"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Justice League Europe by Kieth Giffen (plotter), J. M. DeMatteis (scripter, issues #1-8, 13), Bill Loebs (scripter, issues #9-12), Gerard Jones (scripter, issues #14-28), Bart Sears (penciler, issues #1-8, 10-12, 15-19, 23-28; inker, issue #9, 11-12), Art Nichols (penciler, issues #8; inker, JLA #32), Chris Sprouse (penciler, issues #13), Linda Medley (penciler, issue #14), Marshall Rogers (penciler, issues #20-22), Adam Hughes (penciler, JLA #31-32), Pablo Marcos (inker, issues #1-4, 6-7, 10, 15), Joe Rubinstein (inker, issues #5, 21, JLA #31), Bob Smith (inker, issues #8, 20), K. S. Wilson (inker, issue #13), José Marzan, Jr. (inker, issues #14, 22), Randy Elliott (inker, issues #16-19, 23-28), Bob Lappan (letterer, issues #1-2, 5-13, 15-28), Albert de Guzman (letterer, issues #3-4, 14), and Gene D’Angelo (colorist).
DC, 30 issues (Justice League Europe #1-28 and Justice League America #31-32, which come after issues #6 and 7, respectively), cover dated April 1989 – July 1991.
There are some very minor SPOILERS here – I don’t give away how the good guys defeat the bad guys in the three major fights, for instance. As always, click the images to giant-size them!
Justice League Europe was a strange comic, a spin-off that never seemed to soar like its parent title, Justice League International/America, but was still a lot better than what you could expect from superhero comics in the late Eighties/early Nineties. It was an odd hybrid, not quite as funny as JLA, but not quite as straight a superhero book as others. It gave us a classic issue (#6, in which the JLE and the Injustice League end up in French class together), two very good superheroey stories (issues #15-19, “The Extremist Vector,” and issues #26-28, the fine Starro tale), and the only decent villains to come out of the entire Giffen/DeMatteis League years (the aforementioned Extremists). The book, however, remains a bit of a redheaded stepchild. That’s too bad – if it’s not as good as the parent title, it’s still a Comic You Should Own.
Part of the problem is that the scripters who came after DeMatteis (who left the book after “The Teasdale Imperative,” the crossover with JLA) just weren’t as funny as he was. Both Loebs and Jones have been funny in other comics, and they’re not completely unfunny on JLE, but it seems like Giffen focused less on the “clubhouse” aspect of the parent title after DeMatteis left and more on the action/adventure. The book had a few issues that were more lighthearted after DeMatteis left, but they felt a bit more forced than in JLA. Where the book really shines after issue #8 is with the more serious stuff – issue #9 deals with Kara’s injuries that she sustained during “The Teasdale Imperative,” issues #11-12 are about Rex’s attempts to learn more about his son, issues #15-19 deal with villains who have no compunction about destroying the world, #23-25 are about industrial espionage (with, you know, giant worms), and Starro is always in the mood for conquering. There are generous portions of humor and even zaniness throughout (Wacky World?), and the quieter issues are pretty good, but the banter between the characters isn’t as biting. Loebs and Jones just don’t seem to have the synergy with Giffen that DeMatteis does.
But I come to praise, not to bury! Justice League Europe is a fascinating comic for several reasons, not the least of which is its European location. The writers didn’t do too, too much with it (and whenever they head out of Paris or London, the countryside is remarkably unremarkable), but they did enough to make it fairly unique in a superhero landscape focused on the East Coast of the United States. DC did this a lot more at this time – Ostrander sent the Suicide Squad all over the place, for instance – and JLE is a very good example. The fact that only Rocket Red is a non-American early on in the League becomes a nice plot point, as the French love the Global Guardians much more, which Jack O’ Lantern exploits nicely in the opening story arc. Getting a French superhero (in this case, the Crimson Fox) becomes a major concern for the League. Issue #6 is a classic partly because it stems from the heroes’ inability to speak French, so they attend night school. Kara’s difficult surgery in issue #9 makes her a hero to the French and goes a long way to alleviating the tension. And although Michael Morice (the Beefeater of issue #20) is a ridiculous caricature of, I guess, Basil Fawlty, he’s so very English that he simply couldn’t work if he were American. The few issues in London also give us a bit of culture clash, even though the language barrier is no longer a problem. Giffen and his scripters don’t go nuts with the Europeanness of the book, but they give us enough that it makes this a more fascinating comic than if it had been set in New York.
