Now that DC has officially announced its "Retro-Active" one-shots—including a Justice League International story which reunites the Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire team—I thought it would be fun to resurrect a JLI essay from the Great Lost Amazon Archives (thus saving it from disintegrating in the bowels of cyber-space). Hope you enjoy this look back at one of the most purely delightful gigs of my comics career.
I didn’t want to do it. Really. It was late 1986 and I’d just completed the four-part “End of the Justice League of America”—wrapping up the infamous Justice League Detroit era and clearing the path for a JLA reboot—and I was anxious to move on to More Important Personal Projects. But Andy Helfer—one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with (which makes sense since he grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood I did)—kept saying, “Yeah, well, I might need you to dialogue the new Justice League book.” “But Andy,” I said, “I don’t want to dialogue the new Justice League book.” Andy nodded, puffed out a stream of cigarette smoke and smiled.
Just a little thing, that smile. But it spoke volumes. “I’ve got you, DeMatteis,” that smile said. “You’re mine.”
And, somehow, he did get me. Andy gave me copies of the first issue pencils, done by some new kid named Kevin Maguire. He just wanted me to look it over, he said. Keith Giffen—who plotted the story—had already dialogued it, but neither Andy nor Keith (who, in those days, was primarily known as an artist) was pleased with the finished product, he said. I protested. “Just look at it,” quoth the Helfer. And he smiled again.
So I looked it over. This Maguire, whoever he was, was pretty damn good—Andy had Terry Austin lined up to ink, so I knew this was going to be a beautiful-looking book. (For the record: Kevin, Master of the Expressive Face, was in no small part responsible for the new League’s instant popularity. He set the tone for all the artists to follow.) Despite what I’d been told, I thought Keith had done a great job on the dialogue. It was fast and funny and yet the characters seemed three-dimensional and real. “Andy,” I said, “you don’t need me. Keith’s doing a terrific job and—” “Keith doesn’t think he can do it every month. He’s afraid he’ll choke up.” “But—” He smiled again.
So there I was, rewriting Keith’s script. I didn’t know why I was doing it—I don’t remember ever actually agreeing to do it—but there I was. And maybe, just maybe, it was fun. Kinda. Not that I was going to admit it to that bum, Helfer. Anyway, I was sure I could weasel out after the first issue.
But, somehow, the second issue plot arrived at my door. No script from Keith this time, just his delightful, Harvey Kurtzman-like layouts, with the foundation of the story mapped out in fairly succinct word balloons. Well, I thought, the story’s pretty good. And Keith’s situations are pretty funny. And he’s sure got some terrific one-liners in here. And...
Five years went by. Five years of what evolved into one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever had in comics. Every month I’d get another Giffen plot dropped into my lap, I’d write the first—and very often the silliest—things that would pop into my head, filling up the pages with all the fast-and-loose repartee I could muster, and Helfer and Giffen would tell me what a terrific job I’d done: This wasn’t work, this was play. And they were paying me for it. And not only that:
An odd thing began to happen. Our outrageous—some would say obnoxious—cast of characters began to (I know it’s a cliche, folks, but it’s true) come alive for us. Something about those Martians and ice-goddesses and time travelers was very real. Far more real, I think, than many—if not most—of the ever-so-serious super-heroes out there in Angst Land (and keep in mind that this observation is coming from a writer who’s made his reputation trafficking in angst). Most people would say that the key to the Giffen-DeMatteis Justice League’s success was its humor; that people read it for the goofy dialogue and the wild situations. And that’s certainly a large part of it. But the humor wouldn’t have worked if we—readers and creators alike—hadn’t believed in those characters.
The Leaguers reminded me of the gang of friends I grew up with in Brooklyn, sitting around on Saturday nights, putting our feet up, dropping our defenses, ragging on each other, sharing our problems. Just being ourselves, without the pressures of the world intruding. Justice League became my comic book Saturday night. A place I could go to drop the Serious Writer mask and just write for the sheer fun of it. Keith and Andy had the real headaches: they had to make up the stories! I just had to put words in the mouths of my friends. No problem.
Another wonderful thing that began to happen was the chemistry between myself and Mr. Giffen. Ours was (and remains) a collaboration based on two ingredients: spontaneity—people don’t believe me, but I often had no idea what was coming up in the next issue until Keith’s plot arrived—and trust. The trust was the key, I think. No, I never knew what to expect in a given month, but I knew that Keith—one of the most purely creative human beings I’ve ever met; the guy comes up with more viable story ideas in a day than I do all year—would deliver the goods. And Keith—the fool!—trusted me enough to give me all the rope I needed to hang myself. Sometimes I stayed tightly within the parameters of the Giffen universe, but other times I took off for universes of my own. Whole new relationships and plot twists emerged in the dialogue. What saw print was sometimes far removed from Keith’s intentions. And never once did Keith complain. Never once did even a hint of ego arise. Writing Justice League was like a relaxed game of tennis: Keith would lob the ball to me, I’d lob it back to him, he’d lob it back again, and, with each whack of the racket, the stories would grow far beyond what either of us intended.
And all the while that guy Helfer would sit in the bleachers, coaching us, cheering us, occasionally chewing us out, and always puffing on that cigarette, smiling that devilish smile.
At the end of five years (during which we also worked on a seemingly-endless array of JL-related spin-offs) Keith, Andy and I were all exhausted and pretty much done with the League. I continued to work with Helfer on projects—Brooklyn Dreams was done for DC’s ahead-of-its-time Paradox Press imprint, which Andy supervised—but Keith and I rarely saw each other: our creative paths just didn’t cross. Over the years, there was occasional talk of a reunion project, but I don’t think any of us—and that included the folks at DC—were all that enthusiastic about it. We’d moved on. The past was the past.
In 2003, editor Dan Raspler managed to convince both Keith and the Powers That Be at DC that a Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire reunion would be a good thing. I wasn’t so sure. In fact, I was afraid that the result would be just the opposite. My mind was flooded with visions of all those execrable TV reunion movies (y’know, Mary, Rhoda and Gilligan Return To Mayberry?): embarrassing endeavors that only ended up tarnishing the reputations of everyone involved. But it had been more than ten years since I’d worked with Keith and I was eager to collaborate again, so I took a deep breath and agreed.
I received Keith’s plot for the first issue and it was, unsurprisingly, terrific. I, on the other hand, felt myself stumbling and stalling as I scripted the first five or six pages. But then a funny thing happened: the characters began talking—to each other and to me—the words started spilling across the page and it was 1987 all over again. Only better. The result, perfectly visualized by Kevin Maguire, was Formerly Known As The Justice League, which won the 2004 Eisner Award for Best Humor Publication. But, for me, the real award was the startling revelation that Keith and I were a damn good writing team. That may sound strange—okay, it is strange—but I swear it wasn’t until we worked on that reunion series that the two of us realized just how special our collaboration is.
Back in the 80’s we were two freelancers recruited by a brilliant and crafty editor to do a job. We did it, we had fun—but it was Just Another Gig to us. With Formerly Known As and its sequel, I Can’t Believe Its Not The Justice League, we were old (but not too old) and wise (but not too wise) enough to finally understand that, however good we were individually, something unique happened when we put our two warped and graying heads together.
Andy Helfer knew it right from the start. I guess that’s why he was smiling.
© copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis