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Remembering the time Aquaman ran the Justice League — into the ground

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Meet Justice League Detroit

From Justice League Annual #2, DC Comics (1984). Gerry Conway, Chuck Patton/DC Comics

There are many incarnations of the Justice League, but there is one you can always use to pull a chuckle out of a long-time comics fan: Justice League Detroit. The JLD is exactly what it sounds like — a Justice League team that operated out of Detroit, Michigan — and it exists because of this one time that Aquaman decided to disband the Justice League entirely.

To be fair to Aquaman, in 1984’s Justice League of America Annual #2, the Justice League was in bad shape. A recent conflict with Martians left their satellite base destroyed. Batman had quit, the Flash was on a leave of absence and the Atom had disappeared. Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern had been too busy with other matters to show up for the Earth-Mars War either.

“The world deserves something more than a part-time organization of uncommitted dilettantes,” Aquaman tells the assembled body of the United Nations in Justice League of America Annual #2, before ordering the League to disband. This was within his power as one of the original seven founders of the Justice League.

From Justice League of America Annual #2, DC Comics (1984).
Zatanna helpfully tells Firestorm that she checked, and it’s in the bylaws.
Gerry Conway, Chuck Patton/DC Comics

To Aquaman’s surprise, the League immediately reforms, with Arthur acting as leader to a roster of little-known classic characters and a handful of new creations. And their new “secret headquarters” is somewhere entirely unexpected: A vibrant but run-down neighborhood in Detroit.

Readers started referring to the team as Justice League Detroit. The idea never really took off, but it was certainly memorable.

Polygon talked to Gerry Conway, the writer behind the Justice League of America book at the time, who crafted the team now known as “Justice League Detroit.” He says that he and DC Comics had a very concrete motivation for disbanding the League and reimagining it.

“The motivation was twofold,” Conway told us by phone. “On the one hand, from a creative point of view, it’s always awkward running a group book of characters who have very active storylines and character arcs in their own separate titles. You have a Justice League story that features Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman — and all of those characters are in their own story arcs, in their own separate titles. You can’t really develop your own character arcs and story lines separate from that in a group book.”

Another real inspiration for the Justice League’s Detroit era, according to Conway, was the success of The New Teen Titans, a team book where most of the characters didn’t feature in another ongoing series.

Justice League had been doing well but wasn’t doing as well as Teen Titans, and we were looking for ways to revamp it. And both those considerations drove me to say, ‘Well, why don’t we just disband the official League and create a new League that would only feature characters that appear in Justice League?’”

Aquaman’s lack of a solo title at the time allowed Conway to create his own character arc for the decades-old hero, and he also introduced a handful of new characters. In Justice League of America Annual #2, a mere two panels after the Justice League disbands, the Martian Manhunter shows up and pledges his full time support to the group. That one vote is enough to reform the group with him, Zatanna and the Elongated Man — with Aquaman as leader.

A few pages later, the four are joined by Vixen and a new incarnation of DC’s Commander Steel character. Then, Conway and artist Chuck Patton introduce the reader to two new characters, Vibe and Gypsy (it was 1984). The whole thing wraps up with a block party at the Justice League’s new secret headquarters in an abandoned dock-side factory, as the citizens of Cameron Street promise to keep their secret safe.

From Justice League of America Annual #2, DC Comics (1984). Gerry Conway, Chuck Patton/DC Comics

Those citizens, like Mother Windom, Gypsy and the heavily-accented (but also code-switching?) Vibe are enough to make you wince these days. The Detroit League never did reach the heights of Teen Titans, but Conway has a way of looking at it optimistically.

“That run at the time ... it was not successful. I take some blame for that because I took probably too long to really develop the characters sufficiently to make them interesting. But of course, the irony is all those characters are now prominent members of the CW universe. So the Detroit Justice League, you know, it now exists in The Flash and used to exist on Legends and appears in Arrow and Supergirl and so on. But at the time it was too big a transition for regular readers of Justice League to accept.”

It’s true: Elongated Man, Commander Steel, Vixen and Vibe all have incarnations in the CW’s Arrowverse. And while disbanding the Justice League may have been one of Aquaman’s lowest moments, his film debut is swimming right along, in contrast to some other DC Universe films. Maybe a whole cinematic reimagining of the Justice League wouldn’t be amiss?