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Friday, June 24, 2016

Cover Story - Top 13 Justice League Europe Covers

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For those not following current events, I write this Cover Story in the wake of the UK’s landmark bad decision to leave the European Union.  This isn’t a series about politics (though lord knows that’s never stopped me before) so I’m not going to devote this page to the plethora of ways in which this is a monumentally bad thing for everyone involved.  Instead, I’ve decided to focus on a nostalgic look back at happier times for Europe and for myself with one of my all time favorite comic books: Justice League Europe.

Running from 1989 to 1993, Justice League Europe is my exhibit A in my argument that ‘90s comics didn’t suck.  It was essentially a spin-off of the very popular 1987 comic Justice League International, an effort by authors Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis to bring the DCU into a more multicultural age.  This was the era when genuine comedy and flawed humanity were introduced to the DCU and it remains one of the most creative, fun, and enjoyable eras in the company’s history.  

Justice League Europe followed in those same footsteps, adopting the ingenuous and hilarious central gimmick of being the superhero team equivalent of Euro Disneyland.  It’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s action packed, it’s Justice League Europe; and with that said, let’s dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on the top 13 covers.

Starting out with a unique blend of the books action and comedy elements with this cover.  If the heroes at hand look obscure that’s pretty much by design, part of the joke of the JLE was that they were compromised of a weird blend of legitimate names like The Flash and bizarre B-listers like Captain Atom, Power Girl, and Metamorpho.   What’s great about this cover is how well it blends together a jokey aesthetic with more action-oriented references to classic covers. 

The basic set-up of a giant fist grasping the heroes has been a core component of cover language since the Silver Age, usually in a metaphorical sense though this cover could easily be literal.  The twist on it here is the straight up cartoon nature of the hand grabbing the team.  It looks like they’ve been scooped up by Mickey Mouse and indeed very well may have been as one of the team’s central antagonists was a team of villains, sentient, Disney animatronics; it’s that kind of comic. 

We move now from a comedy/action cover to one that’s just straight comedy, and a pretty unique kind for comics.  See, comic books have always had comedic elements going all the way back to the Silver Age, the difference is that those comics were meant to be funny through fantastical shenanigans and nonsense.  In the case of the JLI and JLE, the emphasis was less on high concept weirdness and more about whacky sitcom antics.  The idea was that for so long the DC heroes had existed as perfect Gods you could create a really funny situation out of turning them into more realistically flawed people. 

Obviously they weren’t as harsh a depiction of reality as say Jessica Jones, but the emphasis was on creating broad parodies of flawed humanity in the manner of sitcom fools.  So, stuff like get rich quick schemes, petty rivalries, and jovial pranks abounded in this area and this cover worked off the former. 

With this cover, we get our first introduction to stylistic cover approach that this era pretty much defined: the static group shot.  The static group shot has traditionally just been the blandest way of saying “hey, these mooks are in our comic” but the JLI/JLE era turned into a goddamn art form.  They had the idea to introduce attitude, self-awareness, and winking irony to their group shots as well as a continuing roster of group covers that kept referencing themselves.  This cover is in the latter category, reworking the classic arrangement of the Justice League group pose but with the JLE’s archenemies: the Extremists. 

I’ve already discussed the Extremists in my guide to the Multiverse but they’re a team of villains from a parallel universe that are basically just thinly veiled parodies of Marvel bad guys.  They were a screwy idea but a good use of the Marvel Universe references for comedic parody, both of themselves and the nuclear hysteria at the tale end of the cold war.  Of all of the JLE’s wonderful and whacky weirdness the Extremists are the only thing they created that tends to still get referenced so it’d be a shame to do a countdown of their covers and not talk about them. 

Well, this cover is just delightful.  It was actually pretty rare that the JLE dipped into overtly surreal comedy, as I’ve mentioned, their style was always grounded in tongue-in-cheek fun and sitcom tom foolery so seeing them jump to floating puzzle pieces in space is pretty delightful.  This cover also features a cameo by one of this era’s greatest heroes Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle before Jaimie Reyes.  Ted was part of the main Justice League at this time but there was so much fluidity between the teams and their continuity people and characters could drift in and out of each other’s comics with great ease.    

Anyway, it’s hard to say exactly what it is that’s so great about this cover other than its unique brand of weirdness is absolutely delightful.  I’ve discussed this previously in my Top 20 Hawkman covers but the thing about a lot of Silver Age covers is that, while whacky, the tend to be zoomed out to a shockingly small scale.  As such, more modern covers that emphasize filling up a lot of the page with the characters create a very unique dynamic when they embrace whackier, Silver Age aesthetics like this one.  Additionally this is a cover that features speech balloons, so that automatically landed a space on this list. 

This is another example of the group shots I mentioned earlier, even featuring a cameo by the one that started it all.  On the left side you’ve got the first ever Justice League Europe cover which, aside from featuring Power Girl sporting her best Wolverine hair, also features Metamorpho actually reading the issue of JLA where this cover set-up originated.  

