Justice League of America 29, “Crisis on Earth-Three!”/Justice League of America 30, “The Most Dangerous Earth of All!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Bernard Sachs (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.
We are introduced to three sets of five costumed characters on the splash page: The Flash Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern of Earth-1, Hawkman, Black Canary, Doctor Fate, Dr Mid-Nite and Starman of Earth-2 and, making their first appearance, Superwoman, Owlman, Ultraman, Johnny Quick and Power Ring of Earth-3.
On the next page, the concept of parallel Earths is re-explained, as Barry-Flash prevents a rookie cop being gunned down, and Jay-Flash a Bank Messenger from being robbed, but the third red-clad speedster, Johnny Quick is actually stealing a priceless sculpture. He’s quickly caught in a net-trap prepared by the Police, from which he escapes, but not without a fright. Johnny Quick has been short of decent opposition for a while and is getting rusty.
His two fellow-members of the Crime Syndicate, Superwoman and Power Ring, are similarly facing unexpected opposition from the Police and making heavy weather of getting away.
These super-equivalents of the JLA are actually villains, not heroes for, though Earths-1 & 2 are similar-but-different, Earth-3’s history has been oddly reversed. Columbus was an American who discovered Europe, which won its independence in the Revolutionary War (this is definitely a different Earth if America has lost a war), whilst President John Wilkes Booth was assassinated by the crazed actor, Abraham Lincoln.
Which is why all Earth-3’s heroes are villains, and losing their edge for lack of super-powered opposition.
This can be remedied for Ultraman, who gains extra powers from exposure to Kryptonite, has discovered Earth-1 and the bemusing example of super characters who don’t use their powers to rob. This thrills the whole Syndicate, who plan to travel to Earth-1 to sharpen themselves up. But Owlman, whose power lies in his brain and his meticulously planed heists, who proposes a precaution against the possibility that they might lose.
Thus, a five-strong JLA meeting (again chaired by Batman) is interrupted by pleas for help against these new supervillains robbing across America. The League splits up to face their equivalents but arrive on the various scenes to find that everyone except Superwoman has swapped round to go on robbing. So Wonder Woman defeats Superman, Flash takes down Ultraman, Batman outsmarts Johnny Quick, Superman overcomes Power Ring and Green Lantern captures Owlman.
But as each villain is grabbed, they whisper the word ‘Volthoom’, triggering a trap that draws each of them, and their JLA assailant back to Earth-3. There, either by some mysterious ‘home advantage’ or simply the JLA being dazed, the Crime Syndicate reverse the results of their individual battles.
Having lost ‘away’ and won at ‘home’, the Syndicate believe they have proved nothing until they can take on the League on neutral territory, i.e., Earth-2. The Leaguers are imprisoned in their cave Sanctuary again whilst the Syndicate prepare the invade Earth-2.
However, the Justice Society have observed strange eyes peering at their world. Wondering if the eyes come from Earth-1, Doctor Fate uses his crystal ball to connect to the cave Sanctuary. He’s unable to free the League but can release them long enough for them to explain to the JSA what the Syndicate are doing, and warn them not to let the Syndicate make physical contact and say ‘Volthoom’…
End of Part One.
The Justice Society are on the alert for the Syndicate’s attack. Suddenly, the five villains enter from five directions. The battle swiftly splits up into five duels.
Hawkman defeats Johnny Quick, Doctor Fate takes down Power Ring, Dr Mid-Nite outsmarts Owlman, Black Canary overcomes Superwoman and Starman captures Ultraman. No contact is made, no Volthooms are spoken but Owlman has foreseen this and this time the trap is triggered by the Justice Society heroes proclaiming themselves as having won.
On Earth-3 they are placed in a carefully prepared prison.
The Syndicate then release the Justice League and start a deciding battle on Earth-2. After an overture in which each Leaguer ignores their own safety to save a team-mate, the fight breaks up into battles between the Leaguers and their opposite number.
Each Leaguer wins by overloading their opponent’s powers to the point where they cannot control them. However, a problem arises when it comes to imprisoning the Syndicate, who show extreme fear at being held captive on either Earth-1 or 2, though they grin all over their faces at the thought of going back to Earth-3. Green Lantern extracts from Power Ring’s ring the information that the JSA’s prison is constructed so that, if they are released, both Earths-1 and 2 will blow-up.
So the League imprison the Syndicate in a power ring bubble in between dimensions, surrounded by multi-space-lingual signs warning everyone off letting them out. Then they release the JSA on Earth-3 whilst GL siphons the destructive force into deep space where it blows up two uninhabited planets instead.
The teams then return to their own Earths.
* * * * *
Just as Barry-Flash’s discovery of Jay-Flash’s Earth in The Flash 123 was so big a success, it spawned a sequel in The Flash 129 (given the lead-time before publication, the sequel must have been decided on within minutes of the first response to The Flash 123), the delighted response to issues 21 and 22 (and their sales figures) guaranteed a sequel, the same time next year.
The 1964 team-up once again played things conventionally, with superhero vs supervillain as its theme. Fox structured the story differently, by giving the League and the Society a common enemy, who they each fought separately, and by having the heroes fight individual battles through (except for one token page in issue 30).
