Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1965


Justice League of America 37, “Earth – Without a Justice League!”/Justice League of America 38, “Crisis on Earth-A!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Bernard Sachs (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

At last Johnny Thunder has received an invite to a Justice Society meeting. It’s been very frustrating, them having adventures without him. He calls on his Thunderbolt, only to find that, after having had nothing to do for so long (17 years), the Bahdnesian Hex-Bolt was about to try Earth-1, in the hope that its Johnny Thunder had something for it to do. The easily-distracted Johnny muses about wanting to meet his Earth-1 equivalent, and the Bolt immediately zaps them there.
The Earth-1 Thunder, who lives in a small, ill-kept apartment room, looks identical to Johnny, except for his frown and his preference for purple jackets, not green. He has the same history as Johnny but, being a crook, was never given a Thunderbolt. Johnny sympathises: Thunder knocks him out and, after a few tries at getting the right words, eventually hits on “Cei-u” (i.e., Say you), and orders the Bolt to hop down to the local factory and rob it of its payroll.
Hopping down literally (he is a literal being), the Thunderbolt, being rusty, misjudges and bangs his head against the safe. This attracts the attention of Barry Allen, who changes to the Flash and intervenes. Surprisingly, as someone whose favourite comic book was Flash Comics, Barry-Flash does not recognise the Thunderbolt of another Flash alumni. The Bolt escapes when a suspicious and impatient Thunder orders his return.
When he hears about the Flash, Thunder comes up with a grandiose plan to prevent the Justice League from interfering: he sends the Bolt back into time to prevent all of them ever coming to be.
Thus the Thunderbolt intercepts the lightning bolt bound for Barry Allen’s lab: no chemical bath, no Flash. He converts Krypton’s fissionable uranium core to lead: no explosion, no rocket containing baby Kal-El. He prevents the blast of yellow radiation from crashing Abin Sur’s spaceship: he remains Green Lantern elsewhere in this sector. He smashes the fragment of white dwarf star matter that Ray Palmer would have used to create the Atom’s size and weight changing controls. He shorts out Dr Erdel’s electronic brain before it teleports the Martian Manhunter to Earth. And he drops into Detective Comics 27, into the first panel of Batman’s career, and helps the crooks he faced whale the shit out of Bruce Wayne, who concludes that being a crimefighter was a silly idea and he’s going back to being a playboy!
In similar, but unspecified fashion, the Thunderbolt also disrupts the origins of Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Hawkman. When he returns to Thunder, utterly exhausted, he advises him that the Earth has now been changed into an alternate: Thunder promptly christens it Earth-A.
Meanwhile, on Earth-2, the other Justice Society members – The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman, Doctor Fate and Mr. Terrific – are wondering where Johnny has got to. There’s no trace of him on Earth-2 in Fate’s crystal ball, but they pick up the trace of his Thunderbolt disappearing into Earth-1. Looking for the Bolt there, the JSA eavesdrop on a scene of Thunder assembling his gang to go out and rob now the Justice League are no longer there to stop them. Horrified and mystified at their counterparts’ disappearance, the Justice Society head for Earth-1.
Once there, they interrupt Thunder’s gang’s robbery. The gang are easily captured and Thunder sets the Bolt against them, with orders that the Bolt interprets very literally: slap ’em down, kick them off the Earth. The Bolt refuses to kill: that is Tabu. As the JSA are too much for the Bolt, Thunder orders him to get them out of there.
After visiting various of the putative Justice Leaguers and discovering they know nothing of their heroic lives, the JSA regroup. They decide to disguise themselves as various JLA members, in the hope that their appearance will cause Thunder to blurt out what he’s done to them. Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom become their Earth-1 equivalents, Doctor Fate and Mr. Terrific impersonate Superman and Batman which Hawkman opts to cover the Martian Manhunter.
Once the Bolt tells Thunder that the JSA have ‘vanished’, he goes out to rob a cruise liner, using only the Bolt. The disguised JSA catch up with them and Thunder does indeed blurt out what he’s done, but despite instructing the Bolt to split himself into six, one for each ‘Justice Leaguer’, each Bolt is only one-sixth and strong. The ‘League’ prevail and Thunder and the Bolt flee again.
Having discovered just who the ‘JLA’ were, Thunder adopts the same plan. The Bolt breaks six of his gang members out of jail and substitutes each of them in the various Leaguers origins. Thus, when the JSA find Thunder’s lair, they are confronted by a six-man Lawless League. In preparation for the fight, the Bolt removes the JSA’s disguises, leaving the two sides ready to face-off
End of part 1.

