Anyone who’s not read the comics and has only ever seen the DC movies (for which you have my sympathies) might not be aware that sometimes DC comics can be laugh out loud funny. There’s not many in their current roster which this applies to, bar their recent reimaginings of classic Hanna Barbera characters like Scooby Doo, but back in 1987 they relaunched their Justice League comic with Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis on writing duties, which came complete with some superb art from Kevin Maguire whose remarkable ability to capture a variety of facial expressions made it far superior to the majority of comics around at the time. Most importantly the series was packed with the kind of truly funny moments and sequences that you just don’t find in superhero comics these days.
Prior to this the Justice League comic had somewhat lost it’s way. An overly serious title featuring a fair amount of C-listers from the DC Universe, with Aquaman, Zatanna, Martian Manhunter, Elongated Man, Vixen, Gypsy, Steel, and Vibe making up the roster, I wouldn’t blame you if you’d only heard of a couple of those characters, and the most well known, Aquaman, buggered off fairly quickly so there were no A-listers in the title at all. It ended with Vibe and Steel being murdered, and everyone bar the Martian Manhunter deciding to leave whilst still alive. And no one really cared at all, the comic had become painfully bland, and despite having run since October 1960 it was finally cancelled.
The new Justice League series was markedly different thankfully, in that it leaned in to the absurdity of what a superhero team’s life could be. Brought together by the initially seeming benevolent businessman Maxwell Lord, it saw Batman, Black Canary, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Captain Marvel, Doctor Fate, Dr Light, Guy Gardner, Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle team up to fight a selection of delightfully oddball villains. Admittedly many may not know of a fair few of these characters, but the difference here was they all had strong and well defined personalities, and whilst they mostly worked well together they sometimes clashed with each other. Black Canary, for instance, was a strong feminist in the series and didn’t stand for the misogynistic Green Lantern Guy Gardner’s macho ramblings, and Batman, well, he struggled to get on with a good few in the group, infamously punching Gardner in the face and knocking him unconscious, much to the delight of everyone else. Nowadays superhero groups not getting along is standard fare but this was pretty innovative at the time, especially as it dealt with the heroes with such a light touch.
What Justice League International did most effectively was humanise it’s superheroes. Giving insights in to their daily lives and the bonds they formed together, it allowed them to show the lighter side of having superpowers. Hell, even Bats makes a joke in the series on a couple of occasions, though most of the time Giffen and DeMatteis chose to send up his trademark moodiness in a very funny way. But the best element of the series, and the emotional core at the centre of it, was the growing friendship between Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, who rarely took proceedings seriously, and their daft antics and genuinely amusing banter was infectious stuff. There’s a real charm to the duo’s affection for each other, and the dialogue is packed with a lot of great jokes and asides which make them feel real and human.
Giffen and DeMatteis also put the group up against an impressive selection of villains, many of which they mostly created themselves rather than relying on the mainstays of the DC Universe, and if they used villains previously created they made them a lot more interesting. For instance Lex Luthor and The Joker don’t appear once, but characters such as The Grey Man, The Royal Flush Gang, and even a group of heroes from another dimension hellbent on removing the threat of nuclear weapons from the world who the League had to defeat whilst not necessarily disagreeing with their beliefs all intrigued. And that’s just one example of where in amongst all of the frivolity the writers tackled major political issues of the period, and it skilfully adds depth to events and makes the work all the more fascinating.
After a while it did move towards more outlandish concepts, including an alien villain who was joyously melodramatic, but it was never to the detriment of the comic and it allowed Giffen and DeMatteis to explore other ideas and themes. Various characters also left the series with new ones replacing them, which helped keep it fresh and compelling, and the introduction of Fire and Ice brought a female friendship in to affairs which was just as alluring as that of Booster and Beetle’s. The series gradually became sillier too, with the mostly rubbish furry Green Lantern Gnort joining the group on various adventures, but still remained essential reading for a long time.
The comic was a huge success from the get go and soon saw a number of various spin offs including Justice League Europe, Justice League Task Force, Extreme Justice and Justice League Quarterly, but unfortunately they only served to dilute the brand and gradually the whole thing ran out of steam. Giffen and DeMatteis left after issue 60 and were replaced with a selection of fairly nothing-y writers, which eventually lead to the cancellation of the series and then the return of a more mainstream (and dull) Justice League of America starring heroes you’ll have heard of, but never cared less for.
Giffen and DeMatteis have returned to the characters a few times down the years and whilst definitely worth checking out they’ve never quite recaptured the joy of the original series. But at least we have these sixty issues which are packed with an enormous amount of funny gags and plot lines, and a quirky exploration in to what it’s like to be a superhero, which has sadly mostly been missing from the DC Universe ever since.