Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1973


Justice League of America 107, “Crisis on Earth-X!”/Justice League of America 108, “Thirteen against the Earth!” Written by Len Wein, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Dick Giordano (inks), edited by Julius Schwartz.


For months, the Justice League and Justice Society have been working on developing Transmatter Cubes, to get around the fact that they can usually only meet up at one specific period each year. Now the machine is ready for its first testing with human subjects: Batman, Green Arrow and the Elongated Man will jump to Earth-2, Superman, Doctor Fate and the Sandman will make the reverse journey.
The Red Tornado is still pleading to be allowed to take part, to find out if he can ever return to Earth-2. (He was not killed in issue 102: in only the previous issue, the JLA discovered that the Tornado had actually been blown through the Vibrational Barrier into Earth-1, where he found himself prevented from crossing back: he had been used by his creator, T.O. Morrow against the Justice League, for which purpose Morrow had carved the Tornado a human face. When the Tornado had helped defeat his creator again, he was rewarded with Justice league membership).However, as the Transmatter Cube has not yet been tested on androids, the Tornado is still to be excluded.
The heroes line up for the simultaneous experiment. Green Arrow wants them to hurry up: he’s standing in a draft. In an airtight satellite ? mocks the Atom. When the Cubes are activated, the two sets of heroes disappear from their native Earths. But they do not arrive at their destinations.
The sextet arrive on a hitherto unknown Earth, which will be known as Earth-X. The cause for their diversion reveals himself: it is the Red Tornado who, desperate to try to get home, has whirled himself into invisibility and stowed away in the Earth-1 Transmatter Cube. Except that his whirlings have upset the delicate workings of the Cube and deposited them somewhere unknown.
The septet’s musing about how to contact their friends and get home are interrupted by the shock appearance – on American streets! – of a platoon of German soldiers, in Nazi uniforms, accompanying a futuristic tank.
The Germans attack, the first tank shell crumpling on Superman2’s chest. Doctor Fate responds with a magic battering ram, but something on this world causes his magic to run awry, and the ram floors Superman instead. Then the Germans fire off gas shells, which knock the heroes out.
But as they slide into unconsciousness, they hear the German’s exclaiming with fear at the arrival of the Freedom Fighters.
These are six heroes formerly published in the Forties at Quality Comics: The Ray, The Black Condor, the Human Bomb, Doll Man, Phantom Lady and Uncle Sam. These newcomers mop up the fearful Nazis and spirit the JLA/JSA to their hidden headquarters, behind a Nazi propaganda poster.
Once the heroes recover, Uncle Sam explains the position on this Earth. When the President (Roosevelt, F.D.) suffered his fatal heart attack in 1944, the balance of Government swung the wrong way. By the time the US had the Bomb, so too did Germany, and neither dared use it. The war entered a stalemate, dragging on into the mid-Sixties. Many more people died, including the Blackhawks, and Plastic Man. Finally, the German’s invented some form of Mind Control machine, ending the war in their favour. For some unknown reason, the Freedom Fighters are immune to the device, and they continue the battle from underground.
Of course, the newcomers volunteer their aid, despite Black Condor’s doubts as to their bona fides. Doctor Fate’s magic, used cautiously, shows the assembled heroes the whereabouts of three concealed Mind Control Stations: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Mount Fujiyama in Japan and Mount Rushmore in America. Leaving the Red Tornado behind, so he doesn’t get in the way, the heroes split into three teams of four to go out and bring down each Station.
In Paris, Batman, Doctor Fate, the Ray and the Human Bomb mount their attack. The Ray flies to the observation platform and downs the guards but is in danger of being overwhelmed by their reinforcements when Doctor Fate, carrying the Human Bomb, swoops down on them, whilst Batman, scaling the outside of the Tower, frightens the life out of them.
Once inside, the quartet are confronted by an intelligent machine that makes monster opponents that neutralise each hero. However, they quickly switch, and defeat each other’s opponents, before turning to the machine. It then proceeds to override their nervous systems, paralysing them. The menace is averted – but only for a moment as the heroes, walking like automatons, march upon it and destroy it.
No-one feels better for it. It seems all three machines must be destroyed to free Earth-X from the Nazi horror.
Back on Earths 1 and 2, the Justice League and Justice Society are unable to locate their missing members. What if they have been transmitted… nowhere?
End of part 1.


After a short recap by Uncle Sam, we turn to Superman, Green Arrow, the Phantom Lady and Doll Man in Japan. The locals are filled with shame at having been subjugated by their one-time allies. The Mind Control Station is hidden in the centre of Fujiyama’s crater: the heroes attack from different points, but the machine responds by setting off an underwater earthquake that threatens to destroy all Japan, forcing Superman to break off and combat that. The Machine, which has apparently absorbed the lessons learned from its Paris counterpart, theorises that the greatest threat is gone, but the remaining trio come up with a plan.
Green Arrow bombards the machine with a flurry of arrows. It is contemptuous of their lack of effect, until its voice starts to slur and fail, and it ceases to work. This is down to Doll Man who, under cover of all those arrows, had slipped inside and screwed around with its wiring.
The final quartet, Sandman, Elongated Man, Black Condor and Uncle Sam, have gone to Mount Rushmore, which had had a new head added to the mountain, that of Hitler. They bust through the Nazi guards but somehow find the machine impervious to their every assault. That is, until Elongated Man works out that the bird hovering overhead throughout all the fighting is not natural, but a robot projecting a mirage.
The real machine is hidden inside Hitler’s head, affording Uncle Sam the pleasure of punching Hitler out and destroying the last machine.
Everyone returns to Freedom Fighter headquarters, dispirited and perplexed that nothing seems to have changed, that the force powering the Mind Control of Earth-X hasn’t been destroyed. But the visiting heroes then accuse the Freedom Fighters of having taken control of it, with the intention of ruling the world for themselves.
A fight starts between the two sides, the Freedom Fighters grimly aware that it is the machine’s energies that have now perverted their allies. Only the Red Tornado, standing aside, is logical enough to determine that there must be a fourth, Master Mind Control Station.
He sets off through the atmosphere, trying to find it, and discovers it in space, a satellite base. Inside, Hitler himself welcomes him, attempts to suborn him, but the enraged Tornado unleashes a punch that knocks Hitler’s head off, literally: he is nothing but a robot himself, a creation of the Master Machine, which has replaced all the Nazi hierarchy and taken control of the planet itself.
The Tornado fights back against the assault on himself, and his whirlings are sufficient to disrupt the gyroscopic balance of the satellite. Uncontrollable, it falls out of orbit, crashing in flames in the ocean far below, but not before the Red Tornado retrieves something.
The menace is over and Earth-X is free at last, but the JLA/JSA septet are stuck here. That is, until the Red Tornado unveils the device which allowed the four Mind Control machines to communicate together. This is hastily adapted to send out a signal that the relieved Justice League and Justice Society can home in on, enabling their missing members to go home.
* * * * *
The 1973 team-up is second only to that of 1965 in its importance in my eyes. The 1965 team-up of these introduced me to the Justice Society of America, but this team-up reintroduced me to comics, after a three-year absence of having grown out of them. Considering just how many comics I have bought, read and written about, this is one of the most significant events of my life.
Wein’s approach is still focussed onto the Gardner Fox tradition, which made this story easy for me to appreciate how much comics – or DC at least – had moved on in my absence: I had barely been exposed to anything but Gardner Fox when it came to the annual rite: the sole exception was the second half of O’Neil’s 1969 effort.
It’s fast, it’s brash, it’s a simply story told linearly, with its focus upon the heroes using their powers, yet with the added element of personality: Fox might have had the Golden Age Superman weighing in against Nazi soldiers, but he would never have had him say, “Ratzi, I cut my baby teeth on punks like you!”
The influence of the previous year’s inclusion of a third super-team was quickly felt. Wein had intended that to be a one-off, a salute to the double-anniversary, but Schwarz demanded another third force: the previous year’s anniversary had sold like crazy, and Schwarz’s first principle was to give the readers what they wanted.
So Wein had to cast about for an equivalent team, but ended up having to invent his own. It’s a perfect example of a story creating itself by necessity and logic from an initial element.
The six heroes gathered together as the Freedom Fighters had never previously teamed up, but they were all heroes from the Forties who had been published by Quality Comics, and who had subsequently been acquired by DC, alongside better known and more famous characters such as the Blackhawks, and Plastic Man. They fit Schwarz’s bill. Wein’s next step was to recognise that, for most of their career, these characters had been fighting Nazis, and would be best employed in the role with which they were identified.
That in turn meant having to have an active Nazi foe in 1973, and that in turn led to the establishment of Earth-X as an Earth on which Germany had won a much-prolonged Second World War.
The venue for this story was originally intended to be Earth-Swastika, but Schwarz understandably refused to allow that symbol in his book, and Wein compromised by crossing out all the cross-pieces, to leave an X.
After the initial flurry of Earths a decade previously, the idea of adding parallel worlds had rather dropped into abeyance. True, a particularly goofy issue of The Flash in 1968 had seen Barry Allen wind up on an Earth where he and the Justice League were no more than characters in comics published by National Periodical Publications, i.e, this Earth (named Earth-Prime for the purpose), but this aside there had been no development of the Multiverse in almost a decade. Wein’s creation of Earth-X was the start of the second wave, by which the number of identifiable Earths would multiply, slowly, but steadily.
