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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Chuck Patton talks Justice League Detroit

I've had a long-standing fascination with the Detroit Era of the Justice League of America for the last two decades now. They were a bit of an oddity as far as Justice League rosters went; while the Justice League typically contained an all-star cast of well-established characters (ex: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Hawkman, etc), this new iteration consisted of four unknown characters combined with a few lesser-known former Justice League members.

Looking back, it's hard to believe that the Detroit Era of the JLA ran for almost two and half years (from July 1984's JLA Annual #2 to April 1987's JLA #261). It's even more surprising how the team was disbanded -- not walking into the sunset with plans for reuniting someday when the world might need them again, but destroyed by a malevolent Justice League villain. To some extent, it was a very cruel ending to a team who were meant to bring a rejuvenated feel to the JLA.

We reached out to JLA artist and Justice League Detroit co-creator, Chuck Patton, with a few questions about his work on this era of the JLA and he was incredibly generous with his time and answered ALL of our questions in depth. We're very proud to publish this interview. Enjoy.

Introducing the new Justice League Detroit!
Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984). Cover illustrated by Chuck Patton and inked by Dick Giordano


Justin: You had been illustrating Justice League of America for about a year prior to the Justice League Detroit 'revamp'. What was the discussion like with editorial that brought on Justice League Detroit? Who initially suggested a NEW Justice League team for the book?

Chuck Patton: I think it was Len Wein who ultimately decided that it was time for a change in the JLA, especially when all of the other major DC books started to crack under the weight of each other’s differing storylines and changes in continuity. Also, with [writer] Gerry Conway being unsure about continuing on the book, it left the door open for a new direction, except nobody rushed in to take the job. I believe Alan Gold didn’t come in as editor until after the decision to revamp JLA had begun, but I could be wrong.

The covers of Justice League of America v1 issues #233, 234, 235 and 236. Illustrated by Chuck Patton and Dick Giordano.

Justin: In the letter column of Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984), editor Alan Gold had specifically mentioned that 2 characters from the new Justice League Detroit roster were 100% yours: Vibe and Gypsy. How did that come about? Were Vibe and Gypsy created 'on the fly'? Or were both of these characters sitting around in your head for a while? Were they inspired by any real-life people you knew (celebrities or friends)?

I also just wanted to mention that the quartet covers (issues #233, 234, 235 and 236) was a brilliant idea, and I hadn't realized they were meant to be joined together until many many years after I'd owned them. (While 'joined comic book covers' were somewhat of an everyday occurrence in the nineties, it was still rather unheard of in the early eighties.)

Chuck: It was definitely a 50/50 collaboration. And we did do it on the fly—over a long lunch at a great lil’ French restaurant in Sherman Oaks. Gerry strongly felt that a new 'JLA' needed a younger, hipper roster to reflect the times, but most important, have little to no connection with the then-current DC roster and more freedom. I enthusiastically agreed with him, wanting to capture the same youthful spirit that made hits of X-Men and Teen Titans.

We threw ideas back and forth, but the most important one that stuck out for me was Gerry really wanted to tap into breakdancing, BIG TIME, lol. And all joking aside, he wasn’t wrong, the time was right, break dancing was all over the media, from music to movies and television. I wanted whomever we came up with to have a strong, urban ethnic, "Down to Earth" feel that would reflect my own background.

However, Gerry’s inspiration was definitely more 'West Coast' oriented, so he, tapped into the spirit of the movie Electric Boogaloo and our first hero came from out of the gang element of 80’s LA.

Just two of the MANY breakdancing theatrical films released in 1984. Images courtesy of IMDB.

Chuck: I went along to get along, because I really disliked that movie and was unsure about the West Side Story gang influence, lol. But I did like the potential, so I suggested that his powers would be from what all Angelenos feared most out here—earthquakes. We later changed them into super-vibrational waves he would project thru his dance moves, hence the name 'Vibe'.

Vibe in action.
Panels from Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Dave Hunt.

