Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comics You Should Own – ‘JL / JLI / JLA’ #1-45 plus ancillary comics

Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today we’re checking out the “bwah-ha-ha” Justice League! This post was originally published on 16 November 2009. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!

Justice League / Justice League International / Justice League America by Keith Giffen (plotter; penciller, issues #8-10, 13), J. M. DeMatteis (scripter), John Ostrander (writer, Suicide Squad #13), Kevin Maguire (penciler, issues #1-12, 16-19, 22-24; Formerly Known as the Justice League #1-6; JLA: Classified #4-9), Steve Leialoha (penciler, issue #14-15), Ty Templeton (penciler, issues #20-21, 24-29), Mike McKone (penciler, issues #25, 28, 41-42; Justice League Annual #3-4), Bill Willingham (penciler, issue #30; Justice League Annual #1-2), Adam Hughes (penciler, issues #31-35, 37-40, 43-45), Tom Artis (penciler, issue #36), Russell Braun (penciler, issue #45), Luke McDonnell (penciler, Suicide Squad #13), Bart Sears (penciler, JLE #7-8), Tim Gula (artist, Justice League Annual #3), Terry Austin (inker, issue #1), Al Gordon (inker, issues #2-18), Joe Rubinstein (inker, issues #19-31, 35, 38-39; Justice League Annual #2; Formerly Known as the Justice League #1-6; JLA: Classified #4-9), Dick Giordano (inker, issue #27; Justice League Annual #1), Art Nichols (inker, issues #32-37), José Marzan (inker, issue #35, 40, 42-45), Bruce Patterson (inker, issue #41; Justice League Annual #1, 3), Malcolm Jones III (inker, issue #45), John Beatty (inker, issue #45), Bob Lewis (inker, Suicide Squad #13), Pablo Marcos (inker, JLE #7; Justice League Annual #3), Bob Smith (inker, JLE #8; Justice League Annual #4), Dennis Janke (inker, Justice League Annual #1), P. Craig Russell (inker, Justice League Annual #1), Robert Campanella (inker, Justice League Annual #1), Gene D’Angelo (colorist, issues #1-45; JLE #7-8; Justice League Annual #1-3), Carl Gafford (colorist, Suicide Squad #13), Lee Loughridge (colorist, Formerly Known as the Justice League #1-6), David Baron (colorist, JLA: Classified #4-9), Bob Lappan (letterer, issues #1-10, 12-27, 30, 32-36, 38-45; JLE #7-8; Justice League Annual #1, 4; Formerly Known as the Justice League #1-6; JLA: Classified #4-9), John Workman (letterer, issue #11), Albert de Guzman (letterer, issues #28-29, 31, 37; Justice League Annual #3), Todd Klein (letterer, Suicide Squad #13), John Costanza (letterer, Justice League Annual #2), and Tim Harkins (letterer, Justice League Annual #3),

Published by DC, 64 issues (Justice League / Justice League International / Justice League America #1-45; Suicide Squad #13, which comes after issue #13; Justice League Europe #7-8, which come after issues #31 and 32, respectively; Justice League Annuals #1-4; Formerly Known as the Justice League #1-6; JLA: Classified #4-9: “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League!”), cover dated May 1987 – December 1990; September 2003 – February 2004 (Formerly Known as the Justice League); April 2005 – August 2005 (JLA: Classified #4-9).

There’s no way this comic should have worked. As Andy Helfer writes in the introduction to the first trade paperback, “We needed to come up with an idea for a book that would work regardless of which characters were featured in it. It sounded like a suicide formula – after all, a sure sign of a bad comic book story is one in which any character can be used as the hero.” But then, of course, he and Giffen came up with the idea to focus on the Justice League as a “club” for super-heroes, meaning they would show the heroes when they weren’t necessarily “working.” Again, Helfer explains that, in the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC’s “big guns” – Superman, Wonder Woman, Hal Jordan, even Wally West – were all undergoing “renovation,” so they couldn’t have a “return to glory” for the Justice League. If they had launched the book with the line-up they did – J’onn J’onzz, Batman (Denny O’Neil “took pity” on Helfer, he writes), Black Canary, Mister Miracle, Captain Marvel, Blue Beetle, Doctor Fate, and Guy Gardner – and tried to make it a straight superhero book, it probably would have tanked as badly as the just-cancelled first Justice League series did at the end. But Giffen, who when he only writes comics is usually deadly serious, went nuts with the plotting, and DeMatteis, who presided over the destruction of the previous team (and showed a few flashes of humor, even though it was mostly deadly serious), were allowed to flex their funny bones as much as they could. They also lucked into Kevin Maguire, who was just starting out in the business but immediately made an impact with the kind of book Giffen and DeMatteis wanted to do. And so one of the most influential comics of the past 20 years was born!

