Monday, April 07, 2008

Scott on JLI part 2

[Guest Blogger Scott continues his look at the JLI. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

"What? You Call This a Justice League?"

Maguire is most well known as “the guy who draws funny faces,” a claim he addresses in his bio to the latest JLI reissue by saying that what he actually draws are “Expressive Faces.” This is certainly true; in Scott McCloud’s latest work on the art of comics, Making Comics, he explains the art of expressive faces. This is hard to do without visuals but I will try my best. McCloud notes that there are 6 basic expressions: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness and Surprise. Each of these can further be expressed in a range of mild, moderate, and strong. In order to evoke more subtle emotions, these expressions can be combined to varying degrees. For example: mild disgust + mild sadness = puzzlement.

If we look at most superhero comics that preceded Maguire (most not all), artists tended to, for the most part, utilize only 5 of these (Anger, Fear, Joy, and Sadness) and only a few of the combinations and, even then, usually only in the moderate to strong range (or, in the case of Rob Liefeld, one expression: the almighty grimace!). In Maguire’s art, he incorporates the full range of subtlety. Instead of just having characters that are ‘angry’ or ‘happy’ we get characters that are ‘mildly amused’, ‘befuddled’ and, my personal favorite, ‘peeved’! This would contribute greatly to the humanity that this series would bring to these characters as well as influence many artists who would follow.

His art begins shaping the series from the very beginning, before you even have a chance to open the first issue. In a recent interview with Wizard, Jim Lee mentioned the cover of Justice League number 1 among his favorites. He pointed out that Maguire draws the heroes from a downward angle. Anyone with an elementary knowledge of film knows what this means: a downward angle makes characters appear smaller and less powerful. Conversely, an upward angle can denote power and a sense of awe. Think of all the recent Alex Ross drawn covers to team books that have used the upward angle in order to rise the subject to the status of god-like reverence and you can appreciate how unique this cover is. In an act of further defiance, we find Guy Gardner, the most unlikely candidate for league membership, front and center with a classic Maguire expression of smug arrogance saying, “You wanna make something of it?” Right away, this creative team is telling us “This ain’t your daddy’s Justice League.”

Giffen and Co. had no choice in who would make up this version of the League; they were simply handed the roster, as it was spun-out of the Legends mini-series. That being the case, it would have been very easy for them to relegate Guy Gardner to the sidelines and bring him in only when they had need for a power ring. Instead, they go with it; Guy is the first character that we see on the very first page of the series. Not only is he the first character we see but, when we see him, he is already entertaining thoughts that he will be leading the new League:

“Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen—my name’s Guy Gardner and I’m a Green Lantern. Correction: I’m the Green Lantern. None of those other jerks can hold a candle to me. No doubt you’re wondering why I called you all here today. Simple: I’m declaring myself commander-in-chief of the spanking new Justice League. Any objections?”

In this short space of time, not only has he declared himself leader but he has also belittled the other two more well-known and respected Green Lanterns. To fully appreciate this, you have to understand that Guy Gardner was pretty unknown at this point; it was this very series that would give him the notoriety that he has today (much like X-men did for Wolverine… ok, so maybe Guy never became that popular but before this series he was really unknown).

Shortly afterwards, Black Canary arrives and the two have the following exchange:

BC: … our old headquarters never seems to change […] I can still feel the ghosts here … hovering…

GG: OOO, spooky! I bet Rod Serling’s around here somewhere too! Doo Doo Doo Doo, Doo Doo Doo Doo!

Just as Black Canary begins to engage in your prototypical maudlin monologue, so common in team books of this era a la The New Teen Titans and Uncanny X-men, she is quickly cut off by Guy who berates her for her sentimentality. I’ve read a few issues of the Detroit-era League, and it seemed as though they were very much trying to emulate that formula of melodrama used in other team books of the time. This is Giffen’s way of sidestepping it; instead of going for the heartstrings, he goes for the funny bone. While Guy may not have literally become the team’s leader, he certainly did help lead the book in the direction it was about to take.

He then says: “Hey, Babe—it’s the eighties. Alan Alda’s out… Sylvester Stallone is in.”

This is appropriate because A) Alan Alda was certainly guilty for many a maudlin monologue himself in his M*A*S*H days and B) Guy Gardner was chosen to be a Green Lantern by a rogue faction of the Guardians of the Universe to be a more proactive, take-no-prisoners kind of Lantern: he is supposed to be the Rambo of the Green Lantern Corps (or the Punisher to make a more apt comic comparison).

