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Saturday, January 6, 2024

M & M Inc. Read Through 1987's Justice League 1 Through 7 and Bwahaha All The Way.


Iconic much?

Justice League 1-7:  M&M Inc. are at it again

Mark: Welcome to another edition of M & M Inc., where Mark and Michael read some 80's DC Comics and chat about it. This time we are doing the classic of classic runs, the Bwa-ha-ha beginnings of Justice League.

The week we started, the world lost Keith Giffen. He's on my all time Mount Rushmore of comics creators, along with George Perez, Grant Morrison and the 4th changes often (John Byrne, Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Jeff Lemire), but Keith Giffen is always there. So we decided let's do what we already know will be AMAZING (which is Bwahaha JL).

So, Keith Giffen and JM would discuss ideas, Keith would plot out the issues, draw a rough outline of the comic, that Kevin Maguire then would then illustrate, while JM Dematteis would create the words. Not only did this method work, it remains one of the most popular runs of all time. During the early age of grim and gritty, THAT team created one of the funnest books of all time. So Michael, before we start, what's your Mount Rushmore, and what are your thoughts on JLI?

RIP to the master Keith Giffen.

Michael: First of all, it’s good to be back with you for our comics thingamajig. Also, RIP to the Great Keith Giffen. His creativity reached far and wide across the DC Universe during his career. While he’s not on my Mount Rushmore, I respect him enormously. If we’re talking writers and artists together, mine probably consists of Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, John Byrne, and maybe Bill Sienkiewicz, just for his mind blowing art. I might even reach all the way back for Jack Kirby for one of the slots though—I didn’t take to his work immediately as a kid in the 80s, but I grew to love it and his contributions to comics are so overwhelmingly important. Otherwise it might be Morrison or Moore. I’m indecisive. 

I bought JLI every month back then, from issue 1 through about the early 30s, so about two and a half years or more. I know it’s become a cliche to say now, but this book really was a breath of fresh air at the time. I remember how excited I was each month to pick up the latest issue. I really took to the comedy stuff, but there was also some drama and action too, which people sometimes forget when they only remember “Bwa ha ha.”

The DBag Lantern is Introduced.

Issue #1

Mark: This is a top 5 all time iconic cover (posted at the beginning of the article). COPRA Press Club on Facebook posted homages of this, and there were literally 100s. Shoutout to Michel Fiffe, creator of my favorite indie book COPRA. I still remember buying this issue after Byrne's Legends, and thinking "Wow, this is something else."

Michael: Reading this issue when it first came out, I felt like I was getting in on the ground floor with something that was going to be really special. And of course it was! Rereading it now I’m struck by how great the characterizations are; we get to know the new Leaguers really well through their interactions (and nonstop squabbling). DeMatteis and his snappy dialogue establish their basic personalities. I love the characters they selected for the reformed League, especially keeping J’onn, who is so synonymous with the Justice League for me. Same with Black Canary—and even though I missed her original costume back then, Maguire draws her 80s version better than most artists ever could. To this day, I think this is still the only time I’ve read a book with this iteration of Doctor Light (besides Crisis). I liked her, but I can see early on how she’s just too sane and reasonable to last long with this group of volatile personalities (I’m looking at you, Guy).

Speaking of Guy, where do you stand on him, Mark? He’s the freakin’ worst. 

Here comes Ahole Batman to talk to DBag GL.

Mark: I detest Guy Gardner. I get what they were going for with him, but I can't stand him. Narcissistic red head who stumbles on power and thinks way too highly about themselves? Not for me. Dr. Light 2 on the other hand I have a soft spot for. She was a Crisis character, and I'm sure she showed up in 90s comics I never read.

Right from the get go the jokes are flying. A Mussolini joke, Sylvester Stalone being a shitty role model, but then you get a super serious emotional moment with J'onn 5 pages in. It's so good! Honestly it's still fresh. 

Was restaurant beepers a thing in 1987? Max Lord gave Dr. Light one to signal when the Justice League has a meeting. Today's its to tell you when your table is ready at Red Lobster.

