If the history of Zack Snyder’s Justice League feels as if it stretches back a long time, spare a thought for the comic book at the heart of it. DC’s Justice League of America debuted in 1960, with the team actually making its first appearance earlier that year in Brave and the Bold #28.
In the six decades since, the team has been relaunched, rebooted, dissolved, and remade on multiple occasions, with all manner of heroes running through its line up, as the group has moved from the Northeastern coast of the US to the moon and back in terms of home locale, with just a brief stopover in Detroit during the 1980s. They’ve seen some changes, to say the least.
With that in mind, it might be slightly off-putting for any newcomers to try and start reading the comic book adventures of the team — but don’t worry; you don’t have to worry about choosing the best place to start anymore. Instead, just take a look at the list below and see which one of the following ten suggestions feel like the ideal jumping on point, and go from there.
No need to say thank you; justice is its own reward.
By Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky
The first few years or so of the Justice League saw the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes deal with a series of low danger threats in single-issue stories with glorious titles like “Secret of the Sinister Sorcerers!” and “The Challenge of the Untouchable Aliens!” The break in this (admittedly very charming) norm came with the annual storylines where the Justice League would team up with their older colleagues in the Justice Society of Earth-2. These stories, which generally spread across a couple of issues, a rarity in those days, saw pulp writer Gardner Fox reach into a more inventive, ambitious bag of tricks to bedevil the assembled heroes, and laid the groundwork for the DC multiverse that fans know and love today.
It all got started with “Crisis on Earth-One” and “Crisis on Earth-Two,” in 1963’s Justice League of America #21 and 22, where the two teams get together for the first time (via a seance, of all things) to deal with a crime spree that spans realities. It’s ridiculous, glorious and exactly what old-school fans are talking about when they wax nostalgic about the Silver Age of comic books being nuts in the best way.
If you like it, read all of the other League/Society crossovers, which add more Earths with every installment, from #30’s “Crisis on Earth-Three,” which introduces the Crime Syndicate, to #107’s “Crisis on Earth-X,” in which it’s time to go beat up Nazis on a world where the bad guys won World War II.
By Gerry Conway, George Pérez, Joe Kubert, Jim Aparo, Gil Kane, et al.
The 200th issue of Justice League of America was a big deal, and writer Gerry Conway knew exactly how to celebrate: An all-star artists jam issue where each artist draws a different fight between an original member of the team and a (relative) newcomer. Where else could you see Brian Bolland (Watchmen) illustrate a Batman/Black Canary fight? (With Green Arrow grumbling in the background, of course.) Or Flash co-creator Carmine Infantino drawing a no-holds-barred fight between the Scarlet Speedster and another of his co-creations, the Elongated Man? And don’t get me started on Joe Kubert’s surprisingly powerful Hawkman/Superman slugfest…!
There’s a plot reason why the heroes are fighting of course, and it’s something that goes all the way back to the origins of the team. Conway knows enough to realize that the story isn’t the selling point of the issue, and manages to tread the fine line between delivering enough information to ensure that everything’s making sense and shutting up when a big splash page appears to wow the reader. If you can imagine a comic that’s the starting point for both the 1990s Image Comics attitude and 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men, it’s this — and that’s a good thing.
If you like it, read 2016’s Justice League vs. Suicide Squad, in which Superman, Batman et al butt heads with another team of (admittedly reluctant) do-gooders, and yet again, it’s not entirely clear which side is in the right. Or, if you’re enjoying the 1980s superhero flavor, an obvious next step would be 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, which features the League and… well, almost every other DC hero of the time.
By Gerry Conway and Chuck Patton
In the mid-80s, fandom knew what it wanted from its superhero teams, and it wasn’t Justice League. As books like New Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes and Marvel’s X-Men caught readers’ attention with their tales of angst-ridden teen soap opera, the idea of a group of well-adjusted adults working for a common good suddenly seemed old-fashioned and unnecessary.
The solution was obvious: Drop all the big names, and replace them with new characters with personal problems.
The so-called “Justice League Detroit” (Yes, the team relocated as part of the revamp) wasn’t exactly a hit at the time, and truth be told, the series went off the rails pretty quickly after the initial “Rebirth” storyline. Its legacy lives on, however, in the CW shows of today, because the new characters introduced to the team were none other than The Flash’s Vibe and Gypsy, Legends of Tomorrow’s Steel and Vixen — although in forms entirely different from their onscreen forms. Just wait until you discover that Vibe’s disappearing accent is a plot point.
