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Trickle of Consciousness
Growing up can be funny
Both Formerly Known as The Justice League and I Can't Believe it's not The Justice League use not plot, but rather a strong thematic through line to give their stories cohesion. And, interestingly enough, the juxtaposition of those themes between mini-series give the pairing an overall cohesion, as well.

In other words, for all that this is "the silly heroes," the fact of the matter is that Giffen and DeMatteis have constructed a genuinely multi-layered work. You can read these twelve issues as individual issues / two-issue event arcs; you can take them on in six-issue, discrete thematic units; or you can put them together to find a twelve-issue thematic arc wherein the the two mini-series' primary themes become themselves a larger thematic underpinning.

Spoilers for both series, behind the cut tags

Part One: Backtracking

As I said when I first started reading Formerly Known as The Justice League, the concepts there generally deal with fame and success. In particular, this mini investigates how feasible it is to reclaim past fame and success, mostly through the lens of popular entertainment.

And it all begins with Mary Marvel. The moment she walks through the door, at the end of the first issue, the "Super Buddies" agree to thrust themselves into a world of poor attempts to return to the way things were. Why Mary? Remember to think popular entertainment: what's one of the most overused methods of trying to enliven (or revive) an old franchise? Recast, usually with young people. Preferably good-looking females. (It's a nice irony, too, to cull your younger addition from one of the biggest nostalgia franchises in your shared universe)

Clearly none of this is Mary's fault, but the fact remains that her very presence signals a ride through the world of "ways to regain an audience." Her own dissonance with the dynamic of the team points to how well such events are going to go.

After adding their new cast member, the group attempt two other "major comeback" ploys. The urban market arrives Via a fight with a super-intelligent street gang, a device that lets us see no end of criticism on the dissonance between suits ("capes"?) and their inability to credibly understand different modes of thought. Then the Super-Buddies hit the reality television circuit. Roulette's rumble gets nice ratings spikes, but the self-destructiveness of that sort of thing is literally embodied in the nearly disembodied Captain Atom.

It all ends with a rather exhaustive meeting with past, potent contacts. The JLA and world-conquering aliens make their presence known, but the fact is, once you're past your sell-by date, top-tier folk who associate with you are pulled down by the association. The only people you're likely to get to stick it out with your are people similarly down on their fame-luck (enter G'nort).

Formerly Known as The Justice League, then, is about discovering that past glory is just that. You can't recapture it. You can't force it to work for you. At best, you'll get a quick rush or what used to be, but in the end, well, you're right back where you started. No, past glory isn't for reliving; it's for remembering, cherishing, and then setting aside to live in the world after that glory.

It sounds far more depressing than I think it is. Formerly Known as The Justice League isn't really a "you're done, get over it," kind of tale. It's more about learning to enjoy who you are instead of worrying about who you aren't any more. And that's not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned. It's also, oddly, an interesting meta-comment, as top tier characters seem mostly to be all about remaining who you were.

Part Two: They can be good people without that gun to their heads, Mr. Misfit

Here's where the end of the previous mini and the beginning of the new one dovetail: our heroes learned that they couldn't go back and relive past glory, but the theme of I Can't Believe it's not The Justice League builds on that, showing us what you can do when you stop trying to move backwards: you can grow up. So, no, you can't be the high school football star again, but that doesn't mean your life is over.

The theme here is all over the place. The first series was about a (failed) attempt at stasis; this is the one about change. It means villains don't have to stay villains, girls move out on their own (Mary), those jokey slackers have to put on some more adult clothes (Beetle and Booster change their costumes). Given that context, then, it's only logical, too, that the group's long-standing couple starts considering parenthood.

What follows is the journey into maturity. And it seems to me each of the subsequent adventures is rife with those moments. Guy's aggressive sexuality, Beetle's peers repeated compliments on his changes. And, of course, having the overblown fantasies of youth faced with some rather crushing realities: Booster imagines himself as an overblown super-villain, and in doing so sends himself and his friends to a very real Hell.

Hell here is the jarring, seemingly-endless-when-you're-in-it transition phase to adulthood. There's the sudden loss of an easy family fallback (Mary's powers), the soul-deadening job you take "just to get by," and, in Tora ("Ice"), perhaps the most difficult adult reality to accept: mortality. So, yes, the sobering second loss of Tora--much like the pregnancy jokes re: Sue Dibny--seems somehow out of place in a book known for its humor, but at the same time it makes perfect sense for the story and the journey we and the heroes are taking.

But even facing death isn't the end, just another transition. Once you accept that your life can end, there's the inevitable re-examination of said life. You have to take a long hard look at who you are. That means facing aspects of yourself you never wanted to acknowledge. Sounds like the perfect time to step into an alternate reality, which is exactly what the story does.

The themes become more overt as the story goes on, of course. By this point, Booster's blatantly discussing the need to stop being a fool. Fire faces her own culpability in Tora's second death. And it seems to me Beetle's convenient memory loss smacks quite a bit of adulthood's convenient memory lapses ("What? I was never like that when I was a kid...")

And the battle itself shows up an important difference. For all that these parallel universe characters live in a harder world, they are, in fact, the less mature of the two camps. As Mary Marvel points out, the Super Buddies can take care of themselves "without resorting to hair-pulling." It's one of the more important things to learn about growing up: you're not more adult because you participate in "mature" activities; you're more adult when you take responsibility for the activities in which you participate.

When that happens, when Fire discovers an empathy of which she was previously incapable, when Beetle allows himself to remember who he was without forgetting who he is, when Mary actively faces down and defeats the self she never wants to become, and when Booster steps up and decides he's done playing a role and instead starts to take an active hand in his fate, why, that's when Fate (capital F for the character now) decides the journey's over. Or, perhaps, that it's finally starting in earnest.

It's a great trick that the creators here took a property best known (and perhaps best loved) for its immature humor and helped it naturally evolve into a story about maturation.

And Captain Marvel in a dog collar.

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