So Michael, is asshole Batman (Mike O' Barr version) back? 

Michael: I’m kind of surprised how much I have always loved this series considering I can’t stand Gardner and this is not my preferred characterization of Batman. But even though Bats is an asshole here, he is the straight man the book needs to balance all the comedic hijinks. Plus he has some funny moments too, like when he’s incredulous about no one listening to his orders. When he was a jerk to the Outsiders it felt like he was punching down, but with the League it cracks me up that the other members mostly seem to shrug and go, “Whatever, dude.”

I remember being really sad when (spoilers!) Dr. light leaves the book, so I share your soft spot for sure. A restaurant beeper playing such a big part in this issue makes me smile. And I agree, the issue feels so fresh and is such a joy to read. It’s like a classic sitcom or something, sure it’s going to have it dated moments (I hate that criticism of anything, honestly), but it still pops and sings and has such great energy. Love it. 

Issue 2:

Mark: I am legit happy to read issue 2. As you get older, it's so much harder to read things if they're boring. As a kid, I feel like I would just continue buying things even if I lost interest. I lost interest in West Coast Avengers, but not Justice League. 

So they're watching a news opinion show about them, who's pushing their agenda. Little did they know news opinion shows would end up collapsing the world. And then we get Max Lord, who is 100% Sam Neill in Omen. 

You know, I actually would love to ask JM Dematteis what the idea behind Guy Gardner was. It's too just TOO much chaos, but they make it work… I guess.

Another jerk, Max Lord. Still, likeable.

Michael: I was thinking the same thing. Life is too short to read boring comics. I’m excited to reread these issues and it really does bring me joy to revisit this series. It's just as fun to read now as when I was 12 or 13 or whatever it was. 

Yeah man, the prophetic news and political stuff in this issue is almost overwhelming. Gardner is intensely overwhelming too. I cringe at every line he delivers, which was the intent, but Jesus he’s a bit much. And of course he’s a fanboy of “Ronnie.” It would be interesting to ask DeMateis about Guy. 

Man, how beautiful is that Maguire cover? I mean, most of his covers on this series are gorgeous, of course. I love how he draws faces. He’s a bit like our boy Alan Davis in that regard, he’s so damn good with facial expressions. 

Mark: Maguire's faces are amazing. Top notch. Theres one of Black Canary looking angerly at Guy, and its my favorite drawing of her face ever. So I've read that the villains are based on Thor, Yellowjacket and Scarlett Witch. I wonder why Keith and JM picked those three? And Guy, is that a commentary of dbag right wingers? Did they know a guy like this and were making fun of him? Dr. Light even asks Beetle why they put up with him and he doesn't know. This has to be a personal dig. 

Oh wait, didn't Squadron Supreme do a version of the Justice League cleaning up the world but causing a mess? So they have some Avengers cleaning up the DC world from nukes, but causing a mess. Just a guess. There's a scene where Thor's eyes light up when he calls lightning and holy shit that's an amazing illustration. And the issues ends way too timely, and a Beatles reference. JM Dematteis loves the Beatles.

Michael: Did these supervillains exist already in the DCU? Either way I love the reading of them as  analogs for those Marvel mainstays. DeMatteis and Giffen had to be making a dig at someone they knew with Guy. He’s so clearly in the wrong every step of the way! I can’t stand him. But I know “one punch” is coming so I’m being patient!

So much fun. Life is short, read good comics.

Issue 3

Mark: I'm tired and life is rough, this is a nice escape. Do you think someone will read all the way down here? Hello hello. Is there anybody in hereeee. I feel Kevin Maguire's art took a leap here. It's looking more confident and developed. His faces are just so good. 

Urgh, Blue Beetle and Black Canary talking Dostoyvesky could be an entire issue of a comic for me and I would be happy. I'm flying through and I don't remember the art being this good. Issue #3 is some of the finest art on any series. 

