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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Panel Vision - History of the Justice League HQ

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So, over the weekend we got yet another pic leaked from the upcoming Justice League movie.  I briefly considered doing a full write-up on the picture but honestly I don’t have enough material in the anti-DCEU tank anymore to pull it off.  Anything I might say now I’ve already said- the design palette is ugly, the actors look lost,  and the scale of the film seems small and drab.  However, the picture did get me thinking about the Justice League’s headquarters.  

While I’m not keen of the shipping container the DCEU seem to be operating out of it’s not that far from the team’s first HQ in canon, certainly no more so than CW’s unused hall/hangar of justice from their ‘Invasion’ crossover event.  Given that the League’s always had a cooler history of headquarters than the Avengers, who’ve always just lived in Tony Stark’s house, I figure now’s as good a time as any to dive into the history of Justice League headquarters.

The thing to understand about the early days of the Justice League was that it was a very strange time.  They were pretty much the first superhero team so a lot of their adventures were based around defining the entire genre.  As such, their first HQ ended up a little derivative- a cave.  

No seriously, the first Justice League home base was this random cave they/made in Happy Harbor, Rhode Island, and the only reason it was in Rhode Island was because their teen mascot/friend Snapper Car was from Happy Harbor so they figured “why not?”  Like I said; not a lot of sense in these earlier days, much more “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.”

However, the thinking with the cave set-up actually makes a bit of sense from the author’s point of view.  See, at the time superheroes were only just coming back into vogue after about a decade out of favor.  As such, there wasn’t much mythos or background for the authors to pull from but what little there was became even more necessary.  In this case, there was 1 superhero whose secret lair had remained a favorite staple of his adventures and he was one of DC’s most popular characters: Batman. 

Most people forget this now but it’s true, the Batcave was basically ground zero of the superhero headquarters, before the Baxter building, the X-Mansion, or even the Fortress of Solitude.  Speaking of, the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s glorious cave headquarters, had debuted a couple years before the JLA along with the Challenger’s Mountain, home of a proto-Fantastic Four type team called the Challengers of the Unknown.  So you can see this whole “cave home base” was a pretty common thread for heroes at the time.  They even gave the League’s cave its own verbose name: the Secret Sanctuary. 

The Secret Sanctuary lasted most of what’s called the Silver Age, the time from about the late ‘50s to the mid to late ‘60s when superheroes came roaring back to life.  By the ‘70s the Justice League had really found its footing as the biggest superhero team in comics, expanding its roster to include big names it initially avoided like Superman and Batman as well as newer heroes like Firestorm, Elongated Man, Zatanna, and Red Tornado.  To accommodate the expanding roster and help give the league a greater sense of identity, they decided to ditch their old headquarters for a new one in the sky; these were the Satellite years. 

The Justice League Satellite has long been one of the cornerstone locations of the DCU and the years the team operated there are consider the true golden age of the JLA.  These were the salad days of the league when they had some of their biggest and most definitive adventures along with a ton of major crossovers with the Justice Society, Shazam, Uncle Sam, and the Legion of Superheroes.  Of course, all this eventually came to an end but it was a treasured time in comic’s history. 

The destruction of the JLA Satellite was pretty much the death knell of what was known as the Bronze Age, which covers most of the ‘70s.  When the satellite went down the league, as it was, pretty much disbanded.  For a couple years the JLA was almost a non-existent entity, with the infamous Justice League Detroit as its only standard bearer.   A lot of this was editorial in nature- things were changing for comics as the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s and DC was afraid of being left in a previous era.  

A lot of this came from their big collapse in 1978 after publishing far too many books to actually sustain as well as growing concerns about their continuity being too dense to penetrate.  This all culminated in their first universe-wide reboot in 1986, Crisis on Infinite Earths.  This shook up the continuity a lot and though the JLA’s previous adventures were still canon their future was a lot less clear. 

We now enter the modern age of comics, though given how long ago it actually was it really deserves a new title.  In any case, in 1987 DC decided to launch a new Justice League book that would be entirely different from anything they’d done before.  The new Justice League was to be a globally styled teamed with a bunch of lower grade heroes representing all the nations of the world alongside some up and coming heroes and old veterans.  