Chuck: Gypsy came about in the same way except we wanted a ninja-like character but more exotic, and some how the subject of gypsies came up. Being from Detroit, I’ve seen encounters with a few Romany people (aka gypsies), who came into our neighborhood up from the South, and they always carried a certain cultural mystique I thought would be interesting to portray other then the usual cliché. So I suggested her powers were camouflage stealth abilities and Gerry liked that and dubbed her Gypsy.

Panels from Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Dave Hunt.

Chuck: We decided to make Detroit instead of LA the team’s new base because it would better fit the series’ 'Down to Earth' approach and, personally, it was my way of paying respect back to my old hometown which had a very negative image, contrary to how I felt about it growing up. As for the neighborhood’s cast and Vibe’s family, most were inspired by youthful memories of folks I knew.

Now about those joined covers, I think they were all Len Wein’s idea. They were a challenge to conceive but I was so very proud of how it came out. It’s the only art piece that my mentor Dick Giordano and I have done which I still own.

Justin: As part of the Justice League Detroit creative team, did you get any input into the stories and character development (especially since two of the characters were created by you)? For instance, Gypsy being a runaway -- was that your idea or something Conway built on? Are there any elements of the Justice League Detroit you were particularly proud of?

Chuck: I did at first, on Annual #2 and the follow up four issues introducing the team and their new adversaries, the Cadre. I provided the rough backstory for Vibe and Gypsy, while Gerry already had Vixen’s and Hank/Commander Steel’s bios done. I came up with Dale Gunn on my own, as the team’s "Tony Stark" like tech support and Hank’s father figure.

The Cadre, their powers, origins and looks all came from me too, except for the conception of the Overmaster’s origin, which was all Gerry’s.

Justice League Detroit battles The Cadre.
Double-page spread from Justice League of America #237 (1985).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Rick Magyar.

Chuck: I think at the start, we really had a lot of fun coming up with the dynamics of how the new team would interact with the veteran Leaguers. Where we really were in sync was in reintroducing Aquaman as a major league bad ass. Gerry was always adamant about making him the leader and I was an Aquaman fan from way back so was totally down for it. We hinted at his potential during the Beasts trilogy, but when he steps up and takes over the team, that became the shining moment that made me proudest of the book.

Justin: Justice League Detroit ran for about two and half years before the series became re-tooled to become Justice League (the Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis version). You left the book about two years into it. Was there any particular reason you left? What was going on in the background (editorially-speaking)?

Chuck: Justice League of America was my first regular series and, like Vibe and Gypsy, I was the incoming fresh-off-the-street newbie with Gerry’s venerable vet on a book that he had steered for a helluva long. I think he wanted to leave before I came in on the book but was going back and forth about whether to go or not.

Originally the Beasts trilogy was to be our first book together, which I had started penciling when suddenly Gerry stopped, went on hiatus, shelving that issue and I had to continue with multiple fill-in writers. It was rough going at first, as I had enjoyed the beginning of the trilogy and now I had to cruise until a direction for Justice League of America was figured out. But Len Wein kept me on course until Gerry decided to return and we restarted with Beasts again. By then I was feeling a little more confident about what I wanted to do visually and made suggestions on the Beasts script that I found rubbed Gerry wrong. But Len smoothed things over for us. He and Gerry were old friends plus he knew how to get the most out of us, so changes were made that was comfortable for both and somehow we got a much better product in the end. That opened the door to Gerry and I communicating a little better. I owe a lot of our creative synergy to Len. He really helped in encouraging my sense of storytelling, plotting and character development that went into collaborating with Gerry.

The first two issues of the Beasts trilogy. Covers by Chuck Patton and Dick Giordano.

Chuck: I believe [Len] was a huge part of the enthusiasm Gerry and I generated at the beginning of Justice League Detroit. But once he left the book, whatever cohesion Gerry and I started with came apart. Gerry went from talking over plots to just turning in full scripted stories that left me feeling disengaged from the process. I missed the Marvel-style plot outlines that allowed room for back and forth discussion and was told to stick with the art and he with the stories. So from there, I quickly grew very bored, disillusioned and dissatisfied with the series and my own work and wanted off. It was definitely a case of creative differences, and that sums it up neatly.

