Thursday, December 18, 2008

Russell Burbage - 1989

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Russell Burbage - 1989

Seigi No Nakama, aka "Friends of Justice"

In 1987 I went to a small town called Aya in Miyazaki Prefecture. It's located on Kyushu, the southern-most island of Japan. Most Americans who know of Kyushu have hard of it because it is where Nagasaki and Okinawa are. The average American, however, has never heard of the island, let alone the town of Aya. I'm only trying to explain how off the beaten path I was. It was worlds away from Tokyo, believe me.

My job was to teach English to adults and children in my town of 7,500 people. I worked in the Community Center and several dozen people of all ages came to me each week. I enjoyed teaching, but after two years at it I was looking for some way to spice it up.

In 1989 I hit upon the idea to write and draw a series of comic books in English and Japanese. This was right when the movie Batman starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson was taking the world by storm. I wanted to harness Batman's popularity and use it in my English classes. I had always considered myself a bit on the artistic side, and compared to some of the horrible dreck I saw in Japanese manga I felt confident my Fred Hembeck-like style could get the job done. I also enjoyed the translation process. I worked with friends to get just the right nuances to certain phrases, and my Japanese language skills improved.
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The only problem I had was that I was finding it hard to "dumb down" existing Batman stories for my audience, whose English was not all that good. My favorite Batman stories were by the likes of Steve Englehart, Alan Grant, and Denny O'Neil; none of them exactly slouches in the plot and dialog department. This was of course several years before Batman:The Animated Series came along and would have pointed me in a totally different direction.

T
hen it suddenly occurred to me to use the Justice League of America as my cast of characters. In their simplest form they are a group of good guys who come together, fight the bad guys, and save the world. No kid would find this hard to understand. Plus I had a large collection of JLA issues with me in Japan and the full run of Super Friends, which was actually a simpler, easier to follow "kiddie" version of the JLA.

The next problem, however, was who would be in "my" Justice League? I wanted to use the best characters, but there had been so many different versions of the JLA by 1990 that I had too many options to choose from. So I decided to consider how I could supplement my stories with other media. I already had Batman and Aquaman videos in my classroom collection. Everyone knew Superman from the Christopher Reeve movies. I had heard that there was going to be a Flash TV series that fall. And I hoped that I could eventually lay my hands on some Lynda Carter Wonder Woman videos.

So this meant that I would use the "original" Justice League of America. I decided to adopt whole-hog the Silver Age DC universe. After all, these were the characters and stories I knew by heart anyway.
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Of the original seven, I still had to consider Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter. I pretty quickly decided to add J'onn. Not only was he the soul of the then-current JLA but he had a very different look to him compared to the other members. And if my students did not warm up to him, I figured I could write him out the same way he left the group in the comics, by having him leave with his people.

Green Lantern presented my first real dilemma. I was a huge fan of Hal Jordan, but I had always liked John Stewart, too. So in order to give Japanese kids a better representation of the USA, I decided to swap out Hal and replace him with John. So in "my" universe John is the only Green Lantern on Earth. He is friends with the Flash and Green Arrow. He was the seventh and final charter member.

In DC continuity, Green Arrow was the first new member. I liked the bearded, caustic version of this character and thought he provided another "type," so he was in.
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That brings us to the Atom, the JLA's second new member. When he was used well in the comics he was an excellent character. All too often, however, he was a speck on the Flash's shoulder. I guess I probably would have used him except for one big problem: in Japan, the character known in the west as Astro Boy is called Atom. He is very, very well known, so if I had added Ray Palmer to the cast I knew my students would say in disgust, "That's not Atom!" So, because of his (bad) name recognition, I reluctantly decided that the Atom was out.

Then I got another brainstorm: I decided to switch the histories of J'onn and Ray! Instead of Martian Manhunter leaving, as he did in 1969, I would have the Atom quit. Ray Palmer did leave in the early 1980s, so I was only moving the resignation forward a few years. Looking back at it now, however, I wonder why I didn't just ignore the Atom completely. I guess I was trying to show the kids that the group had a history.

Chronologically, that brings us to Black Canary. With a nod to both traditional and revised continuity, I had "my" Black Canary be from another dimensional world where the Justice Society of America existed, but she was the daughter of the original. When both her parents were killed, she decided to leave that Earth and join the JLA. (Oh, and another change I made was to totally ignore the Leave of Absence Wonder Woman took in the comics at about this time. As far as I was concerned, she never left.)

