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Justice League International: Volume 4 (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.

Hm. Typical. Just as DC stops collecting Justice League International in these nice little hardcovers, I find that the series is getting back into the sort of swing and rhythm that I really loved about the superb first volume, but which became hard to maintain in equilibrium through the second and third collections. The last two books have veered just a little bit too much into sit-com territory for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like the humour that Giffen and deMatteis bring to the book, but I think it works better as a counterbalance to some nice superhero spectacle or drama, rather than being allowed to run free. The wonderfully wicked, occasionally subversive and often amusing sense of humour is in full effect in this collection, but it also features some nice character-centred storytelling, the type of refreshingly not-too-serious, but never completely out of control, approach that made the first few issues so damn appealing.

The new line-up...?

In fairness, Giffen and deMatteis have the superhero genre down absolutely perfectly, as we’re treated to a variety of scenes that work solely because they play off the ridiculously over-the-top nature of superhero comic books. Hell, Kent Nelson (the hero formerly known as Dr. Fate, but now – I think – Nabu) actually has a great deal of fun with his own somewhat tangled chronology, a sign of the writers having a bit of fun with comic book continuity. “The new Fate’s a ten year old kid in a grown man’s body who merges with this hot babe and-,” Kent begins to explain in an accurate summation of a move DC actually thought was a good idea, and a moment that had me laughing out loud.

I’ve decried the fact that the two previous volumes of the series have found themselves forever crossing in and out of gigantic events that we only ever see snippets of, and which typically disrupt both the flow and the tone of the book, but it might actually be worthwhile to have these issues included for the rather wry summary pages that open and close them. Finally emerging from Invasion, we receive a nice little cliffhanger… and then the next issue just opens on another story. “Ok… That black atmospheric inversion you just saw?” the summary page asks us. “Ignore it. No, seriously.”

Guy can be hard to face sometimes...

It’s actually quite nice to see a gigantic big “event” comic dismissed so flippantly by a tie-in, kinda like the ingenious way that the first Millennium tie-in seemed intent on mocking the hell out of the “secret Manhunter” plot device that crossover used (by revealing complete strangers to be the double-agents). In fact, I love the fact – in a conscious reference to the selling-like-hotcakes X-Men – the book covers are at one point branded “the world’s greatest non-mutant super-hero team.” Now that’s self-awareness.

And then there’s the supervillains. You might argue that every Justice League gets the enemies that they deserve, with Grant Morrison’s Justice League getting cosmic threats like Mageddon and Starro,  and Alex Ross’ Justice team facing off against the bad guys from Superfriends. That really becomes a nice little element of this collection, with the book opening on a confrontation between the second-tier Justice League International and the even-more-second-tier Injustice League, led by Major Disaster and featuring characters like Clock King (before Batman: The Animated Series made him cool). Just once I wish Superman could end a confrontation with Luthor’s version of the Injustice League in the same way J’onn does here, with a stern warning, “That name your team’s taken constitutes copyright infringement. Our lawyers will be calling your lawyers.”

Are these bad guys out of their league?

Hell, the series is populated with charmingly ineffective villains. I especially like the appearance of Black Hand, one of Hal Jordan’s less impressive foes (at least until Blackest Night), and his… erm, impotence when confronting Guy with his “hero phobia.” It’s hard not feel a sting of pity as the villain proclaims, “And this had to happen when my therapist was on vacation!” Even when his equipment malfunctions and he tries to shoot Guy in the head with a gun. There’s another wonderful moment where a bunch of escaped aliens plan their vengeance, storming through the door… to meet a huge room full of heroes present for the League’s recruitment drive. “Ve-ry, ve-ry quietly,” the leader directs his colleagues as they back away slowly, “pick up the door.” Poor guys never stood a chance.

It’s moments like this that help distinguish Giffen and deMatteis’ take on this iconic DC institution. There genuinely hasn’t been an approach like this to mainstream big-name characters before (and, arguably, even since). It’s funny to think what would have happened had a run like this been published in the last decade or so, the era of the internet fanboy. I can only imagine the internet literally exploding every month as fans reject the attempt to stray away from the more comfortable foundations of the Justice League title.

I think the look suits him...

While he was probably intended to stand in for the occasional angry letter from a distraught fan, it’s even funnier today to read Giffen and deMatteis’ take on Hawkman, the disenfranchised old-time founding member who isn’t exactly pleased with how the current team is measuring up. Hawkman is every little bit the sort of entitled internet fanboy one inevitably encounters on internet message boards, claiming that he has been let down time and time again, and has nothing but negative things to say about something he feels that he owns.

“Hal Jordan!” he proclaims, sounding like one of the those posters who has latched on to a particular iteration of a legacy character and refuse to acknowledge any others, “Now that’s a Green Lantern!” “Again, irony plays a big part in this, as Hal would be replaced himself a few years later after becoming an omnicidal villain… and then would be resurrected again, replacing his successor. It’s funny to here Wally West, the successor to Barry Allen as the Flash, lament this sort of close-minded view of particular generations of heroes. “I’m tired of always being compared to Barry!” he moans. He has since been succeeded by Barry. I imagine that whole sequence is much more amusing now than even when it was originally published.

Beetle's feeling Blue...

Hawkman declares, “This new League is an embarrassment– ! –a blot on the memory of the league we founded!” Ralph Dibny, in fairness to him, interrupts this post that Hawkman would today undoubtedly transcribe on a popular website or another, and points out that this guy is actually a part of the organisation he claims to loathe, “But I thought you belonged to the JLI, Katar!” It’s fascinating how the people writing letters to complain about Justice League International must have actually been reading Justice League International. No wonder they felt frustrated, buying a book they literally hated – it’s not exactly an uncommon occurence today, either. You’ll find people on-line complaining loudly and vehemently about the latest issue of a given book… and you have to wonder why on Earth they are still buying that damn book.

