Preface: The Justice League is a band of the world's greatest heroes. They are often the vanguard against the greatest threats that face our planet, so their failure is not an option. They have to be the best because there's no time to learn from your mistakes when billions of lives are at stake. But what makes the Justice League special isn't just that they're the strongest of the best. It's the fact that they are all timeless, dynamic characters who's qualities affirm life, courage, and grace under pressure--even in the face of certain death. The continuously inspire us to push ourselves harder and to be better for our fellow man. There's been plenty of debate about who should be on the team and who shouldn't be. What makes a good Justice Leaguer? I say that from a story perspective, it has to be a character who doesn't back down or run away or act like a child. Sure, the team doesn't need to get along, but at the end of the day, they have to stand united. It's also more than that. A member of the Justice League should capture our imaginations and inspire us through their actions.
Guide: Below there will be descriptions of each Justice Leaguer that should illustrate why these 12 characters belong on the Justice League. Some characters are obvious choices, so I spent less time on them than characters who are less obvious choices. I noted some essential reading for each character. The essential reading is by no means the best story involving each character. Rather, the essential reading is a gateway to understanding the proper characterization of each character. I tried to choose more modern stories.
Why 12 and Why These 12: There have been many comparisons made between the Justice League and the Greek Pantheon of gods. Both groups--through their actions and interactions--profoundly affect the fate of mankind. There are twelve Olympians, so it makes some sense that there would also be 12 essential Justice Leaguers. I know that explanation won't satisfy everyone, but the truth is that these are the twelve heroes that I find most fascinating. To me, they feel more important than anyone else in the DC Universe--and I hope that this post shows you why. They are all in the prime of their careers and the top of their game. Furthermore, the interactions and relationships between these characters are both entertaining and compelling. I avoided putting a spell caster and cybermancer on the team because I feel like that could make the team's job too easy. If a magical threat is a real threat, then the Justice League should have to do research or go on a quest or come up with a good strategy. If they're facing a technological threat, then efficient planning and wit are needed. While these twelve should be incredibly powerful, they should also be challenged. Heroes are only as great as the threats that they face. And now that we've gotten that out of the way, sit back and enjoy!
1. Superman- Superman heralded the beginning of the superhero genre, and he continues captivate the imaginations of millions of people. As a Justice League member, Clark has always been the hero that other heroes turn to for support. He's a natural leader who inspires the confidence of almost everyone around him. He carries hope on his shoulders when there is no hope. He's not not perfect, and he's not the goody two-shoes that people play him up to be, but he knows when and how to take a stand against things that are unpopular. Despite all of the amazing super powers that Clark brings to the team, his biggest strength has always been his sense of responsibility. It's why he fights for the little guy. It's what keeps him from being an absolutely terrifying force. And it's why people are willing to put their faith in the Justice League. He's not just a hero in costume either. He brings awareness to the causes of crime in his day job as a reporter. That way he doesn't just tear things down--he also helps to make things better in the long run. On the physical plane, Superman is always an asset and can carry his weight in almost any situation. His science fiction background opens up plenty of story possibilities, and it just wouldn't feel right to not have the Justice League without Superman.
Essential Reading: All-Star Superman, Superman: Birthright
2. Batman- The night to Superman's day. As a Justice League member, Bruce has always been the brains and conscience of the team. He may not always be the most popular person among his teammates, but he commands respect and loyalty. Plus, who wants to read a story without drama or team-conflict? Batman may not have any powers, but he's always been one of the strongest assets to the team. His detective skills, strategic planning, stealth, cunning, and resourcefulness are on such high levels that he's an undeniably vital team member. And along with all of those skills, he brings financial backing and a vast network of non-combat resources. Similarly to Clark, Bruce does not end his war on crime when he is out of costume. As a philanthropist, he addresses social issues that Batman is unable to handle such as poverty and disease. His modern costumes are laced with technology that allows him to hack almost any computer or pull up information at a moments notice. He's the team's walking super computer. Batman's just as vital to the team as Superman is.
Essential Reading: Batman: A Court of Owls
3. Wonder Woman- Diana's nickname--the Amazon Princess--illustrates the beautiful dichotomy of her character. She's a powerful, strong-willed woman who would never back down from a fight or a challenge, but she's also a lover of peace who would never seek a fight or a conflict. She's simultaneously both the most fierce and most nurturing member of the team.With her powerful abilities and vast training, Diana is capable of going toe-to-toe with just about any hero or villain. She's also experienced at handling threats that range from common crime to crimes that are of a magical or supernatural nature. She commands respect both as Wonder Woman and Diana Prince, the ambassador of a warrior nation. She's got political connections that could be useful to the Justice League, and she's exactly who you want with you in the trenches.
