As the Host with the Most of the world’s 9999th most popular comic related podcast and blog, I’m nothing if not a stickler for ensuring our content coincides with major events going on in the comic book world.
Well, scratch that, I attempt to ensure the content coincides, but let’s be honest, for anyone that’s listened to one of our shows will attest, Stew and Chad have their own agendas, and try as I might, you can only lead a horse to water so many times before finding out it’s really a donkey.
But at least for my own articles, I attempt to have them tie into the major comic events, for one solitary reason: I enjoy the rub. No, not that kind of rub, you filthy naysayers. What I mean is that obviously if there’s a major movie or TV show coming out and I write something about a character that is even remotely related, the chances I’ll get some of that sweet sweet click-bait effect from being topical is definitely more likely than not.
Thus on today’s read pile, I’ll be focusing on a Shazam book, given The GotS gang will actually be assembling in just a few short hours to see the latest in what DC has to offer cinematically. I will say I’m actually pretty pumped for this one as opposed to past DC movies I’ve seen for this show, as I feel like from the trailers, Shazam could have a lot of humor and heart, qualities sorely lacking from past DCEU outings.
However, given decent Shazam books seem few and far between unfortunately, I decided to cheat just a little bit by reviewing a book in which Shazam appears pretty prominently, but as part of a greater ensemble cast. Yes, I’m talking about the famous Justice League International series from the late 80s/early 90s from the team of J. M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, and artist Kevin Maguire.
This series infamously started as what could have been a failed project given many of the Justice League’s regular heavy hitters were unavailable for this series. Superman was limited to John Byrne’s reboot, George Pérez was relaunching Wonder Woman and Mike Baron was launching the Wally West version of The Flash. Thankfully, Denny O’ Neil took pity on the series and allowed them the use of Batman as a leader, which gave the team at least some sort of foundation from which to build. But with a roster that included a hodge podge of characters such as Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Black Canary, Mister Miracle, the aforementioned Shazam, and Guy Gardener as the team’s Green Lantern, it seemed like this series still could be doomed.
But this creative team had a plan, they stuck to that plan, and in the end, comic fans were given a true treat of a series the likes of which is still legendary in terms of its wonderful comedic tone and tongue in cheek style. I feel like this series set the tone for a variety of comic books that would come later about teams of lovable misfits and losers coming together and becoming something greater, such as the GotG and Nextwave.
So without further ado, here’s a review of the first trade of this series, entitled “A New Beginning” which collects the first 7 issues of this historic comic book run!
It’s truly a new start for the Justice League as legacy members Batman & Martian Manhunter open the League’s doors to eclectic mix of super heroes from all corners of the DC universe such as Mister Miracle, Blue Beetle, Shazam, Black Canary, and Guy Gardener. Despite a lot of different and conflicting personalities, the new League does manage to stop a hostage situation at the UN on their first day as well as a group of inter-dimensional outcasts named the Champions of Angor who are hell bent on destroying all of our planet’s nuclear weapons, even if it causes World War III.
However things get even more complicated when millionaire Maxwell Lord appears on the scene insisting that Booster Gold is added to the team’s roster, without the team’s consent! Talk about ruffling Batman’s cowl just a bit! In any case, Booster does end up proving his worth to the team by beating the Royal Flush Gang single handed, but concerns about the mysterious Mr. Lord and his role with the Justice League persist.
But there’s no time to deal with that as the team has to turn around and mount a rescue mission for fellow Justice League member, Dr. Fate, who has been kidnapped by the magical super being known as the Gray Man. This coupled with a successful neutralization of a New Genesis weapon that threatened the Earth from outer space, and the new League are welcomed as once again Earth’s premiere team of super heroes.
With this new found publicity, Maxwell Lord negotiates with the UN to install the Justice League as their official super hero squad and the team is renamed the JLI: Justice League International. This change signals the end of Shazam’s time with the team as he resigns for personal reasons. He however is replaced by international representatives such as Captain Atom from the US and Red Rocket #7 from Russia. Batman too steps down as leader of the team, leaving Martian Manhunter to guide the future of the new squad…that is with more “helpful” assistance from Maxwell Lord.
