A Contextual History of Wonder Woman (2001)


Nearly twenty years ago, for no better reason than it amused me, and without thought of publication for there was nowhere to publish it then, I wrote the following piece about Wonder Woman, as she was in 2001. It’s sat on my laptop(s) ever since, taking up pixels. In the week when Wonder Woman 750 has appeared, I rediscovered it, and, realising I’d never posted it here, decided to repair that omission. I have neither updated, revised nor ‘improved’ it in any way, the last of which may be fairly easy to tell.

Wonder Woman

If I were to say that the current Wonder Woman is simultaneously the first, third and second to bear that name, and that her mother is, at one and the same time, the third, fifth and first, taking her name and identity directly from the character she inspired fifty years later, who preceded her by several years, you would be lost beyond all hope of comprehension.
Yet such a statement is meat and drink to a comic book fan, who regularly is expected to unravel such complex relationships with ease.
To the layperson, a considerably lengthy explanation is necessary to enable you to understand how such a situation could arise.
The first Wonder Woman (that is, the first first Wonder Woman: don’t worry, all will become clear) dates from 1941, making her debut in an unrelated back-up story in All-Star 8 and proceeding immediately to headline the new Sensation Comic: she gained her own title in a shorter period of time than anyone before her and continued to appear in both Sensation and Wonder Woman until the former’s cancellation in the late 40’s.
Wonder Woman guested with the Justice Society of America in All-Star 11, appeared again in 12, when she was invited to become team secretary, and stayed with the JSA until their final adventure in All-Star 57 (although she played a purely passive and cameo role until issue 38 and was arguably demeaned when Black Canary became the JSA’s first official female member whilst Wonder Woman was never officially upgraded from secretary).
Wonder Woman’s title enjoyed continuous publication throughout the 50’s making her, along with Superman, Batman & Robin and back-up features Green Arrow and Aquaman, one of the few characters to have been continuously published since the Golden Age.
Wonder Woman was the daughter of Hyppolita, Queen of the Amazons. After their escape from bondage at the hands of Hercules, the Amazons withdrew from Man’s World, to Paradise Island. Hyppolita longed for a daughter and petitioned the Goddesses, who instructed her to form a baby girl from the clays of the riverbank. They then invested the model with life, the baby being named Diana and growing to become the best and strongest of the Amazons.
The Amazons learned of war in Man’s World when a USAF craft piloted by Major Steve Trevor accidentally penetrated the protective clouds that shielded Paradise Island from the world. Diana rescued the pilot, the first man she had ever seen, and immediately fell in love with him.
The Amazons resolved to send a representative to Man’s World, to help bring peace. Hyppolita forbade Diana to compete but her daughter entered the competition masked, and duly won out. To go into Man’s World, she was given a special costume, consisting of a red bathing suit top decorated by a golden eagle, blue culottes (later cycle shorts and even later orthodox trunks) spangled with silver stars and red boots (later laced Grecian sandals).
In Man’s World, Diana was given the name Wonder Woman thanks to a chance remark by Steve Trevor. She took over the identity of Army Nurse Diana Prince, who wanted to follow her boyfriend to California (and who, presumably, never came back). Later, Diana Prince entered the military, rising to the rank of Lieutenant.
Wonder Woman had super-strength, speed and agility. She could not fly, but could glide upon wind currents. She was not invulnerable, but was supremely skilled at deflecting bullets with her Amazonian bracelets. She possessed a magic lasso which, once looped around someone, forced them to obey her. She had an invisible robot plane which she controlled with her thoughts.
If Wonder Woman’s bracelets were bound together by a man, she lost all her powers. If she removed them, she lost all self-control and became a raging madwoman.
Wonder Woman was created by psychologist Wiliam Moulton Marston, with the assistance of artist Harry G Peters. Marston had complained about the lack of female role models in comics and was, in effect, challenged to come up with one.

