By Chloe Maveal
If you’re anything like me, a good story about a dysfunctional family just seems to hit the spot. Yes, they all love each other but everything is a bit shit and there’s a lot of obstacles that they have to yell at each other about as they stumble over themselves, and at the end of the story they come out of things still together. Admittedly, it’s a theme that you see more often in films than you do in almost any other medium, because the story usually works best in that finite performative format — but I can think of at least one exception to that which proves exactly why we desperately need more of this one theme in comics in particular once again: Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatties’ Justice League International.
It is, admittedly, the darkest timeline in the real world right now and has been for the past few years. Along with that has seemed to come a whole host of comic books from The Big Two that steered into the storm — titles that dealt with things being metal and dark and deep. While these have occasionally gone over well, at least in terms of sales, it begs the question of whether we need any further reminding of just how faced with darkness (and, yes, METAL) we are, or if our favorite superheroes are just as likely to fall prey to forces of cruelty and evil beyond their control as we are. Well, bugger to that. You know what we really need right now?
Guy Gardner getting punched in the face by Bat-Dad and two idiots stealing an alien’s cookies.
I know that a lot of people will say “But Chloe! They tackled some serious issues in that series! It wasn’t just hijinks and buffoonery!” and here’s the thing about that: you’re making my point for me. Over its five year run, Justice League International successfully told stories about death, violence, deception, and mayhem at the hands of a giant purple alien with three eyes — it’s more serious than it sounds, I promise — all the while, still managing to land laughs in almost every single issue.
The reason for this is, I firmly believe, because Giffen and DeMatteis’ Justice Leagues America and Europe are absolutely, 100%, the Griswold family from the National Lampoon Vacation films of the 1980s and ‘90s — but without the racism and Chevy Chase being a jerkwad. The goal is to keep the world safe (read: make it to the end of the vacation in question), and although that goal may seem deceptively simple, the road there involves tying a dead grandma to the roof, having their hubcaps stolen, and being tempted by Christie Brinkley’s dazzling smile that launched a thousand tubes of toothpaste. Maxwell Lord is Christie Brinkley in this metaphor, by the way; both seemed far more charming in the 1980s than they do now, and Brinkley famously was murdered by Wonder Woman after a crossover with the Superman books as the result of a Geoff Johns idea gone wrong.
Through all of this, whether it’s the release of Beverly DeAngelo’s sex tape while in Europe or Beetle and Booster trying to turn an island into a luxury resort in a storyline that curiously isn’t available digitally for some unknown reason, the team (the family) has to show that they can reach their goal and certainly fails and fails to get to that point — arguably never truly reaching it — but manages to stays together in spite of it all. That’s got to count as a victory, right?
If that doesn’t, how about this: in each story, whether it’s Vacation or JLI, there is at least one moment that allows the characters and audience alike to laugh at the absurdities and make light of otherwise perilous and painful experiences.
Hey, I’m not saying that serious comics are devoid of merit. There have been countless comics in recent years that tackle extremely difficult topics with ease and aplomb; there’s no doubting that. But isn’t there a more wholesome, and more helpful, message to be found in just not giving a damn how seriously you have to take yourself when faced with adversity sometimes…? Hell, half the reason people turn to comics is to experience a bit of escapism from the chaos of daily life and the trials that come with it. So when we turn to superheroes and are met with overcoming adversity through anger, more adversity, and an inability to find the small bits of joy that there are…what is the outcome, exactly?
Superheroes have, in theory, always stood as a symbol for how we can do better and be better; we’ve all grown up believing that superhero comics are meant to inspire us towards an aspirational message of doing good in the world. While it can be argued that Batman brooding over the course twelve issues before facing his latest, almost certainly self-serious and self-involved challenges is valuable and can make for decent storytelling, can’t we also laugh at that behavior as well?
There’s a great deal of value and encouragement to be found in JLI for the simple reason of knowing when to make a joke and knowing when it’s time to solve the problem. In that respect these heroes — who we normally associate with grimdark circumstances — come across with a lightness and levity that adds to their humanity and ultimately makes them something more relatable. Heroism doesn’t always come from solving a problem through massive muscles, magic powers, martial arts skills, or the ability to fly; sometimes it comes from dropping the facade and having a laugh at the absurdity of the tropes you’re being put into. Look, I’m just saying that if there’s a comic where Batman sits the fuck down and says openly that a half-naked green alien called John is a better fit then that’s the message we should stand behind. (Yes, I know it’s “J’Onn,” but come on.)
At the end of the day comics are meant to be entertainment. And much like other forms of entertainment, we’re being bombarded with pop culture features that are thoughtful and poignant, but often unprecedentedly serious. If comics are willing to make even the slightest change by admitting that there is humor to be found in misfortune then the drama will hit just a little bit harder, and we can all learn to just take the fucking punches until we get to Wally World.
Written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis
Drawn by Kevin Maguire
Inked by Terry Austin
Coloured by Gene D’Angelo
Lettered by Bob Lappan
Chloe Maveal has written all over the comics internet – including pieces published by Polygon, WomenWriteAboutComics and The MNT. Chloe’s also the Culture Editor-at-Large for The Gutter Review. You can find them on Twitter here!