And that brings us to our third female member. I felt that the Hawkman-Hawkwoman partnership was an exciting relationship. I wanted to have married characters in the group. And they both looked so darn dynamic! I very strongly considered having both of them join together, which would have been the sensible thing, but in the end I decided for something more dramatic. I chose Hawkwoman instead of her husband in order to give Shayera a chance to shine. I wanted to give the girl students another character to possibly enjoy without her being possibly overshadowed by her husband. So as I had supplanted Hal with John, I decided to supplant Katar with Shayera. Hawkwoman became the third new member of the group in "my" continuity.

That gave me ten members. Ten characters to play with. I thought it lent itself to all sorts of variations and mixes. This roll call corresponded roughly to the JLA of the very early 1970s, right before Len Wein took over as writer. So that meant I could rewrite some of my favorite stories.

In order to introduce all the characters to the audience for the first four issues I used static roll call pages that did not change in order or appearance. Then when there was an issue without one of the members present, I could mark "absent" in their profile.
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I decided to use the members' names as is, and only add the definition of what their names meant in their profiles, underneath their English names. So, for example, Aquaman became "A-ku-a-man, mizu no otoko." I also decided that in this international age, and as an American living in a foreign country, I just did not feel it was appropriate to call The World's Greatest Super-Heroes the Justice League of America. They were sworn to protect the entire planet, right? This was also around the time when the actual comic book had dropped the "of America," as well (although they quickly reintroduced it). With another nod to continuity, however, I decided to keep the phrase "of America" in the name of the Justice Society. It seemed natural that a group that had formed in the era of World War Two would incorporate USA into its name.

And all that left for me was a translation of "Justice League." Think about it: a league by definition is an association or alliance. A "Justice Alliance" just doesn't sound right, though, right? So after talking to one of my friends and explaining "the pitch," he came up with the translation, "Seigi no Nakama." Seigi is the Japanese word for Justice. Nakama is the word for friend or partner. (No is the possessive adjective in Japanese; the equivalent of an apostrophe s in English.)
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I printed the stories in black and white and handed them out to whoever wanted a copy. Then I colored one copy with colored pencils (on better paper) and saved it in the Community Center library. The scans that accompany this article are mostly from these colored copies, which I (eventually) managed to reacquire after I left.

As for my first issue, it was called "The Reign of The Queen Bee" and it appeared in December, 1990. I don't know why I picked Queen Bee to use in my first story; I think it must have been because I had a book on bees to use as a reference. I didn't use any of her comic book stories as a reference for this story, either; except for the scene where a bee flies into Superman's ear that I swiped from JLA #131, the whole issue was all mine.

And it was pretty bad. The art was haphazard, the lettering was hard to read (in both languages!), and the page layouts were confusing. So what did I do next? For some reason I can't begin to understand, I decided to adapt the stories that appeared in the Pocket Books JLA collection, namely JLA #s 118, 119, and 130. This was an especially odd choice since these stories very prominently featured the Atom, Hawkman, Red Tornado, and the Elongated Man...none of who were in "my" Justice League! I cut the pages up, changed Hawkman to Hawkwoman, cut out the Atom, changed Red to J'onn, and basically did a horrible job. The least said about these two issues the better.

I tried one more original story, this time based on JLA #12, the debut of Dr. Light. Except for an odd change of which heroes switch identities to fool him, this story made the transition to my universe pretty well. My lettering and layouts were getting better, but I was basically ready to throw up my hands and admit defeat for this failed experiment.

However, somehow, in spite of myself, I had managed to do something right. I had a handful of students who actually *liked* these characters and wanted to read more about them! Believe it or not, I had somehow managed to not be totally awful.
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So I reexamined what I was doing to try to come up with an improvement. I had to give sufficient space to the pictures, the English, and the translation. I think that what Keith Giffen was doing in Legion at about this time had an effect on me, because I settled on a two (sometimes three) tier format with the English in a bolder, lettering style (but not all in caps, which the kids found hard to read) with the pronunciation written above that in a much smaller font, and the translation under the box kind of like subtitles.

I also made roll call "panels" for the members that I could rearrange in the order which the characters appeared in the story. And if a certain member didn't appear at all, I simply took that panel out. And I added panels for the bad guys and guest-stars so the kids could get a quick introduction before the action started.

I can still remember the first time I worked in this format: both because I was putting my heart and soul into it, hoping the kids would like it, and because my newborn daughter was asleep in the same room while I inked the Amazon forest.

Needless to say, I was more satisfied with the results. The boys (and a few girls) liked this version more, so I decided to keep creating them. This is the era I consider my "golden age." After Dr. Light made his repeat appearance I had my first two-parter with the Time Lord. He appears at the Star City Museum and when the League attempts to stop him, he sends them back to the Jurassic age. (Yes, dinosaurs were all the rage in 1992).
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In the next school year I had Kanjar Ro and Despero kidnap the Earth members and draft them into participating at the Space Olympics. Following this was a story sporting my all-time favorite cover, "Nothing Beats the Royal Flush Gang." This guest-starred Hawkman and the Elongated Man. The next issue, "The Fingers of Felix Faust," guest-starred Zatanna. I was already thinking about adding new members, and I wanted the audience to know some of the possibilities. In the next year I produced adaptations of my two all-time favorite JLA stories, #s 111 and 112, featuring "War With The One-Man Justice League."

