Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Justice League International" Volume 1

Recently I was exposed to the notion in DC Comics of the camaraderie of Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, two second-tier heroes who have recently become very popular among the fans for their strong friendship and humorous interactions. Not wishing to read about Ted Kord's relatively recent demise which ended his time as the Blue Beetle yet elevated both himself and Booster to legendary status, I investigated where I could view the beginnings of their activities and got wind of their Justice League escapades, particularly those beginning in 1987.
Obviously we're facing a very recently post-Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns era in the late eighties where the influence of serious, gritty, deconstructionist comics were definitely in vogue, and DC was attempting to restart a lot of their major franchises, so Justice League International is an interesting response. Believe me when I say that Watchmen is one of my favourite comics and that, although I think it's a little dull at times, The Dark Knight Returns also has its place in shaping conceptions of the superhero genre. Nonetheless, I found Justice League International to be in its own way a very intriguing work.
Keith Giffen presents to us a newly-formed Justice League in the aftermath of what I understand was a rather embarrassing Aquaman-led era known by the title, smirk-inducing even out of context, "Justice League Detroit". Superman's not in the league and barely appears. Wonder Woman is absent. The creators were given Batman largely as an act of charity, and of the rest of the "Big Seven" who originally founded the League, Martian Manhunter is the only other member present. Our resident Green Lantern is the unimaginably annoying Guy Gardner, and the other spots are occupied from the outside by amusingly lower-exposure heroes Blue Beetle, Mister Miracle, Doctor Light, Black Canary, Captain Marvel, Doctor Fate and, a little later, Booster Gold.
It's an interesting conflation of the more modern comic style and earlier Silver and Bronze Age modes, with the thoughts of certain characters often represented in bubbles, coupled with relatively simple-seeming plots and a fairly minimalist but distinctive art style. Blue Beetle, Mister Miracle and Captain Marvel in particular all provide chortle-worthy internal insights into the action, as does Booster Gold in the issue in which he receives particular focus, and seeing Batman show up and instantly take complete control of the League is both completely predictable and fitting and yet also somewhat disturbing, just as it should be. Even Batman doesn't escape the humour though, making some very funny Star Trek jokes with Blue Beetle and utterly trouncing Guy Gardner who is satisfyingly put in his place. If I had any major quibble with the characters it would be that Doctor Fate is introduced and then almost immediately disappears, and while he was important for the Grey Man plot I personally find Doctor Fate a very interesting character and would have liked to have seen him as more of a serious support for Batman compared to the general humour and silliness. We do have Martian Manhunter, however, who is nicely utilised in a similar regard and is fittingly elected leader of the League at the conclusion of the first volume.
Humour in a late Cold War setting is such a nice contrast to the grittiness of those two aforementioned groundbreakers that I can't help but feel affection for Justice League International. The idea of US-Soviet cooperation with Captain Atom and Rocket Red both joining the League as well as the three aliens who show up to destroy the earth's nuclear weapons are all bizarrely optimistic and intriguing contrasts to the typical doom and gloom of the era. Seeing Superman talk to Regan, having Gorbachev giving the League access to Soviet airspace and even seeing "Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights" up on the sign at the cinema in Stone Ridge all convey a sense of real engagement with the actual climate that weren't dealt with by the alternate universes of either of the two giants of the era and they provide a completely different examination even in obvious conversation with the way comics had changed. Who could see the League zooming around the place in Blue Beetle's bug ship, for instance, and not instantly be reminded of Nite-Owl and Rorschach in Archie? It's especially evident considering Dan Dreiberg and his Owlship are inspired by Ted Kord and the Bug, not the other way around. It's clearly poking a bit of fun at the serious turn comics had taken and suggesting that good will and humour could have a place in the superheroics of the era.
My one complaint about the compilation is that I wish it had more. It's quite short, and I know Justice League International has been split into numerous volumes, which is a little disappointing. It's also a shame to see Captain Marvel leave the group, because he was a funny presence as well as adding some useful muscle. Some people have complained that rather than being on glossy pages it's printed on the rough 'phone book paper' in which trade paperbacks are usually bound but honestly I can't see cause to complain, it doesn't make any difference to reading the books and they're very cheap. If you want a change from the dark and angsty world of modern comics but understandably wish to avoid the outright stupidity and condescension of the Silver Age, I doubt I could recommend anything better. Not only does it make a whole bunch of supporting heroes into a lovable and well-developed team, it reinvigorates a sense of fun and companionship into the comic superhero setting. There's something satisfying about seeing heroes who are doing work no less dangerous or significant than Superman cast into a realistic eighties political backdrop yet realised in an exciting and humorous fashion and while other books may reinforce what's great about comics now it refreshes for us what's always been great about them.

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