Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1975


Justice League of America 123, “Where on Earth am I?”/Justice League of America 124, “Avenging Ghosts of the Justice Society!” Written by Cary Bates and Elliott S! Maggin, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

On Earth-Prime (an Earth where the JLA and JSA are characters appearing in comic books published by National Comics), editor Julius Schwarz is arguing with his young writers  Cary Bates and Elliott S! Maggin about their failure to come up with a Justice League plot for him.
When Schwarz leaves to get a bowl of chilli, the pair dig out the Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill, from a Bates story in which Barry Allen had turned up on Earth-Prime. Unfortunately, it still has a residue of superspeed energy in it, and Bates disappears.
He arrives on Earth-2 (not 1), where Robin and Johnny Thunder are tackling a couple of crooks. Bates discovers that he has a ‘plotting power’, that he can make things happen with his mind. Eager to become a supervillain, he helps the crooks escape.
Back at National, Maggin confesses to Schwarz what has happened. Whilst Schwarz holds the fort, Maggin uses the Treadmill to follow Bates, only to arrive on Earth-1 (not 2), in mid-air, over the harbour. He has to be rescued by Aquaman, who teleports him to the Justice League satellite to tell his tale to a very sceptical Justice League, including Green Arrow. Maggin writes Ollie Queen the way he talks himself.
On Earth-2, Bates has equipped himself with a ludicrous costume and set a trap for the Justice Society at the Botanical Gardens. Hourman, Wildcat, Dr Mid-Nite and Wonder Woman join Robin and Johnny Thunder to fight off an array of killer plants, only to fall into Bates’ trap and be overcome by a sleeping gas.
Back in the Satellite, the JLA, using Maggin’s Earth-Prime ‘aura’ as a guide, has scanned Earth-1 but can’t find Bates. They deduce he is on Earth-2 and set off there. But on Earth-2, we discover the Injustice Society celebrating their own cleverness: it is a spell by the Wizard that has turned Bates evil.
When the JLA arrive, on an aircraft carrier, Maggin reminds them that Earth-2 is about twenty years behind them. The Injustice Society attack, but the Leaguers take them down with suspicious ease. Too much ease: the villains have all died. But they are in disguise: behind their masks are the six JSAers, all dead at the hands of the Justice League.
End of part 1


