Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

My Thoughts

Why the Best Justice League lacked Superman and Wonder Woman

Everybody thinks of the classic Justice League as Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter and Batman. Ironically, what I consider the best version of the Justice League lacked almost all those characters.

My favorite version of the League is that created by Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis in the late 1980s. Strangely, that Justice League had a different lineup and premise than the classic team. Yet their League was far more entertaining than most Justice League comics.

To explain, Giffen and DeMatteis took a different approach to superhero teams that paid off. They made the Justice League a superhero sitcom that focused on the relationships between the characters rather than the action or the grandeur.

A Comic Book About Nothing

Their Justice League International was a clubhouse for superheroes. A place where the heroes could be people rather than legends. Like many 1980s comics, the Justice League International emphasized the humanity of superheroes but differently.

Giffen and DeMatteis took the Seinfield approach to superheroes. Just as Seinfield was a show about nothing. So Justice League International was often a superhero comic book on nothing, its stories were more apt to focus on superheroes goofing off around the Justice League Embassy than battles with supervillains.

Many JLI issued focused on the mundane, as the best TV sitcoms often do. For example, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle’s eternal quest to make money. Or Guy Gardner’s obnoxious behavior and inept attempts at dating. Yet the JLI’s mundane was far more entertaining than most superhero comics’ epic battles.

Interestingly, the Justice League International hit the stands several years before Seinfeld first aired. I have to wonder if Jerry Seinfeld read it and got the idea for his show from the comic. Seinfeld is an enormous fan of the DC comics and Superman.

A Superhero Sitcom

An obvious influence on the JLI was the classic American sitcom M*A*S*H which ended in 1983.

They set M*A*S*H  in a dark and serious reality, an American Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (a MASH) in the bloody Korean War. Yet, M*A*S*H  was usually a light series that focused on the characters and their reactions to an extreme situation: war. The craziness and humor were coping mechanisms to the death, absurdity, stress, and bloodshed of modern war.

Justice League International used elements of M*A*S*H ’s story telling, particularly in the characters. For example, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle approximate the goofy surgeons Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John (BJ Honeycut in later episodes).

Guy Gardner was Justice League’s version of the obnoxious conservative Major Burns, and Martian Manhunter and Batman, the world-weary authority figures represented by Colonels Blake and Potter. In addition, Captain Marvel approximated the Radar O’Reilly, the childlike company clerk in early seasons of M*A*S*H .

Another M*A*S*H  storytelling trick, Giffen and DeMatteis used was to throw in bizarre yet hilarious supporting characters to drive the plot. For example, the cross-dressing soldier Klinger and the crazed intelligence officer Colonel Flagg (no relation to the Suicide Squad’s leader). In Justice League, Giffen and DeMatteis had satirical characters such as Gnort, Lord Manga Khan, DeMatteis’s reimagined Dr. Fate, and Lobo drop by to add laughs.

In another similarity to M*A*S*H, the JLI creators never lost sight of the seriousness of the situation. For example, they admitted the destructiveness of violence and the mortality of superheroes. For all their humor, the Justice League were living with the possibility of death each day. Just as the surgeons and soldiers of the 4077th M*A*S*H did.

Additionally, the writers sometimes threw in a serious character; such as Orion, the original Dr. Fate, or Captain Atom, to serve as a straight man. M*A*S*H did the same with characters such as Major Winchester. 

Just as M*A*S*H  exposed the insanity, absurdity, and stupidity of war through comedy. Justice League exposed the insanity, absurdity, and stupidity of superheroes through humor.

How an Editor’s Dilemma created the best Justice League

Ironically, Justice League International was born as a response to a dilemma faced by DC Comics editor Andy Helfer.

In 1987, DC executives tasked Helfer with reimagining and rebooting the Justice League for the 1980s. Incredibly, DC had canceled the Justice League of America, one of DC’s flagship comics, because of low sales and creative troubles.

By the 1980s, the traditional League, with its lineup of traditional heroes, had become cliched and boring as fans turned to newer and cooler super teams. In particular, Marv Wolfman’s version of The Teen Titans had replaced the League as DC’s principal super team.

Helfer’s initial response was to revive the classic Justice League, but he ran into a problem. To improve creativity, DC gave editors the ability to veto characters’ appearances in other comics. This policy created a nightmare for Helfer because the editors of Superman, the Flash, Green Arrow, and Wonder Woman didn’t want their characters in the League.

Hence, most of DC’s top heroes were absent from the League. Instead, DC management insisted on filling the League with lesser characters who needed the exposure.

