Justice League of America 159, “Crisis From Yesterday!”/Justice League of America 160, “Crisis From Tomorrow!” Written by Gerry Conway, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Julius Schwartz.
For their annual meeting this year, the Justice League and the Justice Society attend a private meal at Gotham City’s exclusive “22” Club. For once, the heroes can simply socialise. Earth-1’s Batman tries to come to terms with meeting the Huntress, his counterpart’s daughter. The Star-Spangled Kid hates being called Sylvester. Those politically and socially polar opposites, Green Arrow and Hawkman, having got pissed together one night, are now bosom buddies. All is well, until the wall of the restaurant is blown in.
We cut to a timeless dimension bordering on 3786AD. The League’s old foe, the Lord of Time, is worried. The infallible computer he has built confirms that five historical figures have been sent to July 15, 1978. The Lord of Time, to ensure Earth’s survival, needs these figures to utterly defeat the League and Society.
This is because the computer, which he built to stop Time whilst he looted everywhen, has worked too well. It will stop Time, but Time cannot then be restarted. And he has built it too well for it to be destroyed.
Back on July 15, 1978, the attackers of the Club stand revealed. They are all characters from long ago DC adventure series set in the past: in chronological order, Jon, the Viking Prince, The Black Pirate, plunderer of Spain’s tyranny, Miss Liberty, heroine of the Revolutionary War, scarred bounty hunter, Jonah Hex, and Hans von Hammer, World War 1 fighter pilot for Germany. All have been enhanced with superpowers, and a second volley from von Hammer’s triplane brings the building down on the heroes.
Mystified as to how they have got there, how they can understand each other, and why they have attacked these strangers, the historical heroes retreat, at Miss Liberty’s suggestion, to a place where they can think.
After they leave, the heroes start to dig themselves out of the rubble. A handful of heroes are functioning – Leaguers Superman, the Flash, Hawkman and Elongated Man, JSAers Wonder Woman, Dr. Mid-nite, the Huntress and Star-Spangled Kid. The rest are comatose, in a state of shock, feverish. They are rushed to hospital by the survivors, who then seek out their attackers driven by an impassioned Hawkman, whose wife, Hawkgirl, is amongst those in a coma.
Superman’s X-ray vision detects a trail of chronal energy that leads the heroes to their assailants’ temporary base at Valley Forge. But, despite the massive imbalance in powers, they are easily, and comprehensively beaten by the historical quintet.
In an epilogue, the Lord of Time extracts his pawns and brings them to his Palace. They have done what he required: completely beaten the heroes. But the beaten come back stronger than ever. The League and Society awaken with renewed determination. Just as he planned.
End of Part 1.
Once again, the historical heroes have left a Chronal Energy trail that Superman can read. The superheroes follow it into the Lord of Time’s future side-dimension to resume the battle.
Meanwhile, the enraged historics mount an attack on the Palace itself, but the Computer responds by drawing in menaces from all over Time, a Tyrannosaurus Rex and mutated reptilian apes, which overcome this rebellion. They are sent back to their own times.
Back on Earth, fresh from Monitor Duty, Aquaman arrives at Gotham Hospital, concerned for the fallen. He recaps the Earth-1 & -2 set-up for new readers, gets inappropriately excited on hearing that there were survivors who have gone into the future and only then arranges to bring the League’s advanced medical diagnostic equipment down to deal with the strange radiation permeating everybody’s body.
The League and Society pursuers are nearing the Lord of Time’s Palace. The Elongated Man feels out of place in comparison to everyone else: they all have awesome powers and he can only stretch his body: what is he doing there?
The heroes run into the first of a series of barriers created by the Computer. They break through each in turn, but at the cost of losing another hero to each obstacle. Four get into the Palace itself, but The Huntress, the Star-Spangled Kid and Dr Mid-nite are taken out by a multi-armed robot, leaving only the Elongated Man to complete the mission. And, despite his doubts, he does so, blowing up the Computer by short-circuiting it with his own body. With seconds only to spare, Time is saved.
Back on Earth, the heroes are all restored by the simple expedient of using Green Lantern’s power ring to clear out the radiation from their bodies: all except Elongated Man, and he’s ok because his rubbery bones and organs kept him from being badly hurt in the explosion. He’s back to being boastful to his wife.
* * * * *
Despite what I’m going to say below, this is a distinct improvement on the last three years of the traditional JLA/JSA teamup. After Engelhart brought his run to a thunderous conclusion with Justice League of America 150, he was replaced by Gerry Conway who, with a few exceptions, would remain writer on the series until it was cancelled and rebooted in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Whatever I may think of Conway as a writer, and that needs to take into account my loathing of what he was to do in the following year’s team-up, he brought a much needed sense of security and consistency to the Justice League, which was after all supposed to be one of DC’s flagship titles.
