Thursday, December 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #347: Justice League International, Vol. 1 by Giffen, DeMatteis, Maguire, & Gordon

Eventually I made it all the way back.

Over the summer, I noticed my library system had the two books collecting the mid-00s return engagement of the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire bwah-ha-ha era Justice League -- Formerly Known as the Justice League and I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League -- and thought it might be fun to read them again. (I'd owned them in floppy form but lost those copies in my 2011 flood.)

So I did.

Book-a-Day kept running on, and I kept needing to find more books to read every day, and I kept poking through the library system to find other things, mostly thinking "what's the next in this series." In this case, I went backwards instead.

It turned out they had Justice League International, Vol. 1, collecting the first seven issues from the 1987 series that launched the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire League in the first place. So why not? (Note that series was actually just Justice League for the first six of those issues; JLI became the title for #7 and then it turned to Justice League America with #26.)

Amusingly, this Justice League had an origin not unlike that of Grant Morrison's 1989 Doom Patrol run, which I just wrote about a few weeks ago -- launching out of an event (Legends) that defined what characters would be available, trying to salvage a valuable IP after the previous version killed reader interest and sales, given more freedom to do their thing than they expected. So plotter Keith Giffen, scripter J.M. DeMatteis, penciler Kevin Maguire, and inker Al Gordon (with an asterisk for Terry Austin, who inked the first issue) sat down to re-launch the Justice League for the mid-80s: serious, tough, ready to take on the big challenges.

And, somewhere along the way, it also got funny.

There's an introduction by Giffen that explains some of that, both the unlikeliness of this team (Giffen was best known for Ambush Bug, DeMatteis for Moonshadow, and Maguire for nothing at all yet) and that the humor came out of the interactions of that team as they discovered each others' strengths. Maguire was really good at facial expressions, which allowed verbal humor room to work, and DeMatteis liked writing that kind of, obviously, the idea of "wisecracking superheroes" wasn't precisely new in 1987. But a team that functioned almost like a sitcom was.

On that other hand, that conception of the series -- that it was full of running jokes and silliness, completely unlike other superhero comics at the time -- is overstated as well. There were moments when the overall series got very silly, particularly later on, when it had bifurcated into Justice League America and Justice League Europe and even more specifically in deliberately silly stories like the fourth annual, the big "Justice League Antarctica" story.

The seven comics collected here are not tooth-gnashingly serious, but that wave was still building in 1987, as only the first imitators of Dark Knight had launched. Grim and gritty really hit four and five years later, with the '90s. It was, though, about as serious as any other superhero book of the time: real villains doing dangerous things, some interpersonal conflicts among the team, occasional mild laughs.

Instead, these initial Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire stories are just solid superhero work in the prevailing late-80s style -- the "squabbling team" was old hat by then, thanks to Claremont's X-Men and everybody's Legion of Super-Heroes. Giffen had some interesting ideas to spark superpowered conflicts; DeMatteis could keep their dialogue distinctive and specific, and have them bounce off each other well; and Maguire sold the stories by giving all the characters exactly the right face for that dialogue.

So, if you're looking for the goofball JLI, you need to go deeper in the series than this, and realize it was always more of a flavor than the whole package. (If you want the whole goofball enchilada, Giffen's Ambush Bug, which I've already mentioned, is a better bet.) If you want decent superhero adventures in the brief moment between decent characterization finally becoming standard and the excesses of the '90s, this is one of the better examples.

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