In anticipation of the fight, Thunder has the Bolt set him up with wide-screen TV. Black & white is not acceptable, even though Batman is beating Mr Terrific: by the time the screen changes to colour, the roles have been reversed. Each JSA member takes on the Lawless League equivalent of the one they impersonated. In each case, the Lawless League seem strong at first, but are easily taken out by the JSA: the Bolt explains that it is a matter of experience with powers.
Infuriated, Thunder has the Bolt whip up an earthquake, a hurricane and a typhoon to assault the JSA, knocking three members out immediately. Hawkman grabs the capes of Doctor Fate and Green Lantern, struggling to hold them aloft, whilst the other three fall into a crevasse. Once out of the wind, Terrific grabs a spur of rock, The Flash supports himself by drumming his heels to create wind pressure that stops him falling, and once the Atom wakes up, the three are propelled upwards, like a circus act. They help Hawkman as his wings are torn off, and once recovered Doctor Fate and Green Lantern anchor themselves in a magical gondola.
Frustrated, Thunder decides to escape by having the Bolt take him to the Moon. Once there, he demands air be added.
Whilst his team-mates search for Thunder, Doctor Fate attempts to undo the Bolt’s interference with history, but it is accomplished magic and he can do nothing. However, the Flash has discovered the column of air leading towards the Moon, and the JSA set off in pursuit.
On the Moon, Thunder has had the Bolt create three monsters to destroy the JSA. When the heroes arrive, The Atom and Mr. Terrific charge into the attack against Medusa-Man, but his face changes them both into solid wood: Fate stops him by covering his face with a blank gold mask. Hawkman and the Flash attack Repello-Man, who repels their assaults back at them, knocking them out of the fight. And Green Lantern pours it on against Absorbo-Man, who then sends all the power back at him, wiping him out.
This leaves Doctor Fate alone against the remaining two monsters. He takes out Repello-Man by flinging bolts of reverse magic at him: when Repello-Man tries to repel them, they are reversed and attracted to him, shattering him. As for Absorbo-Man, Fate banks on his having absorbed the weakness of Green Lantern’s power ring as well as its power: hurling Atom and Terrific’s wooden bodies against him, he causes Absorbo-Man to crumble.
By now at screaming pitch, Thunder turns the Bolt against Fate, in an all-out magic war, but as they fling all manner of bolts at each other, thunder is caught in the middle, battered from all sides until he finally screams that he has had enough, that he wants none of this to ever have happened and to see none of them ever again.
The Justice League of America gather for a routine meeting at which the only crime news is about a small-time crook named Johnny Thunder. The Flash, smiling, suggests that he’s heard of that name before. The Thunderbolt winks at the reader: he knows what happened, but he isn’t sharing it.
* * * * *
Ok, it’s the ending, isn’t it?
It’s an unashamed “And then they woke up, and it was all a dream”, even though it’s not even that, because it all never happened, not even in a dream, and no-one remembers it. Except the Thunderbolt. Oh, yes, and the readers.
I’ve no idea how far you have to go to find a time when it was possible to get away with that kind of ending, but I suspect it was way before 1965. On the other hand, when I read this adventure, in two widely separated parts, in 1966, I was ten years old and I was a sucker for it, and despite an adult appreciation of the flaws in this story, it was my introduction to the Justice Society, and it is still one of my favourite comics stories ever.
Because, for all the ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ nature of the ending, an obvious device to bring to an end a story that had spiralled out of any rational means of closure, it could not possibly mar a tale that had opened my eyes to the vastness of the Universe and of all possibility. Those two pages when the Thunderbolt goes up and down the timestream to invade and destroy the origins of the Justice League opened my mind far wider and further than any comparable incident in literature of any kind.
Once is a great success, two a commercialised sequel but three is a tradition. With this team-up, the annual meeting of the super-teams became a fixture of the summer issues of Justice League of America that the two teams would continue to meet every year.
Might there have been a moment when the tradition could safely have been broken, without too much complaint from readers? Not in 1965, nor the year after. DC’s Golden Age revival was reaching the heights. Schwarz had announced that there would be no more new versions after the success of the Atom, but instead he was experimenting with full-scale revivals. Green Lantern teamed up with his Golden Age counterpart for a couple of adventures, as did the Atom. In Showcase, Doctor Fate and Hourman had a couple of outings in tandem, as did Starman and Black Canary in Brave and Bold, and Schwarz even planned for a Dr Mid-Nite/Sandman team-up, before deciding to go for a solo revival of the Spectre.
But even though the Spectre’s re-emergence, intended as the springboard of an actual series, to be set on Earth-2, failed to make the intended impact, the annual team-up would last long enough that, like the continuing performances of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, it would continue because it had already played for so long, and no-one could work out how to take it off, whilst the Multiverse persisted.
