Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1978


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.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1974


Justice League of America 113, “The Creature in the Velvet Cage!” Written by Len Wein, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Dick Giordano (inks), edited by Julius Schwartz.

On Earth-2, the Justice Society and their guests, the Justice League, are stopping a bank robbery by the Horned Owl gang. But as they leave, a strange alarm comes from the Sandcar, putting Sandman into a panic. Something has happened that shouldn’t have: he jumps into his car and races away.
The heroes follow him to Wes Dodds’ mansion, where Hourman shows them how to access Sandman’s hidden laboratory, by moving a giant hourglass. In the lab, Sandman, gas mask removed, is bleakly surveying a scene of devastation, where someone, or something, has escaped from a glass cage.
Reluctantly, he explains a burden that he has carried alone for many years. His captive was Sandy Hawkins, formerly his sidekick, Sandy the Golden Boy.
The Justice Society are shocked. As far as they were aware, Sandy Hawkins left York City years ago, but this was just Sandman’s cover story. What really happened was that, shortly after the War, Sandman tried to construct a new anti-crime weapon, the Silicoid Gun. But when this was tested, it exploded. Sandman was dazed, but Sandy was transformed into a massive creature, made of silicon, with blazing eyes. Sandy threatened to go on a rampage, take over the world, until Sandman put him to sleep with his gas gun.
Since then, he has kept Sandy a secret and a prisoner, in these luxurious surroundings, permanently sedated to prevent him from rampaging again, whilst Sandman sought a cure for him.
His pride, and his shame kept him from telling the rest of the JSA, and seeking their help. In the meantime, he was so disgusted with himself, he tore up his yellow and purple costume and reverted to his former business suit and gas mask.
Now he needs the combined assistance of the assembled JLA/JSA to stop Sandy and recapture him.
The heroes divide into three groups, following Sandy’s trail. Superman 1, the Elongated Man and Hourman prevent Sandy from doing more than delay a high society wedding (complete with overbearing and undoubtedly Jewish Mother of the Bride), only for Sandy to turn to sand and ooze away.
Batman, The Flash 2 and Wonder Woman 2 catch up with Sandy on a backyard baseball field, but when the Flash tries to deprive him of air, Sandy simply lets himself go with the whirlwind.
Sandman and Green Lantern 1 catch up with the monster Sandy at Machismo Beach, where they confront him. Sandman attempts to gas Sandy into unconsciousness, but in the open air his sleep-gas disperses. Sandy raises his hand as if to strike, but doesn’t. Sandy is then zapped from behind by the rest of the heroes, who have seen an opportunity to strike whilst the monster was distracted.
Suddenly, the beach is subjected to an earthquake. Superman, borrowing Wonder Woman’s indestructible lasso of truth, tunnels underground to sew up the fissure and fuse it shut. He then traces its path, to deal with any damage it has caused, but there is none. And its path goes through the sites where the heroes have fought the monster Sandy.
The heroes are debating why this should be so when, with rusty vocal chords, Sandy starts to speak. He explains that the first signs of the earthquake released him from his cage and that, aware of its course, he followed its path, absorbing the vibrations with his silicon body, to prevent damage.
He also explains that he is not a menace, that the megalomania was just a short-lived phase. For all the years of his captivity, he has been harmless, but too sedated to be able to tell his old friend.
Sandman is horrified at what he has done. He begs forgiveness, but it is not Sandy’s forgiveness that he truly needs, but his own.
* * * * *
After a three-part story and a two-part story, Len Wein became the only writer to pen a one-part team-up, which was almost his swan song on Justice League of America: his last script was the following issue, thus preventing a minor synchronicity.
The rationale behind this one-off was down to Justice League of America‘s sales. Like the majority of DC’s most popular series, it had for most of its history been published on an eight-times-a-year basis. This was DC’s standard practice with a title being drawn by a single artist. Characters like Superman and Batman, who were being drawn by multiple artists, could be issued monthly, but to avoid deadline pressures, series like The Flash and Green Lantern, dependant upon Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane respectively, only appeared eight-times-a year.
Basically, the title would skip every third month throughout the year. Justice League of America was actually sufficiently popular to be elevated to the very unusual nine-times-a-year, starting in 1965 (skipping every fourth month), but the additional issue (which would directly follow the annual JLA/JSA team-up) was an 80 Page Giant, featuring nothing but reprints from the early years of the title.
By 1974, DC’s Age of Relevancy was firmly dead, but it had left its mark on sales across the line. Justice League of America‘s sales had dipped so far that the series had been cut back to bi-monthly in 1973. DC had tried to make the best of the series by expanding it to the 100 Page Giant format, with issue 110, showcasing the usual 20 page new story but supporting it with 80 pages of reprint, including old Justice Society and Seven Soldiers reprints.