Giffen begins the series with a full-page splash of Guy Gardner, which is fitting (note: Giffen is often credited with breakdowns, but I didn’t feel like listing those above, because I’m not sure how detailed his breakdowns were), as Guy has become one of the symbols of this incarnation of the League. If we consider the structure of the League after the first year, when the roster settled down to a core, we get a bit of a triangle: At the top is J’onn and Maxwell Lord, at one point is Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, at another point is Fire and Ice, and in the middle sits Guy, annoying and being annoyed by all (yes, other characters come and go, but those are the stalwarts). If we skip the fact that Giffen and DeMatteis decided to give Guy a serious head trauma in issue #7 and nobody seems to care about it (he gets better at the end of issue #18, when Lobo crashes into the embassy; this story has probably the best characterization of Lobo ever), Guy remains irascible throughout the series, but he also underscores the major theme of the series: redemption. All of the major characters are redeemed, even if it takes two mini-series fifteen years along to do so. With DeMatteis scripting the book, perhaps the redemption theme is not surprising, but it’s interesting that in a book that is known for its comedy, Giffen and DeMatteis give these heroes heroic quests that ennoble them and make them much more interesting as characters than we might expect. Redemption is a common theme in superhero books, of course, given that the hero often has to fail before he can succeed, but when it’s a single character book, it’s less effective because it happens so often. In a team book, the writers can shift the redemption angle around in an effort to keep it fresh. With this version of the League, it went a bit deeper, because the cast was, to be charitable, not the A-list. The Leaguers needed to redeem themselves not only within the individual story arcs when the bad guys (such as they were) beat them up, but also in the eyes of their fellow heroes. This makes the book far more interesting, because so much of the humor is predicated on the fact that these characters are not, in fact, DC’s big guns. But they are heroes, and over the course of the years, Giffen and DeMatteis were able to show that without ever making it explicit. At no time does a hero ponderously narrate about his or her search for redemption, which makes the quests fresher. Even many minor characters are seeking it. Consider: Wandjina, Blue Jay, and the Sorceress (in issues #2-3) are desperate to save the Earth from nuclear destruction because they failed to save their Earth. Mari McCabe is trying to redeem herself after the disaster that ended the previous League, and she’s looking for it in the Suicide Squad, which leads to her reunion with and forgiveness by J’onn in Suicide Squad #13, which crosses over with JLI #13. In issue #28, Black Hand has gone straight, presumably looking for redemption for his evil ways. Irwin Teasdale (the mad scientist who turns people in vampires/zombies in “The Teasdale Imperative,” the crossover with the European branch in JLA #31-32 and JLE #7-8) is, in his own twisted way, looking to redeem himself after Simon Stagg rejects him. Wally Tortolini, the reporter who writes a devastating exposé on the Justice League in issue #38 (which gets spiked by the Crimson Fox, who’s the European distributor of the magazine for whom he wrote the piece), looks to redeem himself by befriending Sonar. The Injustice League goes straight in JLA Annual #4, the notorious Justice League Antarctica story. Even G’nort, perhaps the dumbest character in DC history (okay, maybe not, as there’s a wealth of candidates), continously tries to make up for the mistakes he makes.

