One Girl In The Justice League is an essay by Tansy Rayner Roberts that first appeared in
One Girl In The Justice League
I have a problem with the “one girl” trope of superhero teams. It was a problem for me when the original Avengers movie only included Black Widow, and not the Wasp (who actually was the “one girl” founding member of the team). It’s a problem for me now that the Justice League trailer (which I kind of loved) has been released into the world, with Wonder Woman clearly marked out as the only female character in the team.
This isn’t me complaining about how super hero teams *should* look. I’m campaigning for realism based on a long, deep, fannish association with the Justice League.
But that’s the thing about history—it often gets forgotten beneath the sinking weight of what people think history was like. That’s why the word “tradition” has so much power.
In the 1960’s Justice League comics, sure, there was one girl and that was Wonder Woman. In the early 1970’s, when Wonder Woman left the Justice League and Black Canary joined up instead, there was one girl. In the mid 1980’s, when the origin story of the Justice League was retweaked to diminish Wonder Woman’s extensive history of one of DC’s longest running and most iconic superheroes (I’m still angry about this), it was Black Canary and not Wonder Woman who served as the original girl among the founding members.
In 1996 when Grant Morrison rebooted the Justice League, the front cover reflected that this super team had once more been restored to its 1960’s original formula: six male super heroes and Wonder Woman. The same thing happened more or less with the New 52 reboot of Justice League in 2011.
For the majority of the history of this long-running super team, it has actually been packed with women. Jam-packed. Black Canary might have taken over from Wonder Woman as the token girl during the Satellite Years in the 1970’s, but the title already featured many recurring female superheroes including Zatanna (mistress of magic), Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman, and others. After Wonder Woman returned, there was more than a decade in which these four women were all active members of the Justice League alongside their male colleagues.
(Do you know who wasn’t in the 1960’s original team line up of the Justice League? Superman and Batman. The two of them refused to turn up to the first adventure because they were too busy and popular, and rarely bothered to check in with the team, except as occasional guest stars)
When the Justice League was rebooted as a teen-friendly book set in downtown Detroit in the mid 80’s it featured 3 female heroes: Zatanna, Gypsy and Vixen, out of a team of 8.
When the Justice League was rebooted again in 1987, the main title included Japanese scientist/superhero Dr Light as well as Black Canary, and was soon split into two titles, Justice League International and Justice League Europe, the two teams including Fire, Ice, Big Barda, Huntress, Power Girl, Silver Sorceress, and Crimson Fox in their lineups. While the support team of JLI was male, the management and tech support that kept Justice League Europe running was done by Sue Dibny (wife of Elongated Man) and Catherine Colbert.
There were more reboots and reworkings of the Justice League titles throughout the 90’s, with a fairly high turnover of creative teams behind the scenes as well as the casts of characters. Justice League Europe became Justice League International, the team including Dr Light, Crimson Fox (two different versions, with sisters taking turns in the costume), Power Girl and new Indian teenage superhero Maya. The former Justice League International became Justice League America, featuring Wonder Woman, Maxima, Fire and Ice. When Ice was killed in a massive Justice League crossover, the main Justice League America line brought back her “predecessor” Ice Maiden. Contradictions in the backstory of this character’s former appearances were now explained as a separate character.
For almost its entire history, the norm for Justice League was to have at least two, but more commonly 3-4 women on each iteration of the team at all times. From the mid-80’s onwards, it was normal to have at least one woman of colour and/or several women from non American origin per team, even when there were several different versions of the Justice League running concurrently. (Fire is Brazilian, Crimson Fox French, Ice Norwegian, Dr Light Japanese, Maya Indian, Power Girl from Atlantis, Vixen from Africa, Hawkgirl, Big Barda and Maxima alien, etc.)
In 1993 the titles were reshuffled again—Justice League Task Force contained only two recurring characters, the Martian Manhunter and Gypsy, but assembled a new crack team of Justice League members and affiliates for each mission—one of these, notably, was all female for plot reasons that also required the Martian Manhunter to shapeshift into a female body for several issues. (This was handled with about as much sensitivity as you might expect for a mid-90’s superhero comic).
