Formerly Known as the Justice League
Written by Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis; Art by Kevin Maguire and Joe Rubinstein
2004 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication
This is an easy one to put a recommendation on: did you enjoy the Justice League stories from the late eighties where things were funny and cheerful? If yes, then you need to read Formerly Known as the Justice League (and it's even better sequel I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League). If your response was "Who was that?" then this isn't the book for you. This is essentially a reunion special, a gathering of old friends that will make those who fondly remember the original smile and those who just don't know it wonder what the big deal is.
Maxwell Lord has decided to revive his Justice League as a low-rent non-profit called Superbuddies. He recruits old members like Ralph and Sue Dibney, Captain Atom, L-Ron, Fire, Blue Beetle, and Booster Gold along with newcomer Mary Marvel. Before they're established they have to deal with the world's most erudite street gang, being kidnapped for gladiatorial matches, and the return of one of their old foes.
That's a plot that's uninspiring. It's blandly generic when it comes to superheroes. The key to Formerly Known as the Justice League is that it is a joke (in case you couldn't tell from the title). These characters can't stand in the same room without breaking into a comedy routine. It's the dialog and characters that are a lot of fun in this book. It is a farce and comedy bits will swing back and forth through the whole thing.
The biggest downside here is that it is very dependent on the reader being familiar with the original stories. There are details that color things which only work with knowing the context. Why do Blue Beetle and Booster Gold argue like an old married couple? Or why this Maxwell Lord guy is so important. Or what's the big deal with the superheroes who show up at the end.
The reunion special aspect also hurts the story a bit. It's just not quite as good as the original. The sequel, I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League, does a much better job of living up to the original stories but there's occasional moments in Formerly where the manic energy just fades away and it feels like the story is just going through the motions. You can hang a lampshade on how cliche of story making superheroes fight in gladiatorial combat is but that doesn't change that it isn't really an interesting story to tell.
I suppose I should add to this review that as a cruelly ironic twist these stories were released simultaneously with stories that derailed these characters. This one came out at the same time as Identy Crisis which leads off with one of the main characters being murdered and adds some rape into the mix. The sequel was released at the same time as a story where another of the main characters murders yet another of them. So don't try to fit these stories into continuity; the creators did and got their work stepped on.
The worst nightmare for a comic book artist is the talking heads scene: a lot of dialog and not much to illustrate beyond the character's face. Most comic book artists play with the staging but there are a rare breed of them who can take those dialog scenes and play with expressions to make those talking heads artistically interesting and their king is Kevin Maguire. I've never seen anyone handle those sequences better than him and since Formerly Known as the Justice League is almost all talking heads. The facial acting that Maguire gives to every single character both prevents that from being boring and aids in the comedy.
I think it's obvious that I loved Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire's original Justice League stories. I mean really loved them. I mean to the point that I was disappointed that I didn't go ahead and blow my paycheck on some of Maguire's original art from one of the issues when I had the opportunity to twenty years ago. So Formerly Known as the Justice League was a comforting visit to some old friends for me. If you don't have that fondness then I think you may find it to just be a quirky superhero book.