Creator’s Commentary: Gerry Conway on ‘DC Retroactive 1980s: Justice League of America’

If you’re going to be putting out a book about the Justice League when they had digs in the Motor City, what better writer to handle it than the one who originally had Aquaman and Martian Manhunter lead a team of superhero newbies in Detroit: Gerry Conway. Conway took writing chores on this week’s DC Retroactive 1980’s: Justice League of America, bring back Gyspy, Vibe, Vixen, the Elongated Man, Zatanna, and Steel for one more adventure before the lights get turned out on the current incarnation of the DCU. Mr. Conway was kind enough to answer a few questions about the story, which pits the underdog lineup against longtime JLA foe Felix Faust.

****Warning: Spoilers below!****

Pages 2-3
Geek: Why was this League appealing for you to write? You even note in the captions that they’re not exactly the “real” league.

Gerry Conway: When we developed JLA Detroit, Chuck Dixon and I wanted to work with characters whose personal lives were relevant to their membership in the League. Most of the League’s big guns—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al—were beyond our ability to influence in any meaningful way. Because of the way the editorial system was structured at the time, nothing that happened to those characters in the JLA actually mattered; the stories had no lasting impact on the heroes. As a writer I found this frustrating. Creating JLA Detroit was an attempt to resolve that frustration. These days, of course, with constant crossovers between titles and efforts to make all stories tie into a single continuity, that might be less of a problem for the creative teams. (Or maybe it’s even more of a problem—I wonder how many writers today wish they didn’t have to tie their stories and character development into a company-wide continuity?)

The caption comment that this league is not the legendary League was meant to acknowledge that, for some fans, JLA Detroit wasn’t the “true” Justice League. The story that follows is meant to show that the League is more of a concept of heroism and teamwork and self-sacrifice than some arbitrary membership roster. Over the years there have been many Justice Leagues—I simply wanted to make the point that these heroes were no less worthy of bearing the JLA name than any other grouping. Not the JLA of legend.

Page 6
Geek: For readers that don’t know, what was the dynamic like for that team?

GC: Much like the dynamic Geoff Johns later developed for his Justice Society run, I wanted our characters to have mentor-student relationships. Whether that worked out as I’d hoped is another question. As seen here I also wanted there to be friction between the established heroes and the newcomers, in particular between Aquaman and everyone else. In the continuity of the time, Aquaman had been left by his wife, Mera, and was projecting his own sense of failure on everyone else in the League—particularly on Hank, who was a potential rival for leadership within the team.

Page 13
Geek: Felix Faust was an interesting choice for the villain—particularly given how little play he gets nowadays. What’s a particular story featuring the character that you think more people should check out?

GC: His first appearance way back in JLA #10. It’s a classic Gardner Fox divide-and-conquer puzzle tale, with a terrific sense of an unrevealed backstory.

Page 15
Geek: You touch on the rough circumstances of Detroit during that period (which are, of course still present or worse today). What would JLA Detroit 2011 look like? What would they be doing?

GC: Wow. As you say, parts of Detroit are even in worse shape today—along with the rest of the country. My opening description of Detroit was meant to provoke the reader to make an ironic internal comparison with the America of today versus the imaginary America of Ronald Reagan’s era. If there was a JLA Detroit 2011 I hope they’d be pissed as hell that the country is in the situation it is now, and that their adventures would reflect that reality.

Page 17
Geek: In a way, the story kind of becomes Gypsy’s and the kid’s (whose identity I won’t spoil here). Why her as focal point for the plot?

GC: I always loved Gypsy and meant to develop her further, but never really managed to do so. I think she could have been a terrific addition to the DC Universe. I guess I just wanted to give her another moment in the sun.

Geek: As for the “meaning” of the League: to what degree do you think the idea behind the team has changed over the years? What do you think it’s meant recently?

GC: The League as originally conceived was a commercial effort—it didn’t have a real, overriding creative purpose. I think it only developed into a real group of interconnected characters when Denny O’Neil started writing the book. During my stint I tried to develop a sense of the League as a special calling for the heroes involved—something more than an ad hoc assemblage of well-known super-heroes. I think that’s the direction the book has followed, more or less effectively, ever since. I haven’t been a close reader of the title in recent years, though. And with the new DCU it probably doesn’t much matter what direction the book took—it’s starting fresh again in September, so history begins anew.

Page 30
Geek: Among the Detroit-era League, Vibe always gets the worst rap. Deserved or undeserved?

GC: I think Vibe would have quoted Curly from the Three Stooges: “I’m a victim of soikumstance!” He had two big strikes against him, one my fault, and one Chuck’s. I had him speak in horrible (put-on) “street” Latino slang, and Chuck gave him MC Hammer pants. I was being too clever by half—I meant for the reader to figure out that Vibe only used his street talk as a way to create distance from his “real” self. He spoke in unaccented English (or Spanish) with his family. But I don’t think I made that as clear as I could and the result is he sounded like a total cliché. People reacted to the put-on Vibe rather than the real kid behind the put-on.

Page 32
Geek: Finally, back to that kid again—what made you decide to put this person into the story?

GC: The person involved once told me that JLA Detroit made a big impression on him because he was a kid growing up in Detroit at the time that sequence of stories was published. I just wanted to acknowledge my own admiration for what he’s accomplished, and hopefully, make him smile.

DC Retroactive 1980s: Justice League of America is on shelves now.

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