Justice League: A New Beginning
Keith Giffen &
J.M. DeMatteis, writers,
Kevin Maguire, artist
(DC Comics, 1987;
collected edition, 1989)

In the late 1980s, the trend in comics was towards the dark, the grim, the gritty. But Keith Giffen and his team wanted to do something a little different with the Justice League of America, DC's premier superteam title which was due for resurrection. With heavy-hitting characters like Superman and Wonder Woman off limits because of ongoing changes in their own monthly titles, Giffen took a short list of a few key players, mixed it with a liberal dose of second-stringers and leavened the recipe with a few new and bottom-rung characters to create a team book unlike any other.

The Justice League in those days was as much about character interactions as it was about defending the globe from superpowered threats. And, in the comfort of their own headquarters, these heroes didn't always get along.

Batman, the team leader, can be abrasive and arrogant. Captain Marvel has the raw power but not a lot of heroing experience. Guy Gardner, one of Earth's Green Lanterns (there were a lot of them back then), is cocky and makes Ronald Reagan look liberal. The Blue Beetle and Booster Gold have never been in the spotlight before. Black Canary still has trouble coping with being the rare female among men who always feel a need to "rescue" her. And so on.

If that wasn't enough, Giffen & Co. added a few twists. For one thing, they gave the Justice League the freedom to be funny, something that was fairly rare in superhero comics in those days. And, in another bold step, they decided to erase the nationalistic label from the team's designation, making it first simply the "Justice League," and later replacing "of America" with the U.N.-sanctioned addition, "International." This, more than anything, helped to redefine the team as a global peacekeeping force, not just a club for the U.S. only. (And this, sadly, was a bold move that DC couldn't maintain, deciding years later that only America deserved top-notch heroes.)

The tone of this book was a little rough in these early issues, as Giffen & Co. settled into the new format. The easy banter of Beetle and Booster was still in their future. Captain Marvel, they quickly realized, was becoming a one-joke character. And the reckless, mean-spirited attitude of Gardner sometimes went beyond the level where we could believe the others would keep him in the team.

But there were gems as well, such as the enigmatic presence of the mysterious Maxwell Lord, who may or may not be the team's benefactor. When the tension between Batman and Green Lantern peaks, the extremely short fisticuffs which ensue are priceless. There are plenty of guest stars, from Dr. Fate to the Creeper, and threats aplenty to test the new team's mettle. These first seven issues set the groundwork for an excellent run for the League -- until, eventually, they ran the humor into the ground and DC opted to return the team to its star-spangled roots with top-level heroes only allowed in the club.

If you'd like to see a different kind of team, pick up those early issues collected as A New Beginning and sit back to enjoy the ride. I keep hoping to see DC take this kind of risk again, but don't count on it any time soon.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 21 July 2001

Buy A New Beginning from Amazon.com.