GIFFEN Grapples With JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL, Early IMAGE Work, 'Grim & Gritty' Era

Justice League International
Credit: Kevin Maguire (DC Comics)
Credit: Kevin Maguire (DC Comics)

During his 40-plus years in the comic book industry, Keith Giffen has seen a lot of change.

Some of those changes came to his own career, as his tenure in the 1970's and early '80s - as Newsarama discussed with him in the first part of this expansive interview - was focused on penciling and growing more disciplined as a reliable artist. That era, for him, was marked by his critically acclaimed work on Legion of Super-Heroes with writer (and, according to Giffen, his mentor) Paul Levitz.

But many fans also love Giffen for the work that would come later in the 1980's, when the creator began co-writing Justice League International with J.M. DeMatteis.

In our second installment of a profile interview with Keith Giffen, we talk about how he made the switch from drawing to writing, what brought about the unique approach with the Justice League, and what else we could learn about the man behind the page.

Credit: Keith Giffen & Karl Kesel (DC Comics)

Newsarama: Keith, we've been talking about the 1980's, and I know the comic book industry evolved quite a bit during that decade, kind of leading to the early '90s and everything with Image. Were you aware of the changes on the horizon at all?

Keith Giffen: Yeah, when Image came around, it was a revelation, what those guys did.

I looked at the Image guys and I definitely appreciated what they did, but I also looked at the market around them, and I suspected it wasn't a good thing - the speculators, the books selling a million copies, guys buying crates of first issues. I knew that wasn't going to last.

And I spent a little bit of time at Image, and I found out it wasn't for me. It's nothing wrong with Image. It just wasn't right for me. So I basically spent time keeping a low profile and waiting for the comic book market to re-assert itself, and it certainly did.

Nrama: You said your co-plot credit on Legion of Super-Heroes was actually Paul Levitz being generous. At what point did you start writing?

Giffen: Andy Helfer had been on me for quite a while to write. He said, "You're doing these plots. You know, you're doing the plots, you're drawing them out. Just put words down."

But I was really gun-shy about that. I didn't consider myself a writer in any way, shape or form.

Nrama: So you were plotting for awhile before scripting? Was that mainly on Justice League?

Credit: Keith Giffen (DC Comics)

Giffen: Yeah, I plotted for L.E.G.I.O.N. '89, and Justice League. I was doing my plot work almost exclusively. I barely even penciled when I was transitioning into writing.

The first work I ever wrote - put the words in - was when I went to Image and did a few issues of Trencher. And even thought my time at Image didn't suit me, it gave me the opportunity to put the words in there and realize that, oh, I don't come across as sounding like a complete idiot.

And that was when I started picking up actual writing gigs.

And to this day, like on Scooby Apocalypse, I just plot. But on Blue Beetle, I write. So I can alternate. It keeps me interested. Keeps me occupied.

Nrama: OK, let's back up and talk about Justice League. How did you get teamed up with J.M. DeMatteis?

Giffen: Andy Helfer pulled the Justice League team together. I wanted Justice League. I had been asking for it. And then I went to Justice League Detroit, but I was still like, "give me the book! Next time a writer walks off, give me the book. Give me the book. Let me take a shot at it."

And then when John Byrne did his crossover that the new Justice League was going to spring out of, Andy said, "OK, do you want to do Justice League? You'll do the Justice League. You're writing Justice League."

So I did my plot, but I was still… I mean, this is the Justice League being re-born. I didn't think I could put the words in. I wasn't comfortable with it.

Credit: Kevin Maguire & Terry Austin (DC Comics)

Now, you have to understand. You have to give Andy a lot of credit here. He had a guy who really is not known as a writer, not really known as a plotter. Here's the Justice League, a big relaunch - sure, let's put Keith on it and let him plot it.

So he goes looking around for a dialoguer to team up with me, and he chooses Marc DeMatteis, who's best known for Moonshadow and stuff like that - all this kind of almost esoteric stuff.

And if you really look at it, combining me and Marc DeMatteis, that was like oil and vinegar. You know? I don't know where he got the idea for it.

And then he brings in Kevin Maguire from Romita's Raiders, who's never had anything published!

I mean, it was literally a book that was put together to fail, as far as I'm concerned. I don't know what he was thinking.

And I'll tell you, we did our first couple issues of Justice League, and the first issue was going on sale - here's how much faith we had in it, because we were doing it our way, doing it a little different with a quirky sense of humor. We thought it was doomed. We thought we were fired. We thought, oh my god, we've ruined the Justice League.

I was sniffing around for, OK, what can I get to replace Justice League when I'm thrown off the book? Marc was doing the same thing. Kevin was sniffing around for artwork. We had no faith in this book at all.

And nobody was more surprised than we were when the numbers came in.

Credit: Kevin Maguire (DC Comics)

Nrama: As you mentioned, you were doing your own thing - the quirky humor thing. Who decided that's what you would do with it? You kept begging for the Justice League. Was that what you had in mind when you were asking for the title?

Giffen: No, no. To be honest with you, it just happened naturally. It was the most organic thing.

I did the plot. And then Marc would put these little comments in there. And I'd see a little comment in there that he wrote. And in my next plot, I'd extrapolate on that, and we sort of fed off of one another.

Until finally, when we hit "Moving Day," we realized, OK, this is what we're doing. That was when we finally realized, oh, yeah, this is what we're doing. We can inject humor here.

But no, there was no plan to do it. There was no, "let's make it quirky and funny." It was completely organic.

It was happening before we were even aware of it.

Nrama: Did you guys realize how big Justice League International was? Did you have any idea why?

Credit: Kevin Maguire (DC Comics)

Giffen: We realized how big it was, because Andy Helfer was one of those editors who just never held anything back. The bad news came with the good news. He let us know. He treated us like adults.

We hit a nerve. That's all I can think. Because we figure, our Justice League came out in the midst of Dark Knight Returns and The Longbow Hunters, and all the heroes were being turned into these dark, grim, gritty characters. Half of the villains, you couldn't tell who was the villain and the hero.

And we came along with a book that was like, "Yeee-ought Dah Dah Dah!" You know, Vaudeville. And it connected.

I don't know if we were just a unique book out there - to be honest with you, I don't know why they embraced it. I think we did good work. I think we had good teams on the book. But I've never really thought about, why did it connect?

We were in the right place, at the right time, with the right attitude. I'm grateful for that. That's all there is to that.

Credit: Keith Giffen (Image Comics)

Nrama: We already talked about the '90s for you, with your time at Image. What were the highs and lows for you in the '90s?

Giffen: The work I did in the '90s, I was just grateful to have it. And I got to do what I consider to be some pretty decent work. But during the '90s, there was this weird drum beat in the back of my head. In the back of my mind, I was wondering what was going to happen in the comic book industry, because it was going through all kinds of eruptions.

I wasn't one of these guys who was like, oh, it's going to go away. I just knew it was going to evolve. So I was kind of keeping an eye on that.

It was trying to do the best you can, and also keeping an eye on what's around you, because I never knew the left hook was coming from. I just knew it was going to come eventually.

Continue on for the remainder of this expansive interview with Keith Giffen, with Part 3 and Part 4. And if you missed the beginning, you can always go back to Part 1.

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