On the First Year of Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League International

While Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’s run on Justice League (retitled Justice League International with #7) is fondly remembered, it’s worth looking at how that title’s first year, published from 1987 to 1988, develops and works as its. The series, illustrated by Kevin Maguire, remains most distinguished by its humorous tone and its use of second-string characters.

Neither of these, however, was the original intent. At the time, the original Justice League title, Justice League of America, had been floundering – including the disbanding of the League and its recreation as a group of mostly new and young characters, many embarrassing for how out-of-touch they were with actual youth culture. DC was relaunching many of its titles, in the wake of its universe-redefining Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-1986), and it made sense to relaunch the Justice League too. The upcoming crossover Legends (1986-1987) seemed like a perfect springboard for doing so. Keith Giffen, mostly an artist at the time, was given the job of helming the relaunch. Because he felt uncertain about his dialogue, he brought in J.M. DeMatteis on dialogue.

Giffen’s original idea was to start off with the Justice League’s original seven-member line-up, a back-to-basics approach later taken by Grant Morrison on the next Justice League relauch, JLA. But these characters were starring in newly-relaunched titles, and their writers and editors weren’t happy with the idea of sharing, especially as these characters were themselves being redefined. This eliminated Superman, Wonder Woman, and Flash. To make matters worse, DC was struggling with what to do with Aquaman and didn’t want him included either. Green Lantern, meanwhile, had expanded to feature Green Lanterns other than Hal Jordan, and Andy Helfer, editor of both Giffen’s Justice League and Green Lantern, suggested using Guy Gardner because he was a newer character. Denny O’Neil, Batman’s editor, took pity on Giffen and authorized the use of Batman. And no one objected to using Martian Manhunter, an original League member but hardly a commercial selling point.

This presented Giffen with a huge problem. The previous incarnation of the League, mixing a few established characters with new ones, had flopped. Yet returning to the original line-up of mostly big-name characters was obviously out. Giffen’s solution was to form a team out of the already established characters he could get. Captain Marvel was the most recognizable. Black Canary, a longstanding DC character but with little fan base, had been a former Leaguer and would help the team connect with its past. Dr. Fate was included because DeMatteis was writing his mini-series at the time, which Giffen was illustrating. Blue Beetle, formerly published by Charlton Comics, had since been acquired by DC and was starring in his own series. Mister Miracle, created by Jack by in the 1970s, had gone relatively unused. Dr. Light, a name normally belonging to the villain seen in Identity Crisis, had been retooled in Crisis on Infinite Earths as an Asian female hero; she would give the initial nine-character team a second female member and a single non-Caucasian.

By itself, this was hardly a recipe for success. But Giffen decided to make the series different by infusing it with comedy. In 1987, this was a fairly radical step: revisionism was going mainstream, and super-heroes were becoming darker and more realistic. This was especially true of the rebooted versions Superman, Batman, and Flash. Marvel was no exception: among its most popular characters were Wolverine and the Punisher, both arguably psychotic and certainly murderous. Comedy titles didn’t succeed anymore in American comics, especially when mixed with super-hero comics. Yet Giffen was allowed to proceed, and the resulting series would make the Justice League one of DC’s most popular titles.

In order to pull this off, Giffen would have to revise several of these characters’ personalities. Guy Gardner thus became a macho, sexist lout. This reflected the trend in action movies of the time. In the first issue, several characters compare Guy to Sylvester Stallone or his character Rambo, whom Guy claims to outdo. To create conflict, Black Canary was recast as a feminist, also reflecting the times. Captain Marvel, who had always been a separate personality from his child alter-ego, was made to have the same ridiculously innocent personality. As Guy Gardner put it on the cover to issue #1 (which featured a pretty standard image of the original line-up, their second-tier status no doubt disappointing many fans), “Wanna make somethin’ of it?”

Justice League #1 (May 1987)Issue #1 (May 1987) saw the team meeting for the first time and then rescuing the United Nations from terrorists holding them hostage. By itself, this was hardly unconventional: after all, the original Justice League formed to stop a threat, then simply decided to stay together. But it’s immediately clear that this isn’t your father’s Justice League. As members gather, they immediately squabble, especially provoked by Guy Gardner, who mocks others and insists on being team leader. Mister Miracle, spurred by his dwarfish assistant Oberon, seems only interested in joining to raise his profile and make more money on tour as part of a circus-style act. Blue Beetle also seems interested in spurring “Blue Beetle-mania.” A fight ensues, and only Batman’s commanding personality is able to restore order. But Batman is so uptight that he begins their first meeting by reading the entire League charter, then complaining that some members seemed disinterested.

While the issue resolves the terrorist threat, it also begins a major plotline that would run the course of the first 12 issues. The others aren’t aware of Dr. Light’s invitation to join the League, and she happens to be in the U.N. when the terrorists take over. (When the League intervenes, Blue Beetle can’t resist holding his nose to distort his voice while reporting from his flying bug, even as he remarks upon his own ridiculousness.) Batman senses something amiss and refuses to deal with the final terrorist, who has a bomb strapped to his chest. The terrorist raises a gun, but we find out later that, despite his anger at Batman, he shot himself with it instead. But the mystery isn’t who’s responsible. The issue makes that clear, introducing a new character named Maxwell Lord IV, apparently a businessman in Washington, D.C. Instead, the question is who this person is, why he’s doing this, and how he made the terrorist shoot himself.

