Axel-In-Charge: Navigating the "Civil War II" Landscape, Bringing DMC to Marvel
Here are the next three runs!
9. Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’s Justice League – 742 points (13 first place votes)
Justice League #1-6, Justice League International #7-25, Justice League America #26-60, Justice League Europe #1-8, Justice League International Quarterly #1 plus some Annuals.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
When DC gives you a Justice League book, but won’t let you use almost any of the most popular heroes, you make due with the heroes you WERE allowed to use, and write them to the best of your ability.
That is what Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis did with their run on Justice League, and the end result was one of DC’s biggest hits of the late 1980s. Originally intended to be an “All-Star cast,” due to various reboots and such, the only MAJOR hero available was Batman, although Captain Marvel was there in the beginning (and lasted one story before HE was taken away – Black Canary lasted about a year before SHE was taken away). The other heroes who were made available were low-level characters with their own titles that didn’t sell a bunch (Blue Beetle, Booster Gold and Captain Atom), Mister Miracle (who hadn’t appeared regularly in about a decade at the time), one fairly notable League member (Martian Manhunter) and a pretty popular Green Lantern, Guy Gardner, from Steve Englehart’s popular Green Lantern Corps title.
Without the major heroes, Giffen and DeMatteis instead attempted to really develop the personalities of the heroes they WERE given, particularly once Beetle and Booster’s series were each canceled, giving them free reign with how to write them. They also spotlighted the League liaison, Maxwell Lord, who formed the team for fairly nefarious reasons but soon turned out to be a good guy. Later on, due to a lack of female characters on the team (and notable female heroes available period) when Canary was taken from them, Giffen and DeMatteis added two obscure members of the Global Guardians who soon became stalwart members of the team, Fire and Ice.
The book is most known for the humor of the title, which was a major aspect of the book – it really was a situation comedy. Helping the writers in this journey was Al (okay, I won’t use that one again, but damned, I really want to) was Kevin Maguire, whose ability to depict facial expressions was extremely key to the early issues of the series, and Ty Templeton, while using a more cartoonish style, was an able successor. Adam Hughes was the next regular artist, in his first, and most likely LAST regular series.
Here are TWO explanations for why they had this run #1 on their list!
Justice League International is not only my all-time favorite comic book run; it’s also one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. This doesn’t just mean that it’s funny, although it certainly is. The series is full of laugh-out-loud moments. Booster Gold strides away to work his charm on French women, confidently telling Blue Beetle to “give Superman my spot in the league if I’m not back in an hour,” only to return, embarrassed, after forty-six seconds. A tired J’onn J’onnz telepathically picking up and repeating Blue Beetle’s bad jokes. Big Barda’s pitch-perfect reaction to the destruction of her house. These are just a few examples among many, as the run overflowing with good comedy.
If it was just funny, though, there’s no way JLI would be the greatest comic book run of all time. So what is it that raises it above other funny series like Dan Slott’s She-Hulk and Kyle Baker’s Plastic Man? As I mentioned, JLI works in exactly the same way as the best TV comedies. Just like M*A*S*H, NewsRadio, or Arrested Development, it’s never content to just put its characters in funny situation. It thrives on the *relationships* between those characters.
Every team member reacts differently to every other member. Blue Beetle doesn’t talk to Oberon the same way he talks to Booster Gold. Captain Atom is more confident when J’onn J’onnz isn’t around, because J’onn makes him feel inadequate. Guy Gardner is ever-so-slightly less cocky when Ice is in the room. Frequently, Giffen and DeMatteis have characters off-panel while they’re talking, and there’s never any doubt as to who’s talking. The striking voices of each character – and the way they bounce off one another – have never been equaled in comic books, and certainly not in “funny” ones.
That’s not to say that JLI didn’t have its share of exciting and dramatic moments, because it certainly did. It’s full of them – Blue Beetle’s possession, Despero’s attacks on former Justice Leaguers, and the rescue of Mister Miracle from Apokolips, to name just a few. But these moments work so well because we’ve come to care about the people involved. In just about any other Big Two comic book, the characters would be generic chess pieces playing their role in the plot. Here, the big moments grow out of who the team members are – J’onn sees himself as the “protector” of the League, Blue Beetle feels like he can’t live up to the standards of his predecessor Dan Garrett, Mister Miracle wants to be a regular Earthman, but he can’t escape his Apokoliptian past.
