When house ads started appearing in DC’s superhero titles for a new Justice League comic in 1987, it was clear that something was different. It wasn’t the line-up of the team, per se; as fun as it might have been to see characters like Mister Miracle or Blue Beetle in the publisher’s premiere super-team, the combination of A-list characters like Batman and Green Lantern alongside more obscure heroes wasn’t anything new. It wasn’t the fact that the new series was missing the “of America” clause in the title, either, although that was certainly unusual. No, what was different was the way that the various heroes staring out at the reader… looked like real people.
Justice League — which became Justice League International with its seventh issue — was the breakout book for penciller Kevin Maguire, and with good reason. Maguire’s artwork was unlike anything else in comic books at the time, and to this day remains unique in just how expressive and lifelike his characters can be. While other superhero artists stylize their work to portray the capes and cowls set as abstract ideals of the human form, to the point of practically painting musculature on top of whatever brightly colored costume is being worn by the character at the time, Maguire makes a point of ensuring that everyone from Superman to a smarmy businessman with hidden best intentions is entirely recognizable as, well, folk just like us.
For a creator who many consider to have appeared fully formed with the first issue of Justice League, it might seem strange to discover that he spent some time as one of Romita’s Raiders, the in-house art corrections team at Marvel in the 1980s whose job was to appear almost invisible to all but the most attentive reader. As an in-house artist, his work also appeared in both the publisher’s self-produced fanzine Marvel Age and the stat-heavy The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe; he also contributed to DC’s similar Who’s Who in the DC Universe at the same time, marking his first work for that company.
It was, though, Justice League that made his name, and it’s easy to see why. His artwork — at once clear and easily read, and filled with personality and detail — was a perfect fit for the writing on the series, which found new life in characters decades old at that point, simply by allowing them to be as irritable, humorous, and awkward as the rest of us. As Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis pushed each other forward and explored an increasingly funny, knowingly ridiculous sitcom direction with the series, Maguire didn’t just match them, he went further, recreating the familiar figures in his image, gifting them with a humanity that both allowed the comedy to play better, but also deepened it with glimpses of something more.
Maguire’s brand of comic book realism was a million miles away from what was generally considered to be “realism” in the superhero genre by the time he arrived in the industry. That visual style was, if not created, then popularized by Neal Adams in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and basically transposed contemporary advertising styles into superhero comics with the addition of dynamic camera angles and a Kirby-influenced focus on hyper-extended figures constantly in motion. It wasn’t actually realism, per se, despite Adams (and those he influenced, including Michael Netzer and Bill Sienkiewicz) producing something akin to photo-realistic faces; it focused too much on notably unreal expression and emotions, as if all everyone did was energetically shout at each other non-stop. Maguire’s art, then, felt revolutionary because it allowed its stars to relax, to have multiple emotions — in other words, to be realistically human.
That said, does anyone in comics do happy superheroes better than Maguire? He has no problem selling the reader on sad or angry superheroes, sure, but many people can get away with frowning and grimacing; it’s convincing the reader that a character is actually happy that’s difficult, and he can do that seemingly effortlessly. History occasionally refers to his run on Justice League as the “Bwah-Ha-Ha” era — referring to the sound effect given to characters when they lost control of their laughter, as happened more than once — but the only reason readers bought that idea was because Maguire convinced them that the characters were really laughing in the first place.
Maguire’s Justice League run ended after just two years, although he’d return to the characters in later years. He’d also return to Giffen and DeMatteis as collaborators on a regular basis, both with regards to Justice League-related projects, but also on DC’s Metal Men, and at Marvel with a Defenders relaunch that attempted to bring a similar humanity to those characters. Beyond that, he’s worked on Supergirl, The Adventures of Captain America, X-Men Forever and Worlds’ Finest, in addition to his own Strikeback and Trinity Angels creations at other publishers.
For a career that’s lasted more than three decades, it’s a relatively small output, but one that ensures that, every time his work appears, it feels like a special event. That would be true no matter how many comics he’d worked on, however; after all, few comic book artists have Maguire’s ability to take the rough material of whatever character he’s working with transform it into something that has the warmth and humor of a longtime friend. If other artists make you believe in the super, Kevin Maguire’s gift has always been making you believe in the man.