Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Scott on the JLI: The Conclusion

[Guest blogger Scott concludes his look at the JLI.]

There's a lot happening in the final issue of this volume; after the Grey Man is defeated, the League returns home to discover that Maxwell Lord is petitioning the UN to grant the group an international charter. It is also revealed that, while Lord may have been manipulating the League, he is being manipulated by someone else. All of this, and the change in Guy Gardner. After Batman's punch to the head and a second bump attained when looking for his ring upon regaining conciousness, Guy is transformed into the exact opposite of what he was before: he is now sensitive, polite, kind and caring. This gag would run for a full 11 issues (I know this because issue 18 was my first issue of this series back in the day and that issue ended with him being returned to 'normal'). Giffen and Co. would have great fun with this over the years, having him recieve one whack to the head and revert to one personality or another only to recieve another and immediately revert back. In any case, Guy Gardner would never become a Wolverine style anti-hero after this so much as a comical hothead with mental health issues.

Lord's petiton generates a great deal of buzz among the UN and the press and, in a scene that echoes one from The Dark Knight Returns, we get a special conference between Ronald Reagan and The Man of Steel himself. Miller's version of this scene portrayed a plain-spoken but ruthless version of Ronald Reagan and a Superman who was an obedient soldier; Giffen and Dematteis, by contrast, paint a very different picture. Their Reagan is also a comical caricature but an innocuous one; rather than giving Superman orders, he asks him for advice but, with a decision this big, he's going to "have to talk to Nancy." There's even a nice start on the repair of the fractured Superman/Batman relationship (left in the wake of Miller) when Superman says: "I have some problems with the way Batman works on his own but-- I have to admit--- it seems he's taken the League well in hand."

Still, having Superman and The Gipper on their side isn't enough to win over the UN, at least not according to Lord's unseen allies, who estimate the League's chances of getting their charter as 'nil.' This 'silent partner' decides a demonstration might be in order which leads us to the main action of the issue. A mysterious device orbiting the earth begins firing a classic "death ray" across the globe. The League, of course, rushes in to 'save the world.' When the device ruptures Batman's space suit, only to immediately erect a force field around him to save his life, Mister Miracle recognizes it as training device used on New Genesis, one that, no matter how badly you screw up, will protect you. As a result, Mister Miracle dives right into the beam on the hunch that it won't hurt him; a hunch that, luckily, proves to be correct. This is a scenario that echoes the very first issue of the series on a much larger scale; the League are forced into action by a situation that presents them with no real danger. With the device deactivated, they are a shoe-in for their charter.

The turnover in this version of the League is ridiculous (in the first 6 issues we've already lost one member and added a new one). This issue would further that trend as Captain Marvel (who was only leased to the creative team for a few issues) steps down, much to the sorrow of a tearful Guy Gardner. Dr. Fate would also leave active membership which, from a storytelling standpoint, makes a lot of sense. In Jason's X-men series, he's commented on how X-men writers always had to find ways to sideline Professor X since his powers would easily shift any battle in his team's favor. As the Grey Man Story proved, Fate could similarly put an end to almost any conflict with a wave of his hand and a few magic words. So, he is removed only to be replaced by a much less omnipotent couple of characters: Captain Atom and a member of the Rocket Reds. This addition not only gives the team a powerhouse Captain to replace the recently departed Marvel but it also placates the big two in the UN and ensures their approval of the charter. Batman steps down as team leader, handing that over to Martian Manhunter, and the international era of the Justice League can now properly begin.


There's a great scene in this issue of Mister Miracle calling home to inform Barda that he won't be home because he has to stay on Monitor Duty.

Barda: Scott Free, We haven't had more than five minutes alone together in weeks!
Mister Miracle: But Batman said...
Barda: Batman?!? From what you've told me that jerk makes Granny Goodness look like a saint! I don't understand why you had to join the Justice League in the first place! Were you that bored with...
MM: We discussed it thoroughly before...
Barda: 'We' Didn't discuss anything! You and Oberon discussed it.... then announced it over dinner!

