by Bruce Bachand
This month we are going to look at a not-so-old story from the JLA's history. The first story is taken from Justice League America #38-#40 (May '90-July '90) and involved an attack on the League by Despero. Though not an "official" multi-issue storyline, the Despero incident took place over these three issues and had consequences that would permanently change one (former) JLAers' life. This is also the story in which Mister Miracle "died" and the repercussions were felt for months. The tale, finally, also served to make a point about the JLA's effective status as a team at that point in DC Universe continuity.
Justice League America #38 opens with a realistic five-page spoof of the League being featured in the May 1990 issue of SPY magazine (a real publication). The rage-aholic face of Guy Gardner "graces" the cover of the New York monthly. Across the cover of the imaginary issue are such headlines as: "Apply Sparingly: Darkseid's Grooming Tips For The Nineties"; "Nice Place You Got Here: A Visit With The Wacky Inmates Of Arkham Asylum"; and "Of Teleporters And Toilet Bowls: Behind The Scenes At S.T.A.R. Labs". Our story is written by none other than Giffen and DeMatteis, the art by Hughes and Rubenstein. Fine talent, nonetheless.
It ends up that the SPY feature is a proposed series by a sleazy American journalist. The piece is pulled by the European distributor, who is V. D'Aramis, a.k.a., the Justice Leaguer Crimson Fox. Immediately following this humorous little exchange page 8 illustrates a shot of Despero rocketing through space towards the Earth. He has not forgotten his last humiliating encounter with the JLA and intends on "evening the score". That is, he intends on killing each one of them. Plain and simple. The problem is that the League he battled years earlier is no longer around (the only exception being the presence of J'onn J'onzz on the current roster). Oh, but let him be told him that!
Despero's plan to kill each JLA'er begins with Steel (the '80's version). Unknown to him, Steel, for all purposes, is dead and his body is merely being kept alive by artificial means (i.e. machines). Panel one on page 10 shows the frustrated face of Despero being reflected on the glass of Steel's containment womb. Our not-so-happy guest then proceeds to express himself (taking after Madonna, perhaps) and ravages what is left of Steel's flesh. Despero then locates and brutally (and I mean brutally!) murders the parents of former Justice League member Gypsy. She returns home soon thereafter and is greeted with the grisly site of her murdered father. Despero speaks from the shadows and grimly utters the line "Daddy is dead, child". She is his next certain target. The remainder of the issue has Gypsy literally fleeing for her life and Despero senselessly killing everyone along the way as he attempts to find her. He finally corners her on the second last page of the issue. The last page has the Martian Manhunter manifest his presence, via interception, with the words "There will be no more deaths today except perhaps yours."
Issue #39 has J'onn and Despero have it out for the first seven pages. This red demon who lusts for carnage, death, and utter annihilation will settle for nothing else than the incarnation of them. Realizing that they are near-physical equals, Despero launches into a mental offensive. J'onn ends up falling injured from the attack (an attack that introduces us to a thing the Martians can practice, once-in-a-lifetime, called Mayavana; more on this later). Guy Gardner enters the foray on page 7 while Mister Miracle, the Blue Beetle, Fire and Ice arrive soon after him. Sadly, by page 17 Gardner has been thoroughly trounced despite a furious effort to bring the creature to a halt. Fire then attacks and she is able to (all-too-briefly) afflict him with pain. She, too, falls to the wrath of this seemingly invulnerable thing of living fury. Ice is quickly rendered unconscious. The JLA hovership, with Mister Miracle at the helm, is disintegrated on panel one of page 21. The Blue Beetle is snatched into the clutches of Despero's grip. He knows all too well that his number is up. So ends issue #39!
