Is it any coincidence that one of my favorite comics has a potluck in it? In 1987 Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire united to create Justice League International alongside a host of talented inkers, colorists and letterers. The style? Utterly ‘80s. The attitude? Timeless.
1980s America packaged the culture and agitation of the ‘60s and ‘70s to sell back to us in an explosion of consumer decadence. War-mongering idealogues used drugs and sex as moralistic cudgels to scare us into suburban hideaways, and we codified a police state content to tally poor BIPOC and queer deaths as achievements alongside their investment portfolios. Culture became fat on its own excess and comics, like all things, built to a flashy extreme that needed to be harvested and re-sown.
JLI hits the market in the heat of gritty superhero deconstructionism, a phenomenon that began as a reaction to increasingly ridiculous deification. God-tier heroism is a storytelling cul-de-sac, and something had to give. Unfortunately, what began as a necessary moment in comics endures as a common storytelling model. The point of Watchmen and other works like it is to interrogate fascist power and excess, but when an interrogation is done it’s important to learn from the exercise, rebuild and move on. We can’t shake the Moore/Miller legacy, and it’s complex enough that even they’re not sure what to make of it after all this time.
Folks, it is easy to be dark. Grit, violence, and garbage behavior pour forth in our media. “People are bad, actually” is a monumentally lazy artistic theme in 2021. Now more than ever we’re all painfully aware of that fact, and trumpeting it to the heavens in increasingly self-referential, bloated and expensive films, television shows and videogames is a hallmark of our current culture. Lest we forget, comics are a pulp medium and pulp tends to follow a populist media lead. It’s ridiculous and painful to watch archetypes meant to inspire exceptional human behavior and achievement continually dragged through the mud for the sake of some well-trod point made about humanity’s capacity for filth. Bonus, and an essay in itself: an unrelenting bent toward realism in art often produces insufferably bombastic and melodramatic results that contradict original artistic intent. JLI is its own form of interrogation, and it has the courage to tackle the most difficult genre of all: comedy.
JLI comes at deconstruction with love and enough acerbic wit, slapstick humor and brutal honesty to rival the baddest of the bad. Americana and the wholesome nuclear family model always need to be taken down off the shelf and examined. A bunny-slipper-clad Big Barda screaming “WIENERS!” in a suburban kitchen or a fully clad Batman complaining about traffic because he drove to a party are funny, yes, but there’s something boiling under the surface that’s valuable on a critical level, too.
By situating a range of characters in alternatingly ridiculous but mundane locales, and confining most of their tension to interpersonal dynamics or daily struggles, we start to uncover what makes them tick. Archetypes thrive under pressure, and the go-to crucible for most comics audiences is violent struggle. What happens when Guy Gardner tries to date, or Booster Gold just wants to make a buck? When a language class pits two factions against each other under the tyrannical thumb of a waspish teacher? Nonsense and hilarity for a start, but we also get at different facets of archetypal essence. Batman’s a control freak. Guy is a pig. Beetle is a coward. Go deeper: Dinah is often written from, and into, the margins. Billy Batson possesses a purity no other character can touch. J’onn’s patience stems from a deeply compassionate heart and incalculable loss. Doctor Fate’s Golden-Age roots inspire silly storytelling at times, but his true potential is utterly terrifying (see JLI issue #7.)
Situate the work in its lineage and legacy: the alchemical humor of Booster and Beetle is a storytelling lynchpin that’s subsequently stolen from a generation of superhero fans, and Ted Kord’s murder is a psychic wound from which the DCU has never healed. The team thwarts terrorism and almost begins a nuclear war in an incisive take on Cold War tensions, and two decades later we get Superman: Second Son. Our cast’s endless bickering is an honest homage to what truly makes Fantastic Four so compelling. The absolute absurdity of the plot machinations are an expansive love letter to the Silver Age that Ostrander’s contemporary Suicide Squad approaches from a different angle, and Morrison takes this ball and runs with it in Doom Patrol two years later. JLI is a transformative bridge between deconstructionism and the post-Watchmen era that my partner terms the New Heroic, in which creators like Gail Simone, Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross and many others built something from the wreckage. There are endless comparisons to be made, but the major point is that Giffen, DeMatteis, Maguire and the whole team have their fingers on the pulse of a riotous, rotted culture and deliver a work laced with irreverence, grace and joy.
An aside: I’ve written elsewhere about how Guy Gardner got me into comics, and it’s this version specifically. Guy moves from the Stallone-loving, #%$!-stirring villain of the first six or seven issues to a weird corner of the Ted Kord/Booster Gold/Scott Free/Guy Gardner square of hilarity and pain later on, but the way he’s written never falters. He’s also the recipient of the One Punch, one of the most iconic and referenced panels of all time. He never loses his zest for life but he almost always loses his temper, and his karma is instant.
Guy’s easy to love and hate, and Giffen and DeMatteis latch onto him as an early catalyst in the series. Over time his edges soften, but he’s a convenient and compelling antagonist against whom they can temper the other team members’ essential traits. He’s also a caricature of brittle ‘80s masculinity, and though the pratfalls can be cruel the punishment always fits the crime. Fire’s anger, Billy’s naivete, J’onn’s forbearance and Booster’s attempts at guile all flourish because Guy is the narrative thorn in everyone’s side. He’s a superhero ruled by his instincts, and he’s set up for almost as many laughs as Booster and Beetle (though buying an island certainly wins as the most memorable.) That said, he’s an excellent foil to the endlessly serious Bat and J’onn’s futile attempts to keep the group together – dad and mom, respectively. Guy’s flaws make everyone around him better, and we can’t underestimate either his narrative or entertainment value.
I mentioned joy above, and that’s really where the buck stops for me. Justice League International is a joyous work that happens to do interrogative heavy lifting. We really can have both. You want sewer monsters? You want BBQs? You want bad dates and punch-em-ups and international intrigue and Three Stooges gags? Look no further. Reading JLI has always been a balm for me and the critical dive is equally energizing and rich. I look for this book’s echoes through comics every time I pick up a superhero work, and each time I stumble on something, small or large, it’s a gift.
Justice League International remains a comedy ensemble cornerstone of the DCU and comics as a whole, and the book proves that unrelenting, base misery isn’t the only way to dethrone your gods. In fact, laughter might be the best way there is.