The way the team’s staring at the reader here is turned into a cocky smirk accompanied by actually speaking to the reader is a great example of the approach covers at the time were taking.  It reflects a book that’s much more aware of its own nature and, more over, aware of its own ridiculousness. 

The cover on the right is an annual, a special extra-large comic that’s put out at the end of the year and is usually unconnected to whatever story is currently going on.  In this case, the annual was tied into an event series entitled Armageddon 2001, one of the most notorious failures in DC history that we don’t really have the time to discuss.  Anyway, I love this cover because of how well it blends together elements of DC’s past and future.  

The folks on here are a smattering of C and D list heroes from across DC’s wide staple, from the distant future to Camelot.  This kind of hit list of obscure characters is made for comic book nerds like me but the surreal nature of the line-up, which is doubly lamp shaded on the cover in both the text and elongated man needing to inspect the members, makes for some good surrealist comedy. 

Ah, bless this cover.  For those not in the know, the carrot-topped hoodlum on this cover is Guy Gardner, one of the many Green Lanterns of Earth.  Guy was a delightful Green Lantern and my personal favorite iteration of the character but that’s mainly because he was an egotistical, cocky prick who was prone to jerkin’ around and getting up in everyone’s face.  

The whole joke of Guy Gardner was that even though he was a great Green Lantern all his alpha male posturing was just big talk, partially because it was normally directed at his dweeby teammates, and more specifically because whenever he got up in the face of his one of the bigger name heroes they’d always knock him right on his ass.  Seriously, the guy got K.O.’ed by Batman in the 1st issue of Justice League. 

This cover highlights that perfectly and creates a complete inversion of Guy’s normal lovably obnoxious presence.  It’s basically taking the parody inherent to his character and amplifying it up to 11, complete with that great little “guess who wins?” caption in the top right corner.  I especially like the cartoon stars spinning around Guy’s head in this.  The thing to remember about a lot of this era is that one of the core comedic origin points for this era was Looney Tunes so this kind of thing makes perfect sense. 

This is such a weird cover I absolutely love it, also no, it’s not literal.  This comes from a cross-Justice League comic event called Break Downs that was the beginning of the end for this glorious era by resurrecting an obscure no-name superhero team that inspired the original idea.  That team was the Global Guardians, a team of various superheroes representing a bunch of nations that I already talked about in my article on Crimson Fox joining Powerless. 

The big purple dude on this cover, named Jack O Lantern, is their Irish representative for reasons that entirely elude me.  I mean, yes the practice of creating Jack-o-Lanterns did originate in Ireland but it hardly seems like the basis for a superhero or a commonly known fact.  What’s more, I absolutely love that nothing about this guys look even remotely resembles a Jack-O-Lantern, not even his Jack-O-Lantern.  Still, I really dig the visual design of him trapping the League inside his villainous purple head, even if he isn’t actually giant sized in the comic (sadly.) 

Another take on the group shot, though it certainly won’t be our last.  Like I said, a corner stone of the comedy of this era was meta comedy, jokes where the characters would address the reader who create comedic situations out of being aware of their own fictional nature.  

In the case of this cover, this is an old standard for Keith Giffen, a cover with just enough trappings of a legitimate cover only the characters are all caught in an unguarded moment.  In this case, the cover is tied into that Break Downs saga I mentioned about the end of this era of the Justice Leagues. 

As such, it makes perfect sense that this attempt at a group shot would be interrupted by everyone just calling it quits and going home.  It’s a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  I especially like Maxwell Lord’s completely oblivious and goofy grin at the bottom of the page.  

Incidentally, if you only know Max Lord through Supergirl or his modern appearances, this was really his best era as a lovably sleazy used car salesman type that essentially managed to charm his way into being the head of the Justice League’s logistical side.  He was always a great human element in a book that was all about finding the quirky humanity in our heroes. 

If the Justice League has an archenemy it’s this guy: Starro.  He’s a giant alien starfish who drifts across the cosmos raining tiny spore versions of himself down on unsuspecting peoples.  The Starro spores attach to your face and mind control you into doing his bidding.  It’s never been terribly clear what Starro’s goal is beyond dominating the global consciousness, though it’s sort of implied to be bad doings of some kind.  In any event, these covers area great way of throwing him into the JLE mix and highlight the unique approaches to the same concept JLE could thanks to its twin roots in comedy and action. 

On the left you’ve got the comedic cover approach.  It’s another direct parody of the classic group shot, although this one is updated to reflect the changing membership of the JLE.  Incidentally, if you don’t recognize her the woman in yellow and white on the bottom right hand side is Power Girl sporting her early ‘90s costume.  I like that this cover even features Metamorpho dropping whatever comic he was about to snark on, plus that ellipses speech balloon is pretty hilarious.  I really like the idea that Starro chose to do this; that he was aware enough of superhero rules that this is something he just figured he ought to do. 