But it’s the main characters who go through the most trials and are most in need of redemption. Let’s check them out individually, starting with Maxwell Lord, the new creation for this book. Max is instrumental in bringing the new League together, from planning the terrorist strike on the United Nations in issue #1 (he does, however, take the firing pin out of the bomb the head terrorist straps to his chest, thereby neutering the threat even before the League shows up) to setting the Royal Flush Gang on the League in issue #4 as a way to get Booster Gold onto the team to allying himself with a machine to create a threat to the League in issue #7, clearing the way for UN recognition. We see some cracks in his façade throughout the first 12 issues, most notably in issue #11, when the League returns from space after fighting the Manhunters (in the “Millennium” crossover). Max expected that the “big guns” of the DCU who joined up with the League to fight the Manhunters – Superman, Hawkman, Hal Jordan – would stay in the league, but J’onn tells him they’re not joining. Max freaks out, telling them he needs “raw power” and not a “bunch of weak-kneed second-stringers!” We don’t know what he’s talking about, but over the next two issues, we learn that Max is working with a super-computer built by Metron (of the New Gods) that achieved awareness at some point. The computer helped Max move ruthlessly up in the world of business, and then it conspired with him to achieve “world peace,” mainly by manipulating the League and the United Nations into granting the League “super-police” status. But now the machine has gone too far, and Max rebels against it. He destroys the computer, but at great cost – in issue #9, he had been shot by a Manhunter, but the computer “repaired” him. When Max destroys the computer, his wounds re-open, and he spends several issues recuperating. But he has overcome his somewhat evil past and changed. He’s not off the hook, however. Giffen and DeMatteis do this quite often – they reach the end of a story arc, and we think that the character will now remain static, but they continue to throw more challenges in front of the character. Max gains a “persuasive” power when the gene bomb explodes at the end of Invasion! He gives people “nudges” with his mind to get them to come around to his way of thinking. This is a potentially evil power, and Max must struggle with the ethical dilemmas he gets into when he does use it. In issue #41, he uses it to get a woman to talk to him at a party, then dreams that he uses it to fight crime, at which he becomes more and more unethical. He wakes up and realizes that he only gave the woman – Wanda – a little push, but the dream has scared him (mostly) straight. Finally, years later in Formerly Known as the Justice League, Max has been humbled in business and, although he’s still arrogant, he’s learned how to deal with people better, and he’s much more a part of the team rather than the overlord. It’s a fascinating character arc, one that could only be achieved over several years (in publication time, of course), because then we believe that Max is slowly learning how to be a decent human being.

The next person on the League totem pole is J’onn J’onzz, and although he was an established character and therefore had to conform to the way previous writers portrayed him (yes, this was back when writers actually tried to hew closely to established characterization), Giffen and DeMatteis still give him chances to redeem himself. Of course, DeMatteis was writing the prior incarnation of the League, so the continuity was there. In the first issue of this series, we learn about the guilt J’onn is carrying around with him when he purges the records of the previous League, wiping Steel, Vibe, Gypsy, and Vixen out of (computerized) existence. J’onn takes a paternal role in every version of the League, even when the “big guns” are involved, but definitely moreso in this version, where the members – after Black Canary leaves and Batman shows up only occasionally – are largely neophytes. J’onn’s previous League was inexperienced, too, and the shadow of that League’s disastrous ending looms over J’onn for the entire run, even if you didn’t know what had happened to the prior League (and for years, I didn’t know because I hadn’t read it). J’onn’s larger redemption comes from the fact that, through his example, the heroes in this League find their footing and become better at their jobs, to the point where he doesn’t feel like he needs to babysit them. His biggest chance for redemption comes when Despero shows up in the excellent three-part story, issues #38-40. Despero is looking for the League, but the League he knows no longer exists – he finds Steel’s body and destroys it, then kills Gypsy’s parents and goes gunning for her. J’onn saves Gypsy, but Despero is too strong for the current League to handle, as he easily trashes them. The plot contrivance that Giffen and DeMatteis use so J’onn can defeat Despero is a bit annoying, but what makes it work is that J’onn believes in love – love for his home planet, his long-dead wife and child, his adopted planet, and his surrogate family – and he believes that love and forgiveness – a mirror of redemption – can save the world. Despero scoffs at this, but J’onn proves that it can. It’s a brilliant arc because J’onn understands that he must change the way a hero fights a villain when the villain is too strong. J’onn’s solution to the Despero problem is a perfect summation of who J’onn is. Giffen and DeMatteis give him a wonderful sense of humor throughout the series (and a love for Oreos), but he remains the emotional rock of the League.