No mention of 1978 will be wholly accurate if it does not take into account the DC Explosion/Implosion, which seriously threatened the future of the company and which caused many very knowledgeable and intelligent people to predict that within five years, there would not be a comic book industry.
The Explosion was the brainchild of new DC Publisher, Jeanette Kahn, who had replaced the dismissed Carmine Infantino in 1977. Kahn, successful in publishing magazines for young people, was a complete Industry outsider, an unusual but ultimately successful choice. Looking at comics’ recent history of price increases, reduced content, reduced printing quality and DC’s by now traditional position as second to Marvel, Kahn’s solution was to get ahead of the price curve and offer more to the reader. Prices would jump to 50c, but story content would leap from 17 to 25 pages, with editors free to choose whether to extend the titular character’s stories, or re-introduce back-ups, to give different, unused or new characters a chance.
In one way, it was just another version of DC’s continually unsuccessful attempts to sell thicker comics for more, but whereas other such moves had smacked of a certain desperation, the Explosion was based on more positive attitudes, The line would be expanded, new creators taken on, experimentation encouraged, new ground seized. The publicity created enormous expectations.
Then, in the very month of the Explosion beginning, Warner Brothers looked at DC’s figures, panicked, and pulled the plug. Thirty-one titles, including five new series scheduled to start the following month, were cancelled in one go. The 44 page 50c 25 pages of content comic was cancelled and the line reverted to 32 pages with 17 of content, now for 40c. Credibility and confidence vanished like a mirage.
Ironically, Justice League of America was one of the few comics to have been losing pages in the Explosion. It had maintained its Giant size until issue 157, before dropping to the new format. As one of the titles surviving the Implosion, and with the issues already written and drawn, it was allowed to remain at Explosion size for three months, enabling this story to go out unchanged.
The following issue, it too dropped back to 17 pages for 40c.
The Justice Society of America was not so blessed. All-Star‘s first issue (#74) in the new size was the last of its revival, as the title was amongst those cancelled. The team did not vanish: its series was transferred into the new 100-page Dollar format in the struggling Adventure Comics and the already-prepared All-Star 75 was split over two issues of that.
So this team-up took place against a background of tremendous uncertainty. It would also be the last team-up to be edited by Julius Schwartz, who was reducing his workload and concentrating upon his work on the Superman titles. He had been the Justice League’s only editor in the nearly twenty years since their creation. At least he got to leave this tradition on a relative high.
Conway’s story reflected his interest in time-travel stories and his enthusiasm for having the JLA/JSA meet a group of DC’s historical characters. Jonah Hex, the extremely dark-edged bounty hunter was still in publication at the time, but the other four were vanished figures, characters from the Fifties and early-Sixties who had been pushed into obscurity by the Silver Age of superheroes.
Together, they fulfilled the ‘need’ for a third force without being as much of a contrivance as the Fawcett heroes had been.
To bring them into the story, Conway chose the early-League villain, the Lord of Time. The underlying idea is ingenious: the villain has set in motion a destructive scheme that he regrets but cannot stop: unknown to them, the heroes are his means of preventing the self-created disaster.
That much said though, there are an awful number of flaws to what is basically a decent story. Conway handles his five historic heroes well, especially in the scene where they compare notes about how they have come together and how they have been controlled – von Hammer, the ‘Enemy Ace’, is handled particularly well.
But the underlying issue Conway has to justify is how this quintet of ordinary people can overcome so many superheroes with so many diverse powers. All he can think of is some nebulous, unexplained energy that they disperse via their respective guns or swords or, in the Viking Prince’s case by, er, nothing.
It’s indicative of a poverty of imagination that has afflicted the superhero industry ever since the fans took over the writing. Nobody seems capable of thinking up powers that don’t just fire energy blasts all over the place, and this in Conway’s solution to ‘equalising’ the non-existent balance between the two sides.
The Lord of Time’s premise is that he needs to inflict the superheroes’ first ever defeat in order for them to come back stronger, strong enough to defeat his super-Computer. It’s another new angle, yet, assuming it is a viable notion at all, it depends entirely on its execution. The JLA/JSA must be beaten, and in a way that is different from any of those other times when they have been defeated – by the Crime Syndicate in 1964, the Black Spheres in 1967 and T.O.Morrow in 1968, just to pick out three off the top of my head.
