Tales from the Long Box # 12: Japer Revisits Justice League # 5

Every week, we’ll be bringing you reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.

These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.

Justice League # 5
Writers: Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis
Artists: Kevin Maguire, Al Gordon
DC Comics

Biff! Bam! Pop!

Who doesn’t love a good fight in the pages of our favourite comic books? It’s why we’re reading them, right? We want to see our favourite hero overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and whoop the butt of his most feared adversary. For the past week or so, www.comicbookresources.com has been compiling a list of the Top 25 Comic Battles. That making of that list got me to thinking about some of the best battles I’ve seen in the comic pages during my twenty-five years of reading them. I quickly realized that there is a whole host of fantastic drag-down knuckle-crunchers to choose from. Still, among all of them, there was one fight that was so unlike any of the others. When it popped into my head, it had me thinking about it all week long.

Superhero comics are built around conflict and often that conflict is against some villain named Death, Doom or Doctor something or other (so long as it’s a threatening sounding “something or other”). Alternatively, it might be a conflict against a group of evildoers: The Injustice League, Group, Society or some other word denoting assemblage. The great fights, however, are always good guy versus bad guy, one on one, mano a mano.

Well, it’s not always like that. Not if you were reading Justice League in the late 1980’s.

Written by industry veterans Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, and featuring the realistically detailed artwork of newcomer Kevin Maguire, Justice League, published by DC Comics, premiered in the spring of 1987 to both critical and commercial acclaim. The creative team took Justice League stalwart, longstanding heroes such as Batman and Martian Manhunter and mixed them with lesser-known characters such as Mister Miracle, Black Canary, Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, injecting a sense of humour into the stories. The basic question of the series asked: what would a group of disparate, super-powered, costumed men and women really act like if they existed in the real world? During a time of unprecedented seriousness in comics, as evidenced by the success of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen (which was being published simultaneously as Justice League), this new incarnation of comicdom’s most distinguished superhero team stood out from all other titles.

One of the early storylines that garnered enthusiasm from the reading public centered on the character of Guy Gardner, the new Green Lantern representative of this manifestation of the Justice League. Gardner is a headstrong, willful and a highly obnoxious hero. Still, through the creative and deftly witty writing of Giffen and DeMatteis, he was able to endear himself to readers. From the first panel of the first issue in the series, Gardner was shown to want complete control of the League as its defacto number one – shunning the leadership capabilities of other longstanding heroes. Of course, Batman, another obstinate character, would have none of this and routinely put the upstart Gardner in his place through various bouts of intimidation. The friction between the two individuals ramped up to enormous levels over the months, culminating in the fifth blockbuster issue.

Arguably, the most important aspect of the final showdown between Batman and Guy Gardner was not the fight itself but the artwork by Kevin Maguire that showcased the confrontation. Maguire, new to the comic scene, had an unsurpassed talent for facial expressions. Whether displaying the emotions of fear, pride, puppy love (as was often the case in the comedic version of this Justice League) or the passion of uncontrollable anger in issue five, Maguire routinely nailed it in his art, adding a heightened sense of drama to the story. The cover, as shown above, speaks volumes for what the story inside detailed: an irrepressible Gardner, just barely held back by two of his own teammates, Captain Marvel and Martian Manhunter – their grip on him about to slip. The facial contortions are of the highest order: extreme anger and abhorrence; the faces of Marvel and Manhunter – extreme effort. The cover does a magnificent job of getting the viewer to open the book – who couldn’t help themselves but sneak a peek inside and see what happens in the fight-to-end all-fights?

OK. A bit of a spoiler alert here. I can’t help but talk about the showdown, so if you don’t mind finding out how it all ends, read on. If you don’t want to know because you’d like to find out yourself, skip to the last paragraph in this piece.

OK. Consider yourself warned.

The fight itself doesn’t just live up to expectations – it actually exceeds them, which is strange because the battle between Batman and Gardner only lasts one panel. That’s right. One panel. Affirming Batman’s place in the Justice League while re-affirming Gardner’s, it takes the Dark Knight one punch to the face to lay out the Green Lantern on the floor – unconscious. Of course, the other heroes are stunned and, in perfect Justice League comedic timing, both the Martial Manhunter and Black Canary enter the room after all the “action” has ended. “Is that Gardner on the floor?” ask ambivalent Manhunter, never following up the question with a “why?” Canary, on the other hand, expresses despair that she actually missed the decking of Gardner. Oberon obliviously steps over the body without batting an eye while Blue Beetle laughs hysterically, obsessively repeating “One punch!” – a statement that has since gone down in infamy with fans everywhere. The expressions on all of these characters faces are what make the scene, this denouement, so memorable with readers.

Justice League has been collected into three hardcover volumes thus far, so if you’re looking to read the big fight between Batman and Guy Gardner, you can find it in the first volume. I was a little concerned that such a memorable moment in comic history wouldn’t find its way on the Comic Book Resources poll. I’m happy to report that “the punch” made its way to number sixteen in the all time Top 25 Comic Battles – a reminder that it is moments in a comic book story that truly resonates with readers.

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