Once was a Stranger…


                                                                                          In the very beginning

It’s four years since DC Comics rebooted their Universe all over again, producing the incarnation known as The New 52, and I made the conscious decision not to continue reading DC Comics any more.
With the exception of one near-incomprehensible Green Lantern graphic novel borrowed from the library, I’ve maintained that stance, though it’s less of a stance than a simple lack of interest in what they’ve been doing with the characters of my lifelong adolescence. And what I’ve read from time to time has reinforced my belief that I made the right decision.
Well, the New 52 is now on the point of becoming the past again, DC having taken the decision to uproot itself from New York to California, and covered the intervening two month removal process with a series named Convergence, a salute to those Universes of yore, which has unexpectedly morphed into the foundation stone for the even newer DCYou.
Meanwhile, I, with my customary off-centre timing, have just paid a first visit to the library in nearly six months and, in addition to the book I was searching for, came away with a New 52 Graphic Novel, featuring one of my favourite characters, The Phantom Stranger.
The Stranger was originally created in 1952 for his own, short-lived comic, written by John Broome and drawn by Carmine Infantino. In his initial run, the Stranger was a seemingly non-powered human being with an incredible knack of turning up, out of nowhere, when some ordinary person was being threatened by some demonic-like power. The Stranger, who dressed in trenchcoat and Fedora, over a dark suit and a white shirt/black tie, was basically a supernatural debunker, who could vanish as abruptly and completely as he arrived the moment everything was copacetic again.
And he vanished just as abruptly and completely after six issues, never to be remembered. Until he was unexpectedly revived for issue 80 of Showcase, in 1968.
The issue has the smell of filler all over it, since it was three-quarters reprint. A framing story consisting of a few random pages brings together The Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker, who spar verbally whilst recounting past exploits, two for the Stranger, one for Terry Thirteen, before an absurdly rushed and perfunctory ending.
Dr Thirteen had never previously encountered the Phantom Stranger, though they appear to know each other, and the latter greets Thirteen, and his wife Marie, like old friends. Dr Thirteen was another demon debunker from the early Fifties, his series appearing in Star-Spangled Comics. You’d think he’d be on the same side as the Stranger, but instead the Stranger has been revived as a quasi-supernatural character, blessed with undefined powers, a battler against demons etc., and as far as Terry Thirteen is concerned, he’s as big a danger as these phoney, mumbo-jumbo events that the Stranger has undoubtedly set up to prey on the credulous and stupid, and Dr Thirteen is going to expose him as a charlatan.
Almost immediately, and far too soon for the decision to be based upon sales figures for Showcase 80, the Stranger was granted his own bi-monthly title, in which the formula was repeated for the first three issues. After all, it was an incredibly cheap comic to produce when it was predominantly reprint.
However, with issue 4, it was taken over by Neal Adams. The art and story were all-new, an arch-enemy in the form of Tala, Queen of Evil, was introduced, and the Stranger was redesigned, with a cape, a white turtleneck (i.e., polo neck) sweater and a mystic gold amulet, plus eyes shadowed by the brim of his fedora that merely glowed a pupil-less white. Dr Thirteen was still ranting and raving however, even though his position was undercut a dozen times an issue.
And Adams introduced four teenagers who would, for the next half dozen issues, turn up all over the place, spouting what was fondly believed to be contemporary hip-speak, and always, always, bumping into one or other of the Stranger and Terry Thirteen, the other of which would be along almost immediately. For all that they were supposed to be such diametric opposites, it was clear that My People and Your People were keeping their diaries strictly co-ordinated.

                                                                         Classic Jim Aparo (with teenagers)
The series floundered on, passing from hand to hand. Adams did two issues, Mike Sekowsky two more, the great Jim Aparo took over the art, Gerry Conway tried a couple of scripts, introducing a seemingly immortal bad guy in Tannarak, and the whole thing was just lousy with potential that was begging to be realised until issue 12, when Len Wein inherited the job of scripter. That was when things fell into place.
Wein kicked out the crap. Gone were the four teens, gone the idea of dropping mini-stories in, Dr Thirteen was shunted into the back of the book in hos own series and Wein, who was also writing Swamp Thing at the same time, set off on a run of classic stories, which defined the Stranger as part-host, part-narrator, part a spiritual warning to those in danger of going down the wrong path, and ultimately an intervening force for good. Without a name, without an origin, without any definition of powers, but with Aparo drawing the hell out of anything Wein put in front of him.
Including, amusedly, a villain by the name of Cerebus, who appeared in the same issue as a fan letter from a 17 tear old Canadian fan by the name of Dave Sim…
It couldn’t last. Wein slowly built up a loose continuity featuring an organisation of evil mystics called The Dark Circle, headed by Tala. The Stranger, aided by blind seer Cassandra Craft and a converted-for-a-while Tannarak, confronts the Dark Circle and brings it down, Tala and Tannarak disappearing into the bowels of the Earth beneath the statue Christos Redentor, and Cassandra left to believe the Stranger dead, so that she will no longer be at risk from the perils he faces.
Two issues later, Wein and Aparo left simultaneously, snatched away to write and draw the more prestigious, and better selling Batman.


The Wein/Aparo run was in midstream when I first discovered The Phantom Stranger in 1974. It’s flawed, and there’s some crazy purple writing in there, but it’s crazy as hell, wild and passionate, and I fell for the character on the spot. Seeing the Stranger taken over by the utterly incompatible team of Arnold Drake and Gerry Taloac, with a truly awful Spawn of Frankenstein back-up drawn by Bernard Bailey, co-creator of the Spectre and looking decades out of date, was an horrendous shock.
The series floundered to an end with issue 41, flopping from hand to hand just as it had at the beginning, with a couple of really good issues and a lot of incredibly crap ones but I persevered until the last.
And of course the Phantom Stranger has turned up all over the place since, a floating character available for any kind of supernatural-oriented series, not to mention occasional solo slots, a mini-series and, most memorably, in his own issue of Secret Origins which, in keeping with the mysterious nature of the character, presented four separate, mutually contradictory versions of his origin – three supernatural, one horribly off-note scientific – the best being Alan Moore’s gloriously imaginative depiction of the Stranger as an Angel who, having failed to make up his mind between God and Lucifer when the latter rebelled, is condemned to walk the Earth ever after, his wings torn off, rejected by Heaven and Hell, forever a stranger.
To be honest, I’ve read very few interpretations of the Phantom Stranger in the last twenty years or so. He’s been presented as an Agent of Order (as opposed to Chaos) which doesn’t work for me. He was shown, in one special, as an aged man who was an angel who’d fallen in love with a demon who ran an old folk’s (demon’s?) home but that especially didn’t take.
For me, the Stranger is fixed as he was in those dozen or so Wein/Aparo stories, leavened by Moore’s too good origin, and as long as he’s been seen consistently with that, as has mostly been the case, I’ve been content.
That was before I read the Phantom Stranger in The New 52.
Formally, this GN is Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger volume 3 The Crack in Creation. It reprints issues 11 – 22 of the Stranger’s solo series, plus the crossover issue  Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger: Future’s End 1. That means that I was coming in after the parameters of the series had been set, and half of it published, so I was having to pick things up as I went along, but hell’s bells, I’ve been doing that with comics all my life, I’m used to it.
But this was, quite frankly, unreadable. Literally unreadable. I put it down after about forty pages, flicked to the back to see if the ending made sense, and gave up. However, when I realised that I was going to write about it, I had to go back and read it properly.

                                                                                 Cassandra Craft. As was.
Firstly, it appears that the Phantom Stranger now has an origin and a name: two names in fact. Given that he’s a mysterious figure who’s not merely gotten on but positively thrives for sixty years without either, this ought to have been an absolute No-no, but whenever you get a radical reboot that updates characters for the modern era, you get some fucking stupid ideas that destroy the principal reality of well-crafted creations, and as this one came from Publisher Dan DiDio, I suppose it was inevitable.
Even worse, one of those names was a human secret identity, Philip Stark, with a beloved wife and two beloved children. Except that it wasn’t actually the Stranger’s name, he just took it, plus the beloved wife and children, from the real Philip Stark, who was a horror story writer, serial torturer and killer and the Stranger’s vehement enemy, Sin-Eater.
But it’s the first name that you’re going to love, because it’s Judas. Of Scarioth. Yes, that one, betrayer of his friend and master, the Lamb, in return for thirty pieces of silver. Except that, after he hung himself, he was taken before the Council of Eternity and sentenced to walk forever as a stranger, wearing an amulet consisting of those thirty pieces of silver, bringing to him constant pain, grief and sorrow. Every now and then, if the Stranger does the right thing, one piece will drop off and, when all thirty are gone…
Meanwhile, Sin-Eater has killed Philip Stark’s beloved wife and children. The Stranger has pursued their souls across both Heaven and Hell but been thrown out of the Afterlife for good by The Presence (who manifests to him as a small brown Scottie Dog). A very different Dr Thirteen, who has lost his scepticism (lost his scepticism? You might as well give Barry Allen a bow and arrow and no speed and still call him The Flash), has killed the Stranger by stabbing him through the heart with the Spear of Destiny. The Sin-Eater has killed a sixteen year old boy called Christopher Esperanza but the Stranger has brought him back from the dead: his family don’t remember this but they know and it’s driving him batty. The Stranger’s tried to rescue Dr Light’s soul (the original one, not the Japanese lady scientist, who’s apparently now a formerly-happy-married-man instead of a raving rapist) but been oblivionated for it by Zauriel the Angel. Have I missed anything out? How can I tell
Dear reader, if you think that this is about the greatest amount of hooey you’ve ever heard of, spare a thought for me, who’s been dealing happily with stuff of this nature for a half century and finds all this a colossal amount of hooey as well.
So the story in this book begins with the Stranger reappearing out of oblivion, courtesy of Zauriel, for no explained reason. The first and biggest mistake, bigger even than everything I’ve already detailed, is that the Stranger’s mind is open to us. We read his thoughts, hear him confess his feelings. We have never done that before: of course not, he was a mysterious figure you noddies! Could it possibly diminish the character any to now be privy to all his hates, fears, selfishness, anger, cowardice, self-pity, dear heaven the self-pity, whiny teenagers have nothing on this guy when he gets started, and his refusal to do what he’s told by God, who is genuinely trying to help him? What do you think?
Zauriel will prove to have been the Stranger’s Guardian Angel since the days he was Judas Iscariot, but to have fallen in love with him to the extent of defying the Will of God for him. This may or may not be the cause of Zauriel suddenly catching a fever and dying, or maybe that’s something that happened in another title which isn’t collected here. You know, like Chris Esperanza a) being taken over by the evil Blight and b) turning into the Angel of Redemption as a direct consequence.
Zauriel certainly isn’t the Zauriel we used to know, especially after he gets resurrected as her. But then Cassandra Craft isn’t the woman we used to know. Nor is John Constantine (bloody hell, J. M de Matteis simply can’t write believable Cockney slang).
Oh, and there’s the other two members of the Trinity of Sin, one being Pandora (that one, yes) and the other being The Question, who seriously is not any kind of Question we’ve ever seen. No longer is he a Steve Ditko paranoid Objectivist hero, nor even a lesbian detective who was so essential to the recent first series of Gotham that she didn’t even appear in the last ten episodes despite being Cast.
No, The Question is evil for reasons nobody, least of all himself, knows, because they’ve been erased (the Stranger gets given an origin when it’s the last thing he needs, the Question, who had a perfectly good one, gets it stripped away and left with nothing). And his superpower is now the ability to ask really cutting questions that undermine everybody’s self-confidence.
As I have had occasion to observe in relation to the various 2000AD incarnations of Dan Dare, this might not be so bad if it were being run with new characters, lacking any kind of history or definition. Actually, this would be just as bad, but seeing this idiot gibberish imposed upon clear-cut, well-drawn existing characters, who are being subject to these outlandish distortions solely for the purpose of having them look and act differently, the overall effect is a hundred times worse.
This is NOT The Phantom Stranger. It is not even a convincing, or even viable simulacrum. This is the state of comics these days, and it is incomprehensible. Purely on a technical basis, given how this meandering and directionless excuse for a story-line twice leads to portentous cliffhangers only for the resolutions to be excluded from this compilation.
Having forced myself to read the Graphic Novel, I find I have no taste nor stamina for detailed, forensic criticism. I simply want to return the book and avoid any other post 2011 DC Comics for the remainder of my given years. Let those who think this valid, worthwhile or even, unbelievably, entertaining have the enjoyment of it: I still have the good comics.
In the end, I can only reflect upon the underlying irony: The Phantom Stranger has indeed become… a Stranger.