Things I Liked:
This is a series that has been talked about a lot on our podcast, especially by my co host, Chad Smith, as something truly special. In reading again for this blog, I’m reminded so much as to why. This is outstanding writing by Keith Giffin and J. M. DeMatteis, some of the best I’ve ever read about a comic book team.
It’s a series that doesn’t shy away from having fun with its characters, not through parody or making fun of them. Instead, they craft real life people with interesting quirks and personalities that sometimes “conflict” with each other to say it mildly. It’s almost like a comic book version of a sitcom, except it never drifts altogether into tired stereotypical sitcom tropes. It still deals with the seriousness that is being a superhero in the DC universe, but does so in a way that points out the many of the threats the Justice League has to deal with although dire, are also somewhat ridiculous as well, and these situations can be mined for not only drama, but smart and savy laughs as well.
Although some may come down on this book as being more of a collection of individual stories than a cohesive story line, you have to remember this series came out in 1987 and that was long before the serialization of comics for eventual trades even was a notion. These were still comics that could be picked up one issue at a time off the newsstand or comic rack at your local grocery store. And yet even it the face of that, this series has a pretty tight little narrative, with threats being teased well ahead of the issues they are appearing in, and the Maxwell Lord influence being felt throughout. This is definitely a continuing story about a young group of pretty inexperienced superheroes getting their chance at the big time dance for the first time, and all the misadventures that can result from that lack of experience. It’s something we can all relate too, and as a result, it humanizes the Justice League in a exciting dynamic way that we hadn’t seen before.
Given all the problems with being asked to write a Justice League book, but then being told you couldn’t use nearly any of the the big name characters, this is really a series which speaks to the notion of taking lemons and making delicious, refreshing lemonade out of them. It could have been a disaster, but Mr. Giffin and Mr. Dematteis stuck to their guns, had faith in their writing ability and the strength of their concept, and helped trail-blaze a brand new direction for super hero teams, which I feel in today’s society and sensibilities is even more relevant than it ever was before.
Things I Didn’t Like:
Gosh, this section is a little hard. I mean I really did love this series. But I don’t want to accused of just gushing over this series hard and thus blowing my credibility as an actual responsible critic giving fair and balanced reviews. So let’s see if we can think of something that I didn’t like as much as the rest. Ummm…uh…ummm…okay! I thought of a couple things.
First, the book is a little bit dated. I mean, that’s super nit picky because any book that was written in the late 80s is by definition dated now that’s been 30 years since it first hit the comic stands. But some of the references to Ronnie Reagan, the Cold War, and Gorbachev do seem out of place a bit now and do break your suspension of disbelief to a certain degree in that you do realize in those moments you are reading an older book. But eh…being “retro 80s”ish is a hip thing now, so it’s not that big of a deal.
Second, although the art is good by Kevin Macguire, I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest I’ve ever seen. This is especially true when matched up with the quality of writing. Like the writing for me really stands out on this series. It’s groundbreaking, witty, clever, and altogether original. The art is well…art. It’s very good at points such as the iconic moment where Batman clocks Guy Gardener, his smooched up nose and the action of the punch is excellent.
It’s just, maybe all a little too angular for me at times, I dunno. I know what people reading this will take away. They will say that I “hated” the art, and that is completely untrue. I thought it was very, very good. I guess I just liked the writing more.
Finally, speaking of the writing, my only gripe with that is that it seemed like Batman did a lot of standing around and barking out orders. More like that high school math teacher you don’t want to get or that hard ass football coach that will make you drop and give him 50, Batman didn’t really participate in that actual action aka fighting of bad guys, but instead delegated the actual heavy lifting to others.
Now, as a writer myself, I can completely understand why you would do it that way. I mean, everyone knows Batman, how many countless stories have already been told about him? If I got a team of interesting barely touched characters from which I can color that blank canvas in any way I want, I’d make them the focus over someone that is already limited by years of continuity. Plus from a realistic perspective, Batman is the weakest member of the team in terms of power, so he’s not exactly the person you send in to do the heavy lifting.
Still though, by the 3rd or 4th issue of Batman just hanging out in the headquarters, or yelling from Blue Beetle’s Beetle…plane…hoverjet…copter…uh..whatever it was, I started to see Guy Gardener’s POV that maybe someone that can both lead and is actually seen physically doing the work should be running the show. Maybe a little more action from the Caped Crusader could have reinforced the fact that he’s running things because he is the most capable of doing it, instead of just telling us that through the way he bosses around the rest of the league.
