For almost 60 years, the Justice League has been DC Comics’ A-list superhero team. Picking up where the Justice Society of America left off at the end of the Golden Age, the League — whether “of America,” international or without any other qualifier — has brought together (more often than not) the world’s greatest super-heroes. Naturally, it’s also attracted some of superhero comics’ brightest stars, not least for the opportunity to show all these characters interacting as colleagues.
As the hype begins to build for this fall’s “Justice League” movie, today we’re looking back over five-plus decades of JLA history. From the Silver Age to the 21st Century, here are 15 Justice League covers which illustrate the sweep and spectacle of the main group’s adventures. DC first advertised the JLA with the invitation “Just Imagine,” and these covers helped bring that imagination to life.
From 1969 through 1984, the JLA’s “Satellite Era” rewarded readers consistently with epic superhero sagas. However, we like Nick Cardy’s cover for October 1972’s “JLA” #102 as an uncomplicated representative of that period. Under a coal-dark, lightning-lit sky, Superman warns the JLA and JSA that one of them must make the supreme sacrifice. After that ominous declaration, who wouldn’t want to know the story behind this scene?
In fact, this issue wrapped up the 3-part JLA/JSA team-up, which brought back the Seven Soldiers of Victory. The Soldiers — Earth-Two’s Green Arrow and Speedy, Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, Shining Knight, Vigilante, Crimson Avenger and “eighth soldier” Wing — weren’t as well-known as a group as the Justice Society, and their last mission resulted in them being scattered through the timestream. The JLA and JSA tracked them down in order to defeat the evil cosmic being Nebula, who was planning to destroy Earth-Two. Just as one of the Soldiers had sacrificed himself to thwart Nebula on that last mission, somebody would have to do something similar this time around. SPOILER: It was Red Tornado, and he got better. Still, Cardy captures the gravity of the moment.
Darwyn Cooke’s “New Frontier” miniseries was a love letter to the Silver Age of Comics, which bridged the gap between the Justice Society’s retirement and the origin of the Justice League. Along the way, it followed non-powered adventurers like the Losers, Task Force X and the Challengers of the Unknown, and featured test pilot Hal Jordan becoming Green Lantern in the early years of the space race. Because the original covers for “New Frontier’s” individual issues were influenced by 1950s book jackets, they were more abstract than the average superhero-comic’s cover, and featured symbols and design elements instead of figures and scenes.
However, when the “New Frontier” collection got the oversized Absolute Edition treatment, Cooke provided a wraparound cover which put the League front and center. As befit their roles in the story, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern are prominent on the cover’s “front” (right-hand) portion, with the other founding Leaguers in the background. While that placement makes practical sense, it also reflects the journey from uncertainty to optimism, which the JLA’s origin completes. “New Frontier” isn’t always the sunniest of origin stories, but Cooke’s cover for this edition can’t help but be upbeat.
Many JLA fans of a certain age might have been introduced to the team in their Saturday-morning incarnation as the Super Friends. Alex Ross plotted, inked and provided covers for the 12-issue Super Friends homage “Justice,” which pitted a very 1970s League — assisted by Captain Marvel and Plastic Man — against the Legion of Doom. Ross’s main cover for issue #5 (variants featured Captain Marvel and Poison Ivy) was also used for a subsequent collection, where it probably got greater overall exposure.
Unlike the opening credits for the “Challenge of the Super Friends” cartoon (for example), the cover takes a more subtle approach to the JLA/Legion of Doom conflict. Ross lines up the Leaguers with their opposite numbers, and pulls off a nicely eerie juxtaposition between Superman and Brainiac. Because the heroes’ light comes from above — speaking of subtlety — Superman’s eye is in shadow, while Brainiac’s eye gleams dully but noticeably. It’s a sign that the bad guys are getting special treatment beyond their straight-up TV malevolence.