Uncompleted Stories: Swamp Thing 1


Wrightson’s Swamp Thing

Though he’s been around for over forty years, and enjoyed a high esteem for long periods during that time, DC’s Swamp Thing is unlikely to be familiar to the non-comics reading public (with the exception of fans of early Eighties Horror B-Movies).
Like many other DC characters, Swamp Thing has been through several incarnations down the years. Let us begin with a bit of historical perspective.
Swamp Thing was conceived by writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson for an eponymous ten page horror story, published in House of Secrets 92 in 1971. The story was set in an isolated house on the edge of the Louisiana swamplands, in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Damien Ridge and Linda Olsen Ridge are at home, on the six month anniversary of their marriage, and someone – or something – unseen is watching them from outside.
This is Linda’s second marriage: her first husband, scientist Alex Olsen, Damien’s partner, was killed a year ago in a laboratory explosion. Damien comforted, and subsequently married her, but what Linda does not know is that it was Damien, out of jealousy over her, who sabotaged the lab and dumped Alex’s still-living body in the swamp.
Though he has what he wants, Damien is alert to a little cooolness on Linda’s part, seeing it as her inutuiting his role in all of this. Rather than let her begin investigating, and uncover him, Damien prefers to kill her. He is about to plunge a hypodermic into her neck, unseen, when the viewer outside untervenes.
Linda sees a terrifying monster, vaguely man-shaped, draped in the rotting vegetation of the swamp, burst into the house and horribly kill her husband: widowed twice at so young an age. She screams in terror as the silent monster stares at her, before it shambles out into the swamp, never to be seen again.
What she does not know, because the creature has no voice with which to speak, is that the monster has acted not out of rage or mania, but out of love. The Swamp Thing is, or was, Alex Olsen, transformed out of all recognition but unable to stay away from the woman he loves. By saving her life, he has severed any faint hopes of returning to her. As he turns towards the swamps, his misery is compounded even further by the fact that his vegetable body cannot cry.
“Swamp Thing” was not formally promoted in any way, but word swept rapidly and House of Secrets 92 sold in incredible numbers. I have heard it claimed that it was DC’s best-selling comic of the month, but given the publishing conditions of the early Seventies, I find that very difficult to believe. Certainly, there must have been a considerable sales-spike: more than enough to have DC  pressing Wein and Wrightson to convert the Swamp Thing into a series.
Both creators demurred. In part, it was the desire not to spoil their experience on a story with (rare) personal significance and satisfaction, but in even larger part it was the knowledge that contemporary page rates were nowhere near enough to enable them to do the necessary research for a series set seven decades earlier.
They were, however, willing to revise the character in a contemporary setting. Thus the second Swamp Thing made his debut in the first issue of his own series, set in 1972. This first Swamp Thing series would last 24 bi-monthly issues.
Drs Alec and Linda Holland, biologists, are on the point of completing a Bio-Restorative Formula that could potentially refoliate the Sahara. The Government has moved them to a laboratory in the Lousiana swamplands, disguised as a deserted barn, under the watchful eye of DDI Agent Matt Cable.
However, the Conclave, a criminal organisation, has learned of the Formula and tries to buy it. When the Hollands refuse, the Conclave decides to kill them, rather than allow anyone else to use the formula. Alec is knocked out and left in the lab whilst a bomb is planted: at the last moment, he comes to, only for the bomb to explode in his face, coating his body in the burning chemicals of the formula.
Out of reflex, Alec bursts from the lab and hurls his burning body into the cooling water of the swamps. A month later, the Swamp Thing, seven foot tall, man-shaped, draped in the rotting vegetation of the swamp, rises from the water.
Unlike the first Swamp Thing, Linda is soon killed herself. This gives the ongoing series two points of impetus. First, Holland is seeking a means by which he can restore his humanity, and secondly he wants revenge for his wife’s murder.
Wein, very much a purple writer at that time of his career, structured the series around a parade of classic monsters and horrors, though the main theme was that Man was the true Monster. Wherever Swampy went, trying to mind his own business, meaning no harm to anyone, the moment anyone saw him, they went mob-crazy on his big, green butt.
The series went well under its original creators, but Wrightson left after issue 10, and Wein three issues later. And though replacements as like for like as could be found were conjured up, sales began to decline.
So a decision was taken that, with effect from issue 23, Swamp Thing would be re-positioned as a superhero, instead of horror series.
Outgoing writer, David Michelinie, was kind enough to drop Swampy, at the end of issue 22, not in Louisiana but, improbably, California, on the doorstop of Alec Holland’s heretofore un-mentioned elder brother, Edward.
The new direction was remitted to Gerry Conway. He began by introducing a new, more flambuoyant crime syndicate after the Bio-Restorative Formula, as represented by the former Commander Zero.But whereas Zero, who was supposedly dead, had been a meek, unassuming, be-spectacled man in a suit, Conway put him in a skin-tight costume and, in place of his crushed right hand, affixed a scythe, a la Marvel villain The Grim Reaper.
So Edward Holland hears his brother out and decides that his transformation can be reversed by repeating it. And despite Zero’s attempts to intervene, it works, and Alec Holland was once more human.
This state persisted into issue 24, during which Conway started assembling plot-lines. Edward Holland’s beautiful, red-headed protege is far too impressed with the younger, more handsome Alec: Edward, enraged at being overshadowed yet again by his brilliant younger brother, plots to make him regret it. Alec has another encounter with agents of the syndicate and finds himself wishing he still had Swampy’s strength and invulnerability. Tellingly, his body suffers crippling cramps and stresses…
Issue 25 was advertised as guest-starring Hawkman. But this never appeared as the series was cancelled abruptly due to plummeting sales. The ‘superhero’ Swamp Thing never appeared.
And I have to say that that’s a tremendous relief, since the new direction was utterly ludicrous and wholy implausible even by the standards of Seventies’ comics. The series even had foisted on it a new logo,which, prophetically, was the single worst, most clumsy and ugly logo I have ever seen in comics.
So many things were wrong, or at best wholly cliched by this change that even at the time, continuity-based fans wanted to find a way to obliterate it. To begin, the change of scene to California (Conway had recently moved to LA, and was dragging all his series to the Golden State) was wholly wrong for a swampland creation.
Then the introduction of a new crime syndicate on an infantile level, as opposed to the plausible Conclave and, worst of all, placing the aforementioned Commander John Zero into tights and scythe!
Then the introduction of a new red-head to become Holland’s girlfriend, the trite jealousies of an elder brother who’d shown no interest in his late brother for years, the diminution of Alec Holland’s all-pervading longing to regain his humanity by suggesting that he’d avoided asking his brother’s help out of pride!
The cliché of Edward Holland getting jealous so fast that he was prepared to betray his own brother by undoing a scientifically advvanced procedure that demonstrated him as a genius.
Had issue 25 been published, I have no doubts as to its contents. Alec Holland would have been attacked again, requiring Hawkman’s aid to escape. Red-headed protege, fearful for his safety, would have kissed him. Edward Holland would have snapped and kick-started his plan. And on the final page, Alec would have reverted, no doubt painfully in body as well as in mind, to beingSwamp Thing.
Except that henceforth he would be able to occupy both forms, transforming from Holland to Swampy in the same manner that Bruce Banner becomes the Incredible Hulk. The only question up for debate is whether the transformation would be voluntary or, to extend the Hilk parallel,  uncontrolled and caused by stress of some kind.
Though the story was uncompleted, Conway did get a chance to deal with one of his dangling plot-threads. A few months later, in a short-lived revival of Challengers of the Unknown that lasted eight, guest star crowded issues, Conway chose to put one of the Challs in need of desperate aid from noted biologist Alec Holland.
Though he is working desperately against time to prevent his body reverting permanently to the Swamp Thing (for no given reason), Holland cannot refuse his aid, and ends up losing his battle, thus restoring the status quo in a very cheap manner.
Nobody regretted not seeing this fatuous story through to its conclusion. Edward Holland, Red-Headed Protege and the syndicate disappeared without trace or any kind of second thought, and following Crisis on Infinite Earth in 1985, and the wholesale revision of DC’s history, this little episode ceased to have ever ‘existed’.
It had, in any event, already been obliterated, by writer Alan Moore’s transformation of the Swamp Thing in 1983, which silently revoked any validity in Conway’s two issues.
Nevertheless, this disastrous idea was not to be the Swamp Thing’s only experience of an Uncompleted Story, as we shall see next.

