Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Justice League Detroit - Despero The Destroyer


Over the next few weeks on a Tuesday, I'll be working my way through the Justice League of America titles from 1985 to 1987, trying to work out if the Justice League Detroit era really was as bad as we think it was. Why am I doing this? Why the hell not.


JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #251 - #254, written by Gerry Conway with art by Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray.

Last week's run down of issues #246 to #250 ended with a couple of revelations - Batman rejoined the League and Despero was revealed as the new menace on his way for vengeance. Despite the cover of #251 showing Despero clutching the League in his hand, he actually takes a while to get to Earth so the story moves to concentrate more on the team members than any great threat.


All too soon, Batman establishes his style of leadership, pushing Vibe during training so much that he threatens to quit. To a certain extent that's understandable as Batman is as arrogant and hard-nosed as Aquaman was during his tenure as leader and Vibe didn't get on with him either.

Vixen is on hand this time, however, to bluntly tell Batman that he's wrong and that his job is to bring them "together as a team" and not to bully them. While her words are encouraging, it's also a little sad that, eighteen months or so down the line since the Detroit League was formed, they still need someone else to knock them into shape.

Just in case anyone thought the sub-plots running through the last few issues had been forgotten, there's a nice scene with J'onn J'onzz and Gypsy as he attempts to find the owner of the pistol that has been used to frame him a few issues back.


Martians have no fingerprints - who knew?

Then, of course, there's Zatanna's own sub-plot. Having found her missing friend, been knocked out and captured, she finally gets to meet the bad guy behind it all: Adam, possessed of enough of the Homo magi genes to recognise his potential, all he needs to do is get a top-up of them. And where's he going to find that?


By taking a sample of Zatanna's genetic code and injecting it into himself. He's given up the voodoo and the graveyard dust seen in earlier issues and opted instead for gene therapy. He's moving with the times if nothing else.

Back with J'onn and Gypsy, the Manhunter finds out that his erstwhile employer in the private detective game knew nothing about any set-up for murder and, as far as he was concerned, had simply sent J'onn to find a runaway, one Pamela Cross. This in turn spurs Gypsy, in her camouflaged state, to steal Cross's file:


As J'onn elects to search for Cross's parents - who hired the private detective in the first place - to find whether they are behind his set-up attempt, Gypsy takes it upon herself to find Pamela.

There's a couple of quick scenes, one with Steel on a date, the other with Vixen persuading Batman to join her for a meal as Bruce Wayne, before we finally meet up with Despero as he deliberately crashes into the old JLA satellite. That's the same satellite that was destroyed in the Mars/Earth war, again in the recent JLA Annual, and once again in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Finding the place abandoned, Despero forces it down towards Earth, riding it through the atmosphere towards a deliberate crash landing:


That's Despero, folks, surfing the remains of the JLA satellite through the atmosphere - an idea and image worthy of Grant Morrison!

#252 sees Despero crash landing in Maine where a lone hunter finds him the next day and, unwittingly, supplies the alien with the knowledge he seeks: the whereabouts of the League and, indeed, that it is a new League led by the Martian Manhunter.

Before we get too involved with Despero, though, there's an interlude which finds Zatanna still imprisoned by Adam, unable to cast a spell, and witness to Adam's gene therapy routine which, frankly, reveals the man to be a complete wimp:


I mean, seriously? That contorted face of agony? That scream? All from a cut that's what? Two inches across? I've had tattoos that were more painful than that and didn't make that much noise.

Anyhow, back to Despero. In Gotham, Vixen has peruaded the Batman to take the night off and go out for a meal with her and while it starts off pleasantly enough, it's not long before Bruce Wayne becomes dark and brooding, talking about the Batman in the third person and bemoaning his lack of life outside of the cowl. For all my gentle sarcasm, it's a genuinely good scene and I wish it had played longer but while Conway is willing to spend time with Gypsy or Vibe, this little insight into Batman and Vixen is over all too quick.

A huge explosion in Gotham's central park - what would later be called Robinson Park - calls them to arms and as the public flee, Mari McCabe and Wayne change into their alter egos and confront the cause of the fireball. Despero stands amongst the flames and while the battle seems to go in the Leaguers' favour at first, Despero rises to confront them.


Hate incarnate - if the Red Lanterns ever wanted a new recruit, they could do a lot worse.

Before being captured, Batman managed to signal the League and they quickly arrive to find Despero's power has increased to where he is able to change the shape of not only the land - building himself a huge, flame surrounded castle - but also the citizens of Gotham, turning them into hideous demons which he sends to attack the heroes. Fighting their way to the castle, the League find Despero, Batman and Vixen chained to the wall beside him as he proclaims himself a god.