Justice League Quarterly, an anthology series of short self-contained adventures, featured multiple all-female storylines, and many female characters. It also developed the backgrounds of affiliate characters and teams, such as Booster Gold’s Conglomerate and the original Global Guardians, both of which also featured many, many female heroes.
Extreme Justice, the angry spiky shooty oh-so-nineties Justice League spin off, only featured one female member, Maxima, in its first issue but soon incorporated Plastique and Jayna of the Wonder Twins, with Carol Ferris as support.
Even Grant Morrison’s massive “big guns” reboot which infuriated me at the time by resetting Justice League to an action comic instead of an adorable series of screwed up sitcom adventures, didn’t keep Wonder Woman lonely as its “one girl” member for long. She was soon joined by Big Barda, Huntress, Oracle and Tomorrow Woman.
I lost touch with DC Comics after that. Possibly I was holding a grudge against Grant Morrison, and resentful that Fire and Blue Beetle weren’t in comics any more. But Justice League kept on being brought back, and every time it did, it was full of women.
Justice League of America Vol 2 which came about after yet another Crisis event in 2006 featured Vixen, Hawkgirl, Black Canary, Wonder Woman. Later: Donna Troy, Starfire, Supergirl, Doctor Light, Jesse Quick.
Nostalgia for my beloved Justice League International built, at the same time that many of the characters from this era began to be killed off, retrospectively raped and/or generally treated badly by creative teams. Fans were treated to a few reunion titles, including Formerly Known As the Justice League (2003), I Can’t Believe It’s Not Justice League (2005) and the rather darker and more intense Justice League: Generation Lost (2010).
Fire and Sue Dibny featured strongly in the 2003-2005 comedy titles, with Mary Marvel replacing the still-mourned, still-dead Ice as “the nice one” in counterpoint to Fire’s brash energy. Power Girl was also included in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Justice League, and Ice herself made a reappearance—playing out an Orpheus/Eurydice storyline with Fire.
Ice was eventually brought back to life thanks to Gail Simone—her return was part of a Birds of Prey storyline. In 2010, Justice League: Generation Lost attempted to address some of the emotional fallout from the many horrible things that had happened to various former members of the JLI, with Fire and Ice’s fractured friendship forming the heart of the story. Power Girl and Wonder Woman also had a prominent part in this story, which served as a retcon for Wonder Woman’s out-of-character actions in the massive comics event 52.
This has all been about comics, but let’s talk about the animated series! The very popular short run of the animated Justice League followed the long-running success of the Batman and Superman cartoons—and this version of the Justice League made 2 key changes to the “classic” line up, by featuring Hawkgirl as an original member of the team alongside Wonder Woman, and also by choosing the John Stewart (African American) version of Green Lantern to feature, instead of super-boring always-terrible hey-he-murdered-people Hal Jordan.
The follow up series, Justice League Unlimited, took a cue from the comics by featuring dozens and dozens of female teammembers in active adventures. Pretty much every woman I have mentioned so far in this history (and hey, there have been a lot of them) were included as part of the epic, rotating team.
Even the terriblawesome classic cartoon Super Friends from the 1970’s brought in the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jaina, so that Wonder Woman wouldn’t be the only girl on the team.
In 2011 there was another massive DC Comics reboot, The New 52—like Crisis of Infinite Earths in 1985 this affected the entire line and DC universe, rewriting backstories as well as retooling comic titles. The unfortunate effect of this particular reboot was to reset many classic characters to their “original” settings, throwing out decades of history, legacy and development of diversity. This love letter to the past was best embodied by the cover of the New 52’s Justice League—featuring six men (Cyborg replacing the Martian Manhunter but otherwise the standard list: Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern, Barry Allen’s Flash) plus Wonder Woman.
As with the first issue of Grant Morrison’s run, I wanted to punch a wall. Because WHY? Why is it that the default is always to this weird, unbalanced version of what a superhero team might look like, based on something that was thought up in the 1960’s? Having a single female member is not remotely representative of the entire history of Justice League comics throughout their entire history, and yet. And yet.
The New 52 also featured an attempt at Justice League International, which was so awful I can’t even tell you, BUT it featured Vixen, Fire, Ice and former Global Guardian Godiva. Of course, it killed off, sidelined and/or brutally injured most of the women in the first couple of issues, but even this TRULY AWFUL and HIGHLY DISAPPOINTING version of the Justice League still managed to put four female heroes into its team.
