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Year of the Artist, Day 136: Bill Willingham, Part 3 – Justice League International Annual #2

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

22 Comments

Jenos Idanian #13

May 16, 2014 at 2:37 pm

One of the best annuals? CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. This is superb, of course, but let me think here for a few moments to come up with some other awesome annuals.

1) Avengers Annual 10: Chris Claremont totally tears apart the atrocity that was Avengers 200, abetted by Michael Golden’s awesome art.

2/3) Avengers Annual 7/Marvel Two-In-One Annual 2: The conclusion (and it should have stayed that way) of the Adam Warlock/Thanos saga.

4) Legion of Super-Heroes Annual 1: New versions of Computo and Invisible Kid, Paul Levitz’ amazing script, and Giffen/Mahlstedt at their peak (just before the Great Darkness saga).

5) Uncanny X-Men Annual 9: First part of the Mutants in Asgard. Claremont, Arthur Adams, and Asgard! (The second part should get an honorable mention, but technically it’s not an “Annual” but “Special.”)

6) Uncanny X-Men Annual 10: Claremont again! Adams again! And the X-BABIES!

Jenos Idanian #13

May 16, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Crap, i hit publish too soon…

Anyway, Wiliingham’s art is a good match for Kevin Maguire’s. They’re similar enough to be compatible and not too jarring to fans, but distinct enough that you can’t mistake them for each other. And Joe Rubinstein was a great choice for inker — he’s been matched up with so many different artists, and each time he really does a bang-up job.

I’m starting to think of Joe Rubinstein as sort of an “MSG” of inkers — he enhances the “flavor” of whomever he’s inking without diluting their style in the least. Miller, Byrne, Cockrum, Willingham, Golden, Starlin… no wonder he was Marvel’s first choice for their first edition of the Official Handbook.

Hey, Burgas! Do a bit on Rubinstein — not even necessarily a five parter — and i might — MIGHT — forgive you for not talking about Simonson’s signature. Could be a fun piece, showing samples of the work he’s done with so many legendary pencilers. I think his most famous project was the original Claremont/Miller Wolverine limited series, but he’s done a bunch more…

Jenos: When I think of annuals, I think of Avengers Annual, the X-Men in Asgard one, and this one. I’d probably put New Mutants Annual #2 on that list, too. I had forgotten the end of the Adam Warlock one, because I read it as part of the Marvel Masterworks, so I didn’t realize it was an annual. As I noted when I did Giffen, I’m just not a big fan of the Legion. Uncanny X-Men actually had several good ones – #10, the one with Dracula, the one with the Impossible Man … but I still think I’d put this in the top 5!

That’s not a bad description of Rubinstein. I might do some inkers, and if I do, he’d be one of them. If I feel confident enough to write about inkers, that is.

Jenos,

I agree on most of those, but how about Amazing Spider-man annuals 13 and 14, where Spidey teams up with the Punisher and Dr. Strange, respectively? And both with great Frank Miller art. Or X-Men annual #6 vs. Dracula with Sienkiewicz on pencils (during his Neal Adams phase)?

tom fitzpatrick

May 16, 2014 at 4:30 pm

@ Jenos Idanian: Is that Avengers Annual the one where he introduced the future Madeline Pryor that Scott Summer married who became the Goblin Queen in the Inferno crossover years later in the X-titles?

Awesome book, that one was!

tom fitzpatrick: No, that Avengers annual was the first Rogue. It also dealt (in some really uncomfortable ways) with Carol Danvers’ return from limbo.

tom fitzpatrick

May 16, 2014 at 4:33 pm

What about the NEW TEEN TITANS Annual # 3 which was Part 4 of the JUDAS CONTRACT?

Another awesome annual!

tom fitzpatrick

May 16, 2014 at 4:36 pm

@ turk: Easy to get them annuals mixed up!

tom (and turk): A “Maddy Pryor” appears in Avengers Annual #10, but Brian did a CBLR on it years ago, in which he noted that Claremont just liked the name and didn’t intend for the girl (because she was a girl) to be the Madeline Pryor who showed up later.