When folks think of writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis writing the Justice League books, most likely they imagine “bwah-ha-ha” laughter and picture Booster Gold and Blue Beetle. The KooeyKooeyKooey storyline — when Beetle and Booster opened a League-themed casino on the island of KooeyKooeyKooey — occurred just past the midway point of Giffen and DeMatteis’ tenure, when Adam Hughes was “Justice League America’s” regular penciller. Needless to say, this arc didn’t end well for Beetle or Booster, in large part because KooeyKooeyKooey turned out to be a living creature.
Still, Hughes’ cover for January 1990’s “JLA” #34 is a fine summary of the book’s tone. A disgusted Fire serves Beetle and Booster tiki-themed cocktails as they lounge poolside; while Batman and J’Onn J’Onzz hold back an enraged Max Lord and the Injustice League’s Major Disaster and Big Sir steal the casino’s profits (stored helpfully in the traditional comic-book dollar-sign sacks). Hughes also draws the book’s logo as if it were made out of wood. It’s all pretty far from 1972’s “one of us must die!” ultimatum, but the League had to work through some things before it got serious again.
The Crime Syndicate of America, Earth-Three’s evil version of the Justice League, was literally one of the first things destroyed in “Crisis On Infinite Earths.” Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s standalone graphic novel brought them back (sort of), via the Antimatter Universe. Naturally Quitely’s wraparound book jacket threw another twist into their portrayal, casting the Leaguers as the Syndicate’s “mirror images.” Thus, Superwoman, Ultraman, Owlman, Johnny Quick and Power Ring get all the attention, while reflections of their positive-matter counterparts (and of Aquaman and Martian Manhunter, who didn’t have CSA twins) appear below them.
It may be hard to tell without turning the book upside-down, but Quitely draws the Syndicators with much harsher features and expressions than their more familiar foes. This hints at the story’s main conceit of the CSA’s Earth being just plain “bad,” in the sense that only the CSA’s efforts can keep it on the proper — if not “right” — track. Just as the JLA will always prevail in its own universe, the CSA will ultimately win out in its. On Quitely’s cover, though, the CSA is definitely on top.
Alex Ross got to scratch his “Super Friends” itch about 10 years prior to “Justice,” with the blockbuster 1996 miniseries “Kingdom Come.” Written by Mark Waid and painted by Ross, it presented a gloomy alternative future where the next generation of DC heroes was making things worse for everyone. Issue #2 featured the miniseries’ version of the Justice League, put together by a newly un-retired Superman to get those darn kids off his holographically-generated lawn. Because part of the fun of “Kingdom Come” was spotting both the new legacy characters and their various influences, each of these Leaguers comes with a paragraph’s worth of annotations.
All kidding aside, “Kingdom Come” did set a new standard for Elseworlds miniseries, and its vision of the Justice League — made up of returning members like Superman, Wonder Woman, Power Girl and the Flash, as well as ex-Titans, Freedom Fighters and JSAers — also contributed to DC’s ever-expanding present-day legacy system. The static “smile for the camera” poses might not have been that exciting, but Ross’s art invited readers to dwell on the details as much as the action.
One of the best anniversary issues of the Bronze Age (at least), the super-sized “JLA” #200 celebrated the League’s history in a few different ways. It brought back the aliens from the League’s origin story; it set up fights between the original Leaguers and their teammates; and it featured chapters drawn by Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Brian Bolland, Dick Giordano, Jim Aparo and Pat Broderick; with the rest of the issue pencilled by George Pérez and inked by Brett Breeding.
Of course, Pérez also tackled the issue’s wraparound cover, which further demonstrates his skill at choreography. Although there are seven pairs of fighters (Green Arrow helps Black Canary fight Batman, since GA had quit the League at the time), nothing seems cluttered and the backgrounds aren’t obscured unnecessarily. The cover has a real sense of constant movement, including Batman’s leap and the Flash’s super-speed punch (which knocks Elongated Man’s head clear across the cover). After working on “Avengers” and “Fantastic Four,” this sort of crowd management was old hat for Pérez, but “JLA” #200 was still good practice for his future projects.