Michael: People better be reading all of our witty and incisive commentary on this fine series! Yeah man, Maguire definitely accelerates into a higher gear right here. This is the issue where I remember being blown away by his art. And he just kept getting better. Wandjina’s pained expression as he watches the nuclear meltdown is peak Maguire. So good. He also draws an awesome Dr. Light and she hasn’t even worn her costume yet!

I knew you’d dig the Russian lit stuff. That whole scene made my crush on Canary stronger than ever. Is it weird to crush on a comic book character? I wish they’d discussed The Master and Margarita too!

Mark: It's crazy how much I love this Canary, compared to Longbow Hunters Canary. BTW it just struck me, just a year before this the horrendously bad Superman 4 came out, and it was about getting rid of nukes by a superhero. It seems noble enough, but in this comic, it definitely shows how it didn't work. Also, BTW Part 2, why did the nuclear plant start melting down? Did it get worried about the superheros arguing and felt flustered? It got the vapors.

And poor Thor will now be cut open by the Russians. I wonder what happened to him in 4 years when the USSR collapsed? Onto issue 4!

A variant cover to #3!

Issue 4

Michael: This issue starts with Doctor Light departing, which probably bums us both out because we were fans. Wonder why we never got to see her in costume during these issues? I also wonder, did they have plans for her but drop them? Anyway, let’s talk about the Royal Flush Gang! Always one of my favorites of DC’s themed villain groups. Have they ever teamed up with the Joker? If not, it feels like a missed opportunity. 

This issue is a great showcase for Booster Gold and his talents. Later he would seem much goofier, but here he’s downright heroic. Although Max Lord is behind this Royal Flush attack, right? But Booster doesn’t know that. I think? Anyway, I’m glad that soon after this issue Maguire stopped drawing his hair in a buzz cut, because that’s definitely not how Booster would wear his hair. 

Mark: I think Joker teamed with the Royal Flush Gang on the Justice League cartoon? Am I imagining that? When Batman Beyond was talking to Walller and she had the flashback.

Yeah. Dr. Light leaving makes me think something was up and they dropped her. She never even wore her costume. And I almost feel like emailing JM Dematteis to ask him JUST about Guy Gardner. Was this a joke with Giffen? 

This fight scene with Booster versus Royal Flush Gang is so well drawn. And it goes from action to Bugs Bunny comedy with Booster hitting Ten, the 80s smile from the leader (Batman smiling?) and turning around to see Ace. What a great page! And it ends with the first Booster Beetle team up. What a special comic book.

Michael: I demand a DeMatteis interview at DC in the ‘80s about these questions. I would love some insight into how Guy came to be what he came to be in this series. He was always awful, but Justice League brought him to new prominence for being a jerk. 

That Booster-Beetle tea up up at the end makes my heart happy. Such a great moment, such a great issues. I’m so glad we’re reading this series again right now. 

A top 10 all time moment in comic books.

Issue 5

Michael: And here we are, the famous “one punch” issue! That moment and the “Moving Day” issue are probably the two most referenced moments from this series. After Guy is knocked out and lying  on the floor, I realized his boots look like little kids’ snow boots, which seems appropriate for bratty, immature Guy. God, I hate him. I love how Beetle is the constant voice of reason and clearly Batman respects him enough to let him mouth off to him. 

Mark: What should I ask JM? I think I could email and ask a few specific questions. 

So…. I really wish I could live in Salem, Massachusetts. I think about it all the time. I would totally be Dr. Fate in Salem. Fate, or just be stuck in a loop of One Punch. Still as iconic as any scene in any comic. And there you have it. Why Garder was so annoying. He was the built up heel that the babyface Batman took out. The scene is so popular because Guy is such a douchebag for so long. An exercise in classic storytelling. Keith Giffen remains my hero.

Michael: Even though it’s probably been asked before, I’d be curious to know how JM, Keith and I imagine Andy Helfer selected the team members, and did they always plan on getting rid of Dr. Light and later bringing in mainstays like Fire and Ice, or did that all just happen organically?

If any town was made for you Mark, it’s Salem. That whole first section of this issue is so different, tonally, from the second part with One Punch, but both parts work perfectly! 

