THE JUSTICE LEAGUE
The year was 1987. Grim and gritty gripped the comics industry. DC was publishing WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Superheroes were just about to become darker, more violent, and more “serious,” as a legion of creators jumped on the bandwagon.
So when it came time for DC to bring back its keystone super-hero team, the JUSTICE LEAGUE, they went straight to Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, who went on to produce one of the funniest superhero comics ever.
It only takes until the second page of the first issue to see where they were going with this. Guy Gardner, Earth’s Green Lantern, is sitting alone in the JL headquarters. Black Canary comes in and takes a wistful look around the place, now slightly dusty. “Our old headquarters. Never seems to change. Oh, sure – it’s a little larger… more up to date — but I can still feel the ghosts here…hovering.”
And Gardner, in his usual manner, shoots back with, “Ooo, spooky! I bet Rod Serling’s around somewhere, too! Doo doo DOO doo Doo doo DOO doo”
As comic readers, we’re all susceptible to nostalgia. We like to reminisce about the old times. For some, that’s the Golden Age. For others, it’s the Silver Age. And for some, it’s ten years ago, or even five. Keith Giffen came in and didn’t take any time to establish that this was a new era and you needed to throw all the rules out.
Right then and there you knew that nothing was sacred. If you were looking for your father’s Justice League, you weren’t going to find it. This may have used many of the same old characters and a few of the settings, but the storylines were different. The character interactions would be of paramount importance. And the writers weren’t afraid to make their characters look like lovable buffoons.
Let’s start at the beginning: In the wake of events in the DC mini-series, LEGENDS, the Justice League of America has been disbanded and reformed. Unbeknownst to them, there’s an outsider, Maxwell Lord, with a plan for the team. When the League becomes aware of this, they are not amused. Particularly so for Batman. In the meantime, they’re globetrotting trying to stop super-powered nuclear pacifists, and heading back to Vermont for a fight against the mystical Gray Man. The first twelve issues, unbeknownst to the reader until the end, set up Maxwell Lord and tell his story. Everything that happens does so for a reason. It’s not as aimless and pointless as you might think at first.
Once that gets all cleared up, the JL begins operating under a UN charter, set up headquarters all over the globe, and begin fighting menaces of the world. As a result, the Batman drops out to lesser duties due to his shunning of the spotlight, putting Martian Manhunter in charge. Along with this abrupt change in directions comes a new title for the book: JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL. It’s a title that would stick until issue #26, at which point the title would change to JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA. (Don’t ask me to explain that. I haven’t read up to that point just yet.) In the meantime, another monthly spin-off book, JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE, would begin. JUSTICE LEAGUE QUARTERLY would give a variety of other writers and artists a chance to do stories with these characters. And the annuals, spin-offs, and mini-series would come, as well. (Even Mister Miracle would get his own series.)
It’s easy to think of this title reduced to a superhero sit-com. The characters were boiled down to their bare essentials. Batman became the dark, foreboding figure who commanded respect. He was scary, but you also did what he asked because he was the best there is at what he does. Guy Gardner gets the John Laroquette role from Night Court as the lecher, but also has the fight first think later mentality added in. Blue Beetle is, essentially, the computer geek. He’s technically gifted, but a bit socially awkward, with a punny tongue and not much in the way of powers. Black Canary – well, she was the resident chick. Really, it’s tough to figure out her role in all of this, aside from a long DC Universe history and the obligatory breasts. I think the creators realized this after the first year, because she left the team quietly at that point. She was replaced by Fire and Ice, two buxom babes chosen because the League needed a female balance and Giffen wouldn’t get editorial interference on them. Martian Manhunter becomes the outsider whose occasional sense of humor can provide for the largest spark of laughter.
It’s the clash of those well-defined personalities that made for the humor in the book. It’s the story of any good humorous story. It’s all character based. Chuck Jones’ Warner Bros. cartoons are prime examples of this, too. Pepe LePew is god’s gift to women skunks, and he knows it and pursues it to whatever ends. Wile E. Coyote is locked in a chase with the Road Runner. Charlie the Dog wants a new master and Porky Pig wants no part of him. The situations and settings may change, but the characters stay the same.
Likewise, Guy Gardner wants to kick some ass. And nothing gets in his way. (Well, nothing does until a bonk on the head at the beginning of the seventh issue turns his personality around to warm and fuzzy.) Batman wants to do what’s right and will use all the means at his disposable – the Justice League, in this case. Maxwell Lord has some machiavellian plan going.
There are stories here. It’s not just all humor. The League goes after villains who want to turn the earth into a shopping mall. They go after those who would rid the earth of nuclear weapons by dubious means. They deal with power hungry foreign dictators from obscure DC Universe countries who, of course, are handled with a certain amount of humor. They attack alien invaders. (It’s a real testament to the creators that they got stuck with two crossover issues with the “Millennium” event and still managed to tell two wonderful stories. The second issue of it, #10, is a particular tour de force for Maguire’s art.) The humor comes from the way the characters interact in these settings and these difficult situations.
In some ways, this book doesn’t age well. It’s best seen as a product of its times, but only in surface matters. There are a bunch of references to living in the 80s. Both Reagan and Gorbachev are seen in the comic fairly frequently. The first year has a lot of storylines concerned with nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. It’s almost difficult to imagine a time when American super-heroes would be seen as such a threat that entering Russian airspace is tantamount to a declaration of war. Even more shallow, though, were the various outfits, hairdos, and costumes. The most egregious of these was the Black Canary. She disappeared after the first year, but the feathered hair and the horrific blue jumpsuit with black waves coming off her chest didn’t make any sense.
