Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1979


Justice League of America 171, “The Murderer Among Us: Crisis Above Earth-One!”/Justice League of America 172, “I Accuse…” Written by Gerry Conway, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Ross Andru.


This year’s team-up takes place aboard the Justice League satellite headquarters. Once again the heroes mingle. Zatanna is delighted to be praised by the Justice Society’s Hawkman. Mr Terrific explains that he has come out of retirement (last seen in 1972) after an encounter with old enemy Roger Romaine, the Spirit King, who has stolen an unidentified device from Gateway University. But Jay-Flash suggests he needn’t have done so, he could have left it to Jay. This angers Terrific: it’s saying he’s too old to deal with his own enemy.
But in just a few days he’s already tracked him down, and that’s why he’s here. But Terrific refuses to say more, except that when he does speak, one of them will be branded a traitor.
Meanwhile, Batman and the Huntress have stepped aside. Only six months earlier, her father, the Earth-2 Batman, died in battle. To think of his counterpart being dead causes Bruce Wayne pause for thought, whilst Helena is in tears at the sight of ‘Uncle’ Bruce.
The conversation continues. Superman looks for Power Girl but she is missing. So too are two other figures, one of whom worries Superman. But before he can act, an explosion blasts a hole in the satellite. The heroes combine to undertake quick repairs, but Superman has already seen, in the vacuum of space, the body of Mr Terrific.
Whilst the diagnostic computer examines Terry Sloane’s body, Barry-Flash produces a piece of metal that has something to do with the unusual explosion, but when Zatanna tries to ‘read’ it’s immediate past by magic, she encounters resistance that puts her in a coma.
The Flashes search the satellite at super-speed to confirm no-one else is there. Nor has anyone left by Transporter Tube or Transmatter Cube in the last hour. The computer has finished its diagnostic, confirming that Mr Terrific was actually strangled. Somebody on the satellite is a murderer.
End of Part 1.


At Superman’s instructions, the Green Lanterns and Doctor Fate seal the satellite against anyone leaving. Batman and the Huntress are placed in charge of the investigation.
The Flashes relate their last conversation about Terrific and his remark about a traitor. The Huntress queries whether, in view of his age, Terrific might not have been going senile, but Alan-GL defends him as a professional.
The Detectives investigate the scene of the crime, and pore over a section of destroyed satellite wall. The Huntress connects to the JSA computer on Earth-2 whilst Batman questions Barry-Flash in greater detail about the conversation. He seems to glean something from it.
The Huntress is then incapacitated by the computer exploding but manages to whisper a confirmation to Uncle Bruce. Their suspect did battle the Spirit King the last time he was in Gateway City, and the stolen device was a portable seismograph.
That is enough for Batman to denounce the murderer as being Jay Garrick, the Flash of Earth-2, or rather the Spirit King, who is possessing his body.
The ranting Romaine admits he killed Terrific, but materialised from the Flash’s body to do the murder himself. Using Jay’s super-speed, he evades capture and leaps into the Transmatter Cube – which no-one has thought to seal off – and escapes into Earth-2.
Though everybody thinks they’ve lost, Superman calls this a victory. They conducted a fair examination, didn’t stop with the evidence pointing to Garrick and prevented the Spirit King turning them against each other.
The Justice Society take Terry Sloane’s body back to Earth-2 with them, where they will pursue the Spirit King.
* * * * *
An upfront confession: I loathe this story for its casual and demeaning killing off of Mr Terrific. Terry Sloane’s death came about because Gerry Conway wanted to write a locked room murder mystery set on the Justice League satellite. A mystery required a body. Since it sure as hell wasn’t going to be one of the Justice League, it would have to be somebody from the Society. Who was sufficiently disposable? Mr Terrific.
Objectively, I understand and cannot argue with the underlying logic. I may have been a fan of the character, but very few others were. Terrific had no superpowers, had not actually been a Golden Age member, and, most telling, under Julius Schwartz, who based so many of his editorial decisions upon what the readers wanted, he had appeared only three times in sixteen years: one of these in Len Wein’s 1972, cram-damn-near-every-one-of-them-in extravanganza.