The League battle Despero's demons while he continues to manipulate the world, boasting of his power to Batman and Vixen:


Pretty soon, though, he tires of the conversation and transports his captives to the floor of a room within the castle. The League score an indirect hit upon him, however, as they realise that hurting one his creations hurts him. Despero reacts with fury, causing the ground beneath the League to erupt, hurling them to the floor. With them out of the way, he visits Batman and Vixen, revealing that he has recreated the Flame of Py'tar in his castle:


All of that is set up for the origin story of Despero - how he was from the world of Kalanor, ruled it like a tyrant, tried to defeat the League and then ended up having his butt kicked by them time and again, forcing his transformation.

But, like all villains around that time, he inadvertently reveals the source of his power, the recreated Flame of Py'tar which restores him. That sort of information shouldn't be handed out to the Batman, really, especially when he's able to escape his bonds after Despero disappears into the Flame. Planning to hold off the alien, he sends Vixen out to round up the League. Trouble is, she finds them all unconscious.

Batman does what he does best, baiting Despero into chasing him round the castle while Vixen struggles to revive the Leaguers, finally bringing them round and telling them that Batman needs their help. Trouble is, Vibe's not convinced that heading into the flame enshrouded castle is the best idea.


As he did before, Conway uses his characters to voice the complaints he's been hearing about his League but this time, dammit, Steel's right and when he and the rest of them head out to take on Despero, Vibe realises he has to fight alongside them.

The League fight their way through to the chamber where Despero has once more imprisoned Batman and they work together as a team, defeating the human-shape-shifted-demons to free Batman who rallies them.


A plan's quickly devised - while everyone else would distract Despero, Vibe would use his powers to blow out the Flame of Py'tar, denying the despot his power source. As Despero attacks Steel and Gypsy, she uses her image projecting power to cast an illusion in his mind that sends him berserk:


and with him completely out of control, Vibe extinguishes the Flame resulting in this:


With a flash of light, Despero is consumed by himself and vanishes, Gotham quickly returning to normal, all his changes undone, leaving just one last moment of humour:


The Despero storyline is the highpoint of the Justice League Detroit era. For the first time since their formation, they have a foe that is a genuine challenge, someone that not only has history with the League but now has the power to confront them, forcing them to up their game. While Batman may appear at the start to simply be Aquaman in a cowl, he's shown to be be warming to the newer recruits and if the Batman gives them his seal of approval, they can't be all bad, can they?

Conway can't resist, as mentioned above, voicing the complaints of his detractors once more but as I said, this time he gets away with it. They may not have been the best League but together they were able to defeat Despero, a villain who went on to give the major Leaguers problems in later years.

It's a good story, though the Zatanna sub-plot gets in the way of it a little, and shows the Detroit League at their best. It's just a shame it took this long to get this good and ends up being too little, too late.


Here we are, rummaging through the letters of the Justice League of America issues #251 to #254.

Jim McClain, Kalamazoo (JLA #251)
It was usually Vibe who came in for some hate in the letter columns, but sometimes Gypsy got it too. Nice shout out to Cheeks the Toy Wonder, though.


This is stand-in letter answerer Bob Greenberger basically saying . . . well . . . that you can't have the old League back because of Crisis.... So stop whining and deal with it.

Gonzalo Duran, Garden Grove (JLA #251)
You may think she deserves her own min-series, Gonzalo, but it'll take a while before she gets it. Say, twenty-two years or so.

Kyle Kofoid, Lamoni (JLA #252)
Misuse of the word "literally" drives me up the wall, metaphorically speaking.

Lincoln Kupchak, Kailua (JLA #252)
Nice to see that someone of the time agrees with me about the woeful villain Junior in the No Place Like Home storyline.

Wally Stoelting, South Bend (JLA #252)
Hey, some (mediocre) love for Vibe!

Elvis Orten, Somewhere in Kentucky (JLA #253)
That's right, Elvis - it'll take another eight issues from when your letter sees print before they "buckle under" and get disbanded.

Mike Griffith, Wind Gap (JLA #253)
It's a nice thought, Mike, but . . .

Elvis Orten, Dewson Springs (JLA #254)
Elvis is happy to divulge his address this time round and also picks up (admittedly through misuse of quotation marks) that the new League aren't that new any more.

Lucas T. Williams, Stanford (JLA #254)
How about that? Lucas correctly predicts five (Dr. Fate, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and Batman) of the team that would go on to form the new Justice League in just a few short months from this issue.

Next week, the Zatanna sub-plot finally comes to an end, as does the tenure of Gerry Conway.

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