With my thirteenth issue, however, I started to lose my way. I had one
issue where all the members took a tour of my universe looking for new members, and although I can see what I was trying to do (expand my universe) I can better see what I did: introduce too many concepts and characters too quickly. Then, I followed this yawn-fest with my "origin" issue, "The Story of the Justice League" where I basically had a history lesson of my universe. I know I wanted to (again) expand my universe and increase the depth of these characters, but the overall effect was not good. After these I wrote a story where the main characters were asleep!!

Yep, I had Dr. Destiny put the good guys to sleep; I showed the nightmares the members were having and the efforts by characters like Robin and Aqualad to wake up their friends. It was a huge undertaking but not very good storytelling. I could tell the kids were not happy with the stories, and I was not happy with the way they had turned out. I nearly quit right there, with issue sixteen being my last.

Something inside me, however, didn't want to end on such an off-note...with an issue that didn't even feature the Justice League on its own cover (it featured the Teen Titans). So for the next school year I committed myself to one or perhaps two stories. I reexamined the original idea to adapt existing comic book stories to my universe. Eventually I picked the stories where the Super Friends fought Chronos (SF #22) and where the JLA fought Eclipso (JLA #109). Thinking that one or the other would be the last story I did, I featured all the members in both. One appeared in late 1996 and the other in early 1997.
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And then another funny thing happened: using all the members, in these "simpler" one-issue stories, the kids were drawn to the characters again! With my pride restored, I decided to commit to another few adventures, and to the story I had wanted to do for awhile but had kept putting off: I started planning my own JL-JSA crossover, for issues 21 and 22. I did another Super Friends story (substituting Psycho Pirate for the Monocle of SF #40, an issue that actually had a LOC from me on its letter page) and a cute little throwaway tale featuring the Weather Wizard. And then I had my "Crisis On Earth Two" two-parter.

I guess I hadn't learned my lesson with the New Members-Origin-Dr.Destiny-Teen Titans debacle, because these two issues bombed. Like many "classic" JLA-JSA team-ups before mine, too many characters and too many tangents did not naturally add up to excitement. It had its moments, but it was top heavy and (again!) I tried to introduce too many concepts and characters in too short of a span.

I knew what had to be done. (I'm slow but I'm not stupid!) I planned two stories with the League broken up into two equal groups, fighting the Scarecrow (from SF #32) and Felix Faust again (from JLA #103). This got the kids (and me!) psyched for what I was finally ready to do: add Red Tornado.

See, I had done my "Crisis" story based on JLA #s 100-102 (just without the Seven Soldiers, what, do you think I'm crazy?). This is the story where Red Tornado sacrifices himself to save his friends but actually sends himself to Earth One, where he ends up joining the JLA. I always liked Red Tornado and thought the kids would like him, too. So I simplified JLA #139 ("The Ice Age Cometh") and then coupled it with JLA #105 (Red's initial induction) with JLA #146 (Red's reappearance). I may
be biased, but I consider this two-parter the best of the series. I was in the middle of some type of renaissance, as I followed up these stories with two more smaller group issues, the return of Kanjar Ro (JLA #120-121 but without Adam Strange) and then various individual stories explaining why members had missed the previous adventure.

I was definitely on a roll with these comics. Unfortunately, I was not on a roll with my bosses. They kept making stupid administrative mistakes and I was getting more and more frustrated dealing with them. After more than ten years at my job I kind of thought I knew a thing or five about the best way to do international relations; I asked to be promoted (I was still considered a "contract employee") and I asked for more work responsibilities.

Keeping the overall work problems separate from the comic universe, I planned on doing a Christmas tale. The first one I chose was based on JLA #152, the story that introduced Traya as Red Tornado's "daughter." I thought she made a good supporting character for Red and I liked the story and characters in general. To keep Superman from appearing too much, however, I substituted Martian Manhunter for him in my version.