Batman and Martian Manhunter stayed on as the veterans while new heroes like Captain Atom, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, and Shazam came in to fill the gaps.  As part of their diplomatic nature, the team was sponsored by the UN and worked out of several embassies all over the world.  This was the era of Justice League International.

The Justice League Embassies were a neat idea, a great way to emphasize that this was a more human and down to Earth team looking to bring justice to the world, not just America.  Admittedly that was partly a gimmick to create spin-off teams like Justice League Europe but I like the JLE so I’m fine with that.  They even actually kept the embassies after the JLI ultimately disbanded, as a form of league interaction with global governments and such and because each embassy came with its own teleportation tube.  

This was pretty much the first time the league had created a larger infrastructure of its own.  The satellite had maintained trans-universe teleporters for multiverse adventures but the idea of the league being able to beam themselves around the world was a pretty new element of their stories.  That’s largely because those kind of incidental details hadn’t really mattered till now.

Eventually the JLI disbanded near the dawn of the ‘90s, which led to another several years of the league existing in a kind of ambivalent state.  At the time their only real representation was the thoroughly and fairly maligned Justice League Task Force, a weird Xtreme version of the team in the vein of Rob Liefeld’s X-Force or Young Blood.  When the team did come back, in 1996, it was a pretty big deal as it had been nearly a decade since there had been a proper JLA with the big seven back in the driver’s seat.  

This was part of writer Grant Morrison’s big debut into the DC mainstream after building his clout on mature reader projects like Arkham Asylum (the thing that inspired the video game,) Animal Man, and Doom Patrol.  Morrison’s always taken a more fantastical approach to superhero fiction so his JLA settled on the most outrageous headquarters yet- the JLA Watchtower, on the moon. 

The JLA Watchtower was such an iconic headquarters for the team it probably rivals the Satellite in terms of notoriety.  I think more people know the satellite because it was featured in the animated Justice League show but, if you go by the comics, the Watchtower was like the satellite reborn.  It helped that the Watchtower was really cool, this super advanced moon base with all kinds of sci-fi amenities.  

The whole thing was actually designed by John Henry Irons, a scientists and former construction work that Superman saved and who built his own Iron Man style super-suit afterwards and took the name Steel.  He was one of several new heroes who joined the classics for this era of the JLA such as Huntress, Zauriel, Aztek, and Plastic Man.  For nearly a decade the Watchtower stood as the gold standard of superhero headquarters. 

As is the case with nearly all league history, the team didn’t really end so much as it tapered off in a vague way around 2004-2005.  This was right when DC was heading for another reboot series, Infinite Crisis, so the writing was already on the wall about the team before their comic started to fade.  The big difference is that this time the league never really recovered. 

Oh they got a new headquarters after the Crisis, like always, but the team just never found the same level of consistent quality or impact they enjoyed during the Embassy, Watchtower, or Satellite years.  Speaking of the Satellite, this is where we enter the time of the 2nd Satellite.

The big idea with this reboot was bringing the league back to a place of glory and classical heroism, so bringing back the satellite made sense.  However, they also decided to keep the idea of the league maintaining a ground level base and for that they went to one of the strangest sources- The Super Friends.  That’s right, this was the era of the Hall of Justice. 

Even accepting that I like the idea of the Hall of Justice I really don’t know why they went with it.  It basically functions like the embassies did, as a ground level base that’s open to the public as a way to interact with the league, complete with a museum for tours and a shelter for emergencies.  All of those things are good ideas, I’m just not clear why the writers decided to borrow from the Super Friends for the Hall of Justice idea. 

I guess it fits in with the concept of this league being a throwback to their glory days but it’s still weird, especially given the Justice League Unlimited already introduced the Metro-Tower, a much better version of the same concept.  The Hall and the 2nd satellite persisted through the New 52 reboot and are still the preferred headquarters of the league to this day, which brings this history to an unceremonious halt. 

I’m not sure there’s any lesson to be drawn from the history of the league’s headquarters, other than that going backwards never helped them out.  Their home may have started on shaky and derivative ground but they found their feet soon enough and started pushing forward in a way that served them well.  The only time things started to go downhill was when they opted to start running back to the iconography of the past rather than plow ahead.  Maybe there’s a lesson in that for superheroes in general, that as important as the stories of the past are for defining mythos and franchise identity there’s really no point if you aren’t pushing forward to something new.  

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