Whenever I remember, I’m going to spend a little bit of time picking apart back issues from my collection that I may or may not like particularly. Today’s selection is Justice League America issues 38-40, which I pulled out on a whim to remember if they’re still as effective as they were when I was a kid. For a bit of context, Justice League / Justice League International / Justice League America / Justice League Europe were pretty much the only regular superhero comic buys for me as a spotty youth. I’ve got the same sort of attachment to the first 40 issues of the main Justice League title as most people have to certain runs of the The Avengers and X-Men. Even with the humor that the series was best known for, it managed to pull out a crowbar and pull a Jason Todd on the reader with these issues.
The first part of this triptych starts off inauspiciously, with an overly long Spy magazine article that serves no real purpose in this story, but will lead to the infamous Wally Tortolini-with-a-superweapon story that was the first sign I should drop the title.1 It’s after these first six pages (which would mean nothing to anybody who hadn’t read the previous 30 or so issues along with the Mister Miracle title) that we get to the meat of the story: Despero, the interplanetary despot that The Justice League Of Detroit had defeated per the usual whims of comics writers, is really, really, really pissed off that some dude named “Vibe” gave him shit and is hurtling towards our fair world to rectify the shaming he received by the League. He’s so fucking angry, in fact, that every sixth word out of his mouth is “Hate.” I am shitting you not one bit: Here’s a bit of sample dialogue from the villain of the piece, right as he’s made touchdown on Terra:
The stars flickered hate. I sang to them. The earth whispered hate. I whispered back. I rode the nightwinds on a wave of hate.
Now I walk this world: Spit fire. Scream rage. Roar, caper, laugh.
No, it’s not quite Alan Moore, but J.M. DeMatteis manages to somehow make Despero’s internal monologue, which should be hysterical, work in the context of the story. He’s a giant red telepathic spaceman with a mission, our Despero: he hates the Justice League and humanity and he thinks that this is his time to shine with a bright spotlight of hate.
Normally, I want more in the way of motivation from our villains, but this is a pretty straightforward revenge piece – he’s obviously been watching Kill Bill and thinks he’s going to be the Bride to the Justice League’s Crazy 88s. First off, he goes and visit Steel in his persistant vegetative state and rips him off life support out of frustration for failing to be the one to put him there. Then, he decides it’s Gypsy’s turn and slaughters her parents in a chilling scene that still manages to hit me harder that Blue Beetle’s Bullet Lobotomy from Countdown before attacking her as she comes home from school. Finally (and this is all in one issue, mind, along with some storybuilding about the Conglomerate, Booster Gold’s superteam and a cutaway featuring Kilowog receiving the alert that something’s up), he wrecks a train and threatens to slaughter the passengers unless she comes out. See, this is the sort of stuff a guy named Despero can do, as far as I’m concerned; he’s basically Space Hitler, so I’ve got no problems with his murderous rampage as a storytelling tool – it’s completely in character, versus Dr. Light’s sudden reveal as a rapist and the like. Of course, it’s just as he is about to make with the murderation that J’onn J’onnz steps in and delivers a line laden with cliche when it comes out of the mouth of, say, Wolverine but is utterly chilling when the JLA equivalent of Spock utters it:
There’ll be no more deaths today, Despero — except perhaps — yours.
I swear, Batman could take a lesson in Icy Calm Intoning Of Dead Serious Threats from this guy sometimes. I’ve always liked J’onn, and I think this scene is one reason why – he’s the utterly calm Zen master of the insane JLA who can, you know, do everything Superman can do plus turn invisible and read minds as long as you don’t have a match handy. When he actually is bothered enough to go and say something like that, the reader knows that he probably is planning on following it up.
Issue 39′s cover has a humorous tone that is barely reflected within. The first third of this issue features J’onn and Despero duking it out and wrecking a town with only one semi-humorous aside from a bystander. It’s in the middle of the fight between J’onn and Despero that the the Big Red Space Dude reaches into the Martian’s mind and throws him back to his family’s last day, which now features Despero as the cause of his wife and child’s death. I’ve got to say that as far as these things go, that’s pretty fucking awful. Despero is basically the evil version of J’onn when it comes to brute strength and mental powers, and the writers know how to use that effectively. It’s only because Guy Gardner, America’s Third Favorite Green Lantern, puts a green bubble around Despero’s noggin and gives him a bit of feedback that J’onn isn’t in a rest home somewhere, eating pudding-from-a-cup while sitting next to Gypsy and hoping that finger painting comes up today. Nice save for a dude with the worst haircut since Logan was first seen without his mask.