Tom, I promise you there was never any “New Teen Titans” annual that ended the Judas Contract. However, the amazing “Tales of the Teen Titans” annual that ended the Judas Contract and debuted Nightwing and Jericho was awesome.

I’d definitely put that Avengers Annual introducing Rogue and the two annuals that ended thge original Thanos saga up there with this JLI Annual. And someone mentioned the great Spider-Man/Punisher/Doctor Octopus story from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15, too.

I’d also argue for the Spaghetti Western Hitman Annual #1 (and only), the Chris Claremont and Len Wein Incredible Hulk Annual #5 where the Green Goliath takes on a bunch of the old pre-FF #1 monsters, the Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon “Year One” Batman Annuals featuring the Scarecrow (Batman Annual #19) and the Riddler (Detective Comics Annual #8), and — as a dark horse candidate — Avengers Annual #8 and its classic 1970s action plot with beautiful George Perez art.

If you have a high enough tolerance for retro sensibilities, I’d put up Fantastic Four Annual #2, where Doctor Doom’s characterization finally gels for the first time, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 and #2 as well.

And I’ve always liked Defenders Annual #1, where Steve Gerber wraps up the Nebulon/Bozos/Headmen arc in truly, brilliantly warped fashion. You’ve gotta love a story where Doctor Strange does the old Captain Picard “humanity is special” spiel only to accidentally convinces the villain that humanity is too lousy for even mind-controlled utopia to save them . However, the annual doesn’t really stand on its own. It works more as a culmination of about two years of complete insanity.

Travis Pelkie

May 16, 2014 at 6:19 pm

The Armageddon 2001 JLE annual is great stuff. Possible futures (and pasts!) for all the characters, great art by a variety of artists, and it’s all wrapped up nicely by the end.

Oh, were we talking about Willingham?

Best DC story arc ever, with Willingham art…must be the Emerald Twilight arc, amirite?

Oh, gosh, and how could I forget Swamp Thing Annual #2, wherein Swampy saves Abby from Hell itself? Even if it didn’t set up the excellent issue #50, it still gives us the great exchange with Arcane:

“Pu-please! Before you guh-go…Huh-how many years have I buh-been here?”
“Since yesterday.”

The Crazed Spruce

May 17, 2014 at 4:40 am

Great annuals? I have just three words for you

Justice. League. ANTARCTICA.

This was such a great comic book. I was really bummed when DC excluded it from the JLI hardcover releases.

I agree with Greg. There are certainly some pretty fabulous annuals out there, but this one from the JLI is near and dear to my heart.

tom fitzpatrick

May 17, 2014 at 6:57 am

@ Nick A: See my earlier reply to turk. I get ‘em all mixed up. Old age and all. ;-)

I am very surprised to see so many people gushing over JLI Annual #2. I think it’s terrible, the worst Joker appearance I’ve ever seen.

But then, I’ve never understood the appeal of that version of the Justice League anyway.

(But yeah, the art is nice.)

I was never a fan of this annual either. I preferred the serious Justice League that made jokes from the first seven issues and one annual to the all out comedy League that this annual represents.

I think it’s terrible, the worst Joker appearance I’ve ever seen.

Trust me when I say there are much worse Joker appearances that you haven’t seen, like the time he had a sidekick dwarf named Gabby or his appearance in Denny O’Neill’s campy JLA run.

Ethan Shuster

May 18, 2014 at 9:48 am

Hey, it’s Justice League International, the comic and group DC spent the last few years tearing to pieces because it was… dare I say it… fun! The last of that I recall is the series relaunch in the midst of the pre-New 52 revamp of things. The concept seemed to be, bringing back much of the same cast but draining the comic of any and all of what people liked it for in the first place.

My favorite annual has to be Marvel’s Star Wars King-sized Annual #1 – The Long Hunt!
Fantastic art & story!

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