The next two issues (June and July 1987) follow up on the first, beginning with the League interrogating Dr. Light about her League signal device, which alerted them to the U.N. situation; despite being on the cover of #1, she doesn’t become a real member. But the main conflict stems from a team of heroes from a parallel Earth devastated by nuclear warfare and now seeking to rid other Earths of their nuclear weapons. They start in the fictional Middle-Eastern nation of Bialya, where they’re convinced by a megalomaniacal colonel to go to Russia next. (They’re so bored with him that they joke about shutting off the magical spell that lets them understand him, but he thinks he’s hilarious and charming.) As the League pursues in Blue Beetle’s flying bug, the Rocket Reds, men in flying suits who are Russia’s answer to America’s many super-heroes, intervene. The super-patriotic Guy Gardner, who frequently denounces “Commies” and loves then-current President Ronald Reagan, is only too happy to fight, signing “God Bless America” as he zaps Rocket Reds. The plot resolves as a nuclear power plant begins to melt down, drawing everyone’s attention and prevented only by one of the alternate-Earth heroes’ sacrifice.

Naturally, these two issues also carry forward other plots. Dr. Fate, who disappeared during #1, apparently left to warn a mystical character called the Grey Man. Unlike Dr. Light, Dr. Fate’s a real member of the team; he’s just absent without leave. Also in these two issues, Maxwell Lord recruits Booster Gold, inexplicably showing up in the League’s headquarters, at the end of issue #3, to announce this.

Justice League #4 (August 1987)In the fourth issue (Aug 1987), Booster Gold leaves in frustration, as the League questions Maxwell Lord, who doesn’t have the authority to recruit new members. But the Royal Flush Gang, a silly group based around the idea of playing cards, attacks. Booster Gold proves himself in battle, and the League accepts him. Structurally, this is a very standard plot: super-team comics often rig plots to allow new members to prove themselves in battle. Except that here, the team’s infighting and comedic dialogue subverts the tropes of the genre. After his thought balloons use several clichés, Booster Gold’s next thought balloon comments on this. When he wins the battle, he erupts in joy, and he’s clearly beaming when the League accepts him. It’s hard not to identify with him.

Booster Gold was a relatively new addition to the DC Universe. Created by Dan Jurgens, Booster Gold was a very different super-hero. Coming from the future, Booster Gold’s powers were purely technological in basis. But it was his motivation that made him truly different: rather than wanting to help people, he only wanted to participate in what was remembered as the classic age of super-heroes, exploiting his knowledge of history to become rich and famous. This idea wasn’t 100% new: in his brief introductory story, Spider-Man had gone through a very brief phase in which he used his power to make money as a professional wrestler before his uncle’s death made him turn instead to fighting crime. But no one had created a super-hero whose very conception was based around materialism and opportunism. By every right, he should have become a major new DC super-hero. Instead, his series lasted roughly two years and was on its last legs when he joined the League.

Booster Gold seemed ready-made for Keith Giffen’s League. But while Giffen maintained Booster’s materialism, he made him far less competent and more of a crazy schemer. Of course, this wasn’t an immediate change: for all of his uncertainty and enthusiasm in issue #4, Booster was quite successful, even coming up with the final successful strategy against the Royal Flush Gang. In this, he was aided by Blue Beetle. Although they never exchanged a single word in this issue, their relationship would grow in time into a partnership so strong that readers would generally consider the two a pair, irrelevant of their vastly different origins.

To be concluded.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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2 Comments

  1. As someone who started collecting DC with Justice League #1 (I guess I have to admit that maybe a #1 on the cover can help bringing new readers after all), I’ll always love this run.

    And, althugh much has been written about the comedy, those first issues had serious questions. I was blown away by the ending of number #1, and I’m afraid you didn’t explain it properly. If the terrorist dies, the bomb will blow off. That’s why he shoots himself, thinking that lots of people (including Batman) will be killed in the explosion. What surprised me is that Batman just let him die. It was a huge plot hole, of course (come on, the Martian Manhunter could become invisible and easily knock off that terrorist), but it made so much sense to me as a kid! It felt like Batman couldn’t do anything other than “Evacuate the room. Let him be.” Some things you can’t control. Batman seemed powerless. And of course there was Max Lord behind everything.

    Or that panel in the second issue, where Guy says, about the aliens destroying Israeli missiles: “Let’s hope those three take out every two-bit country that’s packin’ nukes! Nobody but Ronnie-Boy should have his finger on the button. Then we’d have the world where we want it, huh?” And the Martian Manhunter, Batman and Blue Beetle think: “Pathetic!” “Infuriating!” and “Jerk!” That’s probably the most intelligent and relevant thing I can think of in all those comics about nuclear fear that came out in the eighties.

    Even turning the League into International made so, so much sense. Of course it had to be International. And Max behind the curtains creating menaces to make the League more relevant!

    For me, as a kid, it was the perfect superhero comic book. It was funny, yes, and that’s one of the reasons why I loved it. But it also questioned the roles of superheroes and even power itself.

  2. Excellent points, and thanks very much for the correction. It’s much appreciated, as are your thoughts. I also remember this run from childhood, and I loved the international aspect — and the arc of these first 12 issues. Again, many thanks!

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