On the right the cover is more dramatic even if it is punctuated by an adorably bad pun.  The actual threat of Starro has always been the ingenuous way that he turns the citizenry into deadly weapons against the heroes, basically turning their desire not to hurt anyone into a weakness.  It’s a classic super villain move that’s been part of the Justice League mythos since their first adventure.  Featuring the JLE drowning in Starros as Martian Manhunter screams at the heaven is a pretty great literalization of those ideas. 

Little bit of history on this amazing cover.  Back in the ‘70s the hottest comedy publication in the world was the National Lampoon.  Nowadays it’s kind of waned in the popular consciousness but at the time it was a massively popular humor magazine that wormed its way into the consciousness of a whole generation of up and coming writers.  

In 1973 they published their most famous cover entitled “if you don’t buy this magazine we’ll kill this dog” and featured a gun pointed at a dog.  It became an instant touchstone for college kids and 20-something comedy writers everywhere and, about 2 decades later, some of those folks became comic book writers and made this cover. 

I think my favorite thing about this cover is how brutally ugly the cat happens to be.  It’s got the teeth of a vampire and a single evil eye that are just super ugly, which certainly fits with what the text is actually saying.  Yeah, if you read the inter-title carefully it says “buy this comic or we WON’T shoot this cat!”  That’s a double sided joke actually as outwardly it seems like the characters have just messed up, touching on that meta stuff I mentioned.  However, in the comic itself, that cat is totally evil, like it’s actually Satan and this was a great way to hide it right on the cover. 

Another Break Downs cover and a pretty great one too.  This is the flipside of Keith Giffen’s approach of resurrecting forgotten, goofy Silver and Bronze age concepts.  While sometimes he uses them for surrealist comedy or abject parody, he also makes great use of them for dramatic storytelling, really finding the creepiness of classical ideas.  This was following in the footsteps of fellow visionaries like Alan Moore and Giffen’s own mentor Paul Levitz.  In this case, the folks standing over the broken body of Captain Atom are the Global Guardians I mentioned a few entries ago. 

What’s so great about this cover is the comparison at hand.  Captain Atom, the metallic hero crashed on the ground there, is the equal of Superman and one of the most powerful heroes in the galaxy and he got taken out by a team that were created as a rip-off of the Super Friends.  No seriously, the Global Guardians were created to capitalize on the popularity of the diverse Super Friends members like Black Vulcan and Apache Chief.  For instance, one of the characters featured on this cover, the Denmark hero, is named Little Mermaid and she just handed Captain Atom his own ass.  There’s just something wonderfully wrong but also kind of chilling about that idea, especially when coupled with the setting of Bialya, one of the fake Middle Eastern countries that DC made up for big, international conflicts. 

There’s just something sinister about the public turning against heroes in the DC universe.  It’s an image that will never look “right” to me, at least not in the way that anti-hero sentiment in the Marvel universe actually kind of fits.  I think that goes down to a central difference between the two universes, that the DC heroes are made to be worshipped, built from the ground up to be Gods.  That’s always been the defining identity of the DC heroes, that they’re the people we aspire to be, not the people we actually are.  The Marvel heroes, for the most part, have always been flawed and broken people from the start.  They’re built with feet of clay and, as such, life tends to tear them down, just like in the real world. 

The Giffen/DeMatteis era was essentially a rejection of all that, embracing a flawed view of superheroes more in line with the Marvel outlook.  Given that, it makes perfect sense that the JLE would have people turn against them, though such a violent fashion to it is pretty creepy.  Honestly, given recent developments in Europe this cover takes on a very chilling double meaning as the mobs gather against the heroes to drive them out for the crime of not being perfect. 

Speaking of the situation in Europe, I cannot think of a better metaphor for the UK’s decision to leave the EU than this image.  This is actually the image that made me come back to Justice League Europe and put together this whole list.  While originally just meant as surrealist self-parody it’s been up-jumped to the level of incredibly topical political cartoon.  

I especially love the Union Jack formed on the drifting smoke cloud in the background coupled with the way the titular Beefeater is kicking over the Eiffel tower, that’s a damn funny joke.  The whole image is another example of the JLE pulling form the craziness of Silver Age comics only in this case it’s actively parodying the lunacy of that era in a decidedly loving way.

However, what I really love about this cover and what makes it the best Justice League Europe cover rather than just a very topical one is that it perfectly captures the joke at the heart of the series.  You’ve got elements of the more action oriented series in here in the Beefeater’s Roland Emmerich level destruction but the central joke of this cover is taking a standard comic book disaster and dressing it up in European colors.  The whole “giant monster stomping around” is superhero fiction 101 but replacing the monster with a giant Beefeater, the objectively funniest British thing imaginable, speaks to the whole point of the team. 

This wasn’t a team meant to be the greatest superheroes or even the Earth’s primary defenders, they were just the European face of the brand.  That’s what JLE was all about, being the superhero equivalent of Euro Disneyland of Google Plus and finding a sense of freedom and humanity in that level of failure.  I mean, there’s really no worse hit your career can take than being in Justice League Europe so really, why worry about trying to be perfect anyway?

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