The faces are amazing. Maguire deserves his roses.

Issue 6

Mark: So 5 ended with Captain Marvel doubting himself because he's 15, and Creeper being introduced. Creeper is a character that Keith Giffen was born to do a lot with, but I don't remember much. I know there's a Flash backup he did that I've never read. 

In reading issue 6, I see how cinematic it all is. I can see the actors Maguire based his faces on, and the movement Giffen had for the story. The mile a minute joked and action. This would have made an amazing TV show of the time. Moonlighting but with Superheroes. This felt like act 2 from act 1 that was issue 5.

Michael: The Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire approach here is all so cinematic, you’re right. So who are the actors you think Maguire used as reference? Obviously, Sam Neil for Max Lord.

So the Grey Man helpfully recounted his oeigin story and motives for us here, but I’m still not sure what he’s talking about. I do love that sent duplicates of himself into the world to “collect leftover dream-essence from the souls of the dead.” That is pretty boss. 

Creeper is a cool character, very anarchic. I love his kooky getup, that shawl/cape thing is awesome. He’s such an “only in comics” creation. Thank you, Mr. Ditko. Black Canary is stealing every panel she’s in for me. She had some great snarky retorts in this issue, like when she insulted Beetle’s costume. 

Mark, how did you like preppy Hal Jordan’s cameo? With that sweater around his neck he must’ve been going yachting later. 

Mark: Sam Neil from Omen was a quick find for me as the inspiration for Max Lord. I know I recognize Grey Man but I can't place it. There should be a website just dedicated to this. I would ask Kevin next time I see him at a convention but he might be angry.

Love Black Canary in this, probably my favorite 80s characterization of her. And Hal's preppy look is just God level 80s accuracy. I wonder why Creeper was only in two issues? Oh well. I know Giffen had a sweet spot for crazy ass characters. 

He's in control. NOT!

Issue 7

Michael: Well, here we are, the issue where they officially become the Justice League International. I remember thinking this was so radical and cool back then. I had forgotten President Reagan makes a cameo (complete with reference to Nancy, too). Has it been established at this point why Superman is not a member of the league? Because this is post-Crisis and I’m now old and have forgotten so much of what I used to know, what was the league’s history to this point, in the post-Crisis DCU? Had the classic JLA been a thing for years at this point, or did Crisis wipe that out? That’s one thing with this reread I’m finding confusing, trying to make sense of what JLA came before this. 

Mark: No, I think they were a team before and this is them coming back together. And I say that because of the Justice League of America entry in Who's Who.. you know what, I'm not sure. I'm going to go look at History of the DC Universe by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. I just looked at they don't have Superman on the first Justice League of America page. Wonder Woman I know they pushed off for no good reason, and she was replaced by Black Canary. I think.. the idea was to make things not so dependent on Superman, and I know I read the editorial reasons somewhere. It's not a bad idea in practice, but Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman should be a part of the Justice League, IMO. Also, a Green Lantern and a Flash. While I'm at it, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman. But then I also love the Grant Morrison them being Greek gods thing. Do you know about that? Right. Issue. 

Michael: Yeah, all of that sounds familiar and I definitely recall seeing/reading it in various places over the years. I fully agree, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman need to be founders of the Justice League. Morrison’s JLA was AMAZING. Just so epic and grand and heroic. I loved every page of it. Okay, right. Issue. 

Mark: I guess Reagan remembered Superman as much as he remembered about Iran-Contra. I'm sure be remembered much more about trickle down economics which absolutely continues to devastate America, but I digress. Anyways…

Michael: Anyways, great issue. Dr. Fate leaves, but not before being a badass and helping take care of the Gray Man. We get a glimpse of Barda yelling at Scott, Guy Gardner has had a personality transplant since getting knocked on the head (by what?), and Batman makes J’onn the new JLI’s leader, which was very appropriate. I like how they had J’onn express to Maxwell Lord just how much his identity is wrapped up in the League, because it’s so true. I can’t think of the character without thinking of the Justice League.