JLA Incarnations 2: Justice League Detroit


I’m no fan of Gerry Conway as a writer. To me, he started off with a clear and precocious talent, but rapidly preferred to write regular series in which his tendency towards sloppiness could be mostly overlooked. The end of the first Justice League and the career of the second were, to me, characteristic of his work. And there is a strong element of the change being made for Conway’s personal convenience.
From 1980 onwards, from the success of Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans, with its first successful merger of Marvel-style dynamism and conflict with DC’s traditional, classic style, the company as a whole began, at long last, to take seriously the parameters of a DC Universe/Multiverse. Given the amount of time Conway had spent at Marvel (where he had been editor-in-Chief, albeit for about three weeks), this was a natural move. However, it was to have unwelcome consequences for him in respect of the Justice League.
Where, once upon a time, a Batman, Superman, Flash etc. adventure involving a serious departure from the DC status quo would be explained away as happening at a different time than the rest of the company’s stories, the adoption of the principle of a Universe denied this convenient explanation. What affected a character in their home mag now HAD to be contemporary.
With Conway also leading the Justice League in the direction of longer-term continuity, it became irritating and frustrating to him that he was having to adjust his plans around developments in a character’s own series that made them unavailable to the League for various periods. The classic example of this was The Flash: with his title planned for cancellation in the forthcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths, Cary Bates commenced a long storyline based on the Flash being tried for the murder of the Reverse-Flash, which took the Scarlet Speedster out of the picture.
Conway began pushing for a radical change to the Justice League, a membership consisting only of characters under his control. In 1983, this was agreed, and Conway set to bringing about the end of the first Justice League, along with artist Chuck Patton.
In some ways it was a typically Conway ending, superficially dramatic as the League repels an invasion by White Martians, preceded by the return of the Martian Manhunter from an exile that had started back in 1969, when he was considered to be an outmoded, unnecessary character (repeat after me: There is no such thing as a bad character). It’s a close-run thing, with the League taken by surprise, despite having had opportunities to learn about the planned invasion at an earlier stage.
Aquaman, who had been through several painful experiences, with an enemy killing his infant son, his wife Mera leaving him to return to her home dimension and being effectively deposed as King of Atlantis, blows up at his team-mates, who have all allowed personal concerns and demands to distract their attention, thus exacerbating the crisis. When he demands they commit themselves to full-time activity with the League, they refuse. So Arthur invokes a previously unknown provision of the League’s charter, enabling any of the founding members to irrevocably dissolve it if they believe the League is no longer serving its true purpose. Thus the first Justice League ended, not in action or drama, but as a bureaucratic exercise.
So Aquaman forms a new League, comprised only of heroes who are willing to commit themselves to full-time existence as JLA members. These consist of himself and J’Onn J’Onzz, the Elongated Man and Zatanna, plus four new, young, untried characters. These were Steel, an updating of Conway’s short-lived World War 2 Captain America-lite, Vixen, an intended debutante whose career was wrecked by DC Implosion cancellation before she even appeared, Vibe, a break-dancing Puerto Rican who was every bit as racially stereotypical as you’d imagine, and Gypsy, a barefoot fifteen year old orphan who could turn invisible.
With the League’s Satellite HQ having been (conveniently) destroyed during the would-be invasion, the new League needed a new base. In keeping with its stated ambition to be nearer to the people it existed to protect, the new team found itself being gifted a base, courtesy of Steel – or rather, the original Steel, Conway’s first creation, grandfather to the new Leaguer.
This consisted of a converted industrial bunker in Hank Heywood’s home town of Detroit. Which of course led almost immediately to the Second League being dubbed Justice League Detroit.
The problems with Justice League Detroit were manifold. It’s adoption of a base in an Industrial Bunker in Detroit imposed an unwanted mundane aspect upon the League, and created a sense of limits by associating them specifically with one American location. Filling half the team with new, untried, indeed somewhat amateurish characters created a whole new dynamic that Conway thought lent an additional dimension to the series, but which the audience rejected as simply inappropriate for the flagship team of the DC ‘Universe’.
And the series’ credibility was irrevocably holed within a few months of its start when Aquaman, who had made such a song and dance of the League having to be comprised of full-time, committed heroes, dedicated solely to its purposes and eschewing all personal considerations, Aquaman, who had dissolved the first league when it had refused to completely ignore personal commitments, Aquaman left the Detroit League to try to get back together with Mera. His wife.
To put it bluntly, the Detroit League was an attempt to rip-off the dynamics and atmosphere of the X-Men, without any understanding of what made the X-Men appeal in the first place, and even less understanding of what was the appeal of the Justice League itself. The DC web-site indicates that the Detroit League appeared in only 34 comics in total – and that includes retrospectives live the the actual JLA Incarnations series.
With sales dropping, and Crisis on Infinite Earths starting up, without a Justice League worth the name of it, DC decided to cancel the series. After 257 issues, for the first time since 1960, there was no Justice League of America.
That wasn’t quite the end of Justice League Detroit. The DC Universe started without an active JLA, but it still existed in theory. DC wanted to launch a new Justice League, and chose to do so on the back of Legends, the first of the annual crossover events that would demonstrate to the world that DC did have a functioning, coherent Universe, so there. But to launch the Third League, the Second had to be definitively exorcised.
So, as part of the crossovers associated with Legends, Justice League of America was restored for a four-issue mini-series, extending its numbering to 261.
Legends was based on the premise that a demagogic orator, G Gordon Godfrey, had successfully turned the American public against superheroes, leading to a Presidential Order banning their operating. It was an interesting theme, with two basic flaws: the first that it was far too obvious that Godfrey was actually the New God, Glorious Godfrey, a minion of Darkseid, and secondly that as the entire creative staff were Americans who’d gotten into the business because they were superhero fans, not one of them could conceive for a second that anyone might have the remotest doubt about how wonderful they are, so were unable to create any conviction over the fickle public turning its head.
But in the meantime, long term League foe Professor Ivo was stalking the four junior members of Justice League Detroit, one per issue of the ‘mini-series’. The ‘mini-series’ did not feature Conway: instead it was written by J M De Matteis, who would be heavily involved in the next incarnation, with art from Luke McDonnell.
Fates split on strict gender lines: the boys were killed, the girls fled. With a heavy heart, the Martian Manhunter officially shut down the League.
The ground was cleared.

JLA: Incarnations 1.


JLA Secret OriginsHaving written so many words by now on the legendary Justice Society of America, I thought it might be a pleasant change (for me at least) to write something on the Justice League of America for once. After all, but for the personal prejudice of Julius Schwartz, the League would have been a new incarnation of the Society, and the course of comics book history may have run very differently.
As for the title of this series I’m unashamedly stealing it from the excellent and mystifyingly-uncollected 2001 series written by John Ostrander and drawn by Val Semeiks and Prentis Rollins: seven extended issues telling new adventures whilst defining the various eras of the JLA.
By now, in the post-Flashpoint, New 52 Universe, the Justice League is in its seventh distinct incarnation since its debut in 1960. The original Justice League of America series ran for 261 issues, and three succeeding JLA series have each run over 100 issues, not counting any of the increasing number of spin-offs from the basic team concept. The League has changed to reflect the times, but it remains DC’s leading light, the centre of the DC Universe in whatever form it’s currently taking, the central point for the DC Universe’s greatest heroes.
By 1960, Julius Schwartz was probably the hottest editor at National Periodical Publications. Four years before, he’d agreed to take on the task of reviving the 1940s hero, The Flash, although on condition that he be allowed to throw away everything that had been done and start afresh with a new version: new character, new origin, new costume, new approach. The new Flash was a big success, though it took four try-outs over three years before an unconvinced management finally accepted that they had a hit on their hands. Schwartz was then invited to do the same for Green Lantern, who only needed two try-outs.
But before any decision was taken on giving the Hal Jordan version his own series, Schwartz was asked to revive the Justice Society of America.
Schwartz didn’t like the name. Though he’d cut his editorial teeth on the JSA in All-Star Comics, Schwartz had never liked the name Society. Societies were where you got together to drink beer and eat chowder. It did not suit a team of superheroes fighting crime and saving the world. So he changed it to League.
A League was bigger, better, stronger. It suggested strength in togetherness. The kids would understand it instantly, given all the stuff they read about Baseball Leagues and Football Leagues. So they would happily flock to the Justice League.
The JLA made its debut in Brave & Bold 28, the first in a three issue try-out. Brave & Bold had been around for several years as a title featuring derring-do adventures by historical figures, but it had lately been converted into a Showcase-style try-out magazine, alternating monthly. It was never as successful in this guise, not spinning off series the way Showcase regularly did, but it hosted the Justice League and they went massive. The team went straight into their own title, and within a year was the best-selling title in the industry. Somebody boasted of that to rival publisher Martin Goodman, who got back to the office and demanded his cousin-editor create a team book as well. Stan Lee called in his best artist, Jack Kirby. The rest of that story is history.
The League made its debut fully-formed, leaping straight into the action against Starro the Conqueror, an interstellar starfish. The founder members consisted of the big three, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Schwartz’s new Flash and Green Lantern (even though Hal Jordan had only appeared in his two Showcase try-outs so far), Aquaman, who’d been hanging around since the 40s without making an impression, and Joe Samachson’s J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter, who’d been introduced six months before Barry Allen,. but as an SF character, not superhero.
And where the Society had had Johnny Thunder, the League found itself landed with ‘Snapper’ Carr (first name not given for over twenty years). Snapper was the Justice League mascot, a hip-talking, jivey teenager whose nick-name came from his habit of snapping his fingers when he was excited, which was all the time. In reality, Superman would have drop-kicked the lad into a volcano inside three hours, but Snapper lasted until issue 77.
Initially, the League based itself in a secret cave sanctuary, near Snapper’s home town of Happy Harbor in Rhode Island State. In contrast to the JSA, the League did not have a permanent chairman, the post rotating through all its membership from meeting to meeting, nor did it operate with a fixed line-up: the League could add new members without having to push anyone out. Green Arrow, another 40s back-up, joined in JLA 4, the new Atom in issue 14 and the new Hawkman in issue 31.
For the first twenty-five issues or so, all the Justice league appeared in each issue, although Superman and Batman tended to fade into the background, playing minor roles. This was for the same reason the World’s Finest team had been excluded from the Justice Society: Mort Weisinger and his proprietorial hold on Superman. However, after National Publisher asked Schwartz why Superman didn’t appear much in the Justice League, and Schwartz gave him an honest answer, Weisinger was told not to obstruct Schwartz any longer.
But after the first Justice Society team-up, with the League eleven strong (counting Snapper) a new policy came in, with the League operating on a fighting weight of five to seven members each issue, making occasions when the entire League were called in a little more special.
Perceptive fans quickly determined that the League seemed to be split into a Big Five (Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman) and a lesser six (Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Atom, Aquaman and Snapper Carr), with appearances weighted in favour of the Big Five.
The induction of Hawkman was the last change for the Justice League for several years, retiring inkers aside. Mountain cave secret sanctuary, Fox plots, an unchanging line-up.
Meanwhile, the comics landscape outside DC was changing rapidly, with Marvel’s growing influence and sales potential. DC’s style became badly outdated as a generation of writers, who’d been in the business for nearly thirty years, found themselves developing concerns as to their future, lacking any kind of employee stability. In the end, the writers were dispersed and dispensed with, in favour of young turks, fans enthusiastic about getting into comics, about bringing their concerns into what had been a purely commercial craft, wanting to turn it into art.
The Justice League monolith was in drastic need of updating, which it got from new writer Denny O’Neil.
In tandem with Schwartz, O’Neil took the JLA through its first transition to a new phase. Out went the Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman and Snapper Carr, along with the cave Sanctuary. In came Black Canary, transferring from Earth-2 and the Justice Society, to fill the need for a female JLAer (the only other possibilities being Batgirl and Supergirl, entirely too derivative, and in breach of the rule against duplicating powers).
And, to firmly initiate the second phase, the Justice League took to the stars, transferring its HQ to a Satellite in geosynchronous orbit, accessible by teleporter tubes (the Atom would have never made it that far by telephone!)
The satellite headquarters, the implied sense of gods overlooking a planet to which they were infinitely superior, changed the dynamics of the team. Alan Moore defined it superbly in Saga of the Swamp Thing: ‘there is a house above the world, where the over-people gather’, though it was Green Arrow who articulated it first, long years after the fact, resigning from the League to deal with what he saw as the more important matters, at street level.
But, despite the change in HQ’s, and the increasing removal of the League from the human level, this still remained the same League, defined by the same members, entrenched in its uninterrupted existence.
Neither O’Neil, nor his successor Mike Friedrich, were entirely comfortable with the League, as evidenced by a sales decline that saw the title cut back from DC’s standard eight-issues-a-year format (applied to all titles using a single, as opposed to multiple pencillers) to bimonthly. The series was then taken over by writer Len Wein, who reinstated the basic Fox/Schwartz feel, this time with personalities and character. The last quarter of his run saw Justice League of America published as a 100 page Giant, 20 pages of new material and 80 of reprint, but after a year of that experiment, the comic was reduced to 32 pages again, but for the first time with a monthly schedule that it has followed ever since.
Wein also presided over a changing membership, inducting both the Elongated Man and, as a second transferred from the JSA, the new Red Tornado, as well as offering membership to his mystery-book character, the Phantom Stranger. Whether the Stranger actually joined or not was left to each individual’s own interpretation.
After Wein, the Justice League entered its first nadir, without a permanent writer. Cary Bates, Elliott S! Maggin and Martin Pasko tag-teamed for the next couple of years, producing professional but uninspired work that was far from what would normally be expected of DC’s flagship title.
This period ended when former Marvel writer Steve Engelhart, committing himself to DC for twelve months, was assigned Justice League of America, having been the long-term writer of The Avengers. Having the advantage of extra page-length due to the comic being promoted to Giant-Size, Engelhart added a degree of dynamism, character conflict and Hawkgirl as a member, sinking the old duplicate power rule. However, Engelhart had specifically limited himself to one year, after which Gerry Conway took over as scripter for the remainder of the first Justice League of America series.
Conway, who added further members such as Zatanna, and his own creation, Firestorm, proved to be the League’s longest-lasting scripter, equalling Gardner Fox’s eight year stint, though writing more stories, due to its increased schedule, though there is little from this period that lifted itself above the mundane.
But it was Conway who was responsible for the end of the first Justice League and the establishment of its second incarnation, the short-lived and much-maligned Justice League Detroit.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: the geeky bit


