Friday, September 7, 2018

Retro Review: Justice League of America #221 (1983) - "Beasts"


Written by: Gerry Conway
Art by: Chuck Patton and Pablo Marcos
Letters by: John Costanza
Colors by: Gene D'Angelo
Published by: DC Comics
Cover Price: $0.75
Cover Date: December 1983

1983 was the year I really got into comics. American comics, that is. I'd collected British comics since the mid-70s (Warlord and Doctor Who Weekly mostly – not 2000AD. Far too gruesome!), but a combination of a fairly steady UK distribution service to newsagents and the increasingly sophisticated storytelling of DC's and Marvel's output soon worked its magic on me. Obviously, Justice League of America was a title that appealed to me. I mean, why wouldn't it? A diverse grouping of colorfully-costumed superheroes banding together to fight outlandish threats was right up my alley. In many respects, as a 13-year-old boy with a pronounced fondness for sci-fi and action, I was probably the mainstream comic companies' ideal customer. Certainly, this issue is one I remember really enjoying at the time. How does it stack up now? There's only one way to find out…

The issue opens with a fairly long prologue featuring masked people attending some sort of exclusive show or sporting event. This being 80s comics, Conway's narration is not exactly subtle, dripping with judgemental disdain for the wealthy attendees so bored by their easy lives that they're looking for illicit thrills in some sort of arena. From a purely narrative point of view, this section is fantastic. Conway hooks the reader with a slow but very focused build-up, as we see posh limos arrive at the arena, and masked valets greet their occupants as they step out in their finery and enter the building. A certain amount of interest is generated purely by keeping the focus tightly on the spectators rather than on the action in the arena. The mystery of precisely who the combatants in the arena are is what sustains much of this issue and this prologue reaches a climax that impressively merges bloody violence and sexuality, and ends not with the revelation of the fighters' identities but with a cleverly presented credits panel.

It's almost a disappointment when the scene shifts to some JLA action, but even here, Conway impresses because the first two members we see are arguably the team's biggest names. Superman and Wonder Woman are working together to catch some hi-tech thieves who they've allowed to 'escape' in the hope that they'll lead them to someone higher up in their organization. It's worth noting that, by this time, Conway had written dozens of JLA stories and his portrayal of the characters is pretty much perfect. That they're close friends is clear; the interplay between them is characterized by gentle humor and some mild flirtation.  (We even get that old "I was just giving you mouth to mouth, Diana" chestnut.) Put simply, you believe in their friendship.

When a giant whale-human hybrid called Gigantus shows up to help the thieves out, the subsequent action is well-structured and dramatic with Diana's reaction to Superman being taken out of the fight being particularly well-presented. The team of Patton and Marcos produce clear, dynamic art and, for the most part, the pages are laid out well – if a little busily. (Well, this is the 80s!)

What follows is a sequence of scenes in which the Flash, Elongated Man and Firestorm encounter other animal-human hybrids, but Flash and Elongated Man don't fare anywhere near as well as Superman and Wonder Woman. Flash is gored by a rhino-man and, in one of the issue's more disturbing moments, Elongated Man is pecked at by birds with "human eyes" before being literally flattened in a Chinese laundry press. The encounter Firestorm has with rogue cat-woman ("Meow.") Reena is nicely developed with Reena eventually realizing that Firestorm is a good guy (has she never watched the news?) and agreeing to accompany him to the JLA satellite to inform the team about what's really going on. Which she won't do until next issue.

Instead, we get a scene with Carter 'Hawkman' Hall on an archaeological dig in Luxor. (Shayera informs the League that Carter's not contactable because the couple is on their annual "vacation from each other". Hmmm.) Perhaps predictably, the dig is interrupted by more of the hi-tech goons intent this time on stealing the riches in the Egyptian tombs Carter's team of archaeological students is excavating. The thugs have, appropriately enough given the setting, scorpion-men for support and the scene ends with a quite shocking panel of Hawkman in silhouette getting impaled on the end of a scorpion-man's stinger.

The issue ends with the reveal of this three-parter's main villain, the lion-man hybrid Maximus Rex who, as his name suggests, presents himself as a self-styled king complete with modern throne and a violently contemptuous attitude towards his underlings. Having, through a series of well-constructed scenes and tantalizing hints, hooked the reader, Conway leaves things there with a tagline promising that next issue will allow us to read "Reena's Tale".

As the opening issue of a three-part tale, this does its job remarkably well. A fair number of League members are involved in the action and the scale of the threat they face is revealed incrementally as the issue goes on. That the League – and the reader – still doesn't really understand the nature of the threat by the issue's end is on its own enough to keep the reader interested in the next issue, but the character interplay and the seriousness of the injuries to Flash and Elongated Man only add to the sense that this is an important and fairly serious story.

I suppose it could be argued that the structure of the issue is just a little bit repetitive with a series of League members meeting threat after threat, but the diverse nature of the threats and the increasing danger they represent (is Hawkman still alive at the end of this issue?) is enough to keep things varied and interesting. The plot does, arguably, come together through a number of coincidences, but I'm willing to overlook that convenience bearing in mind the excitement the story keeps on offering.

The art of Patton and Marcos is excellent. Patton never got the acclaim of someone like George Perez or Jose Garcia-Lopez. His characters could sometimes be a bit too stiff at times, but his layouts are generally excellent here. There are no awkward transitions and no confusion, and Marcos' inks add just enough detail and softness (particularly to facial expressions) to elevate things a little. While rarely spectacular, the art is consistently clear and solid throughout.

The story itself is pure 80s, I suppose: brash, violent, and steeped in a probably quite cynical sensuality, which manages just about to stay the right side of prurience. In addition, its preoccupation with technology, class and the implicitly (here, explicitly) corrupting power of wealth makes it very much a left-wing fable of its time. But, it is also a great JLA story in its own right. The roster is diverse but sprinkled with enough big names to keep even the most demanding of fans happy. More importantly, Conway's characterization of the League members is well-developed and reasonably nuanced – particularly in the Wonder Woman/Superman pairing and when Firestorm meets Reena for the first time. (That Firestorm is Conway's creation is pretty obvious from the extremely sympathetic and nuanced way he writes him here.) 

Bits and Pieces:

The 80s were a period of considerable change for the Justice League with the team leaving the decade almost unrecognizable from the one that entered it. While the Giffen/DeMatteis run rightly gets plaudits for its presentation of the world's greatest superheroes, it's worth remembering that there was some interesting stuff happening at the start of the 80s, too. Issue 221 demonstrates Conway and the League at their pre-Crisis best. I humbly suggest it's worth a look.


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