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Justice League International: Volume 3 (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.

Instructions, m’lord?

Keep him sedated and set course for —

For where, m’lord?

Quiet L-Ron… Don’t you know a dramatic pause when you hear one?

Set course for — Apokolips!

L-Ron and Lord Manga

The third volume of Justice League International is certainly more consistant than the one directly previous. Giffen and deMatteis are – with the exception of a final-issue tie-in to Invasion – free to tell their own story featuring their somewhat eclectic cast. The series has swung heavily in the direction of humour, with the issues increasingly becoming a collection of gags with the occasional nice set-piece rather than conventional super-hero stories with a greater-than-usual dosage of humour. Admittedly, some of the humour (and set-ups) feel a little tired and dated, but it’s still not a bad little series.

Licence to Thrill...

The entire book essentially collects one giant arc which flows from story to story. There’s the over-arching plot concerning Lord Manga Khan (“as in ‘The Wraith of–‘”) and L-Ron, but also several smaller plots punctuating the stories. Often it’s the smaller moments which work especially well – like the fantastic set-up of Lobo trying to join the Justice League, and growing increasingly impatient. It’s clear throughout, though, that Giffen and deMatteis harbour a strong affection for the DC Universe that they find themselves working in, with this collection featuring not only Queen Bee, but also an extended trip to Apokolips, the home of Jack Kirby’s New Gods.

I remarked in reviewing the first collection that some of the series is quite dated. In that case, it was the three anti-nuclear super-heroes who could foil everything except nukes. Here, it’s the crass consumerism of Lord Manga and his robotic manservant, playing the role of intergalactic hustlers and con men, swindling from planet to planet in search of a good deal. Basically, a parody of American capitalist excess in the same way that, for example, the Ferengi were on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The pair can’t help but feel just a little bit dated as they threaten the entire world in an attempt to make a quick buck, and it feels just a little bit too blunt.

The lighter seid...

Which is a damn shame, because the pair get to put some great liens in the duo’s mouths. After all, if Justice League International is self-aware super-heroics on the comic book equivalent of a low budget, then I guess these guys must be the genre savvy bad guys. Interrupted by the droid, Manga Khan protests, “This had better be important! I’m smack in the middle of an especially melodramatic monologue!” There are numerous other examples of the pair trying their best to be comic book supervillains, and often endearingly failing in their attempts.

That said, the book does spend far too long with them. I realise the pair are the vehicle to get the team to Apokolips, but they really begin to grate over the course of the hardcover. Oh, by the way, I reckon this robot was the basis of L-Ron in Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives! script all those years ago. I had assumed, at the time, that the character as dictated by the producer, was an original creation in allusion to L. Ron Hubbard, but it turns out it was actually a reference to this comic book. So I know a bit more geeky trivia than I used to, and I sort of respect Kevin Smith a bit more for trying to sneak a character like that into a Superman film.

All that glitters...

In fairness, the highlight of the book is a storyline which sees Batman going undercover… as Bruce Wayne. It’s a nice sort of homage to those old James Bond films, with Bruce-as-Batman-as-Max looking quite a bit like Roger Moore from Live and Let Die all those years ago. I do have to admit that Bond is a great point-of-reference for Batman, what with the upper-class charm, the facade and the multitude of possible interpretations of his motivations and characters. It’s a nice little similarity that both Grant Morrison and Christopher Nolan have picked up on in their very different takes on the character, Morrison using Bruce as an even cooler Bond and Nolan using the classic Bond stunts as a reference point for his movies.

In fairness, I think this plot works the best at reconciling the action and the comedy aspects of Justice League International under Giffen and deMatteis. On the one hand, you could do the story in a po-faced manner as a straight-up Justice League adventure, complete with various established villains – but it also works with the humour that Giffen and deMatteis do so well, flowing from the characters. Blue Beetle and Booster Gold. Fire. Batman. There are quite a few chuckles during the story, but none really undermine the spectacle or the story.

Blue Beetle gets burned...

Truth be told, while I love the fact the series doesn’t take itself too seriously, I fear that super-hero sit-com might just be going too far. It’s strange, but the image of Darkseid relaxing in his study reading is hilarious, especially when he’s found by Oberon, but I just couldn’t reconcile it with the big action set-pieces happening at the same time, which were clearly intended to be relatively high stakes. On the other hand, I’m not sure if Oberon vs. shrunken aliens is just inside or outside “the line” you hear people talking about so frequently. It was hilarious, but also so surreal it moved right back out of funny.

That said, I do love that the pair clearly aren’t taking anything especially seriously. It’s great, for example, to see Lobo as he was originally intended – a parody of all those dark and edgy characters who were emerging at the time. His obsession with space-dolphins is absolutely brilliant. I love that the price of his contract on the Justice League is a “ten-year supply of dolphin mix.” Fantastic! I also love the way that Blue Beetle actually comments on the attempt to “ground” various heroes by editorial, pointing out how ridiculous the idea is, “Maybe it’s a trend: poverty-stricken super-heroes. This way the working man can… you know… identify with us.”It’s almost as if the character was sitting in on some editorial policy meeting.

Small worries...

Hell, the Invasion tie-in proves that the team really aren’t taking anything seriously, which is why it’s so brilliantly ridiculous, even if I know there’s something kinda wrong about a dwarf-against-tiny-aliens confrontation. Seriously though, that cover is a work of genius, and a rather brilliant example of just how distinct and different Justice League International was (and, arguably, still is) from anything on the shelves.

There’s even room to mock those readers out there boldly insisting that this isn’t the Justice League, or some nonsense. Batman’s recruitment drive only really turns up Hawkman. How, despite the character’s radioactive continuity problems, the team were able to get him on the book I will never know. Anyway, as a founding member (“one of the classics!”), Hawkman seems to exist solely to point out that this generation of the team is doing it wrong. Even the language has gone to hell! It’s great to see Hawkman – a dude with a mace and frickin’ wings – insist that this team aren’t taking it seriously (and, at one point, he cites Aquaman). It’s a very clever way of pointing out that comic books are inherently ridiculous – what the heck is wrong with enjoying that once in a while?

His popularity never Waynes...

Truth be told, perhaps it is getting just a little bit too silly. There are moments which fall fairly flat on their face – most of the scenes with G’nort, for example. However, there are also some wonderfully written moments (Blue Beetle interrupting Martian Manhunter’s solemn meditations on warfare to hit on Wonder Woman) that always make the series worthwhile. It’s not necessarily for everyone, and – to be frank – I’m not even sure it’s for me 100% of the time, but you have to admire a series that is so boldly different and distinct.

I disagree.

Of course you do.

I get the feeling we’re gonna be here all night. Anybody mind if I run out and get us a few pizzas?

I do.

Of course you do.

– Batman, Max Lord and Blue Beetle discuss League business

Read our reviews of the Justice League International hardcover collections:

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