On the other hand, I do not believe that this story would have appeared – or at least not in this form – if Schwartz had still been the editor of Justice League of America. I believe he would not have sanctioned killing off a Justice Society member, and certainly not in so casual and careless a manner.
But Schwartz had gone, and new editor Ross Andru, who had had no dealings with the JLA or JSA prior to this, was susceptible to the idea of shaking things up. Schwartz, I suspect, would have only agreed to a locked-room murder if the victim had been an outsider.
You’ll have noticed that the synopsis above was considerably shorter than any other, excluding the 1974 one-issue tale. That is partly because, in the wake of the Implosion, Justice League of America was again running at only 17 pages per issue, but it’s mainly because Conway’s story lacks anything resembling subtlety, sophistication, drama or mystery.
That Mr Terrific is to be murdered is obvious from the outset. For those also reading the JSA in Adventure (where their series had only one, albeit excellent issue to run), a pretty perfunctory story had had Doctor Fate disengaged trying by his magics to save a man’s life: at the last, he is dragged away, unsuccessful, and, guess what, the very next panel, out of the blue, having had no involvement with the Justice Society at all throughout their revival, up pops Mr. Terrific, to go to the JLA meeting. You might as well have painted a bulls eye on his forehead.
And if you weren’t reading Adventure, here was Terrific for the first time since 1972, the only non-active JSA member in the comic.
The story fails from the beginning of Conway’s complete disinterest in Mr. Terrific as a character. He might not have been important in himself, but he was a member of the Justice Society, the first ever superhero team. And whilst the JSA had only recently experienced their first death, that of Batman, a second loss so soon was still, of itself, a major incident.
But Conway doesn’t know anything about Terrific or Terry Sloane, nor can he be bothered to learn. Sloane, a rich polymath with a business empire, has become a lecturer in English Literature at a University. He faces an old enemy, created specially for the occasion (perish the thought that Conway might do some research to identify someone plausible) and comes out of retirement to tackle his villain.
Having within a few short days correctly determined that the Spirit King has possessed Jay-Flash and is using his body to get to the JLA satellite, Terrific – a mental and physical genius – blurts out in front of Jay-Flash that he’s tracked the Spirit King there, but refuses to say more. Why does he refuse to say more when he has already got all the information he needs, and why does he a) tell his enemy that he knows everything and, as we shall shortly see, b) go off alone with him?
We’re not exactly proceeding apace here: it takes Conway to page 9 (of only 17) to get the action cranked up to the explosion, and a further four pages to seal the satellite. The story needs substantial padding-out just to reach the halfway point.
But to go back to page 9 for a moment, Conway there focusses on Superman. The Man of Steel is looking for his Earth-2 cousin Power Girl, who is missing (she will be presented as a red herring in the ‘library scene’ and discarded as such in the space of two panels) as well as two others, one of them obviously Mr Terrific.
When the investigation takes place, does Superman relate this to the detectives? Does he identify who else was missing? It is surely central to the investigation, but no, he is neither asked, nor does he volunteer, not on-panel at any rate. Given the ending, surely the other missing hero had to be Jay-Flash, so why didn’t he say so? Does this have anything to do with the fact that Dillin draws Jay-Flash as being there, in the middle of the party? Rather like the encrypted Spectre being drawn at JSA HQ in 1970.
Next, Barry-Flash produces his piece of piping which is supposedly unusual in his experience as a forensic scientist, though not in any way he is capable of explaining. Zatanna tries to read its past but is knocked out: so much for the lead piping, except that it’s spun out enough pages to a) remove Zatanna’s magic from the investigation, b) leave the readers wondering why Doctor Fate can’t just do a magical investigation himself and c), allow us to be told that Terrific wasn’t killed in an explosion but was actually strangled.
One of them is a murderer.
Let’s pause there. I’ve accused Conway of treating Mr. Terrific with contempt, and I think my point is amply demonstrated here. We have grown blasé towards superhero deaths in the Twenty-First Century: they happen far too often and far too frequently for us to ever really care. But this story was published in 1979, a completely different era. Superhero deaths were rare and they were events. Mr. Terrific was, as I have said, a member of the very first superhero team, who had only ever lost one member, and one whose memory was fresh and raw.