First of all, this supports my observation of Mister Miracle being seen as a hard-working superhero who has finally gotten his big 'promotion' so, of course, he would have trouble with the wife when he has to stay at work late. This is a nice look at the ligther side of what life might really be like for superheroes.

This brings me to one of my main points about what I think this series was trying to do; with Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen the superhero narrative had just undergone a major revision. When any narrative form undergoes a revision, other practitioners of that narrative are forced to react to that revision. Most other writer's of superhero comics during this period chose to react by doing more 'serious' stories in order to address the more serious questions that were being raised at this time. Giffen Co. did something very different. Geoff argues that The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, "are the birth of self-concsiousness in the superhero narrative, what I call [...] the revisionary superhero narrative." I, however, tend to side more with David Mazzucchelli who, in a pictoral essay in the reissued Batman: Year One, takes things a back a bit further when he says "while an interesting experiment, it's probably not a good idea to shoehorn too much reality into the fantasy realm of the superhero. Ever since Stan Lee introduced anxiety to superheroes [...] the question "What would superheroes be like in the real world?" has bedeviled generations of comics creators." (in my deletion Mazzucchelli actually goes back as far as Kurtzman's Stuporman, which I don't count since it is a parody and it is the very nature of a parody to be self-conscious of the subject being parodied).

However, in addition to angst, Stan Lee also introduced something else to the way superheroes might function in the real world: practicality. The early Spider-Man issues in particular had a lot of great fun with this. In this series, I think I've already mentioned an early issue where, upon recieving an award check, Spidey is unable to cash it because he can't conclusively prove that he's the real Spider-man at the bank. This was the first time where we saw those 'little things' examined under a microscope in the superhero narrative; stuff like: Spider-man mending his costume after a fight... because he can only afford the one; or him running out of web fluid because he was low on money for supplies that week. There's even a famous Spidey/FF crossover where, having his costume destroyed, he must make due with a surplus FF uniform and a paper bag for a mask. In any case, I don't know if I would go so far as to say that Geoff's 'Revisionary Superhero Narrative' begins here... but, at the very least, we can say that this was a sort of Proto-Revisionary Superhero Narrative. And, it was this very narrative, that Giffen and Co. were drawing upon for their series; while everyone else was attempting to answer the heavier questions of what Superheroes would be like in the real world, this series set out to address the lighter ones. I don't think this was necessarily meant as a critique of the 'grim and gritty' era, as much of Morrison's work in this era was, as it was simply Giffen and Dematteis looking at stuff like Watchmen and saying "Geez, we're never going to be able to do something this good... why don't we do something different instead?"

This series is surprisingly fresh and, despite some dated cultural references, reads very much like a modern comic (thanks in no small part to Dematteis's dialogue). It managed to not only create likeable, believable superheroes and be a reflection of the times in which it was created but, most importantly, it managed to be fun. Sometimes, superhero comics take themselves too seriously and there is an inherent problem with this; superhero comics are, themselves, ridiculous entities. Even in Morrison’s JLA run, a series that prided itself on good-old-fashioned-silver-age styled fun, the characters themselves tended to take their own situations too seriously. After all, they’re already fantastical characters dressed in ludicrously tight brightly colored uniforms; once you have them talking with deathly seriousness about "Zeta Beams", the situation becomes laughable. In the JLI, someone like Guy Gardner or Blue Beetle would have said, "What-a beams?" or some thing like that with a brilliantly drawn MaGuire expression of puzzlement. This gives us permission to laugh at what is, really, a ridiculous situation and, believe it or not, is much less distracting than a straight reading of the same situation. By not taking themselves too seriously, what Giffen, Dematteis and MaGuire have allowed us is to laugh with them, rather than laughing at them.


scott91777 said...

Thanks to everyone who has been reading these! I'll probably try to do some more when the next volume comes out... especially since it introduces one of my favorite characters of all time: G'nort!... but probably nothing as exhuastive as an issue by issue analysis (Jason, how do you do it?)

Jason said...

God knows, Scott. I've still got about 45 more to write and I am utterly drained ...