Whichever way it was presented, the fact remained that the Justice League now only appeared six times a year, and it did not make commercial sense to devote a third of the year’s output to the Justice society.
The limited space required a limited scope: it would be hard to successfully menace the planet and having it sorted by two teams in only ten pages, which is why Wein chose to tell a purely personal tale, and one of the earliest continuity patches to be applied to the careers of the Justice Society.
You’ll remember that I commented, in 1966, that the Sandman had been returned in his original garb, of business suit and gas mask, rather than the yellow and purple look associated with the Simon/Kirby years on the feature. (He’d also returned with the Sand-gun, but the less said about that, the better). That was his only substantive appearance since the Forties, having otherwise had nothing more than a couple of cameos.
On the other hand, the Sandman was obviously something of a favourite with Wein, who had used him in both his team-ups to date, and in the original manner, with his gas-gun. Wein’s story filled in a necessary hole, bridging the gap between the yellow-and-purple, Sandy the Golden Boy era and the restored original costume.
As for the story itself, it’s an entertaining, well-constructed piece, but its major flaw was the same that affected the Red Tornado: the Sandman was an Earth-2 character, who appeared at best once a year, in a crowd of others. The story ended on a cliffhanger of sorts: could Sandy’s silicon form be transformed back into a human body? Could Wes Dodds’ self-belief ever be repaired? With the exception of one, very-belated and completely overlooked back-up story in 1982, this issue would not be addressed until long after Zero Hour, let alone Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Needless to say, the story would have functioned equally well in the DC Universe as it did in the Multiverse, leaving it perfectly valid post-Crisis.
One last thing to note: Doctor Fate is absent from proceedings for only the third time in twelve outings. Now that’s popularity.

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.

Green Arrow – No such thing as a bad character: Part 7 – Two Stories


I’ll declare an interest here because the two stories I plan to discuss now are my two favourite stories involving Green Arrow. One of them is a very controversial series, with many detractors, whose charges cannot be easily dismissed or disregarded, but which had a massive impact on the DC Universe.
The writer of both was best-selling thriller writer Brad Meltzer, known for high-powered, tightly-plotted, fast-moving thrillers with a background in Law, power and Washington. And a closet Green Arrow fan, as evidenced by the Easter Egg in one of his early novels, when the lead character went into a meeting with four aides named Oliver, Dinah, Roy and Connor.
Kevin Smith had continued Green Arrow after ‘Quiver’, but, coming from a film background, he had no concept of, or feel for the monthly deadline, so it was not unwelcome to DC when he left. I am assuming that the approach to Meltzer, who had also never written for comics before, was made with a view to extending the ‘prestige’ aspect of the series coming from an established writer from a field with less public contempt than comics.
Meltzer agreed to write what was originally a four part series, subsequently expanded to six, but only once he had come up with something that he believed impacted on Green Arrow, and added something Oliver Queen’s history. What finally inspired him was a conversation with a close friend who introduced him to the concept of ‘porn-buddie’, that is, a trusted friend who, if anything happens to you, will go straight to your home and remove your porn stash before anyone else gets there.
It seems an improbable inspiration, but Meltzer immediately saw the relation to superheroes, and especially to one who had died and been restored.
‘The Archer’s Quest’ begins at Ollie’s gravestone, with a meeting with Clark (Superman) Kent. Ollie wants to know who came to his funeral. Clark, having gone through this himself, tries to dissuade him but eventually produces the paparazzi pictures that the Daily Planet bought up and kept from publication. Ollie checks off family and friends one by one, until he finds a face he doesn’t recognise: a stranger at his funeral, who has seen all his ‘family’s real faces.
He asks Roy (formerly Speedy, now Arsenal) Harper to trace the stranger through his CIA connections, but Roy deals himself in to accompany Ollie – a nostalgic Green Arrow and Speedy outing. The stranger is Thomas Blake, aka Catman, a prominent and recurring Batman villain from the Fifties, virtually ignored since then. Meltzer plays Blake as over the hill and pathetic: overweight, an abuser of woman, a clown.
(Within two years, Gail Simone would transform Catman into a charismatic and complex character in Secret Six , which reminds us that there is no such thing as a bad character.)
But Blake is a McGuffin. He has been sent to the funeral by The Shade, a former Golden Age Flash villain, taken up in the mid-Nineties in James Robinson’s Starman series, and transformed from a villainous cypher into a charismatic and complex character, which reminds us that there is no such thing as a bad character. The Shade is Ollie’s ‘porn-buddie’: that is to say, that after the deaths of Barry (The Flash) Allen, Superman and Hal Jordan, Ollie realised the need for someone who, if anything happened to him, would get in there, collect all Green Arrow’s artefacts and destroy them, leaving nothing to connect Queen’s name to his secret identity, and nothing to expose his loved ones to reprisals.