But the real twist is in introducing a set of evil duplicates for the Justice League’s (then) big five characters.
It’s interesting that DC took the step of expanding their parallel worlds set-up to include a third Earth so very quickly, though future Earths would be introduced to the continuum must more circumspectly for the next decade. And it’s almost impossible not to see a link to that throwaway introduction of the very idea of an Earth-3 at the end of last year’s team-up.
At the time I first read this story, several years after its publication, I was aware of enough American history to understand the reversals, even that of Lincoln’s assassination, though it took until the Eighties, when my interest in American history really kicked in, for me to start envisaging the colossal distortion required to produce the Lincoln/Booth switcharound.
Not that Fox or Schwarz would have given it a moment’s consideration. It was, after all, a Reverse-MacGuffin, a totally unimportant, completely inconsequential, wholly irrelevant detail that only exists to lend verisimilitude to your central conceit. Which is, naturally, creating evil doppelgangers of half the Justice League.
Once again, the Justice Society play second fiddle in this team-up. Despite dominating the cover of issue 29, they don’t appear in the story until the penultimate page, and though they get first crack of the whip at the action in issue 30, their victory over the Crime Syndicate is merely pyrrhic: despite being warned about the very technique, they fall into the Syndicate’s plot and have to be freed from prison by the victorious League at the end.
Even a contemporary letter-writer complained about the demeaning approach to the JSA, which may have had an effect on what would come next.
Whilst the JLA line-up is chosen specifically to parallel the Crime Syndicate, there is no apparent logic to the JSA line-up. Doctor Fate, Hawkman and Black Canary survive the cut, and, in a nice touch, paralleling their joint début in All-Star 8, Dr Mid-Nite and Starman are reintroduced in the Silver Age.
Interestingly, though Mid-Nite is apparently unchanged from his last run-out in 1950, Starman (who disappeared in 1945) refers to his scientific weapon as his Cosmic Rod, and it seems to have a wider range of abilities than his old Gravity Rod.
And it’s immediately noticeable that that seven-active-member, see-our-by-laws nonsense has already been abandoned. Each team has five members in action, giving Sekowsky a relatively easy fifteen costumes to cope with (that is, if you don’t count cameos by five more heroes – three League, two Society – in the build-up).
It’s fresh and enjoyable, especially in the chance to welcome another two Golden Age gladiators back into the action, but as a whole the story doesn’t match the standards of the first team-up, in 1963.
A large part of this is attributable to the way the Justice Society are depicted as losers, but the largely downbeat ending to the story kills its momentum. The Crime Syndicate are defeated, for good, at the top of page 21. What follows is a silly pantomime show as the Syndicate members send out facial signals over what they want to see happen to themselves, which leads to this simultaneously overblown and pathetic threat to the existence of Earths 1 and 2, that Green Lantern disposes of in the corner of a panel.
It kills the story in its traces, and the naïve idea of imprisoning the Syndicate for all eternity, in a globe lacking food, water and air supplies, surrounded by warning signs, just emphasises how perfunctory the conclusion is.
I’ve also one complaint about this story that has nothing to do with the team-ups, and that’s the first round of battles in issue 29. Let’s get this straight: the Syndicate split up to rob in five specific places and the JLA split up to tackle their exact counterpart. Leave aside the sexist implications of allowing only Superwoman and Wonder Woman meet, since you can’t (in 1964) have either of them fight men, because no man would be so unchivalrous as to strike a poor, weak, defenceless woman.
No, what actually happens is that all four male JLAers arrive to find a different male villain. That’s four villains who, having finished looting a location, all go to a location where one of their colleagues has also been looting, meaning that all four are actually expecting to find that their team-mates have not looted everything but will have left stuff – rich, valuable stuff – behind for somebody else to come loot. And not only is that the stupidest idea any supervillain could ever have had, but it actually turns out to be the case in every case.
Famously, at the end of Fantastic Voyage, the grandson of screenplay writer Isaac Asimov asked, if the suddenly growing scientists (and Raquel Welsh) had to get out of the patient’s head before they killed him, why did the suddenly growing submarine they left behind not kill him. Asimov explained that it was because his infant grandson was smarter than a Hollywood Producer.
That makes my eight year old self smarter than Gardner Fox and Julius Schwarz. If only I’d lived in New York, and not East Manchester.
Post-Crisis canon or not? As the story’s sole raison d’être is parallel worlds and the Crime Syndicate coming from an Earth where evil predominates, it’s impossible for this story to have occurred. Or is it? As early as Justice League International in 1987, DC had reintroduced Bluejay, Wandjina and the Silver Sorceress (affectionate parodies of Marvel’s Avengers) as survivors of an alternate Earth destroyed by nuclear disaster, so why couldn’t the Crime Syndicate have come from that kind of alternate Earth themselves?
However, the kind of rewriting required to accommodate the shift from three Earths to two would probably have forced changes out of all recognition: in the DC Universe, it makes no sense to even involve the Justice Society at all. So, again, no.