By the light of a Green Flame: All-American Comics


All-American Comics was the flagship publication of the newly-formed All-American Publications, the company founded by M.C (Charley) Gaines in partnership with Detective Comics’ Harry Donenfeld, who put up the capital in return for a 50% silent partnership and a role as Business Manager for Detective’s Business Manager, Jack Leibowitz.
Though Detective was making its waves on the back of its two masked men characters, Superman and Batman, and though Gaines had sought the money to set up his own company because of the success of Donenfeld’s titles, the new series did not at first feature any superheroes. That would not come until issue 16, and when it did the new hero would be All-American‘s mainstay for the rest of its run.
The first issue, from April 1939, is very much a thing from a bygone age. All-American led with Red, White and Blue, three American boys who’d grown up as friends, entered different branches of the services in the war and, thanks to their chivalrous impulses towards a beautiful woman in a tight situation, found themselves transferred as a special unit to G2, America’s secret service. There were Mutt and Jeff reprints, Sunday pages from Bud Fisher’s classic newspaper strip, and the same from Percy Crosby’s highly acclaimed but largely forgotten Skippy. Gene Byrnes’ Reg’lar Fellers was another newspaper strip, one I’d never heard of before, and not hard to understand why.

Hop Harrigan, by Jon L. Blummer (credited as Jon Elby), a future phenomenon as America’s air pilot hero of the airwaves also debuted. Editor Sheldon Mayer contributed his quasi-autobiographical Scribbly, Adventures of a Boy Cartoonist, of which more would come. Adventures in the Unknown, the Mystery Men of Mars, by Carl Claudy, started off like the crassest and stupidest of SF. Edwin Alger’s Ben Webster started like a continuation of an ongoing series, which it was, a pretty bog standard juvenile adventure newspaper strip.
Harry Lampert, of The Flash fame, produced Spot Savage, about a news reporter and there were more from Gene Byrnes and Bud Fisher, half-pagers featuring Daisybelle and Cicero’s Cat, respectively, which appeared as ‘header’ series on the newspaper Sunday pages. Tippie, by Edwina, was a silent strip about a dog. Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Folks was yet another reprinted Sunday strip, as was George Storm’s Bobby Thatcher, though that strip had been defunct two years when All-American 1 came out. Lastly, there was Wiley of West Point, by Lieut. Richard Rick.
It’s hardly an impressive line-up. Superman had been in existence since April 1938, and Batman was brand new. All-American offered very little new material and was overloaded with newspaper strip reprints of varying quality, making it almost a premature throwback to the very first comic books of the early part of the decade. Mutt and Jeff is legendary, but it’s humour is tilted to the age, Skippy is more of a cult than anything else, and Scribbly has potential it certainly doesn’t use in issue 1.

This is an eighty year old comic book with an amateurish logo. And it looks it.
Weirdly enough, Red Dugan developed ‘mental telepathy’ in issue 2, which was an altogether cheaper issue, with limited colouring of the kind you used to get in the Victor and the Hornet in Britain in the Sixties. And in issue 3, Scribbly Jibbet met Huey Hunkel and, what’s more important, his Ma, Ma Hunkel. And there was a very familiar opening line to Huey’s Great American Novel (5 pages with every other word crossed out because Huey kept thinking of a better one). It was a dark and stormy night. You just know someone’s going to use that!
The first addition to the line-up was an adaptation of the renowned play starring Fredric March, The American Way, a patriotic play about German immigrants learning to be American. The title also added Popsicle Pete, the Typical American Boy (have you noticed something of a theme developing around here?), though that was based on a real contest winner from the Popsicle Company.
So far, with the exception of Scribbly, so not much, but the first quasi-superhero hit the front cover on issue 8, introducing Gary Concord, the Ultra-Man. Concord, who took over the lead slot from Red, White and Blue, is the High Moderator of America in 2239 but to begin with he had to play second fiddle to the life story of his father, a 20th century worker for peace carried into the future in suspended animation. Spot Savage dropped out, unnoticed. And to keep pace with what was going on around, issue 9 carried a full page advert for All American Publications’ new title, Flash Comics. The true superhero was arriving at the company.
It only took until issue 10 before Red, White and Blue were back in pole position, and Gary Concord moved further within. The perpetually stiff Wiley of West Point disappeared without warning after issue 12, in mid-cliffhanger, which also saw the last Toonerville Folks, but the unspeakably worthless Adventures into the Unknown was kept.
All of this, however, was but a generally unmemorable prelude to issue 16. All-American gained a new, and much more professional logo, a new cover character and a new leading feature, the one the comic is known for: enter the Green Lantern.
It’s a well-known story: young railroad engineer Alan Scott (who was originally going to be called Alan Ladd – as is in Al Ladd-in’s lamp – before the famous actor appeared) should have died when a bomb sabotaged the new line he’d built. Instead the mysterious green railroad lantern saved him and granted him power over metals, from the Green Flame of Life. Green Lantern was the creation of artist Martin Nodell (going by Mart Dellon), fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, to whom Nodell was far more generous than Bob Kane had been. GL’s far from green costume only appeared in one panel, but it was the start, of something very much bigger.