Ed Benes drew a larger crowd of past, present and potential future Leaguers for the two-part, double-sized cover of 2006’s “JLA” relaunch. This one kicked off under writer Brad Meltzer, who had made his name at DC with 2004’s controversial “Identity Crisis.” However, this volume of “JLA” would be home to more creative teams than just Meltzer and Benes. Writer Dwayne McDuffie teamed the League up with their Milestone Comics counterparts and fielded an extremely diverse roster in the process. Meanwhile, writer James Robinson and artist Mark Bagley created a legacy-based lineup. Robinson and Bagley’s League was also one of the more eclectic, with heroes like Guardian, Mon-El, Mikaal “Starman” Tomas and Congorilla. (Some joined via the “Cry For Justice” miniseries, but we won’t dwell on that.)
Accordingly, while Benes’ cover(s) for the 2006 debut encouraged fan speculation about who’d be in the new JLA, the truth turned out to be even more unpredictable. This version of “JLA” only lasted five years, but it ran the gamut from widescreen epics to character studies. In that respect, Benes’ depiction of dozens of superheroes demonstrated that the League’s talent pool was a lot deeper than anyone might have thought.
Still, leave it to George Pérez to make an army of over 200 characters look like an orderly assembly. If this list hasn’t featured your favorite Leaguer, don’t worry — odds are he, she or it can be found somewhere on Pérez’s comprehensive wraparound for “JLA/Avengers” #3. The issue itself featured a series of truly fantastic team-ups between the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, made possible by the reality-warping machinations of various DC and Marvel cosmic forces. That meant putting together everyone living or dead who’d ever been a Leaguer or Avenger, at least as of 2003. “Just imagine,” indeed!
Since “George Pérez draws scads of super-people” was almost old hat by that point, it might have been more of a challenge to test his organizational skills — a couple of Captain Marvels together, Zatanna next to Scarlet Witch and Mantis, all the archers in a group, Animal Man running behind Black Panther and Tigra, etc. It’s like getting a dinner party’s place-settings just right. Still, you look at this cover and marvel (no pun intended) at who’s been part of these groups over the years. Regardless of individual tenure or distinction, each added something special.
The League’s all-star nature involves a good bit of behind-the-scenes work just to make sure that the team has a decent roster. It’s not always possible to have all the A-listers you want. That was the rationale behind the Detroit League of 1984-86, and it also affected the Justice League International lineups of the next several years. Basically, for most of the ’80s and ’90s, the League was a mix of old and new faces, always approaching a classic lineup but never quite getting there.
That all changed over the summer of 1996, when the “Midsummer’s Nightmare” miniseries reunited the seven “original” Leaguers (swapping in Wally West and Kyle Rayner for their then-deceased predecessors). It led into Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s ongoing “JLA” series, which sought to fuse Silver Age craziness with widescreen-blockbuster spectacle. Morrison and Porter pitted the League against alien invaders, rogue angels, Darkseid (of course) and ancient war machines. Morrison also relocated the League to a lunar Watchtower headquarters, because he saw them as modern-day gods protecting humanity. Thus, Porter’s cover for “JLA” #1 shows most of the Leaguers looking down at the reader. Rather than being patronizing, though, it’s more like “don’t worry, we’ve got this.”
The list’s first real dose of Silver Age Crazy is this cover by Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson advertising the JLA’s origin. Until this point, the League had just
, like teaming up was the most natural thing in the world. For that matter, issue #9 told the origin in flashback, as part of the group’s third anniversary. Some 15 years later, writer Steve Englehart did the math and realized that the JLA would have been founded several months before Hal Jordan became Green Lantern, so he crafted a “secret origin” to paper over that plot hole.
?!? Yes, this was exactly the kind of cover “JLA” used to get eyeballs on its interiors, and it worked fantastically well. We could also have chosen issue #7 (the JLA gets turned into “funhouse mirror” versions of themselves), issue #10 (where they’re Felix Faust’s fingers) or issue #35 (fighting just the villains’ costumes); but the origin story made the difference. For the record, the trees were just one method the Appellaxian invaders used to try to take over the world. Teamwork defeated the tree-transformations, and from there the invaders; thereafter, a League was born.