Green Arrow, Superman, and Aquaman were out. Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Captain Marvel (SHAZAM), Dr. Fate, Dr. Light, Captain Atom, Rocket Red, and Mister Miracle were in. The major heroes the League had were Batman, Black Canary, the Martian Manhunter, and Green Lantern.

Helfer’s problem was, how do you get fans to read and buy comics featuring characters most people cannot recognize? Worse, he couldn’t follow the standard 1980s team comic formula.

To elaborate, the classic 1980s super team formula was a group of tragic characters trying to cope with a dark and gritty reality. For example, The X-Men or The Teen Titans. However, DC had already tried that formula with the League and it flopped with the unpopular Justice League Detroit.

What was an editor to do? Ironically, the answer to the dilemma came from Helfer and Giffen’s disgust with the direction comics were taking in the mid-1980s. Around 1984, comics took a dark, realistic, and gritty turn in the success of The X-Men, The Dark Knight, Daredevil, and Watchmen.

Helfer and Giffen found many of those comics boring and pretentious. They wanted an alternative and created one in the form of the Light League.

Why did Justice League International Work?

Justice League International succeeded and struck a chord with comics fans when it premiered in 1987. The JLI was popular enough to beget several spin offs, including Justice League Europe, Dr. Fate, and Mister Miracle.

Additionally, both DC and Marvel soon brought out several other light comics to cash in on the League’s success. Most of those light comics failed because comedy is hard. Even some of the best comic creators could not grasp the nuances of humor.

Writing action, horror, and melodrama is always easier than writing humor. Consequently, most superhero comics concentrate on action, horror, and melodrama.

Predictably, when they try to be funny, most comic writers resort to blatant satire and slapstick. Consequently, everything in the comic becomes a grim joke. Hence, their humor comics become cliched and boring fast. In contrast, Justice League International succeeded because it took the characters seriously and treated them with respect.

Giffen and DeMatteis knew when to be serious. For example, they portrayed the monstrous super villain Despero without humor. One reason Despero was evil was that he had no humor. The monster was truly inhuman because he lacked love and sensitivity. Humor requires both.

Even Justice League itself could not be sustained without Giffen and DeMatteis. Later versions of the team lacked Giffen’s characterization and DeMatteis’s talent for dialogue.

The post Giffen League resembled a bad Saturday Morning cartoon rather than a brilliant sitcom. Not even the introduction of big characters such as Superman and Aquaman could save the Justice League International.

Why Today’s Justice League Fails?

Eventually, DC had Grant Morrison reboot the Justice League as a vastly different comic. Morrison’s League concentrated on the classic heroes and portrayed them as gods on Mount Olympus.

Personally, I find Morrison’s League boring, pretentious, and scary. For instance, Superman’s lectures on morality, Green Lantern’s whining, the Flash’s wonder, and Batman’s cynicism get old fast.

The godlike heroes quickly become boring and cliched. Worse, as Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson show in The Boys, Morrison’s League promotes a corrupt authoritarianism. The godlike heroes resemble the supermen of Nazi and Communist propaganda posters. Stan Berkowitz offered a similar critique of Morrison’s League with the fascist Justice Lords in the classic 2003 Justice Animated Series.

Justice League International avoided that moral quagmire by making its characters human. The JLI works because its characters are people who have to deal problems; such as paying the rent and romance, and save the world.

In contrast, the heroes who spend all their time saving the world quickly become monsters as dangerous as any of the villains they fight. The Justice Lords and the Morrison Justice League are monstrous because they lack humanity.

Why we need a Justice League International Series

Consequently, I think a Justice League International animated or live action TV series could work today. They tried such a series in the 1990s, but it failed by falling into TV tropes.

I think the success of the Loki, The Boys, Peacemaker, and Doom Patrol series and the Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy movies proves there is a popular appetite for superhero comedy. Moreover, I think the audience is getting sick of the over-top satire, sex, and violence of The Boys and Suicide Squad.

Hence, I believe a Justice League International series could work with talented writers, directors, and actors. For example, Michael Keaton playing an aging Batman leading the League. Keaton is taking up the cape and cowl again and he is a master of comedy. Furthermore, James Gunn could give Justice League a try, and see if he can repeat the Guardians’ magic with it.

Hence, I believe a Justice League International series could work with talented writers, directors, and actors. For example, Michael Keaton playing an aging Batman leading the League. Keaton is taking up the cape and cowl again and he is a master of comedy. Furthermore, James Gunn could give Justice League a try, and see if he can repeat the Guardians’ magic with it.

Ironically, the secret to writing a successful superhero story is humor. Unfortunately, Hollywood has a hard time understanding that secret.