Wednesday, February 4, 2009

One Year in Four Colors - Justice League International Vol. 3

So I've decided to write a review or analysis of every Graphic Novel I read in 2009. I'd try for every comic, but none of us have that kind of time.
*Spoiler Warning* should be considered general practice.

Justice League International Vol. 3

Writers: Keith Giffen and JM DeMatteis
Artists: Kevin Maguire, Ty Templeton, and Steve Leialoha
Publisher: DC Comics

In the late '80s, the Justice League was at a crossroads. After a brief flirtation with the 'Detroit Era' (a short lived period in Justice League history where almost everyone you've probably heard of left the team, Aquaman took over and moved the league into a bunker in Detroit with only four complete unknowns, Zatanna, Martian Manhunter, and the Elongated Man making the roll call) the JLA was in shambles and the original Justice League of America series was cancelled for the first time. In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths the entire DCU was being reorganized, and a Justice League series was a must. Given the success of Crisis a new crossover was planned, Legends, which would end with the reformation of a new league and a brand new #1 issue to launch the new title.

Editor Andy Helfer was in charge of putting together the book. He was told make it big, make it bold, make it about the stars again. Great. That sounds like a mandate for the classic JLA we all know and love.

There were a couple problems.

DC editorial politics being what they were back then, no one wanted anyone touching 'their' characters - and each editor had to approve usage of the characters they edited. So almost none of the big guns were available as they were all undergoing revamps in their respective titles. Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman, The Hawks - all off limits.

So who WAS on the team, he asked?

Well it turns out the roster was going to be decided in the pages of Legends. Sadly, the writers hadn't actually written Legends yet, nor did they know who would be in the league, and would he please leave them alone about it? Oh, and what's the status on Justice League?

Thankfully, Helfer found someone just crazy enough to take on the project with him, even without any idea of what they could do - comic stalwart and to be Legend Keith Giffen. They decided if they couldn't have a roster pre-planned, they'd come up with a situation for the book that was roster proof - the idea of an eccentric, mysterious businessman named Maxwell Lord who would attempt to manipulate the group from the outside, and eventually tie them to the United Nations. instead of being the Justice League of America, they would be Justice League International. Instead of a satellite headquarters operating in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth, why not dozens of embassies, each located in a UN member nation. They would embrace the B-, C-, and D-list level of their characters as an opportunity to really develop them.

And the biggest change? Instead of just being fun... could they maybe be funny?

It had really never been done before, and it payed off huge. A total paradigm shift from any league before, or franchise team book at all. If the JLA had always been a book about a bunch of super powered people who did their jobs extremely well, this was the book that saw them driving each other crazy on coffee break, or having to live with each other. This was the book about regular people who just happened to be super-heroes. And maybe they barely got along at all.

Joining the creative team was scripter JM DeMatteis (Giffen did the plots, but was afraid of handling dialogue), a noted comic scribe known mainly for straight ahead heroics and deep spiritual stories of faith. Turns out he had a wicked sense of humor too, and filled each of Giffen's plots with gag after gag. The two of them become so synonymous with each other for so long it was a shock to learn that they had been working together years before they ever met.

Rounding out the group was a brand new artist, utterly unheard of at the time, that they decided to take a chance on - the incomparable Kevin Maguire (one of my absolute favorites, and one of the ONLY artists I buy just for the art). His clean linework and INCREDIBLE facial expressions made the book and gave life to each of the heroes. His characters didn't pose - they acted and reacted like real people caught in the utterly absurd situations that men running around in capes find themself in. If regular comic books are the newscast, JLI was the moments before the camera roles and the guests sit around picking their noses.

This became one of the most beloved runs in comic history, and changed the nature of the league for years after. Eventually becoming a house style that tended toward boorish self parody once Giffen and crew left, the original books were packed with a solid mix of action, characterization, and humor. This is the run where we loved to hate Guy Gardner, watched Blue Beetle and Booster Gold become the Schlafstein/Pratt of comic books, where J'onn got addicted to choco cookies, and Batman actually made a JOKE! It was incredible, and remains beloved to this day.

This book is the third volume in the run, and it's not as strong as the first two. The jokes are starting to feel a bit more forced, as the humor/action blend is edging further and further towards humor (and there's a LOT of G'nort in here, a character I enjoy much more in smaller doses). The art is also uneven, with Maguire handling most of it, but assisted by Steve Leialoha and Ty Templeton on chapters. Templeton is solid as always, but Leialoha looks ungly and rushed and certainly not up to today's usual quality.

There are some great moments though - including the early onset of Blue and Gold shenanigans. Also, Giffen creation Lobo has a major role in the book and as this is from before he devolved in a one note self parody, his character is refreshing and enjoyable in a way I've really never seen other than when written by Morrison.

I also finally got the fish-dolphin reference from 52.

Basically this is part of a treasured run. If you're collecting the whole thing, or already love these characters, then reccomended. But if not - start with Vol. 1. They're better comics overall, and the beginning of this particular chapter in JL history as well.


Stephen said...

It just occurred to me after reading this that Blue Beetle reminds me of the second Nightowl in Watchmen. Am I making that up or is there a relation between the two as far as inspiration goes?

Jason Heat said...

Not at ALL Steve! Very perceptive.

The actual story regarding the creation of Watchmen is as follows - in the '80s, DC bought the rights to a bunch of different defunct comic book lines with the intention of adding their heroes to the DC Universe. One of those companies was Charlton, who published characters like Blue Beetle, The Question, and Captain Atom. Watchmen was actually originally pitched and envisioned as using those characters once they became usable. But DC read the proposal and decided that if they went along with it, those characters would be unusable, and not nearly as profitable (little did they know...)

So instead the Charlton characters were incorporated during the Crisis on Infinite earths and Watchmen was reinvisioned with 'new' characters that are obviously analogues to the original Charlton heroes.

As follows...
The Comedian - Peacemaker
Rorshach - The Question (my personal fav)
Old Nightowl - The Dan Garret Blue Beetle
Young(er) Nightowl - The ted Kord Blue Beetle
Ozymandias - Judomaster
Silk Spectre - Nightshade
Dr. Manhattan - Captain Atom

Those characters grew to such prominence they now often overshadopw the originals. There is a great issue of The Question where he reads Watchmen and thinks Rorschach is really cool, so he charges into battle w/o thinking. it goes horribly and the end of the issue is him waking up buried alive saying "Rorschach Sucks."

And in Final Crisis an altenate world Captain Atom is an OBVIOUS homage to Dr. Manhattan.

So yeah. Dan Dryberg and ted Kord are basically cousins. But Ted has Booster so he wins in my book.