The Justice League respond by carrying out a hidden burial of their fallen comrades. Meanwhile, supervillain Bates robs Eaarth-2 unopposed, bringing his loot back to the Injustice Society. A whisp of green, observing this, vows not to let this profanity continue.
Meanwhile, without letting on to anyone what they’ve done, the JLA fill in for the missing JSA. The Injustice Society, fearing Maggin may become a threat to them, send Bates to capture him, using him to draw the JLA into a trap where the Injustice Society can ambush them.
The whisp of green resolves itself into the Spectre, last seen on Earth-2 in the 1970 team-up. After announcing that the rest of the JSA are on a space mission, and it is all up to him, the Spectre soars into the heavens, seeking powers to undo what has happened. He speaks to the Voice that restored him to life, seeking the power to restore the fallen sextet.
Meanwhile, the Injustice Society have the unexpected upper hand, until Maggin realises that they are plagued by their consciences, and the memory of striking at Injustice Society members who turned into dead friends. Indeed, Bates is augmenting the guilt by projecting ghost heroes to the JLA.
Maggin starts to taunt Bates, and ultimately succeeds in breaking his concentration. The ghosts fade, for a moment, before returning, looking even more real. That’s because they are real: they’re the restored JSA. Once Maggin manages to knock Bates out against a rock, the heroes easily capture the villains and Bates is freed from the Wizard’s spell. The Spectre looks on, invisibly: nobody will know the true drama. The Thunderbolt sends Bates and Maggin back to Earth-Prime to write up the story – though Schwarz is not impressed by the ending!
* * * * *
There’s not that much to say about this story after pointing out that it was the proverbial Not A Good Idea.
Actually, the 1975 team-up was pretty much representative of its era. After Len Wein had gone over to Marvel, DC were either not able or not willing to replace him with a permanent writer, and for the next two years, rotated scripting duties among a pool of young fans-turned-writers: Bates, Maggin and Martin Pasko.
At almost the same time, the experiment with the reprint-heavy, 100 page Giants was terminated and, with issue 117, for the first time in its history, Justice League of America was promoted to monthly status.
There’s no immediate suggestion of the scale of the disaster to come when the story starts on Earth-Prime with Schwarz and his writers struggling over a new JLA/JSA team-up idea. Introducing real people into a superhero comic is never a wise idea from the point of view of the art: any penciller good enough to draw a realistic version of their features immediately sets up a tension in the art between them and the rest of the characters who are drawn as idealisations or abstracts of humans.
But that’s before we find that this is not merely a cutesy introduction, and that writers Bates (who plotted the story) and Maggin (who dialogued it) are going to be guests in the story: not just as observers, but as actual participants. And Cary Bates is actually going to be come a super-powered villain.
At that point, there’s no going back: every page is going to have to be gritted out.
It might not have been so bad if the story had at least featured some consistent plotting. Bates is the first to step onto the Flash’s left-over Cosmic Treadmill, from the 1968 story that introduced Earth-Prime to begin with, but though this was constructed by the Earth-1 Flash to get him back to Earth-1, it’s residual speed energy actually takes Bates to Earth-2. However, when Maggin uses it, literally a few minutes later, he is dumped on Earth-1.
The most egregious inconsistency – which was commented on by readers at the time and ‘explained’ by pointing out who plotted the story – is that Bates has ‘plotting power’, to make things happen on Earth-2, but all Maggin can do is talk. It may be symbolic of their roles as writers, but it drives a thermonuclear missile through the middle of the story.
That’s without looking at the story as a JLA/JSA team-up. Credit Bates and Maggin for coming up with another structural twist on the team-ups, for this is another when the two teams do not actually team-up, but it’s a reversion to the very early days of the series when the tendency was to demean the JSA by showing them as unable to deal with matters without JLA assistance.
This is very much so here: a half dozen JSA members (without Doctor Fate for an unprecedented second successive occasion), tackle Super-villain Cary Bates and his quasi-Injustice Society cohorts and are beaten. They are then hypnotised? brainwashed? magically controlled? to pose as the villains against the Justice League, who not merely defeat them easily but kill them all in the process.
Let’s pause on that moment. The Justice League have killed six Justice Society members. This is undoubtedly a stressful moment, a trauma of major proportions, something to give the culprit Leaguers pause. How do they react? There are many possible, and even many plausible responses to such a tragedy, but the one the League choose is to hastily, and secretly, bury the dead JSAers, hush the whole thing up and go out trying to fill their places.
Leaving aside the question of justice and law, what the hell do they think they’re doing? These people had family and friends, loved ones who are not only suffering the most extreme loss possible, but are not even allowed to know their loved ones are dead, let alone been given the chance to attend their funeral, mourn at their graves, come to terms with their appalling losses. Not to mention the fact that these were only six JSAers, out of a team with at least fifteen members (the rest of whom are, conveniently, absent on a space mission, or so we are told).
The League don’t think about this. All they’re concerned about is Earth-2’s public, and how they’re going to explain killing their heroes. This is far from impressive.
So the League continue blindly rushing around, being Earth-2’s protectors, only to discover, when they are called on to face the villains again, that they collectively freeze up, subjecting themselves to illusions of the dead heroes. Until the JSA reappear and defeat the villains, story over, and Bates and Maggin can go home and write this up for Justice League of America 123 & 124.
Now, just wait a cotton-picking minute. The JSA reappear: do we mean that the rest of the team return from their space mission to save the day and force the JLA to confront the reality of what they’ve done, enabling them to deal with their overwhelming trauma. No, stupid, I mean the six dead JSAers come back to life.
Some team-up this is.
As to how this is achieved, it is down to the Spectre going to talk to God and asking him, nicely, to return the six dead heroes to life. Which he does, because he is a just, wise, merciful, benevolent and utterly bewildering God. This is what you call a deus ex machina, only without the machina.
Those reading this series who are not themselves familiar with these stories will be asking about the Spectre’s presence, given that he ‘died’ in the 1970 team-up. In the context of the period, the Spectre’s presence here, as an intangible, invisible, inaudible (except to God) ghost is even more of an anomaly than it seems.
There was no, and never has been any, explanation for the Spectre’s survival after his 1970 destruction. He had, however, returned very visibly, in 1974 in Adventure Comics.
Adventure, which had for years been the home of Supergirl, had been left in need of a lead feature when the Maid of Steel was finally given her own mag (which lasted only 13 issues, ironically). After having been the victim of a street-mugging, editor Joe Orlando was open to a suggested revival of the Spectre in his original form, as an avenging ghost, a proposal made by Michael Fleisher. With some splendid, if misguided art from Jim Aparo, the Spectre had blazed across issue 431 – 440 of Adventure before being cancelled at the earliest opportunity.
Fleisher’s portrayal of the Spectre was and still is controversial, though he continues to maintain that he did nothing that the Spectre had not done at the beginning of his existence, in More Fun Comics in the early Forties. I doubt, however, that Bernard Bailey had ever drawn the Spectre chopping his girlfriend into seven separate pieces in a single panel, even before the Comics Code Authority.
This version of the Spectre was a radical departure from the benevolent supernatural being restored in the mid-Sixties, and there was much argument among fans about it. As to such issues as the Crypt, Orlando was having none of it: that was up to Denny O’Neil: this was the previously unseen Earth-1 Spectre (a claim rendered somewhat tendentious by a throwaway reference to Clark Kent leading a rookie policeman to ask if the reporter is Superman).
Fleisher’s version was still turning villains into wood and feeding them into woodchippers when this portrayal appeared, causing complete confusion that was never resolved before Crisis on Infinite Earths swept all this history away.
The worst of this, for me, is that whilst this is supposedly a Justice League/Justice Society team-up, in the days when the JSA only appeared once a year, their presence in this supposed event is purely perfunctory. Bates and Maggin have not the slightest interest in them, except as a plot function that allows them to interplay their great in-joke with the Justice League. I’m surprised at Schwarz for allowing it to go ahead in such a badly-written state. Indeed, with the Justice Society near to making their own return to their own series, in a revived All-Star, this effort makes a good case for discontinuing the tradition. There would, however, be another decade to stories to follow.
As well as the change in writers, there’s another change of inker, with Frank McLaughlin succeeding Dick Giordano. This was something of a retrograde step. Giordano was one of the best inkers in the business, crisp, precise, using sharply-defined lines that brought out the clarity of an image and gave it a lightness that enhanced the reality of the image. In contrast, McLaughlin was a heavy inker, swathing everything in black outlines that had the effect of simplifying images, adding a cartoon dimension that did not suit Dillin’s art.
I’ve recently read online that Dillin’s pencils were extremely good: that he worked ceaselessly to produce a fully-detailed job, complete with word balloons and letters sketched in. It seems a shame to hand what was apparently quite delicate work over to a McLaughlin, who sometimes gives the impression of slapping the ink on with a paintroller.
Sadly, the introduction of McLaughlin seemed to coincide – or did it in some way influence? – with the increasing use by Dillin of stock figures and postures. Gradually, Justice League of America became a venue for the recycling of a limited number of images.
As for post-Crisis plausibility, thankfully this effort has none.

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