The classic history has Scott moving to the city (not named as Gotham until issue 91) and becoming a radio announcer so as to be ahead of breaking news of crimes, but he doesn’t even join Apex Broadcasting until issue 20, and then as a radio engineer, a status he retains for ages. In later issues, Scott would work for Station WCMG (once) before settling at WXYZ, and he would bounce around various roles like Special Events Director, Radio Announcer (see!), Program Director and Presenter.
As an employee of Apex Broadcasting, Scott would work for, alongside and in charge of Irene Miller, his Producer, Broadcaster and eventually secretary until, one day, the young lady with a crush on Green Lantern just drifted away, completely forgotten.
Green Lantern’s immediate success quickly emboldened Mayer to commission another costumed hero, The Atom, in issue 19. Written and drawn interchangeably, I believe, by Ben Flinton and Bill O’Connor, this was 5’1” tall college student Al Pratt, looked down upon for his height, who was trained by boxing trainer Joe Morgan to become a fighter, but instead used his scrapping abilities to become a hero, to rescue his fellow student and would be date, Mary James. Whichever man drew at any time, they were both lousy, as in barely better than I can draw.
Gary Concord’s run came to an end in issue 19, only for Adventures into the Unknown to return after an all-too-short breather. Sadly, Percy Crosby’s Skippy and its header also left the scene, though Bud Fisher and Gene Byrnes hung around. For a short time: Reg’Lar Fellers was the next to depart, leaving its header strip, Daisybelle, behind.
Suddenly, they were everywhere. In issue 20, the Green Lantern’s fame spread as far as Scribbly’s series, prompting Ma Hunkel to put on red longjohns and a saucepan with eyeholes cut out to rescue Dinky Jibbet and Sisty Hunkel as The Red Tornado, the first parody superhero and, beating Wonder Woman by a clear year, the first superheroine. A couple of issues later, the feature was re-titled Scribbly and The Red Tornado. By issue 24, Sisty and Dinky had joined in the fun as the Cyclone Kids. And the Red Tornado’s name kept getting bigger, and Scribbly’s kept getting smaller…

All-American was now accelerating towards its remembered shape. Ben Webster’s stout-hearted adventures came to an end in issue 24, to accommodate the debut of blinded surgeon-turned-superhero, Charles ‘Dr Mid-Nite’ McNider, created by Charles Reizenstein and Stan Aschmeier. He was followed two issues later by Sargon the Sorceror, the work of John B Wentworth and Howard Purcell. This latter made All-American a fully-fledged superhero comic, like Flash Comics. Of the newspaper strips, only Bud Fisher’s work remained, and weirdly some of these were reprints from earlier in the run.
I’ve refrained so far from substantive comment, but I do have a two pennorth to put in about Red, White and Blue. Though it’s supposedly about the three friends, Marine Sergeant Red Dugan, Army Sergeant Whitey Smith and Sailor Blooey Blue, most stories see them operating as a quartet, at first under the orders of, then usually with established G2 agent Doris West. Doris is a beautiful woman, of course, and winds up, in the background, becoming Red’s girlfriend.
There’s a visual dichotomy from the start in that she and Red are drawn realistically, but that Whitey and Blooey are cartoon figures, one big and blonde, the other small and dark. Whitey’s the brawn, Blooey the comic relief: well, both of them are, but he’s the overt one, the put-upon one, the Johnny Thunder.
It’s very noticeable that, as time goes on, Red forgets that Doris is the experienced one who arranged for him to join G2. Increasingly, he starts getting macho on her, leave it to the men, stay at home with your knitting, sneering at her ideas. Thankfully, the series doesn’t: Doris is always right but Red never learns. This really is a boy’s comic, because the some thing goes on in Hop Harrigan, whenever Gerry, aka Geraldine, crops up, no matter how competent she shows herself to be, and Gary Concord was equally snotty about women.
It’s annoying because it shows itself widely across several series. It’s not like Flash Comics, where The Flash and Hawkman have girlfriends who insisting on getting involved in their game, where the misogynist elements are only a reflection of the times, and the attitude of the men is mainly one of humouring. There was a genuine anger, almost a foot-stamping aggression, in Red, White and Blue and the other series at this point.

Doiby

Green Lantern was the title’s flagship character, its cover star and first feature, almost throughout the entire run, though his hold on that role would be shaken as All-American neared the end of its life. By rights, this should have been a top-notch Forties series, but with issue 27, Nodell and Finger permanently crippled the series by introducing a full-time comic relief character in scrappy little taxi-driver Doiby Dickles.
Doiby, who took his name from his trademark derby (or bowler) hat as pronounced in his Brooklyn accent, was a constant drag on the idea of taking Green Lantern seriously. There was some decent amusement to be had from his outlandish speech patterns at the first, but that was forgotten before too long. In issue 35, Doiby was allowed to see Green Lantern without his mask and, being Apex Broadcasting’s official cabbie by then, recognise him as Alan Scott.
On a lighter note, Bill Finger demonstrated a penchant for knocking off crooks in the course of climactic fights, by knocking them off gantries into vats of acid. Everywhere criminals went, they kept vats of acid under gantries. No wonder the Health and Safety Laws had to be toughened up. Even The Atom got in on the act in issue 29, but to be fair he only dropped Nazi saboteurs into molten steel, whilst Red, White and Blue burned their spies to death.
There was a nadir to come, that thankfully passed. Bill Finger left the series at issue 41, with the stories now credited to Mart Nodell (under his real name) and Irwin Hasen. Sadly, the new regime got the idea of putting Doiby Dickles into a Green Lantern costume (greugh! Bad sight!) and calling him Devastatin’ Doiby (come back Bill Finger!)