In other ways, though, the book is timeless. While there are Reagan and Gorby jokes, the bulk of the jokes in the book have nothing to do with pop culture, current affairs, or other timely material. It all comes from the character interaction. Even the running gags and trademarks are unique to this JLA. Who can hear the phrase “Bwah-ha-ha” without thinking of this book? Who can see one of those covers where the team is standing together, looking up at the reader, a la JUSTICE LEAGUE #1? After reading this book, will you ever look at Oreos the same way again? (Well, maybe you can since DC’s lawyers have retconned them into “Chocos.” Ick. Heck, could you imagine DC OK’ing the appearances of Gorbachev and Reagan in one of its books today? The lawyers would have a field day.)
The humor is just as dated as most of AIRPLANE!’s is, minus the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER bit. The humor is not nearly as obtrusive, though. It doesn’t break the fourth wall and it doesn’t wink or nod at the reader. This isn’t SHE-HULK.
Keith Giffen is the main instigator of this madness, as plotter. Although I’m as guilty as the next guy of referring to this as the Giffen-era JUSTICE LEAGUE, we can’t leave J.M. DeMatteis out of the equation. He’s the one who actually scripted over Giffen’s plots. Giffen would do plots and layouts as one and the same. His plots were actually drawn out roughs for all the pages, something he’s carry over even to his days on FREAK FORCE for Erik Larsen over at Image Comics. DeMatteis would come in and plunk words in the characters’ mouths. It’s impossible to tell who’s responsible for which catch phrases, but it worked and it would be a shame to forget DeMatteis in the middle of all this.
It wasn’t just Giffen and DeMatteis driving this book, though. It also proved to be a stepping-stone for a number of artists who went on to bigger projects, and whose names would be long remembered for other things. The book started off with Kevin Maguire penciling, who was recommended to DC Editor Andy Helfer by Kurt Busiek. Terry Austin inked his first issue before Al Gordon came on. (Maguire and Austin would later reunite for the last JLA issue in the Giffen era, issue #60.) After that, a variety of artists drew the book for short runs, not the least of whom was Adam Hughes. Yes, for a time Hughes was drawing a monthly book – while working in his local comics shop, to boot. Over the course of the five years of the main title and its spin-offs, artists like Ty Templeton, Darick Robertson, Chris Sprouse, Bart Sears, Mike McKone, Jason Pearson, Eduardo Barreto, Mike Wieringo, and Mike Manley would leave their marks. Heck, even Mark Waid left his mark, writing the letters columns for a good portion of the second year. He published letters from the likes of T.M. Maple, Malcolm Bourne and COMICOLOGY’s own Brian Saner Lamken.
SOME EARLY HIGHLIGHTS
If you had to choose amongst the issues, I think the best one to go with is JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL #16. It’s a Bond spoof that has the JLI at their most outrageous. In the issue, Batman goes undercover to spy on an enemy country’s leader. He uses the brilliant disguise of his friend, Bruce Wayne. Sometimes, the most obvious truths hide in plain sight, eh? The other half of the issue continues the subplot of half the team being in outer space, chasing after the kidnapped Scott Free, a.k.a. Mister Miracle. You can easily follow what’s going on from the dialogue and the running jokes, so don’t let that stop you.
Keith Giffen has said his favorite issue is JLI #8, “Moving Day.” It’s strictly character-based. There is no villainous plot. Instead, the members of the JLI are trying to move into their new headquarters and hilarity ensues.
Perhaps my favorite story is in the second half of issue #24. It’s a double-sized issue that sets the scene and contains three stories. The first is a continuity piece featuring Maxwell Lord. The middle story is a piece of crap from unproven talent. But the third story — ! It sets the scene for the spin-off book, JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE. The JUSTICE LEAGUE throws a party, and all their super-powered friends are invited. The conversations between characters are hilarious, but when the villains attack from the kitchen, things really fall apart. The pacing, the gags, and the dialogue are all perfect in this issue. I know Keith Giffen has referred to the JUSTICE LEAGUE ANTARCTICA annual (actually, JLA ANNUAL #4, 1990) as the one where it all came together best for him, but this one would be my pick.
IF YOU’RE LOOKING…
The Giffen-era of the League lasted for about five years, and folded with JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #60. In that time, DC also published 36 issues of JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE, roughly nine JUSTICE LEAGUE QUARTERLIES, and around 10 Annuals. I won’t even count the associated specials and spin-off series. But that should be enough reading for anyone. I’m enjoying going back through them again. I’m only up to the end of the first two years, so there’s a lot more ahead of me. Maybe when I’m done I can discuss JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE some, or the concluding “Breakdowns” storyline. That will be down the road some point, though.
The good news is that finding all these issues is not that difficult. I bought just about every issue of Giffen and DeMatteis’ run for fifty cents an issue, max, at various comic shops, shows, and conventions. A quick glance through eBay shows that I could have probably picked up the entire collection all in one fell swoop for even less. There’s also a trade paperback of the original seven issues of JUSTICE LEAGUE that DC keeps in print. It’s called JUSTICE LEAGUE: A NEW BEGINNING and can be had for just under thirteen bucks with Star system ordering number 00129D. It’s on much better paper than the original comics. The coloring is vastly improved this way, and the lettering (from Bob Lappan) is much easier to read.
If you’re looking for a good chuckle, punctuated by moments of big laughs, this book should do it. Go ahead and start from the trade mentioned above. After that, you’ll probably be scouring your local cons and the internet looking for the rest of the issues.
For more info on Keith Giffen, including some interviews in which he talks about this era of the JL, check out the Keith Giffen Resources page.
Close to 200 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they’ll all be on CBR. I can’t believe Pipeline is entering its fifth year in a few short months…
Finally, I write DVD movie reviews (occasionally) for the gang over at DVD Channel News. If you’re into DVD, check out my stuff there.