Mark: I remember thinking “Damn double sized issue. I guess the Gray Man fights going to be big.” And then it was over in two pages. Gray Man was a big confusing to me. Blue Beetle even mentions “So that's it?!” I will say, he was in line with early Justice League of America villains. New character, big stakes, affected them all, then gone before the next adventure. 

Michael: I know the Doctor Fate mini was around this time, so the Gray Man stuff felt like a backdooor pilot kind of thing, introducing readers to Fate’s world. No idea if that was the intention, but Giffen and DeMatteis wrote the Fate mini so I assume it was at least part of the motivation. 

Mark: It was a backdoor pilot for the Dr. Fate miniseries! It was a sitcom. Now that I think about it, Fate became the kid and woman and moved away from Kent Nelson. Dr. Fate and Martian Manhunter kind of fit a similar archetype of facilitator and connector, and it was a very conscious decision on the writer's part to have only one. I feel JM and Keith had a very good idea of the roles they wanted people to play, which is very situational sitcom. Creeper almost feels like when on Seinfeld they all just suddenly have a close friend you've never seen before or after, it's for the story. Like the “Got to see the baby” couple, or the couple that invites everyone out to their shack and Kramer steals the lobsters. Like how do they know these people?

Michael: I feel like this happened a lot during this run of JLI. Other heroes came and went in what felt like the blink of an eye. Like, it was almost one of the hallmarks of the book. I would get excited—“Oh, Creeper! Cool!”—but before I knew it they were gone. I guess it was like rotating guest stars for their sitcom. 

Mark: It was a sitcom thing. Oh its Uncle Creeper coming to stay for the weekend. He makes jokes! He has a stories about little kid Dad! He has a drinking problem. Speaking of adult situations, I want so much more of Big Barda being an angry wife at Mister Miracle. So relatable! Hal Jordan wondering what you and I were wondering, why let in Guy? My theory is still Keith Giffen loves chaos. Order and chaos, big for JM and Keith in their comic book writings. 

Michael: I loved Hal expressing what we’ve been saying for seven issues now! Yeah, I’m sure you’re right, Giffen especially probably wanted that chaotic actor (Guy) because he creates all sort of tension and storytelling possibilities for the other characters to react to. Ad much as we can’t stand Guy, the book definitely wouldn’t be as memorable without his contributions. 

Mark: So this other thing is causing Havoc to get the JL to be accepted by the media and UN. But Max Lord doesn't pull the strings. Who does? It's funny because this very much came off of Legends, where media manipulation was big, and now this. And this Earth camera feeding the footage of the fight against an alien invader, which was so hot in the 80s because Reagan mentioned it, and Moore used it in Watchman, and Outer Limits was in reruns. Which had me thinking “wouldn't people just know they're being manipulated?”, and the UN official totally says “we are being manipulated”, and the other official say “who cares?” And that's really the point of the story and why we are where we are in human existence. Who cares about truth? Only perception matters.

Michael: Totally eerie reading this now, in our “post-truth” world. It feels like early stages of that, although of course we both know that went on forever before the 80s, but it feels like JLI captured that zeitgeist moment really well. So today, looking back on it, the whole thing feels prescient. Just one more reason this series is evergreen. 

Mark: Yeah. As the world started to care less about truth, and the world became more international,  so did the Justice League. A really great last shot, them meeting the United Nations. Man, what a story. This is as good now as it was then. I'm going to continue reading it until Giffen and DM step off the book. I read until about summer of 1989, when I stopped reading comics regularly. What are your final thoughts?

Michael: I stayed with it up to around issue 30 or so back then, then I’ve read some of the issues in the 40s and 50s since, but just randomly. I might read on now, too. It’s so good. Mature yet immature, a perfect balance of drama and comedy. Mark, revisiting this with you was a blast! It’s extremely gratifying to realize something that meant so much to me as a teen still resonates with me today. Can’t wait for our next M&M collaboration. 

My best friend John did this homage image above for the DC in the 80s site. Thanks John! - Mark