But the Shade sent Blake, who is apparently trustworthy, to the funeral because he was not prepared to get that close to the Justice League. Similarly, there have been a handful of things, important things, that he has not been able to access. This sets up the spine of the story, where Ollie and Roy take to the road to retrieve theses.
It’s partly a history lesson, partly an interesting exercise in what Ollie truly values from his former life. At least one item is a new addition: a hitherto unrevealed gift from Barry Allen, a replica of his signet ring, in which he stored his costume, and one of a set given to his JLA friends, each containing their own costumes.
Like the ‘porn-buddie’ notion, it’s the kind of idea that only a novelist would come up with, who’s used to regarding the world of his characters in a wider context than just the relevance to the actual plot.
It takes most of the journey for Roy to accept why Ollie had not entrusted this ‘executorship’ to him, though Ollie’s logic is impeccable: everyone dies, they’re in a job where death is an ever present risk, but the Shade is immortal.
The story ends as far as the plot demands, with Ollie repackaging his recovered assets and writing another ‘will’ to the Shade, but at the last crossing out the ex-villain’s name and substituting that of Roy. But its real revelation, and the core of what Meltzer wanted to bring to the story, to Ollie, precedes that. The first object recovered was, supposedly, the easiest, the Certificate presented to Ollie to commemorate his membership of the Justice League, reproduced faithfully from the original by Mike Sekowsky, over forty years earlier. But Ollie lied to Roy: you don’t get the easiest first, you get the most important first. Behind the Certificate is a photo: for years, Ollie has told everyone that he knew nothing of his son Connor until meeting him at the ashram when Connor was an adult, but the photo is of Ollie holding the baby Connor. He has lied to everyone: he knew of Connor all along, knew that he’d run away, unable to take responsibility for his own child. And he’s lying still, because the photo remains a secret. It’s a moment of illumination, into Ollie, and into his own knowledge of himself.
‘The Archer’s Quest’ was a Green Arrow story: Meltzer’s other series, Identity Crisis, was a company-wide crossover that was not about Green Arrow, but featured him prominently throughout.
Identity Crisis was the first of DC’s summer crossover events for four years, after an unbroken run of events from 1985 to 2000. It was not originally planned as such, but rather as a small, intimate story, which at heart it was: the story was of the death of a superhero’s wife and the investigation of her death, revealing a very personal and intimate motive. But this small, intimate story opened doors into parts of the DC Universe that had long been closed, and whose opening shed something other than light on corners many people would have preferred to keep dark.
And though the world was neither threatened nor remade, Identity Crisis had a more profound effect on DC, becoming the springboard for several years of controlled and organised stories and developments, than any story since Crisis on Infinite Earths had literally remade reality.
Green Arrow’s prominence in the story, though its principal effects did not personally touch on him, was an expansion of Meltzer’s ‘porn-buddie’ concept. Since Superman’s death, and Ollie’s, the superhero world has become more organised, so that when death comes, there is a set procedure, for contact, clean-up and investigation. The case is Ollie’s: though the detection is carried out by others (notably a superbly offstage Batman in the first half of the story), Green Arrow is case manager, and it’s a mark of the long transition the character has undergone that the guy who shoots arrows, who is far outweighed on the scale of sheer power by the vast majority of those others involved, is not only accepted, but also credible in that role.
The opening of the story is a smoothly controlled, bravura display of shifting viewpoints, revolving around an initially mysterious Now. Ralph (Elongated Man) Dibny is teamed up with a younger hero investigating a situation: their conversation whilst on stakeout slides forward from the past, alternating with a series of flashforwards to different heroes, at different times after Now, each receiving unpleasant news. At least one veteran reader saw Now coming and approached it with little pleas of ‘no, not her’. But now was the moment a fearful Ralph, racing against disaster, gets back to his apartment – an apartment protected by the most serious and scary security the Justice League in its various human and alien technologies and genius individuals can supply – to find his wife Sue dead, her body burned almost beyond recognition.
It was a shock in itself for the older reader. Ralph and Sue had been around since 1960, a loving, cheerful, lightweight and sunny couple, without any enemies: it was a serious step in the direction of cruelty to kill off Sue Dearborn Dibny, especially in the face of the loving build-up in Ralph’s conversation with Firehawk, and the one piece of information his brilliant deductive skills could not anticipate: that Sue was, at long last, pregnant.
Sue’s death rippled out across the entire superhero, and supervillain, community. Everyone looked to their loved ones and feared someone who could get so thoroughly behind their guard, exploit their worst fear. Ray (The Atom) Palmer saved his divorced wife Jean Loring from a hanging, but Tim (Robin) Drake’s father Jack was killed by the broken-down, stumblebum Captain Boomerang, who was also killed.
