Square Pegs: Giffen, DeMatteis "Formerly the JLA" team start over, not with DC

At the time, it was a revelation: It was the first issue of the newly relaunched "Justice League," and Green Lantern was waiting for the other members to arrive, practicing what he was going to say to them when they did.

Of course, the Green Lantern was Guy Gardner, the thought balloons made it clear that he was a complete jerk (and possibly nuts) and he was prepping to tell the others that he was going to be in charge.

Writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis and artist Kevin Maguire relaunched DC Comics' Justice League franchise after the "Legends" crossover event with mostly second tier superheroes (Superman and Wonder Woman had recently been relaunched, and were not available for other creative teams to play with). The "of America" was pointedly dropped (and soon replaced with "International"). Many of the stories focussed more on the interaction between the characters than between their fists and villains' faces. And most importantly, it was funny.

Batman and Guy Gardner settled their personal differences with a fistfight. The Martian Manhunter comes out of the closet and declares his love of Oreo cookies. Blue Beetle and Booster Gold become the Lucy and Ethel of the superhero set. And a superhero's wife named Sue Dibny became a star, and one of the only sane members of the Justice League.

It flew in the face of what fans expected of DC's top superhero team – but perhaps less so than Aquaman running an inner city JLA from a bunker in Detroit, which had preceded the series' cancellation – but fans loved it. The series spun off a second Justice League book and then a quarterly, and the incarnation ran for years before winding down, eventually leading to another relaunch, of the more classic JLA. But fans still remembered the creative team, and last year, they got "Formerly Known as the Justice League," reuniting the creative team and many of the second stringers and supporting characters for another tongue-in-cheek look at superheroes. The miniseries sold extremely well, but a follow-up – "Not Necessarily the Justice League" – is in limbo (particularly now that Sue Dibney was the first casualty of DC's "Identity Crisis" event miniseries), and Giffen and company decided to take their show on the road.

This November, the creative team behind "Justice League International" and "Formerly Known as the Justice League," will be bringing the same brand of comedy and approach to superheroes to a creator-owned book, published by indie publisher Atomeka. "Hero Squared X-Tra Sized Special" #1 may not feature Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, but Giffen says fans of the JLI era will find the tone and subject matter familiar, starting with a superhero who ends up crossing over into a parallel world and meeting his non-powered alternate self.

"And finds out he's a kind of a bum," Giffen told CBR News Tuesday. "It's the equivalent of Spider-Man finding out that Peter Parker skipped the science fair."

Although not working through DC means not having the marquee "JLA" name there to draw in readers, it also means no worrying about editorial concerns for big name franchises.

"There's no one looking over our shoulder and saying 'no, no, no, we need that character next Wednesday.' 'No, no, no, we have to slaughter her mercilessly,'" he said. "We always had to look at where the characters are in their own books, and have respect for that.

"Since it's our characters, characters we've created, we pretty much don't have to worry about their history or where they've come from. It's freedom, unfettered freedom."

Even when it looked like "JLI" was totally free-wheeling, it wasn't, he said.

"We couldn't do whatever we wanted to with Batman. Or even do whatever we wanted with Booster Gold or Blue Beetle, even though it seemed that way. ... When we dealt with Booster Gold, we had to think about DC, and not only that, but [Booster Gold creator] Dan Jurgens. ... A little professional respect that way."

Giffen said that using all-new characters won't be terribly off-putting to readers, as the story focuses on core situations readers will grasp immediately.

"I think we've done fine with introducing the new characters," he said. "What do you do when Superman moves in next door to you, and starts hitting on your girlfriend."

The central character, Milo, is both a regular guy, and in an alternate world, he is also Captain Valor, an absolutely fabulous and larger than life superhero.

"Milo is you and me," Giffen said. "Guys who, let's face it, when we sit down and we're honest, we say 'I could have studied harder in college, I could have worked harder, I could have done better.'

"Until [Captain Valor] shows up at the front door in a superhero costume ... and he says 'wow, I really did blow my potential.'"

Part of the comedy comes from Milo and the Captain Valor Milo living together.

"I really think if I had to live with myself as a roommate, I wouldn't get along with that fucker," Giffen said. "I know way too much about myself as a roommate."

If this sort of dark comedy reminds you of anything else, Giffen agrees: "In a weird way, we've almost written the perfect Jack Black vehicle."

"Hero Squared" is not a sequel to "Formerly Known as the Justice League," or redo an idea for those characters – Captain Valor isn't Captain Atom with a new outfit – but it has a lot in common.

"This is more of a continuation of tone," Giffen said. "If you ever wanted to know what we would have done with no constraints ... then you'll love this.

"This is Mark DeMatties and I doing what nobody else does better than Mark and I when we're together," he said. "I'm just arrogant enough to think that we've tilled this particular field better than anyone else in the business.

"It's a fun book. It's just a book that's going to be fun. If you're looking for a book where the people are pissing and moaning about how bad their lives are, don't buy this book! Buy an X-Men book!"

And if you are hoping for Giffen and company to return to the JLI one day, you probably shouldn't hold your breath.

"I never again, as long as I live, am touching DC Universe characters in that context," he said. "And that's it, over and out."

On the other hand, if readers can't get enough of "Hero Squared," Giffen is very open to returning to the characters.

"This first issue is just the first foundation stone of a whole new universe that we will eventually populate with our brand of characters," he said. "I mean, a superhero where you go 'I know that guy!'

"It completely dependent on how this does. I am not going to ask a small publisher to shoot craps on how this book succeeds," Giffen said. "If it doesn't succeed, we put it out, we had fun, eh, we move on."

But since this isn't a Justice League book, it won't necessarily show up at local comic shops without help from interested readers.

"Tell your comic book shop, put it on your reservation list. It's not fair to make your comic book shop guy to take a crapshoot on an uncertain new comic book, no matter what sort of cachet it might bring with it."

Readers won't be seeing Kevin Maguire art beyond the covers, but Giffen said new artist Joe Abraham is hardly a second-best choice.

"He's [JLI artists] Kevin Maguire or Adam Hughes for the new millennium. He is gonna pop," he said. "I'm thrilled with this guy. I'm really thrilled with this guy. He really does remind me of the first time I saw Adam or Kevin."

In addition to the Maguire cover, Giffen himself is drawing a variant cover.

So DC can keep their marquee heroes with their ultra-white smiles and well-laundered capes in their fortresses in the sky. Giffen likes his superheroes being people he can see on his own block.

"I like superheroes where you walk into a bar, and you see a guy sitting there in a cape, grumbling into in his beer, because he's being sued for collateral damage," he said. "I'll trust Blue Beetle over Batman any day of the week."

"Hero Squared X-Tra Sized Special" #1 is scheduled for release this November. The book is 32 pages with no ads, and is published by Atomeka.

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