Justice League International Volume 2
Reprints Justice League International #8 – 13, Annual 1, Suicide Squad #13
Written by Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatteis (with John Ostrander)
Art by Kevin Maguire, Keith Giffen, and Bill Willingham (with Luke McDonnell)
The League has just gone International, giving them embassies across the globe in locales including New York City, Moscow, London, and Paris. Captain Atom and Rocket Red have been added to the ranks, giving the U.S. and Soviet governments a direct connection to the superhero team. This expansion has subsequently led to the dissolution of the Global Guardians, the former premier organization of multicultural heroes. Understandably, there are some bruised egos (Jack O’Lantern) as well as some eager to join up with the JLI (Green Flame and Ice Maiden). As would become traditional in the post-Crisis universe our story must be interrupted by a company-wide event, this time in the form of the dreaded Millennium. We get back on track quickly which leads to a significant revelation about Max Lord and his decision to form this new League, a crossover with the Suicide Squad, and a one-off annual story that shines a spotlight on the Martian Manhunter.
One of the elements of post-Crisis late 1980s DC Comics I began to pick up on while reading the crossover events last summer was how hard DC editorial was pushing to make Captain Atom an A-tier character. Atom was a part of DC’s acquisition of Charlton Comics, a less widely distributed line of comics, in 1983. Other characters included Blue Beetle, The Question, Peacemaker, Nightshade, and Judomaster. Captain Atom’s particular background was pretty typical of atomic age heroes, a space accident that gave him powers. With Atom’s reboot at DC, he was turned into a Vietnam era soldier framed for a crime who is volun-told to participate in an experiment involving crashed alien technology. He’s disintegrated and believed dead, then about two decades later rematerializes as Captain Atom.
When Alan Moore originally pitched his idea for Watchmen, it was going to use these Charlton characters, but DC had plans for them in the main universe, so he just changed the names and tweaked the appearances slightly. Doctor Manhattan is a very obvious analog for Captain Atom so much so that Atom’s new DC origin feels suspiciously close to how Moore told the creation of Manhattan. There is also strong overtones of Captain America in the way Atom is presented as a soldier out of time. I’ll delve more into that when we get into the Justice League Europe issues because in this collection he feels like a one-dimensional background prop. There is a reason why Captain Atom is not one of the first characters people name when you bring up this era of the Justice League. Giffen and DeMatteis are genuinely trying to do something with him, but his personality never develops; instead, he’s just another goofy member of the team without anything to set him apart.
Rocket Red has a more complicated tenure in Justice League International which brings us to the intrusion of Millennium in these pages. Millennium is arguably the worst crossover event DC has ever published (though John Byrne’s Genesis gives it a run for its money) and you can read about my thoughts on the whole thing here. The one primary directive all writers were given was that one member of their books’ casts had to be revealed as a sleeper agent Manhunter, ancient androids intent on wiping out humanity. This is all handled not too terribly in JLI with Rocket Red being uncovered as the traitor. Of all possible character to be revealed as a Manhunter, this works out of the best because it was his second issue on the team, and he’s a member of the Rocket Red Corps who wear near identical armor, so he’s replaced by a red-blooded human Rocket Red as soon as Millennium wraps up its nonsense.
The second issue that ties into Millennium has a large cast of characters but only features Martian Manhunter and Captain Atom when it comes to members of the JLI. Guest stars are Superman, Doctor Fate, Hawkman, Hawkwoman, Firestorm, and a trio of Green Lanterns. Even though this is part of that horrendous crossover, this single issue gives birth to two of my favorite things in the Giffen/DeMatteis-era League: G’Nort the most annoying Green Lantern ever and the best portrayal of the Hawks DC has ever published. First the Hawks, at this point much continuity was up in the air so a couple of years later these Hawks would be retconned into entirely different characters, but for the time being, they are shown as veteran members of the original Justice League of America. Hawkman, in particular, is made out to be almost a human version of Sam the Eagle from the Muppets in his staid, everything must be severe. It works perfectly against the complete anarchy of the JLI. We get more of this because the Hawks join the team but not till Volume 3.
G’Nort is a dog-like alien of semi-low intelligence who is given a ring because he’s a legacy (his uncle was a Green Lantern). He’s found stationed on a lifeless desert planet, put there so he’d stay out of trouble however this planet ends up being home to the Manhunters secret base. It’s a brief appearance, and it takes a while before he makes a second appearance, but by then it is pretty clear the writers love this character, and his prominence in JLI and the Green Lantern title increases.
Then we finally get the origins of Maxwell Lord and what led him to form the new Justice League. It brings in Metron from the New Gods comics and reveals that Lord was under the influence of artificial intelligence. The first six issues of the series are contextualized to show Lord and this entity manufactured many of the villains and challenges the League faced. I’ve never been a massive fan of this reveal because it feels underdeveloped even though the readers see hints of it for the whole first year. Maybe it’s the conclusion that feels rushed, and so I never got the sense of a real impact. I like that the team doesn’t learn about Max’s behind the scenes machinations, but there’s an overall sense of a lack of satisfaction.
The collection wraps up with the Suicide Squad crossover which is fun. There are some nice interactions between characters, I especially like the resentment between Vixen and Martian Manhunter, as she was a member of the Detroit League that faced such a tragic conclusion. It makes sense she would see him happily working alongside a new iteration of the team. Captain Atom and Nightshade apparently have a side project going on as government agents (and lovers?), so they sidestep the big fight between groups. The biggest thing to come out of this story is the dynamic between Maxwell Lord and Amanda Waller, an antagonism that is still present between them today. In 2015’s Justice League vs. Suicide Squad mini-series, while their place in the DC Universe has been altered somewhat, they are still profoundly unimpressed with each other.
Volume 2 continued to work towards cementing the overall tone of the comic, but Volume 3 is where we get into a storyline I find the most fun, where the relationship between Mister Miracle and Big Barda takes center stage.