Wednesday, August 18, 2010
DC75: Daddy Is Dead, Child (Justice League America #38, 1990)
While everyone else was busy scowling and dredging up traumatic childhood memories, the Justice League International franchise was laughing all the way to the bank. Denied proven commercial heroes due to iconic revamps and the distaste of overly series fellow creators, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis instead sold the idea of heroes paling around like real people to a buying public starved for something different. Utilizing the gift for facial expression of artist Kevin Maguire, Giffen & DeMatteis cast lesser-knowns in the first successful comic book super-hero situational comedy. The formula hit a speed bump two years in with the departure of Maguire, but a reasonable enough facsimile was found a few months later in the young Adam Hughes.
While the JLI often touched on darker themes, the nature of the characters and the book itself never allowed the proceedings to become especially grim. While this kept the tone light, it also meant attempts at deeper character work were brushed off as set-ups for a gag, limiting the book's story potential. Perhaps sensing a leash forming, Giffen and DeMatteis began stealthily asserting their right to go dark.
In an issue which had begun with five page Spy magazine parody, a savage beast was introduced. This was the hulking Despero with a fin-mohawk, revitalized in the waning days of the previous Justice League of America as a force to be reckoned with, but little exposed to date. Readers presumably took one look at a nude pink alien roaming around, and waited for the jokes to start.
It would be a long wait. Despero found one member of the old League in a vegetative state, and ended his sad existence. Bodies were strewn about, one victim had a slightly goofy look of surprise, but there was nothing funny about this. Despero located the home of another former Leaguer, murdered her family, then arranged the bodies in natural looking positions. The retired heroine Gypsy came home with schoolbooks in hand, distracted by her daily business, until being greeted by the dawning realization that her entire family was dead.
Adam Hughes had a gift for mood Kevin Maguire had lacked, which was exploited to the fullest extent by this script-flipping move by Giffen & DeMatteis. Suddenly, after three years of readers taking for granted that everything in a JLI adventure would turn out alright, they were confronted with real stakes and deadly consequences. The actual body count turned out to be fairly low, with no other recognized characters perishing, but the threat left an impression on readers from then on. The story elevated the book from good fun to monumental, established Despero as one of the premier DC villains, and elevated the Martian Manhunter's viability as a commercial character. As an unfortunate side effect, Giffen & DeMatteis then struggled to restore the humor of the series, going too broad, and soon hobbled when no suitable replace could be found once Hughes moved on. A creative high point for the team also proved something of a terminal prognosis, leading to the end of their era.
Check out more highlights from the past 75 years of DC Comics at The Truly Most Memorable Moments of the DC Dodranscentennial