15 years after the JLA's origin was first told in JLA #9, Steve Englehart rewrote the history book, offering an entirely new origin which asserted that the earlier version was just a ruse.
The JLA #9 story, by Gardner Fox, posited that the seven original JLA members independently battled seven Appallaxian aliens who invaded the Earth, each with the power to transmute living beings into some material such as gold, glass, or mercury.
After five encounters that stuck to an almost perfectly formulaic script describing five one-alien-vs-one-hero battles, the heroes united in various combinations to take on the last two Appallaxians, ending with a meeting that put all the heroes in the same place at the same time, whereupon they formed a team.
Englehart's later version of the JLA origin, in JLA #144, reveals that the heroes' real first meeting was several months earlier, to stop a different alien invasion – by White Martians. Englehart's story has Superman and Green Lantern reveal in 1977 to non-charter-member Green Arrow that the JLA had offered the Appallaxian tale as a cover-up of the more politically-sensitive Martian invasion and that the JLA had pretended, to their non-charter members, that the first published mention of White Martians in JLA #71 had actually been the second time that the JLA had encountered Commander Blanx and the other evil Martians.
At first glance, this all seems very busy and plot-heavy. Why bother replacing one alien invasion story with another alien invasion story, creating layers of claim and counterclaim? Subsequent versions of JLA history have taken sides, with the Appallaxian origin being cited by a couple of later writers, and the White Martians resurfacing elsewhere. Did Englehart's origin serve only to complicate the history for no good reason?
In fact, Englehart's story is superb – more entertaining than the original, more mature, and deeper than it looks. While Fox's story used a highly formulaic structure that he had developed for Justice Society stories in the Forties, Englehart's gives numerous characters privileged roles in an intricate plot offering social commentary and a grand statement about DC continuity. J'onn J'onzz is the character most pivotal to the plot, as he is being hunted somewhat privately by his fellow Martians. The Flash is the first terrestrial superhero to enter the fray, and who escalates the conflict to a larger set of superheroes. Superman's fame and power are celebrated by the story as he is the greatest among not-quite-equals. Green Arrow kicks off the framing story, as he detects the inconsistency in dates that indicates that the Appallaxian story must be false. But perhaps the key character to it all is Green Lantern, as the unnamed "one" in the title of the story, "The Origin of the Justice League – Minus One."
Both the dates and the singling out of Hal Jordan point to Englehart's higher purpose in this story. While DC Comics had a concept of continuity that formed only gradually as the Silver Age went by, Englehart used JLA #144 to impose his notion of a deeply interconnected and shared universe. He did this by making an executive decision on how dates should be interpreted in DC stories. He has his characters in 1977 refer to explicit dates in the late 1950s for various moments in their careers. While this implies that the heroes are much older than they obviously seem to be, this is excused by Englehart and an editor's note from Julie Schwartz as the way time works in the DCU – young men can have a history as young men going back a couple of decades and we shouldn't worry about the details of why they didn't age. This is a controversial interpretation, and one that DC writers have come to reject, but one must admire that Englehart had any vision at all for how continuity should work, instead of the indifference that seemed to guide questions of continuity from 1938 up through the Seventies. Just a few years later, DC's creators would begin to scrap much of their existing history in COIE, but Englehart began an alternate approach, writing old stories into current continuity, resolving contradictions with deliberate creative decisions. And so, Englehart addressed the glitch in Hal Jordan's debut and the JLA origin story by writing a special story, referring to Jordan in the title, that explained the discrepancy. Englehart made a declaration in this story that publishing dates could be considered absolute dates within the DCU, so that Superman or Batman might refer to their adventures using the same month and year that a fan could see on the cover of their old comics.
How seriously did Englehart take this approach? JLA #144 is full of panels where a character refers to an adventure in their past and Englehart/Schwartz append asterisked notes indicating the issue in which these adventures took place – and they are all correctly chosen from the right month according to cover date, setting the JLA origin story right at February, 1959, the same month that Barry Allen first appeared in the Flash title, after his initial appearances in Showcase. This is because the origin in February 1962's JLA #9 claimed that their origin had taken place 3 years earlier. Englehart has many of his heroes (or in Superman's case, a TV news anchor) note what they were doing in their recent past, and draws all of these details from early 1959.
He also includes a much bigger cast – the people investigating the case of the White Martians includes not only the six original JLA members (plus Robin and a pre-power-ring Hal Jordan), but also Congorilla, Plastic Man, the Blackhawks, the Challengers of the Unknown, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Robotman, Roy Raymond, and more. Along the way, they accidentally run into Adam Strange and Rip Hunter while looking for Martians. Why? Because all of these – Lois and Jimmy included – were all the stars of features in early 1959. DC didn't have a seriously consistent cross-feature continuity in 1959, but Englehart, in 1977, retroactively declared that they did. 9 years before splash pages in COIE showed off DC's new post-Multiverse lineup onstage together, Englehart put DC's old (but retroactive) lineup onstage together.
And it's not only DC's minor players that appear in the story: There are other nods to the culture of the times. Characters in the story are aware of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast and scare, and the White Martian invasion generates some of the same hysteria. In this story, as in the real world, H. G. Wells' story is fictional, but Orson Welles' broadcast is real. This is precisely the reason why J'onn J'onzz is feared for his Martian origin, and that fear is the reason why, Englehart explains, the JLA's true origin had to be covered up until the public got over the initial panic. He also notes the Red Scare of McCarthyism and the anti-comic-book rhetoric published a few years earlier as Seduction of the Innocent.
When I read JLA #144 for the first time, I was certainly aware that some of the non-superhero characters were from older comics, and that I might presume that the rest were, too, but I had no way of researching that. It was clear that Englehart was capturing a past era of comics, but it is only now that I see what a tight work the story was, from the assiduously-researched issue numbers to Lois Lane's distinctly 1959-ish attire.
What stands out even to a reader who had never picked up a 1959 comic (when Englehart was 11, and before I was born) was that the White Martian origin was a really good story: White Martians hunt down J'onn J'onzz. The Flash tries to help but cannot, so he enlists the help of Superman, who is joined by Batman and Robin. Then the word gets out that people with special abilities are needed and DC's whole lineup splits into teams trying to find the many bad Martians along with the one good one. Ultimately, the chase leads to the launchpad of an early U.S. space rocket (another nod to 1959) and Superman's heat vision, playing on the Martian weakness to fire, ends the threat.
JLA #144 wasn't merely a very good story; it was a vision of how DC's entire universe fit together. Taking, in effect, an editorial pencil to the stories from his childhood, Steve Englehart showed a way forward that could have kept DC's first four decades as part of one seamless continuity going forward. What it took was hard work – the willingness of writers to thumb through old issues and turn those stacks and stacks of older stories into a single, coherent narrative, weaving it together as Englehart did. It might have been something more than a big mess to discard when COIE came around. It might have been a legend.
Somewhere between the little-kid stories of the Sixties and the gruesome artistry of Alan Moore, there is a place for comics that celebrate their tradition without irony. Steve Englehart scripted it to perfection in JLA #144.
The first two selections in my five best JLA stories came only a few months apart. The next choice will come after a big jump – two decades later.