Wonder Woman

The first inarguable appearance of the second Wonder Woman was in Brave & Bold 27, in 1960. B&B had started out as an adventure series, but was phasing into a try-out title, alongside the purpose created Showcase, which had very successfully introduced new (Silver Age) versions of Golden Age heroes such as Flash and Green Lantern. Now the new versions joined with the Big Three, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman and a couple of other characters to form the Justice League of America, a revival of the JSA-style hero team.
Which led to certain problems with internal consistency.
Wonder Woman (along with Superman and Batman) had been a member of the Justice Society where she had served alongside the Golden Age Flash and Green Lantern. She (like they) was now a member of the Justice League, serving alongside the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern. But the Silver Age Flash’s origin had made it plain that, to him as much as us, the Golden Age Flash was nothing but a comic book character. How, then, could Wonder Woman serve with both?
This essential contradiction went unexplored (officially: no doubt it exercised the minds of fans) for a year, until the seminal “Flash of Two Worlds” in Flash 123. This established the fact that there were two Earths, each occupying the same physical space but, due to their fractionally different vibration rates, forever invisible and intangible to one another – that is, until the Silver Age Flash accidentally tuned into the vibration rate of the other world and discovered that on this world the Golden Age Flash was more than just a comic book character.
This story would go on to be the foundation stone of DC’s Multiversal continuity for a quarter century. The Golden Age characters had lived, still lived, somewhat older, greyer, still with their powers but a bit rusty and with less stamina, on what would, in 1963, be termed Earth 2, whilst their newer counterparts lived on Earth 1.
No doubt the terminology was chronologically inverted, but to make that complaint ignores the reality of comic book publishing: Earth 1 was the current Earth, the mainstream, supposedly our own reality but with added superheroes, whereas Earth 2 was just that, a second Earth, a different Earth, where things were parallel but not the same.
There were two Flashes and two Green Lanterns and, within a year or so there would also be two Hawkmans and Atoms. It was less apparent that there also had to be two Supermans, two Batmans (and Robins) and, of course, two Wonder Womans.

Wonder Woman

These, however, were the Big Three, comics’ primal trinity. That there were now two of each was a logical necessity: that these alternates were virtually identical a logical requirement of their status. All three had experienced no break in their publishing history where it could be said that one had been replaced by another, and it was left to the obsessive fan to debate at which exact point DC had begun publishing the adventures of one in succession to the history of the other.
Thus the second Wonder Woman could only clearly be said to have first appeared when the first JLA adventure was published but, though her first unequivocal appearance was written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs, her creator was still Marston.
Though the Earth 1 Big Three were initially avatars of their originals – who would dare tamper with the Holy Trinity? – DC eventually cottoned on to the cute notion that where the early history of each character differed from the final and accepted form of the legend, those early and discarded characteristics now had a home.
Superman’s early days were littered with rejected elements – working for the Daily Star, not Planet, only developing powers as an adult, Luthor with a shock of red hair – which found their home in the Earth 2 version. Rather fewer distinctions could be drawn in the other two. The yellow oval that, in imitation of the Bat-signal, was placed around Batman’s symbol in 1964 was held to belong to the Earth 1 Batman only. And when the Earth 2 Wonder Woman finally made her bow, in 1967, she was found to have retained the original red boots, instead of adopting Grecian sandals.
As DC grew more confident in their parallel world system, moving it from gimmick to a fecund source of stories (sadly, the fecundity was in quantity, not quality), more differences appeared between the two Wonder Womans.
At first, it was the Earth 1 Wonder Woman, losing her powers and adopting a kind of Diana Rigg- Avengers existence, albeit only for a few years whilst her Earth 2 counterpart remained a fully-fledged Amazon. By the late Seventies, however, DC was fully alive to the possibilities of having a second version of a long-established character: things could happen to the Earth 2 Diana that could not be permitted to her more ubiquitous Earth 1 counterpart, because they would represent permanent change.
Thus the Earth 2 Wonder Woman could marry her Steve Trevor (instead of him dying in a hail of bullets, as happened to the Earth 1 version when DC simply ran out of ideas), and become the proud mother of a teenage superheroine: Hyppolita (Lyta) Trevor, aka The Fury, who had half her mother’s Amazonian strengths.
In the late Seventies/early Eighties, Wonder Woman transferred to TV in the bodice busting form of Lynda Carter. At first, her adventures were set in World War 2, with the comic immediately switching over to tales of the Earth 2 Wonder Woman to match: when a later series brought everything up to date, the Earth 1 model resumed control.

Wonder Woman

And a further change occurred in the early Eighties when Wonder Woman adopted a new costume: to tie in with a charitable Wonder Woman Foundation sponsored by DC, issue 300 saw the Amazon swap her golden eagle for a stylised WW logo across her capacious bosom. Naturally, her earlier counterpart retained her eagle.
But despite all this activity, despite her undoubted longevity, Wonder Woman had not, for many many years, been a big seller. With DC gearing up for massive continuity changes in 1985 with Crisis on Infinite Earths, the fate of the Amazing Amazon was just one of the issues under consideration.
Crisis would bring to an end the Multiverse: a battle royal at the beginning of time would shatter the Multiverse from its inception, destroying all of reality for the briefest of spans before Time began anew, as a single Universe. The heroes of many parallel worlds, the Earth 2 Superman and Wonder Woman amongst them, as well as their modern counterparts, bounced back to the present day, in the new Universe, with full memories of the parallel worlds that had existed until just instants before.
The Universe had room in it for one Superman, one Batman and one Wonder Woman: the original, Golden Age versions were displaced, and had to be disposed of.
Superman, the progenitor, the first of the first, had the honour of striking the final victory blow, after which he was spirited away to some unidentified, unreachable paradisial retirement dimension, never to be seen again1. After that, he not only no longer existed, but never had. With the exception of Lois Lane, his wife, rescued from the reality storm as a final gift to go with him into Never-Never Land, his continuity disappeared with the Multiverse. His cousin Kara, aka Power Girl, was carried over into the Universe: in due course her ‘phoney’ memories of a Kryptonian background were replaced by ‘true’ memories of deriving her powers from the long dead Atlantean mage, Arion, her much-removed grandfather.
Batman had already had the decency to be killed off on Earth 2, dying with his boots on, saving Gotham City one last time, from an inadequate and totally inappropriate adversary. However, he left not merely his now-adult Robin, but also a daughter, by his late wife, the Earth 2 Catwoman. This daughter had become a heroine as the Huntress. Robin, of course, had to go, there being room only for one, but most people would have kept the Huntress if they could. However, when not only the character’s parents but her entire raison d’être have suddenly ceased to ever exist, it became entirely too difficult to proceed. Thus Robin and The Huntress were trapped beneath a crumbling building whilst saving lives but, when the rubble had been cleared away, there were no bodies to be seen – as if they had never existed. A new Huntress was created, and is still around to this date, but no-one pretends she has anything like the appeal of the daughter of Batman and Catwoman.
As for the original Wonder Woman, she survived the battle and, like her male equivalent, retired with honours, being translated to Mount Olympus and joining the pantheon of Greek Gods, with her Steve Trevor at her side. After which she ceased to have ever existed2. Her daughter, the Fury, carried on: she was now the daughter of a retrospectively-created Forties Greek Superheroine also called The Fury, and had been raised by an adoptive American family called Trevor.
But, unlike the formerly Earth 1 Superman and Batman, the second Wonder Woman also did not survive Crisis: during the final battle, she was hit by a bolt of Chronal energy flung out by the villainous Anti-Monitor, which reverted her to the clay she had once been. It did more than that: in a manner entirely different to the Crisis itself, it ensured that not only did the second Wonder Woman no longer exist she, like her predecessor, never had existed.

Wonder Woman

The scene was therefore set for a third Wonder Woman to appear, who would not only be the third Wonder Woman but also, naturally, the first. After all, there hadn’t been any before her. Let us think of her as the second first Wonder Woman.
The third Wonder Woman made her debut in Legends, a six issue crossover series drawn by John Byrne, but her true debut was reserved for the first issue of her new series, Wonder Woman 1. She remains created by William Moulton Marston, but this new version was the work of artist George Perez, abetted as scripter (over Perez’s plots) by Greg Potter – replaced after two issues by Len Wein.
Perez’s Wonder Woman resembled the original – shorts became standard female briefs, she wore boots and bore the now official WW symbol – and her origin was clearly based upon Marston’s original. The Amazon race were now the embodiment of the spirits of all women who had died of violence at the hands of men, Hyppolita’s being the only one to have been pregnant at the time, and Diana’s, after her ‘birth’ from the clays of the riverbank, being that of the unborn child.
Once more Steve Trevor’s plane accidentally penetrates the wards separating Paradise Island from Man’s World, but this is now a ploy by Aries, God of War, who is seeking to foment nuclear destruction. Trevor is a much older man now, clearly in his 50’s: an uncle to Diana rather than a would-be lover (his romantic interest will come in the form of an up-dated Etta Candy, once a cartoon fat girl comic relief side-kick, now a capable if overweight Air Force Lieutenant).
And in Man’s World, Diana is given the name Wonder Woman by a publicist wanting to cash in on her symbolic value, and assumed to be a superheroine by virtue of her costume – which is rather the abbreviated battle armour given her by her Amazon sisters.
The third Wonder Woman was briefly a member of Justice League Europe, very briefly that is, and in later years has come aboard the latest JLA, but that was many developments down the line. She was the one and only Wonder Woman: the role of secretary to the JSA – now the hero team of another generation instead of the hero team of another world – was retrospectively vested in 40’s strongwoman Miss America. Until…
But that is to get ahead of our account.

