“I Still Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League” (Part One)
Writers: Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis
Artist: Kevin Maguire (p), Joe Rubenstein (in), David Baron (colors)
Publisher: DC Comics
Something funny happens on every page of this story. There are pages where something funny happens in every panel! You will force yourself NOT to laugh out loud!
It’s another day for Super Buddies, the super-team-for-hire staffed by former members of the Justice League. Booster Gold and Blue Beetle talk about Booster’s marriage and their costume changes. Fire introduces Mary Marvel to coffee, then pick out an apartment. L-Ron tries to be as obnoxious as the other team members. Sue Dibny learns a former super-villain is opening a bar down the street. Ralph Dinby figures out Sue’s pregnant. And the last guy everyone wanted to see shows up. All that and an Ambush Bug reference.
The biggest challenge Giffen and DeMatteis faced in writing this sequel to Formerly Known as the Justice League was current DCU continuity. After the first mini-series, Sue Dibny died in Identity Crisis. Since she was such an integral part to the team, not to mention the changes her death had on Ralph, a story that included these changes would not fit with the light-hearted, fun tone the series is famous for. So the writers took the easiest solution:
They ignored it.
With a caption box that can be interpreted two ways, (either this story takes place long before IC, or the events of both this and Formerly are set further in the past than originally believed), Keith and J.M. bring back one of the strongest, bravest, passionate, and decidedly non-stereotypical women in all of comics’ history. It’s Sue Dibny who drives the story’s central plot, who terrifies the men with her threats of spreading rumors, who commits the only act of violence in the entire book!
God damn Brad Meltzer and his mediocre pen!
Every word on these pages is gold. All dialogue is generated from the characters. We’ve got a great mix of personalities that alternately conflict and complement each other. The book becomes a long game of one-up-manship as everyone tries to top each other’s quips and punchlines.
Kevin Maguire’s pencils unify the realism of traditional comic art with the loose exaggerations of cartooning. The result is incredibly human. The characters look and feel like real people. Joe Rubenstein’s inks are subtle, yet impossible to ignore. The tiny lines on people’s faces are just enough to convey that sensation of real flesh, and add depth to their feelings. Looking at this a second, (and third and fourth. . .) time, I can see similarities to the works of Frank Cho and Steve Dillon. Could they have been influenced by Maguire and Rubenstein? Do the artists of Liberty Meadows and Preacher have yellowing copies of Justice League International in their studios?
The only reason this comic doesn’t have a rating is Mary Marvel. I find it hard to believe a modern teenaged girl could be so Pollyanna. It doesn’t jibe with her other appearances in the DCU. Then again, this whole story doesn’t jibe with the DCU.
In short, the book is funny, the art is great, and Sue Dibny’s not dead. Yay.
Plot: All nice progressions from the last series. Sue is unhappy that a former super-villain is setting up shop next door to the Super Buddies office, Bea gets Mary hopped up on java, Beetle and Booster are more concerned with their new costumes (and their imperiled reputations) than they are with Sue, and then an old friend drops by.
Comments: There’s one line here that is especially bittersweet; feeling that
his wife endangering herself and others due to hormonal changes, Ralph stretches frantically after her saying, “Hey—She shouldn’t be beating up super-villains in her condition!”
Oh for the beautiful innocence that statement belies. Oh for the days when the worst thing Sue had to cope with was being surrounded by idiots. Oh for the days when Ralph had too much hair, and everyone thought Booster and Beetle were deeply in love. This book was a welcome relic in its last outing, a refreshing blast from the past, and it’s even more dated now, instantly retro and irrelevant in the wake of the bleak, cruel losses of Identity Crisis.
The only way this story can exist in the DC Universe is in hyper-time, or as an untold story that occurred long ago. Giffen and DeMatteis manage to be adult without being vulgar, and mature without being soul-crushingly violent. No insane vixens here, just some hot babes, cynical wives and neophyte powerhouses. Absolutely nothing happens this issue, except for lots and lots of witty verbal sparring.
That unwelcome return on the final (title) page is the punchline to one long joke-filled read, one that just isn’t as funny given the DC Universe it now has no part of. Oh for the days when he was the worst of these heroes’ worries.
Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire have another go at DC’s favorite second-stringers in part one of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League!” That’s right, another series where not much of anything happens, but is nevertheless more fun than just about any comic one could name. Skilled in the art of ignoring continuity, these creators have once again proven that there is room for humor in spandex comics, and that Sue Dibny is worth more alive than dead.
Settling into their new Superbuddies team/business, Maxwell Lord, L-Ron, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, Fire, Mary Marvel, and the Dibnys rekindle old friendships (such that they are) and forge new alliances (equally tenuous). When Sue discovers that a former supervillain has opened a bar next to Superbuddies HQ, the team’s pervading disinterest means it’s down to her to take matters into her own hands. But isn’t that dangerous for a woman in her condition? Plus, a surprise guest star that will surprise no one.
Kevin Maguire’s redesigned Blue Beetle costume (the colors are inverted) is a fun jab at constant tweaking or unnecessary cosmetic overhauls that many heroes go through that strangely never receive comment. Sue Dibny shaking with rage is another priceless moment.
