According to the internet (which is unfailingly accurate), the first issue of the Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire Justice League came out on Feb. 5, 1987. In honor of this anniversary, I'd like to re-present a piece—written by world-famous (and wholly fictitious) entertainment journalist Army Parsons—that first appeared here back in 2008, detailing the events that led up to that mildly-legendary comic book run. I hope the fact that everything you're about to read is a lie doesn't in any way hamper your enjoyment.
BIRTH OF THE JLI:
THE SHOCKING TRUE STORY
In January of 2008, at the Lou Costello Memorial Trailer Park in Patterson, New Jersey, the prestigious Academy of Comedy Arts and Sciences presented their 54th Annual Pie In The Face Awards. The centerpiece of the evening was—as it has always been—the Lifetime Achievement Award. Over the years, the greats of comedy—from Jack Benny, George Burns and Groucho Marx to Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Yahoo Serious—have taken the stage to be applauded by their peers and acknowledged for their groundbreaking contributions to the art and craft of comedy.
2008 was a banner year for the PITFs as it was the first time in the Academy’s history that the LAA was presented not to comedic performers, but to writers: in this case, the number one comedy writing team of the latter half of the twentieth century, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. (It’s true of course that Giffen & DeMatteis made two films together, the minor 1988 hit Bwah-ha-ha and the more recent, commercially disappointing, Bwah-ha-ha 2: Aren’t We Too Old For This?—but it is their written work, far more than their amiable, albeit embarrassingly inept, movies, for which they are celebrated.)
It was nearly midnight when co-hosts William Shatner and Candice Bergen introduced comedy legend Shecky Hecky, who spoke at length about the Giffen/DeMatteis team and their profound influence on the landscape of modern humor. “From the first time,” Hecky said, eyes misting over with tears, “I picked up a copy of Justice League and saw Batman take out Guy Gardner with one punch, I knew...I absolutely knew...that I was in the presence of genius.” Forty minutes later, after two thirds of the audience, bored by Hecky’s tedious and self-aggrandizing introduction, had left the park, the “Bwah-ha-ha” boys themselves, Giffen & DeMatteis, took to the stage, accompanied by the man credited with rescuing them from a decade of hellish obscurity, publishing magnate Ross Richie.
The remaining audience members jumped to their feet for a deafening twelve second standing ovation while Keith and J.M. mugged and clowned, DeMatteis hitting Giffen over the head with a rubber chicken, Giffen playfully shattering DeMatteis’s ribs with a baseball bat. Their acceptance speech was short and sweet: “Thank you,” a weeping DeMatteis said, while Richie phoned for an ambulance. “Go to hell, all of you bastards,” Giffen added, with customary charm.
An incredible ending to an incredible night; but, how, I wondered, had it all begun?
l986. Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Heehee’s was the preeminent comedy club of the day. Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Anthony Hopkins and innumerable other young comics got their start at this cramped, smoky bistro. Owner Sleazo Marx, briefly the adopted son of Zeppo Marx (I say briefly, because the adoption didn’t turn out well: Sleazo was returned to the orphanage, for a full refund, after six weeks), recalled those heady days in his autobiography Sultan of Sleaze: “The place was always packed and I was always drunk and broke. Tuesday night was Open Mike Night...a chance for any kid with a dream (and twenty bucks) to step up and try out his stuff. That’s how I first met those two jackasses.”
Giffen was a skinny kid from Queens with stars in his eyes and a chip on his shoulder. His act consisted of foul-mouthed insults, machine-gunned at the audience with a rapid-fire delivery reminiscent of Bob Hope and Adolph Hitler. He’d been coming to Open Mike Night for nearly a year...but his insult humor consistently failed to ignite the crowd. “Every week,” Sleazo noted, “the idiot would start a fist fight with somebody in the audience. I remember this time six nuns visiting from Columbia beat the crap out of him. He was a week away from being banned from Heehee’s forever when he and DeMatteis hooked up.”
J.M. DeMatteis was a naive and idealistic kid from the slums of Flatbush. Inspired by his heroes, Jack Benny, the Smothers Brothers and Huntz Hall, his was a style far more relaxed than his future partner’s. J.M. would take to the stage and, accompanying himself on the electric banjo, sing Beatles songs in Esperanto. Between numbers, he’d stand, with his mouth open (and occasionally drooling), staring blankly at the audience. “I worked for years, in front of the bathroom mirror, perfecting that stare,” J.M. would later reminisce. “I thought it was hilarious.” Unfortunately, no one else did.
