There are certain topics which - no matter the tone or the approach - give me a headache when I see that they’re being handled in a super-hero comic. There’s something about a 22-page four-color morality play with a mandatory fight scene in the middle of it which seems an ill-suited arena in which to really flesh out the complexities and deep layers around issues like child abuse, spousal abuse, drug addiction, racial conflict, sexual politics, gender issues and – more specifically – transgender issues.
Sure, there have been some pretty decent stories written over the last seventy years on some – though not all – of these topics, but very few handled in a single issue. It’s just not something you’ll see in an otherwise well-meaning but misguided medium which has suggested that everything from world hunger to Juarez has been caused by some evil dude in spandex with a magical ray-weapon and possibly also a spaceship.
So, that being said – this one time? The Justice League (Task Force) fought some chicks with dicks.
Issues #7 and #8 of Justice League Task Force have already earned some level of notoriety, so you’ve probably heard this one before. The précis is that J’onn J’onnz, the Martian Manhunter, for the period of two issues, disguised himself as a woman (dubbed J’oan J’onnz, and which possibly caused a flub I remember from an old EGM article about the Justice League: Heroes game in which he was called “Marcia Manhunter”) for a specific mission into a hidden society of female warriors.
Now, many very facile writers have had J’onn in female disguises before; he is, after all, an alien and – more than that – an alien shapeshifter from a race of telepaths whose concepts of gender are understandably vastly different from human conceits. Grant Morrison, as a for instance, instituted into canon the idea that J’onn maintains, at any given time, dozens of human identities of any gender, ethnicity, nationality and employment. J.M.DeMatteis, he who otherwise burdens everything he writes with story-braking spiritual elements as light and trifling as lead bricks, established that J’onn was fairly removed from human prejudices and was a tourist among our divisions of race and gender.
But Peter David, author of this two issue arc, was in it for the yoks, so what we got was jokes about J’onn J’onnz getting Midol for period cramps.
I like to pretend that, in addition to being really sexist, that this comic is also really racist,
and that J'onn stopped speaking halfway through his reason for bringing Vixen along.
"Vixen, since a jungle is involved ... then ... you know ... you can do what you people do
... what? What's with that look?"
(Speaking of yoks and as an aside: For me, there is one cardinal sin in the post-Giffen Justice League stories, and that’s the gratuitous use of the “Bwa-Ha-Ha” – with which this story breaks out twice, after a few introductory pages. Removed from its original context, the Blue Beetle and Booster Gold-inspired guffaw becomes something like when obnoxious nerds quote incessantly from Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Austin Powers – the reader is meant to be amused, or thrilled, or intrigued or even comforted by its presence because it’s something which, in their memory, was funny the first time around.
Besides being a cheap literary shortcut, the guffaw was also outdated by the time Breakdowns wrapped up – it had been so funny and endearing the first time around because it was a completely new thing. Superheroes didn’t explode with corny gut-yoks, they laughed manly. They issued forth hearty “hahaha”s, and even then, never over practical jokes or pratfalls, and certainly never at the expense of their teammates. For a few years after Giffen’s run was up, the “Bwa-Ha-Ha”s kept making their way back into the book, with such persistence that you had to wonder if an editorial edict to do so was in place – and it was as corny and outdated and archaic by then as the books Giffen’s Justice League had turned on their ears.
Of course, the guffaw, in this instance, is just one of a number of call-backs populating the story: There are cute references to H.Rider Haggard and Pellucidar getting us off the ground, little winks and nods at the readers who know their Jeff Rovin, even if they don’t know their pulps)
So, anyway, the story in this issue was that a plane crash strands a courier named Henry R.Haggard (uh-huh) and his parcel of a totally deadly biological weapon in a strange, underground world “out of Edgar Rice Burroughs” (uh-huh) where he is set upon by the all-female warriors who serve “She Who Must Be Obeyed” (uh-huh, got it, thanks). The Justice League Task Force – one of the many short-lived spinoffs of the post-Legends Justice League which wore out the goodwill engendered for the team even as it was intended to revive the franchise – assembles an all female team consisting of Wonder Woman, Dolphin, Vixen, Gypsy and Maxima to negotiate for the return of the courier and the super-bug.
I went through all the trouble to name every female character who was sent on this mission, but it’s pointless, because every one of them was basically a cipher. The focus of the story was J’onn J’onnz who, in order to lead his team, is forced to become a female. He doesn’t want to do it, mind you, because he’s apparently got some kind of macho self-image going on, even though it’s something he’s never shown before and has no reason to have at any point in his history. But hey, he thinks tits make him look silly, so that’s a laff.
Seriously, he’s worried that his team won’t take him seriously if he’s a woman, which is big talk coming from a guy wearing a red bandolier, blue cowl, two giant golden disco medallions and blue shorts with bare legs and patriot boots. If he was worried about credibility, he’d have been having that discussion with himself long before now.
Oddly, this outfit is less revealing than what he usually wears.
A blow well struck, Justice League Task Force.
Arriving in the subterranean amazon empire, J’onn is suddenly and inexplicably engaged to the warrior race’s queen, for no damn apparent reason, and then proceeds to pull a bunch of amusing “why me” expressions as he’s bathed and perfumed and put into dresses for the benefit of a sham marriage he’s going through with in order to find out where they’re hiding the weapon. It's really too bad that he isn't telepathic or something.
To skip to the chase, the climax of the story comes after J’onn/J’oan’s wedding to the warrior queen, who reveals – seconds before they consummate the wedding – that she’s a hermaphrodite. She’s got a dick. J’onn’s response to this is to revert to his male form and start kicking up a huge fuss about “hell no” and “no way” and “Martians suck pussy, not dick!” and basically being sort of comically macho which, once again, where the hell did that come from?
These two issues are bogus for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that David – not a bad writer, by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not a bad writer of female characters (at their worst, at least they’re never worse than his worst male characters) – obviously threw this story together in an afternoon or so. Whatever else you may feel about Peter David – his tendency to conflate pop culture references with wit, his sitcom approach to characterization, his jarring thematic shifts uncontaminated by context – at the very least he is a dependable hack, a hack in the laudable sense of the word, someone who crafts solid stories with all the parts where they’re supposed to be, showing up when they’re supposed to show up, and everything in the right order.
Hell , usually he’s known for being able to give each of his characters a distinct, if not unique, voice. He fails to do so in this story, where Vixen may as well be Dolphin, where Maxima may as well be Gypsy. Worse than that, the story appears on the surface to be a story about how capable women truly are, and how foolish men can be in their machismo, but all the while J’onn is reacted to as though he had become a talking chimp and the women are utterly uncharacterized. Additionally, if I had to rate which was the more gross part of the conclusion – J’onn being confronted by a chick with a dick or J’onn going through with a sham marriage to a sincerely emotionally involved individual who was never portrayed as deserving to have her heart broken or her most important moment in life turned into a farce, I kinda know which way I’m leaning.
At the end of the story, J’onn sort of sadly and fondly turns towards the entrance to the underground kingdom, admitting that his betrayed bride had told him that he could return whenever he wanted (providing he remained a woman, implicitly) and J’onn – in the “See, he learned something about himself” moment of the story – forlornly confesses that he might like to do just that. Aw, see, he learned the value of being a woman, which is something something something I guess and that one chick had a dick. In fact, I think we ALL learned a lesson here.