Justice League of America 73, “Star Light, Star Bright – Death Star I See Tonight!”/Justice League of America 74, “Where Death Fears to Tread!” Written by Denny O’Neil, art by Dick Dillin (pencils) and Sid Greene (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.
Having concluded their case in Justice League of America 72, the JLA finally make time to listen to the Red Tornado (who turned up on Earth-1 the previous issue).
The Tornado’s story is of an attack on Earth-2 by an evil, living, thinking group of stars calling itself Aquarius. The living star was one of a group of twelve many eons ago, but was expelled due to its evil, and condemned to wander in a diminished state.
Finally, Aquarius came into sight of Earth-2, where Ted Knight observed it as an anomaly, through his personal observatory. Changing to Starman, Knight went into the heavens to challenge the potential menace, but Aquarius managed to seize the Cosmic Rod, and use it to give himself a humanoid body, and amplify his powers.
Starman fell to earth, badly injured, alerting his house guests, Larry and Dinah Lance. Dinah changed into her Black Canary costume to investigate what had done this to Starman, but found herself being ambushed by her hypnotised husband, to whom she gave a judo-toss.
Aquarius revealed himself himself, mockingly, and Black Canary signalled the JSA, bringing Doctor Fate, Green Lantern, Dr Mid-Nite, Superman and the Red Tornado to the scene.
En route, some of the heroes had to stop to deal with menaces responding to the power Aquarius was bringing to bear on the Earth. Green Lantern battles two neon sign ancient warriors, Dr Mid-Nite has to tackle a raging four year old with super-strength, and Doctor Fate faces up to some mystically charged weather. Thankfully, the kid is quickly restored to (bratty) normal.
Superman and Wonder Woman arrive late to the fray, having been held up by similar, unspecified, distractions. Aquarius explains itself in an emotional manner, fluctuates between anger and self-pity, bombast and tears. But when it comes to a fight, he is a match for the JSA. Their resistance infuriates him, and he uses the Cosmic Rod enhanced powers to destroy Earth-2, to sweep it away entirely.
All that remains are the half dozen JSA members, plus Larry Lance. At the last moment, Doctor Fate did two things. One was to encase them in a protective bubble, resistant to Aquarius’s powers. Though he rages outside, they live in the bubble, and whist they live Earth-2 is retained in their memories.
The other was to send Red Tornado to Earth-1 for help from the Justice League. That was thirteen days ago.
Aghast at their selfishness, the Justice League immediately promise their aid.
End of part 1.
With the Red Tornado to guide them, the Justice League head into space, towards the crossing point to Earth-2. As they near it, they pass the entrance to the Anti-Matter Universe, a place of great danger.
Ahead of them, Aquarius is growing frustrated at his inability to penetrate Doctor Fate’s bubble. Inside, Fate is reaching the limits of his powers, which have kept everyone alive without air, food or drink, for nearly a fortnight.
The appearance of the Justice League confuses Aquarius. He retreats to take stock, but leaves a secret command behind. Thus, when Doctor Fate, with a sigh of great relief, dissolves the bubble, everyone is affected by the post-hypnotic command to attack the newcomers as enemies. So, when Superman approaches Superman for the first time, expecting to have so many things in common, he is punched in the face and a battle begins.
The two Superman battle as equals. Green Lantern easily captures his counterpart, whose ring is out of power, and sends beams in search of Aquarius. Flash and Atom defeat Doctor Fate. Fate’s magic accidentally ties up Wonder Woman. Batman knocks out Dr Mid-Nite. All the League find it easy to overcome weakened puppets, except for Green Arrow. He pins Black Canary down with his new ‘stickum-shaft’, showering her with sticky threads, but is knocked out from behind by Larry Lance, who takes his bow and aims a non-gimmick, razor sharp arrow at him.
Meanwhile, Green Lantern’s beams have found Aquarius. He uses the Cosmic Rod to repel them, send them back as a lethal ball of multi-coloured energy. But his control over the Cosmic Rod is not as good as he thinks and the bubble wobbles towards the nearest person, the trapped Black Canary.
At the sight of his wife in danger, Larry Lance wars with the hypnotic commands to kill Green Arrow. He frees himself and throws himself into the path of the ball. It explodes, killing him.
The explosion breaks the Justice Society’s conditioning. With their release, Earth-2 is brought back, its occupants unaware that they had ceased to exist for 13 days. But as one world is restored, another, private world has ended: Black Canary’s husband is dead.
Her Green Lantern tries to comfort her, to promise that they would get Aquarius, but the Canary pushes him away, she doesn’t care. Bitterly, Green Lantern tells his counterpart that, instead of all the glory and prestige, that is what they are there for: to prevent things like that from happening.
A funeral is arranged by the heroes. It is gatecrashed by Aquarius, mocking and laughing. Wonder Woman stays behind to take care of the Canary, and the Red Tornado is warned to stay behind too. Everybody else heads off in hot pursuit towards the cross-over point to Earth-1. Doctor Fate warns that letting Aquarius bring Earth-2 magic into Earth-1’s Universe could destroy everything.