Conway, via the Lord of Time, categorises these as ‘setbacks’, yet even within part 1, the ‘defeated’ heroes get up ready to fight again in a manner no different to such previous occasions.
As for the historics, once they have served their purpose, they are an unwanted and unnecessary presence in the story. Surely the Lord of Time would restore them to their rightful place in history, forgetful of their adventure? It is, after all, what he does after their rebellion against him in nearly 3786AD, a perfunctory ending for them. It reads like sloppiness on Conway’s part, as it’s patently obvious that this is the device to enable the JLA/JSA to track down the super-Computer.
However, given that the Lord of Time has done all this to get the heroes in fighting shape, I am forced to concede that this may actually be a deliberate manoeuvre: up to that point, the heroes have no idea who’s behind all this.
The historics’ last stand suffices to bulk out the second part, as does the embarrassing interlude in the hospital with Aquaman. This latter was, of course, chosen to host yet another of the increasingly tedious and long-winded explanations for the audience about the League and the Society, Earth-1 and Earth-2, etc., but it’s turned into something of a pantomime by the King of Atlantis, dealing out hugs to the female Doctor as soon as she mentions that the heroes not propped up in this surprisingly spacious ward aren’t dead (married man cops feel) and only then offering the use of the League’s advanced diagnostic equipment to, you know, sort of, help.
It’s supposed to be to determine why certain heroes were affected by this mysterious radiation, and others weren’t, but don’t worry, Conway has forgotten that part of the story by the end. As, incidentally, is the fact that the Lord of Time’s computer has sent the historics home on page 7, only for the Aquaman-led cavalry to mentioned that they sent the warriors back on page 25. That is sloppy, and something Schwartz should have caught.
But these diversions are only that: they’re present only to keep the issue from being the straightforward war of attrition as the heroes advance, sacrificing themselves one at a time with almost manic determination, to allow their fellows to proceed, until the last one left is the one least-suited for the task.
We know the Elongated Man is least-suited to defeat a super-Computer with incredible self-defence capability, because Ralph Dibny’s been telling us so from the start, thus telegraphing that he will be the only survivor left. Which is where Conway’s potentially interesting story hits its last hurdle. This complicated, some might say convoluted plot has been devised because the Computer is so strong, not even the full Justice League and Society, in their collective might can destroy it.
But an india-rubber man can stick his fingers in the futuristic equivalent of what looks like a plug-socket and, by short-circuiting it, cause it to blow up. Why didn’t the Lord of Time just pull out the plug, if it was so bloody easy?
Nice idea, inadequately executed (in some respects painfully so). Yet I still rate this as an improvement over the past three years? Perhaps that gives you an idea of how bad I think the last three stories have been. This effort is at least clear and logical and, whilst failing at its central premise due to lack of thought, doesn’t lose itself in ineffectually established, unnecessary and confusing circles.
Conway does bring in a greater underlying emotion than most previous adventures have done. We never really have seen the League and Society socialising, or simply responding as friends, and it’s a treat to do so. I do have certain reservations in this area: Batman’s musings about the Huntress, who is attending her first team-up, are wistful, but should perhaps not have been superimposed upon Helena Wayne clearly posing her curvaceous body, which lends a distinctively perverse undercurrent.
And I am far from impressed by Conway’s sudden decision, after years of hostility between the socially liberal Oliver Queen and the uptight, authoritarian Carter Hall, to turn them into bosom buddies, all polarities overlooked or forgiven, on the strength of one night going out (offstage) and getting tanked up. It doesn’t work, and what was so wrong with their entirely natural antipathy for each other’s views that Conway felt he had to destroy it?
I’m also very underwhelmed by the needlessly artificial way Conway tries to inject emotion into the aftermath of the historics’ attack that downs so many heroes. It’s not that there is anything at all artificial at Hawkman’s grief over Hawkgirl being injured, far from it. I’m just not convinced by the weight put on this incident, as if without it neither we nor any of the other survivors will understand that what has happened is a Very Bad Thing (it made Hawkman cry both under and through his hawk-helm, it must be serious).
At the time of this story, I read only the first part, the Implosion having buggered up the perennially dodgy distribution to British newsstands and the early comics shops. I was living in Nottingham at this time, when a visit to Ben’s Comics, between the cricket ground and Forest’s ground, was a long walk, affordable only once a month, and best completed by 12.30pm if Forest – the League Champions – were at home.
Finally, this is another story requiring only the most minor of tweaks to make eminently feasible in the post-Crisis Universe. Unfortunately so was the next.