There is so much to love about the Justice League International series from 1987. Writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis keep us readers on our toes from issue 1 to issue 60 by doing something simple and innovative: repeating the past. A year after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns rocked the comics world, “grit” and “gravitas” were the buzzwords of 1987. Yet Giffen and DeMatteis, with the help of brilliant artist Kevin Maguire, made their Justice League straight up hokey.
Comedy from the History Vaults
The whole of JLI is riotously funny, and all the jokes are things we’ve seen before. Instead of moving on from the storytelling missteps from early comics, Giffen and DeMatteis give readers a highlight reel of all the big industry blunders. They show a sincere appreciation of old comics, while also showing that they understand what makes old comics dated. From on-the-nose thought bubbles to cash-grabbing cliffhangers, this creative team relives comic book history to mine it for comedy gold.
Villains like Manga Khan, the gold-plated space tyrant, speak to themselves in eloquent soliloquies. We later learn that this is because he’s off his meds. He even opens up a drama school to teach others to be stereotypical supervillains who can’t shut up. Other villains are as ineffectual as ever, with a self-esteem and bank account to match. Meanwhile, the big-time superheroes are all too fast to take themselves seriously. You find yourself audibly sighing when Superman shows up, hoping we can get back to Rocket Red.
Issues end with stereotypical cliffhangers, followed by the usual press for the next issue, with a wink. One issue finishes saying: “NEXT: The Mystery Deepens… or maybe it widens…?… or does it thicken…?” So whether it’s Guy Gardner getting punched out by Batman, or Martian Manhunter’s growing addiction to Oreos, the series refuses to take itself seriously. Giffen and DeMatteis’ use of the comic industry’s rich, ridiculous history, with the occasional confession that they want your money, is the kind of fourth wall breaking that gives this series its charm.
The Faces of Justice League International
With a league that’s constantly quibbling, and too busy fighting each other to be a threat to any real enemies, it’s more like watching Seinfeld than reading Justice League. But it’s between the jokes, and often because of them, that this creative team accomplishes something brilliant. Somewhere along the line, these characters come down off the pedestal. Booster’s transparent selfishness and Blue Beetle’s struggles with his weight feel familiar. We are watching the lives of real people unfold. Half of them don’t even have any superpowers, for Pete’s sake.
And here’s where Kevin Maguire comes in. Maguire’s contorted faces look like pictures taken when the heroes weren’t ready. The stoicism is peeled back in favor of awkwardness. Because that’s always something we can relate to. And so gradually we become aware of the fact that we’re not dealing with heavy-hitters here. These are the outsiders, and each issue reminds us why. But they’re all desperately trying to prove everybody wrong and show that they’re worth something.
If you’re looking for the best version of the Justice League, look no further than the Justice League International run from 1987. In a time when serious stories were the way of the future, this creative team dug their heels in. They went for the hokey, funny, loveable tone of times gone by, and it all worked because they’d end with a wink. Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire gave us a team we could relate to. All in all, this Justice League is the last team you call in times of trouble, and the first you call to grab a beer.