Bwa-Ha-Ha: When the Justice League Had Humor and Heart

I want these as emojis.


The reviews have been pouring in for Zack Snyder’s SO EPIC, world-building, grimace-faced, love letter to the KICK THEIR ASS bone-breaking 90’s era of comics, Batman V Superman, and they have not been kind.

One of the most common criticisms of the film is that it’s essentially a joyless, testosterone fueled snooze-fest. I’ve yet to see BvS, but given my intense dislike of Man of Steel, I doubt I will be. Man of Steel has been HOT TAKED to death, so I’ll leave my thoughts about it on the dresser where they belong, but I will say that when I first saw it, not only did it strike me as odd how utterly joyless that movie was, but I found it baffling that it simply didn’t have to be.

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DC Comics as a publishing house has a long history, and I would argue tradition, (at least until the launch of the New 52 line in 2011) of embracing some of the goofier aspects of their intellectual properties, often to great success. One of the most notable moments of this was in the 1980s, when DC entered what is now commonly referred to as the “Post-Crisis” era.

Having just completed their first big “reboot button” event known as the “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, DC decided to clear out some of the glut in their, at this point, 40 or so years of continuity and start fresh.

In John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, Superman’s origin was revisited and modernized. Most notably, his abilities were massively toned down from the near god-like and nebulous EVERY THING EVER power-set of the 50s, 60s, and some of the 70s, to being the Superman most often depicted in media today; one that’s just really damn strong, fast, and invulnerable.

With 100% less Zack Snyder
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Frank Miller and artist David Mazzuchelli retold Batman’s origin in Batman: Year One, giving the character a grittier and more realistic tone that would define much of his existence for the next 30 years. The pair previously worked on the now famous Daredevil arc, Born Again, and it was was one hell of a reunion. The year before, Miller had also written The Dark Knight Returns, a story that heavily influenced Batman V Superman.

Joel Schumacher wanted to adapt this to film.
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Do you reboot? You will.

George Perez took over Wonder Woman, who was similarly rebooted, and like Superman, her powers and origin were altered in scope, hers blended heavily with Greek mythology.

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The Big Three had been changed, and with them, their stories took on a darker, more… “adult” tone. Comics were “serious” now!

The Justice League, DC’s premiere superhero team, was also in need of a relaunch.

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Keith Giffen, along with writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Kevin Maguire were given the keys to the proverbial kingdom.

According to Giffen, in his introduction for the Justice League International Volume One collection, even he thought the pairing of the three was odd, though admits he’d been pushing Andy Helfer, then a senior editor at DC, for a shot at Justice League for some time. He writes:

“Even Jenette Kahn, then pubilisher, didn’t think I’d be a good fit, but Andy persevered and landed me the assignment. Let’s lay that out plain and simple. Andy Helfer, then a senior DC editor, fought to have the person considered among the least qualified put onto the relaunch of a major DC franchise book.”

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Giffen was given the plot and breakdown duties while DeMatteis was put in charge of dialogue. Giffen continues:

“The same J.M DeMatteis who, up until that point, was best known for telling deeply profound stories rich in spirituality and all that other esoteric stuff that if I think about it too long my ears begin to bleed.”

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His point? This was a weird combo.

One of Giffen’s most notable creations up until that point was Ambush Bug, a mostly goofy and comedic character that became known his for ability to break the fourth wall and make in-jokes at other DC Comics creators.

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Regarding the choice of Kevin Maguire, Giffen says he let out a “Who?”, as the now superstar artist was unknown at the time. But as Giffen states, “the kid was good.” He continues:

“A complete unknown, but really, really good.”

Giffen also attributes part of what drove the series towards the comedic tone it became know for to Maguire’s trademark “uncannily expressive facial features.”

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So, the creative team was set, and now it was time for the roster, which is one of the most important things you can have when building a team book, right? It would have to be big name characters. Obviously Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, sure. DC’s Big Three would be there, of course they would. The Flash. Green Lantern. Even Aquaman. All of the regulars. Right? Right?

Not quite.

Giffen: To this day I can’t believe they let us have Batman.
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This book came out in 1987, and I wish I could say I was old enough to hear the fresh and raw reactions of comic book fans at the time, but given that the series was nominated by The Harvey Awards in 1988 for “Best New Series”, and went on until the mid-90s, spawning several spin-off books in the process, I think it’s safe to say it was a hit.

But why these bozos? What’s up with that blue Spider-Man?

Apparently, Giffen and co. had no control over the roster; the roster was thrust on them by DC editorial, who deemed the rest of the big names off-limits, which in today’s comic book climate seems INSANE.