Blue Beetle and Booster Gold get the most interesting redemptive story arcs, because for so much of the run, they’re used mainly as comic relief. Beetle is on the team from the beginning, and we get hints about his desire for money, but we don’t get the full story until issue #38, when we find out that as Ted Kord, he declared bankruptcy and “disappeared” into the Beetle identity. This is one of the interesting moments of “realism” in this book (as much as becoming a superhero to avoid creditors is “realistic”) – Ted Kord lost his fortune and didn’t know what to do, so he became a costumed hero. Throughout the book, Beetle concocts get-rich-quick schemes, culminating with the casino on Kooey Kooey Kooey (issues #33-35). The increasingly desperate attempts to regain his fortune make Beetle an increasingly pathetic figure, even as we laugh along with the goofiness. This ability of Giffen and DeMatteis to tinge the rampant goofy humor with some real-world pathetic behavior is what makes Beetle and Booster work – they’re not complete buffoons, because we understand why they’re so desperate to make a buck. It’s interesting that even though Beetle and Booster want money, they’re not willing to betray their principles – in issue #25, they take a “repo” job but discover that things are definitely not what they seem, and they walk away from the job much changed. Furthermore, the experience on Kooey Kooey Kooey seems to change Beetle to a certain extent, although this doesn’t play out until much later. In the issues after #45 (which I’ll get to), he and Booster remain figures of humor, but Beetle gradually lets himself go physically, and when Max puts the team back together in Formerly Known as the Justice League, Giffen and DeMatteis give him a heart condition. It’s mostly played for laughs (the characters tend to mock it), but it’s interesting to note that he’s put his life back together, is running Kord Industries again, and is far more mature than we’ve ever seen him. Giffen and DeMatteis always made sure to portray Beetle as competent, yet with that one fatal flaw: greed. By the time the “sequels” occur, Ted has realized that get-rich-quick schemes don’t work, and he’s moved on. Booster’s arc is a bit more complicated, because he often got involved in Beetle’s schemes just because he was Beetle’s friend. As he’s from the future, he has niftier gadgets than Beetle and often, in the early issues, seems far more competent than his friend. This, subtly, drives Beetle’s insecurities and makes him seek easy riches. Early on in the series, it seems as if Booster is simply humoring Beetle and is only friends with him because there’s no one else on the team for him to befriend, but we see the depth of their friendship in issue #29, in which Beetle has to be “deprogrammed” from the Queen Bee’s hypnosis and Booster has to wait while his friend is in a coma. There’s a nice scene in which Booster sits alone, worried sick about Beetle. As this episode occurs a few issues before the Kooey Kooey Kooey disaster, it illuminates why Booster would go along with Beetle’s schemes – they’re best friends, and best friends help each other out. Booster isn’t quite as obsessed with money as Beetle is, but he still goes along with his plans. Of course, this leads to Booster quitting the team because he’s fed up with being treated like comic relief, which implies that he’s a bit more grown-up than Beetle. He does return to the team, of course, and when we get to Formerly Known as the Justice League, he’s married to a rich old woman and waiting for her to die so he can inherit her wealth. He and Beetle, to some degree, have switched places. Throughout the two mini-series, Beetle acts as the mature hero while Booster is somewhat childish – he’s the one who sends the team to “Hell” in “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League,” after all, in a fit of petulance. But he too redeems himself by saving Beatriz in the alternate universe and proving that he’s a true hero. His arc takes a bit longer and shows how insecure he really is – not surprising for a man out of time – but in the end, he isn’t just a figure of ridicule, he’s a worthy member of the Justice League.