Be warned: this is the seriously geeky bit.
One thing I intended to do when I began this latest series on the Justice Society of America was to look at the changing patterns of which members were used or ignored, and to try to draw any relevant inferences from that.
That aim got speedily lost in the analysis of the varying approaches to the stories themselves, and if I had maintained the kind of strict record I’d originally planned, that would have stood out as awkward and irrelevant.
Instead I’m going to bring that in as a separate essay, about which I’m going to warn you in advance that this is for the fanatics and those interested only in fascinating trivia, so read no further if that’s not your bag (genuine Sixties talk, maaaan!)
I’ve compiled for myself a table covering the twenty-three team-ups, and plotting who appeared when. Before I go on to discuss the results, I should make the qualification criteria plain. The table relates only to active appearances in a story, and not to cameo roles. Thus, in the later years, under Gerry Conway, where the meetings of the two teams became pre-planned social affairs,there are multiple instances of JSA members turning up for these get-togethers, but not actually getting in on the action. These are discounted.
A further example in Fox’s last story in 1968 where, at the end of the first part, virtually the whole of the Society turns up to the crisis of four members having ‘died’, but are ‘killed’ themselves within little more than a page: I have only included those members who featured throughout the issue. And again in 1970, there is a mass meeting of virtually every existing member, but I have only counted those who had an active role, of some kind.
So, what do the statistics tell us? For a start, we’re talking about a total of twenty-two JSAers: seventeen from the Golden Age, and five later additions, none of whom were available from the start. Of the Golden Agers, five became unavailable, either by death or by transferring to the Justice League, leaving twelve characters theoretically capable of appearing in all twenty-three stories. Statistics for the other ten have to be re-interpreted accordingly.
Most popular is of course Doctor Fate, the master magician, with fifteen appearances. Fate maintained a 100% record through the first four years of the feature, one of only two characters to appear in four successive meetings. Apart from an uncharacteristic ‘holiday’ from 1974-76, Fate was never excluded for more than a single year.
Only three other characters made ten or more appearances. Surprisingly, given his general lack of impetus, The Flash was second favourite with twelve appearances, and never absent for more than two years. Green Lantern, the only other character to appear in four consecutive adventures, follows with eleven appearances overall. It’s intriguing to note that his four year record (1969 to 1972) was both preceded and succeeded by three year absences.
The only other double figure participant, with a round ten shots, was Wonder Woman, who didn’t even appear for the first four years. With a better track record than her Justice League counterpart, the original WW was of course for many years the Society’s only female member, which underlies the frequency of her appeal.
Unsurprisingly, this quartet were consistently used, and each one appeared in one or other (or both) of the last two stories.
Behind them comes a group of four members with nine appearances each: Hawkman, Hourman, Starman and Dr Mid-Nite. Their stats are very interesting, as each character shows a smattering of semi-regular appearances, broken by a long period spent virtually in the cold.
Tradition did little to support Hawkman, formerly the permanent Chairman of the JSA, and the only member to appear in every Golden Age adventure. Hawkman started well, with four appearances in the first five stories, but then fell dramatically out of favour, with only one appearance in the next nine years.
Of course, when the JSA returned from limbo, Hawkman was one of four members who had been revived under Julius Schwartz. But where the new Flash and Green Lantern had been great successes, Hawkman and The Atom always struggled commercially, and given that the Golden Age Hawkman’s costume was virtually identical to his latter-day counterpart, I suspect he was kept off the scene so as not to divide the reader’s concentration. Certainly, he only returned to any kind of prominence once the Society had been restored in All-Star Comics.
Hourman, who had only appeared in the first five JSA stories, proved surprisingly popular at first. After featuring in the first team-up, he was not seen for three years, but then returned to make six appearances in eight years. Suddenly, however, he dropped out of favour, almost terminally, spending five years in limbo and appearing only twice over the last eleven years of the feature.
Starman and Dr Mid-Nite made their JSA debuts in the same issue, and were revived in the same story. There seems to have been a subconscious linking of the pair, since they appeared together five times in all over their nine shows. Both were reasonably frequent in the early days, before going AWOL, with the Doc getting only one story between 1972 and 1982 inclusive – odd, given that he was a major part of the All-Star revival – and Starman one shot between 1973 and 1981 inclusive.
Starman even gets name-checked in 1982 as having come back out of retirement: presumably based on the comment in All-Star that he was laid-up with a broken leg. Time may have run slower on Earth-2 for some of that period, but that length of recovery period is ridiculous!
That leaves nine Golden Age JSAers with serious attendance problems. Johnny Thunder does surprisingly well with six, mostly widely-spaced appearances, one more than Superman, who wasn’t even included until the seventh team-up, appeared four times in five years, then vanished after 1973, with only one show in the last twelve adventures.
The Earth-2 Batman is a case on his own. He’s the last Golden Age member to appear, in 1976, fourteen years on, and that’s his only active adventure. By a bizarre symmetry, his Silver Age career exactly mirrors his Golden Age participation: one adventure preceded by one cameo. Of course, two years later he was killed off, ending any chance of further stories. But it’s plain to see that DC did not want this version of the character around, unless he was being used in very occasional flashback stories.
Black Canary is a completely different kettle of fish. Though she takes part in only five adventures, this is out of the only seven for which she was qualified, before being poached for the Justice League. And indeed she appeared in many more team-ups, but these do not count as she was playing for the other side. I think we can be sure that if not for this, the Canary would be well up there in the top group: she was the Society’s ‘token’ female member after all.
Like Starman and Dr Mid-Nite, Mr Terrific and Wildcat are similarly bound together by their simultaneous debut, and it’s unsurprising that both should have made four appearances, twice appearing in the same story. Neither had made it in the Forties, due to their lack of overall popularity (or powers) and it was the same story now. Terrific was, of course, killed off in 1977 and though Wildcat’s popularity has gone on to increase exponentially, most of this development occurred post-Crisis: here, the Big Cat was not seen after 1975.
Then there’s the Spectre. The problem with the Spectre was that, by the time he was brought into his first team-up, the Julius Schwartz/Gardner Fox/Murphy Anderson revival of the character had re-purposed him as a being of almost infinite power, far stronger than all the Society and the League added together. As such, it was all but impossible to use him in a story without bending it out of shape. He worked well in the 1966 story, thanks to its (eventual) cosmic scope, but Spec’s situation was at right angles to everyone else, and when he was used again in 1970, it was as simultaneous deus ex machina and sacrifice, being ‘killed off’.
His only other appearance, as an even more bizarre ‘god in the machine’, came at a time when, like Black Canary, he had gone Earth-1, and simply further demonstrated how impossible it was to use him.
Which leave us with the two remaining founder members, the Atom and the Sandman. Now I mentioned in earlier essays that Wesley Dodds was clearly a favourite of Len Wein, who used him in all three of his stories, but it’s not until you look at the statistics that it becomes evident just how much of an anomaly this is. Sandman reappeared, ‘late’, in 1966. Wein was the only other writer to use him, and after that, Sandman was never seen again: not since 1974.
But it was the case of the Earth-2 Atom that surprised me the most, for he, like The Spectre, appeared in only three team-ups, in 1963, 1965 and 1971. It’s true that the Atom, in the Forties, was never an outstanding character: his creators could barely draw, the writing was juvenile, he was never inspiring, and his Silver Age counterpart was, like Hawkman, struggling for sales, but the Golden Age Atom had racked up more All-Star appearances than anyone except Hawkman, and he was radically different, powers and costume-wise, to Ray Palmer, so why was he abandoned so very far back, not even granted the occasional nostalgic outing?
I don’t know the answer, but I think that the fact I never noticed his absence until creating this table  may underline the impact the bigger Tiny Titan had on the Silver Age readership.
Lastly then, for this section, we have the latecomers. Robin and the Red Tornado were added in successive team-ups by Gardner Fox, and going on to make five and four appearances respectively. The Tornado missed only one of the five adventures for which he was eligible so, like Black Canary, we can assume that figure would have gone up if he hadn’t been transferred to the JLA. Then again, he wasn’t heavily featured on the League’s side in later years, so perhaps that’s an unwarranted assumption.
Robin, however, just doesn’t seem to have taken, not even after he appeared in the All-Star revival. After the big fuss of him being the JSA’s first new member in almost two decades, he immediately disappears for four years, and after teaming up with his Batman in 1976, he was forgotten completely. Here I think the reason is simple: the character’s real name is …and Robin. Remember that it took giving Dick Grayson a brand-new identity on Earth-1 to even begin to remove him from Batman’s shadow. Robin is a subordinate character, by nature not as good as Batman.
The Star-Spangled Kid was also an intrinsic part of the All-Star revival, though he was handicapped by being portrayed as a whiny, self-entitled brat. He was eligible for two team-ups and appeared in one, putting him level with Batman. Then, just as the JSA forgot him, so did the team-ups.
Which leaves us with the Earth-2 Supergirl and Batgirl, Power Girl and the Huntress. These were a fascinating pair with a very relaxed and natural affinity and it’s perhaps my most serious regret about Crisis on Infinite Earths that it destroyed this pair, by making them impossible to exist as they were. Both made five appearances, four of them together, between 1977 and 1983, and would undoubtedly have been mainstays for years had things turned out otherwise.
Way back in 1963, in their first meeting since the Golden Age, Doctor Fate announced on behalf of the Justice Society that their revised by-laws stipulated a rotating membership of seven. Which, as I observed much earlier, was abandoned as early as the second team-up.
Looking at the rosters, that magical number of seven was only reached on three more occasions, the last of these in 1979 (ironically, the extra number was made up by Mr Terrific deceased). On three occasions, the Justice Society turned out more members for the team-ups (these three rosters occurring in a four year period from 1968 – 1972), which means that over two-thirds of the time, the JSA failed to reach its stipulated quorum.
Bearing in mind that, throughout the period these team-ups cover, the Justice Society had fifteen to seventeen members to call upon, and that, with the exception of the period from 1976 – 1979, they had no other outlet, it seems to fly in the face of the spirit of these meetings that the heroes of the Golden Age should be seen in limited numbers.
This is partly explained by the fact that, from 1972 onwards, the annual team-up involved some third force, making demands upon valuable space and attention, but this only emphasises the growing unimportance of this tradition as time went by.
The Society’s biggest line-up appeared, unsurprisingly, in Len Wein’s tenth anniversary spectacular, when twelve of the available seventeen were in on the action, but it’s interesting to note that the other two occasions when an extended line-up was in play were Denny O’Neill’s two efforts, in 1969 and 1970, and this in spite of O’Neill’s obvious discomfort with cosmic stories. O’Neill used eight JSAers in 1969. The following year is a confusing story, as every JSA member except the recently inducted Robin appears at JSA HQ in the first half, including the previously unseen Earth-2 Batman, but by my measure of only accepting those who play some active part in this, I count an active line-up totalling ten.
At the opposite extreme, the Society’s lowest representation was three members, ironically in 1973, the year after their largest roster. This was Len Wein’s Earth-X story, with six ‘new’ heroes to introduce and form the centre of the story. If, after handling 33 heroes the previous year, Wein felt the need for a much-less cluttered story, it’s hard not to be sympathetic.
In general, however, the Justice Society would bring four to six members to each meeting, although as the years wound on, even a sextet was too many.
Returning to that first line-up, I commented that the Society’s ‘lot’ selected six of the eight founding members, plus Black Canary, who had never worked with Dr Fate or Hourman before. Before she left for Earth-1, the Canary did get the chance to work with not only the two other founders, Sandman and The Spectre, but also Wildcat. Discounting Superman and Batman as honorary members only, the only JSAers the Canary didn’t work alongside were Wonder Woman and Mr Terrific.
And given that, between them, founder members The Atom, Sandman and Spectre mustered only ten appearances in total, it’s not surprising that this was the highest concentration of founders in the series.
At the opposite extreme, in recognition of the importance of the founding eight (ok, of five of them), or at least their greater popularity, there was only one adventure not to feature any founding members at all, Gerry Conway’s first effort in 1978, involving the heroes of the past, Indeed, only two of the four JSAers in action that year had even been Golden Age members, with the senior role undertaken by Dr. Mid-Nite.
Returning to the subject of paired appearances, it’s nice to note that the traditional friendship between Flashes and Green Lanterns was maintained by the JSA originals appearing together no less than seven times, and that on five of those occasions, Hawkman was also on board. At the opposite end of the scale, Mr Terrific and Wildcat, who guested in the same issue of All-Star, shared two of their four appearances in the same line-up.
And Doctor Fate and Hourman, who were linked in two try-out editions of Showcase, worked together four times in the first decade, but then clearly had a falling-out and didn’t appear together once after that.
Given that the Spectre’s Silver Age revival in Showcase was, apparently, intended to be a team-up with Dr Mid-Nite, it’s nice to see this echoed in phantom form by the Doc being present for two the the Ghostly Guardian’s appearances.
At this remove, there’s no practical way of determining how the Justice Society members were chosen for each story, except for the Fox/Schwartz era, when such tales were new, fresh and exciting, and the appeal of nostalgia was cleverly deployed. Once this period is gone, there seems to be no pattern: Doctor Fate was clearly incredibly popular, but no-one wanted to use The Atom or (except Len Wein) The Sandman.
But what explains the oddity of the 1977 JSA line-up of Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Doctor Fate and Power Girl being repeated in its entirety only two years later, with the additions of Mr Terrific and the Huntress?
Given the changes in writers, artists and even editors down the years, it’s not as if the John Tracy explanation might apply. For those unfamiliar with Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, John was the middle Tracy son, assigned to Thunderbird 5, the space station. Though in theory he and Alan Tracy alternated duty, month-in, month-out, with John taking over Thunderbird 3 when at home, in practice International Rescue’s adventures only ever took place when John was on duty upstairs.
Indeed, John Tracy only ever played an active part in one of Thunderbirds’ 32 episodes, and that as auxiliary crew on Thunderbird 2. And the reason for that was that, every time someone suggested spinning things a little to involve John, Anderson would veto it, saying to leave him up in Thunderbird 5, because he was boring!
The Spectre was too powerful to be a team-player, the non-super-powered heroes perhaps too weak (but Batman?) and The Sandman maybe stood out too much for dressing formally when everyone else was in their underwear. But such patterns as there appear to be have little by way of conscious logic to explain them. The Justice Society of America lived by such things for a quarter century.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: a temporary round-up