The villain, unexpected as it was, and clumsily as it was revealed, turned out to be Jean Loring, who had wanted to cause some kind of crisis affecting everybody’s loved ones, in the hope of luring Ray back to her. She’d used one of his spare costumes and size and weight controls to enter Sue’s apartment, shrink and get into her brain, intending just to ‘rough her up’, but miscalculated and set off a brain seizure. But that Loring did have a history of mental issues, it would have been an unsuitable, stitched on ending, but even with the addition of continuity, it still felt strained, unrealised.
But Sue’s death and Jean’s guilt were just the thread to lead us from beginning to end. What mattered in Identity Crisis, what sparked all the controversy about its contents, which provided the basis for the years of interconnected stories to follow, was the worms that crawled out of the cans opened in pursuit of the truth.
Meltzer was bold enough to throw in his biggest revelation as early as issue 2. Issue 1 ends after Sue’s funeral, with superheroes splitting off in all sorts of directions, to hunt down possible culprits. Silently, secretively, five current and former JLAers slip away to meet a Ralph transformed from grief to vengeance, to hunt Dr Light.
Dr Light was a Sixties-created villain, who could manipulate light and lasers, but he had been treated as a joke, an incompetent for two decades. On the surface, he was an unlikely prospect as villain, but the sextet were certain. And when the new Flash and Green Lantern, Wally West and Kyle Rayner, suspicious of that certainty, add themselves to the party, an explanation becomes necessary and it all starts to get nasty.
Light wasn’t always an idiot. Once he was a nasty piece of work, and never more so than when he found Sue Dibny alone in the Justice League satellite. Light attached Sue. More than that, he raped her. He was caught in the act by the returning Justice League and was beaten down, but not without realising how he could hurt them in future: how he’d give light-shows of his actions in prison, how he’d hunt out Sue again when free, and other people’s wives and girlfriends.
So, in an echo of Watchmen‘s insistence upon a rigid reality and truth, the heroes voted, by a margin of 4 v 3, to not merely take all Light’s memories of the scene, but to try to change what was in him that spurred him to be this violent, this hurtful. The change was made by Zatanna, the magician girl, and it went wrong, robbing Light of his brilliant mind and turning him into a buffoon.
It destroyed, at a stroke, everything that DC’s superheroes were or had been supposed to be from the Silver Age on, but it did so with a hard-eyed realism that said, in effect, if you want the fantasy of beings with amazing powers clashing against each other, you have to accept the reality of this.
And with the reader reeling from that revelation, suddenly the heroes had to swing into action, with only enough time to indicate that the incident with Light was not the first time they had wiped villains minds.
In fact, this referred to an actual JLA case of the late Seventies, where a band of villains had exchanged minds with the JLA, taking their bodies over: Meltzer applied the remorseless logic that the first thing they would have done would have been to remove their masks, necessitating the wiping of their memories after their eventual defeat.
This last came out after a furious knock-down fight in issue 3 with Deathstroke, a mercenary hired by Light to protect him. Ollie’s description of the scene of Light’s rape had included a vivid panel depicting Light fighting off seven heroes simultaneously: by a fluke chance, in the battle against Deathstroke, a tableau occurred that replicated that scene, hero for hero. The sight breaks Light’s conditioning, restores his memories, restores his full and very dangerous mind, and raises his levels of hatred to the stratosphere. It also changes fundamentally the relationship between hero and villain, the ground rules. But in Light’s moment of realisation he generates a powerful hologram, that only The Flash seems fast enough to see. It’s of Light under attack, but this time by eight heroes, not seven: Batman is there as well.
It takes until almost the end of the story for West to go to Ollie with that vision and ask him openly about it, and it’s Ollie’s refusal to answer that opens us up to the ultimate game changer: they took Batman’s mind as well.
Batman had been there for Dr Light’s take-down before rushing to the next emergency. But, because it was Sue, this time he came back, in the middle of Light’s magical lobotomy. And he went bananas. A horrified Zatanna froze him physically, and then the Justice League took the decision to delete ten minutes of their friend and ally, Bruce Wayne’s memories as well.
What would flow from that, forward and backward, practically sustained DC for the next year and a half, and rumbled on for much longer.
Many people hated Identity Crisis, for what it was, what it did. In a single series, it tainted everyone’s youth and innocence, by destroying the sweetness and the naivete of the Silver Age and, at a stroke, reducing the heroes to the same moral level as the villains. People hated Sue Dibny’s rape, especially when it was used against such a likeable, nice woman (not that rape ever distinguishes between its victims). If you want to be picky, it was never explicitly stated that the rape actually happened: the crucial panel is a close-up of Sue’s clenched hands, and it is for the reader to decide how much time elapses before the next panel, when the JLA teleport back into the satellite. But, let’s be honest, to reject actual rape on a technicality would be to undermine the story.
So, not a Green Arrow story, but one in which Green Arrow played a significant role, a confirmation of his place among the circle of the DC Universe’s.
It was, for me, Green Arrow’s peak.