Without Len’s input, we lost his tremendous ability as a sounding board, arbitrator and BS detector, and the book seemed to rub everybody wrong. Nevertheless, I really missed the initial idea of what Justice League Detroit set out to do. For that time period of comics, a younger, newer Justice League of America made a lot of sense and I’m very grateful to Len and Gerry to have been a part of that.

Vibe's last stand.
Justice League of America #258 (1987). Cover by Luke Mc Donnell.

Justin: When J.M. DeMatteis took over Justice League of America, he needed to clear the roster for the newly aforementioned Justice League team. Ultimately, Vibe was killed off. Was this a unanimous decision? Or did you just find out 'after the fact'?

Chuck: I found out after the fact. I had done a few Justice League of America covers after giving up the book but when that obligation ended, I stopped looking at it and washed my hands of Vibe and Justice League Detroit. Even after I had moved on to Teen Titans then Vigilante, I’d read some vitrol over the series or Vibe in particular, from either a fan or pro who despised it for one thing or another. I did check out the last issue where everyone died. It didn’t make me feel any better, but it was not my watch anymore, so I turned away to other pursuits.

Jump to years and years later, and I’m finishing work on the Batman: Brave and the Bold animated series, when one of the directors, who was a big Vibe/JLD fan, talked me into doing a Vibe segment for WB’s DC Nation shorts. That was the first time I heard there was a "cult of popularity" around him, it truly surprised the hell out of me, lol! The short came off well and got everybody talking, suddenly Vibe becomes popular due to Geoff Jones’ support and then the CW swooped in and the rest is history.

Gave me a big big smile.

Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon (aka 'Vibe') in CW's The Flash. (2017)

Justin: What are your final thoughts on your Justice League Detroit run from 1984/1985? Any lessons learned? Things you would've done differently? Things you'd repeat in a heartbeat?

Chuck: Tough question! But as I stated earlier, I really believed in what we wanted to do initially, that a younger Justice League of America was a good idea so no regrets about that. However I really really wished we had avoided a lot of the gimmickry or played them a lot less clichéd from the jump.

I do share responsibility in my part of that, but I always felt uncomfortable with Vibe’s accent. It was meant to be a blind, something he hid behind to keep people from knowing he wasn’t that "streetwise", but it was handled clumsily and we took our lumps for it.

Panels from Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Dave Hunt.

Art-wise, I felt I wasn’t as polished as I wanted to be, although it was a hard book to start your career on. It still taught me so much about group dynamics, and storytelling. Plus I was going through a revolving pool of inkers as well as writers, so it was very hard to settle in and hit a stride even after Justice League Detroit started. Then again, if that [had] not happened, I wouldn’t had been motivated to find what I was looking for elsewhere. As for things I would repeat in a heartbeat? Lol, honestly, I’m a big believer in things going the way they should have despite the ups and downs, and I’d had followed this same path anyway! Considering where I ended up, I am and have been very fortunate.

Page from Teen Titans Spotlight #13 (1987).
Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Romeo Tanghal.

Justin: Any new projects you are working on or would like to talk about? I'm all ears.

Chuck: As we speak an animated series I directed just premiered on Netflix, called Kulipari Dreamwalker. It’s the second season of Kulipari Army of Frogs, that I worked on before, but now I’m at the helm, and excited to see it finally out there. The other thing I just completed is still a secret, but I can say this much, it’ll be my first comic book work I’ve done in many years and I’m very thrilled about it. So it’s been a quite an interesting time for me.

...and thus concludes our interview with the talented Chuck Patton. Back in 2009, Chuck was interviewed by our friends at the Aquaman Shrine about his time at DC comics, which you can read here. If you want to read more about the exploits of Justice League Detroit (and really, who doesn't?), I strongly encourage you to peruse the Justice League Detroit blog

An additional reminder that almost ALL of Justice League Detroit's adventures have been collected in the Justice League: The Detroit Era omnibus that can be purchased wherever better comic books are sold.

We're going to end this interview on a high note and leave you with a terrific 2-page spread of Vibe doing what he does best: breakin'! 


From Justice League of America #233 (1984). Pencilled by Chuck Patton, inked by Bill Anderson.

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