So far, I’ve reviewed twenty of the twenty-three annual team-ups between the Justice League and the Justice Society, published between 1963 and 1985. However, until DC get around to publishing Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 7, I’m unable to continue as I do not have access to any of the three remaining stories.
Two of these I read contemporaneously, whilst the final team-up passed me by, being published during and against the background of Crisis on Infinite Earths and, given that it featured the new and much reduced incarnation of the JLA teaming up with Infinity Inc. as much as if not more than the JSA, it was not valid as a team-up in my eyes.
As for those stories I did read, whilst I remember a few things about them, it’s far from enough to allow me to write about them as I’ve been doing this past few months.
The 1983 team-up was actually primarily written by Roy Thomas, and drawn by Chuck Patton. Gerry Conway and Thomas share writing credit on the first part (of two), though Thomas appears as the sole writer of the second part. Being Thomas, the story was full of nostalgic elements and, unsurprisingly, led to a major continuity implant, or retcon as they had by then become to be known.
Thomas reintroduced the evil Earth-1 Johnny Thunder from the 1965 team-up, and the Crime Champions of the 1963 story. Thunder – dressed not in a purple sports jacket but instead in a superhero costume of green and yellow lightning stripes, which was horrifyingly ugly – had once again taken control of the Thunderbolt. He was being attacked by the Crime Champions, who were simultaneously attacking each other, but this was not the focus of the story.
Instead, Thomas addressed himself to the anomalous position of Black Canary, who had transferred from the Justice Society to the Justice League in 1969.
At that time, the JSA were still heroes who had been active in the Forties and who had come out of a dozen years retirement in 1963. A year later, Denny O’Neill introduced the twenty year discrepancy theory, but in 1976, Paul Levitz firmly and permanently anchored the JSA to the Forties. Black Canary was the last JSA member, first appearing in 1948, but even the most generous interpretation of her age would make her about 53 in 1983: a clearly untenable situation when set against her Peter Pan colleagues in the League, and especially her boyfriend, Green Arrow.
Thomas’ solution was to reveal that, instead of being transported to Earth-1 by Superman in 1969, the Canary had barely left her home planet when she started experiencing racking pains, showing that Aquarius’ radiation had doomed her, only slightly more slowly than Larry Lance. He then revealed that, in the early Fifties, Dinah and Larry had had a baby girl, who had had to be put into limbo when she was cursed by the Wizard with the sonic screech the Canary had revealed the moment she set foot on Earth-1.
A power that the adult Canary couldn’t initially control was far beyond the capability of a babe in arms. For everyone’s protection, especially her own, Dinah junior was spirited into limbo by the Thunderbolt, to exist in suspended animation. All memories of her were wiped, but when Dinah senior faced death, she was allowed one last sight of her daughter, who had turned into her spitting image. In order that her daughter could have a life, the Canary had her personality magically transferred into her daughter’s body and stayed there to die, whilst Dinah junior, unaware of her own true nature, went on to Earth-1.
The rest of it, Thunder and the Crime Champions, was just flim-flam, a background against which Thomas could make the retcon, which was the only thing he was really interested in. And, being Roy Thomas, the retcon has to be fantastically convoluted and impossible to take seriously when explaining it to anyone not a total superhero fanatic.
In fact, in his All-Star Companion Volume 3, Thomas actually credits the mother-daughter idea to Marv Wolfman, then the Teen Titans writer. But comparing the respective bodies of work of the two men, my interpretation is that Wolfman may well have come up with the concept, but that the trappings of it are typically Thomas.
With Crisis on Infinite Earths in development, the specifics would not last long. The mother-daughter would be retained once Dinah and Dinah represented different generations rather than different worlds, but in a much more rational and natural fashion.
As for Thunder and the Crime Champions, what little I can recall of the story involves every single element of the 1963 and 1965 team-ups being tossed in the trashcan in favour of blood, violence, darkness and despite to all, to the extent that, eighteen years on, the ‘Bolt’s tabu against killing was overridden. Beastly stuff.
But the tradition reached its absolute nadir the following year, in 1984. In saying so, I mean no disrespect to the work of Kurt Busiek (then still an aspiring writer) and artist Alan Kupperberg, who produced an entertaining, lightweight and strangely charming two-part adventure, a cut above the Conway/Thomas/Patton work of the previous year.
However, that does not excuse or alter the fact that they were asked to do the team-up story as a fill-in. A fill-in. Whilst the regular series writer and artist not only got on with more important things but actually denied their pinch-hitters access to all but a tiny handful of characters.
At the time, Conway was writing the League through a long, ongoing continuity. He was already chafing at the fact that his Justice League stories were continually being affected by the continuity of the members’ own series – such as the suspension of The Flash from JLA duties whilst facing his murder trial – was either not prepared or, to be fair to him, not able to interrupt his overarching story by somehow blending in the JSA.
So Busiek was asked to write the story without anyone involved in Conway’s continuity, relegating the team-up tale to the status of an irrelevant sideshow. He was allowed Superman and Wonder Woman, but to produce a quorum of four, he had to bring in the suspended Flash, plus Supergirl as a guest star. Which meant no more than four JSAers and, without a ‘third force’, the smallest number of participants of the whole series.
As I said, it was a decent, even charming in its way, story, but had it been a masterpiece, the annual tradition had sunk from being a occasion of anticipation to an irritant. It could not continue.
By this time, preparations for Crisis on Infinite Earths were not just well in hand, but issue 1 would appear the month following the end of this team-up. The end of the Multiverse was in sight, and there would be no basis for these stories once the Multiverse died.
The last story was another joint effort between Conway and Thomas. It began in Thomas’ Infinity Inc. (an Earth-2 set series featuring the sons and daughters of the JSA as a sort of Earth-2 Teen Titans) and ended in Conway’s Justice League of America.
Conway had got his way and the Justice League with which we had been so familiar this past quarter century was dead, disbanded and replaced by a dedicated team of full-time members, some veterans, some decidedly unimpressive newbies: the infamous Justice League Detroit. They held up the Justice League end of this three-way, demonstrating beyond all doubt that the team-up was dead.
Even without Crisis, it could not have returned.
Thomas wrote the Infinity, Inc. end, with ‘consultation from Conway and editor Alan Gold’, Conway the League finale, with ‘consultation’ from Thomas. Art on Infinity Inc. was by the young and even blunter Todd MacFarlane.
I never read this and can’t comment, save to say that I’d bought the first year of Infinity, Inc., ten issues of which had been devoted to an origin story involving a clash with the JSA, which had in turn been preceded by a three-part mystery guest stint in a six-part All-Star Squadron story, so yes, this was Thomas at his convoluted worst and I bailed.
When Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 7 is published, I will return to this series and dissect these last three stories in full, but until then, this is your lot. I have one further essay for, surveying the varying popularities of the Justice Society members, but I think we already know who will top that particular poll, don’t we?

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1982


Justice League of America 207, “Crisis Times Three!”/All-Star Squadron 14, “The Mystery Men of October”/Justice League of America 208, “The Bomb-Blast Heard ‘Round the World!”/All-Star Squadron 15, “Master of Worlds and Time!”/Justice League of America 209, “Let Old Acquaintances be Forgot…” Written by Gerry Conway (Justice League of America) and Roy Thomas (All-Star Squadron), art by Don Heck (pencils Justice League of America, inks 209), Adrian Gonzalez (pencils All-Star Squadron), Romeo Tanghal (inks JLA 207), Sal Trapani (inks JLA 208), Jerry Ordway (inks All-Star Squadron) edited by Len Wein.

Another year has come round and the Justice Society prepare to transport to Earth-1. Doctor Fate, Green Lantern, Starman, Power Girl and Huntress arrive first and go on ahead of their team-mates. But on the Justice League satellite, it is the Earth-3 Crime Syndicate who appear and attack Superman, Hawkman, Aquaman, Firestorm and Zatanna.
The battle is brief and the victorious Syndicate steal a rocket to descend to Earth-1. They discuss evening the score with Per Degaton, an Earth-2 foe of the JSA.
Who, meanwhile, have found themselves in the interdimensional limbo prison the Syndicate have occupied since 1964. The bubble was designed to defeat equivalents of Green Lantern and Superman, but not of Starman or Doctor Fate, whose powers eventually free the JSA. But instead of landing on Earth-1, they find themselves on Earth-Prime, in a New York devastated years ago by some kind of holocaust. Green Lantern’s ring detects the emanations of Degaton.
Back on the satellite, the JLA come to, rescue each other and repair the satellite. Rather than pursue the Syndicate, they transport to Earth-2, to discover what’s happened to the JSA. But their headquarters are in ruins, neglected for years: forty years to be precise. Outside, Earth-2 is ruled by the fascist hand of Degaton: the appearance of the League causes the frightened population to scream for Degaton’s police.
After a brief battle, the victorious JLA decide they must go back to 1942 to find out how this has happened. They arrive at a pristine JSA HQ just as five costumed characters open the door: they are complete strangers to the League but we know them as five members of the war-time All-Star Squadron.
End of Part One


