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Justice League International: Volume 2 (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.

I loved the first collection of Justice League International (even though I don’t think the book was called Justice League International yet). It was the perfect example of fun self-aware superhero comics that didn’t need to wallow in grime and darkness to feel confident in themselves. It was wry and cheeky, but still sincere enough that it never seemed too cynical. And, in fairness to Giffen and deMatteis, they actually told some good stories with nice grasps on the characters involved. This second collection can’t help but feel a little bit lighter, somehow, less significant – too tied up in other things to have enough fun on its own terms. Which is a shame.

Built on a solid foundation...

There’s something inherently silly about superheroes. They are grown men and women who prance around in tights and fight other grown men and women who also wear tights. While some writers have done truly great things with the genre, I honestly don’t think that it ever needs to feel ashamed of itself, or to try to make itself seem more grown-up or mature. I love Batman: Year One as a piece of gritty noir, and I adore All-Star Superman as a deep and reflective study of the icon, but I can also appreciate Adam West’s Batman! or Richard Donner’s Superman, two decidedly cheesy takes on the icons that work precisely because they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Justice League International doesn’t take itself too seriously and so – even today (or perhaps moreso today) – it feels like a breath of fresh air. This volume does veer more into outright comedy, with the opening chapter, Moving Day making it clear that this isn’t exactly the team of heroes you’d choose to confront Darkseid (more on that in weeks to come), and makes it clear that things are just a little cheeky. It opens with the suggestion that our heroes are living in a recession, moving into a building falling apart (“the walls and floors are cardboard… the wiring is faulty,” J’onn moans, “surely in all of New York, the UN could have found…”)

hey, those are a-list superheroes! What are they doing in this book?

Along the way, our heroes collectively look… well, unheroic. Or at least slightly unprofessional. “This looks like a job for Captain-“ Captain Atom begins before accidentally causing a massive explosion. Mr. Miracle lands the shuttle through the roof of the building. Guy and Batman nearly cause an international incident. Booster and Blue Beetle have some fun in Paris. And J’onn, the team’s leader, ends up so stressed he has to attempt “an ancient martian meditation technique” known as “screaming.”

However, almost immediately the series is derailed by any number of massive crossover and events and long-term plotting. The late-eighties crossover Millennium eats into two early chapters of this book. It’s the same sort of pattern I’ve noticed with quite a few collected editions, like the way that D.C. One Million cut into Morrison’s Justice League or Civil War into Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. It does kinda ruin the flow of reading the series in collected editions, but I suppose that must have been pretty far from DC’s mind at the time of publication. For the record, I like the model DC adopted with Blackest Night and Flashpoint, with tie-in miniseries allowing readers to follow their characters through the event, but the on-going series continuing uninterrupted. I wonder if their collected editions department had anything to do with that decision? If so, I salute it.

Anyway, Millennium is quite tame in the way that most of DC’s late-eighties/early-nineties events were. It basically centred around the reveal that the evil robots the Manhunters had replaced several “key” individuals on Earth and had chosen the time to strike. By “key”, this typically meant a random background character with a vaguely familiar name, who would inevitably turn out to be an evil robot, resulting in a big brawl and fight, tying into the event itself. Yes, it was as random and pointless as it sounds.

Note: throwing your boss off the roof is not an advisable activity on your first day in any new job...

In fairness to Giffen and deMatteis, the pair actually try to have a bit of fun with the concept. First, they reveal the team’s Rocket Red as the “key” robot infiltrator. That’s the guy who joined the team two issues ago, has barely had a line, never showed his face and scarcely has a name. It’s hard to not read Black Canary’s “say what?!” in a sarcastic tone, as a character that the team have essentially treated as a walk-on for the single previous issue in which he has been a cast member is revealed as the long-term spy in their ranks. I do give the team credit for that, and it’s a sign that they aren’t taking the event entirely seriously.

On the other hand, it does eat up an entire issue, and is just a load of nonsense. It’s a brawl for the sake of a brawl. While there are some nice character touches amid the fighting, it can’t help but feel just a little bit like a wasted issue. Indeed, you can tell the team seem to be genuinely trying to make the issue seem important when they use another infiltrator (in the form of Max Lord’s previously unseen secretary) to kick his own subplot into gear. We’ll come to that particular gem in a moment, as it’s another plot that sort of sucks the energy out of the series.

Maxwell lord is another two-faced business man...

And then we get what, as best I can make out, is the climax of the comic book storyline, with the team infiltrating the Manhunter home world and Superman killing a whole host of Manhunter babies. It’s very generic stuff, or at least it would be in context. Out of context, it seems almost surreal as a wonderfully subversive and self-aware cheeky little comic book suddenly becomes the key to the sort of self-important comic book storytelling that it seems to rather openly mock. Ah well, at least the issue gave us G’nort, one of the… more unique Green Lanterns out there.