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You see, DC had recently acquired the rights to a bunch of characters from the Charlton Comics label, a company that once poached Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, from Marvel Comics after he (supposedly) had a dispute with Stan Lee over the Green Goblin’s secret identity. (Comics, man.)

Ditko went on to create characters for Charlton like The Question, a faceless crime fighter and mouth piece for Ditko’s thoughts on Objectivism, and the Charlton version of The Blue Beetle, a retcon of a 1940s character once owned by Fox Comics. Unlike the Fox Comics version, Ditko’s character was powerless, a fearless inventor that cracked wise and made gadgets to assist his assault on crime. Ditko’s Blue Beetle felt like a cross between Batman, Tony Stark, and Spider-man, and less like the superpowered swiss army knife of the Fox Comics days.

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DC was eager to use some of these new characters like Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle in their newly rebooted universe. Both of them appeared prominently in Giffen’s Justice League. This is the kind of thing they were working with; basically D-List characters at this point.

The closest analogy I can think of to this kind of roster, would be if Marvel launched a mainline Avengers book today that didn’t feature any of Marvel’s most popular characters, except for maybe Daredevil, but Captain America, Iron man, & Spider-Man were nowhere to be seen and instead, you got a wacky romp where Daredevil gets pissed at Night Thrasher for mouthing off too much, and then knocks him to the tile in one punch.

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Which is kind of what happened in Giffen’s Justice League.

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One Punch Man

It was a ridiculous moment, one that’s been parodied dozens of times. And it was just one of many that helped established the lighthearted and fun tone for this series.

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I don’t think it was just the comedy that set this book apart though, but I do think there is something to be said for humor in storytelling. Humor, if nothing else, is humanizing. It’s a way in for the audience.

In some ways, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie felt like the Justice League International movie I’d always wanted but knew I would never get. Especially not now, since Batman V Superman seems to be raking it in, despite not being a critical success. Guardians, though, was a wild concept and a huge gamble that audiences might have had trouble buying, but it was fun. If you can make an audience have fun, they will buy anything.

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Also, I think there’s just something wholly ridiculous about a guy dressed like a blue dung beetle, running around with a martian, and football player from the future, and this book was keenly aware of that fact. And damn proud of it.

In the 1980s and early 90s, “grim and gritty” comics were exploding. Spider-man got buried alive (in a story, ironically, written by J.M. DeMatteis no less). Batman became excessively violent and reckless. Watchmen was a huge critical and commercial success, one of the first comics to let the art form be taken seriously as a medium for storytelling. Grim was the thing to do.

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But in Giffen’s Justice League however, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle build a casino on an island named Kooey Kooey Kooey until it goes bankrupt because of a supervillian that can count cards. Seriously.

Kooey Kooey Kooey, where everybody knows your name.
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These are some of the more famous moments, but the series wasn’t just about goofing around.

There’s a particularly poignant moment in issue #22 between Martian Manhunter and a guest starring Wonder Woman, when the JLI stops an invasion by the Khund, an alien race, though it results in the loss of hundreds of enemy lives.

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(I apologize for the image quality here, I don’t have access to a scanner and couldn’t find these panels anywhere online.)

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Of course, the moment gets broken up by Blue Beetle, the resident jokester, but it’s a small touch amidst the chaos, the kind of small touch that the series is littered with. It’s bolstered by Maguire’s excellent pencils, as well as the coloring by Gene D’Angelo, but it’s this kind of seriousness among the levity that I think elevates the storytelling. It knows when to step back from the laughs, and it knows when to jump right back into something with weight.

The various JLI books and spin-offs would last until the mid-90s, well after the main team of Giffen and crew had moved on from the book until the Justice League got a huge overhaul once again.

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The creative team would later revisit these characters in the mini-series Formerly Known as the Justice League in 2003, and it’s sequel I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League in 2005 which followed a series of massive retcons and shakeups by DC Comics to the character’s and their history, particularly Maxwell Lord. But I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

For now, I can only hope that one day we will see a lot less grimdark in the DC Comics film universe. Thankfully, if we don’t, all of the JLI stories are pretty easy to come by, and I can’t recommend them enough.

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If you need to wash the taste of darkness and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor out of your mouth, you could certainly do worse.

The end.
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Poey Gordon is a journalist, poet, and fiction writer living in the Bay Area.

Follow him on Twitter at ThePoey for more about comics, Family Matters fan-fiction, or decades old Simpson’s quotes.

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