On Earth-2 in 1947, Per Degaton dreams of being an Emperor, ruling a coliseum in which, at his order, the superheroes of the Golden Age battle each other, until his employer, Professor Zee, stumbles into the stadium, shouting to the heroes that Degaton is their enemy: they turn upon him and he wakes up, sweating.
But the dreams has unlocked Degaton’s memories of his previous battles against the JSA, battles lost in time-loops that left them as never-happening. Determined not to fail a third time, Degaton arrives at Zee’s laboratory, where his Time Machine is (again) ready for its maiden journey. Shooting, and this time killing, the Professor, Degaton prepares carefully for conquest.
He travels forward to 1982, via a slight sideways lurch caused by a timestorm, which takes him to Earth-Prime, where superheroes are only comic book characters. Returning to the timestream, Degaton discovers the timestorm pulling him into limbo, to the Crime Syndicate’s prison.
Anticipating an attack, Degaton protects himself then offers the Syndicate a deal: do his tasks and he will release them. The Syndicate agree, and Degaton transports everyone to Earth-2 in October 1962 – the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
By having the Syndicate steal the Russian missiles from Cuba, Kruschev cannot remove them in accordance with President Kennedy’s ultimatum, nor does the young statesman believe the Russian Premier’s implausible tale of flying strangers in colourful costumes taking the missiles away.
Degaton tows the missiles away with the Time Machine, intent on threatening Earth-2 with them. The Syndicate try to attack him but he is once again prepared, and returns them to their limbo prison.
Meanwhile, on Earth-2 in 1942, three members of the All-Star Squadron, Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle and the new Firebrand, get back to New York from San Francisco just in time to tackle Nuclear the Magnetic Marauder. With the aid of fellow members Robotman and Commander Steel,  Nuclear is overcome.
The quintet decide to hold an informal meeting. With the JSA enlisted in the Services as civilians, Hawkman has authorised them to use JSA HQ, but as Belle unlocks the door, they find five costumed strangers inside.
End of Part Two


Naturally, the two sides believe each other are interlopers/enemies and fight, until Superman silences everyone with a shout. Calmed down, explanations are exchanged.
Once everyone is up to date, a phone call summons the Squadron to meet President Roosevelt at the White House. The League accompany them, and FDR takes the idea of them being from a parallel Earth in his stride: there are more important things to worry about. Using future technology, Degaton issues a video ultimatum to all the world leaders, warning them that he has the already-sought nuclear weapons and will demonstrate one the following day.
History is supposed to be unchangeable, and the League know Degaton didn’t win in 1942 on Earth-2. But given the presence of the timestorm, maybe he could…
Meanwhile, the JSA are touring the devastation of Earth-Prime New York, dealing with its deformed and animalistic inhabitants, until they find one old enough to tell them what happened in October 1962, and how the fearful Kennedy finally pushed the button, leading to nuclear destruction. Doctor Fate correctly deduces that somehow Degaton was behind the missing missiles.
Back on Earth-2 in 1942, the heroes convene at Degaton’s observation point, above the Atlantic Ocean. A nuclear missile is detonated and the 1942 heroes are astounded at its unprecedented force. Suddenly, a bubble appears in the middle of the blast zone, containing the JSAers en route from Earth-Prime 1982. The heroes rescue them, the Squadroneers seeing some familiar, if aged faces.
Degaton, in his bunker, is content if not pleased. The bomb did not destroy the heroes but it has demonstrated his power to the World Governments, who will have to surrender to him. Then he will crush the hated Squadron.
End of Part Three


Fifteen heroes from two worlds and different times gather and trade explanations, then return to the White House in time for Degaton’s second broadcast, in which he demands that all the world’s governments cede complete authority to him. Given the destruction Degaton can rain on America, Roosevelt decides that, unless the heroes can prove to him that all the missiles are gone, he will resign the Presidency to Degaton.
The heroes split up (at last). Superman, Doctor Fate and Robotman track down Degaton’s space satellite only to find Ultraman defending it, the Syndicate having apparently agreed to assist him again. Despite Ultraman using Kryptonite (which enhances his powers) the trio render him unconscious and out of the fight.
In the Pacific, near Japan, Aquaman, Starman and Liberty Belle destroy three missiles in a hidden base of Degaton’s, despite opposition from Superwoman.
In the midwest, Hawkman, the Huntress and Johnny Quick find three more disguised as grain solos and dismantle these whilst battling Power Ring.
Degaton fulminates against his three failed minions, but he still has the most impregnable base of all, and if he can’t conquer Earth-2, he will destroy all of them.
End of Part Four.


Nine successful heroes return to the White House to remind each other of the stakes in play, not only here but on Eath-Prime. Two teams are still out there.
In Geneva, Firestorm, Power Girl and Commander Steel enter neutral territory to neutralise Degaton’s next little missile nest, succeeding despite the efforts of the Syndicate’s Johnny Quick.
With all twenty-seven rockets now accounted for, everything turns on Degaton’s next move. His headquarters has been identified, in a daring location very near Washington, but the final team is currently working on saving Earth-Prime, and the risk of new paradoxes is very high…
What Zatanna, Green Lantern and Firebrand have done is to go to the JSA’s scientist friends, Professors Everson and Zee, who are working on trying to build the Time Machine. Zee is astonished to hear about the bumbling, ineffectual Degaton (who has not reported for work today).  Between them, Green Lantern and Zatanna complete the machine and use it to travel ahead to 1962, and cross to Cuba on Earth-Prime. They are there to see the sky tear open and the Syndicate emerge.
But back on Earth-2 in 1942, the remaining heroes converge on Degaton’s secret base, on the banks of the Potomac, underneath the construction work going into building the future Pentagon. They not only take out the would-be dictator, whose men surrender abjectly, but the Huntress prevents Owlman from escaping too.
Then, on Earth-Prime, the last trio battle the Syndicate and defeat them. Degaton tries to run, to get back to 1947 in the Time Machine but Zatanna halts him. Whilst the others send the Syndicate back to their limbo, the smashing of Degaton’s plans has the same effect it always does. History reverts, everyone returns to their rightful place in time and space, all memory of the incident fading as it is, once more, contained within a timeloop.
The All-Star Squadron return to New York. Degaton goes back to work in Zee’s lab with the same words as always, the Syndicate in their timeless limbo, and the JSA turn up on the satellite for the annual get-together. Only Power Girl seems disturbed by anything, enough to let Firestorm get his arms round her at last.
* * * * *
Surprisingly, for the longest team-up story ever, involving five issues, two series, two creative teams, three super-hero teams, three time-eras, three parallel Earths, a reference to an earlier team-up and enough real and counterfactual history to stuff a chicken with, this story is actually surprisingly sensible and straightforward. It is, of course, another Degaton story, to add to the one from All-Star Comics 35, and the one Thomas had already written for All-Star Squadron 1-3, which means that any literate comics reader knew how it would end from the moment Degaton’s name was mentioned by the Crime Syndicate.
I’m not going to pick this effort apart to the extent I have been doing in respect of recent stories, because there is less to complain about. Despite the fact that neither Gerry Conway nor Roy Thomas, for different reasons, impress me as writers, and despite the fact that, without ragging on him in the unmerciful way so many did, I don’t like Don Heck’s art. Despite the fact that, after complaining about the growing elephantiasis of the recent three-parters, this is actually a five part story. Because, for once, the writers have given themselves an adventure of genuinely epic proportions, and even though the latter part is just a series of missions intended to keep all the fifteen heroes visible, this time the space is a necessary element of the story’s breadth.
What I will say is that, yet again, the Justice Society play the minor role in all of this. When these team-ups began, this was due to the fact that, as guests, the JSA were not allowed to outshine the stars, but once the team-up was opened to a ‘third force’, gradually the Society slid into becoming the junior members of any such threeway. They became staid, old hat, the emphasis now shifting to the newbies.
This is further emphasised in 1982 by the fact that the ‘third force’ not only has its own series, but that the story involves that series in a crossover. The tone is struck by the story having twin opening episodes, one in each series, showing how the League and the Squadron come to their first meeting from both directions.
The Society, who lack a series base of their own, are second banana in both introductions, a point emphasised subsequently by having the majority of the story based in 1942 on Earth-2, the Squadron’s home turf. The JSA start off by being diverted into imprisonment, from where they go on to discover the devastation that’s affected Earth-Prime, but their adventures are not merely a sideshow, a parallel track, but a wholly uninteresting and uninvolving one: they fight deformed humans and killer vegetation but it has no ultimate purpose other than to spin wheels until they can be integrated into the main story, which is not until three issues of five have gone by.
Another of the key instances affecting the later team-ups  is the limited number of slots available for the JSA, and the consequent rigidity of roles. Involving a ‘third force’ led to the situation where numbers had to be rationed (especially as the changing mores of the superhero comic demanded more emphasis on character rather than plot, a development welcomed by the inrush of fans-turned-writers and -artists, who had no concept of the strict professionalism of their forerunners.)
What was worse was the continuing insistence on exact matches, so that there had to be the same number of Leaguers and Squadroneers as there were JSAers, an artificial, rigid structure that added to the sense of formularisation.
This reaches a kind of nadir here when the heroes break up into teams. Five from each team dictates five missions, each with an exact spread of teams, further compounded by there being exactly five Crime Syndicate members, spawning one villain per mission. The natural fluidity of life is dispensed with,and it’s impossible not to envision the authors ticking boxes.
And again, how do you choose teams? What, for instance, was the rationale for putting both magic-wielders together and pairing them with the incongruous Firebrand? Is there an internal logic to this or is it all done by the equivalent of dealing out Happy Families cards?
Having raised that, I have nothing else to say than to applaud Conway and Thomas on a decent story, done decently, though I can’t pretend that I warm to this adventure as I do to those of Fox and Wein, which fill my criteria for the kind of League/Society team-up I want to read. I have problems with the writings of each, but Conway’s laziness in construction is barely in evidence, whilst Thomas’s frequently sterile obsession with past continuity is, for once, put almost wholly to the service of the story instead of being allowed to accumulate in lumps, tripping up everyone all over the place.
In terms of post-Crisis viability, the main story could be almost wholly retained as a purely time-travel adventure, although the Earth-Prime element would have to either be deleted or else in some way absorbed into the single timestream. And if it were not, where would the Justice Society fit in?

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1981


Justice League of America 195, “Targets on Two Worlds”/Justice League of America 196, “Countdown to Crisis!”/Justice League of America 197, “Crisis in Limbo!” Written by Gerry Conway, art by George Perez (pencils 195-196), Keith Pollard and George Perez (pencils 197), John Beatty (inks 195) and Romeo Tanghal (inks 196-197), edited by Len Wein.


