and had worked on both characters.
Gil Kane, the artist who co-created the Atom and Green Lantern gets to illustrate their battle, and similarly, Carmine Infantino, who co-originated each character, is called upon to depict the clash between the Elongated Man and the Flash. The one chapter that goes half-haywire is the one in which Green Arrow and Black Canary take on the Batman. It’s clear from the pattern that this chapter had been written with Neal Adams in mind, but for whatever reason, Neal didn’t wind up doing it. But almost as good, newcomer from England Brian Bolland is called up to the major leagues, and he absolutely kills on his chapter. Neal who? Clearly he was going to be an artist to pay attention to. Finally, the great Joe Kubert handles the bout between Superman and his co-creation Hawkman–a fight that ends with the Winged Wonder adrift in airless space until a stray Zeta-Beam teleports him to far-off Rann so that Adam Strange can make a cameo appearance.
The original Leaguers are triumphant in every case, and they succeed in bringing the remnants of those original meteors back to their original headquarters in a cave in Happy Harbor. When they do so, the Appellax aliens reconstitute themselves, the act restoring the recollections of the League. But still fuzzy from being mind controlled, the League gets rolled over by the aliens, who set out to do what they came to Earth to do years ago, battle it out for claimantship to the throne of their home planet. But the modern League is able to track the original League to the old headquarters, and now the entirety of the League is united once more, with a life-or-death mission in front of them where they must prevail. In groups comprised of the new and old Leaguers who had battled one another, the League splits up to go after the Appellax aliens.
I haven’t mentioned it so far, but all of the framing elements and the entirety of the climax was illustrated by George Perez, one of the absolute masters of super hero comics. Perez had wanted to draw JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA and made doing at least one issue a condition of his contract when he left Marvel for DC–he thought that mainstay Dick Dillin, who had been on the title for a decade and a half, had a lock on the series. Sadly, Dillin passed away shortly thereafter, and Perez was pressed into service almost immediately, drawing several issues of the book over a period of a year or two. I love Dillin, his League was what I grew up with, but there’s no denying that Perez immediately upgraded the visual look of the series, making it seem exciting and modern in the manner of a rival Marvel comic. In doing so, he made the title a lot more appealing to the young audience who was coming up with the Marvel books–a feat he accomplished even more greatly on NEW TEEN TITANS. JLA #200 was Perez’ swan song on the series, but he clearly wanted to be there for the anniversary, and he turned in a spectacular art job on the thirty-plus pages that he wound up doing.
At the end of the story, the assembled League gets to celebrate their victory in their repaired Satellite headquarters. And Green Arrow, who some issues earlier had quit the League due to his feeling that they had become too remote from the sorts of ground-level injustices that he wanted to fight, had a change of heart and rejoined the team. It was the perfect final grace note to go out on. There are a number of really good stories featuring the pre-Crisis Justice League of America. But this book, with a self-contained story that can be enjoyed by a reader even if they’ve never read another issue of the book before, is one of the best.