While many celebrate Gardner Fox’s inaugural run on Justice League of America, comparatively few appreciate the run that immediately followed it: that of Dennis “Denny” O’Neil and penciler Dick Dillin (who had illustrated Fox’s final two issues). Consisting of just 15 issues (Justice League of America #66, 69-75, and 77-83, the missing issues consisting of reprints only), O’Neil’s run was short-lived compared to Fox’s inaugural run on the title. But the two runs, put together, represent the cycle of most continuing super-hero comics: Fox built the League, whereas O’Neil deconstructed it, or at least mixed things up and left nothing the same.
At the time he took over the title, O’Neil was busy developing a reputation for renovating super-heroes, making them somewhat more logical, updating them for the times, and generally shaking up the status quo – all this long before revisionism formally began. He would continue this trend with the Justice League, most dramatically by changing its roster but also by changing the team’s group dynamics and headquarters.
One of O’Neil’s major innovations was to alter the characters slightly, making Green Arrow something of a liberal agitator, juxtaposed to Hawkman’s conservatism. Their perpetual squabbles became a major selling point of the series, though it contrasted sharply with Gardner Fox’s lighter work, in which the heroes generally got along.
O’Neil began his run with Justice League of America #66 (Nov 1968), followed by another all-reprint “80-page giant” (#67, Nov-Dec 1968). But his first bombshell dropped in issue #69 (Feb 1969), in which Wonder Woman left the League – a first in League history. O’Neil himself has just started renovating Wonder Woman in her own title, where she had been depowered and taken out of her costume, arguably making her a better fit as a feminist role-model. With her new direction, she no longer fit in the League.
After an issue guest-starring the offbeat, slightly crazy hero the Creeper (#70, Mar 1969), whom O’Neil had previously written, O’Neil dropped his second bombshell in issue #71 (May 1969): another resignation, this time of Martian Manhunter. In the story, his people left Mars to colonize another planet, and Martian Manhunter joined them, leaving the League. This helped aid the DC Universe’s realism by removing a powerful and advanced civilization from the next planet over, which had seemed acceptable in the mid-1950s, when Martian Manhunter debuted, but which had come to seem ridiculously out-of-touch by 1969, when humans actually walked on the moon. This also made sense from an editorial standpoint: Martian Manhunter had largely served as a substitute for Superman, whom DC had wanted to avoid over-exposing by featuring in too many Justice League stories. DC had since relaxed this policy; consequently, Martian Manhunter had last participated in a Justice League mission a full year before, in issue #61 (Mar 1968). His removal thus killed two birds with one stone.
O’Neil continued Fox’s annual Justice Society team-ups with issues #73-74 (Aug-Sept 1969), but O’Neil used even this to shake up the title. In the story, O’Neil killed of Black Canary’s detective husband, leading to her resignation from the Justice Society. In the very next issue (#75, Nov 1969), Black Canary went one step further, leaving her home universe altogether – thus extending the idea of changing homes after a loved one’s death to the super-hero equivalent of changing universes. Superman recommended Black Canary for League membership, but Hawkman questioned whether the non-powered Black Canary could cut it. In response, she revealed a new power: a “sonic scream” capable of bowling over all the Leaguers, including even Superman. Needless to say, they let her in. With her newly-revealed powers, she replaced Wonder Woman as the team’s only female. She promptly became a love interest for Green Arrow and was rarely seen without him.
After another all-reprint “80-page giant” (#76, Nov-Dec 1979), O’Neil kept the changes coming in #77 (Dec 1969), which removed Snapper Carr, formerly the team’s hipster sidekick and “mascot.” Snapper’s jive and incessant snapping of his fingers had long seemed lame rather than timely. In fact, he had always read like an older person’s poor impression of youth culture. O’Neil, a generation younger than Fox, knew Snapper Carr to be an embarrassing nuisance and thus proceeded to remove the dead weight. He thus depicted how he was tricked into betraying the League by a villain eventually revealed to be the Joker.
In the next issue (#78, Feb 1970), O’Neil gave the League a new headquarters for the first time in its history. In the story, the move was a logical consequence of Snapper’s corruption, which meant that the Joker now knew the location of the old headquarters, the comfortably-outfitted secret cave outside the small town of Happy Harbor. The team’s new base would better fit the post-Space Age era and the League’s power: a sprawling satellite in geosynchronous orbit above the United States.
The next bombshell exploded in issue #81 (June 1970), where both Green Lantern and Green Arrow went on leave. As with Wonder Woman, this owed to O’Neil’s simultaneous retooling of Green Lantern, in which Green Arrow had joined the cast and the two heroes had gone on a politically conscious exploration of the United States. In practice, however, neither Green Lantern or Green Arrow really left the League, unlike Wonder Woman, and they continued to appear without interruption. This issue also developed the madness of Jean Loring, wife of the Atom, who would later become murderous in Identity Crisis. Here, as with the conflict between Green Arrow and Hawkman, O’Neil infused real-world problems into the series for the first time.
Then, like Gardner Fox before him, O’Neil concluded his run with a Justice Society team-up, in #82-83 (July-Aug 1970). It was the title’s eighth but only O’Neil’s second.
As was often the case with O’Neil’s renovations of DC’s characters, he didn’t stay too long, lasting less than two years. But in his 15 issues, O’Neil left the title radically changed. The League would never again be home to episodic stories of little permanent consequence, outside of an occasional added member. Gone was the permanent state of grace, of the perpetual status quo. In its place, O’Neil’s newly dynamic League fought among themselves and had real problems, not only in Justice League of America but in their own titles – titles to which O’Neil had also brought changes. Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow all left due to changes in their own titles, which O’Neil had himself written, and O’Neil brought in Black Canary as a Wonder Woman substitute. Such changes weren’t for their own sake; rather, they added a glimmer of realism to the League, suddenly no longer static and eternally blissful.
But O’Neil’s best changes streamlined the League, removing outdated, unnecessary, or illogical elements. Snapper Carr and Martian Manhunter may have seemed useful a decade earlier, when a hipster could be used for audience identification and DC didn’t want Superman in too many stories, but both had outlived their usefulness. Both really were holdovers from the 1950s that, perhaps tolerable in the 1960s, seemed impossibly stupid as the new decade dawned. The League didn’t need a young human “mascot,” and an advanced civilization clearly didn’t exist on Mars. But perhaps O’Neil’s best innovation, in this respect, was taking the League out of a dank, small-town cave and literally putting them in orbit.
It is impossible to conceive of the League without Gardner Fox. But the League didn’t really prove its versatility until O’Neil got its reigns. A new decade was dawning, one in which the psychedelic pop art of the 1960s seemed hopelessly naïve. By the end of the decade, the acid trip was over. The super-heroes of this new decade would have real interpersonal problems. Their world demanded to be realer, and its trappings needed to belong to the Space Age and certainly not the happy, cookie-cutter suburbia of Levittown. Many writers after O’Neil would update the League, but it was he who first shepherded the League into the future.