And then we find out the big mystery behind Max Lord, the team’s enigmatic organiser. Being entirely honest, I’m not sure the character needed a mysterious origin. It was the eighties. It seemed a great idea for some sort of Gordon-Gekko-wannabe to manage the Justice League. I mean, think of the influence, power and money involved. And it probably wins you all sorts of humanitarian awards, too. Hell, even today, introducing the notion of corporate ownership to an international group of superheroes seems like a fairly interesting take on the concept. I loved it, and I think that Max Lord was, from that standpoint, one of the more fascinating characters to emerge from the eighties.

I remember a time when taking on the justice League was Suicide...

However, the team decided to give him some sort of ominous origin. I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad idea, even if I’d argue that it over-complicates an intriguing character. However, the move is handled in a fairly awkward manner, even by comic book standards. By the time that Max reveals his overly-complex back story, the Justice League have pretty much sorted everything out. It never feels like crucial information fitting within the context of the story, but instead feels like a “by the way” post-script, complete with flashbacks – as if to prove that this was carefully planned. It just feels convoluted.

On the other hand, it’s nice to see the writers using the New Gods. I love Kirby’s creations, because they are just so comic-book-y, for lack of a better word, and it’s always a joy to see them included, even somewhat randomly. It’s nice that the books does find time for little bits of DC lore like that, and you can tell that Giffen and deMatteis enjoy working with them. “Who are these fools with whom you surround yourself, Scott Free?” Metron asks at one point, a wonderful way of capturing the sense of scale the series occasionally reaches, as Metron speaks over the League. Before some of the beings in the DC Universe, even Green Lanterns and Captain Atom look like “fools.”

G'nort an ideal Green Lantern...

In fairness, the final crossover/continuing thread is actually quite a decent story, featuring the Justice League International teaming up with the Suicide Squad. I would love to see Ostrander’s Suicide Squad (or even Simone’s Secret Six) get the sort of hardcover deluxe release that it deserves, and the two books actually work surprisingly well off each other. One gets the sense that the presence of Superman or Wonder Woman in a team-up with a bunch of killers and monsters might have made the issue just a little bit too awkward or heavy-handed, but the combination works stunningly. I especially love the face off between Amanda Waller and Max Lord. Now that’s the sort of Max Lord I’m interested in reading about.

Again, the series has some fun with its characters. Booster Gold and Blue Beetle make a nice bromantic couple, and I do like Fire and Ice’s attempts to win their way into the League. I could have done with less of the “oh, he’s nice now” Guy Gardner bit, as I actually really like the stubborn and jerkish character – he thrives in a group setting as the resident anti-authority figure. However, the real highlight of the collection is an annual, Germ Warfare, which gives us a nice bit of focus on the Martian Manhunter. If ever there has been a character who has grown through his association with the League, it’s J’onn Jonzz – and the story makes for a nice J’onn-centric adventure.

Getting a move on...

The team continue to have a great deal of fun with their most popular and high-profile member, Batman. I’ve always found the idea of Batman in the Justice League a little strange, and Giffen and deMatteis seem to share my opinion that the bat isn’t exactly a team player. He essentially goes completely off the rails here in his arrogant attempt to lead the League to free an old associate – it’s perfectly in-character for a person as stubborn and self-righteous as Batman, and showcases why he really works better outside teams than within them.

There’s also a bit of fun with the “revitalisation” that Batman was receiving at the time. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns had established Batman as a cynical avenger, darker and edgier for a new generation. Giffen and deMatteis poke a little fun at this characterisation of Bruce as the team’s resident “psychotic loner.” “I’ll be going now,” Oberon remarks after walking in on Batman talking to himself. “Just call me if you need anything. Coffee. Tea. A good psychiatrist.” Passing Black Canary on the way out, Oberon remarks, “I wouldn’t go in there if I were you, Canary — he’s weirding out again.”

Closing the book on this one...

There are some minor technical problems which were present in the last volume, but feel far more pronounced here. The artwork is faded, which is a bit of a shame. However, more frustrating is the fact some of the dialogue boxes are also faded and difficult to read. I know it would not have been possible to recolour the books or anything as dramatic, but surely they can re-letter the balloons where I have difficulty making out anything other than the bolded text? Ah well. I’m also somewhat disappointed by the lack of extras, but that’s life, I suppose.

Anyway, the second volume of Justice League International does flag just a bit. It feels more like it’s moving off the momentum of other series or earlier issues, rather than being driven by its own steam. It’s still refreshingly self-aware and written with an endearingly cheeky charm, but I honestly would prefer to see more self-contained stories or at least more carefully choreographed plotting. Still, maybe the next volume will be better…

Read our reviews of the Justice League International hardcover collections:

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