And his death takes place offscreen, unseen. And he is murdered by being strangled: physically overcome by a single opponent using non-superhuman strength, demeaningly. Without hope, without glory, without resistance. Out of sight, as I said.
And nobody cares. Not even those Justice Society members who have known Terry Sloane for the best part of forty years show any feelings about the death of such an old friend and comrade. Because Conway doesn’t care: all Terrific was to him was a convenient body and once he’s been converted into a dead body, the only thing Conway or any of the others are concerned about is finding which one of these fine, upstanding heroes has – with complete lack of concern for their fundamental collective and individual natures – suddenly killed someone in cold blood.
That’s the other point on which the contrivance this story represents is hinged. It’s completely without motive. Not one of the heroes is remotely plausible as a killer, under any circumstances, and not one of them has anything remotely approximating to a motive.
The explanation is so glaringly obvious that no detection is needed, and if you look at the investigation conducted by the two greatest detectives of two worlds, no detection is carried out. The first six pages – that’s  over one-third the length of the entire issue – are frittered away in deciding to hold an investigation and sealing the satellite (with recap thrown in).
The Flashes repeat what Terrific told them about the Spirit King and a ‘traitor’, then Batman takes Barry-Flash aside to have it repeat it all over again, this time word for word (no doubt this saved Conway considerable writing time). Meanwhile, Huntress gets the JSA computer to confirm that Jay-Flash was also a foe of the Spirit King, which Jay has already told us twice so far.
So, take a wild guess, who do you think the villain is going to be? Bearing in mind that our suspects consist of about a dozen heroes, each with no motive whatsoever, and one villain who can disappear into thin air and who hates the victim and who – as Conway has cunningly concealed from us so far – can possess other people?
(Actually, it’s less concealed than pulled as a rabbit out of a hat to do the obvious thing everybody’s been waiting for all along.)
So Jay Garrick killed Mr. Terrific. No, wait, he didn’t: the Spirit King materialised himself to do that himself, since we can’t actually have a hero doing that (even though it’s been the premise for the entire story). But Conway’s still rigidly determined not to show us anything to do with Terrific’s demise, so we only have the Spirit King’s word for it, and he’s a villain, so he wouldn’t lie.
And, as I’ve said before, if the Spirit King materialised himself out of Jay-Flash’s body to do the dirty deed himself, what was the Flash doing during that time he was unpossessed? He’s the fastest man on Earth-2, did he just stand and watch?
But at any rate, Terrific has been avenged, his murderer caught and brought to justice. No, wait, he hasn’t. He gets away, back to Earth-2 because the Satellite was so imperviously sealed against exit but the Transmatter Cube was overlooked.
So, a hero is killed and his killer gets away scot free (for the next twenty years) and Superman demands everyone regard this as a triumph. A triumph? In what possible perverted set of values could this incompetent and disastrous farrago ever be considered a triumph? Because the Spirit King failed to get them to turn against each other.
Given that at no time did the Spirit King ever intimate that that was his intention, not for one second, not for one instant did a single one of the heroes show the slightest sign of any suspicion that they actually thought any of their comrades might be a killer. There wasn’t a smidgeon of doubt, or reservation, or failure of absolute co-operation. This wasn’t Marvel, where such a thing would have been plausible, evident, even automatic.
On every single possible level that it is possible to fail, this story failed. Through inadequacy, through lack of imagination, through laziness, through contempt, through the casual attempt to use a form of story without any respect for its constituent parts, on every level this story is a bodge.
It could not have been told earlier than this year. Julius Schwartz would never have allowed it. Conway would have been required to re-write it so much, it would have been unrecognisable as this flimsy and dim tale.
It’s not just that it was Mr. Terrific was the victim of this, though that added a personal edge to my dislike, it’s that any death should be treated so callously and thoughtlessly as is the one in this story. It is bad writing and bad plotting, without excuse or explanation.
And of course the story has complete post-Crisis credibility. The fact that so many of the really crap ones do is another indication of how far these stories were missing the original point of the team-ups.

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