by KC Carlson
One of my very favorite DC maxiseries (as they used to be called) is back in print in December. JLA: Year One is being re-presented with a new cover (actually, it’s a composite of a couple of the original covers) by artist Barry Kitson – although I kinda like the old one too, and I hope they find a way to incorporate it into the new printing somehow.
JLA: Year One, written by Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn and pencilled by Kitson, is one of DC’s classic continuity implant stories. And yet, it is also so much more.
This was one of the first attempts to make sense of the early DC continuity, which had been rent asunder on a fairly constant basis since the various changes caused by the effects (and after-effects) of DC’s landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. By 1998 (when JLA: Year One first appeared), there were some very large question marks in DC’s overall continuity, which had major ramifications on the early Justice League stories – not the least of which was the revelation that the new (George Pérez version of) Wonder Woman was not around at the time that the Justice League first formed. Fans wondered who stood in for Wonder Woman in the original JLA.
We got the answer in Secret Origins #32, where it was revealed that Black Canary had originally taken Wonder Woman’s place in the team’s early adventures. Then Black Canary’s origin changed. And changed again. And again. (I think. I actually lost count.) But anyway, it became known that the Black Canary who was in the Justice League was actually the original Black Canary’s daughter.
(Don’t worry, Kurt Busiek explains this – and, oh, so much more – in the introduction to the collection.)
Also needing to be addressed was why Superman and Batman weren’t that involved with the League in the early years. In the original stories from the Silver Age, the World’s Finest team wasn’t actually around that much anyway. They appeared in comic books not edited by the Justice League’s editor, the venerable Julius Schwartz. He and the other editors, along with the powers-that-be at DC back then, had decided that Supes and Bats shouldn’t appear too much because – get this! – they didn’t want them to be overexposed as characters! They already appeared in multiple books, a grand total of three books each (if you don’t count Superboy appearances or Superman’s supporting role in Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, or Supergirl stories). Times sure were different then!
Eventually, the fans wanted a story reason why they weren’t in the JLA full-time in the early years, but answers were not quick in coming. And this isn’t even taking into account other changes in characters like Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter over the years. When retelling the early years of Justice League, those differences would have to be folded in as well.
(And the really scary thought: Since this JLA: Year One story was first published, DC has changed its continuity again, specifically stating that Wonder Woman was an original member of the JLA! Don’t believe me? Check out the end of Infinite Crisis! JLA: Year One – at least in this form – may not even exist in current continuity at all anymore! Or, it may be the Year One of some other JLA of some other Parallel Earth! My head hurts!)
So yes, there was a lot of continuity baggage to straighten out in JLA: Year One. But you know what? That’s all secondary in relation to how good this story is. Mark, Brian, and Barry pulled out all the stops to give us a great story about five young characters with nothing in common except their superpowers and an overwhelming desire to become the best people they could be – growing themselves while helping people in need.
In the original Silver Age stories, the characters were little more than the same basic heroic stereotype, with only their uniforms and powers to differentiate them. Here, Waid and Augustyn flesh out these long-running, but not well-developed, characters with quirks and conflicts both internal and in-your-face, while at the same time showing these five characters forging not only a formidable fighting force but also life-long friendships as well. Artist Barry Kitson also shines in these areas, as his often subtle facial expressions carry much of this more “quiet” storytelling.
Also notable is the way in which this early Justice League interacts with the rest of the DC Universe of the time period, something else we never saw much of in the original Silver Age stories. We learn a lot about the historical legacy of the original Justice Society (since in this re-telling both teams exist in the same universe, planet, and timeline, which was not the case in the original tales). Also, we see many of the other superheroes, teams, and even super-villains that the JLA never originally encountered (except maybe in cameo). Thus, we get new insight into the original Doom Patrol, Metal Men, and not-quite-JLA-members-yet Green Arrow and the Atom. Plus, there are lots of fun cameos by other Silver Age heroes, such as the Blackhawks, Sea Devils, and Animal Man, as well as a number of Golden Age greats. There are even a couple of long-running questions finally answered – like who actually funds the JLA?
All in all, JLA: Year One is one of the best of DC’s long-running “Year One” outings as well as a prime example that Retroactive Continuity tales can stand on their own. It’s filled to the brim with important DC history and above all else, a tight, moving, action-packed, and fun story. One of DC’s best. And one you’ll re-read again and again.
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.