On Earth-2, Hawkman’s former foe, Jonathan Cheval, formerly the supervillain The Monocle, has become very wealthy using his command of laser technology for commercial ends, but misses the excitement of his former life. A mysterious figure offers him the chance to change that.
On Earth-1, Batman’s old enemy the Signalman is assisted to escape from prison hospital by Killer Frost, an enemy of Firestorm.
On Earth-2, the Psycho-Pirate is aided in escaping prison by the Monocle.
On Earth-1, a group of wharf rats intent on rape are ripped apart by the Cheetah, Wonder Woman’s foe. Killer Frost and Signalman take her away to safety.
On Earth-2, the Flash’s old foe, Rag Doll, is trapped during a bank robbery but gets free with the aid of Monocle and the Psycho-Pirate.
Back on Earth-1, Killer Frost’s group persuades Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, an Atom villain, to come out of retirement.
Meanwhile on Earth-2 again, Starman’s old foe the Mist (who now turns intangible instead of merely invisible), kills two former henchmen before being recruited by a mysterious figure.
We return to Earth-1 where Killer Frost leads her group to a secret lab to meet her recruiter, The Brain Wave of Earth-2 (again using the obligatory big-muscled illusory body introduced in All-Star 58). He in turn uses a dimensional transporter to take them to a Nepal hideout, the Sinister Citadel, where they meet their Earth-2 equivalents.
There they meet their leader, the Ultra-Humanite, an old Superman enemy. The Humanite is a brilliant scientist whose MO was to transplant his brain from body to body. Having tired of bodies inferior to his brain, the Humanite has now transplanted himself into the body of a massive, specially mutated albino gorilla.
He has gathered his group to execute a subtle plan. There is a Cosmic Balance across the Multiverse (possibly the first in-comic use of the term) which is, in theory, upset by super-heroes. Only by a careful juggling of heroes is the balance maintained. The Ultra-Humanite has determined that if ten specific heroes from Earths 1 and 2 are removed from the Multiverse, then the Cosmic Balance will compensate by removing every hero from either Earth-1 or Earth-2.
His chosen ten each has a ‘counterpart’ in either the Justice League or Society: hence their selection. Many of these ‘counterparts’ are not selected by any equivalency but rather long-standing enmity, such as those mentioned above (though the Mist is paired with Black Canary, on the strength of one meeting in Brave & Bold 61, in 1966). In addition, the villains must target Hourman and Johnny Thunder (?!).
Meanwhile, on the Justice League satellite, this year’s meeting with the Justice Society has passed off without a hitch for the first time. Everyone has gone home, leaving Black Canary on Monitor Duty. Last to leave is Green Arrow, no longer a Leaguer, requiring a temporary clearance code. Distracted by her memories, Black Canary overlooks clearing it, allowing the Mist to access the satellite and quickly beat her.
Back to Earth-2 where Hawkman, flying home, is ambushed by the Monocole, whilst on Earth-1, Wonder Woman is taken out by the Cheetah.
Reports of these first three successes are relayed back to the Sinister Citadel on Earth-2, where the Ultra-Humanite reveals that it is not a question of pot luck as to which Earth has it’s heroes eliminated, but that he knows very well where it will happen: information he must conceal from his colleagues.
End of Part 1.

After a brief recap, in which the Ultra-Humanite reveals that it is Earth-2 where the heroes will be eliminated, the action continues.
On Earth-2, the Psycho-Pirate takes out Hourman, whilst on Earth-1, the Signalman’s reappearance does for Batman. Rag Doll, on Earth-2, surprises its Flash, whilst the Floronic Man does for the Atom in Earth-1’s Ivy Town. Brain Wave captures both Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt during a shopping expedition set up by the latter in the hope of getting the former to change his clothes, Killer Frost drops a ceiling on Firestorm and lastly on Earth-2, the Ultra-Humanite confronts the officially-retired original Superman and overcomes him with the use of Green Kryptonite.
All ten heroes are brought to the Sinister Citadel, where they are placed into chambers in the Humanite’s Cosmic-Fuge. Cheetah wants to kill them all, but the Cosmic Equation requires that they be alive when they arrive in limbo. The machine is set in motion, gathers speed and disappears, leaving the villains victorious.
End of Part 2.


Nothing happens. The villains turn on the Ultra-Humanite in frustration, but probability is apparently like a sea, cresting in waves: the next wavecrest sees all reality wobble before settling into place, with Earth-2 changed.
The Earth-1 quartet, immediately suspicious of their colleagues’ jubilation, realise that they have been duped into helping without any prospect of success. They set out to attack, but are teleported back to Earth-1, and stranded.
Determined on revenge, the four villains find and set upon Green Lantern. They capture him and use him to teleport up to the Justice League satellite. After knocking out Elongated Man, who has turned up to replace Black Canary on Monitor duty, they use the Transmatter Cube to further their aims.
Meanwhile, on Earth-2, the other six villains are enjoying themselves robbing, plundering and looting without hindrance, and in the case of the Brain Wave, seizing a beautiful red-headed actress and impliedly raping her serially. The Ultra-Humanite has his sights fixed higher, in coercing the United Nations into ceding ultimate power to him.
But the Earth-1 villains have not returned to Earth-2. Instead, they’ve adjusted the Transmatter Cube to send them into Limbo, to the Cosmic-Fuge. Though it resists their efforts, eventually Cheetah’s fury succeeds in cracking it open. Of course, the moment the heroes are free, they hammer the villains, who obviously hadn’t thought that far ahead.
Back on Earth-2, the villains break off their robbing, and Brain Wave temporarily puts his pants back on, to meet again at the Sinister Citadel. No-one’s happy at the summons, everybody suspects everyone else of some dire plan to wipe out all their rivals (it would appear that the cleansing of Earth-2 has also extended to every other villain apart from the successful six). However, it’s the heroes who have set this up, and they steam-roller the bad guys this time.
One by one, each is forced into the energy vortex that leads into limbo, and once they’re all gone, Superman breaks the connection, trapping all the bad guys there, with all sorts of recriminations. As for Earth-2, reality reasserts itself much more smoothly than before: the villains are not missed in anything like the same way as the heroes!
* * * * *
The biggest distinction held by the latest Justice League/Justice Society team-up is that it’s not really a story about either superhero team, but rather a story told almost entirely from the point of view of the supervillains, several of whom are real oldies, revived for the first time in years. Nor is the story about any kind of team-up, except that of the villains, who do not even have a name for their combination: this years team-up actually takes place offstage and is completely uneventful.
On the one hand, Conway deserves credit for a new technical angle, a different angle of approach. On the other, there’s the perennial question of whether this is apt for this particular event, which is the annual guest slot of the Justice Society of America.
Let’s look at the structure of the story. We have a long introduction (seventeen out of twenty-five pages) gathering the villains and setting up the plot, followed by eight pages to beat the first three heroes. After two pages of recap, the rest of part two is spent knocking over the remaining seven heroes, with less than a page devoted to thrusting them into limbo. The final part is slightly more complicated: six pages for the plot to work, two for the Earth-1 villains to swear vengeance and three for them to take down GL and Elongated Man (current score, after sixty-three of seventy-nine pages overall, Heroes 0 Villains 12). There follows two-and-a-half pages of the Earth-2 villains on Earth-2, five-and-a-half in limbo with everyone else, and seven pages of the JLA/JSA wiping the floor on Earth-2 (including one panel of reversing the effects of the scheme). Oh, and a one page epilogue.
It’s all linear, no cutting from scene to scene, just a procession of, firstly, recruiting ten villains, then taking down ten heroes, one after another. It takes two-thirds of this tale just to get to the point of it, and then it’s actually the disgruntled villains who save the day, not the heroes.
In what way therefore is this story about its featured guests, the Justice Society of America? Obviously, it’s not. The best that can be said about the presence of five JSAers is that it’s a justification for Conway to revive out of the Golden Age such figures as the Ultra-Humanite, the Monocle and Rag Doll (and on the Earth-1 side, for good measure, the long forgotten Signalman).
And the Justice Society, as such, was still in comic book limbo. Roy Thomas, a transplantee from Marvel, had conceived All Star Squadron, an Earth-2 based series set at the beginning of America’s involvement in World War 2, using Golden Age characters, including the JSA in their youth, but his self-set ground rules excluded the actual Justice Society from appearing for a very long time.
Things were very different from how they had been, almost two decades before. The Golden Age revival was a thrill, an avenue into a strange kind of nostalgia: nostalgia not for something we remembered but rather for what the vast majority of us had never known. The Justice Society were strange characters, vivid and fully-formed, yet wholly unknown, with more of them appearing every year. They came with histories attached, careers of which we knew nothing, yet which had built them.
By 1981, those mysteries were long gone. This was the eighteenth time the JSA had teamed up with the JLA, and we’d seen them all, and knew them all and were no longer in search of any bright glimpse which might show us something unsuspected. The team-ups were getting longer, with a form of elephantiasis born of the slowly deteriorating ability of scripters to write a concise, well-plotted story. Whatever was ‘special’ about a team-up had now to be imported by the reader. It could no longer be relied upon to be created by writer and artist.
Whilst there’s nothing to suggest it was the story that brought this about, look at the credits. McLaughlin has gone as inker, and the pages look cleaner and less dark, but there are two changes to the credits in this three-parter alone: inker John Beatty (who would ink Marvel’s Secret Wars) replaced by Perez’s Teen Titans partner Romeo Tanghal after the first issue, and Perez being joined as co-artist by Keith Pollard for the last issue.
The story itself falls short in many respects, little shoddinesses, lazy logic that undercut the parameters Conway has chosen. Like other three-parters before it, the length is dictated only by the tedious business of dragging everyone in one-by-one, whilst its basic notion – of the Cosmic Balance and how it can be manipulated – is unsustainable nonsense, to be glossed over rapidly given that a moment’s stop and a single “but…” will cause it to collapse.
To play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, it must be remembered what kind of comics industry these stories were created in. There were no royalties, far from it, and artists were king. Scripters got a flat, not altogether generous page rate, and needed to be writing three series a month to live in New York City. Conway was no worse than many of his contemporaries, though to my eye certainly not better than them, but where I’ve picked out flaws in his plots, holes in his stories, tendencies to  gloss over ideas rather than think them through, perhaps this was out of necessity at least as much as carelessness: only a certain amount of time was possible for each script if the rent were to be paid.
I’m particularly disappointed by the notion herein that the villains are chosen as ‘counterparts’ to the nominated heroes, an idea that is so preposterous that even the Ultra-Humanite backtracks on it the moment he says it (so why say it at all? Why not use an appropriate word instead?)
What he means is that the villains are long term foes of the heroes, but even then Conway can’t be consistent. In most cases, it’s a proper assessment, but Conway can’t keep it up. The second Psycho-Pirate is matched up to Hourman on the strength of having first appeared fighting the Man of the Hour (and good old Doctor Fate), but the Brain Wave only ever fought the Justice Society en masse, so in what sense is he a ‘counterpart’ of Johnny Thunder?
But the worst example has to be that of the Mist, who is a genuine long-term villain for Starman, but who is paired up with Black Canary on the strength of a single fight against her and Starman in an issue of Brave & Bold fifteen years earlier.
You’ll have noticed in the synopsis a somewhat heavy-handed reference to the Brain Wave’s use of his unopposed time. Though it’s never actually stated as such, no effort is made to conceal that the ugly little runt, hiding behind his mentally projected big hunky illusion, spends all his time raping his terrified red-headed actress.
Raping. I’ll say it again, bluntly, because DC sure as hell won’t (not that the Comics Code Authority would have let them if they’d had an ounce of honesty). But they throw it in your face. Bizarrely, this was a historical phenomenon: suddenly you couldn’t move in mainstream comics without unsubtle, barely veiled incidences of rape: fucking hell, they even sneaked into one of Marvel’s one page Hostess Twinkies ads.
I mean, we know that it takes a pretty screwed up mind to spend all your time writing these power-trip fantasies, and if we’re being honest it speaks a lot about those of us who read them (like many such, I lost my father at an early age, which accentuates the appeal of powerful, in control, male figures). But suddenly the adolescent minds were discovering sex in the most juvenile manner.
It wasn’t entirely new: at Marvel, Red Sonja fairly screamed Rape Fantasy (none shall possess me save that he has defeated me in battle. That can’t come from a healthy mind), but suddenly, at the turn of the Eighties, it was busting out all over the mainstream, and the fanboys weren’t raising any objections at all.
It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth (boy, could that sentence be misinterpreted!). Fortunately, the fad never returned to the annual team-up.
Pretty clearly, this story depends upon having two different Earths and is thus unfeasible in the post-Crisis Universe.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1980


Justice League of America 183, “Crisis on New Genesis, or Where have all the New Gods Gone?”/Justice League of America 184, “Crisis between Two Earths, or Apokalips Now!”/Justice League of America 185, “Crisis on Apokalips, or Darkseid Rising!” Written by Gerry Conway, art by Dick Dillin (pencils 183), George Perez (pencils 185-185) and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Len Wein.