In the corridor between Universes, they are halted by a barrier created by Aquarius. The two Lanterns struggle through, but their team-mates are held in suspension. They turn their attention to Aquarius, hurling abuse at him, calling him names. The unstable star turns to attack them and they slip through the gap into the Anti-Matter Universe. Their rings protect them, but not Aquarius, Whilst they flee to safety, he is destroyed dramatically by the contact.
Larry has been avenged, but that is not enough for Black Canary: Earth-2 holds too many memories for her. She asks Superman to take her to Earth-1, where she can establish a new life for herself.
* * * * *
Suddenly, they were all gone. Sachs retired, Sekowsky elevated to editorship, Fox cut loose after nearly thirty years because his style of writing was no longer in fashion, and because DC had finally, fitfully, clumsily woken up to the fact that Marvel’s approach had somehow to be absorbed, imitated, applied to characters who had never before been imagined in that fashion.
Denny O’Neil had taken over Justice League of America the previous year, immediately after the previous JLA/JSA team-up. Like Dick Dillin, his arrival was a consequence of Carmine Infantino’s elevation to Editorial Director. Infantino promoted artists to editors, not just from within. He had head-hunted Dick Giordano, who’d been responsible for some fresh and vital titles and characters at lowly Charlton Comics, and who’d introduced some new, young writers and artists into the business, people whose only access at DC would have been by guided tour.
O’Neil, who wrote under the preposterous pseudonym Sergius O’Shaughnessy, was at the front of these. He was brought over by Giordano (whose term as editor only lasted a couple of years, conditions for change being not as flexible as he’d been led to believe) but he quickly became Julius Schwarz’s ‘go-to’ guy for change. With Neal Adams, O’Neil helmed the transformation of Batman back into the terrifying creature of the night he’d originally been, and with the same artist, he transformed Green Lantern by pairing him with Green Arrow and leading him through dark-tinged, street level adventures set against the real background of America at the turn of the decade.
And under Schwarz, he was brought in to transform the Justice League, to lead it away from Fox’s hyper-busy plots and functional dialogue that could be mouthed by anyone, interchangeably.
The problem was that O’Neil had never seen himself as a writer of superheroes. He’d grown up intent upon a career as a reporter, working the crime beat, in the tradition of fearless crime-reporters: hard-boiled, hard-living, hard-drinking. Though he would go on to be one of the foremost writers and editors of comic books, at DC and Marvel, over the next four decades, at this end of his career O’Neil was still close to his hard-boiled roots. He found it hard to take the more fantastic elements of superheroes seriously: the urge to satirise lurked close to the surface.
Unfortunately, despite O’Neil’s ability as a writer, his two attempts at Justice Society team-ups are amongst the weakest published. I’m sorry to say that the next one was even worse than this, and this one was dull.
I do, however, have a sentimental attachment for the second half of this story, which I did not find until August 1970, over a year after its original publication. It was one of the last few handfuls of comics I bought in those dying months of growing out of them, and I spent ages wondering about the first half of the story, which I did not read until several years later.
There’s the germ of a decent story in the concept of a living star, and O’Neil deserves credit in being the first to write the annual team-up around a genuine earth-shattering threat, as opposed to super-sized hero vs crooks whose primary purpose is to rob. The story was irretrievably lost, however, from the moment that O’Neil decided to portray Aquarius (we are so in 1969 here) as a manic depressive of galactic proportions.
It’s compounded by the fact that Dillin chooses to paint Aquarius with the same broad brush strokes as O’Neil, at least in the first part of the story. Squat, grotesque, cartoonish, ugly in the sense that he looks like an amateur’s idea of a villain, Aquarius is impossible to take seriously.
And, as a subsequent letter column pointed out, nothing happens. I appreciate that the idea was to abandon Fox’s plot-centric approach, but O’Neil handles the action aspect of his story with great clumsiness. Starman falls through a skylight, Black Canary judo-tosses her husband, Superman and Wonder Woman get rapidly beaten down by Aquarius and the rest of the assembled Society makes a full-page charge into the action, only for Aquarius to dissolve Earth-2 into non-existence.
Actually, to be fair, that’s not the only action. There are the odd battles that five JSAers, rushing to the rescue, are forced into having, including Dr Mid-Nite’s utterly embarrassing face-off (or should that be navel-off?) with a snotty four year old. Which, incidentally, is down to Schwarz’s long-running approach of having covers drawn depicting exciting and vivid scenes for writers then to incorporate into stories hopefully inspired by the concept: sometimes, as here, the only way to shoehorn the cover in was as a complete irrelevancy.
These little battles are filler, pure and simple, and badly organised and sloppily conceived filler too, since there are five JSAers racing to the scene but two of them get to get there without their hold-ups being seen or even defined in any way.
There’s an equally sloppy approach in the second part. O’Neil’s followed the format of the last couple of years in allowing the Justice Society almost a free run in the first half, but this is definitely back to the bad old days as the Justice League come steaming in like the cavalry.