As the other team members begin to arrive, Guy manages to pretty much offend everybody. When Mister Miracle’s sidekick, Oberon, introduces himself Guy quickly brushes him off, “What’s the matter, Sneezy—the other six dwarves couldn’t make it?”

The disagreements quickly degenerate into a scuffle and, upon his arrival, Batman observes “It never fails… put more than two of them in the same room together and…”

Dr. Fate begins to put a stop to things using magic but Batman stops him, walks straight up to Guy Gardner, looks him dead in the eye and says “Sit down.” Gardner quickly complies.

In this very light series, most of the humor regarding Batman is the result of his lack of a sense of humor. In a later issue Black Canary will remark, “I seem to remember him making a joke once… about five years ago.” This would inform much of the way Batman would be depicted in future incarnations of the League: he is quickly established as the team’s ‘straight man’, he is the hero who, despite his lack of powers, the other members are both intimidated and slightly creeped out by. To treat him as any less would provoke the ire of many a fan (especially give the character’s new found respect at this time as a result of The Dark Knight Returns). That’s one of the great advantages of this particular line-up: being made up of lesser known heroes allowed Giffen and Dematteis a lot more freedom in their depictions of these characters. In other words, they weren’t likely to get many angry letters from disgruntled fans demanding Blue Beetle be treated with more respect.

At this point in comics’ history, there was a movement to depict superheroes more ‘realistically’; how would superheroes function in the ‘real world’? While works like Watchmen took this concept to its more serious extremes, Justice League looks at the lighter side of this: the egos, the in-fighting, the media coverage as well as the logistics of the smaller day-to-day dilemmas that might plague superheroes. As a great example of this, we see Dr. Light distraught over the fact that her signal device is going off while she’s at her ‘day job’ at the UN; after all, what does the member of a superteam do when their ‘super beeper’ goes off in the middle of a business meeting? This sort of thing wasn’t really ‘new’ to the superheroic genre; Marvel had been doing this sort of thing since the sixties (I’m reminded of an early Lee/Ditko Spider-Man story where he attempts to cash a reward check only to have the bank reject him because he cannot conclusively prove that he’s really Spider-Man and not just some jerk in a costume). It was, however, a fresh approach to the Justice League who are typically depicted as the Demi-Gods of the DCU.

Another dilemma facing Dr. Light was the subject of much discussion in superhero comics at this time:

“I’ve got to address the general assembly in five minutes […] If it’s a choice between zapping super-villains and feeding the hungry… well…then there is no choice.”

Works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns endeavored to question whether or not superheroes could really make the world a better place. Here, Dr. Light has answered that question: not if all they did was beat up super-villains. Still, you have to admit, a comic where the Justice League did nothing but propose resolutions to the U.N. would be pretty dull.

Shortly after this, we get the main ‘action’ of this issue as a group of terrorists break in and take Dr. Light and the rest of the U.N. hostage. They’re a pretty rag tag bunch but their leader has been equipped with a bomb that we are told will explode if his heart stops beating. As serious as this would be in the real world, this is hardly a threat of Justice League proportions; after all, previous incarnations kept the world from being destroyed. A few poorly trained, modestly armed terrorists hardly seem like that much of a problem; surely, this is a task that could easily be handled by The Teen Titans… actually… it’s a bit below them too…. How about the Outsiders? Yeah, let’s go with them. On the other hand, this is the team’s first mission; Giffen and company probably wanted to take it slowly. Remember, at this point they had no idea what Blue Beetle was capable of. Dr. Fate disapears mysteriously (as omniscient mystic types have a tendency to do that) before the rest of the team can arrive; this is a rather convenient disappearance when you consider that a sorcerer as powerful as Fate could have easily removed the bomb by saying something backwards... or something like that. The rest of the team, under Batman’s leadership,quickly takes out most of the terrorists and evacuates the general assembly leaving their leader to commit suicide in an attempt to set off the bomb. It fails and, in the last few panels, we see Maxwell Lord watching the events unfold on television as he remarks, “Maybe I should have given him the firing pin.”

So who is this mysterious Maxwell Lord and why is he manipulating the new Justice League? An evil mastermind bent on world domination? A new super-villain with the power of a radioactive wombat perhaps? The answer would prove to be something much, much worse: a slick, 1980’s businessman! Terrifying!

1 comment:

scott91777 said...

Is it egotistical to comment on one's own posting? Anywho, this is related. I just borrowed the New Frontier DVD. Pretty Good but, more importantly, the DVD also features a pretty nifty documentary on the history of the Justice League that covers, not only the international era, but the Morrison JLA era as well.