DC Comics and Justice League slipped away from me after that, the New 52 killing off a great deal of my interest and trust. But I will note that Justice League of America Vol. 3 starting from 2012 included Amanda Waller, Katana, Catwoman, Star Girl, Supergirl.
The most recent reboot of DC Comics is happening right now—DC Rebirth is attempting yet again to convince readers that this time things will be less complicated. Here’s this for progress: the cover of DC Rebirth Justice League #1 features two female superheroes, because it finally occured to them that you can have a female Green Lantern. That’s progress!
There is no excuse and no reason why a 21st century superhero team should not feature multiple female team members, whether we are talking about comics or TV shows or movies. This is every bit as true for the Justice League as it was for the Avengers. It doesn’t matter who turned up the first adventure back in 1960—hell, that origin story of the Justice League has been rewritten and retold so many times in the comics, it’s unrecognisable. Sometimes they don’t even include Starro the Conqueror!
The casting and reshaping of characters like Aquaman and the Flash to be very different from their 60’s origins makes it clear that the makers of these movies are fine with taking as many liberties as they like with history to make a story that resonates with modern day audiences. That part is good. That’s how it should be. History should be a starting point, not a weight around your neck.
Shaping a Justice League movie with only “one girl” in the story is a creative choice they made now, not a tradition that anyone was going to hold them to. Zack Snyder and his team made that choice, just as the DC bosses made that choice in 2011 and in 1996, and in 1960. They made that choice because having one woman on a team full of supermen looks right to them. It feels right. It feels like that’s the way the history of superheroes and super teams is supposed to look. It feels “iconic.”
Do you know what my Justice League movie would look like?
TANSY’S JUSTICE LEAGUE MOVIE
It would have Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) teaming up with Oracle (Alia Shawkat) to find the World’s Greatest Heroes, because there’s an alien invasion coming, and she’s going to need a team at her back. (Yes, Starro the Conqueror is coming, shut up, it’s TRADITION)
She would gather her troops:
Black Canary (Kate McKinnon) has retired as a martial artist vigilante and is running her mother’s florist but she hates plants and jumps at any excuse to get back into action.
Zatanna (Parminder Nagra) is about to go on stage for her Las Vegas stage extravaganza, but when Diana calls she’s willing to send her understudy on stage, with the help of some real magical illusions.
Wonder Woman finds Vixen (Gina Torres) in Africa, Power Girl (Katee Sackhoff) in Atlantis, Hawkwoman (Aubrey Plaza) in Egypt.
Doctor Light (Lucy Liu) has students to teach, a paper to write and several experiments on the boil but yes, fine, for you Diana…
Fire (Mila Kunis) has been trying to convince Ice (Tuppence Middleton) to use her superpowers to fight crime for years, and now she finally has an excuse!
It’s like Ocean’s 11 but with better dialogue, superpowers and telepathic starfish trying to take over the world! Hell, let’s throw Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn in there, she’d be great!
Batman will appear in a single scene, explaining to Wonder Woman why gathering so many superheroes in one place is a dream that will never work. He can be Starro the Conqueror’s first victim.
This movie wouldn’t be called Justice League Bombshells, or Justice League Ame-Comi, or Justice League Ladies. It would be called Justice League, because every one of the heroes I mentioned is just as important to the history of the Justice League as Batman or Barry Allen or Aquaman.
Oh, Blue Beetle would be in the movie too. To provide tech for the team, and to banter with Oracle. Because, you know. Gotta have a dude.
TANSY RAYNER ROBERTS lives in Tasmania, Australia with her partner and two daughters. She has written and edited various science fiction and fantasy books including the Mocklore Chronicles, the Creature Court trilogy, Love & Romanpunk (a short story suite) and Cranky Ladies of History. She is the host or co-host of three podcasts: Galactic Suburbia, Verity! and Sheep Might Fly, and has won two Hugo Awards, for Best Fan Writer and Best Fancast. You can find Tansy on Twitter (@tansyrr) and at her blog tansyrr.com which features fiction, feminist essays, comics reviews and pop culture criticism.