Fire, Ice, and Guy are inextricably linked throughout this run, and both Beatriz and Guy also get redemptive arcs. Tora, interestingly enough, is one of the few characters in the series who gets very little character development. She’s most interesting when she’s reacting to Bea and Guy, and by the time the sequels come around, she’s dead. This, of course, is a key plot point in the second sequel, but it still doesn’t make Ice any more interesting. What Ice does is bring out the best in people because she’s somewhat saccharine and definitely naïve – she’s the daughter of a god, so she knows little about the world – and this is most evident when she dates Guy, but also in her friendship with Bea. Much like Beetle and Booster (whom they mirror in some ways), Bea and Tora’s friendship goes through different permutations, but Bea (like Ted) is usually the instigator of situations, with Tora (much like Booster) going along with them. We first see them in JLI #12, soon after the Global Guardians lose their United Nations funding, as they get their final (and puny) paychecks and try to figure out what to do next. Bea decides to join the Justice League! We don’t see them again until issue #14, when J’onn, who initially dismisses them, realizes he needs warm bodies to deal with the threat of Manga Khan. They quickly become mainstays. Notice, of course, that they join the league for the same reason, it seems, that Beetle and Booster stay in it – the opportunity for a steady paycheck. This gets back to the “realistic” attitude Giffen and DeMatteis take toward the League – it’s a job, and many of the members appreciate that. Beatriz transforms due to the gene bomb into a woman who can turn into fire – not unlike Johnny Storm – and they both remain powerful members throughout this run. Much like Beetle and Booster – to a lesser degree, however – they are part of the comic relief corps, as Tora is always there to deflate Bea’s vanity … to a point, as Bea is, to put it mildly, extremely self-confident. But like Beetle and Booster, their friendship helps anchor the book. It’s telling that when Despero shows up, Beatriz faces him alone, furious that he’s hurt her friends – even though those friends include Beetle and Guy, whom she often denigrates. Guy, of course, is the driving force of much of the comedy in the series, because he’s so very unlikeable. But he’s not inhuman, and this is, again, where Ice comes into the picture. She first meets him when his personality is altered, so she doesn’t realize what a tool he is. When his “original” personality returns, she doesn’t believe it at first, choosing instead to think he’s masking his true, sensitive personality. In issue #28, their first date, he basically dares her to go out with him. Of course, Beatriz, who feels very maternal toward Tora, doesn’t think it’s a good idea. The night ends disastrously, naturally, as Guy does everything wrong (taking Ice to an X-rated movie, for instance) and eventually punches out Black Hand, who has surrendered after a brief fight. Guy, of course, thinks he still has a shot with her, and in issue #45, we see another one of their dates (not the second one, as Tora refers to a cockfight Guy took her to). Guy lets her choose where they go, she chooses the “Ice-Capists,” and he promises not to lose his temper. Of course, Beetle pranks him and he loses his temper, but he still tries very hard to keep his cool. Ice has already begun to change him.

This becomes most evident in “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League,” when Guy returns to the fold. If we look at the redemptive theme running throughout the Giffen/DeMatteis run, Beatriz has already begun to take another innocent under her wing, as Mary Marvel takes Ice’s place in Formerly Known as the Justice League. Bea might not be the best influence, but she does know something about the world, and she and Mary have the same kind of dynamic that she and Tora had, with Bea teaching Mary something about the world and Mary teaching Bea how to be less cynical. Then Guy returns, setting up the emotionally devastating trip to Hell in issues #6 and 7. First, Guy proves how incredibly powerful he is when he spearheads the rescue operation and puts Power Girl in her place (he’s still, after all, a jerk). Then, in issue #7, he sees Tora, who appeared at the end of issue #6. He snatches her away from Bea, who’s trying to revive her (she’s basically a zombie), and places a protective bubble around himself and her. Bea’s anguish and Guy’s tenderness is astonishing, especially because Guy is able to get through to Tora. Etrigan tells them they’re allowed to take Ice out of Hell, but only if they don’t look back at her. Of course. We know it’s going to end badly, not only because Etrigan tells them that “they always look back,” but because that’s how these things work! But we’re not sure if Guy or Beatriz will look back, and when Bea succumbs, Tora says as she disappears, “You always did care too much.” In a beautiful moment, Guy and Beatriz, their hatred for each other forgotten, weep in each others’ arms. What makes it more painful is that they return to an alternate universe, where Ice is still alive but is a stone-cold murderer who tries to slaughter Bea. Without the years of stories about this triangle, Guy and Bea’s brief reconciliation wouldn’t have the power it does. Tora has changed both Bea and Guy, as Bea has become more mature – much like Beetle – while Guy has learned that he had a chance at love and lost it. But we see that he has perhaps gotten a second chance at redemption. Giffen and DeMatteis aren’t concerned if he’ll take it, but they give him the chance, at least.