I would be remiss to not mention the series’ greatest “director” – Kevin Maguire. His pencils helped sell the personalities of each character just as well as any words written by Giffen and DeMatteis. In any Maguire-drawn panel, you can tell exactly what a character is thinking just by looking at his or her face. His two immediate successors – Ty Templeton and Adam Hughes – did a great job of following his lead, but Maguire will always own the JLI characters.
Like many of the classic sitcoms, JLI spun-off a lesser-but-still-entertaining sister series, Justice League Europe. The Giffen era of the two ended together in grand style with the sixteen-part “Breakdowns” series. Is it a little bit too long? Yeah, probably. But after all they’ve been through, these superheroes have earned it and, appropriately, it’s a storyline all about the characters and how they’re reacting to the team being torn apart. In another sitcom-style move, the team would be reunited fifteen years later for a couple of reunion specials. Unlike most reunions, though, “Formerly Known as the Justice League” and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League” are every bit as good as the original series.
I recently treated myself to as complete a rereading as my collection allows of the Giffen era JL/A/I/E (including annuals, JLIQ, etc) up to the end of Breakdowns (JLE #35, JLA #60), and was frankly surprised at how much better it was than I thought it was going to be – I only thought it was going to be fantastic.
The fact that so many of the jokes were only half-submerged in my memory (as opposed to fully submerged and so, forgotten) didn’t lessen my enjoyment of them at all – while the surprise that can result in extra hilarity on a first reading was lacking, the solid construction and the flair of execution allowed a deeper, richer appreciation for the second, or tenth exposure to the jokes. (Much the same way that, say, the rat episode of Fawlty Towers can be watched once a year and STILL be brilliantly funny even though you know what’s coming next.)
Plus there were many wonderful comic moments and funny sequences that I HAD forgotten, and so got to re-experience as new: the isolated, instantaneous moments (single panels or even single speech balloons, say) remaining unremembered until read, while the beginnings of longer sequences (a page or so, say) raised flickers of partial recognition that led to keen anticipation and fuzzy half-remembrances of the approaching pay-offs.
An example of the former: the Beefeater, wearing one of the most ridiculous, silliest, maximally ludicrous costumes of all times – to look at him is to laugh! – in response to the observation “a glass of champagne would really hit the spot right now”, declares “Indeed it would. But I must warn you, I get a trifle silly when I drink”.
An example of the latter: J’onn, in gumby-form, trying to meditate and gradually failing while 21 frantic offstage “quack”s are heard in 4 panels, before his voice floats out the window to L-Ron, in a pond…
I know these examples (“bleeding chunks”) aren’t amusing to people who haven’t read the books, or can’t remember the scenes, or just don’t like Giffen JL*. But for people who have read them, and liked them, I hope (sparking a memory if need be of the scenes) they can flash back on them for a moment and smile and be reminded of how entertaining these books were. For those who (at least half-) remember and enjoy, here’s a few reminders of some of my other favourite BWAH-HAH-HAHs:
G’nort. Mr Nebula. Guy Gardner on ice. Batman vs Guy Gardner (“one punch!”). The Mr Miracle robot (“No problem. No problem. No problem.” “I think there’s a problem.”). Maximum Force (with tubing to catch the blood from his nose). Club JLI. J’onn’s ancient Martian meditation technique (“It’s called screaming”). I could add dozens more and i’m sure you could too.
But the humour aside (funnier though it was than I remembered, I was at least expecting it), there was a lot more to JLI than that – as I guess people who have read it all won’t be surprised to hear me say. I found a large number of very poignant and emotional moments and scenes I had completely forgotten about – and some that I don’t think I ever fully appreciated until now.
