Thursday, March 11, 2010

Once Upon a Time in Detroit...

True Story – the crime rate in Detroit was once so high that the Justice League of America relocated their base of operations to a warehouse in a gang infested inner city neighborhood. Detroit was suffering from white flight, their housing market had tanked to the point where people were burning their homes because they could get more for the insurance money than from selling them for market value.

The year was 1984 and the Motor City had just earned a new nickname, the “Murder City,” with a yearly homicide rate in the high 700’s (think: two people a day). In addition to rampant manslaughter, 1984 saw over 800 separate cases of arson around Devil’s Night alone, but crime wasn’t the reason the JLA set up shop - it was supposed to be a savvy marketing move from DC Comics.

Everyone in 1984 had Detroit fever, thanks in large part to the Tigers, on the verge of winning the World Series. It doesn't take a private investigator to uncover why Detroit was huge in 1984, but it wouldn't hurt to consult one anyways.

Also huge in the mid-eighties? The growing Brat Pack teen market. The Baby Boomer's kids had finally grown up, and were spending money at movies, arcades, and yes - on comics. The creative forces behind JLA jumped on the Midwest/teen angst market wagon, restructuring the team's line-up and setting them up in a new city, featuring a newer, younger ensemble cast that like something out of a John Hughes film.

In addition to team staples Aquaman and Martian Manhunter, the Detroit Breakfast Club included Elongated Man, Steel, Vixen, Gypsy and Vibe, with every personality archetype necessary for a good movie:

Wait. What? Who?
At the same time Coca Cola was changing its formula, The Justice League underwent a radical revamp in which League mainstays such as Batman and Wonder Woman were passed over in favor of new teen heroes, more ethnically diverse and with real life issues than the Justice League of wealthy, privileged white people ever was.

Superman, only vulnerable to Kryptonite, was out. In his place was another man of Steel, who's vulnerabilities included controlling parental figures. Feral Vixen had a number of personal demons to overcome and teenage Gypsy ran away from her abusive parents. None compared however, to Vibe, a trash talking, break dancing, gang banging inner city Latino teen capable of causing mini earthquakes who dealt with escalating gang warfare in his neighborhood. If he sounds like a bad stereotype, it's because he is, or rather was.

Like New Coke, and the teen-centric 1985 cast of SNL (that featured Brat Packers Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey Jr as cast members) The Detroit League failed to connect with an audience and didn't last long. Hardcore fans wanted their Super Friends back, and started a letter writing campaign calling for the deaths of these teen upstarts. DC listened to their readers and the Detroit League, like so many other experimental corporate endeavors of that era tried to course correct.

Where Coke switched back to the classic formula and Lorne Michaels trapped most of the cast of SNL in a fire opting to start fresh next season (ushering in the Dana Carvey/Mike Meyers years), the Justice League were kicked out of Detroit. SNL's deaths were part of a comedic sketch, but DC was much more sinister giving the fans exactly what they wanted - heads on plates.

Less than a year after the Detroit Exodus the team was picked off one by one by killer robots, a grisly move that foreshadowed the fate of another teen hero a few years later when DC set up a 900 number giving fans control over the fate of Robin (they killed the Boy Wonder as well). The end results were the same, a blank slate, a clean page. Message received:

Detroit 1 - JLA 0

It's too bad, really. Between the Big Auto bailout, bankruptcies, and a housing market even worse than the 1980's - Detroit could really use the League's help today. Perhaps it would've ended differently had the League set up shop in Shermer Illinois.

No comments: