Year of the Artist, Day 136: Bill Willingham, Part 3 – Justice League International Annual #2
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bill Willingham, and the issue is Justice League International Annual #2, which was published by DC and is cover dated 1988. Enjoy!
Justice League International Annual #2 is one of the five best annuals I own, I think, unless I’m not remembering some better ones (ah, but if they were better, wouldn’t I remember them?). In it, Colonel Harjarvti of Bialya hires the Joker to kill the Justice League. Of course, because this is a Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League story, the Leaguers are all off doing all sorts of things and the Joker fails miserably at his task. Unsurprisingly, it’s hilarious, and Willingham does a good job on the art. Let’s check it out!
I just wanted to point out that the God of All Comics didn’t actually invent “effeminate Joker” in Arkham Asylum – I want to say it was Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, but Giffen, DeMatteis, and Willingham do a pretty good job with him in this book. Look at those marvelous outfits! I always like when the Joker wears outfits that don’t necessarily fit his “color scheme,” so while the first outfit does, that second outfit is a bold choice. He’s wearing high heels in both panels, too, which is pretty keen. Willingham even makes him fashionable for 1988, with the long purple duster, the bunched waistline, and the thin ankles (with snaps!) in the first panel, and the skinny tie and belt in the second panel. And I love that he’s rocking a pearl necklace in the first panel.
The Joker keeps going around trying to find good times to kill the Leaguers, and he keeps finding them in places where it would be difficult to kill them (Giffen and DeMatteis don’t write the Joker as a mass murderer – he’s under contract to kill the JLI and no one else – but they also make jokes about the fact that he really is a mass murderer). Dmitri – Rocket Red – has found a Russian restaurant and dragged J’onn to it, and this is what the Joker finds. Willingham isn’t as good as Kevin Maguire at facial expressions, but he’s pretty good, and as I’ve noted over the past few days, his style helps make his characters a bit rubbery, which helps him create nice body language. He makes Dmitri’s grin wider than usual, and with the beard stretching his face out even more, Dmitri’s happiness seems to swallow his entire face, which is contrasted with J’onn’s grumpy expression in the lower right (that’s J’onn, by the way). Willingham also draws a nice Russian matriarch handing J’onn the plate of sausages – he gives her thick, Slavic eyebrows, and her wide face speaks to a rustic trustworthiness. As usual, Willingham does a very nice job with “regular” clothing – he’s always good at that, which is a good thing for this version of the League, which spent as much time in “civilian” clothes as they did their superhero gear.
Here’s where Willingham’s cartooning helps him out, as the Joker isn’t exactly “realistic” in this sequence, but Willingham’s use of exaggeration helps create a good tone for the conversation, letting us know that the Joker is indeed crazy and can snap at any moment, but also that he’s, well, a joker. Willingham gives him a giant mouth in Panel 1, but unlike the chin Jim Aparo likes to give the Joker, it doesn’t look too disproportionate and we can deal with it because we know it’s not always that big. In Panel 4, Willingham shrinks the mouth so that it fits in the face, while raising the Joker’s eyebrows just a bit menacingly and squinting his eyes devilishly. Yes, the Joker is smiling, but it’s a good transition from his more buoyant smile in Panel 1 to a creepy smile. In Panel 6, Willingham makes his mouth a bit bigger, but that’s because the Joker is leaning back and stretching, satisfied that his job is going smoothly. We rarely see a relaxed Joker, and it’s odd but interesting. Again, Willingham’s cartooning helps move us through these moods, as the Joker appears more like an actual person doing a job. This is incongruous, but it’s where some of the humor in the script comes from, and Willingham is a big part of that.
Bea and Tora went to a modeling audition, with Tora just tagging along, but of course Tora gets the job. Willingham does a nice job contrasting Tora’s somewhat frumpy look with Bea’s fashionable one (playing into the stereotype of high maintenance women versus down-to-earth ones), and he gets the way they move down well, too. Tora is unrestrained, walking somewhat happily with her arms open to the world, while Bea, in her high heels and tight dress, is much more uptight. This comes through in Panel 2, where Tora closes her eyes contentedly while Bea scowls because she’s “out.” Even Panel 4, where she sticks her finger in Tora’s chest, is a great illustration of their friendship. Tora is leaning back slightly as Bea, brassy as ever, sticks her booty out to balance her long arm, which invade Tora’s personal space. Bea and Tora are best friends, of course, but Bea is definitely the dominant partner. Willingham draws them almost as dance partners – Tora’s concave torso is molding to fit Bea’s convex breasts. The subtext of the sequence is that Bea is dated, even thought she’s stylish. The long, thin earrings and feathered hair (she looks like Hawk from Buck Rogers) scream 1980s, while Tora is a bit more classically attractive. Willingham draws Bea as “dated,” which she, of course, can’t see.
The League ends up at a picnic that Scott and Barda are having, and we get this nice drawing of them all together. If we ignore that Willingham or Guy has absolutely no idea how to throw a football (seriously, what the hell is up with that – it’s not a Frisbee, Guy!), this is well done. Dmitri, in the back left, is still a bit buttoned up around his teammates, even though we see before that he’s perfectly willing to dance on a table in a Russian restaurant. Bea has begun to develop a friendship/crush on Oberon, so his getting bonked on the head by the football distresses her. Willingham smartly remembers that Barda is “big,” so she towers over Scott, while J’onn sniffs the hot dog cautiously. As usual, we see that Willingham’s smooth, rounded lines help with the many expressions he has to draw in this panel and in this comic, and he does a fine job with them. He’s not exactly an amazing innovator, but his style works quite well for superhero comics.
Tomorrow: The best story arc in DC Comics history? I think so! Join me, won’t you? Or just hang out in the archives. Either way, it’s your choice!