Recently, famed Spider-Man, Captain America, and Justice League writer JM DeMatteis sat down with me for an interview about his time scripting Justice League International with Keith Giffen (plotting) and Kevin Maguire (art). JM DeMatteis worked on the series from May of 1987 to March of 1992. The series is known as the “Bwa-Ha-Ha era” of Justice League due to the humorous nature of the series. During their seminal run, they introduced the relationship between Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, as well as creating the character of Maxwell Lord. Below are the contents of my interview with him.
In the 1980s, after the “Justice League Detroit” era failed at DC, you were brought in and tasked with ending the series. Was it a mandate that the majority of the characters were killed off, or was that because you knew Crisis on Infinite Earth was on the horizon so you would be able to have an emotionally shocking ending because you knew of the company-wide reset?
I don’t think the Detroit League failed. I just think DC wanted to reboot the series and the upcoming crossover—which was Legends, not Crisis—was a good place to do it.
I was either asked to kill off specific characters or I was just told to kill off a few without specifics and I decided who it would be. Either way, editorial wanted some deaths.
After Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Legends series, you, Keith Giffen, and Kevin Maguire started a Justice League book together. How did editor Andy Helfer bring the three of you together?
Andy Helfer was the hub around which that book turned: a superb editor and a truly good guy. His importance to our success can’t be underestimated. And he was the one who picked each of us for the gig. Keith, I know, desperately wanted to write Justice League. He was originally going to write it solo, but he and Andy decided he needed someone to do the dialogue while Giffen plotted. Since I’d just been working on the Detroit book and Andy and I had a great relationship, he asked me to sign on. I was reluctant at first, I thought Keith was more than capable of doing it himself, but Andy convinced me. It took a while for me to settle in, but as the months passed I realized what a fun gig JLI was and I signed on for the long haul.
Kevin was also a Helfer find and he was perfect for the tone of the book. No one does acting on the comic book page better than Kevin Maguire and, as I’ve often said, if he hadn’t drawn those first couple of years of stories, we might not be talking about JLI today. Kevin is brilliant and his importance to the book and its success can’t be underestimated.
How closely did the three of you work together when making the book? Who had control over the decisions happening within?
People imagine that Keith and I were huddled together cooking these things up, but, in those early days at least, we were working in glorious isolation. We’d see each other up at the DC office every few weeks, go out to lunch with Andy and Kevin (who was often there drawing in Andy’s office), but the rest of the time we were home, doing our own thing. But the chemistry between the three of us was there from the beginning. Something magical happened when Andy put us together—and you can’t fake that, it’s either there or it’s not.
Over the years, as we worked on more projects together—with and without Kevin—Keith and I spoke more often, collaborated more closely, and really got to know each other. But, for much of the JLI run, we were all like pieces in a well-oiled machine. The JLI process went something like this: Andy went over Keith’s plots—which Giffen drew, like mini-comics that were works of art in themselves—then sent them off to me (I often had no idea what was coming up till the plot arrived) and then I just started spinning, getting the characters to talk to each other, playing with the story, adding new elements via dialogue. The fun was that Keith would then build on things I’d added, I’d build on what he did in the next plot, and on and on, like a great game of tennis. I’d sometimes have both Keith’s plot and Kevin’s pencils while I scripted, but, because of time constraints, it was just as likely that I was writing straight from Keith’s plots. His layouts were impeccable—Keith’s one of the best storytellers ever in comics—and writing from his plots was, and remains, a joy. Andy would then go over the scripts, cutting out some of my excess verbiage (once those characters started talking, it was hard to make them stop!). If it had been another editor, I might have bristled at that, but Andy was so good at what he did, and our friendship was so solid, that it was fine with me. Kevin would sometimes draw from just the plots, other times he’d have both the plot and my script, depending on where we were deadline-wise. In any case, he always brought the story to the next level via his extraordinary visual interpretations.
Did you get to choose which characters were chosen, or was that an editorial decision? Was there a list of characters that were off-limits to use in any capacity?
The initial line-up was dictated by DC editorial. We had no voice in it at all. It worked out to our advantage that, for the most part, we got a group of characters that were viewed as second-stringers, because that gave us license to make them our own. To imprint them with our unique POV.
After a few issues, Captain Marvel was removed from the team. Was that due to the then-upcoming Shazam!: The New Beginning by Roy and Dann Thomas?
Didn’t that come out before JLI? In any case, I’m not sure why Captain Marvel was taken out. It might have had something to do with the license. I’m pretty sure DC didn’t own Captain Marvel outright then and there might have been some limitations on how often, and where, he could be used. We would have kept him around because he was so much fun to write.