Instead of not doing the thing that he loathes and focusing his energy into… y’know, good things, Hawkman instead just hangs around telling Blue Beetle that he’s not one of the “real Justice Leaguers.” Indeed, it’s a sentiment echoed later on when the Black Hand remarks to Guy that Hal Jordan “the real Green Lantern.” Why are people so possessive of their comic book characters? Why is every attempt to do something new and different immediately frowned upon and treated as the most offensive and horrible thing in the world?

On the hunt for a fun read?

It’s a shame that people are so close-minded, because Justice League International actually manages to tell a few genuinely impressive superhero stories despite the humour. I really appreciated the balance between nice grand superhero stories and more grounded humour in the first collection, and this really feels like the first book since to get the balance entirely right. Despite the jokes and the humourous set-ups, there’s a sense that Giffen and deMatteis are genuinely fans of the characters and the concepts, and only mock because they love them enough to know that they are too crazy to play entirely straight.

So we get some lovely segues from farce to serious superhero comics. For example, we get Booster and Blue Beetle making a little money on the side by taking a “repo” job that becomes a rather surreal vampire adventure, with a surprisingly complex and possibly sympathetic creature at its core. The two characters continue to joke and wise-crack, but there are some pretty dark images thrown in and a thorny dilemma or two. “This is heavier than we thought,” Booster confesses. The two go through the schtick of being selfish cowards when confronted with an altar made of bones, but they prove themselves to be genuine heroes underneath their funny exteriors. On seeing the creature’s den, Booster remarks, “He’s got to be stopped.”

I actually just really like this cover...

Similarly, a major confrontation in New York starts with Barda discovering she’s been the victim of a fairly mundane crime. “Some sleazebag stole my car!” she yells, and what begins as a superhero comedy of errors ends up as a fairly large confrontation, with dozens dead. As Barda’s rod falls into the hands of some aggressive punk rocker, it’s hard not to feel Giffen and deMatteis taking aim at the trend towards grittier and more violent comic books. “This rod knows the truth, man,” the punk exclaims like some sort of crazy nihilist. “It knows that the only place to walk in life — is on the dark side.” Scott Free rejects that notion, and it’s not too hard to read this entire run, placed where it is in DC’s publishing history, as a firm rebuttal of that theory.

Still, there are some nice moments of genuine drama to be seen. For example, the whole mental breakdown and brainwashing subplot featuring Blue Beetle, which is admittedly a very superhero storytelling device (well, that and The Manchurian Candidate), but it still manages to feel like decent storytelling, if only because we genuinely feel for Ted Kord, a man who is obviously going through some things (he mentions “the bankruptcy”) that he hides underneath the exterior of  “the ineffectual laughing boy everyone takes me for.” It’s never too overwhelming, as there’s still room for jokes about how Ted’s subconscious is populated with beautiful women, but it’s also a well-told story, first and foremost. the characters may retain their sense of humour, but the stakes are very serious. Indeed, Amanda Waller explicitly compares the experience to the (incredibly dark) Batman story The Cult in which Batman underwent a similarly harrowing experience, although that one was less couched in the conventional superhero trappings.

Always Green friendly...

I like the fact that the book can shift so dramatically. One minute we’re dealing with that subplot, and then we’re following Ice and Guy on a date. It’s also nice to know that the team, despite their dysfunction, genuinely care for each other (even Guy, it seems, despite his tough-guy bravado). When Blue Beetle is in danger, Amanda Waller’s assistant goads Oberon, “No senseahumour?” The always witty organiser doesn’t respond with a sharp remark, but a cut, “Not today, yutz.” This is serious. And it’s nice to know that Giffen and deMatteis can write that.

Despite the fun, there are some slight missteps, or at least moments that probably could have been handled better. I do, for example, wonder why the book tries so very hard to find something to do with Max Lord. His basic character premise is interesting enough. He doesn’t need an evil computer or superpowers, as he’s given here. In fairness, his mental ability to “push” people would become a much bigger deal in his later characterisation, around Infinite Crisis or even Justice League: Generation Lost, but I find myself wondering why the writers were so convinced that Max needed “fixing”, for lack of a better word.

It blue me away...

The only other complaint I have is that the collection doesn’t continue in hardcovers, so I guess this is going to be my jumping off point. Which is a shame, because I get the sense that the series is really finding its feet and has a nice balance between its lighter and more serious elements. I only collect in hardcover, as I tend to be tough on books, and I move them frequently. But, I suppose, this is as handy a jumping-off point as any. I would also observe that there are no extras in this collection whatsoever. No introduction, no commentary, no sketches or interviews. It’s a shame, because one sense that there might be a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes worth sharing.

This collection is very clearly Giffen and deMatteis having the time of their lives. You can see the many recurring components that the pair seem quite fond of, drawing on distant elements of the DC mythos. Kent Nelson reappears, for example, a character often left in limbo in DC, while the New Gods again provide a handy plot point for the series. One can fairly efficiently discern which concepts and characters the creators favour, and there’s a sense of genuine affection in how the two handle them. It’s fun.

It's good to reflect on the run...

This isn’t a masterpiece. It won’t be for everyone. It isn’t essential reading, but it’s a fun comic book, which is generally well-written and manages to avoid being too light or too dark. And who could possibly complain about that?

Read our reviews of the Justice League International hardcover collections:

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