Comic Book Review – Justice League International Volume 1

Justice League International Volume 1 (2009)
reprinting Justice League v1 #1-6, Annual 1
Written by Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatteis
Art by Kevin Maguire and Bill Willingham

In the wake of the Crisis and Legends, a new Justice League must be formed. However, this new team won’t be made up of the classic roster (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al.). Instead, anonymous invitations are sent out to a more eclectic group of superheroes: Blue Beetle, Mister Miracle, Black Canary, Doctor Fate, Captain Marvel, Doctor Light, Guy Gardner, with stalwarts Martian Manhunter and Batman rounding out the mix. Their mysterious benefactor Maxwell Lord has designs on the Justice League refraining from being a simply America centric group, instead, he imagines the team going worldwide. The biggest obstacle in getting them there is making sure they don’t kill each other.

This is a profoundly nostalgic review series for me as one of the first comics I ever purchased as a child was Justice League America #42. I believe this series was what got me hooked on the B and C list heroes of DC Comics, feeding my need to delve into back issues and pour through the perennial universe-wide encyclopedias of Who’s Who to learn about characters that push credulity but always seem to find a warm place in my heart. It would take some years before I was able to absorb the five-year-long run of writers Giffen & DeMatteis fully. What’s funny is I remember talking to fellow comic book lovers in college who looked back on the series with disdain. By that point (the late 1990s/early 2000s), Grant Morrison had successfully revitalized JLA by bringing back the classic cast of DC Universe A-listers, so the 1980s-era League was viewed as a failure, a blemish, a mistake. However, I have never lost the faith, and the JLI has, and will likely always remain, my favorite version of the team. I hope over the course of this review series you come to love them as well.

Why this membership line-up? I first saw this team in the pages of other comics that were part of three issue grab bags sold at supermarkets and toy stores. I was around eight years old, and I got these comics at a K-Mart in Nashville. Inside were two issues of John Byrne’s Superman run and a late-run Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Superman issues had come out around the time of Legends, the event follow-up to Crisis that I reviewed last summer. There were house ads for Legends, hyping the books that were to spin out of it, with Kevin Maguire’s iconic Justice League #1 cover as one of the featured titles. I remember trying to identify all the characters: Batman was easy, and Captain Marvel was someone I knew as Shazam from other media. There was a man with a Green Lantern symbol, but he didn’t look like the Green Lantern on Superfriends. The rest were an enigma to me. Decades later, I can rattle off the full roster of these characters plus everyone else who joined the JLI along the way. The characters on this cover aren’t merely the result of grabbing names out of a hat; they were shaped by editorial wishes, the demands of competing books, and a pinch of what Giffen and DeMatteis wanted.

If you go back and read Legends, there is a two-page spread near the end that is essentially the tease for the new Justice League. Seen on these pages are Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Lantern (Guy Gardner at the time), Doctor Fate, Black Canary, Blue Beetle, and Changeling (aka Beast Boy). I was never under any impression that Changeling would be pulled from New Teen Titans, but the rest appear to be presented as the membership intended to fill the new Justice League’s ranks. However, the editorial head of the Superman titles wanted to keep him in those books, and the same happened with George Perez’s Wonder Woman reboot. Because Wally West was so fresh in the mantle of The Flash, he also succumbed to a preference to only really pop up in his own title. This meant there were some gaps to fill. The writers filled those with Doctor Light (a new version created in the pages of Crisis), Mister Miracle, and Martian Manhunter. A couple of issues in, the futuristic famewhore Booster Gold would be added to the ranks, an essential addition to this particular run.

So how are these first few issues? They are…okay. The JLI didn’t hit what I’d consider it’s stride until the next collection, but this first volume is essential for laying the groundwork and establishing tone. To understand just how strange this whole series is you have to think about the context of the time. This is 1987 at DC Comics. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was published the previous year and his Batman: Year One arc wrapped up the same month this League debuted (May). Alan Moore’s Watchmen is halfway through it’s run by this point. Moore is also penning Swamp Thing which is DC Universe proper; Vertigo has not yet launched as an imprint. There is a definite trend in popularity towards darker fare. That doesn’t mean DC has given up on traditional comic book tropes, but the readers and critics are gravitating towards more “mature” work.

It would have been reasonable in this context for DC to want Justice League debuting with a darker, grittier direction. I would argue that the madcap, dysfunctional League we got is just as revolutionary as anything Miller was doing. Up until this point, the Justice League had mostly been a painfully formulaic parade of A-list heroes pairing off and tackling a multi-angled challenge. There was a brief moment around the time of Crisis to mix things up, but it failed spectacularly. Giffen & DeMatteis went at this concept with such a refreshingly original angle that has had a tremendous influence on comics since. They posed the idea that a team of superpowerful and skilled heroes might not get along very well and that their human drama and comedy could be just as exciting as watching them pound on bad guys.

The series set up a series of conflicts very early on, page one for example. Guy Gardner was not the square Green Lantern Hal Jordan seemed to have always been. Guy was an asshole, and he was proud of that fact. We find him roleplaying being chair of the League before anyone has arrived at their old Happy Harbor, Rhode Island base. Black Canary is the second to , and so we establish two things: Guy is a chauvinist pig and Canary is not a token female on the team. Canary is hyperaware of the meta nature of women on superheroes teams at this point and is determined not to take a backseat, she has a long history with the League, and that seniority should count for something. Mister Miracle & Oberon and Captain Marvel are next on the scene, each one firmly defining their personalities. Miracle and his partner Oberon are both intimidated by this promotion to the “big leagues” and doubtful about if it’ll work out. We also get a brief moment that establishes Guy and Oberon’s biting back and forths to come. Captain Marvel has his “kid in the body of a grown-up” trope played up against Guy’s cynicism. Martian Manhunter and Blue Beetle enter side by side with the former reasonably dour and mistrustful after the very recent fall of his team while Beetle, ever the consummate businessman, sees this as his chance in the spotlight. What is the first thing this team does? Get into a verbal argument and then a physical fight. It takes the arrivals of Batman and Doctor Fate to shut things down. Moreover, immediately we get the central tension-filled relationship in the early days of the book: Batman vs. Guy Gardner.

What Giffen & DeMatteis provide regarding solid character work and development they deliver the opposite of for real external threats. This whole first volume is full of reasonably uninteresting villains and challenges. There’s an underlying mystery surrounding Maxwell Lord that has its seeds planted here, but for the most part, I wasn’t very engaged in the threats. Early on, we are introduced to the Gray Man, a cosmic villain with ties to Doctor Fate and the danger that the first seven issues build up towards. When we finally see the team come together and take on the Gray Man the whole conclusion feels relatively unsatisfying. It doesn’t help that the creative team doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with every character they have been given and so, by the end of volume one, we have departures from Captain Marvel, Doctor Light, and Doctor Fate with the additions of Captain Atom and Rocket Red (more on them in the next review).

This era of the Justice League was never a perfect one, and it is an acquired taste. The stories and villains get better the further along we get. However, the constant shifting of team members and the weird interjection of editorial forces seems to continue. Next up, we’ll explore how the team begins its journey to become an international force to be reckoned with.

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