This league needs its own series. Seriously. The world is ready for it, again. Giffen and JMD are getting other projects, like the Hero Squared special at Atomeka and Marvel’s Defenders miniseries, but they shine best with this set of characters. Who knows why. The jokes are stronger, the timing is more precise, and the interaction is more natural. It’s unfortunate that miniseries often can’t get multiple plots rolling, which in turn stunts character development. Yes, characters should develop, even when they’re funny, and this team did grow throughout their glorious run in the 1980s. With the success of Formerly Known As and now this follow-up in JLA: Classified, it looks as though DC’s powers-that-be are considering a revival. Make it happen.
Batman settled in for a long night of espionage. He put his cup of cocoa in the holder affixed to the arm of the chair, one of the Flash’s most useful suggestions, and focused on the smaller monitors below the Trouble-Alert on his former colleagues--now known as the Super-Buddies. He had the foresight not just to bug their headquarters but also to plant transdermal listening devices and nanomonitors on or should that be in their persons. These would give him a complete view of the goings-on of those Formerly Known as the Justice League.
He took a sip of his cocoa and watched as Max Lord and his chauffeur arrived on the scene. Even the Batman had to admit she was a fine choice of companion. Her legs would certainly give the Canary a run for her money. Not that he actually looked at Canary’s legs. Well, perhaps once or twice. Oh, hell, there was nobody else in the Satellite. He always looked at the Canary’s legs. Legs like that were meant to be looked at. Max entered the Super-Buddies’ HQ, and L-Ron immediately began his berating. Batman shook his head. This amused him to no end and gave a karmic payback to Mr. Lord. Max had weaseled his way into the League that had formed during The Legends Case. He wondered if that history still existed or was merely a fragment of his mind. Cosmic Boy and Gar Logan took part in the case. So that likely chucked the event out of time and space. The only reason why he still remembered it was that he happened to be there. He still remembered when multiple earths were the norm.
Batman spit out his cocoa. Sue Dibney manned the phones. He could have sworn that Sue Dibney had been raped by Dr. Light and killed by Jean Loring. Actually, none of that made sense anyway. Perhaps, somebody had mucked about with his mind again. He made a note to see Zatanna for a magical checkup. Better still, maybe somebody had fixed everything. He did a brief search for multiple earths. Nope. Still nothing. Pity. Still, it was good to see Sue. She was the brains of the pair. Ralph provided. Hmmn, exactly what did Ralph provide? Pliability?
Ah, “Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Yes, that brought back memories of lighter times. The joke was a good one and almost made him titter. He felt saner than he had all week long. Man, was he becoming psychotic or what? Or maybe he was just growing disgusted by the way it seemed that the powers that be wouldn’t be happy until the earth consisted of one scorched, smoking hole.
Batman sighed. He supposed he had to do it, but he was loathe to check on the Spandex version of Abbott and Costello. He clenched his teeth and changed channels. Booster and Beetle chattered about fashion nonsense--of all things--in Beetle’s craft, the Bug. They were both good men if you could plow through all the morass of infantile behavior. Beetle even more so than Booster whose concern for an absence of collar bordered on obsessive. Typical. If he watched them enough, his brain would probably melt.
With a flip of a switch, Batman tuned in on Fire and Mary Marvel. Mary and Fire sharing an apartment? Could there be two more different people on the face of the earth? Mary was a cutie, and Fire was a mature seductress. Mary like her brother Billy was an innocent. Fire was a mature seductress. Batman shook his head. He wasn’t sure he approved until Fire called up Booster and let him have a piece of her mind for his introducing Mary to uncharacteristic street talk. Definitely, Mary should not be engaging in any words coined on MTV. Observing Fire’s facial expressions was a distinctive treat. She seemed to be giving Bill Plympton competition. She really was a beautiful creature and again at her heart a good person. Mary in fact was very similar to Ice, whom Fire and the rest of the League lost to the forces of evil. Perhaps, their pairing up was not so implausible after all. Batman smiled. Mary was about ten times sweeter than Ice. It would be very interesting to see these two become a team and watch Mary influence Fire. He’s not absolutely too keen to see the vice versa.
Already the group had gotten together to create an incident. Fortunately, this was not an earth-shattering or even city-devastating event and did not require his intervention; hence his surveillance. The former villain neighbor almost seemed to be a surreal sitcom touch. That certainly fit with the Super-Buddies’ lives. So how will they get out of this, he wondered?
Oh, that was rich. The idea that Ralph would deduce his wife’s pregnancy and completely fail to recognize his own mate’s behavior was par for the course. Just so very Ralph-like. Of course, this misunderstanding just leads everybody down the path of Ralph’s faulty detective work. As well as the villain. A nice avoidance of a lawsuit. The Super-Buddies get out of predicaments through farce rather than focus. Still, they did get the job done.
Batman downed the rest of his cocoa. This was almost as fun as watching Blackadder. Not that he would ever admit to having fun or watching Blackadder. The villain has a former hero as a partner. Batman frowned. Usually the phrase former heroes referred to dead ones, but who could… His jaw dropped when this particular mystery was solved.
