Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why is the Justice League so much better than The Avengers even when their comics aren’t?
I suspect you may be trying to start this column with a softball, Mark because not only does this question lend itself to a lot of discussion, but your bias is absolutely spot on. That may not seem as obvious as it is given the close link between these two teams over the past five decades though.
The Justice League first appeared in The Brave and The Bold #28 in 1960 and was an instant hit for DC Comics. This is far from the first time that the company would think to combine many of their biggest characters, but it’s notable because it is the first really big team comic as superhero comics became the dominant comics genre at the start of the Silver Age. The Justice League hit the stands, less than a year before Fantastic Four #1, really establishing DC’s biggest competitor until the present.
It took a couple of more years for Marvel to create their own response to the Justice League though. Seeing the massive sales success of this team at DC, publisher Martin Goodman requested that Stan Lee do the same thing with a set of characters at Marvel. Lee and Jack Kirby combined some of their most popular creations and launched The Avengers #1 in September of 1963.
Both of these teams were created from the same basic logic: combine a bunch of popular characters in order to sell more comic books. It’s capitalism-based comic book creation at it’s finest. So given the similar origins and the incredibly diverse histories of both teams over half of a century, what differentiates them?
The conception of each of these teams may be the same, but that doesn’t mean they share the same hook. Both Marvel and DC are collecting their most popular superheroes together, but the most popular characters at both of these companies are not equal. Despite how that may sound, this isn’t a DC vs. Marvel thing. It’s not a question of which company has better character, but which company’s characters cohere into a more meaningful, powerful (thematically, not actual superpowers) whole.
The initial Justice League roster was composed of Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter, but it didn’t take long for Superman and Batman to join the team. The theme with all of these characters, at least at this moment in time, is their perfection. Anyone of them is incredibly powerful, but that isn’t what made the characters resonate and stick for so long. They are each a pinnacle of achievement, using their powers to accomplish incredible feats and rarely making mistakes.
DC Comics’ target audience at the time was much younger, and that shows in the presentation of this group. Their exploits are always focused on tackling new external threats by combining the most powerful and skilled individuals on Earth. It’s a superhero team at its most pure, an idealized task force capable of overcoming any conceivable antagonist through cooperation.
The Avengers on the other hand are steeped in a very different philosophy. Marvel Comics, specifically under the artistic leadership of men like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, focused on the humanity of their characters. They are flawed and often make mistakes, which helped lead to them discovering an older audience on college campuses in the 60s (although Kirby’s robust pop art and Ditko’s trippy landscapes certainly helped as well). The core of these early stories can be found in the individual characters, not the immensity of their capabilities or scope of their threats.
But when you combine a great set of flawed personalities like Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Ant-Man, and The Wasp, the whole is not necessarily greater than its parts. Kirby’s work with Thor in Journey Into Mystery and on The Incredible Hulk is still top-notch superhero storytelling. Meanwhile Lee and Don Heck were doing very good work with Iron Man in Tales of Suspense. Yet the early Avengers stories don’t measure up to any of these other series. They are good, but never reach the same level of greatness.
The personality conflicts and individual struggles within The Avengers were always more interesting than the concept of the team itself. The Avengers as a concept was really just an excuse to get these people in the same room to see what would happen. Even as the series continued to drop its most popular characters and add rogues like Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Black Knight all centered around Captain America, it stayed focus on emphasizing the individual personalities and their interactions.
Justice League on the other hand stands out as a concept that can rest on its own laurels. Much like its most prominent leading man, Superman, it is steeped in idealism. It represents the absolute best of what can be accomplished when people come together and join their mix of skills and knowledge in order to achieve greatness. It is a team that is designed to inspire readers by showing them characters at their best individually and together.
This comparison isn’t just apparent in their respective origins. It’s easy to see in the best examples of both series many, many iterations. For the Justice League it’s Grant Morrison’s run on JLA with various artists. For the Avengers it’s Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s run on The Avengers. You may feel the urge to argue for another run or series as being better, like Hickman’s recent Avengers series or the Giffen and DeMatteis Justice League. Those are great too, but don’t, these are simply the best. ‘Nuff said.
The Avengers is quality throughout and has some iconic storylines, including “Ultron Unlimited”. What stands out most about that series is the individual character arcs though. Ms. Marvel’s fall and redemption, Captain America’s struggle to bring the team together, the return of Wonder Woman, and Scarlet Witch’s love triangle all leap out as being high quality elements. Busiek and Perez had a lock on these characters as individuals and allowed some to come forward as stars in each story. A lot of the fun of the series also lies in Perez, ever prolific, bringing so many characters into each panel. The first adventure is a who’s who of the Marvel Universe. Ultimately, the series is an incredibly fun superhero team book, but its most significant contributions and statements are still focused on individual heroes and villains.
From the very start of Morrison’s JLA, the team was conceived of as a whole. While there is fluctuation in membership throughout, even concluding with every person on Earth gaining superpowers, the core conceit is always that this is the best the planet can offer. There are great character moments across the series, but it never once feels like Superman or Batman or Martian Manhunter’s series. The problems and solutions are always shared. The closest Morrison ever comes to providing a solo adventure lies in JLA #8-9 when Connor Hawke must single handedly save the League from The Key. Yet even this story is focused on Hawke earning a place at the table and proving through incredible feats that he deserves to be part of the League.
Morrison conceived of JLA as a modern pantheon of gods, and that comes across very clearly in the series. While some direct comparisons between Greek gods and DC heroes can be made, they are unnecessary. Each member of the League in this series is there for an obvious reason. Their powers, personalities, and place in the universe all add to the team in a specific and necessary way. Even with immense personas like Batman and Orion walking its halls, JLA always reads like a Justice League comic.
I think that promise is inherent in every iteration of the Justice League. Looking at the Giffen and DeMatteis Justice League, often defined by its penchant for humor, there’s still a sense that each of these characters is gifted and determined to work for something better. Heck, even in the current Justice League series written by Geoff Johns, it’s clear that there’s promise despite the series only ranking between mediocre and abysmally awful since it launched in 2011. Seriously, it’s a series that focuses primarily on DC’s greatest heroes bickering and causing problems (and now misunderstanding Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Saga on a fundamental level), but it always feels like it could only be a few issues away from greatness.
There’s a scene at the very end of Morrison’s JLA that I think summarizes why the team is simply better on a conceptual level. Batman is ready to quit the team, return to Gotham, and focus on “bank robberies and muggings for just a little while.” Then a call comes in that Doctor Destiny is threatening Detroit. Superman turns to Batman and invites him to come along, saying “We’re the Justice League. You know you love it.” On the very next page the entire team with Batman in the center is charging forward, almost at the reader, towards their next adventure. No matter what comes next, the Justice League will always be prepared to bring the best people together to focus on solving the problem and make the world a better place.
Superhero teams don’t get any better than that.
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