Of course, what everyone remembers about this series is the humor, but what makes it interesting is how organic the humor is. Helfer points out in the introduction that if they were going to make it a “club” for superheroes, why not make it funny? Friends crack jokes and throw insults at each other all the time when they’re in an informal setting, so why wouldn’t superheroes? This was a huge paradigm shift in superhero comics, because although Helfer says it was a reaction to the “grim-‘n’-gritty” trend in comics at that moment, it was also different from pre-Crisis superhero stories, where the characters fought a villain and the only time we saw them at a headquarters was when they were discussing the threat. They weren’t grim and gritty, but they were serious about the threat (as Hawkman hilariously points out many time during his brief tenure with this league). Giffen and DeMatteis dared to wonder what they did during the many, many hours when a super-villain WASN’T attacking the city, country, or planet. The humor flowed naturally from that, as personality clashes led to funny situations. What makes this such a wonderful look at superhero relationships is that the humor WAS organic, and therefore fit in with the general flow of the story. The worst stories in the series are those where Giffen and DeMatteis set out to write something goofy – the Manga Khan tales, the G’Nort and Scarlet Skier story in issue #36, even the Kooey Kooey Kooey epic. These stories, which are often funny, aren’t as effective because they feel more like broad sketch comedy rather than the finely-honed situational comedy of the rest of the book. The humor also works best when we get a generous dose of action with it – Giffen and DeMatteis easily switch from the team bickering to fighting effectively, and again, it feels true – these people might argue with each over trivialities, but they’re still superheroes, and they get the job done. What’s also interesting is how Giffen and DeMatteis shift the effectiveness of the team to match the threat facing them – like most people, they underestimate things, and this gets them in trouble when they fight a doofus like Wally Tortolini in issue #44. They don’t treat all villains with the seriousness that they do Despero, and this adds to the humor. But it also makes them more human. The old League would give the same amount of respect to Despero AND Wally, to the detriment of both stories. What makes the Tortolini story humorous is that Orion DOES take every threat very, very seriously, and that’s bad news for the loser villains from whom Wally won all the gadgets. Giffen and DeMatteis know that this team is formidable, and they give them plenty of difficult threats to deal with, but they have the team deal with the threats in new and interesting ways. Batman going undercover in Bialya as “Bruce Wayne” (a fantastic idea) is one of those ways. Bartering with Manga Khan instead of fighting him is another. It’s impressive that the writers don’t simply give the League a threat and have them beat it up. They think about how this particular team (whichever characters comprise the team at that moment) would react to the threat, and go from there. It’s part of what makes the book so successful, beyond the hilarity of many of the situations.