Synopsis: There’s more madcap mayhem at Super-Buddies. Next to their strip mall offices, a man with a nefarious past intends to build a bar. For what reason? The super-buddies don’t know, but will they stand for this intrusion? While they bicker over the proper actions to take, a horrible secret is about to be revealed!
Meanwhile, Mary Marvel discovers the thrill of caffeine.
"And it's giving me the tingles…all through my body."
Comedy has many forms. It can be subtle and sweet. It be randy and rude. But it needs to be tightly plotted. It needs sharp pacing and coherence of mood. This creative team is the best in the business at delivering stellar comedic tales. From colorful dialogue to exquisite attention to setting details, every element of the narrative is powerfully focused to bring a laugh to the reader’s lips.
So what drives the plot? What is the conflict? Sue Dibny discovers that their neighbor-to-be has a dubious, criminal past. So she wants the Super-buddies to send this miscreant packing, before he is capable of working some insidious plot against them. The group doesn’t quite share her concerns. This is the primary plot, which builds to a climatic showdown with the neighbor and his secret partner. The rising tension of this plotline is adeptly managed; one could only wish that all writers had the plotting talent on display here.
Yet, the primary plotline is punctuated by two symmetrical subplots. The first subplot regards the friendship between Blue Beetle and Booster Gold. They have a classic “straight man/imbecile” interplay. This is in contrast with the developing relationship between Fire and Mary Marvel, who have more of an “odd couple” rapport. The rotation of narrative “spotlight” between these two subplots creates a dramatic metronome that fosters the growing sense of frustration in the primary plotline. This scene management is superbly structured.
Pacing is also controlled visually, through the ample use of paneling. This issue has an average of over eight panels per page! That’s more story than you get in three typical decompression-fests from Marvel. Normally, there’s a danger to using high panel counts; the overall composition may get lost amidst the busy page layout. However, Maguire and Rubinstein are masters of their craft. They focus on the narrative essentials and use the long-established visual grammar of emotive lineage to convey greater finesse of action and emotion. Motion lines, exclamation lines, and mood lines frequent the figures; they eloquently convey the subtle details for which miniature compositions simply do not have the available space to express by straight-forward means. It’s a rare treat to see such wonderful implementation of emotive linework. Most “young gun” artists waste page space on unnecessary detail rather than using the efficient grammar of the art form.
Another rare artistic treat is the splendid use of moment-to-moment panel transition as an expression of emotion, but also as a means of narrative pacing. For instance, when Fire makes a phone call to berate Booster Gold, she has to deal with the annoying robot L-Ron. This scene creates a pause in the action, a “breather” between Mary Marvel’s hyperactivity and Sue Dibny’s growing frustration at the new neighbor. It’s a single page with nine panels arranged in a three-by-three format. Each panel features Fire’s face and she goes through a range of emotions, from confused to mocking to extremely annoyed. It’s brilliant, both in terms of delineating character and as a structural “pause” point in controlling the story’s pace. When the typical comic does moment-to-moment transitions, it’s a sign of narrative laziness, padding out the story to make it fit a trade paperback, and most artists let it drag on for pages. The artistic economy in this issue is awesome.
"Fasten yer seatbelts, you pathetic losers…"
Alright, it’s well written comedy. But is it serious Art? Yes, it is. The absurdist aesthetic that underlies the buffoonery sets this story on a higher level than your typical “Someone will die!” over-hyped event book. Think of all the forgettable crossover events that have “Forever changed the DCU!” since this creative team brought us a farcical masterpiece with JLI. The event books were soulless pieces of hackneyed tripe; their stories have not endured the years. But good writing does. Good writing, be it comedy or tragedy, resonates with the reader and leaves an imprint in the memory. The themes live on in our aesthetic awareness.
Themes? What are the themes underlying the Giffen/DeMatteis League? Like all absurdist literature, the primary themes relate to inadequacy. The commonality of miscommunication, the inability to foresee consequences, the petty distractions that derail success, and the helplessness of the individual in the face of greater events, these are the themes of the absurd; these are the themes underlying our “bestest Super-Buddies…‘til the very end!”
Certainly, these themes are wrapped up in comforting layers of buffoonery. But scratch at the surface and the protagonists’ quiet futility is obvious. Most superhero comics are based on power fantasy, but this book comes from a very human acknowledgment of the limitations that we face in daily life. And it laughs at them! That’s what makes this title so wonderful; the core themes are reflections of what the reader faces everyday, but made palatable through the techniques of farce. The misadventures of the Super-Buddies are our quotidian trials.
So the hacks may disassemble and reassemble. They may countdown to one crisis after another. But these stories lack resonance; they are spiritless and impoverished, a series of empty explosions and meaningless massacres. A true writer tells a story that speaks to the reader, be it through laughs or tears. Giffen and DeMatteis have been crafting the comic book superhero equivalents of Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Ignorant readers will dismiss it as clownish stuff, not real storytelling. Don't be ignorant! This issue is absurdist farce in full glory. I highly recommend it.
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