Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Magnificent Seven Revised Again

For a lot of people, it was important for the Martian Manhunter to be acknowledged as one of the Magnificent Seven founders of the Justice League of America in the DCnÜ continuity. The first arc by a superstar creative team will be set five years in the past, before the term "superhero" had been coined, and will show how the "urban myth" Batman formed the team.

Never mind that Superman and Batman were only begrudgingly allowed "guest appearances" in the Julie Schwartz-edited earliest stories by their respective editors (Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff.) The team was actually formed as a five piece, partially constituted out of two of Schwartz's new "legacy" heroes, Green Lantern and the Flash. The stingy Batman editor threw in two back-up characters, vintage also-ran Aquaman, and J'onn J'onzz, a newish alien detective recently turned super-hero to jump on Schwartz's bandwagon. Robert Kanigher was gracious enough to offer unfettered access to the biggest name on the reliable core team, Wonder Woman. Superman and Batman showed up consistently in the early adventures, so they deserve status, but they also started flaking out on missions within the first year of the solo series. It was the Founding Five JLA who were the cover-featured stars of the team's first six stories, before being joined by Green Arrow for another six. It took a couple of years before the World's Finest turned up on the cover of Justice League of America #10, mostly because that's the one where the heroes formed the digits on Felix Faust's hands, and still came up one short with Snapper Carr in tow. It would be another nine issues until Superman and Batman showed up there again, for the first in a long line of regular cover appearances, six issues after the Atom had already joined.

So yeah, Batman gets to form the JLA, even after many years of adjunct status with the team, while Superman was retroactively removed from membership for an age. This was a book their editors wanted nothing to do with in 1960, that proved itself without the World's Finest duo for four years, and they were only forcibly included by one of DC's owners after natural attrition began to erode the book's sales. Still, they help make the team "the world's greatest super-heroes," especially when you factor in that by the '70s, the line-up was almost nothing but a collection of cancelled series stars being carried by the duo. In 1972, the Flash was the only other member of the team to carry a solo title.

Anyway, back on target, not only isn't the Martian Manhunter in the "Magnificent Seven," but it appears he'll be retroactively removed from founding status, replaced by Cyborg of all people. I might be more concerned if this wasn't somewhat in keeping with the myth of the "Magnificent Seven," a construct of Grant Morrison's more than a reality in the old comics. Morrison's own team doesn't even fit the bill, as the seven consisted of two "bimbo" successors from the five and a version of Aquaman unrecognizable when compared to the '60s comics. The rest of the team were massively different as characters, as well. At least that team consisted of legitimately popular DC icons of their time. Cyborg was the hot young model of 1984, fresh off The New Teen Titans and headed into The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, but today he only offers shrugs. Even the Teen Titans cartoon ended half a decade back, and he never struck me as a particularly popular member.

Martian Manhunter fans are also upset because it appears that the character will be entirely excluded from the new team, even in a vastly diminished capacity. Heck, when it was announced that there would be an extended line-up of fourteen or more members, most folks just assumed he would be part of it. Bad enough to be kicked out of the Magnificent Seven, but exclusion from a fifteen piece? Egad! Then again, that means he will not keep company with Cyborg, Green Arrow, The Atom, Hawkman, Firestorm, Mera, Deadman, Element Woman and a mystery heroine. I can't exactly cry in my beer over that, because not only does it sound terribly crowded, but many of the selections aren't exactly choice. In fact, it reminds me of the fifteen year stretch of the "Satellite Era" League that J'Onn J'Onzz was never a part of. This presumably was what led to the Martian Manhunter's initial ouster in 2006 by Bronze Age fan Brad Meltzer after twenty-two years of near continuous monthly service on some variation of a Justice League. As I mentioned, the original Satellite members were something of an Entitlement League, put up in the team's title because they couldn't support themselves.

Instead of the halfway home of former Silver Age prospects, the Martian Manhunter is more closely associated with, well, every other major incarnation of the team. Both the actual Founding Five and the post-Crisis revision that replaced Wonder Woman with Black Canary. The "Detroit" League. JLI. The JLTF. The Magnificent Seven. Some were hits, others notorious misses, but all were truly bold new directions instead of nostalgic throwbacks. The J'Onn J'Onzz exception has always involved a "Satellite" League of sorts, whether the Bronze Age original, the perpetually troubled previous volume that ended up brimming with D-listers like Congorilla, and now this overstuffed mess. You know, the versions that tend to get the book ignored and cancelled. Even the volume that was axed prior to JLA's 1996 launch was a satellite League in all but name, operating out of an actual satellite with a pool of three teams worth of potential (if deeply underwhelming) members. It reached that point after JLI had been run aground, and the creators tried to scurry back to the "good old days" when the book was safe, either trying to pumping the last bits of life out of the hangers-on from JLI or reopening the doors to the boring old "classic" members. That last stretch only got interesting at the very end, when the writer gave up and started focusing on homosexual romances and psychological disturbance.

The latest Justice League is touted as the gateway title to the entire DCnÜ, so I'm grateful the exclusion of the team's most emblematic member of the past quarter century means I needn't bother crossing that particular threshold. It was only a few years ago that DC cancelled the last "Magnificent Seven," and do you really think Barry Allen and Hal Jordan will make that formula less stale? As usual, hopes for entertainment value seem likely to rest with the satellites, who are also pretty much the same old same old, excepting bundles of joy like Deadman and Element Woman. If I thought anything interesting would come out of their inclusion, it might be worthwhile, but I suspect they'll just take part in a story or two before being cycled out. I don't know if Stormwatch is going to be any good, but at least it'll be different, where this just looks like a new box covering old cereal with the flavor we all know so well.


mathematicscore said...

I think you make some good points here. I think Martian Manhunter will really have a chance to shine in a superhero intrigue kind of way with Stormwatch. I'd love to see it folded in that J'onn's silver age happened (been here since the 50's) and Stormwatch has been a super-secret organization for quite some time, perhaps filling the JLA's role in the Shadows for all those years.


LissBirds said...

"The first arc by a superstar creative team will be set five years in the past, before the term "superhero" had been coined, and will show how the "urban myth" Batman formed the team." This just screams "John Jones American Secrets" to me. Then after I realized Cyborg is making that dream impossible, it was just me, screaming and punching a wall.

I could see leaving him off the original seven, I guess. But not even making the cut for the extended team is just an insult. Leaving him off the JLI book adds injury to that insult. Why bring him back to life at all, really? Boy, this Stormwatch book better be good.

Bravo, Frank, for pointing out that Batman's role in the Silver Age League isn't as big as one would guess.

will_in_chicago said...

Frank, another excellent entry.

Batman is often portrayed as not much of a joiner, making him the figure founding the team a bit odd.

I am not all that enthusiastic about the new additions to the team, and I will not follow the Justice League so closely.

J'Onn deserves some respect, and I hope that he will get some in the pages of Stormwatch. I wonder what relationship, if any, J'Onn will have to some of the members of the Justice League. Although I personally would not mind if he sends Cyborg through a wall in a meeting. (Sorry, Cyborg is kind of a bland character and did not even stand out that much in the Superfriends cartoon.)

Anonymous said...

I think it's too soon to be insulted. Who knows? Maybe the Mystery Woman is J'onn in disguise. (Don't laugh too hard--remember Bloodwynd?) Or maybe J'onn plays a crucial outside role in bringing the team together, but declines to join because of his longstanding role in Stormwatch. Or he might be ignominiously neglected. It's just too soon to know.