Essential Reading: Wonder Woman (The Azzarello Run)
4. Green Lantern- Hal is THE interstellar hero. He was chosen above all others for his courage, his willpower, and his honesty--two vital qualities in a Green Lantern. In many ways, Hal is the most human of the group. He's been irresponsible. He's felt fear. And he's overcome great challenges no matter what set-backs are sent his way. He's always willing to stare death in the face and put his life on the line--something that he does regularly as a test pilot. Not only is he a charming womanizer and light-hearted joker, Hal is also a man's man. He's the guy you want to share drinks with when you go out on a night on the town. He's a great foil for the other members of the League, and he has some very entertaining inter-personal dynamics with other members of the team. He's a rebel and he isn't afraid to let people know what's on his mind--sometimes to his own detriment. He knows how to make light of dire situations to put things into perspective. With his Power Ring, he's a strong asset to the team in almost any environment. His ring's translation skills come in handy with all of the exotic beings that the Justice League comes into contact with.
Essential Reading: Green Lantern: Secret Origin
5. Flash- Barry is an everyman--a people’s superhero. Unlike many of the other heroes, the Flash is a hero that the public is likely to run into on the streets and interact regularly with, whereas some of his team mates stick to the shadows or fly. He’s approachable and passionate, spending his spare time working on police cases and visiting children in orphanages. These attributes make him indispensable to the team, as he provides a vital link between the Justice League and the people they serve. He's also very relate-able because he's been shy, he felt overwhelmed, and he's felt out of his league. But he's also determined, focused, and kind. His speed is unmatched by any member of the Justice League, and he can solve several problems before they grow into huge issues. He's got a strong science pedigree that lends itself to the Justice League and the Central City Police Force. His police training is useful because it helps to keep his team mates and himself from crossing the line.
Essential Reading: The Flash: Mob Rule
6. Martian Manhunter- J'onn seldom receives the credit he rightfully deserves. He's been called the Swiss Army Knife of superheroes and that's not simply due to the vast range of his powers. J'onn has not only played the role of superhero and detective, he's also played the role of doctor and counselor. As a member of a telepathic race, J'onn has had to deal with the psychology and the emotions of others, and as a freedom fighter, J'onn gained significant experience as a medic and battlefield surgeon. J'onn J'onzz is the touchstone of the team--the Justice League’s spiritual center. Without his sage and compassionate presence, the Justice League feels hollow. All of these factors along with his tragic past make the Martian Manhunter one of the most interesting and relevant members of the Justice League. J'onn's character is firmly rooted in melancholy because the loss of his family, people, and culture define his character. This loss permeates J'onn's being which sometimes leads to him having deeply introspective moments but, overall, this pain gives J'onn direction. Just as the loss of Krypton drives Superman, the loss of Mars drives J’onn J’onzz and serves as a reminder to the Justice League of what is at stake. He fights to ensure that there will always be at least one inhabited planet in this solar system.
Essential Reading: Martian Manhunter: The Others Among Us
7. Aquaman- Arthur is the hereditary king of the underwater city-state of Atlantis. Because of his ability to communicate telepathically with all sea life--fish, shellfish, mammals, etc.--he is sometimes thought of as the King of the Seven Seas. A stern and austere leader, Arthur is protective of both his underwater environment and the surface world that he currently calls home. As a champion of the seas, Arthur has kept a wary eye on those who have wanton disregard for the ecology of his beloved oceans. On the Justice League Arthur’s ability to communicate with marine life is a formidable weapon, as schools of dolphins, giant octopi, sharks, and even whales can be called upon to aid him in battle. Even alone, however, he is still a daunting foe—possessing a durable body, superhuman strength, enhanced night vision, and vast martial prowess. In addition, he possesses the legendary Trident of Poseidon--a weapon forged by the ancient king that can channel unknown levels of magical power. These gifts alone make Arthur a challenging opponent to face on the battlefield. Some fans have called for Arthur to gain the ability to control water like his wife Mera, which would be an interesting addition to his power set. Aquaman is more than just his powers. He adds plenty of interesting drama to the team from time to time. Who is he more aligned with--the surface or the deep? Is he a team player, or is he not a team player? Whatever the answers are, he's always been one of the Justice League's biggest assets.
