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Justice League International: Volume 1 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

In light of the massive DC reboot taking place next month, launching with a Geoff Johns and Jim Lee run on a new Justice League title, I thought I’d take a look back at another attempt to relaunch the Justice League, emerging from the then-recent Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Once upon a time — there was a Justice League of America. But that was another era, when the world could afford borders and boundaries. When heroes could claim national loyalties and feel justified in their claims.

But in today’s world there’s no longer room for borders or boundaries. The walls between nations have to fall if our planet is to survive. So, for the new era — a new league: Justice League… International!

– Introducing the Justice League International, Justice League #7

Unlike the upcoming Johns/Lee relaunch of DC’s most famous superhero team, or even Grant Morrison’s tenure on JLA, it’s clear from the outset that Justice League: International was never going to be a powerhouse team. As the introduction states, in the wake of the massive restructuring of the DC Universe following the near-reboot of Crisis on Infinite Earths, many characters were tied up in events in their own titles. George Perez was working on Wonder Woman, while John Byrne was putting his own slant on Superman in Man of Steel. So the only returning iconic Justice League founding members were Batman and the Martian Manhunter. The team had to make do with Guy Gardner as the resident Green Lantern. It wasn’t exactly an all-star line-up, to be honest.

The Unusual Suspects?

I’ll confess that I’m a reader who believes that, in principle, the Justice League should be a team composed of the largest and most popular characters in the comics that DC are publishing. Unlike Marvel’s Avengers, the DC Universe has a variety of other team books that exist to push minor characters to the fore (Justice Society of America and Teen Titans are the most obvious examples). After all, Justice League International was following one of the most controversial periods in the franchise’s history, the mocked “Justice League: Detroit” where Aquaman had been left running a Justice League populated with a bunch of unknown (and incredibly irritating) characters. When Aquaman is the biggest name in your line-up, you know you’ve got a problem. So one might have assumed the logical direction to take the series would have been to go bigger and better and bolder.

I’m really kinda glad that Keith Giffen was given such an eclectic cast to work with. From the outset of the series, it is immediately clear that this is not intended to be anything like a previous incarnation of the League. The most obvious difference is the sharp contrast between this series and everything else happening within the wider DC Universe. The larger trend seemed to be pushing towards a darker and grittier version of these classical comic book characters, spurred on by the success of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The camper elements of the DC Universe were toned down. The grim Batman: Year One set the tone for that character, while even Superman’s Man of Steel origin tried to give the readers a more restrained origin (Luthor as a business man rather than a mad scientist, no other Kryptonians).

A stand-up line-up...

Justice League International stands in sharp contrast to those darker reimagines, standing out almost as a technicolor production in opposition. Indeed, it’s hard not to pick up a few affectionate references to those two graphic novels that reshaped the industry so dramatically. The line-up included Blue Beetle, one of the Charleton Comics characters intended to star in Watchmen (and provided the basis for Nite-Owl). Indeed, the first collection ends with Captain Atom (the counterpart to Doctor Manhattan) joining the League in an effort to promote peace with the USSR (who sent their own representative).

There’s a scene which seems intended to mirror a key one in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, one which actually did untold damage to the character of Superman. Ever since Miller gave us the rather interesting depiction of Superman as a tool of US foreign policy, the character seems to be constantly proving that he isn’t a government patsy (recently even renouncing his US citizenship). Here, we see Superman meet with Reagan, but as a trusted advisor rather than a mindless lackey. “You’re a good American,” Reagan observes. “I try, sir,” Superman responds.

It really grabbed me...

Indeed, the series seems wonderfully aware about the changing nature of superhero comics in the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. A lot of series would try to grow darker and grittier in attempt to mimic the success of those two stories, but – even if they hadn’t defined a decade of comics to follow – those two comic books offered a stunning deconstruction of the superhero in popular culture, daring to ask who would assume to do what these characters do, and suggesting they wouldn’t be nice people. Justice League International notes the way the game has changed, and the cynicism slowly creeping into the genre. The new heroes are immediately lambasted in the press, with one reporter suggesting, “Many people question the effectiveness of a new J.L.A. in these times of, at best, grudging tolerance of super–“ As Bob Dylan sang, The Times, They Are A-Changin’.

The series is mostly refreshingly old fashioned, populated with a bunch of mostly nice and most idyllic characters. Griffen and DeMatties get the voices of the heroes perfectly, from Captain Marvel’s grating innocence (suggesting, for example, the night would have been shorter “would’ve gone by faster if we’d sung ‘row, row, row your boat’ like I suggested…”) and Guy Gardner’s phenomenal arrogance. Relatively new additions to the DC Universe, in the forms of Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, work surprisingly well and manage to speak with their own voices. Even J’onn Jonzz gets time to shine.

A Booster Booster...

In stark contrast to this, there’s Batman. Griffen has since conceded that he has no idea how or why Denny O’Neil conceded to let them use the Dark Knight as practically the only “a-lister” on the team. I just take it as yet another sign that O’Neil, the author who charted Batman’s recovery in the seventies, was a wonderful person. Griffen and DeMatteis know that Batman is their ace-in-the-hole, and have a good deal of fun with the character, while making sure he takes things just seriously enough. In reading the comic, I can’t help but hear Kevin Conroy’s distinctive Batman voice, a sure sign that the creative team are doing something right.

