On Friday, Warner Bros. will release Justice League, featuring the most powerful heroes in the DC Extended Universe. Although it’s the superteam’s first theatrically released feature film, the Justice League has decades of history in print and on the small screen. This week, EW is talking to three of the most iconic creators who’ve worked with the League. Today: J.M. DeMatteis, whose work with co-writer Keith Giffen and artist Kevin Maguire produced one of the League’s most unexpected reinventions in the late ’80s, known as Justice League International. DC just released an omnibus edition of the JLI, which would make a great Christmas present, hint hint!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: By the time you started working on Justice League, many of the most iconic DC superheroes had left the team. How did that affect the tone and direction of your book?
J.M. DEMATTEIS: Creatively, it was the best thing that ever happened to us, that we didn’t get Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, all those guys together. Because we ended up with a bunch of, for the most part, B-level characters. No one cared! That gave us the freedom to take those characters and make them our own. We could’ve never done that Justice League, with all that humor and all those odd character beats, had we been working with the big guns. Because we’d have had every editor of those characters down our throats. “You guys are writing Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Fire and Ice, Oberon? Go ahead! Do whatever you want!”
What was the status of the Justice League within the DC Universe, when you started working on the team?
This was the end of the “Justice League Detroit” era. Which I think at the time, people did not hold in high regard. But I have to say, Gerry Conway [who wrote the “Detroit” era] must be very happy, because all those characters are appearing on TV now every week! So they turned out to have very long lives.
I was hired at the end of that run to essentially wrap it up and kill off a few of those characters. My marching orders were to do a big dramatic finale. At the time, I had no clue I was going to be working on the League that would follow. Then it just turned out that I ended up on the next incarnation of the League, working with Keith. Five years of almost nonstop Justice League, between JLI and Justice League Europe, Justice League Quarterly, and a variety of miniseries and spinoffs.
How did the specific tone of Justice League International develop?
No one ever said to me when we started, “Oh, we’re doing Funny Justice League.” It just evolved naturally. The more we went along, the more we realized that what we had on our hands was a superhero sitcom. But we never set out to do that. The minute you sit down and think, “I’m going to be funny,” you’re probably screwed.
Around the same time, I was writing “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which is as dark a Spider-Man story as has ever been written. I wasn’t thinking, “Now I’m doing this in clever contrast, we are answering the grim and gritty stories with our version of light and happy!” We just followed the characters. Keith would write the plots and set up these situations, I would start writing the dialogue, and the characters would start talking to each other. Beetle and Booster really created that team, not us.
You had done a little bit of work on Avengers before coming to the Justice League. From your perspective, is there a defining difference between what an Avengers story is versus what a Justice League story is?
I can’t really say so, because the Justice League we wrote had nothing to do with the Justice League I grew up with.[laughs] On the big picture, the Avengers was always, from the get-go, a very chaotic book. Stan [Lee] very early on started shifting the membership, throwing out the big guns, bringing in all these obscure characters. The book was always, always changing. And despite the fact that we’ve seen many iterations of the Justice League, the classic Justice League in everyone’s mind is that group of classic characters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern. Our Justice League is almost a separate imprint, you know? If not it’s own universe. It exists out there in its own wacky world. Keith and I talk about the Giffen/DeMatteis universe.
I would love to see more from the Giffen/DeMatteis Universe!
There was talk a few years ago… I was writing for The Brave and the Bold animated series, and there was a little talk at the end of that they were gonna morph that into a JLI animated series, which I thought would’ve been a great way for that stuff to live on. Never happened.
What’s it been like to see the characters that you’ve worked on, as they’ve moved through some of the darker eras of comics?
Look what they did to Max Lord, and having him shoot Blue Beetle in the head. The worst we ever did to [Beetle] was we had him gain weight. He got fat and couldn’t fit into his costume! The truth of working on those universes is, someone else is always going to come along and mess with what you did. I’ve done that to other people! I’m sure there are people going, “I can’t believe what he did to my characters.”
You and Keith are currently working together on the Scooby Apocalypse series. Are there any other projects coming up for you?
The comic book projects I have coming up, I can’t talk about right now. But I’ve written a John Constantine animated series, which is going to be on the CW Seed early next year. Matt Ryan is reprising his role as Constantine. It’s one of the best animated projects I’ve ever been involved in.
It’s been interesting to see how the CW shows have built their own gigantic DC universe over the last few years.
I was watching an episode of Supergirl the other day. “There’s J’onn J’onzz’ daughter. Oh, I created her! They’re talking about H’ronmeer, the Martian god of fire. Oh, I created him!” You feel these little bits and pieces of your own work popping up in these stories. If I had tried to explain to ten-year-old me that every fifteen minutes there would be another superhero movie in the theaters – and you could turn on the TV basically every night of the week and see a great superhero show? His head would explode!
The downside, I think, I think there’s a whole group of people that are massive, massive fans of these characters, and will never read a comic book. Because they don’t have to! They have the movies, the TV shows, the animated shows, the videogames. Why do they have to pick up a comic book? And that’s kind of a shame. We’re not limited by anybody’s budget. We can do whatever we want.