I said I can draw better than this

Hop Harrigan had early on developed a supporting cast of veteran flier Prop Wash (not a nickname), and big, red-headed mechanic Ikky Tinker, which confused me as I knew the latter as Tank Tinker from the prose stories appearing in All-Star Comics. Now, issue 32 revealed his full name to be His Grace Tutankhamen Anastasius Angustora Ichabod Tinker: you know why he immediately became Tank, but just what was so wrong with Ikky (apart from the obvious)?
Flinton and O’Connor stayed with The Atom until they were drafted, and never returned to comics. Replacements, in the form of Joe Gallagher (art) and Ted Udall (scripts) had to be found. Matters improved, marginally at any rate: at least the Atom’s cape looked like a cape, and not a hand towel. And Al Pratt finally managed to get a date with Mary James! Who started switching, inconsistently, from brunette to blonde and back again.
The War arrived with a vengeance in issue 42. Hop Harrigan had already gone into Air training and we got a piece of utter nonsense masquerading as a Dr Mid-Nite story involving the Germans and a rather more serious, and better story for Sargon the Sorceror, foiling the Japanese.
Continuity was not due to be a thing in comics for nearly twenty years but there were changes galore in Green Lantern over issues 41 to 45. On the other hand, The Red Tornado was consistent: consistently funny, silly and, in issue 45, gloriously metafictional, with Ma Hunkel and the kids getting fed up of the same old malarkey every month and getting Mayer himself to come down and argue with them! Mayer would play about with the strip again, re-imagining its characters in historical times and as funny animals, but always wonderfully.
Enthusiasm for the War led to Hop Harrigan replacing GL on the cover of issue 47, with The Atom sitting out to make room for the Story of Joshua, the Bible tale. Charley Gaines had a thing for educational comics and had started a half-yearly title, Picture Stories from the Bible. The Joshua story probably came from that, but if it was at all representative of Gaines’ new project, then it was a bust in comics terms: undramatic, weak, perfunctory cartooning that was probably much too respectful of its source to be of the least value as entertainment or education.
Just as wartime paper-rationing affected All-Star and the Justice Society, All-American came in for its share of pain from issue 51, reducing from 68 to 60 pages. The drop was quite easily accommodated by taking the comic’s junior feature with it: farewell Sargon the Sorceror.

Two issues later, Alan Scott’s Oath, the one he’s used in every post-Golden Age appearance, was replaced with a new one used in every remaining story in the series, a familiar but incongruous verse beginning “In Brightest Day, in Blackest Night…” It looked so strange coming from the ‘wrong’ GL. It’s recognised that this Oath was composed by future SF legend Alfred Bester, though his name wasn’t credited, not on this or any other Green Lantern story.
Hop Harrigan’s series, now supported by a five days a week radio programme, had always been a more or less realistic air ace adventure, especially when Hop was going through Air Force training. Suddenly, it added a silent pageboy-bobbed young lad called Hippity, who carried a machete and acted daft, and the strip spiralled into idiocy. The annoying thing was that I was sure I recognised Hippity from something else, but I have no idea what. Hippety would eventually disappear in favour of more serious, if still at times fanciful stories, but the little bugger would keep coming back and crashing future episodes every time.
Interestingly enough, Dr Mid-Nite’s adversary in issue 57 went by the name of The Shade. He was no relation to the Flash’s villain of that name in Flash Comics (who was no relation to any version of the character who appeared in that legendary issue, The Flash 121, in 1961).
The further All-American went into 1944, the more noticeable it was that the stories were getting sillier, as if the writers had run out of conviction in what they were doing and could only maintain series by starting to make fun of them. Admittedly, more and more of the better creators had been drafted into the Army now. Paul Reinman was drawing Green Lantern, Sheldon Mayer was getting increasingly metafictional within The Red Tornado, nobody knew from issue to issue what colour Mary James’ hair would be, and that was before she started hiring would-be crooks to unmask the Atom. Red White and Blue got dafter and worse drawn, until everybody, Red Dugan included, looked like cartoons. Suddenly, the three fighting men, and Doris West, were split up into solo stories, told as letters amongst them, which rendered the whole series pointless. It was as if the entire comic was undergoing a nervous breakdown.

Paper rationing had reduced All-American to 52 pages, and bi-monthly publication alternating with Flash Comics. More changes had to be made. The first of these was the cancellation of Scribbly and The Red Tornado after issue 59. Such a shame. It had been All-American’s most consistently entertaining series from day one.
Better was on its way for Green Lantern, at least for the debut, in issue 61, of Solomon Grundy, though it was a shame that this should be one of the relatively few issues on the DVD available only in fiche form. Unfortunately, this was a one-off, with the decline into asininity resuming immediately. The same issue was the last of The Atom’s continuous adventures to be published in All-American. His place was taken by Picture Stories from American History, which was being shared in Sensation Comics and Comics Cavalcade, but he would be back after a nine issue hiatus, for three further stories, the first being as childishly drawn as anything Flinton and O’Connor had ever perpetrated, before going for good.
The intention was cancellation, and replacement in the Justice Society, but this fell foul of a fluke circumstance, and the Mighty Mite would re-emerge in Flash Comics.
The Green Lantern story in issue 64 featured a horse that liked to sit on eggs. The only other place I’ve heard that referred was Alan Plater’s TV serial and novel, Oliver’s Travels. Was this some sort of contemporary gag, an in-joke for 1945? I found a Google link, but the page refused to open, so I remain ignorant.
Wars, however, do not last forever. In issue 66, Red White and Blue were reuniting separated German families whilst Hop Harrigan was still fighting in the Far East. On the other hand, a month later Whitey was still writing fighting letters from Berlin and Hop and Tank were heading home to Hippity (I’d rather have stayed bombing the Japanese).
We’re now at the era of the All-American/Detective Comics split, ended after six months by the merger of the two companies and the dissolution of All-American Publications. Issue 70 saw the old DC logo return to the cover. The increasingly dismal Red White and Blue strip was put out of its misery in issue 72, in favour of The Black Pirate (and his son Justin), transferring over from his old berth in Sensation Comics.
The Atom’s second departure was in favour of The Flash’s Three Dimwits, Winky, Blinky and Noddy in a solo story. The Black Pirate lasted two stories but was soon back on a permanent basis, The Flash turned up in the second Three Dimwits story. And Alan Scott was broadcasting for Station WXYZ in issue 76.
The quality of All-American had now become so poor that a fiche that was next to unreadable was a relief, since it was the best excuse not to read an issue. Was there ever going to be a decent issue again? Only Dr Mid-Nite attempted to offer straight stories any more. Green Lantern’s stock had fallen so far that he was displaced from the cover for two consecutive issues, first by Hop Harrigan, then by Mutt & Jeff, with the latter also displacing his position as lead feature. They were a reprinted newspaper strip, remember? They were the lead.

Sargon the Sorceror

Mutt and Jeff took the cover again, and the lead, in issue 83. Green Lantern dropped Paul Reinman from the art and Doiby from the meat of the story for once and came up with a perfectly decent, neatly drawn tale, and The Black Pirate dropped back in, albeit to meet blue-skinned aliens: sigh, why can’t they get things right? But the same issue had a surprisingly good Hop Harrigan story, the first in months worth reading, as Hop received letters from the past from his mother, and went searching for her in Colombia. There he found that she was long dead, but that he had a sister, who returned with him to America.
The Forties were not a great time for supervillains, unless you were Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. With the exception of that solitary Solomon Grundy tale, Green Lantern had gone without in All-American (his regular villain, The Fool, only ever appeared in GL’s solo title).
Suddenly, the series had a rash of supervillains. ‘Crusher’ Crock, aka The Sportsmaster, the World’s dirtiest sports player, debuted in issue 85, only to die at the end of it: did the editors have no idea? Similarly, The Icicle was killed off in his first story, in issue 90. Don’t worry, both returned from their apparent deaths, The Icicle in issue 92 and The Sportsmaster as The Sportsmaster in issue 98.
More notable, and sensible, was the debut in issue 89 of Green Lantern’s ‘friendly’ enemy, the red-headed Harlequin. Alan Scott was back at the radio station for the first time in ages, as Program Director, with a new secretary, a Miss Maynne (Molly), who rather likes the crimefighter and, after years of being starved of beaus because of her athletic prowess, decided to become a villainess in order to attract Green Lantern’s attention. It was a silly notion, especially as a redhead who looked like that would be fighting them off in droves in real life.
The Harlequin, who made no secret of being in love with Green Lantern and wanting to marry him (this was still years before the Comics Code but even villains couldn’t have sex without a Marriage Licence). She and Molly Maynne made five appearances, including three consecutive ones, in seven issues of All-American only to disappear completely but for two back of the head cameos by Molly thereafter.
One of those stories did not show Green Lantern up in a particularly good light, when he decided to ask Molly out on a date to play on The Harlequin’s jealousy. What effect this might have on the ‘innocent’ Miss Maynne was not in his thinking, the asshole.
The Harlequin’s debut was accompanied by the first appearance by Cotton-Top Katie, a cartoon feature about a young girl with fluffy white hair, and her idiotic classmate the Perfesser. Cotton-Top ran for ten issues and was All-American’s penultimate new feature.
The Harlequin’s streak was brought to an end in issue 96 which introduced Streak the Wonder Dog. Actually, the story was more Streak, assisted by Green Lantern than the other way round, though having Alex Toth on the art made up for a lot. But it was a sign that the Golden Age was entering into its dog days. Where Flash Comics displayed a late burst of strength, its senior was collapsing in upon itself with a whimper.
After 99 issues, and a return bout with girl pirate ‘Jolly’ Roger, Hop Harrigan’s strip came to an abrupt end. It’s replacement was a western series, Johnny Thunder, no relation to the former JSA member with a magic lightning bolt. It was a foreshadowing, a foreshadowing of a future rushing towards All-American’s readership faster than they would have expected.
The comic reached issue 100 under a cover date of August 1948, suggesting it went on sale two months beforehand. Johnny Thunder, a strange mix of sharpshooter and costumed hero rubbed coal dust in his hair to disguise his ‘real’ identity of blond schoolteacher Johnny Tane, the Sheriff’s son. He also took over the cover, denying Green Lantern the landmark that he deserved. The series looked good, because it too was drawn by Alex Toth.
But Johnny was the future. All-American Comics 102 was a fiche copy: Johnny Thunder, Dr Mid-Nite, The Black Pirate, Green Lantern and, for the first and only time, no Mutt & Jeff, and it was over. When issue 103 appeared, a month later, it was as All-American Western Comics. Time was up for Green Lantern and Dr Mid-Nite, except for two more years in the Justice Society and All-Star Comics. The Golden Age was all but done. Westerns, Crime comics, Comic comics, but not superheroes in the way they’d been.

Fifty Years of Imagination


I don’t know the exact date, only that it was a Saturday, in March 1966. So only now can I say, without fear of inaccuracy, that the Fiftieth Anniversary has passed. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the most mind-blowing experience a ten year old boy ever had in reading.

I’ve written about it before, so forgive me for repeating myself, but a lifetime of experience flows on from this one tiny thing. Many are the consequences, including – not entirely fancifully – a marriage.

Fifty years ago, in March 1966, I was living in Brigham Street, Openshaw, in East Manchester, a working class area of terraced streets, between a local park and the Steel Wall, the wall enclosing the vast grounds of the English Steel Corporation. Though my eleventh birthday wouldn’t come until November, some ten weeks past the cut-off point of September 1, my Primary School Headmaster organised for me to sit the last Eleven-Plus exams, allowing me to go on to a Grammar School education that, a year later, would have been swept away by the Comprehensive System.

The Eleven-Plus consisted of half a dozen exams in basic subjects such as Maths and English, held at Varna Street School, a thirty minute walk away from home, and on the far side of Ashton Old Road, the major traffic route nearest to our backwater terrace. At first, my cautious mother escorted me there and back, but by the time of the last exam, on a sunny March Friday afternoon, she had enough confidence in me to trust me to get there and back without being knocked down and killed crossing the Old Road. Her confidence was not misplaced, given that I’ve lasted long enough to type this.

It was Friday afternoon. I was only allowed to cross the Old Road at Zebra crossings, and circumstances dictated that I should cross at the one just below the bridge over the canal branch, and turn right into Victoria Street to get through to the little warren of streets Back o’th’Park.

Our newsagents was on that side of the Old Road, further down, and they had American comics (exclusively DC) in their windows. So, being a dutiful child, I couldn’t go past Victoria Street to look, but I would get round it by carying on down the Old Road to the Zebra just above the Vicarage, and walking back up, past the newsagents window.

I had been reading American comics for, at best, a couple of years before this time. My parents didn’t approve of them, didn’t think they were worth the shilling they’d recently gone up to, but every now and then I was able to talk them into letting me have one, and with a naive cynicism way beyond my years, I figured that completing my first set of Exams was a good opportunity to argue for a reward.

It was no more than a general thought, but when I arrived at the window, it became an urgent and specific desire for Justice League of America 37.

There wasn’t a single Justice League member on the cover. It even boasted, incredulously, that there wasn’t. Instead, it featured five members of the Justice Society of America. I gaped in amazement. I’d never heard of the Justice Society and I seriously wanted to know. And what fuelled that desire was the incredible fact that the JSA had a Flash, Green Lantern and Atom, but they were completely different in costume and, in Green Lantern’s case, hair-colour!

I had to have it. I mentioned it to my mother as soon as I got home, to my father as soon as he got home, and again during the evening, and yet again on Saturday morning, in case they’d forgotten overnight, and one more time for good luck before we set out at 12.30pm to go to Granny and Grandad’s in Droylsden for dinner (this was the proper Northern Dinner: the evening meal was Tea).

And Dad parked round the corner and let me lead him to the newsagents where I pointed out the (thankfully unsold) comic, and we went in and the newsagent got it out of the window for me and I held it in my hands all the way to Droylsden.

I wasn’t allowed to look at it in the car – reading in the car ruined your eyes – and I couldn’t start then because we always arrived at 12.55pm for a one o’clock mealtime, and what with all in all, it was gone two o’clock before I was allowed to leave the table, scoop up my comic and race into the parlour to read it in peace and quiet.

Forgive me again, but I need to relish the memories. First I was introduced to the idea of Earth-2, a separate but parallel Earth, where things were not as they were in our reality, despite its familiarity. The strangeness of the idea, the concept of a place where things were different from how they were around me, took hold of me immediately, and it has been a lifelong fascination. Even before I met them, I fell for the sheer concept of the Justice Society. They were something magical, set against the ‘mundane’ reality of the Justice League that appeared every day, everywhere.

I was immediately hungry to know more, ever more, about these alternate figures, even though at first I could only see Johnny Thunder, the JSA’s equivalent to Snapper Carr as comic relief (as I’ve said before, when mentioning Snapper, don’t ask. DON’T ask.)

But before I even got to see the Justice Society, to see more of those strange Flash, GL, and Atom characters (plus a Hawkman in a cloth hood), we and the story got diverted to Earth-1, and its Johnny Thunder. And the bad Thunder knocked out the good Johnny and took over his Magic Thunderbolt and sent him out to rob a payroll. But The Flash stopped him, our Flash, the one I knew, I mean. So Thunder came up with the most mind-blowing idea of all time.

No matter how often I describe it, I’ve still not to my mind established how awesome what came next was. Nothing I’ve ever read in my life has had a comparable effect upon me. It expanded my mind more than any other thing has ever done, it opened up my imagination to a vastness of possibility.

Because Bad Thunder instructed his Magic Bolt to zip back in time and interfere with the origins of the Justice League, to change history, to undo what had been done and turn the world, the very earth on which we set out feet every day, into something incredibly strange. The very idea that such things could happen, a possibility that had never ever occurred to me beforehand, could have scared me to death. Instead, it encouraged, taught me to dream that things need not be as we see them, that to everything there was always an alternative, that for every path taken there was always a path, multitudes of paths untaken, and worlds that did not exist but which might have, in which we can see ourselves from angles undreamt of.

It was two pages of open-mouthed awe. A stormy night over Central City, a lightning bolt intercepted, Barry Allen goes home, still a slowpoke. Krypton’s unstable uranium core converted to lead, no planetary destruction, no rocket to Earth for baby Kal-El. A blast of yellow radiation intercepted, Abin Sur’s spacecraft undamaged, no power ring for Hal Jordan. A fragment of white dwarf star matter smashed, no discovery of size and weight controls for Ray Palmer. Dr Erdel’s Robot Brain shorts out, the Martian Manhunter is never teleported from Mars.

And, in the re-drawing of a panel drawn by Bob Kane twenty-six years earlier, the first appearance of Batman, the Bolt helps two anonymous thugs beat the crap – and the idea of being a crimefighter  – out of Bruce Wayne.

It was a lesson that, despite its instant impact, took me decades to understand fully. At the time, I just marveled at the way in which an established fictional world had just been turned over. Later, I would see what I had not understood at the time, that had almost certainly never been intended by Messrs Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs: that life itself, the inevitability of everything around us, depends on infinitessimal influences, that everything we are and do could be undone by the most minute of changes, and that it need not be the life-changing moments that need to be changed to change our lives, but the most common, most insignificant that can have the longest shadows.

I used to be married. I don’t talk about it here, because marriage involves two people and I respect her privacy. But it is at least fifty percent true that, if this comic had not been in the newsagents’ window on that day fifty years ago, I would almost certainly never have met her. It’s only fifty percent, because there is a later point which is absolutely crucial to that seemingly trivial chain of events, that depends on my having discovered the Justice Society, and there were other opportunities after Justice League of America 37 where I could have done that, where I would probably – but only probably – been just as fascinated by them.

But maybe not. Those later comics, fantastic though they were on both senses, lacked the scope of this particular issue. Maybe, if my introduction had come a year later, the same sense of mind-expansion may not have followed it, may not have resulted in the same degree of interest, might have meant that that later point was no point at all.

It’s an extreme example, but all of our lives are based in an unending sequence of such things. What we see and do at every moment – which in itself is influenced by what others, endlessly removed from you, have done – shifts your life this way and that. A man living fifty miles away from you oversleeps by five minutes. As a result, leaving for work three minutes later than he might otherwise means that he misses his train. Instead, he drives. The extra car on the road subtly changes traffic patterns. Someone misses a green light, is held up thirty seconds, loses more time on their journey. As a result, they take a short cut to work. By not stopping for a coffee at their usual shop, they don’t end up next to you at the counter. You don’t exchange sarky comments about the service. The meeting that would have led to your marriage, to the birth of your three children, never happens, because you never bump into each other again.

The world is made up of such things. We are all connected because we all affect each other in ways we can barely imagine, in ways most of us would never recognise. Understanding this affects your philosophies of life, your beliefs, your politics.

A comic. In a window, fifty years ago this month just passed. If someone had bought that comic, five minutes before I passed, on the way home from Varna Street, the deliberate long way round, what might those fifty years have been instead?

Nothing is insignificant. Thanks for that comic, Messrs Schwartz, Fox, Sekowsky and Sachs. Fifty years is too little a time to have enjoyed that moment.

Alfred Bester: a Driver of Tigers


I first read Alfred Bester in the early Seventies, as part of that first flush of discovering serious Science Fiction and Fantasy and wanting to absorb as much of it as I could that followed my first reading of The Lord of the Rings. This meant that my first full-length exposure to Bester was his 1975 novel, Extro, which had been published in America as The Computer Connection.
I loved it instantly, for its vigour, its pace and the whirligig of ideas that seemed to fly off every page. It’s still my favourite among his books, though everybody else condemned it as a cheerless and clumsy echo of his work of twenty years earlier, when he wrote the two novels that made him a star of SF, and one of its most influential practitioners. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (which, in an inversion of Extro, was published in Britain under Bester’s chosen title, Tiger! Tiger!) together with the explosive short stories he wrote in that decade are the works for which he will be remembered, and the books for which he was, posthumously, named the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Ninth Grand Master.
Bester’s career in SF was strangely fragmentary, dipping into and out of the field with long gaps during which his writing energies were directed elsewhere. He began appearing in print in 1939, and found a niche at the classic magazine, Astounding, under its legendary editor, John W. Campbell, but drifted away in 1942 to write comics for National/DC. His hand has not been identified in writing any specific story, but he is credited with writing the classic “In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night…” oath, later adopted in the Silver Age by the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, as well as creating Vandal Savage, a villain who has only gotten more prominent down the decades.
The influence of his actress wife, Rolly, drew Bester into radio scripting and later on, television scripting.
Bester first came back to SF in 1950, to begin his classic period. He returned to Astounding but only for a few months, breaking away from Campbell after the latter adopted Dianetics, the forerunner of Scientology. Instead, Bester struck up a solid relationship with Horace Gold, at Galaxy, which would be his main home for the rest of the decade.
These were the years of his two great novels (divided by a non-SF novel set in the world of television, behind the scenes, which had all the energy and drama and obsessives, but which was overlooked by the mainstream). The second of these was mainly written in England and Rome, the Besters having travelled to Europe on the proceeds of a film option for that non-SF novel, but it was also the catalyst for Bester’s second withdrawal. Having sold a number of non-fiction pieces about Europe to the prestigious Holiday magazine, Bester started getting commissions that reduced his SF output until, by 1959, he had ceased publishing.
A second spell in television was followed by a handful of SF stories in the early Sixties, then Bester was gone again, appointed Senior Editor at Holiday until the magazine folded in 1971. Bester returned to the field again in 1972, writing a further three novels, despite beginning to suffer from eyesight problems. None of his work at this time achieved either critical or commercial success, and whilst I still cherish Extro, and enthusiastically welcomed the two later books, I was not impressed with either of these.
Bester did come close to writing the first Salkind and Salkind Superman film, being the producers’ first choice. It was an intriguing possibility, but Bester’s interest in the film lay in Clark Kent (he described Superman as Kent’s ‘gun’) which was not where the Salkind’s intended to go.
The second of those later novels, The Deceivers, was Bester’s final published work. Rolly died in 1984, leaving Bester, as good as an alcoholic, alone. He died in 1987, famously leaving his estate to his favourite barman, though the claims that the unexpected legatee didn’t know who his benefactor was were a cheap, slanderous fiction: the two were good friends, who talked daily.
Since Bester’s death, his works have been reissued, with new short story collections aiming to be quite comprehensive. Two posthumous works have appeared, both quite controversial. Tender, Loving Rage is a second mainstream novel, with curious and controversial contents: it never found a publisher at the time and only appeared through the efforts of Charles Platt.
The other is the spark for this piece. Bester left behind an incomplete 92 page fragment of a new novel under the title of Psycho Hockshop. This was passed to Roger Zelazny, who completed the book and retitled it Psychoshop (which was initially misread and promoted as Psychoslop). Even then, the ‘collaboration’ didn’t appear in Zelazny’s lifetime, not seeing print until 1999, four years after Zelazny’s own death.
I didn’t buy it then, even though I’d once been a very great fan of Zelazny. But, not along ago, an excess of curiosity drove me to pick the book up cheap via eBay. Which is turn has prompted the thought that I’m overdue re-reading Bester, and that it might be interesting to read his oeuvre – which is rather smaller than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – in good old chronological order.
Starting with The Demolished Man, coming shortly.

JLA Incarnations 5: The Bad-Ass League… and after


The Fifth Incarnation of the Justice League will always be automatically associated with Grant Morrison, and rightly so, but it was actually created by Mark Waid, in a mini-series, Justice League: A Midsummer Nightmare, with art from Fabian Nicsieza.
In truth, it wasn’t a very impressive story, being dependant upon the logic defying concept that the villain is able to brainwash the hero into not only forgetting that he or she is a superhero, but even that said superhero does not even exist. It’s difficult enough to pull off with one character, but with seven simultaneously credulity is strained unmercifully.
Nevertheless, seven heroes – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, The Martian Manhunter and Aquaman – had collectively forgotten who and what they were, but eventually remembered and set everything right again, after which they decided to reform the Justice League.
It’s terribly weak for a writer like Waid, and it was impliedly airbrushed from continuity in the JLA Incarnations mini-series, but it did what was required: it restored the Justice League, and it reset it with the ‘Big Seven’ that Helfer and Giffen had been unable to utilise a decade earlier. Their adventures would be published under the stream-lined title of JLA.
It wasn’t quite the original Big Seven of Brave & Bold 28. There was no Barry Allen nor Hal Jordan, and their places were taken by their heirs, Wally West and Kyle Rayner. And the Big Three had all been revamped, post-Crisis. And the Martian Manhunter’s history had been substantially tinkered with. And Aquaman had lost a hand and replaced it with a pike.
But this is comics, and we should know by now that it is the mask, the symbol, that is the core of being. The Justice League was back, with a vengeance.
And vengeance it was. This was the Big Seven, the legends, the mightiest of the mighty, and Morrison’s intention was to demonstrate that at every turned. The League met in the Watchtower, on the Moon, issuing forth to guard the planet against the worst that could be thrown at it. Conspicuous power demanded conspicuous menace. To confront it, Morrison plunged headlong into fast-paced, balls-out action, with rapid-fire dialogue. If these were the Over-men, then they wuld be the Over-men to the hilt.
Yet the underlying theme was not the fascistic impulse from which superheroes spring. Instead, Morrison hinted at a paganistic Pantheon; heroes as Gods – not in the religious sense of a being to worship, but rather the Aspects that overcame ordinary human strengths.
The continuity problems that had dogged the League since the late stages of its first Incarnation were dealt with largely by ignoring them. The JLA existed above and outside the DC Universe, increasing the pantheistic element. Or rather it was that the League’s battles rarely spilled over into the wider Universe.
Though the writers and their writing styles were poles apart, Morrison’s JLA was the closest DC had come to the glorious years of Gardner Fox and Julius Schwarz. Superheroes were big, they were fun, they were exciting. Though one wrote from innocence and the other out of a sly knowingness, Fox and Morrison made the League feel important, feel like the pinnacle.
Morrison even managed to fit in a Justice League/Justice Society cross-over, even though the Justice Society didn’t actually exist that year!
It was fun, it was ballistic, but it wasn’t to be forever. Including a couple of fill-ins, Morrison and his artist Howard Porter produced 41 issues before handing the reins over to Mark Waid, a superb choice. Waid had shone himself with the brilliant 12-issue series, JLA:Year One, creating a new post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour foundational myth for the original League. But after Waid finished his run, the inevitable set in.
Unlike past Incarnations, there’s no way to separate the Morrison/Waid JLA from the rest of the run. This title was the League’s third series, and despite changes of direction or form, the League it depicted was one thing, whole and entire. So all the other stories in the 125 issue run belong in this Incarnation.
It was the same old story: a running out of steam, an unwillingness or inability to create the excitement and thrust of the Morrison template, a changing litany of writers, a chaning of moods. There was the same old dilution of the brand, with spin-off titles and themes. At first this had been benign: JLA:Classified, begun by Morrison himself, a non-continuity series telling stories that might belong to any part of the League’s mythos, bound by nothing in the main title. But then there was the 12 issue parallel Justice League Elite, featuring a ‘black ops’ team that took a proactive as opposed to reactive stance to villains, and aimed to kill rather than imprison them.
The momentum drained away. A fresh start was needed, which meant killing the series and killing the JLA. By now, widespread editorial control, expressed in company-focussed stories was beginning to reassert itself. Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis had opened a can of worms with its revelation of mind-wiping  and memory-tinkering by the original League, included the robbing of ten minutes of Batman’s life (warning: never do this to a high-functioning sociopathic paranoid!)
Batman’s response to the rediscovery of his memories was one of several strands woven together to set-up Infinite Crisis, an 20 year sequel to the original. Things fell apart, the centre could not hold and, despite Green Arrow’s attempts to keep it going, the League fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
It would be back. It would aways, never fear, be back.