There’s a substantial difference between this team-up and those preceding it, and I like to think that criticism of how the Justice Society were demeaned in 1964 influenced this year’s story, because it’s not a team-up at all. Forget what it says on the cover of issue 37: the Justice League don’t so much not appear on their own cover, as not (the penultimate panel of issue 38 excepted) appear at all in the entire two issues! This is a solo Justice Society story in everything but name.
Of course, the image of the Justice League is preserved for their fans, with the Justice Society in issue 37 and Thunder’s gang in 38 masquerading as the stars of the series. And the appearance of the latter isn’t an exact match as they’re all drawn as different, criminal body-types and faces.
As for the JSA line-up, Doctor Fate and Hawkman retain their 100% record and the other three of Schwarz’s revivals return. The two new revenants this year are Johnny Thunder and Mr. Terrific.
We don’t see much of Johnny at all, and certainly not in conjunction with anyone except his Thunderbolt and his Earth-1 counterpart. And after three pages of that, bop, Johnny’s knocked cold and we are left with his evil equivalent, who’s a completely different kettle of fish. You have to say this for Thunder, he may have a permanent frown and prefer purple jackets to green, and like any member of the criminal classes, he can only pronounce the letters ‘th’ as ‘d’, but when it comes to schemes and plots, he’s wildly inventive: Johnny would never have thought of a fraction of what he comes up with.
So we are exposed to only a small dose of Johnny Thunder, Comic Relief, which suggests to me that Fox and Schwarz were uncertain about how to play Johnny T, and settled for a brief taste, to invite audience reaction.
Terrific, on the other hand, slots in without the slightest sign that this is Terry Sloane’s first mission as a Justice Society member. On his one previous appearance in All-Star, Mr Terrific was only a guest, a fact that was heavily emphasised at the time, but here he is, one of the boys, and sufficiently well-regarded (by Fox and Schwarz, let alone his team-mates) as to be a suitable double for Batman.
There never was any story about how and when Terrific was invited into membership. He’s generally been reassigned a role as a JSA reservist in later years, but if anyone at National had bothered with the issue in 1965, I’d expect the answer to have been that, under the JSA’s revised by-laws, he was upgraded.
One thing about this story puzzled me for years. Flash, Green Lantern and Atom naturally impersonate their namesakes, but Hawkman, rather implausibly, opts to imitate the Martian Manhunter, even though his Earth-1 counterpart is a member of the League. Then it struck me that this could be explained as a particularly subtle piece of continuity from Fox and Schwarz: the Katar Hol Kawkman was now a Leaguer, but he’d only been inducted in Justice League of America 31, the following issue from the previous year’s team-up, and the teams never had any contact between annual meetings, so the Prince Khufu Hawkman simply did not know he too had a JLA equivalent.
On the other hand, even four years into the Marvel Age, a concern for blatant continuity never bothered Fox and Schwarz, so something as low-key as this seems implausible, but it still wouldn’t surprise me if, during those legendary morning/afternoon plotting sessions, one of editor and writer made that very objection.
Of course, the story is not without its flaws. I’ve already pointed out in the story summary that, despite being an avid reader of Flash Comics, Barry-Flash apparently doesn’t recognise Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt when Johnny T appeared in all but the last dozen or so issues of the whole series, but more serious is the introduction of “Accomplished Magic”, which, having been accomplished, cannot be undone.
It’s a necessary device to stop Doctor Fate simply undoing everything halfway through issue 37, but its glaring inconsistency is that Fate’s own “Accomplished Magic” doesn’t stop the Thunderbolt stripping away the Society’s disguise as the League.
And even at the age of ten, when I first read this story, I couldn’t help but think that Fox and Schwarz missed a trick in the first scene where the Society first tackle the Thunderbolt. Thunder orders the Bolt to ‘slap ’em down!’: he turns himself into a giant hand and slaps them down onto the ground. He orders the Bolt to ‘kick ’em off the Earth!’: the Bolt turns himself into a giant boot and kicks them ten feet into the air, ‘off the Earth’.
Finally, Thunder orders the Bolt to kill them. This is the Bolt’s sticking point: not killing, that’s Tabu.
Almost fifty years later, I still expect a raging Thunder to shout back, “Ok, then, Tabu! Now kill them!”
As far as post-Crisis canonicity is concerned, you might think that this one’s impossible as well, but it’s surprisingly adaptable. Make Thunder into a grandson, or grandnephew of Johnny who gets control of the Bolt and decides to eliminate the Justice League and the story would still play out. And if young Thunder is appropriately contemptuous of the older generation, that might explain why he only has the Justice League eliminated from history, and not the ‘beneath contempt’ Society.
But you’d have had to lose that ending…

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