Another neat thing in the book is the way the conflicts get resolved. I don’t want to give too much away, but Giffen and his collaborators do a fine job of avoiding standard superhero clichés with their resolutions. The first arc (issues #1-4) is pretty much a punch-‘em-up with mind control, but Giffen and DeMatteis throw in the culture clash and the fact that Jack plays on the French sympathy for the Global Guardians, and it makes the arc more interesting. Metamorpho’s family drama in issues #11-12 is poignantly handled, with a son who can’t control his powers and an old man who simply needs someone to love him unconditionally. The Extremist arc ends very cleverly, and Giffen even does a decent job clueing us in on what’s going to happen without being too obvious about it. And the Starro story is interesting for a number of reasons: Giffen sets it up as if Starro isn’t really evil (we know that’s going to change, but it’s still pretty neat), the reasons Starro can’t possess all of the Leaguers is obvious but still keen, and the way Starro is beaten works nicely. Giffen and the scripters aren’t necessarily interested in having their heroes just beat people up, which makes the solutions rather inspired. When they do try to fight, they often get beaten – the League doesn’t really defeat the Gray Man during “The Teasdale Imperative” storyline, they get whomped by the Extremists pretty easily, and they can’t fight Starro when he’s possessing their teammates. Giffen does a nice job showing that the League doesn’t necessarily need to be the most powerful bunch of people – they have brains too! What a concept!
So if this comic isn’t as funny as Justice League America and it’s not a slam-bang superhero super-fest and the culture clash isn’t used as much as it could be, what else makes this a Comic You Should Own? Three letters: S, E, and X. JLE is, somewhat shockingly, dripping with sex appeal. If the characters in the parent title become more and more like a family as the series progresses, Justice League Europe is like a college dorm, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s not too often you get characters in a mainstream superhero book acting like hormonal teenagers all the time, and while I suppose it was a feature of Meltzer’s recent run on JLA, in this book it’s much more charming than creepy. This is basically a celebration of good-looking adults with great bodies wearing a lot of spandex fighting bad guys who threaten their very lives on a regular basis. Who wouldn’t be horny? Yes, Wally West is the extremely juvenile example of this, as he drools whenever he’s near Kara, but he’s Wally – it’s goofy. But let’s consider: Ralph and Sue Dibny have a fantastic relationship. They insult each other quite often, all in fun, but they have a healthy sex life and can make jokes about that, too. Sue thinks Captain Atom is a nice slab of beef (she’s not the only one), but it’s all part of the joke. In this book, Giffen and his scripters create one of the most interesting marriages you’re going to see in a mainstream comic book – the Dibnys are perfectly matched, with Ralph’s goofiness balancing Sue’s work ethic, and both of them smart as whips in different ways. It’s a joy to read their banter, because it’s funny without being obnoxious and sounds exactly like two people who have been married for a while but are still deeply in love would talk. The Dibnys aren’t the only ones who are married, however. In issue #12, Catherine Cobert gets Dmitri’s family out of the Soviet Union, and it’s not long before he and his wife are making up for lost time. It’s refreshing to see two married couples are normal as the Dibnys and the Pushkins. It contrasts with the only real misstep in the run, Animal Man’s brief adventure with the League in issues #11 and 12 after Grant Morrison killed his family. It feels very much out of place, and it would have been nice if Giffen had just mentioned it in passing and not had Buddy in the book.
In addition to the married couples, we have the women salivating over Captain Atom. In a nice move, Giffen and the others flip the script and make Atom the sex object while resisting the temptation to do the same with Power Girl (despite Wally’s childishness around Kara). Catherine Cobert flirts wildly with Atom, and then the Crimson Fox joins in once she becomes a Leaguer (and in issue #10, her first main action in the title, she’s flirting with Bruce Wayne). Of course, the Fox who flirts with Captain Atom is Vivian, the more vivacious of the D’Aramis twins who share an identity, and her sister Constance is much more straight-laced. The sexual tension between the Fox and Atom is done well precisely because of the fact that there are two sisters who are diametrically opposed, personality-wise. The revelation about the Fox comes too late in the run for Giffen and Jones to really do much with it, but it’s just another sexy part of the book (and we musn’t forget that the Fox uses pheromones to attract men as part of her “power”). Captain Atom, of course, walks around essentially naked, so it’s not too much of a stretch to make him the object of desire. What’s interesting is that Giffen and the scripters don’t go the same route with Kara. Obviously, with Power Girl there’s always going to be men acting like bozos, but Wally fills that role nicely (the first words he speaks in the book are directed at Kara: “I’m excited, honey — but the big day’s got nothing to do with it!”) and he’s deliberately made buffoonish. Throughout the run, some people make comments about Kara (the French spectators in issue #20 most notably), but the focus is definitely not on her and her breasts. There’s simply too much other sex going on! What makes Power Girl interesting is that she and Captain Atom seem the most repressed of the Leaguers – Ralph and Dmitri are married; Buddy is not in the book enough to make an impression; Wally is all hormones; Rex doesn’t have his memory and then, when he gets it back, is too concerned with his son to worry about Sapphire, although he still has some feelings for her; and Vivian, Sue, and Catherine flirt with Captain Atom. It’s interesting that in this comic, at least, the most “superheroic” of the group are also the most repressed, sexually. Even Kara’s new, sleek, skintight costume (which debuts in issue #15) doesn’t help – it wraps her up even more in her body (plus, aesthetically, it’s ugly) and seems to make her angrier. Giffen set up the whole idea of her diet soda wreaking havoc with her emotions in this run (it didn’t pay off until the revamp after “Breakdowns”), but that costume couldn’t have helped, either. Both PG and Captain Atom would have benefited greatly if they had just, you know, gotten laid. I should mention the sexual nature of the Queen Bee and her dominance of Jack O’ Lantern, which is the dark side of all this hot ‘n’ sweaty stuff. It’s a fascinating counterpoint to the rather cheerful horniness going on at the Embassy.
Sears’ art is certainly not a favorite of many, but he fits into the aesthetic of the book, because his figure work oozes sex. His characters are certainly idealized, but what’s interesting about the women is that they’re all hips and breasts and butts, even the slender ones like Catherine. Kara, of course, is large-breasted, but she also has wider hips than we usually see with super-people. Proportionally, she doesn’t look like the porn-inspired “characters” we often see today, possibly because Sears actually, you know, drew her. The male characters, meanwhile, are also idealized, but not in a wildly ‘roided-out way – nobody’s muscles are all that big, and someone like Captain Atom, the object of female desire, is streamlined and well-proportioned. Even a villain like Dreamslayer is lithe and slinky and creepily sexual. Sears often puts the characters in everyday clothes, and that works well, too. Sue and Catherine, of course, are always in civvies, but Sears makes sure they project an air of sexual confidence without looking slutty. Minor characters are sexualized, as well – consider Ms. Kessler, the French teacher, in her ridiculous nineteenth century school marm clothing and large glasses that Sears somehow manages to make sexy. Vivian D’Aramis almost slithers through the book, all curves and seduction, making all the men she meets uncomfortable with her unabashed sexuality. That’s largely due to Sears, who does a wonderful job making these characters fully sexual beings. If Sears is a bit “too Image” for some, it’s in the service of the overall theme of the comic. Some of his art outside of JLE has worked (The Path, most notably) and some hasn’t (he was miscast drawing “Faith” in Legends of the Dark Knight #21-23), but if we look at the fill-in artists on this run, it’s obvious he was a great choice for this particular comic. Nichols, Sprouse, Medley, and Rogers are fairly divergent artists with different talent levels, but none of them were able to drench the book in hormones like Sears was. When we consider that Medley drew the issue that took place in Cannes and Rogers drew an issue with Kara in a bathing suit, that’s too bad.
You may not think a superhero comic that lacks the laugh-out-loud humor of Justice League America but is still an above-average action/adventure comic with a serious sexy streak is not worth owning. Well, you can think that, but you’d be wrong. JLE is impressive because Giffen and the scripters still treat the characters like human beings, like they did in the parent title, but they also allow them to engage him some fine flirtation, which doesn’t happen too often in JLA (Guy Gardner’s pursuit of Ice notwithstanding). The book is even rather charming in its sexuality – even Wally, for all his boorishness, never crosses a line. Most mainstream superhero comics never acknowledge the sexuality of their members or, in recent years, they wallow in it. Justice League Europe walked a fine line between these two extremes, and if we consider that it’s a pretty darn exciting comic at that, it’s totally worth your time.
If you know anything about DC, you know that comics released in the mid- to late-1980s and early 1990s are not often collected in trade paperbacks, and this comic is certainly no exception. If it took DC this long to get around to collecting the main title and aren’t going to continue with those, I wouldn’t hold my breath for these! But that just gives you an excuse to hit the long boxes! And don’t forget to check out the archives for more suggestions!
Oh, and no points for figuring out what the next installment is going to be!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.