Justice League America #40 is the conclusion to this joyride. Good old J'onn recuperates well enough to re-confront the beast, on page two, as Beetle's life is being held in the balance. Tragically, the Manhunter looks on in panel four as Despero pops Ted's head off his neck like a cork from a bottle of champagne. J'onn stares in disbelief and is taken back by the sheer horror and nihilism of the moment that seems to last forever. He recovers, leaps into action, and makes a full-scale attack against this thanatological emissary. Despite his best renewed efforts he, too, falls victim to the beast's powers on panel four of page 3 and is decapitated gruesomely. Fire , in vain, attempts a second assault but is also doomed to die. Ice's lifeless body is amidst the rubble of the carnage. The JLA is finished and Despero is still wearing the tattered flag of the United Nations that has tenaciously clung to him. Panels two and three, on page 6, feature the victorious foe declaring to the surviving denizens of the planet "What I now do, I do for hate's sake. For I have learned at an early age that hate is the only power in this chaotic universe! The one true beloved who will not abandon or betray you!"
With that declaration the end of all humanity draws to a close. Over the next four pages Despero proceeds to carry out his plan to utterly annihilate the planet and everything on it. Gloating to himself, Despero acknowledges that at last his hate has "lived, breathed, moved found expression!" And with this he has finally found rest and non-existence. And that is the end.
Of that part of the story, that is.
One panel one of page 11 a perplexed (and very much alive) Beetle asks J'onn (equally alive!) why his windpipe was about to be crushed one minute and the next minute Despero was flying off into space "happy as a clam". Good question, indeed!
It ends up that J'onn used the Martian one-time Great Gift: Mayavana. With it a Martian is able to reach into the consciousness of another and create a reality more powerful than the reality which is taken to be reality ( a kind-of Martian LSD trip but not really). He had fooled Despero into thinking that he had killed the League and then decimated the Earth. This apparently was all that the creature had wanted to be fulfilled and at peace (if only more of us could have such simple wishes!). The formerly unbeatable machine of desolation was now a mere six-inch alien embryo which plopped onto the ground near the recovering heroes. The rest of the issue is somewhat contrived compared to the action and characterization of the previous two-and-a-half issues. The consequences that the onslaught has had on the Justice League and others directly affected by the attack are brought to light. Many lives have been inanely taken, including Mister Miracle's (though a future issue of JLA does reveal that only a robot of Mister Miracle was actually blown to bits; the real Scott Free was away on a covert assignment and hadn't told the JLA or his now-grieving wife!)
This storyline was the JLA tale by Giffen and Rubinstein that I have enjoyed the most. It had all the characterization and wise-crackin' humor of previous stories. But is also had a villain in it who had absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever. And he never would for that matter. Here was a foe who was a genuine manifestation of unbridled hate, power, and will. Despero was the kind of enemy that the League needed to encounter so as to know that they could defeat. They would then be worthy of the title "Justice League America". In my mind they failed miserably the test put before them.
As I said in my column last month, I can appreciate the life that Giffen brought to the Justice League. His ability to flesh out characters that we believe are real is among his strongest assets. At the same time, though, I think that he still settled for creating a League that was a joke in power, unity, and purpose. Qualities that mean life-or-death for the people you are supposed to be protecting. This team had their asses thoroughly kicked by Despero. If it had not been for J'onn's never-before-mentioned ace-in-the-sleeve the team would have been dismembered as things initially looked.
If J'onn J'onzz is getting his butt trounced this is a sign that there is not an adequate amount of power on the team. He really appeared to be the sole tactician for a couple of years. The later addition of Wonder Woman and Captain Atom would eventually help solve this dilemma. At this time in DC history Despero had caught the JLA with their pants down (though I think it is safe to say that they fared better than Vibe, Steel, Vixen, and Gypsy would have!). This was a foe who would not negotiate. Nor did he need to do so. He was not weak in any blatant way. His satisfaction would only be satiated by erasing the JLA from existence and then obliterating the entire planet. Funny jokes would not lighten the mood. This guy meant business and he was not interested in taking an anger management workshop to top it off. So what do you do?
You do what the JLA did; your best! These guys did give it everything thing that they had. As a result, they did save Gypsy's life and the lives of others. They managed to divert the action away from the population and to the water. They also kept Despero busy so that he was distracted from killing more innocent lives. Sure, they were grossly outclassed in one sense. But for a few brief and crucial moments they held their own until Mayavana could be dealt as the trump card.
