Know Thy History: Vibe
I have a feeling that the Justice League Detroit era wouldn’t have been quite so roundly mocked if it weren’t for the fact that they were moving to Detroit. For years, the team had been opening out of a satellite from space. They consisted of an all-star super team from DC Comics, which included Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern.
And then, in 1984, it was time to shake things up. Super teams staffed with the World’s Finest was suddenly out of vogue. What was cool? Tight knit teams high on the soap opera. Teams like the uncanny X-Men, and to a lesser extent the Team Titans. Team comics were for B-list characters to shine!
So… One fateful day, Aquaman exploited a loophole in the Justice League constitution. Using his power as one of the founding members to disband the team whenever he wanted, the King Of Atlantis decided that the old Justice League of America was no more… and a new one would take its place. One that wouldn’t be based in the lofty confines of space … but rather in an abandoned warehouse in Detroit.
Incidentally, it’s later revealed that Aquaman dissolved the old Justice League because he was having problems with his wife. Yup, this incarnation of the Justice League was pretty much DOA.
It could be worse. There’s a storyline later where I think the Justice League finally comes to their senses and they head back to the original HQ. (In Rhode Island.) what follows is several issues of the team trying to find apartments in New York. Somehow, that’s the sort of indignity that I don’t ever imagine Superman or Batman ever had to deal with.
So who’s in the the new team? Aquaman is joined by fellow veterans Martian Manhunter, Elongated Man, and Zatanna. OK. So far, so good. A Superman-level alien powerhouse, a stretchy man who’s pals with Flash, and a powerful sorceress are decent fighters.
So who are the new faces? There’s Vixen, a gal with Wolverine hair who has a totem that summons the powers of different animals. Of the new crew, Vixen probably ended up the breakout star. She was prominently featured in the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, for example. There’s Steel, a cyborg who’s the current incarnation of a Golden Age character (Commander Steel, his grandfather). While not necessarily lame, Steel, while solid, is probably the most forgettable in a comic book universe with man prominent cyborgs, one of which is named Cyborg. There’s Gypsy, the team’s Kitty Pryde, a young ingenue trying to get a hold of her sometimes disturbing powers. She’s a runaway and a thief, stealing food from local stands just to get by. She’s recently shown up as a member of Birds of Prey.
And then… There’s Vibe.
Paco Ramone is discovered just outside the glorious new HQ. He’s a member of a gang, the El Lobos, which is run by his brother, Armando. He also has the powers of vibration. That’s why he’s called Vibe! He’s a rare Hispanic superhero. The Justice League Detroit blog said it best: “While black super-heroes have had their embarrassing moments, and Asians still have to take solace in manga from the sea of martial arts stereotypes representing them in Western books, I would argue that Latinos have seen some of the worst treatment of all minorities. No matter how poorly blacks were depicted in the Golden Age, they’ve had decades of quality champions since.”
So Vibe’s got a lot going for him! Unlike most of the other Leaguers, Vibe is very street level. When he first appears, he’s fighting gang members and trying to save innocent citizens getting caught in the crossfire. He’s brash and hot headed and chafes at authority, quite a change from the unassailable authority figures of the previous line up.
So what went wrong? Writer Gerry Conway’s understanding of street slang, for one. Vibe’s dialogue is full of words like “chill”, “wack”, “fade”, “maxin’ and relaxin'”, and, worst of all, “chu”. An example from his first appearance:
“Word’s on the street some awesome things’re happenin’ here. Word is chu guys are the Chustice League. I figure, guys like chu and me, we should be on the same crew.”
If this didn’t involuntarily make you get chills down your spine, then you ain’t human.
Eventually, the writers would tone this down, and it would get explained away that Vibe was just talking that way to mess with people… but man, was it ever annoying.
Worse and far more embarrassing, though, was the breakdancing. There were far too many scenes where some sort of mat was laid out on the floor, and Vibe is off busting a move. He’s got a boom box, which he brings to JLA HQ when he introduces himself to Aquaman. The guy’s a dancing fool with terrible fashion sense. And the worst part? The characters are trying way to hard to convince us that it’s charming. Zatanna and Vixen are seen luxuriating in the impudent youth of Vibe’s awe-inspiring dance moves.
It seems like the Conway himself was immediately embarrassed by creating Vibe. He had the guy go through the costume change and deemphasized the stereotypical Latino aspect almost immediately. (The questionable taste in clothes stayed, though.) And out of the new crew, Vibe got almost no stories. Steel got a strong story where he fought his ultra-conservative grandpa Commander Steel, who though the current League was unworthy of the name (a commentary on the readers, perhaps?) Gypsy had a multi-story arc helping a runaway and meeting her long lost parents. Vibe got almost nothing.
That is until the very end. In a very meta story, the team accepted that no one liked them. We see them moping around the HQ, realizing that they’re jokes. Elongated Man puts the blame squarely on Vibe, who he says has been a huge complainer ever since they joined. Vibe storms off, realizing that Elongated Man was right. He meets a young Hispanic kid, sitting on a doorstep. The kid is drawing Superman. Vibe is asking him why doesn’t he stick to heroes from his own race, to which the kid relies that there are none. Vibe sort of accepts this, and realizes the kid should probably stick with Superman.
And then… Vibe is attacked by an android and his disembodied hands. The robot was one of many looking to wipe out the new Justice League under orders from Dr. Ivo, the creator of Amazo. Vibe becomes the first ever Justice League member to die.
It’s a very strong story. In fact, I’m man enough to say that the Justice League Detroit era was full of interesting stories. There was a lot of angst that they were definitely the second stringers, and yet they still had to deal with the same globe-spanning problems. Their stories spanned the era of the multiverses, the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the reemergence of rebooted JLA super-baddie, Despero. Put one JLDetroit story against a current New 52 one, and I’d recommend the Detroit era every time. The downside, though, was that these jokers had the gall to call themselves the “Justice League,” supposedly DC’s premiere super team.
Even Newsarama is sympathetic. They ranked Vibe as the worst Justice League member of all time (Gypsy is also on the list), and they sorta had good things to say about Mr. Ramone:
And yet… there’s something charming about Paco Ramone’s short-lived existence, whether it was his overconfidence or excitement about being a superhero in the first place. Vibe also has a particularly important place in Justice League history as being the first Leaguer to be killed in the line of duty, launching an unfortunate trend that would continue for a long time afterwards. If only he’d joined up with a different team that dealt with smaller problems, perhaps Vibe would still be with us today, and perhaps he would’ve evolved into a character people remembered as more than a gimmick gone wrong.
It’s actually kinda hard to hate Vibe, because he actually had a personality. So he’s sorta shown up here and there. He, along with Gypsy (and maybe Steel?) were in the background of several Justice League Unlimited episodes. The Breakdancer from Detroit got his own DC Animated short recently … which is fairly astounding. And finally, Geoff Johns, the current writer for the Justice League, has a thing for lost causes. Guess who’s in the DC’s New 52? That’s right… Breakdancing is back, baby!