The run is anchored, artistically, by two stellar pencillers – Maguire and Hughes. In the original run, Maguire drew 19 issues (Giffen’s pencils in issues #8-10 were back-up stories, so Maguire didn’t draw the entire issue, but still) and Hughes drew 12 (both drew issues outside of this run – Maguire returned for issue #60, the final Giffen/DeMatteis one, while Hughes came back for issue #51). In between, Templeton, McKone, and Willingham did solid work. These artists share one thing in common – they were relatively new to the industry, and it’s strange to see such new artists put on a flagship DC book. Of course, Maguire got the job because of his tremendous work with characters and their facial features, about which much has been made over the years, but it really is impressive. From the very first issue, he does a wonderful job, as when Batman cows Guy into stopping his shenanigans, and Guy’s face, in three quick panels, goes from aggressive to thoughtful (he’s wondering whether he can take Bats) to ashamed because he’s backing down even though he has a power ring. This continues throughout his run on the series – Black Canary’s absolutely devastated look on her face because she missed Batman punching out Guy in issue #5 is priceless. Maguire only got better, too – look at the cover of Formerly Known as the Justice League #1, as he captures the personalities of every character perfectly. His work in the two mini-series is much better than his work on the original series, which was already excellent. Mary Marvel’s slow breakdown in Formerly Known as … #5, when Ralph keeps bringing up the fact that she almost killed Captain Atom, is wonderful, and of course the magnificent scene in JLA: Classified #7, when Guy and Bea are trying desperately to keep from looking back at Tora, is simply beautiful. Maguire is a fine artist who has been good on other projects, but his sense of humor, combined with Giffen and DeMatteis’s, makes this his most memorable work. Hughes is much more on a pin-up artist than Maguire (it’s not surprising that Fire seems to be his favorite character), but his marvelously fluid style works well on the two big action arcs he drew, “The Teasdale Imperative” and the Despero story, and he’s no slouch in the facial features department, either. The Despero story is a masterpiece of not only pacing and excitement, but Hughes does a marvelous job turning Despero into a true monster, and his United Nations “cape” (a flag he crashed through as he landed on Earth) is a nice ironic touch. It’s stunning to think that Hughes’s JLA issues are the most he ever drew on a series, and he finished it when he was 24. Covers pay the bills, I guess (well, that and Penthouse Comix, which he also drew for a time), but it’s a shame that we don’t get more interiors by Hughes, because he’s so good at them.

The series went quickly off the rails after issue #45. The “General Glory” arc that led to issue #50 was terrible, and soon afterward Giffen and DeMatteis began the interminable “Breakdowns” arc, a 15-part story that destroyed both the American and European branches of the League. They were both revamped into normal superhero groups fighting normal supervillains, and the series staggered along for a while until DC mercifully axed it and paved the way for Grant Morrison and his “Big Guns” return to glory. It’s almost impossible today to think of the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League without considering what DC has done to stain its legacy. In the past few years, Sue Dibny has been retroactively raped and she and Ralph have been killed (they weren’t in the original run, but they were members of Justice League Europe), Ted Kord has starred in a one-shot in which almost every DC hero mocks him and then Maxwell Lord, who is now a bad guy, shoots him in the head, and Max himself has been killed. (This ignores the fact that Black Hand, who was trying to be a legitimate businessman in JLA #28, recently killed his entire family in preparation for being a Black Lantern.) It’s as if DC can’t stand the fact that they once published a series that bore the proud name “Justice League” and it didn’t take itself too damned seriously. It becomes even creepier when we recall the now-famous panel in JLA #35 in which Beetle and Booster actually discuss Max shooting them in the head or the running gag about Sue’s pregnancy in “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League” (which, of course, was published after Sue was killed in Identity Crisis, but who knows when it was written). But we simply have to put the subsequent events of the DCU out of our minds and enjoy these comics in a vacuum. It’s much better that way.

The great thing about the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League is that it didn’t rely simply on slapstick humor. It relied much more on creating interesting characters and allowing them to interact with each other, from which the humor sprung. Giffen and DeMatteis took the idea of the League seriously, but didn’t take the idea of heroes hanging out together too seriously, and that made all the difference. There’s a lot of action in this series, and because we know these characters as people, the fights become more personal. It’s not a question of just having heroes show up and beat villains, it’s a question of whether they will win or not and how. Giffen and DeMatteis understand that when you don’t have DC’s Big Guns, you need to be more creative about how the heroes triumph. This makes their triumphs much more interesting – as an example, we don’t want Guy to be so effective with his ring, but let’s face it, he is. It’s annoying cheering for Guy, but we do. And that’s part of the genius of this series. And when Giffen and DeMatteis get serious, the impact is greater because we feel like we know Ted and Booster (I know his name’s Michael, but no one ever calls him that in this series), and Guy and J’onn and Bea and Tora and Scott and Oberon and Max a little more than we know a more stolid League. And so we care more about them.

DC has finally, it seems, committed to releasing this series in trades. The first 12 issues were collected years ago, and recently DC has been putting out nice hardcovers of the series. It appears that the first two years have been collected in four volumes. Eventually they’ll be out in softcover, as DC’s policy of releasing paperbacks is a bit ridiculous (the paperback of volume 4 is coming out a year after the hardcover, in other words). Formerly Known as the Justice League and JLA: Classified #4-9 are also in trade. I don’t know how far DC plans to go with collecting the original series – perhaps all the way through issue #60, the final Giffen/DeMatteis JLA? Either way, this is a wonderful series that’s as good as you’ve heard it is. And it’s definitely a Comic You Should Own. And hey, if you want more – check out the archives!