There’s a major incongruity right at the start. It’s been established from the start of the Multiverse that Earths-1 and -2 occupy the same physical position in space, but by vibrating at different rates, are invisible and intangible to each other. The physical crossover from one to another has been by some form of retuning of vibrational rates, usually glossed over by the use of magic by Doctor Fate or Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt.
Now it’s apparently shot off somewhere into space, outside the Earth’s atmosphere, to become a physical transition point: a wormhole in space leading between Universes. The term had been around since 1957 but it hadn’t entered public consciousness by 1969.
The ‘action’ in the second half consists of the short battle between the League and the hypnotised Society, which is not only one-sided, but sloppily executed. O’Neil has Batman big up Dr Mid-Nite as his closest equivalent in the Justice Society – apart from, maybe, Robin the Grown-Up Wonder or, like, possibly Batman? – and then proceeds to floor him with one punch, whilst Hawkman’s presence in this story is a complete puzzle: he’s there, you occasionally see him in panels, but he speaks not, nor does he wave an ancient weapon, not even in his section of the battle, against Wonder Woman, since she gets taken out by friendly (magical) fire.
But the true point of this story, and the only place in which it comes alive, with horrible irony, is in Larry Lance’s death. Remember that death, of actual, named, recurring characters, was exceedingly rare in 1969, and even that of such a minor character as Lance packed an emotional charge far beyond any possible today.
Lance died a hero, sacrificing himself against the constraints of his own physical weakness and Aquarius’ hypnotic commands, to save his wife from death. But it’s not in that moment that O’Neil gave his readers pause but in what followed: Black Canary’s slow, fearful, three-panel approach to her husband’s body, in which the urgent wish to believe it hasn’t happened is incarnated in Dillin’s every line, her utter rejection of all thoughts of justice or revenge, her complete lack of care about anything but the enormity of what has happened, the Earth-2 Green Lantern’s internally directed bitterness at the cost of failure in what they do, the ‘job’ stripped down beyond the trappings to the bedrock duty to keep what has happened to Dinah Lance from happening.
It’s a determination that fuels the ending. The Green Lanterns escape the trap that captures everyone else, but Alan Scott refuses to rescue their colleagues. A duty has settled upon him, one that he’ll trust to his counterpart to share, but in an unstated manner this has become personal between him and Aquarius. And the two are oddly dispassionate about what they know is a killing mission: Aquarius is not to be allowed to live.
This thin line of genuine emotion carries and sustains the issue to its end.
Although that end is both risible and disturbing. Already in his term as JLA scripter, O’Neil had presided over the League losing two members for the first time. Wonder Woman had lost her powers under Sekowsky, and resigned, whilst J’Onn J’Onzz had been written out as an old-fashioned, outmoded, no longer relevant character, sent off is moving fashion, but consigned to limbo all the same (all together now: There Is No Such Thing As A Bad Character).
This left the JLA short-handed, especially in the distaff branch. The two most prominent Earth-1 heroines after Wonder Woman were Hawkgirl and Batgirl, and they couldn’t possibly be considered League members, being merely weak, female impersonations of the ‘real’ characters. The only viable option, it seemed, was to dust off Black Canary and move her over to the big Earth.
It’s a decidedly ignoble reason for killing off Larry Lance, just to get Black Canary to announce she wants to go to Earth-1 now, please, to run irretrievably away from the memories of her love, her parents, her friends, everybody she’s ever known. It’s a classic case of trauma, of making decisions when the mind is disturbed and shrinking from an unwelcome situation.
In short, it’s unhealthy as you can think, and what does Suiperman say? Just jump up into my arms, little lady, and let’s be off.
I mean, bloody hell, has she no family at all? Has Larry no family that mourn him? (If he did, not one of them got invited to the superhero funeral. And no religion, it might appear, since one of the Supermen officiated, instead of any minister). Doesn’t she want to take any clothes with her (any civilian clothes, I mean)? Any personal possessions? Cosmetics? Spare fishnets? Clean knickers? (Ladies, I am led to believe, set great store by such things). Absolutely nothing.
One thing we can’t ignore is that, after several years of ignoring the question, Schwarz finally decides to include the Golden Age Superman in the Justice Society’s line-up. How much of this was due to the potential confusion between two characters who were functionally identical (Superman never ceased publication, and there is no ‘official’ demarcation point where his several series stopped featuring the Golden Age version and started featuring the Silver Age one), and how much was down to the baleful influence of Superman’s editor Mort Weisinger, who resented Schwarz featuring the Earth-1 version in the JLA can’t be known.
But Weisinger’s star was entering a decline now, and so Superman of Earth-2 re-emerged from whatever limbo he occupied, especially to fight his Earth-1 counterpart, a fight between two equally matched versions that ends in stalemate and mutual knock-out. Latter-day readers will be surprised to see that the two Superman are identical: no simplified S-shield, no signs of aging, no grey temples, nothing to distinguish between the two at all.
Given that throughout the whole Sixties, the point of the Justice Society was that they were older, that they had come out of retirement, that they had a history, this approach was incongruous, but O’Neil would return to it, at greater length, the following year.
As for post-Crisis validity thankfully there is none.