JLA Incarnations 4: Too Many Leagues


Take your pick

Like the Detroit League, the Fourth Justice League was a new configuration, reconstituted after the formal dissolution of its predecessor, but continuing in the same series as the League that had gone before. The League is dead, long live the League.
This incarnation started with a twin-cover Spectacular, one for each of the dual line-ups that would be involved. Superman agreed to head up the America branch, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan, in his white-templed phase) the European branch, though in a potentially confusing move for future collectors, the JLE quickly renamed their series Justice League International.
To be honest, I don’t have much to say about this version of the League. I read the Spectacular, which made it plain that the sitcom approach of the past five years was being thoroughly rejected: no Bwah-ha-ha, not United Nations, no Max Lord, the League was doing it for itself. We were going to have respectable, serious superheroing again, and anyone who didn’t understand that would be out on their ear, pretty sharpish.
(Though, at some point of which I am unaware, the United Nations came back into the picture, at least for the main JLA and its Task Force: a re-rejection of UN auspices was an underlying dynamic of the final spin-off title).
As the Helfer/Giffen approach had run its course, reverting to drama was the only viable course for the series to take, but for me the Spectacular concentrated more on establishing what it was not going to be than on what it would do. As a result it was all too penny-plain-tuppence-cheerful for its own good. It seemed to promise an end to all the distinctiveness and personality of the lurid but fun years, without setting up anything of its own to substitute.
And the new League(s) were still operating under the same, indeed more so, conditions that had pushed Conway towards the Detroit League, in that bringing the big guns like Superman and Green Lantern meant operating under the restrictions of whatever was affecting them in their home series.
Even if there was now a greater correspondence in tone between between the world of the League and the rest of the DC Universe, the problem remained. What Superman did under his editor Mike Carlin (which, with four monthly titles, operated as a virtual weekly, with stories flowing between the tightly controlled titles and their even more tightly controlled four separate writer/artist teams) was of far greater importance than anything the League needed him for. So he didn’t last long.
Nor did Hal Jordan. The rapidly deteriorating continuity of the Green Lantern universe was soon at the point where a clean sweep was decided on, removing Hal Jordan by turning him into one of the most monstrous villains of the DC Universe, and bringing in Kyle Rayner as a new, untried Green Lantern who would hopefully become as successful as had Wally West in replacing Barry Allen.
The League became home to any number of b-list and passing characters, just to enable the series to continue with a minimum of disruption.
But it remained popular. How else to explain the fact that this incarnation of the League supported another two spin-off series?
The first of these was Justice League Task Force. Technically, this was not a third force. Instead, it was a special squad, headed by the Martian Manhunter, with Gypsy as its only other full-time regular, taking on covert missions with a variety of League members, to tackle cases where the League could not or should not be seen to be operating.
The actual Third Force was portrayed in Extreme Justice, a breakaway Justice League team only semi-officially accepted in the overall League structure. (The series was actually a replacement for Justice League International and Justice League Quarterly, the latter an over-sized title concentrating on one-off stories of varying, sometimes full-length).
This latest dilution of the franchise was headed by Captain Atom, who had recovered from the disaster that was Armageddon 2001, when it had been intended for him to go renegade and become Monarch, until the clues as to who was to become Monarch were deduced far too easily for suspense and a bodge-up was required. Atom’s team never called itself Extreme Justice, but that was its raison d’etre: refusal of UN backing, proactive and violent pre-response.
So: three Justice Leagues of one sort or another. Three team leaders pulling in different directions (Wonder Woman, J’Onn J’Onzz and Captain Atom). Hordes of minor characters milling around (with all due respect to Australians, the day you bring Tasmanian Devil onto a team, the barrel is being firmly scraped). Task Force even became a kind of Junior JLA, training up the younger heroes.
For me, what symbolises this failed Incarnation is the story of Triumph.
Triumph was created by, of all people, the usually very successful Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn, though he’s most associated with Christopher Priest (nothing to do with the British SF writer, this is veteran scripter Jim Owsley who chose a pen name in complete ignorance of it being in use). As a concept, he’s interesting: Triumph is supposed to be an original hero, one of the first of the Silver Age generation. Triumph was founder and leader of the original Justice League of America on its first mission, but he fell into some kind of timewarp that sent him ten years into the future, and which caused the world to forget him completely.
An interesting set-up that fell flat on several grounds, the first being that Triumph at no time looked or felt like a believable late-Fifties/early-Sixties creation, and secondly due to the fact that the man was a complete and utter jerk, from the ground to the roof and back down the other side of the house. This objection may well only be truly pertinent to those of us who were there at or pretty near to the time, and have the smell of Silver Age heroes in our nostrils, but it does appear that nobody or more recent vintage was particularly enamoured of Triumph either.
But that was how that era of the League came over: Nineties comics, with bad art, bad attitudes, bad costumes and bad ideas.
In the end, the ‘brand’ was spread too thin, the audience drawn in too many directions and the sales went into a downfall. Quality and consistency had long since evaporated, and DC decided enough was enough and swept the board clean. The ending was abrupt, and an in-continuity rationale was only given retrospectively, in the 2001 JLA:Incarnations mini-series: Extreme Justice attack Bialya, a Balkan/middle-eastern country that had featured heavily in both the original Justice League International  and Justice League Europe series’ and take out the superweapons Bialya is re-creating, but as a consequence the UN insists all Justice League teams shut down (and Superman insists Extreme Justice follow suit).
A new Justice League was needed, a better Justice League, and what better than to go back to the basics, to the original Big Seven, and renew the League’s foundations for its Fifth Incarnation.

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.