I do think that the way that Despero was defeated was just too bloody convenient for my tastes. It was a plausible act, though. Yet again, J'onn saves the day and the lives and the weak-ness (hyphen intended for emphasis) of the League is in the limelight. No wonder Max felt so damn awkward: his team was second-rate! A guy at his level of dealings knew quality when he saw it. And this team was not up to snuff. The main thing that had probably kept some off the "bigger guns" in the DC Universe from joining the team was Max's over-controlling-style of management and direction. Business he understood. Not the dynamics of being a diplomat amongst meta-humans.
So what was inspiring about this story you may ask? Finding out that J'onn loved his wife and daughter as much as he did. Seeing him in tears, as Despero is taunting him with his most painful life experience, is profoundly moving. How often has this aspect of J'onn's character been woven into a story? Almost never. And yet look at the humanity (!) that this Martian has bottled up inside. A better way to put it would be an his ability to give, to love, and to belong somewhere. His fatherly protection of Gypsy had continued for years since this story came out. I long for a story that will mine the depths of these qualities as briefly evidenced by J'onn in Justice League America #39.
Guy's introduction was completely repulsive. All he could do was come-on to a 16 year-old girl who has obviously just been raped or assaulted. I am expected to believe that this man is even remote League caliber. Not a chance. I will admit that Guy has appeared to have grown-up the past two years in DC continuity. It is about time. This anti-hero BS is for morons and fools who would attempt to raise their own children to be amoral, asexual, and devoid of healthy boundaries. Guy Gardner, in the story being reviewed, was a complete boob who brought shame upon himself, his friends, and his sphere of influence. Nuff said.
An interesting theme to ponder is that of the movie "SLINGBLADE". This was an incredible picture in every sense of the word. It's main character struggles with his morality in dealing with the problem of evil (as incarnated in an abusive boyfriend who terrorizes a pre-teen boy and his mother). The movie paints things in such a way that the "hero" needs to make a choice as to what the moral response to action should be. His choice ends up being very shocking but, somewhat, understandable. The Justice League tale with Despero deals with a similar issue. What do you do with the problem of unrestrained evil? If J'onn could not have used Mayavana would it have been legitimate to have killed Despero, if that had been the only means to put an end to the situation? Does being a hero mean taking matters into your own hands if you have the power and means to do so (this being a theme of KINGDOM COME, too). I find that the villain Despero typifies evil as it really exists in this world. It doesn't plea bargain. It doesn't "play fair". It doesn't respect rules, boundaries, or others unless forced to. Rather, it is completely self-focused, apersonal, socio-pathic, powerful, strong-willed, and able to act decisively to it's full capacity. It also has personality and intellect. As so did Despero act. He is one of the enemies who will NEVER give up until he has achieved his goals. Mongul is another DC character from the same twisted mold. Evil needs to be confronted with truth, power, unity, and the moral courage to act in any and every way that the circumstances demand.
It may sound repulsive but I was glad that the JLA had their faces rubbed in the sand in JLA #38-#40. It simply was a trying experience that would force them to come to grips with strengths and weaknesses of their current roster. The later addition of Superman greatly helped the team to have vision, focus, and wiser direction from a leader who one was impelled to respect. Despero was a tool to shake up the roost. It will be interesting to see if Grant Morrison ends up using Despero in any future stories. If so, I hope that he fully retains the foe's rage, power willfulness, and tremendous physical and mental strength. His recent use of Darseid in the "Rock of Ages" storyline was reasonably well-written. A tale with Despero, Mongul, and Darseid together would be unfathomable!
In conclusion, I want to say that these were three pivotal issues. The League experiences a death (or so it was thought at the time). A former member has her parents violently murdered and she is now an orphan who needs a new place to call home. The inadequacy of the team, in terms of necessary skills and abilities, stands out like a bloated whale. Inspiring is the knowledge that J'onn experienced a love that was costly, consuming, and profoundly deep. J'onn also had this love taken away violently and he wept in pain over the loss. A lot was lost in these three issues for the team. Perhaps this was the event that eventually lead to the establishment of a new JLA roster and structure. I believe that it acted as a catalyst to this end. All I do know is that this was a crisis that would foreshadow the teams decimation at the hands of Doomsday in only a few years. And that experience left no room for doubt about the need for changes, re-tooling, and renewed vision for the Justice League of America to regain it's former greatness.