Giving us the bush leaguers: Gerry Conway’s Detroit Justice League

Gerry Conway’s creation of the “Detroit League” after seven years as writer of Justice League of America is often treated as one of the worst creative calls in comics. Rereading it over the past year, I don’t disagree, but what struck me is how Conway writes his new team as if even he didn’t think they were worthy heirs to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

Conway wanted to shake up the series by changing out the membership. He’d have more control as the characters wouldn’t be obligated to other series. And they wouldn’t come with the baggage and expectations that established DC characters did. While most of the League is fighting a menace off-world, J’Onn J’Onzz’ people arrive on a mission of conquest. The JLA wins but without the big guns. A furious Aquaman decides that if the other members can’t commit to a full-time life in the JLA, they should quit, so he invokes a convenient clause in the League charter that empowers him to dissolve and rebuild the team. Superman, Batman and most of the others are out; Zatanna, J’Onn, Aquaman and Elongated Man stay; and newbies Vibe, Gypsy, Steel and Vixen sign up (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.

Conway says his template was the Silver Age Avengers story where Stan wrote out Thor, Giant Man, the Wasp and Iron Man and brought in Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver under Captain America. Teen Titans also did it successfully when Marv Wolfman and George Perez rebooted them with a mostly new membership in the 1980s. The Detroit League didn’t do so well.

Part of the problem was relocating them to Detroit. I like the idea of local, neighborhood-protecting heroes, like Wonder Woman during her depowered period. And the scenes of the League interacting with the locals are fun bits. But a local feel doesn’t really work for a team that has a history of protecting the entire US, not to mention the world.

A bigger problem is that even Conway didn’t seem to feel his creations were up to the task. In the first few issues, Stan Lee’s “Kooky Quartet” of Avengers took on established foes (Attuma, the Enchantress, the Mole Man) and new ones (the Commissar, Power Man, the Swordsman). Lee constantly emphasized that the foursome didn’t have the raw power of the earlier team, but he showed they had the skill and guts to triumph nonetheless.

The Detroit League? They defeat their first foe, the alien Overmaster, when J’Onn figures out it’s just an imposter and wakes up the real Overmaster. The League faces the team’s old foe, Amazo, but even though his mind has been switched for a drunken bum’s, it takes J’Onn to stop him.

In #238, the villain defeats the classic League, which would seem a perfect opportunity for the new kids to prove themselves. But no, they go down too; it takes the villain’s brother to save the day by shooting him.

The Detroit League doesn’t get into serious heroic mode until it takes on Despero (an old JLA foe, heavily buffed up) in a multi-issue arc. There, they prove themselves, but it was too late. As Conway says in the interview link above, sales had dropped, so he concluded the experiment hadn’t worked. The higher-ups thought he was the problem, not the cast (and even before Detroit his stories hadn’t been up to his best work); 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.

While a few writers since have looked back at the era and tried to show that it was cool (Gypsy, for some unfathomable reason, keeps cropping up), it never really was.

#SFWApro. Covers by Chuck Patton and Paris Cullens (top to bottom), all rights remain with current holder.

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