Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Justice League International#11

When I say that a certain comic book changed me, I don't want to sound like I'm indulging in hyperbole. I enjoy many forms of entertainment and there are fictional works in many mediums which can excite me, unsettle me, make me laugh or bring me to tears. But I would never say that any such work "changed my life." So when I say that a comic book changed me, I mean that it changed the way I approached the medium of comic books, from casual reader to devoted fan to part-time professional, with various stages of waning interest sprinkled throughout.

There are several signposts along my journey as a reader that I've thought about on the occasion; this post is the first in a series (planned to run 10 installments) in which I'll be processing those thoughts.

Operating from chronological order, I begin with Justice League International#11.

Written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis; art by Kevin Maguire and Al Gordon.

JLI#11 was not my first comic book, but it is the earliest comic where I can recall criticizing what I was experiencing. I was nine years old at the time and while most of my knowledge of the Justice League of America was based on the Super Friends animated program, I had read a few issues of JLA earlier on. They really didn't prepare me for the JLI.

Giffen & DeMatteis' JLI is looked on rather favorably by today's fans, but I can only imagine what regular readers of the JLA thought at the time.* There were two things about JLI that I recognized as being very different:

  1. The absence of big names; Batman, Black Canary & Martian Manhunter were all in this issue, but the remainder were heroes I had never heard of; Rocket Red? Booster Gold? Captain Atom? Mr. Miracle? Blue Beetle? And their Green Lantern (Guy Gardner) wasn't the one I had seen before; he had a stupid haircut and a goofy personality. Who were these people and what happened to the real Justice League?**
  2. The humour. I was accustomed to finding humour in Archie or Star comics, not in my super hero books.

The second point was the one I felt most strongly about. As a childhood Star Wars fan I accepted comic relief characters existing side-by-side an otherwise serious story, but JLI#11 was levity through-and-through. Everyone, with the exception of Batman, was there to crack or be the foil of jokes. I think Guy Gardner was the one I loathed the most; I learned many years later that this issue came during a subplot where Guy's personality had been altered to (it says here) humourous effect, rendering him docile as an inversion of his customary obnoxious behavior. Knowing none of this, as my introduction to the character I was immediately put off. In JLI#11, Guy is incompetant, Booster Gold is airsick, Rocket Red talks in a "humourous" dialect. I cringed. This is the Justice League? The greatest super heroes in comics?

I couldn't fully articulate what upset me about JLI#11 at the age of nine, but on some level it offended me. I felt that the creators were mocking the super hero comics that I loved, portraying super heroes as bumbling idiots existing just to set up gags. It made me feel as though my taste in reading material was being ridiculed by the very people who fabricated it.*** About a decade later I would become a huge fan of the Tick which did a similar thing to super heroes; the difference being that the Tick himself was created as an act of satire. The presence of the words "Justice League" on the cover severely tested my tolerance for the buffoonery.

And so, my critical faculties were unleashed on a comic book for the first time. The result? Before long I abandoned DC Comics wholesale, throwing all my dollars to Marvel Comics. I'll get more into that during the next two installments, but for years afterward I would spy the JLI (or Justice League Europe) on the stands and sigh, seeing that nothing had changed; JLI#11 informed my opinion of DC Comics for the next decade and it wasn't the least bit favourable.

My concerns as a nine year old probably seem small to you if you have some knowledge of the comic book market today. There can't be that many nine year olds reading comic books in 2010 and reverence toward the protagonists isn't the biggest issue keeping kids away.

Some years ago I revisited Giffen**** & DeMatteis' work as an adult and found it more palatable, but I wonder how many kids in my age range were driven away from the League - or comics - by this creative direction. I have not purchased a Justice League comic since the 1980s.

*"Well, it still beats the Detroit League!"

**In fact, the opening scene has the JLI's company man Maxwell Lord becoming upset that none of the heroes who aided the JLI in a recent crossover were sticking around. Max, we were on the same page.

***I felt that way again the following year when I watched the Superman 50th Anniversary special on television, which made ten year old me grind his teeth and fluster, "Don't they know Superman is fictional?" In retrospect, I think the makers of the special were hoping to produce a riff on This is Spinal Tap.

****Not long after JLI#11 I discovered Giffen's Ambush Bug and enjoyed it immensely - that series, where the humour was completely off-the-wall mental, didn't seem to hold its audience in contempt. Would that I felt the same way about the recent Ambush Bug: Year None mini-series, which brought back JLI#11 flashbacks in the worst way.


Reed Solomon said...

It truly is a shame that was your introduction to Guy Gardner. You missed out.

Michael Hoskin said...

When you're a kid, there are characters you love and characters you hate, but you don't grok characters you're supposed to love to hate. Guy is a character best enjoyed by older readers.