If you like it, read the rest of the Detroit era, which only lasted a couple of years before the team was dispatched with extreme prejudice. Sure, it’s clunky and awkward from today’s smarter, more enlightened perspective, but bless them, they were trying something different.
By Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire, et al.
In the wake of the failure of the Detroit era, DC knew that something drastic had to be done to revitalize the Justice League. Thankfully, Keith Giffen — at the time known primarily for his work on Legion of Super-Heroes and the superhero parody Ambush Bug — had an idea: what if the League went global, and with a team that acted… well, kind of like real people. Giffen wasn’t alone in this ambition, working with scripter J.M. DeMatteis and newcomer artist Kevin Maguire, whose ability to portray lifelike emotions was unlike anything seen in mainstream comics to that point.
The resultant series — initially Justice League, before becoming Justice League International from its seventh issue — was a surprise hit, spawning multiple spin-off titles and countless imitators. Often described as a comedy book, that misses the true appeal of the title. Yes, JLI was entirely unafraid to be silly when necessary, but it was also prepared to go dark or tell straight superhero stories, as well. It humanized the characters by letting readers see them go through all the emotions, not just the fun ones.
That said, the fact that Booster Gold and Blue Beetle finally got their due as comedy gods from this book is a selling point, too.
If you like it, read the Justice League America era of the series, which runs #26-60, as well as the Justice League Europe spin-off title. Once the book gets split in two, it’s not quite the highpoint of those first two years, but there’s more than enough comedy, action, and unexpected events to keep things interesting — and the chance to see a Maxwell Lord that’s entirely unlike the villain he’s since become is a weird thrill, too.
By Grant Morrison and Howard Porter
After more than a decade, the biggest guns in the DCU reunited as the Justice League in Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s 1997 relaunch of the property as JLA. (It was the late ‘90s, acronyms were big back then.) Morrison and Porter took a back-to-basics approach in more than just the line-up, creating stories that were, in many respects, amped up versions of the weird sci-fi that original writer Gardner Fox had offered, and focusing on plot and spectacle while eschewing soap opera in a way that mainstream superhero comics hadn’t managed in more than a decade.
“Rock of Ages,” the series’ first big storyline, is an ambitious and (overly-)complicated example of this, in which the team is scattered through time while looking for a Macguffin, even as Lex Luthor is simultaneously building an Injustice League, and there’s also a Darkseid subplot in there that Zack Snyder stole for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and a shout-out to the 1980s toy comic Super Powers. Which is to say, it’s exactly the kind of calamitous event that Superman et al should be concerned with, and comics are all the better for it.
If you like it, read DC One Million, the crossover event that spun out of Morrison and Porter’s JLA and went exactly one million months into the future to see what the DCU could become. (Spoilers: “Robin, the Toy Wonder” is a thing, as is a Mars that thinks for itself.) You might also want to check out the first couple of years of The Authority, the Wildstorm imprint series DC released a couple years later that was in many ways a spiritual sequel to what was being attempted here.
By Mark Waid and Howard Porter
Morrison’s run as writer on JLA was followed by a brief stint by Mark Waid, years before his award-winning Daredevil run. He came in hard with a storyline that starts with Bruce Wayne’s parents being dug up, and goes from there as Batman is revealed to have made plans to take down each and every one of his teammates should they ever go bad. It’s a good idea, complicated by the fact that someone has since stolen those plans and intends to use them for — Shock! Horror! — nefarious ends.
If Morrison had turned up the appeal of the very first Justice League stories, “Rock of Ages” made it clear that Waid was doing the same thing to the second generation of League, where the secret identities and interpersonal relationships of the team fed into the dangers they faced, making everything more personal while still almost impossibly dramatic — in other words, making the most of the soap opera that had been absent for the past few years. But then, what could be more dramatic than being betrayed by your best friend?!?
If you like it, read Mark Waid’s run on The Flash. It’s the comic on which he made his reputation the first time around, and where he honed the storytelling chops he displays in “Tower of Babel.” If you’re looking for just one sampler to see if you’d like it, try “Terminal Velocity.” You might want to check out his retro-origin series JLA: Year One, with Brian Augustyn and Barry Kitson.
