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GUY GARDNER HAS A BOWL CUT Part One: Justice League #1 (1987)

I can’t lie… I missed you.

I dipped away for a moment, but Blastoff’s modernist is back. My name is Pat Shand, and I’m here at Blastoff talking about comics new and old… though we’re focusing a bit more on the old this month. I’m diving into 1987’s Justice League run by J. M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, and Kevin Maguire. Blastoff head honcho Scott Tipton tells me that it has an unconventional tone for a superhero book of the time, so I’m eager to see how it holds up in 2018. Let’s go!

We’re starting with #1. Now, just as an anecdote, I recognize this cover. I’m probably among the few people who think exclusively of Joss Whedon’s Angel when I see this, but this Justice League #1 cover was paid homage to on Angel: After the Fall #5. And I can see why. It’s an interesting group shot, positioning the characters in a way that is unconventional but visually interesting, allowing us to see everyone in full detail. Just to show how blind I’m going in here, of the ten characters pictured, I have no idea who four of them are. I see Batman, Blue Beetle (I think – I remember him with a different costume), Guy Gardner, Shazam, Martian Manhunter, and Mister Miracle. It’s a very different Justice League than who we have in the modern book, so let’s see how these folks did their thing in 1987.

Off the top, from the way Guy Gardner is folding his arms, I’m not buying the tough guy attitude. He looks like Trump. And not even Trump then. He looks like Trump now, especially compared to smooth-face, Six-Pack Shazam to his left.

The first half of the comic assembles the team. There’s no real style or flair to it, no inciting incident that brings them together – I’m thinking of how Loki’s attack in the early years of Marvel made the Avengers assemble. Here, no. Superheroes want to form a Justice League, they meet in a board room, argue, and… then, they’re the Justice League. That’s kind of it. The meat of the story comes from the character interaction, and I’m getting the sense from the pacing and focus here that this is going to be the mode in which this series generally operates. Guy Gardner – one of many Green Lanterns – is the self-proclaimed leader, at first. Black Canary (ah, that’s who that is… didn’t recognize this version of her costume) enters and they’re instantly bickering. Guy is on his machismo tip, dropping references to Sylvester Stallone and how great it feels to be in charge, and Black Canary is not having it. Along with Martian Manhunter, she seems torn up about what happened with the previous incarnation of the Justice League, and is put off in a major way by Gardner’s disrespectful way of bossing people around with insults. Though she doesn’t say it, she might also hate his bowl cut. Who wouldn’t?

Mister Miracle comes in, accompanied by Oberon, who I’m now beginning to remember from Kirby Month here at Blastoff. Shazam is “Captain Marvel” in this era – sorry, comics historians, and especially you, Scott… I just didn’t know when the switch happened in history! – and the guy who looks like a big yellow… er, let’s go with protective barrier is Doctor Fate. As a newbie to this title and some of these characters, watching these heroes interact and exploring the surface of their motivations was pretty interesting. Doctor Fate is mysterious as hell and his reasons for joining the League are cloaked in shadow, so he’s definitely a standout character for me… especially compared to someone like Guy, whose outbursts make him seem weak-willed, insecure, unintelligent, and belligerent. He seems like he’s the weakest person in the room and knows it, so verbally and physically tries to dominate everyone… and listen, as a reader, I get it. It works in establishing Gardner’s role, and doubly so when he is submissive to the imposing Batman – but it’s incredibly heavy-handed. Guy could’ve had half the lines in this book that he did and the same information would’ve been conveyed to the readeer.

What I found a lot less interesting than the interaction between the heroes was the public reaction to the Justice League reassembling. There was a huge focus on this, and while a lot of it was to show that the villain-in-the-shadows Maxwell Lord (appearing here for the first time!) is watching closely, it felt like a lot of filler in this issue. It wouldn’t have made that much of a different in my reading experience if the rest of the book were more nuanced and varied, but really it was 70% Guy Gardner being a douchebag, 10% other members being annoyed with Guy Gardner for being a douchebag, 10% superheroics, and the rest was just people reacting to / watching the League from afar.

Today’s comics are frequently criticized for concept of “writing for trade,” but if we’re being honest, the same could be said about this issue. It’s a decent first chapter to a longer story, but its biggest strengths lie in making me wonder what will happen next rather than giving a satisfying and interesting read in this first issue. We’re just breaking through the first layers of these characters, so I expect a lot of depth and nuance to come out as their journey continues. I bet we’ll see Guy Gardner revealed as someone whose outward dickery functions as a shield to keep people at arm’s length. I’d predict, too, that Black Canary and Martian Manhunter will be dealing with past trauma on an ongoing basis, while learning to connect with this new team for what it is, hopefully leaving behind their histories of hurt and embracing their heroism. As far as everyone else, this is just the introduction, and I genuinely have no clue where it’s going in the larger sense – but I’m strapped in for the ride and ready to find out.

NEXT: We skip a few issues and land on Justice League #4.

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