After a three-issue tryout in “The Brave and the Bold,” the Justice League leapt into its own series with this Murphy Anderson cover. Although he’s changed a little over the years, that’s Despero on the cover. Even if no one recognized the roguish chess-playing alien with three-eyes and a fin-topped head, it was still an enticing picture. Again, this early in the group’s history, the main appeal was simply seeing them together, and Despero was right in line with the sorts of menaces the still-new Flash and Green Lantern had been facing in their own fairly-successful titles.
Moreover, the cover presented an intellectual challenge for the group, as opposed to one which could be overcome solely by raw power. Obviously the League could bulldoze its way past a foe, having defeated Starro, the Weapons Master (and his giant battlesuit) and Amazo; but in each case, the solution relied more on thinking through the problem. These sorts of “puzzle” stories became as much a part of “JLA” as the split-into-teams formula. It added another dimension to the series, and showed that the team didn’t have to throw its weight around to succeed.
Not just an iconic JLA cover, this is an iconic DC cover, period. Next to “Flash of Two Worlds,” perhaps no story is as important to the publisher’s Silver Age cosmology as the one which first brought together the Justice League and Justice Society to stop a multiversal “Crisis.” While the JSA had already reunited in the pages of “Flash” #137, this was the two teams’ first meeting. Ironically, neither Flash appears on this cover, but both are part of the story. In fact, they’re both trapped by the villains du jour — three each from Earth-One and Earth-Two — who figured out how to use interdimensional travel for their own purposes.
Anderson’s dreamlike cover makes it seem like the JLA is summoning the JSA out of some misty metaphorical netherworld, but that scene does appear in the story. Still, for fans of the older team, the very idea that the JSA could be not just revived, but teamed up with their younger counterparts, must have itself seemed like some sort of ethereal dream. Needless to say, the Multiverse just got bigger from there.
Admittedly, many of these covers are some variation on “the Justice League stands around and looks cool,” but Kevin Maguire and Terry Austin’s cover for May 1987’s “Justice League” #1 is certainly the coolest of them all. From Mister Miracle and Black Canary’s confident looks to Batman’s clenched teeth and Guy Gardner’s sneer, it shows off the knack for evocative expressions which would become one of Maguire’s strongest skills.
This new League was a direct response to the Detroit era. While the Detroit League included some older characters, it was associated with three newcomers (Gypsy, Steel, Vibe) created specifically for the book — and that wasn’t exactly in keeping with League tradition. Thus, the group, which would become Justice League International (in issue #7), was all pre-existing characters, representing every corner of the newly-streamlined DC Universe. Doctor Fate, Blue Beetle and Captain Marvel came from parallel Earths, Mister Miracle was from the Fourth World, Guy Gardner and Doctor Light had debuted in “Crisis On Infinite Earths” and Batman, Black Canary and Martian Manhunter were longtime Leaguers. In that respect, the combination reminded readers not just how the DCU had changed, but how DC had recommitted to the League’s all-star foundations.
When Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson’s cover appeared on newsstands late in 1959, the Silver Age of Comics was in its infancy. The new Flash was only about three years old, the new Green Lantern had only appeared in three issues of “Showcase,” and it had been eight years since the Justice Society’s last adventure. Accordingly, the giant starfish might have seemed more plausible to comics readers than the all-star team assembled to fight it.
Indeed, you almost have to look closely to realize who’s fighting Starro. Wonder Woman and Aquaman had been around the longest, and Martian Manhunter’s feature was a little older than the new Flash’s. Superman and Batman weren’t on the cover, and barely appeared in the story, because their editors still weren’t sure about making them part of the JLA. Regardless, from this modest beginning came the superhero team which still defines DC Comics today. It’s not just DC, either — “JLA’s” success prodded Timely Comics to create their own superheroes, and Jack Kirby’s cover for “Fantastic Four” #1 also has the fabulous FF fighting a giant monster. The JLA didn’t just bring together DC’s greatest superheroes, it encouraged others to top the standards it set.
What’s your favorite Justice League cover? Let us know in the comments!
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