Whose decision was it to introduce Booster Gold to the team, and how did his friendship with Blue Beetle evolve and form?
I don’t know whether it was Keith’s idea or Andy’s or if someone else in editorial suggested it. Honestly, when Booster first showed up I had no idea who he was. I was just following Keith’s lead!
As for how the Blue and Gold friendship evolved: It certainly wasn’t planned. (Very little in JLI was planned! Most of it was happy accidents!) No one said, “Hey, let’s make these guys best friends and send them on adventures together.” The characters themselves led us to that relationship.
Keith put them in a few scenes together, I got them talking, and something clicked. The more we put them together, the better it got, and they soon became the heart and soul of the book.
After seven issues, Justice League became Justice League International. Was that change always planned, or did you as writers just figure out the title would work better in that setting?
It was something that just evolved naturally.
Justice League Europe was launched in April of 1989. Was that something you as the writers pushed for, or was it a suggestion by DC Comics due to the success of Justice League International?
My memory is that the book was a huge success, DC wanted more, and JLE was the next logical step.
After 2 years as Justice League International, the book switched to Justice League America due to the introduction of Justice League Europe. Who suggested the teams be split this way?
I honestly don’t remember. I assume it was Keith and/or Andy.
You left Justice League Europe after issue 9, where scripting was given to William Messner-Loebs (who was fresh off a run on Wally West’s Flash). Why did you leave the book so early?
I was writing Justice League, Justice League Quarterly, spin-offs with Mr. Miracle, Martian Manhunter, and Dr. Fate. For a while nearly everything I was working on was JL-related. I needed some breathing room. And I don’t think I clicked as well with the JLE line-up.
That said, the “Night School” issue remains one of my all-time favorite collaborations with Keith. We both consider that story a high point. And Bart Sears really knocked that one out of the park.
After nearly a six-year run on Justice League, you and Keith Giffen left the book. Was it due to burnout from doing the same series for that long, or had you both decided you told the stories you wanted to with those characters and decided to move on to other things?
I think we were all—me, Keith, Andy—burned out on the book. Looking back, I think we stayed about a year too long, although there were still some good stories along the way. But we were all ready to go.
About a decade after you and Keith left the book, you reunited with Kevin Maguire to write for the Justice League International once again, titled “Formerly Known as the Justice League”. Did the three of you want to return to the characters together once more, or did DC Comics specifically bring you together in order to put together a popular book with these characters of theirs that were not at all popular or successful?
Both. DC wanted us back and we all wanted to do it. Working on Formerly Known As… was when we came to realize just how special the combination of our three talents was. Working on JLI we were turning out the pages, month after month, year after years, but with Formerly Known As… we had enough time and distance to really appreciate the magic we made together. And we haven’t looked back since!
Was there any hard feeling towards DC when they made half of the team unusable within a year of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League” coming out (with Sue Dibny being killed in 2004’s Identity Crisis, Blue Beetle being killed by Maxwell Lord in Infinite Crisis, and Captain Atom’s move to the Wildstorm universe in Captain Atom: Armageddon in 2005)?
Yes and no. Yes because, at first, it looked like DC was going out of their way to tear down everything we built. No because…hey, it’s comics. It’s a shared universe with dozens of writers and artists and everything is always changing. It’s the nature of the beast. And, after it changes, guess what? It often changes back again.
Keith and I pretty much rebooted our JLI when we were doing Justice League 3000/3001. At the point we decided that our stories existed in their own universe and all those other stories happened somewhere else. And you can’t convince me otherwise!
With all of the adaptations of DC properties being made for Warner’s HBO Max, would you like to see a Justice League International adaptation? How would you hypothetically like it to turn out?
Back when I was writing for the Batman: The Brave and The Bold animated series, there was talk of that show transitioning into a JLI series—I wrote a few episodes that featured the DCAU version of our League—and I was disappointed when that didn’t happen. And, honestly, I’m surprised we haven’t seen it happen yet.
Not only would I like it to happen, I’d love to be a part of it. Live action, animation, doesn’t matter to me. Just stay true to the spirit of the book and those wonderful characters, keep the mix of humor, heart, and adventure—and you can’t go wrong.
So much of the humor in the Marvel movies reminds me what we did with JLI. It’s way past time Warner Bros jumped on the bandwagon.
If DC called you, Keith, and Kevin to do another Justice League International mini-series, would you do it?
In a heartbeat. I’d work with those two guys on any project, any time.