Take for instance the funeral issue for the Mr Miracle robot – there’s a page afterwards where Guy goes into Ice’s room and “comforts” her, as a letter writer later said. It was only reading this scene the other day (panel by panel it reads like this):
G: Um .. ahh .. Ice?
G: Ah.. yeah. It’s me. You got a minute?
I: Of course I do. Come in, sit down. Are you alright? You look awful.
G: Me? Nah, nah… I’m fine. I was just…uh… worried about you…I mean, I know you’re the sensitive type an’ all. Y’know… I figured you might wanna… I dunno…talk.
I: About Scott?
G: Yeah. I really wasn’t that close to him. I mean, we worked together for a long time, but, y’know… we never really connected.
I: No, of course you didn’t.
G: But I know how much you liked ‘im. I mean, you really thought he was a good guy, huh?
I: Yes, I did.
G: An’ I bet you really feel lousy about all this. Kinda sick to your stomach. Kinda like you wanna punch a hole in the wall or scream or somethin’.
I: Something like that.
I realized that Guy was, as best he was able, and with as good a smokescreen as he was able to construct, expressing his *own* sense of grief and loss, and that he was as much trying to console himself as Ice. And Ice, sitting there, holding his arm, head resting on his shoulder, understands and even in her own grief can offer as much comfort to Guy as he can bring himself to accept. Read the issue (JLA #40), I think you’ll find it rather more moving than my pale description of it could be, lacking the body language and facial expressions and so much more…
And yet, another hallmark of JLI, there is humour blended with sorrow in this scene in a way (as action and boredom and whimsy and tragedy and farce are blended throughout the collection) – they are unknowingly mourning only a robot. There are scenes of intense joy and happiness in the collection as well (a different thing from being amusing or hilarious), such as Mr Miracle’s return from the Miracle Mister tour, or Fire hugging J’onn suddenly with a fervent “It’s so good to SEE YOU!” in the middle of Breakdowns. (And L-Ron brings tears of laughter to my eyes in that same panel as he reminds J’onn “Remember, sir: Gruff! Gruff!”, no less than Fire’s joy and J’onn’s surprise brings a warm and happy smile to my lips.)
When Mitch Whacky, two inches tall, slips and falls on THE Button, setting off the nuclear devastation of Angor he was trying so desperately to avoid, it is both hilarious and heart-breaking. Like life. Shaw’s comment about life not stopping being funny when someone dies any more than it stops being serious when someone laughs is quoted by Helfer in a letter column, and applies to the JLI collection more than its USEnet “legend” (“silly sitcom”) might suggest.
There is something about work, serially created over a length of time, that is amplified when read in a collection – the broad sweeps, the interconnections, the thematic evolution that is difficult to focus on reading 22 pages once a month when it is being published, all become much easier to appreciate when you can sit down years later and read 2000 pages in a week.
It is in this sort of context that one can most easily see the irony of Max Lord being the mind-controlled murderer of the Silver Sorceress and half the population of Kooeykooeykooey – the man who, after explaining his mental “push” power and vowing to take it more seriously and use it wisely, ethically and morally, and only when he really has to, to boot, then convinces his driver that his, the driver’s, name, is really Rudolpho… on the very same page!
It is in this sort of context that one can see how many threads in the collection are twined together for Breakdowns – Manga Khan, Despero, Lobo, the Extremists, Kooeykooeykooey, United Nations control, Bialya, Queen Bee, the Global Guardians, Mitch Whacky, mind control (one of the most oft recurring notions), family, rebuilding, tradition, humour as relief or as coping mechanism, contrast of ethics and actions, the nature of determination and fear and heroism…
No, a magnificent and sustained achievement that stands the test of time, a fresh spring of delight and wonder even today, and a heady concoction of humour, horror, life, love and death perhaps even more potent now than when first released. If you own it, dig it out and re-read it; if not, it’s out there waiting for you in quarter-bins, go get it; either way, you’ll be glad you did.
And that’s why it’s the one of the all-time greats.
Thanks to Anthony and Bill!!
8. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher – 857 points (21 first place votes)
Preacher #1-66, plus some mini-series and one-shots (almost all of the one-shots and minis were not by Dillon)
Small-town Preacher is given the Word of God, so goes off to search America for God, along with his ex-girlfriend (who has since become an erstwhile assassin) and a hard-drinking 100-year-old Irish vampire.
Come on, how awesome is that?
Luckily, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon deliver on the promise of that description, and THEN some, with their epic run together on Preacher.
Before reading this series, do note that not only is this book filled with horrifically violent images, but it also has some extremely disturbing NON-violent aspects, of which I won’t get into right here, but do note that if you are easily offended by stuff, then Preacher is not the book for you. That being said, as outlandish and disgusting as some of the parts of Preacher are, at the heart of the story is three well-crafted, complex characters, particularly the Irish vampire, Cassidy.
The book is designed like a Western, and a lot of famous Western locales are used in the comic, from Monument Valley to the Alamo. Heck, John Wayne is even a spiritual adviser to Jesse Custer (the nominal Preacher of this book). A great deal of this comic is based on Jesse and his ideas of honor.
While the three main characters are, well, the main characters, Preacher is known for its colorful cast of supporting characters, all so good that almost all of them had spin-offs during the series run, from the Saint of Killers, who is sent after Jesse by some scared Angels, to the evil Herr Star, the head of the Grail – a group that wants to control Jesse to bring about Armageddon, to Arseface, a young teen who tried to kill himself after Kurt Cobain shot himself, only he lived – just with a face that, even after plastic surgery, looks like, well, you know, to Jody and TC, two extremely disturbing “Good ol’ Boys” from Jesse’s past – all of these memorable characters ended up with their own spin-offs, all written by Ennis, and all collected in the trades that make up this series.
Steve Dillon’s gritty and humanistic artwork could not be any more appropriate for this series if you had asked a Magic Mirror who would be the fairest artist for this book in all the land.
By the time this series ends, you’ll be so attached to the characters that you will be quite disappointed to know this will be the last you’ll see of them, but Ennis comes up with a tremendous farewell to them all.
7. James Robinson’s Starman – 921 points (35 first place votes)
Starman #1-80, plus a #1,000,000 and two Annuals
One of the few good things to spin out of Zero Hour, Starman begins with Ted Knight (the Golden Age Starman) passing the torch (or, in this case, his cosmic energy staff) to his son David. Sadly, in the very first issue, David is murdered, leaving the family title to Ted’s OTHER son, Jack Knight, who was wholly uninterested in becoming a hero.
Jack owns an antiques and collectibles store, and is quite happy to just do that – but with his brother dead, Jack feels the need to take up the Starman name, but only if his father would agree to use his research that led to the cosmic staff’s creation for the good of mankind.
Jack then began one of the stranger superhero tenures, as the whole time he’s doing it, even as he grows more and more as a hero, he still does not exactly fit in with other typical heroes.
While Jack is nominally the star of Starman, the REAL star is the city Jack and his father, Ted, live in – Opal City. Throughout the series, a message writer James Robinson gets across is an appreciation for the classics, and Opal City is a whole city that is BUILT around that notion – that the classic stories need a city, too, and that’s what Opal City. This leads to the Shade, a classic villain who Robinson re frames as an almost immortal man who just wants to enjoy his time in Opal City, the city he loves. The Shade even ended up getting his own series!
Artist Tony Harris co-created the book, and did the art for the first 45 issues or so. He was responsible for all of the design of both Jack, Jack’s tattoos (a notable style element of the book in the early days) and Opal City. Harris left the book after 45 issues or so, and was followed by Peter Snejbjerg, who stayed until the end of the book.
Starman was one of the most cultured superhero comics – you’d have stuff like thugs debating the works of Stephen Sondheim!!
In addition, Robinson revisited the past to find every past bearer of the name “Starman,” no matter how obscure. Other old heroes and villains kept popping up in the series, as well.
The book was such a massive critical success for DC that they allowed Robinson to end the story as he wished, which is a tremendous compliment in this day and age of “the show must go on, no matter how bad!” publishing.
Okay, that’s it until Monday, when I will reveal #6!!!
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