Wonder Woman

For now, the third Wonder Woman stood alone. Her series, directed by Perez, who eventually grew confident enough to script as well as plot/draw, and then to cede the art to Jill Thompson whilst he wrote, proved to be the success Wonder Woman should always have been, justifying DC’s drastic efforts to sweep the decks clear.
Perez moved on after five years, leaving his charge in the hands of writer Bill Loebs. After a couple of years, Loebs introduced the fourth Wonder Woman.
She appeared in ‘The Contest’, along with hot new artist Mike Deodato (one of a number of hot artists whose facility with the human body and the art of story-telling took second place to his ability to generate violent pictures filled with extraneous detail), which ran in Wonder Woman 0, 90-93. Hyppolita, unhappy at the general lack of success of Diana’s mission to Man’s World, called her home and required her to re-submit to the original selection process, to prove herself still the best Amazon: Diana was – you couldn’t see this one coming? – beaten.
The victor in this new contest, and the fourth Wonder Woman, Artemis – a redhead bearing an unfeasibly long and horrendously complex pony-tail – was an Amazon from Bana-Migdoll, being a separated strain of the Amazon race introduced under Perez, who had followed Hyppolita’s more aggressive and vengeful sister, and who had not taken all that well to absorption into the main Amazon race on Paradise Island.
Artemis had a far more aggressive nature, not being content to subdue and overcome evil but being far more inclined to slaughter it outright, in as visually explicit a manner as was compatible with the Comics Code.
The fourth Wonder Woman was a nod to the more violent times, the last thrashings of the grim’n’gritty movement, a warrior (with all that implies).
Fortunately, the perceptive among you will have taken regard of the issue number in which she was introduced. With Wonder Woman (second series) just over half a year from its centenary, a landmark usually marked by an over-sized issue and a life-changing moment, it was fairly clear that Diana’s resumption of her traditional role would be the feature event.
In the meantime, Diana refused to confine herself to Paradise Island, and returned to Man’s World to continue her career, in a fetchingly tight dark blue bra-top and cycle shorts. The two characters ran parallel until the climactic issue 100 when, in battle royal, Artemis paid the ultimate price in defeating a ravening monster, recognising with her dying breath Diana’s greater right to the Wonder Woman name and cossy.
Artemis would return from the dead in a later mini-series, but not as Wonder Woman, and hence has no further role to play in this account.
Diana resumed her role as Wonder Woman, until 1998. With issue 107, her series had been taken over by writer-artist John Byrne who, some eighteen months later, chose to play another game with the character, leading to the fifth Wonder Woman and the onset of total textual complexity.