Reading this issue now, it’s hard not to make the comparison to Doomsday’s rampage through Superman #75, which is loud, stupid, and obnoxious in a way that only a comic from the 90s could be. What’s shown here in this issue (from about 3 years prior to that particularly dark moment in comics history) is a well-executed fight that keeps the reader turning pages wanting to see what happens next instead of just going by the numbers. Guy knocks Despero into Long Island Sound with a giant green fist2 and the rest of the League finally plays catchup just as Despero decides that he wants to see the selection at Midtown Comics before grabbing a bite in the Village.
A moment to review the state of the Justice League at the time: now split into two teams, JLAmerica and JLEurope, they weren’t exactly heavy hitters outside of J’onn and Guy on the US team and Captain Atom and Power Girl on the Europe team. You can see how a bad guy who’s whooped up on J’onn and is gunning for Guy is pretty much going to be able to cut through Blue Beetle, Mister Miracle, and fairly lame temperature twosome of Fire and Ice like a velicoraptor through a pack of a preschoolers. Oh, and Mister Miracle isn’t really Mister Miracle – he’s a robot who’s constantly malfunctioning in place of Scott Free, who’s off doing some kind of intergalactic escape artist thing with a duplicate that the League doesn’t know is mechanical. The editors don’t note that switch anywhere in this book, we’re just assumed to have have read the recent Mister Miracle special and previous issues of Justice League America to be completely up to date. Editorial notes doled out to the readers in the mighty Marvel manner are probably a good thing on occasions where a team member is repeating the same bit of dialogue over and over in the Mamet style for no reason that’s apparent to newcomers. I’m just saying.
The rest of this issue is pure superhero fight comics – Despero’s determined to kill anyone in his path and you know what? It’s only by the whims of the writers that he doesn’t. There’s a genuine sense of danger amidst the humorous asides and derring-do. Readers had not seen this Justice League fight anyone this dangerous or bloodthirsty before and as a departure from the previous hijinks on Kooeykooeykooey and such, this works effectively as well as standing up as Good Superhero Punchout material on its own. When Despero blows up the Mister-Miracle-robot-piloted shuttle with his Evil Third Eye with the beaten-and-bruised Beetle’s neck in his hand and the next page showing J’onn announcing that he’s going to have to help Despero destroy the Justice League to save the planet? Good, good stuff that makes you want more right away.
I don’t want to go into too much detail as to how J’onn uses his plan to save the League and everyone else on the planet in issue 40, but it’s worthy. It’s worthy in the way that Batman’s “You’re Martians!” line in Grant Morrison’s first story arc on the JLA title of the late 90s. It’s worthy like Arnold dropping from the ceiling and decapitating a couple of baddies with rotary saw blades in Commando. It’s something that was hinted at in the previous issues and is perfectly handled by all parties involved, even if it’s the sort of “all we need is love” plot device that Mark Waid used far too often in his JLA run, ruining it forever for future writers. In the end, they defeat Despero, of course, and as you can see, there’s a funeral for the assumed-to-be-dead-for-real Mister Miracle.
What’s striking about the funeral is the way it manages to be effective, even if the readers know that the “real” Scott is alive and well. A priest that looks suspiciously like Jack Kirby gives the eulogy as a good cross-section of the DCU looks on. Hell, even Izaya, the Highfather of New Genesis is seen here watching from a distance, which is a nice idea if not actually that realistic – wouldn’t a New God know if his son was dead? I mean, they are gods. Gods know these things, right?
This issue pointed to a new direction for the title that left me fairly cold; there was another year of increasingly insipid “humor,” including a character called General Glory, but it all seemed seemed to be filler until Breakdowns was unleashed and pretty soon, Max Lord was shot and critically injured until Dreamslayer took over his body and started being really evil, as his name would rather indicate. From there, it just turned brutally stupid proved that yeah, the 90s were pretty lousy for the mainline DCU titles and the Justice League was excepted not one bit. As a finale, this works well, but it’s sort of sad that it was the last decent issue on the title.
One quick note: this title does feature some of the very small full-storytelling output from Adam Hughes, now more famous for drawing boobies for covers. I know that this was exhausting for him, but I’d love to see him make a return to doing interiors again, even for a miniseries or something.
1Breakdowns was where I stopped reading all the JL titles. It wasn’t fun anymore and it was trying so hard to be taken seriously. Remind anyone of something?
2Fuck Kyle Rayner and his giant robot costumes. Giant Green Fist wins. Giant Green Fist always wins unless there’s a boxing glove arrow around.