By Tom Peyer and Val Simeiks
If the main JLA comic was eagerly indulging in nostalgia, the little-remembered DC Comics Two Thousand miniseries was in many ways a rebuke of that very attitude, as well as a great time travel story in its own right, asking the question, “What if we went back to a simpler time, told everyone there what the future was like, and they decided that we all lived in a hellish dystopia?”
Somehow, that would be even more embarrassing when the simpler time judging you was the heart of the Second World War, but that’s exactly what happens to the Justice League as the Justice Society decides — not entirely incorrectly — that maybe a world filled with poverty, hatred, and human suffering is a world where something’s gone wrong, especially when there are literal Supermen around to make things better. (Don’t worry; there’s also a bad guy behind the scenes, making sure everything’s going as bad as possible for our heroes.)
If you like it, read Peyer’s DC Hourman series from the same time period, as well as his more recent work for AHOY Comics, especially the similarly iconoclastic Penultiman and The Wrong Earth.
DC: The New Frontier (2004)
By Darwyn Cooke
If the metatextual concept behind The New Frontier doesn’t grab you — it’s a retelling of the origins of multiple DC heroes, leading to the formation of the Justice League, with each character and concept debuting in the actual year they were first published — then just enjoy the quality of the actual comic, as master storyteller Darwyn Cooke creates a perfectly paced, beautifully illustrated epic that manages to make it seem as if the DC Universe makes perfect sense together, even as it slowly transforms the whole thing into a mid-20th century superhero story where the bad guy is Cthulhu. (Well, kind of.)
It’s as ambitious a Justice League story as has arguably ever been published, taking in such disparate concepts as the original 1950s Suicide Squad, an island where dinosaurs are still alive, and whether or not a test pilot should be flirting with his boss just before he gets kidnapped to become an intergalactic space cop. Perhaps it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but it really, really, does.
If you like it, read Cooke’s other work, all of which offers a similar mid-century cool to different degrees. Of particular interest may be Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score, and outside of superheroes, his adaptation of Donald Westlake’s crime novels in IDW’s Parker series of graphic novels.
The Darkseid War (2015-2016)
By Geoff Johns, Jason Fabok, Francis Manapul, et al.
It took almost five years, but the New 52’s recreated version of the Justice League peaked, as elements from multiple earlier storylines collided — along with teases of alternate and earlier versions of continuity — and Geoff Johns tried to go out with a bang. Crisis on Infinite Earths villain the Anti-Monitor returned to fight with Darkseid, while the Crime Syndicate from Earth-3 got stuck in the middle alongside the Justice League, and there’s also the creation of a new Green Lantern at some point, as well.
In the middle of all of this, the primary story by Johns and Fabok takes a break as multiple creators — including Steve Orlando, Rob Williams, and the Strange Adventures team of Tom King and Evan Shaner — tell stories of what happens when the Justice League gain the powers of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, because that happens, as well. For anyone looking to find a story that sums up the appeal of New 52 era, or simply wants to see what happens when Geoff Johns gets to tell the biggest story he can manage (with a little help), here it is.
If you like it, read the little remembered 2015 Justice League: Gods and Monsters series — it tied in with an animated movie of the same name — which similarly tried to marry the mythology of Jack Kirby’s New Gods to the Justice League. Or maybe just pick up 2016’s DC Universe: Rebirth, which picks up plot threads from this story, and go from there.
No Justice (2018)
By Scoot Snyder, James Tynion IV, Joshua Williamson, Francis Manapul, and Marcus To
After the elaborate and over-the-top Dark Nights: Metal, writer Scott Snyder came to remake the Justice League in his own image, starting with this short, sharp shock of a miniseries where the League reforms under the guidance of cosmic villain Brainiac, and with a number of supervillains as members. Things aren’t what they seem (of course), but by the end of the four issue runtime, it’s pretty clear who’s a good guy, who’s not, and whether or not superheroes are as infallible as they sometimes seem.
The run set up Snyder’s subsequent Justice League series, but don’t let that distract you too much from the reasonably succinct and fast-moving joys of No Justice in its own right — not least of which being some genuinely breathtaking artwork from Manapul and To, bringing a cleanliness and boldness that should be considered the baseline for what these characters look like from this point forwards.
If you like it, read Snyder’s Justice League, as well as the two series that accompanied it: James Tynion IV’s Justice League Dark and the Josh Williamson/Dan Abnett/Stepjan Sejic/all kinds of artists Justice League Odyssey; they end up telling a massive, interconnected web of stories about the DC Universe that leads into last year’s Dark Nights: Death Metal.
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