Essential Reading: Aquaman: American Tidal, Aquaman: The Trench
8. Black Lightning- Jeffrey--like J'onn--is a hero who seldom receives the credit that he deserves. Even more so than the social crusaders Green Arrow and Superman, Black Lightning is incredibly conscious of the issues that are at the root of crime. Jefferson Pierce grew up in Suicide Slum, which got its name from the idea that people only escaped the degradation of the slum by killing themselves. His father--a community leader--was accidentally shot during a mob hit, and times were tough for Jeff and his widowed mother. Nowadays, Jeffrey Pierce is an ex-Olympic athlete turned school reformer with a proven track record of setting struggling communities straight. Usually, he doesn't need to resort to using his powers to save lives. He turns high schools that are dropout factories into high-performing institutions. Jeff--at his core--is a giver. He gives communities hope, and he gives students the opportunity to experience bright futures. When his leadership is not enough to solve problems, he becomes a highly efficient protector and fighter. He's willing to play dirty if that's what it takes to save lives. Pierce does have a kind of righteous indignation that makes his interactions with heroes, villains, and civilians interesting. He's frank, and he's unapologetic. For a more well-rounded description of Jeffrey Pierce, it would be fair to say that he's also compassionate, confident, optimistic, and strong-willed. Jeff's stories are interesting because they not only deal with crime and heroics, but they also focus on family and community. His stories deal with class struggles in a way that many comics don't. As Black Lightning, he's trusted by pretty much all of his fellow heroes. Batman and Superman have called on his aid on more than one occasion. Power-wise, Black Lightning is an incredibly useful asset to the Justice League. Even though his powers are known to stem from a meta-gene, his abilities are not affected by magic. He has shown the ability to operate in magically-sealed or shielded areas unlike other superheroes like Superman. His name "Black Lightning" has caught him some flack in the past because it seems racially charged, but he has displayed the ability to project and manipulate real "black" lightning. This lends further evidence to the idea that his powers are magical in origin. It would be interesting to learn if there have been any black lightning wielders in time periods before him who also fought for Justice. Whatever the case is with his powers, one thing is for certain: Jefferson Pierce is a true hero and a born badass.
9. Green Arrow- Oliver has a long history on the Justice League, and he's also one of their most beloved, recognizable members. He’s a more outspoken Batman; he gets his hands dirty. He’s not acting like a lot of the other heroes do--like gods. He’s just a normal guy with extraordinary skill put into crazy situations. He's one of the most human member of the team. He's the John McClane--he gets injured and beat up from time to time. He's a man's man and his relationship to Black Canary is one of the most entertaining relationships in the entire medium. Before he became Green Arrow, Ollie was sleepwalking through life as an idle playboy. He wrestled with his emerging social consciousness and a desire to help his fellow man, but was uncertain as to how to go about doing that until he was forced to survive on a deserted island. Eventually he was rescued and returned to his hometown of Star City, where he sold off his company. Oliver took his assets and devoted them to being Green Arrow full-time--with the exception of having a stint as mayor of Star City. A far-left liberal, Queen is also keen to the causes of crime, such as poverty and corruption. He found himself as dedicated to many social causes meant to improve the society that he protects. Not cowed by the system, Green Arrow fights against all forms of injustice, whether his opponents are small-time criminals, such as burglars and drug dealers, or big-time criminals, such as politicians, businessmen, or alien conquerors. Ollie reminds the Justice League that it's not always about the big picture. Ollie has his fair share of gadgets ranging from trick arrows to wrist launchers and explosives. You'd be hard pressed to ever see him miss a target, and he's very tech-savy. While he may not be the walking super computer that Batman is, he has a team of people who work on his gadgets and give him tech support when it's needed. It would be interesting to see this taken a step further and have a group of hackers like Anonymus aid Ollie in his war on crime. Ollie is a vital member of the team because he provides them with a vital viewpoint and his own steel resolve.