As a variation on their annual get-together, the Justice League and Justice Society decide to hold meetings on both planets, with four members of each team crossing over to the other Earth. These are Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and Firestorm of the League, and Doctor Fate, Power Girl, The Huntress and Wonder Woman of the Society.
However, all eight find themselves together on New Genesis, the home of the New Gods. Only Superman has been here before, but whilst he explains things to the rest – Wonder Woman is very aggressive about the idea of ‘New’ Gods – the headstrong Firestorm flies off to explore and encounters the feral Orion in his Apokoliptian form.
The heroes come to the rescue, overcoming Orion, only to be confronted by a group led by Metron, including Mr Miracle, Big Barda and Oberon. They explain that Apokalips, aided by the Earth-2 Injustice Society, has kidnapped the entire population of New Genesis (saving the sextet who were on a mission in space) and turned them into mindless slaves. Metron had overriden the Transmatter machines to bring the heroes to their assistance.
The group travels by Boom Tube to Apokalips where, with Metron remaining behind to co-ordinate matters, heroes and Gods split up into four teams.
Batman, Mr Miracle and the Huntress are sent ahead to scout (Miracle recaps that Darkseid himself is dead, killed in the final issue (20) of Return of the New Gods, a revival picking up the numbering of the original Jack Kirby series, also written by Gerry Conway).
Doctor Fate, Green Lantern and Oberon battle their way into the Central Barracks, trying to find prisoners: Green Lantern is shocked at what he finds.
Superman, Big Barda and Wonder Woman force their way into Granny Goodness’s Orphanage.
And at a construction project, Firestorm, Orion and Power Girl find the Injustice Society (here consisting of the Fiddler, the Shade and the Icicle) engaged in bringing Darkseid back to life!
End of part 1.


Orion leads an immediate attack on the Injustice Society. It is the Fiddler’s music that is powering the Recreator, but even after his colleagues are defeated, he is able to use his violin to overcome the heroes, and return to his task.
Underneath Granny Goodness’s Orphanage, the child rescued from her soldiers leads Superman, Wonder Woman and Big Barda to the headquarters of a guerilla army of children, led by Crimson, whose automatic suspicions are quickly overcome by Barda talking to her about concepts totally alien to her: love and trust.
Another of the children, Playto, a ‘multi-cog’ recaps for them Darkseid causing an animate version of himself to appear to the three villains on Earth-2. True to form, the new Injustice Society is already betraying itself until Darkseid overcomes them and bends them to his will. To find out more, the heroes get Crimson to lead them in search of Granny Goodness herself.
Meanwhile, at the Central Barracks, Green Lantern is found making desperate, almost panicky attempts to free Izaya, High-Father, from his chains. His power ring is ineffective but Doctor Fate’s magic releases High-Father, as GL explains how he immediately identified Izaya with his own masters, the Guardians: hence his reaction.
At the Imperial Palace, the team of Batman, the Huntress and Mr Miracle are till working their way in. Miracle gets there first, and is horrified to learn of Darkseid’s full plan: the New Genesisians have been kidnapped to build Darkseid’s Recreation Machine but Darkseid means to do more that return to life: he plans to transfer Apokalips into the Earth-2 Universe, where there are no Old or New Gods to oppose him. And if he does, Earth-2 will be destroyed!
End of Part 2.


Matron, who is monitoring everything, recaps the story so far, but regrets that he cannot intervene personally.
In the Imperial Palace, Darkseid returns in body. He muses upon his brief period spent in ‘death’ and how it weakened him by causing him, however momentarily, to value life. The Injustice Society seek their reward, with the Icicle boasting of how he has captured Orion, Firestorm and Power Girl in a block of ice.
But by laying hands on Darkseid’s own son, the villains are dishonoured: Darkseid uses the Omega Force to transport them to prison, though he leaves Orion in captivity. However, the soldiers who take the block of ice away are ambushed by Batman, the Huntress and Mr Miracle.
On the surface, Doctor Fate, Green Lantern and Oberon are taking Izaya to a destination he seeks. He reveals Darkseid’s full plan to them en route. Whilst Fate and GL battle a squad of Para-Demons, High-Father uses his powers to defend Oberon and himself but collapses, weaker than he had imagined himself to be.
In the Orphanage, Crimson leads Superman, Wonder Woman and Big Barda to Granny Goodness. Granny escapes the first two, but Barda knows the secret passages as well as she does.
Back to the Imperial Palace where the frozen trio have been released. Orion flies off to confront his father, with Firestorm and Power Girl in tow, the others proceed to locate the Injustice Society in their Punishment Block: they need the Fiddler to free all the New Genesisians. Having done so, they lead the New Gods to rescue Izaya and the other battling heroes, who are in danger of being overcome.
Metron decides to interfere at last. Orion confronts Darkseid, though it’s Firestorm who channels his Omega-Force back at the Tyrant of Apokolips. But they are too late: the Recreation Gun fires – yet instead of aiming at Apokolips, the beam targets the Imperial Palace, targetting Darkseid, destroying him again. It is Metron who altered its circuits.
Two planets remain to be rebuilt. But the Justice League and Justice Society are free to go home.
* * * * *
Though it was not apparent at the time,1980 was the year it began to change back for DC, whose confidence and credibility was still in tatters after the 1977 ‘Implosion’. It was not Justice League of America that had anything to do with it, still less the Justice Society, whose series in Adventure ended a month after the previous team-up. Once again, they were dependant upon the annual team-up for any exposure.
For the third time, the annual team-up was expanded to three issues and, for the second time it was a case of bloat. Bloat, and a new formula that, by 1980, had not so much been perfected as ossified: third force, check, very limited number of participants from each team, check (four from each side on this occasion), lumpen story with minimal real plot and lots of undistinguished fighting, check, oh check indeed.
Ross Andru had already moved on as editor, and the post had been inherited by Len Wein, six years after he had left his role as scripter. It wouldn’t usher in a substantial change, not with Conway as scripter, going about things in a slightly mechanical manner, but it would at least relieve the series of the desperate urge to ‘shake things up’ that had led to the previous year’s unfortunate effort.
But the greater change lay in the loss of Dick Dillin, twelve years the Justice League’s penciller. Dillin had made his debut on the first part of the 1968 team-up and his swansong on the series was the first part of this 1980 effort: after drawing two and a half pages of the second part, Dillin died of a heart attack. Excluding reprint issues, he had drawn all but two of the 120 issues (and he had drawn framing sequences for one of those).
With so little of the second part drawn, it was decided that it would not be disrespectful to Dillin to have the entire issue drawn from scratch by new penciller George Perez, with McLaughlin remaining as inker.
Ironically, in the same month as Perez took over Justice League of America, DC published the first issue of a new series also pencilled by Perez, and written by Marv Wolfman. The New Teen Titans, DC’s first success in the fan-market, was to guide the company back to health.
Given that Perez is, and always has been, a very fast, very detailed penciller, whose pages are, if anything, overloaded with information, why does his Justice League look like a cartoon? Unless he was instructed to draw very simplistically, to minimise the transition in art styles between Dillin and himself – which I think unlikely for reasons I will come to shortly – the only possible explanation I can come up with is McLaughlin’s inks.
Compare a page of Justice League of America 184 with a page of the contemporaneous New Teen Titans 1, inked by the much more sympathetic Romeo Tanghal and the difference is amazing. Tanghal is neat and tidy, faithful to the detail, bringing to Perez’s work the crispness of Dick Giordano at his best, but leavened by a subtle softness, a smoothness to the inking line that rounds edges by that slight but visible degree.
Yet Perez doesn’t compromise on his compositions: there’s a potentially stunning page featuring a vertical shot down the centre of a multi-level sinkhole that Dillin would never have attempted, but which looks flat. There is no real sense of depth to the image, as printed. And as Len Wein was instrumental in gradually drawing Perez away from Marvel, it seems highly unlikely he would have been offered the Justice League and then urged to simplify everything.
Yet his very first page, a beautifully composed splash centred upon the re-emergent Darkseid, the heroes are resolutely flat, without shading, or depth, with the simplest of indications of the barest number of muscles, with everything else eliminated and uniformly thick lines: the effect is similar to looking at old adverts for the TV cartoon Super-Friends.
As for the story, Conway should be credited with the first appearance of a story-telling technique that is standard practice nowadays. Like Fox, he breaks his heroes up into teams, obeying the clichéd requirement that each team consist of one Leaguer, one JSAer and one New God (or Oberon). But where Fox and his successors would let scenes play out, showing you the outcome of each team’s mission, Conway constantly cuts from one scene to another, never letting any one group advance too far at any one time.
It’s a more sophisticated technique, and enables the reader to maintain contact with the forward edge of the story throughout it’s development, but even in this early form it triggers my dislike for the latter-day ADD aspect of comics, the idea that if a scene doesn’t change every page, the audience gets bored.
And, to be honest, the plotting is hardly sophisticated. Each segment for each team involves a display of powers, bashing some Apokalips goons at each turn, without making serious progress towards any of the objectives. It’s a very baggy, saggy story with no real idea of how to develop its simple plot.
Along the way, there are improbable scenes that just get in the way. Wonder Woman of Earth-2 goes off on one about Superman calling the New Gods Gods: she only recognises her own pantheon, oh and Him, you know, the biggie, the one you can’t seriously fit into a superhero Universe but also can’t ignore. It’s a valid philosophical point, questioning how and why these other superhuman beings can be validly named as Gods, but unless the entire series is to be dedicated to a complete rendering down of the entirety of Kirby’s Fourth World, it’s an unanswerable question and a roadblock here because, once raised, it has to be forgotten.
Green Lantern’s panic attack at the sight of High-Father in chains is demeaning and ill-explained, but then Conway’s portrayal of his own creation Firestorm as a complete, out-of-control moron is not all that edifying to begin with.
Then there’s Crimson, tomboyish, pre-pubescent guerilla girl, warrior in a hard environment, who does not know anything of love or trust because the horror of Apokalips has denied her any chance to comprehend the concepts and, yes, you’re right, Conway has her bawling like a baby in just three panels. It’s nauseatingly simplistic, unreal and glutinous, but what do you expect? She’s a girl.
But I reserve my greatest contempt for the ending of this horribly naff story. It’s a total deus ex machina: Metron spends all his time telling us that he cannot interfere and then he goes and interferes. And Darkseid gets wiped out in a single panel: Darkseid, whom Conway killed off at the end of Return of the New Gods, whom Conway killed off in Secret Society of Super-Villains, Darkseid who Conway here kills off for the third time, suggesting a certain lack of imagination.
Not only that, but in a way that is getting depressingly familiar, the ending is incredibly perfunctory. Not only does Darkseid get killed off in a single panel, it is not in any way by the hands of Orion, his son, nor does Orion even battle his father (despite having been traumatised the whole three issues by his part in the latter’s last death).
And once Darkseid is gone, the wrap-up consists of three panels, and everyone goes home, leaving a bloody great mess to be sorted out behind them, but not a mess that Conway will have anything to do with.
The problem with this story is that it’s simply a bad story, badly told, in an era of bad stories badly told. The influence of New Teen Titans couldn’t come soon enough. Nor does it feel like a team-up story, like something that requires the Justice Society. Even the notion that Earth-2 is under threat is wholly lacking in logic: Superman is at pains to establish, early on, that New Genesis and Apokalips have no corporeal presence in the Earth-1 Universe, that they exist in an undefined, unexplained elsewhere, yet the plan is to plonk it in the Earth-2 Universe so Darkseid can conquer that instead? That’s complete nonsense.
As I said, by this point the Justice Society were back in comic book limbo, their series cancelled, their access once again this annual tradition. Yet what kind of access was it? Only four members took part, and one of these the near-identical Earth-2 Wonder Woman. There’s the stalwart Doctor Fate, of course, and the two new girls, the Earth-2 Batgirl and Supergirl, and as for the rest a single, Staton-esque panel in the first issue and nothing.
What was the point? Especially as the Justice Society could not simply engage in a battle with their counterparts that was too large for either team to fight alone, but which needed a third set just to bring them to the table. The fun had gone out of things and the series was being done for the sake of it.
At least there would be no real post-Crisis function for this story.

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.