In case, comic books aren’t your thing (which at this point I have to question why you are on this website), you can enjoy the adventures of the Justice League International in other forms of media thanks in large part to their appearances on the insanely good yet underappreciated cartoon show Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Yes, I realize this show has more than its share of fans, but compared to Batman: The Animated Series, this cartoon will always be overlooked by most cartoon fans, which is a real shame given how good it really is. However, this is not a review on the merits of the cartoon show, but instead to highlight a couple episodes you can check out today that features this version of the Justice League.
The premier episode you should start with is one entitled “Darkseid Descending!” mainly because it has nearly the entire original roster, with Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, and Martian Manhunter teaming up with the Dark Knight to fight an invasion of the planet by the perpetual Fourth World Uber baddie, Darkseid.
Sure, they take some liberties what with including Aquaman as not only a member of the squad, but a founder of this version of the team. They also include the superheroes, Fire and Ice (which didn’t show up on the squad until later), instead of mainstays like Black Canary or Mister Miracle, but still its a pretty decent reinterpretation of the team with much of the humor and comedic undertones carrying over on to the small screen.
The JLI returns in a variety of episodes from there including “Shadow of the Bat!“, where Batman is transformed into a vampire, and the league has to fight him, and “Time Out for Vengeance”, where the villain Equinox is trying to destroy versions of Batman from points in his past and the team has to save him.
Finally, there’s also another personal favorite of mine in “Crisis: 22,300 Miles Above Earth!”, which sees a team up of the JLI and with the Justice Society of America aka JSA to combat Ra’s Al Ghul’s latest scheme. I primarily like this episode because it allows JLI member, Shazam, to make an appearance with the team (well that and it’s a hoot seeing that many super heroes from DC together on one stage).
As someone that’s been a tried and true Marvel fan for most of his life, I’ve always been more of an Avengers guy than a Justice Leaguer. In fact, for the most part, I’ve always been more critical of the Justice League than any other book that DC Comics put out. Even during periods such as the Grant Morrison run in the 90s when it seemed like everyone and their brother was talking about how great the Justice League was, I was still one decrying the squad as my major reason why I’d never be a DC Comics fan.
They were too ungodly powerful, too unrelatable, no foe nor threat could ever stand up to their combined might, and for me, that was the very definition of boring. There’s no drama there, no chance for meaningful characterization that comes from being out numbered or defeated or having to overcome adversity. To say it in another way, how can you ever complete your hero’s journey if there’s never a dragon out there powerful enough to challenge you. The Justice League were stagnant and stodgy, as old and uninteresting as a cold craggy pile of leftover gravel which used to be called a mountain.
Then I read Justice League by J. M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, and Kevin Maguire and all of those preconceived notions of what a Justice League book could be were thrown out the window. This was an exciting, unique, subversive, utterly charming version of the JLA which spoke to me as a common man and gave me characters with flaws and real personalities for which I could root for. People I could grow with and share in both their triumphs and defeats as if they were some of my best friends.
It wasn’t afraid to shake up the status quo or tell stories with characters you had no previous experience with. It wanted to pioneer, push boundaries, take chances, and deliver both heart and humor in ways that maybe you couldn’t do if you had Supes punching all the threats into submission. And for that I will always be eternally grateful to this series. It changed my mind about something that I was previously so sure of, and in a positive, life affirming way.
I will say this as well. If anyone ever asks me what the DCEU could do to change the direction of their movie franchise and make them more universally popular, all I will say is they should take a page out of the JLI playbook. It’s got pretty much a solid blueprint as to making quality entertaining movies about the DC characters that will appeal to everyone!
And to think that with the first 7 issues I reviewed on today’s read pile, this series hasn’t even hit its real stride yet. I mean Blue Beetle and Booster Gold haven’t even really started hanging out with each other yet. That dynamic alone is elevates this book even further into the upper echelons of comics everyone should read before they pass from this mortal coil.
So in the end, it’s an obvious “A” book for me. I won’t give it an A+ because this read pile is technically just on the first 7 issues of this series, as contained in this volume. But I will say that easily the entire series is an A+ run and again I urge everyone to give it a try! You definitely won’t regret it!
Andy’s Read Pile Grade: A