This was also because the second Christmas story I planned to do was
based on JLA #110, and in that story there was a plot involving a red-sun that I absolutely needed Superman for. Unfortunately, as I was working on this story it became painfully clear to me that my time in Aya was coming to an end. I no longer wanted to be treated as a second-class employee, and faced with the prospect of playing with kindergarten children well into my forties, I decided to return to the States. Although it pained me to do so, I decided that I had no choice but to resign.
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Before it got to that, however, I had to finish my series right. First off, I had to do a sequel to my Lord of Time story from way back in 1992. In the end of issue seven, the Time Lord escaped back into time and the Justice League couldn't follow him. He was the only villain the League hadn't ever caught, and I needed to resolve that. So I plotted a story based loosely on JLA # 159-160, substituting the League for those JSA members.
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Then it was simply left for me to end the series. I picked Dr. Light as the final bad guy. He had been featured twice already in what I believed were the first "good" issues of my series, so it made sense to me to use him one last time. I decided to combine the two really good Dr. Light JLA appearances (JLA #122 and #149) into one mega-story. I also added the resignation of Hawkman and Hawkwoman into the mix to warrant the title, "Going Home."
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In this story, the Hawks basically told the audience the reasons that I was leaving: "Our boss changed recently. He has no idea how to do international relations. We tried to talk to him, but it's hopeless. We must leave. There is no new challenge in the job. But don't get us wrong! We would stay if we could. But we can't." I ended the story with the most emotional series of good-byes I could think of: Shayera and Diana and Katar-Ollie, plus Red Tornado thanking both of them for their emotional support. I remember tearing up a few times as I wrote/drew these pages, knowing that I would have to be saying these same things very soon.

Issue thirty-one was my last issue. I made extra copies and handed it off to all of my students, both kids and adults. And a few months later, in Spring 2001, I left Japan and returned to the USA. I had worked in Aya for fourteen years, and had been making comics there for ten.

Looking over the series now I see mostly my mistakes. I tried to steal from the best, such as Gil Kane, Dave Cockrum, and Dick Dillin, but often I just messed things up. I'm especially embarrassed about my earliest work; I almost didn't scan any of that. Yet I can also see the care and time I took to make these 31 issues. So even if I failed in general, I do believe I did the best I could under the time constraints and other problems. I'm basically proud of my efforts.
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Now that the series is over, I sometimes think I'd like to revisit it. I remember that back in 1999 or so when I toyed with the idea of staying in Aya permanently, I halfheartedly planned out the series through issue 50 (current issue would have been at about 26). I know I was going to add Zatanna for sure. I know I was going to do that JLA #110 Christmas story (substituting the Flash for Red Tornado and Wonder Woman or Aquaman for Batman). Other stories I know I had considered were where Aquaman saves everyone (SF #24), Puppets of the Overlord (SF #25), the Atlantis Kidnapping (SF #27), the Super Friends fight monsters (SF #28), and the three appearances of the Menagerie Man (SF #s 6, 19, and 33). Plus I had wanted to do another, better JSA team-up. (sigh) These stories exist now only in my imagination.

Two final things about my Seigi No Nakama series. A year after I returned to the States, Cartoon Network decided to create an animated version of the JLA. As many of you probably noticed already, the characters they eventually ended up using resemble very closely the characters I had decided were the best! When I first saw those seven animated JLAers my mouth nearly dropped to the floor. So I guess my decisions in the winter of 1990 were pretty good, after all! They even dropped the words "of America" from the group name!!

And just last month, in an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold,
Batman is shown defeating Felix Faust in a scene I wrote nearly seven years ago! I know people will find this hard to believe, but I basically wrote the same scene for when Batman, the Atom, and Aquaman took down The Time Lord in issue 30. The Time Lord never paid much attention to who was who in the Justice League, so after all the other members were stymied by his force field and weapons, Batman appears on the scene and stops him, seemingly on his own. I'm presenting the whole series here for your enjoyment so that you will believe me. If you saw the cartoon I'm referring to, you'll have to admit that the scene is very, very similar. (And I know, I stole that punch scene out of a Gil Kane comic. I only stole from the best, I swear!).


I am always thinking of the best way to scan all these issues and post them somewhere on the Internet, but so far I haven't taken the time or effort to do it. Any suggestions as to how or where I should post them?

5 comments:

Doug Slack said...

Those pages are all kinds of awesome.

RAB said...

Yes. Many many kinds of awesome.

Russell, these were obviously done with real soul. I'd definitely like to see more. And honestly, I'd rather read these than that soulless, lifeless thing DC calls the JLA today.

Anonymous said...

I realize I came into to this later than everyone else, (I just found this blog) but I just had to say, I'm amazed! What a great way to teach english AND to pay proper homage to these wonderful characters. I'd be happy if you scanned and posted them all-my hat is off to you, excellent work!

Dene said...

These are adorable-!!!! Love 'em-!!!

Russell said...

I have finally started a page where I am scanning my stories in and uploading them. If you are interested, please visit me here:

www.seiginonakama.blogspot.com