One thing that irritated me for years about this story, being interested in American history and having a food working knowledge of the Presidents, was Uncle Sam’s reference to Roosevelt’s (depicted in the comic but not named as thus) fatal heart attack in 1944, when I knew full well that he’d actually died of a brain haemorrhage in 1945. Unfortunately, it took me more years than I care to recollect before I twigged to the fact that this was actually quite a subtle counterfactual by Wein. Roosevelt had been succeeded by Truman, a man he hardly knew, who’d been added to the ticket in 1944, at a time when the course of the War in Europe had turned decisively in the Allies’ favour.
In 1944, Roosevelt’s death before an Election would have brought in Henry Wallace as President, a man known as a great, almost mystical liberal, but not for his decisiveness. Uncle Sam references the balance of Government going the wrong way, which in this context it no doubt would have under Wallace, so that Germany also had the Bomb when America was ready to use it. Besides, if this death had occurred before the Summer D-Day landings, the balance of the conventional War may have been more even. Rather than an egregious mistake, which I took it to be for much too long, Wein’s little throwaway line turned out to be an extraordinarily subtle and accurate way to distinguish Earth-X’s past.
The additional slickness, and naturalness of the story impressed me, as did the art. Though I’m well aware of Dillin’s flaws now, both in his reliance on stock figures and his lack of flair, he compared well with Sekowsky, and especially the early Sekowsky, as inked by Bernard Sachs. Of course, much of this was down to Dick Giordano’s inks, clean and strong and very clear, concentrating on thin, sharp lines that define the images without removing their underlying strength. The half-page image of the Nazi soldiers looking down the Eiffel Tower at the rapidly-climbing Batman, cape flowing in a decently Adams-esque manner.
The half dozen resurrected heroes made for an interesting bunch. The Ray, with his light and heat powers and simple all-yellow costume, was obviously the best suited to break out in the modern era, though when DC finally got around to this notion, it was post-Crisis and the role went to a new Ray with a decidedly inferior new costume. Phantom Lady, who also preferred yellow, was a Forties pin-up incarnate, and was actually appropriated as cousin to the JSA’s Starman, both having the surname Knight.
In contrast, the flying Black Condor, chosen as the team paranoid, failed to impress, as did Doll Man, a precursor of the Earth-1 Atom but not half so interesting a character. He still outdid the Human Bomb, a guy who has to live in a protective suit because his mere touch sets off explosions, so every time you want him in on the action, he has to whip off a heavy duty glove and punch one-handedly whilst desperately gripping the glove in his other hand, because if he drops it, and can’t cover his punching hand up, nobody’s going to want to get near him.
And this leaves Uncle Sam, who is the incarnation of America’s national self-image, and as such is really not something you can safely discuss in a comic book about three teams of superheroes battling left-over Nazi hordes in 1973.
Because, for all the enjoyment this story gave, when you say it like that, you’re making the whole concept into one with a very dodgy moral basis. I was not long since turned 18 when I read this story. My Mum had lived through the War, my Uncle had been in the Navy during it: all around the world there were people with vivid personal memories of the conflict against the Nazis, who really did not need cheapjack little affairs like this making free with their experiences.
Perhaps that’s too heavy a thing to lay on this story: remember that its counterfactual basis was genuinely subtle and, considered purely as a superhero story, intent on thrills and entertainment, it was almost an unqualified success.
I say almost for reasons connected with the reappearance of the Red Tornado. When we last saw him in this series, he was sacrificing his life to save Earth-2, but of course Wein had no genuine intent on killing off a character with so much unfulfilled potential. In the previous issue to this team-up, Wein did what should have been done from the start: he brought the Tornado into Earth-1, made sure he couldn’t get out and set him down in the Justice League, where he could at last develop.
There isn’t much sign of development in this story: the Tornado is still mistrusted on all sides as, basically, a whirling disaster, a point very much emphasised by his being responsible for stranding everyone on Earth-X in the first place. After which, everybody roundly tells him to go stand in a corner and not interfere, just like they always did in the Justice Society.
It’s more than a bit demeaning, and an ironic contrast to Len Wein’s contemporaneous Swamp Thing, where the theme was very much that those who tormented the horrible looking creature were themselves the true monsters. Wein does, at least, attempt to rehabilitate the android in the end, by having him save the eventual day, not to mention come up with our deus ex machina (literally) in the form of a device that, for no logical reason except that Wein needs a get-out, enables the League and the Society to get home.
In a post-Crisis Universe, all of this is impossible. In the Multiverse it was a moment of realisation that I could still get fun from American comics, and the start of something whose dimensions I would not have been able to believe had I foreseen what I was doing by splashing out 10p on issue 107.
One sidebar note, that I did not realise either then or until writing this series: traditionally, the annual team-up took place in the August and September issues of Justice League of America, but with effect from this year, would in future appear cover dated October and November. I never noticed. Of course, the cover dates were virtually meaningless, back then. But from my rediscovery of comics until now, I have assumed that these were the ‘summer issues’ still.

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