It appears DC did get around to collecting this entire thing, and I linked to the first collection above, which has issues #1-17 and two annuals. There are big omnibuses, too, which are more expensive, naturally, but I don’t know if volume 1 is still in print. Anyway, I probably should have written a bit more about the art, because both Maguire and Hughes are so good on the book, but I wrote a bit about it, so 2021 me will just have to be happy with 2009 me. This run seems to fade a bit more every year, as DC continues to be fairly grim-dark, but at least the higher-ups seem to have forgotten about it so they’re not actively shitting all over the characters, just ignoring them. It’s nice that many people still love this run, it’s just a shame none of them work for DC. Oh well. The nice thing about these comics is they’re eminently re-readable, so give them a fresh look!


  1. conrad1970

    I wonder what happened to Bart Sears, he was touted as the next big thing at one point but all I can recall him working on was covers for Wizard magazine.
    For me this era of Justice League is fondly remembered because it reminds me so much of Marvels The Defenders, which was just brilliant.

    1. DarkKnight

      Not only did Bart Sears do covers for Wizard but he had a long running feature in the magazine called Brutes & Babes. It was basically a How to Draw Comics. He took those tutorials, packaged them up, and published them through his own company Omnious Press back in 2017.

    2. jccalhoun

      The last thing I remember seeing Bart Sears do was the Bruce Jones Warlord and it looked like he was drawing with a sharpie marker. Wikipedia says he has been doing design work for videogames and other things.

  2. DarkKnight

    Since I don’t want to just talk about Bart Sears, this is my second favorite Justice League run only behind Morrison, Porter, and Dell. I agree with everything you said Greg and it’s a shame the run somewhat fell off a cliff after issue #45.

    Also, it looks like someone at DC still cares about this era because they just solicited a new miniseries called BLUE & GOLD:


    1. Greg Burgas

      That’s cool, and I’m glad they’re doing it. I’ve always said Jurgens is the tapioca pudding of comics, as he’s not bad, just bland, but he’s only writing it (and the Sook art should be amazing), and he created Booster, so he’s a bit more invested with him, so this will probably be quite entertaining. As long as nobody gets shot in the head! 🙂

  3. conrad1970

    Well this looks interesting, here’s hoping Ryan Sook can last 8 issues.
    I don’t mind Dan Jurgens, he had a really good run on Thor a few years back with John Romita jnr and his Superman comics were a particular favourite of mine.

    I’d put Morrison’s run on JLA top, followed by Dick Dillon’s era and Giffen and Maguires 3rd.

  4. I bailed some time around #37 (the stranded-in-the-middle-the-of-the-sea cover). Judging from your analysis, that’s a case of unintentional bullet-dodging.
    I don’t recall binning the title because I disliked it, but a student grant supplemented by vacation supermarket work only went so far and there was so much good stuff out there at the time, y’know? I had discovered proto-Vertigo like Delano’s Hellblazer, Morrison on Doom Patrol & Animal Man, Shade…
    That above choice of reading material didn’t stop me loving the humour and tone of JLA and I felt it was a refreshing change of scene from post-Moore gritty revisionist British Invasion fare.
    It’s sad to read the characters were subsequently dumped upon.
    Also loved Maguire, I was convinced he’d be a superstar. He continued working & I know he moved over to do some Captain America, but did he suffer from “He’s the guy who can do ‘funny’ syndrome,” so got overlooked for big high-profile superhero-ey crossover punch-ups? Pity also that Hughes, like Bolland, went to covers.
    If Maguire art translated over into ‘real people’ I always felt it’d look like Meg Ryan in the When Harry Met Sally poster. That’s a Maguire smirk right there!
    Giffen must’ve been a workaholic during this late 80s era, he pops up on some Marvel New Universe titles (Justice?)!

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