Wonder Woman

To clear the way for another successor, Diana this time was to die. Like the first Wonder Woman (the first first Wonder Woman, that is) she was translated to Mount Olympus, to become one with the pantheon of Greek Gods, although the second first Wonder Woman would prove to be far less amenable to giving up her humanity for divinity than the first first Wonder Woman had (presumably) been and, after an appropriate length of time, returned to life and her given role.
In the meantime, the fifth Wonder Woman was Hyppolita: Diana’s mother assumed her role in Man’s World, in penance for the part she had to play in her daughter’s death. Hyppolita was the fifth Wonder Woman, but we must remember that she was also the third Wonder Woman, after Diana and Artemis.
Her costume was identical to that worn by Diana and Artemis, except that she wore a skirt of sorts, its length varying with the artist in question (one particularly juvenile minded artist not only drew it as a mini-skirt but planned his shots to give as many glimpses of Amazonian white panties as he could get away with).
Whether this change of apparel was intended to reflect Hyppolita’s greater dignity as an older (albeit still immortal) woman, or as a Queen, remained unspecified.
But Byrne had great ideas in mind. No sooner had Hyppolita appeared on TV for the first time as Wonder Woman than she sparked a memory of recognition in the mind of Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash. Almost fifty years earlier (in a short story published in 1997) Flash had been captured by an old foe: he had escaped thanks to the advice of a mysterious elderly stranger who resembled his father (and whose identity was obvious to anyone who had ever read more than three comics). Whilst this stranger had been spouting Get-out-of-Jail-free advice, Flash had glimpsed a woman in an overcoat and a strange costume in the background. Meanwhile, in 1998, Jay Garrick was convinced that he had now recognised the mysterious woman.
Hyppolita had no recollection of the incident, but was willing to accompany Jay back in time (courtesy of the invisible robot plane and Paradise Island’s somewhat nebulous situation in the time stream) to 1941 to check out the details.
Needless to say, and without any time-consuming speeches about how at-last-I-realise, the elder Garrick gave the requisite information to his younger self, wrapping up that short-lived mystery with the perfunctoriness it deserved.
But Jay persuaded Wonder Woman to let him visit the old JSA headquarters at the Smithsonian before returning to the present, not thinking that some of his old comrades – not to mention his younger self – might be about. This led to an adventure with Nazi’s that Jay only seemed to remember as it went along.
At the end, Jay returned to the future alone: Wonder Woman had decided (with no apparent explanation) to remain in the Forties, which she did for half an hour, present day time, returning to 1998 having stayed in the Forties until 1950. If you know what I mean.
The moment she returned, Jay remembered all those JSA adventures that had included Wonder Woman. What’s more, now everyone remembered the Forties Wonder Woman, they could all remember how Diana (the second first Wonder Woman) had been given the name of Wonder Woman because of the recollection of the first Wonder Woman (Hyppolita, the third Wonder Woman).
So, just to get this straight, the first Wonder Woman was now Hyppolita, who was actually the third Wonder Woman in current continuity, and the fifth one overall. She was active between 1941 and 1950, as an interlude from being active in 1998-9, in succession to Diana, the first Wonder Woman (the second first Wonder Woman, that is), but the third Wonder Woman overall, who was given the name Wonder Woman in tribute to Hyppolita, who was the second Wonder Woman to succeed her but had appeared forty plus years before her, both taking her name from and bequeathing it to her daughter. Meanwhile, the Earth 2 Diana was actually the first Wonder Woman (the first first Wonder Woman), but she never existed anyway, and the second Wonder Woman was originally the same as the first Wonder Woman, and she never existed anyway either, but not for the same reason. And, so as not to leave her out, the odd one out in all this is Artemis, who was the second, fourth and third Wonder Woman, according to which angle you look at her.
All of which is clear as mud to you, and daylight to the comic book fan, who may not be regarded as quite as big an idiot as you thought. And if you think that’s complicated, let me tell you about the pre-Crisis history of the Spectre.

And here’s one we hadn’t had by then

Len Wein, R.I.P.


I may not read comics much, these days, but I keep up with the news, and a couple of nights ago, I learned that the comic book writer Len Wein had died, aged 69, of complications following surgery.

Wein had been a mainstay of the mainstream comic book industry, as writer, editor and then again writer, for nearly fifty years. A lifelong friend of fellow writer and editor Marv Wolfman, the pair were among that first serious wave of fans-turned-writers/artists who began to transform the industry at the start of the Seventies,  and what’s more, the pair did it at crusty old DC, where, in 1972, Len Wein co-created the first of two iconic characters, Swamp Thing.

I’ve written about the Swamp Thing at length elsewhere, and Wein’s original version of Swampy, as a man who lost his humanity to become a monster who was yet more human than those who reacted to him, was a powerful vision, and one that Wein returned to in the last decade, writing his character again after a forty year break.

In the meantime, Wein’s original version was subsumed with Alan Moore’s revised vision, in which the Swamp Thing was transformed from a man turned into a plant to a plant that erroneously thought itself to have been a man, paving the way for a further transformation into an avatar of nature itself. Though I’d loved and collected the original series, I was and am still even more impressed with Moore’s version. But whilst Moore’s career on Swamp Thing and at DC generally is indelibly associated with editor Karen Berger, it was not she who offered the job of writing Swampy to Moore, but the comic’s previous editor, Len Wein, who had the creative generosity to allow his own creation to be torn up like that.

Wein’s other, and substantially more famous creation, came at Marvel, where he worked for most of the Seventies, and was for a time it’s Editor-in-Chief. This was an offhand creation, brought into The Incredible Hulk, just because a Canadian superhero was wanted. He was just a no-mark one-off, until Wein was asked to revive the long moribund X-Men as an international team, and Wein brought in his Canadian creation: Wolverine.

So: Wolverine and the new X-Men, on top of Swamp Thing. If Wein didn’t go on to create anyone else of that magnitude, and if each of these achieved their greatest successes under other hands, the fact remains that without Len Wein there would have been no Swamp Thing, no Wolverine, no massively successful X-Men franchise, and maybe even no career for Chris Claremont, or success outside Britain for Alan Moore.

By the end of the Seventies, Wein was back at DC, where he now worked rather as an editor than a writer. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s The New Teen Titans is rightly credited with restoring the fortunes, credibility and morale of DC Comics after the disastrous Implosion of 1978: Wein was it’s editor. Swamp Thing‘s return after seven years in limbo was under Wein’s purview, and it was his lengthy discussions with Wolfman over DC’s complex and convoluted Multiversal history that led eventually to Wein editing another Wolfman/Perez project, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

He was also the editor who first started another landmark Alan Moore series, Watchmen.

I’m making Wein’s career highlights sound very much a thing of the past, but though he continued to work regularly, in comics and television, after leaving DC in the early Nineties, these are the accomplishments for which I, and fans of my generation, will recall. I will also remember Wein for making the Phantom Stranger one of my favourite ever characters, and for writing him, in issues 14 – 26, as far back as 1973-5, better than anyone else before or since.

There are aspects of Wein’s writing that, celebrated at the time, have come to be less respected as time went on. The original ten-page Swamp Thing story, co-created with the late Berni Wrightson, and as perfect a gem of compressed writing and emotion as I have ever read, is nevertheless ill-worn in its florid, indeed purple prose, which was so characteristic of Wein’s early style.

Nevertheless, he was a major figure, and his career was worthy of respect throughout.

But if nothing else, I owe Len Wein for a single comic. As I’ve related before, I grew out of comics in 1970, nearing my fifteenth birthday. Four years later, waiting to buy a post-haircut Mars Bar in a newsagents, I glanced at a rack of American comics and, out of mild curiosity, had a riffle. I ended up buying Justice League of America 107, which changed my life. I cannot begin to count what I’ve spent on comics in the forty-three years plus since, how many thousands have passed through my hands, the enjoyment, fascination, imagination I’ve experienced.

Len Wein wrote that comic. He did that for me. About a decade later, I met him for the only time, at a Convention in Britain. I got him to sign Justice League of America 107, told him it was responsible for getting me back into comics, and he shied away, as if I was going to ask him to pay back all the money he’d been responsible for me shelling out.

I need to thank him again today. Thank you, Len Wein. You may have acted as if you owed me lots, but it is I who owe you, even up to all the words on this blog. You started something that became unstoppable, and I thank you. We thank you. Give our regards to the Phantom Stranger as he leads you to where the good ones go.

Alas: Bernie Wrightson RIP


Most people will be mourning the loss of Chuck Berry, a rock’n’roll legend, but for me the sadder news is the death of comic book artist, Bernie Wrightson, aged 68, after several years of illness during which he was unable to draw.

I’ve read very little of Wrightson’s work, but enough to recognise him as a major artist. He was one of those ultra-bright sparks of the early-to-middle Seventies, an instantly recognisable artist whose work was on a higher level than the generic art you got. Wrightson’s work took its inspiration from an older generation of artists than his contemporaries: Frank Frazetta, and EC’s Graham Ingels in particular.

His work had depth, passion and detail, and his forte was horror, and he wasn’t going to last, like the other ultra-bright sparks, because he needed time to draw, to make art, and the soul-crushing, intensely-pressured and dirt-cheap comics of the era, where every expense was spared to make the package cheaper and nastier, more inimical to quality, as long as it was cheap, was no environment for Wrightson and his ilk.

He produced an illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the only time I’ve ever read the novel, with full-page, intensely detailed drawings that looked like engravings of a fineness way beyond anything Marvel or DC could have produced.

But Berni (as he then styled himself) Wrightson’s legacy is his co-creation, with Len Wein, of the Swamp Thing: a ten page short which is one of the most perfect short stories ever done, and the first ten issues of a series that is the foundation of an astonishing character, alive to this day and beyond.

He was a great.

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 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: 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.