Essential Reading: Green Arrow: Year One, Green Arrow: The Archer's Quest
10. Black Canary- The first thing that you need to know about Dinah Lance is that she's as tough as nails. She's a hero who relies far more on her will, training, and cunning than her powers. Dinah possesses the mutant ability to project ultrasonic blasts from her vocal chords; this "canary cry" can be used to destroy buildings and stop adversaries in their tracks, which is a valuable asset if her hand-to-hand skills are useless against a more powerful opponent. The catch is that her powers require her to exercise a lot of self control. If she tries to take the easy way out--just once--when the situation doesn't call for it, then she could put the lives of the people around her in jeopardy. But rather than let her powers master her, Dinah has fully mastered her powers and every other part of her body. Trained by world-class fighters and assassins, Dinah is able to take on many opponents without breaking a sweat. You could say that her greatest power is her self-control, but then you wouldn't be giving her biting wit or rebellious streak enough credit. Her relationship to Green Arrow is one of the most iconic relationships in the medium--and for good reason. The two play off of each other well--both as team mates and as a couple. It's one of those cases in which both characters enhance one another. They're stronger together than apart. Black Canary's powers stem from her meta-gene, but neither of her parents had a meta-gene. It would be interesting if a writer could tie the origin of her powers to some shadowy organization like Cadmus Labs. One of the most interesting things about Black Canary is her day job. She owns and operates a flower shop, which illustrates how everyone has the potential to achieve greatness--even the flower lady. She's got a strategic mind and a high emotional IQ, both of which make her a valuable team mate and friend. As a member of the Justice League, Dinah has excelled in her new role as global protector, and remains one of the League's most valued members.
Essential Reading: Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey
11. Vixen- Mari McCabe is one of those cases in which the powers reflect the person. Vixen possesses the innate ability to mimic the abilities of animals by simply focusing on a specific animal's abilities. She can call upon the abilities of multiple animals at once, and she has even been shown to be able to channel the powers of extinct animals, such as the saber-toothed tiger and the triceratops. Vixen's claws/nails are particularly sharp and tough, enabling her to rend through a variety of substances, such as fabric, wood, cinder block and even soft metals with ease. Her claws are magically enhanced and have drawn blood from individuals who are considered highly durable like Geo Force, Despero, and Pre-Crisis Superman. Mari is incredibly compassionate since she feels connected to so many different forms of life, but she's also pretty fierce and competitive when she has to be. More than many other Leaguers, Mari follows her instincts and her passions, which makes her a perfect foil for the members who think too much like Martian Manhunter. The source of her power is a life force known as the Red, the animal counterpart to the Green from Swamp Thing. This makes Mari a strong asset when the Justice League has to deal with the powerful, magical forces of The Red, The Green, and The Rot--the three forces that determine the fate of all life on Earth. Mari has to exert a great deal of self-control to keep her powers in check. In the past, she has absorbed unwanted animal behavior, such as instinctive rage--meaning that the longer she stays in contact with The Red, the less human and more animal-like she seems to become. Mari grew up in a small African village in the fictional nation of Zambesi. When she was young, he mother was killed by poachers and she is raised by her father, the village priest. After he father's death, Mari moved to America, where she got a job as a model. She uses her wealth to travel the world and help the suffering in developing countries. Mari brings a vital and indispensable international focus to the Justice League.
Essential Reading: Vixen: Return of the Lion
12. Atom- Ryan Choi sets the tone for what the Justice League's adventures should be: thrilling, exciting, breath-taking. He's the kind of hero who is awed by the challenges that face him, and he revels in adventure. He doesn't let anything keep him down because he sees everything as a learning opportunity. Ever since he's taken the mantle of the Atom, he's fully enjoyed his powers. He--like many comic book fans--understands how cool it is to be part of the world's premier super-team. More so than any other member, Ryan brings a serious scientific pedigree to the group. Any mission that involves science fiction is a mission for Ryan Choi because he'll probably be the first guy to get you the right answer. He brings a researcher's passion for the new and the strange to the team. Despite what some people may think, his powers are incredibly useful--especially when you're on a mission that requires stealth or subtlety. He's a master of nano-tech, so if you're going up against some highly advanced piece of machinery, then he can shut it down. He can gains access to any room with the smallest breach. And--like all the other Justice Leaguers on this list--he can hold his own with the big dogs. Equipped with his "bangstick," he has the ability to generate concussive blasts of force as an offensive weapon . He can also use his bangstick to travel at great speeds. If that's not enough, he's also well-versed in combat. Ryan's curiosity, research pedigree, magnificent brain, and great passion all make him an indispensable member of the Justice League.
Essential Reading: The All New Atom: My Life in Miniature