Giffen and DeMatteis became friends during this time, often sitting out on the Brooklyn docks between sets, sharing their dreams, while Giffen indulged in his lifelong habit of chain-smoking french fries. It was at this time that the two young men discovered their mutual love of comic books, specifically the work of innovator Stanley Myron Curbstone, creator of the classic, short-lived (it was canceled three weeks before he sold it to National Comics), 1940’s super-hero parody, Super-Hero Parody. “I’m tellin’ ya,” the young Giffen once observed, “if this comedy thing doesn’t work out...I might try writin’ comics. I mean, how hard can it be puttin’ the words inside those little bubbles?”
“Never give up on your dreams,” DeMatteis (a long-time follower of Indian sailor-turned-guru Barnacle Baba) responded. “You have to have faith, Keith—in yourself...and in the benevolence of the universe. Close your eyes, go deep into your soul. Manifest your dreams in your mind first—and then you’ll be able to bring them into form on the material plane.”
“I hate that spiritual crap,” Giffen replied, before kicking DeMatteis into the bay.
Entertainment lightning struck on the night of October 25, 1986. Giffen had already done his set—the response had been even worse than usual and, in retaliation, Keith urinated on the crowd—and DeMatteis was halfway through his routine, strumming away on his banjo, wailing an off-key, Esperanto rendition of “Helter Skelter.”
That’s when someone in the audience—several witnesses claim it was Sleazo Marx himself—threw the brick, straight at J.M.’s head.
The brick missed its mark but hit the banjo—a fifty dollar Sears Silvertone with an amplifier built into the case—and completely shattered it. Panicked and shaken, DeMatteis stood there, staring at the audience and drooling prodigiously.
“I was watching him,” Giffen recalled, in the 2002 HBO documentary, How They Became Nobodies, “standing up there like a deer in the headlights. The audience was jeering and calling him names even I wouldn’t use. I knew I had to do something.” Jumping up onto a table directly in front of the stage, Giffen scratched his armpits like a monkey and shouted the first words that came into his head: “Bwah-ha-ha!” “I don’t know why I said it,” Giffen told HBO. “It didn’t have any special meaning. It just kinda popped out.” DeMatteis stopped drooling for a moment, focused on his friend and, without thinking, replied: “Bwah-ha-HA?”
The audience laughed.
“Bwah-HA-ha!” Giffen said in response.
The audience howled.
For the next forty-two minutes, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis kept repeating those three syllables, using every possible inflection, emphasis, and ersatz foreign accent they could think of: “Bwah-ha-ha!” over and over again.
The laughter was deafening—and a comedy legend was born.
They’d been playing to packed houses at Heehee’s for six straight weeks when The Incident happened. “Those morons were on the verge of incredible success,” Sleazo Marx wrote. “They could’ve been the next Wayne and Shuster.” Giffen & DeMatteis—that’s how they were now billed—were the hottest ticket in New York. They’d acquired an eager young manager—pop culture maven and, ironically, future comic book editor Danny Fingeroth—and were two weeks away from a national tour of the nation’s foremost comedy clubs. “Everywhere you went in New York,” Fingeroth told me, years later, the hurt and shock still evident in his eyes, “you could hear people on the street saying, ‘Bwah-ha-ha.’ I can’t believe that Giffen was dumb enough to throw it all away.”
Accounts of the night’s events vary. All that’s really known is that, halfway through the duo’s second set, at precisely eleven forty-five p.m., Keith Giffen did something so twisted, so unspeakable, so despicable and vile that nobody who was there will ever talk about it. “Just you bringing it up,” Fingeroth told me, “makes me want to vomit repeatedly.” Sleazo Marx, in his autobiography, would only write, “I’ve seen repulsive things in my life...but this was so sickening it nearly made me lose control of my bowels.”
In the HBO documentary, Giffen merely grins devilishly when asked about The Incident. DeMatteis, on the other hand, breaks down in tears. “Sleazo Marx,” he whimpers, “was so mad at us he immediately picked up the phone and called The King of Comedy himself, Milton Berle. When Sleazo told Milton what happened, it was all over. We were banned from show business forever. We were finished.”
DeMatteis spent the next several months hidden away in the attic of his parents’ house. “I seriously considered going to India,” he recalled, “and spending the rest of my life in Barnacle Baba’s ashram. But no matter how much I begged, my father wouldn’t give me the money.”
Giffen was living in a basement apartment in Queens, working nights at Burger King and smoking far too many french fries. “I’d steal them from the freezer and hide them under my shirt when I left work,” he once told me, in a rare display of vulnerability. “I think if I would have gone on that way, I would have died. Or gotten very fat. That’s when I got the comic book idea.”