The series toys with the idea of what a Batman-run Justice league might actually look like. After all, the character is enduringly popular and highly-regarded by readers inside and outside comic books. If somebody like Aquaman can run the Justice League, surely Batman is well overdue a turn in the big chair, after all. However, a Batman-controlled Justice League wouldn’t look a lot like what we’d expect from DC’s premiere team book. For one thing, it’s efficient. Taking the team into a combat situation, Batman isn’t one to consider opinions. “We do this my way!” he insists. When asked to explain his orders, Batman just replies, “Because I said so.”

There's one Guy for the job...

Everyone is organised and micro-managed to maximise the results. Beetle ends up running radio interference from his ship, a task which helps considerably, even if moans, “God, this is embarrassing.” When asked to consult on an explosive device, Mister Miracle relishes the opportunity for some nice expositional dialogue. Batman’s not having any of that, phrasing his question more directly, “Will it detonate?” There’s no flair or showmanship from the Bat, as that would just get in the way of some efficient crime-fighting. While dealing with a challenge to his authority, Batman is famously economical, dispatching Guy with a single punch.

While the portrayal is flattering, Griffen and DeMatteis are also having some fun at the expense of the Batman myth. They lampoon the ridiculousness of the Caped Crusader running such a public organisation. He doesn’t exactly have Superman’s charm for dealing with reporters. “Get those camera’s out of my face!” he demands, leading the press to describe him as “a sullen, uncommunicative vigilante with a penchant for circumventing the law and slugging camera men.” In fact, Batman skimps on most of the expected Justice League pageantry. “Isn’t this where you make a speech telling me there’s always hope?”Captain Marvel asks, clearly never having been properly introduced.

Still packs a punch...

That said, the book is always respectful of Batman. He gets at least one perfect character moment where he surprises a terrorist swooping down from on high, proclaiming, “Boo.” Not an exclamation, just a statement. Indeed, this version of the character is so hardcore that he refuses to wear Guy’s Green Lantern ring because “it would on get in my way.” I honestly think that this represents perhaps the finest integration of Batman with the wider DC Universe that I have ever seen, one which acknowledges his differences while never seeming cruel or vindictive. That’s isn’t Morrison’s “Bat-god”, it’s just a very angry and efficient man.

Along the way, the series actually manages some decent Justice League stories. Though it’s Dr.-Fate-centric, Gray Life, Gray Dreams is a fairly well-told conventional Justice League narrative, one which demonstrates that though this team might (for better or worse) have more “character”than most other incarnations of the group, it’s still the Justice League. It’s an efficiently-told little story that centres on the mythos of one character, while remaining accessible enough to work within the context of a bigger book. It’s also just a nice little adventure.

Batman's chequered reign...

In fairness, I also appreciate a lot of the more fundamental philosophical ideas that Griffen and DeMatteis suggest. For example, I wonder why later versions of the team ever restored the “of America”, as it betrayed some old-fashioned nationalism which really didn’t have a place in the modern DC Universe. Superman doesn’t care if you’re American or Russian – if you need help, he’ll give it. Acknowledgement that the world is a complex place and the petty nationalism is a potentially dangerous ideal is a rather cynical observation, so I love that the book manages to explore the idea while remaining optimistic and hopeful. The above statement of ideology is genuinely heartwarming, even today, and seems to foreshadow the “global village” of modern times.

That said, some of the book is unfortunately quite dated. I mean, really dated. It’s hard to imagine that the story about nuclear weapons didn’t seem heavy-handed back when it was originally published. Just read how one hero from another world describes nuclear weapons: “Oh, we’d handled everything from world-beating villains to invasions from space… but this–“ Those damned “abominable weapons of destruction!”Still, this focus on the Soviet Union did give us the Rocket Reds, so I suppose that’s something. It should also be noted (and I’ll talk about this next week) that Max Lord really couldn’t be more eighties if he tried.

It floored me...

I love that artwork, by Kevin Maguire. It’s the smaller touches, like the fact that he gives most characters eyes instead of those typical slits (although Batman keeps his) or the fact that he’ll get body language almost perfect, like Blue Beetle wiping away tears of laughter from under his mask. It’s little touches like that which really work, and make the book look great. The collection perhaps could have done with some tidying up (and, again, this is a problem that would develop further in the next issue), but it still looks really good.

This first volume of Justice League International is just bubbling with potential and ripe with energy. It’s smart, funny and well-handled, while rejecting the notion that a comic needs to be smugly cynical to be good. It’s brave and bold, and it’s unlike anything that has been done before or since. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, the rest of the run couldn’t quite match that constant level of quality, but it’s still an intriguing little comic book, and something that all its creators can be proud of.

Let us proceed, Rocket Red Brigade! And God help whoever gets in our way!

Dmitri…?

Yes, Alexei?

We’re not supposed to believe in God.

Oh, that’s right.

– The Rocket Reds

Read our reviews of the Justice League International hardcover collections:

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