When DeMatteis’s phone rang in early 1987 and he heard Giffen’s voice on the other end, J.M. slammed the receiver down in anger. But Giffen kept calling and calling and, finally, DeMatteis’s mother—who desperately wanted her son out of the house—forced him to talk to Keith. “The comic book idea,” as Giffen called it, was simple. Take their unique brand of humor—The Bwah-ha-ha—and transport it to the printed page, following in the footsteps of their mutual idol, Stanley Myron Curbstone. DeMatteis thought the idea was idiotic until Giffen pointed out that, if they were very lucky, they might be able to split twelve bucks a page.
With dollar signs dancing in his eyes, DeMatteis agreed.
The team’s first stop was Marvel Comics, where Managing Editor Tom DeFalco listened to Giffen’s pitch for one of the company’s lowest selling titles, The Defenders. “Imagine this,” Giffen said, enthusiastically. “Doctor Strange is Jack Benny, the Hulk is Curly Howard and the Sub-Mariner is Paul Lynde.”
“What about the Silver Surfer?” DeFalco asked.
“That’s the best part!” DeMatteis erupted, leaping to his feet. “He doesn’t do anything! Just hangs out on the beach with a bunch of surfer-dudes!”
Tom DeFalco was a gentle, saintly man with infinite patience, but, after listening, with mounting disgust, to Giffen and DeMatteis’s plans for desecrating four of Marvel’s most-beloved characters, he got up from behind his desk, rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to beat the team mercilessly. Even Giffen, quite the scrapper himself, was helpless before DeFalco’s fury. When the rampaging editor was done, bones were broken and copious blood had been spilled. “Get these bums outta here!” DeFalco barked to his assistant—who then tossed the two unconscious comedians into the service elevator.
When he regained consciousness, DeMatteis was, understandably, upset. “Well,” he said to his partner, “here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”
Giffen was undeterred. “C’mon,” he said, grabbing DeMatteis by the bloody nose and out onto the street, “we’re going uptown to DC!”
The pair, having stopped to purchase crutches along the way, hobbled into the lobby of DC Comics at 3:45 on a Monday afternoon. As fate would have it, this was exactly when editor Andy Helfer (a shrewd and dapper young playboy perhaps best known as the man who hired artist/writer Frank Miller for the wildly-successful revival of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen) was arriving for work, accompanied by his valet, Kevin Maguire. (Maguire, born to humble farmers in Iowa, was an extraordinarily gifted young artist with dreams of becoming a comic book illustrator. He hoped that working for the wealthy and influential Helfer would pave the way for a career in the business.) The four stepped into an elevator together, unaware that Destiny had entered with them.
Helfer, it turns out, was raised in Brooklyn and occasionally returned to his old stomping grounds. He’d spent many a Saturday night at Heehee’s in Sheepshead Bay and, unknown to Keith and J.M., was a passionate and dedicated Giffen & DeMatteis fan. Andy had been heartbroken when the team split and could hardly control his excitement when he realized that he was actually meeting his idols.
The two aspiring comic book writers were equally excited when Helfer invited them into his office. While Maguire dutifully tended to their wounds and set their broken bones, the editor explained that he’d recently been asked to revive DC’s flagship super-team book, Justice League of America—and he thought that the Giffen/DeMatteis touch was just what the series needed.
DeMatteis, who had his heart set on a revival of Curbstone’s Super Hero Parody, refused at first (a reluctance that never fully abated. He would, in fact, quit Justice League sixty-two times over the next five years), but Giffen, who sensed an opportunity for the pair to reinvent themselves, immediately agreed. “Don’t you get it?” Giffen whispered to his partner. “We can take our Defenders ideas, mix ‘em up a little, and use ‘em here! If the book’s a hit, they’ll let us do anything we want!”
DeMatteis was still uncertain; but, when he noticed Helfer’s valet doodling on the wall (an impressive series of drawings that depicted Superman and Captain Marvel having a lengthy conversation), he was struck by an idea that was truly inspired. “I’ll do it,” DeMatteis announced, “but only if Kevin Maguire draws the book!”
And the rest, as they say, is history! At least it would be if it was true
Maybe one day I'll write about how the JLI actually came about—but, really, isn't fiction far superior to reality? And, in the end, isn't reality itself just a work of Cosmic Fiction, dreamed into being by a Divine Storyteller? Which means that—in some parallel universe somewhere—this might be true after all.
Or maybe not.
©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis