Pesky Pasko, R.I.P.


A very long time ago, when I was nudging my parents into buying more American comics than they wanted to and far fewer than I wanted, there were familiar names I would see in the letter columns of DC titles, especially those edited by Julius Schwartz, who would herald their every missive. These got their comments into so many comics because they were not just prolific but wrote intelligent letters, mixing praise and criticism honestly and cleverly.

I remember the names amd the nicknames: ‘Our Favourite Guy’, Guy H. Lillian III, ‘Castro’ Mike Friedrich, Martin ‘Pesky’ Pasko.

Friedrich and Pasko went on to write for DC, and Lillian to intern there one summer but decide the busiinesswas not for him.

To be truthful, I never particularly found either Friedrich or Pasko’s work too  exciting, though there were some moments from Pasko’s career that amused me, especially the one where he managed to work Monty Python’s ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ into a Metal Man script, causing me to explode with laughter. And his transformative Dr Fate story, drawn by Walt Simonson, for First Issue Special 8 is still probably my favourite comic book of the Seventies.

And now he’s gone, of natural causes, aged 65. All those years ago, all those letters, and he was only a year older than me, and it feels a very personal loss, even though I never knew him. He was the one with the same name as me, which shouldn’t matter but does.

And plainly all the writers who canme out of fandom with him are devastated by the loss. No doubt he’s already giving Julius Schwartz grief over some loose plotting in a Justice League comic written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Mike Sekowsky. Thanks, Martin.

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 – 1971


Justice League of America 91, “Earth- the Monster-Maker!”/Justice League of America 92, “Solomon Grundy the One and Only!” Written by Mike Friedrich, art by Dick Dillin (pencils) and Joe Giella (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

In the aftermath of the previous issue’s meeting, Hawkman chairs a meeting with Superman, Green Lantern and the Atom present. Black Canary and Green Arrow are absent with leave, Aquaman hasn’t attended, because of what happened last issue and Batman is still searching for the missing Flash. Suddenly, the teleporter activates and Batman appears, carrying the broken body of the Flash in his arms.
We break off to enter a space region called the In-Between, a dangerous zone described as a ‘blind spot’, where some kids are joy-riding. They are aliens: humanoid in form, with big heads, pointy ears, small bodies, yellow skin, and they wear purple head-cowls with eyemasks. S-Kyris piloting when, suddenly, his younger brother A-Rym, and his vaguely dog-like pet, Teppy, fall out of a faulty air-lock. A warp snaps the lifeline connecting the pair and sends them tumbling into separate dimensional worlds, dooming them.
For these aliens have a symbiotic relationship with their pets, and require the physical proximity of each other. If they are separated for 37½ hours, both will die. Already, more than 23 hours have elapsed, and the two beings have undergone physical changes, growing larger and ever more dangerous, in their pain-filled desperation. Teppy is on Earth-1, A-Rym on Earth-2.
On Earth-2, the Justice Society is meeting. Superman, the Flash, the Atom and Hawkman respond to a distress signal from Green Lantern, which leads them to Slaughter Swamp, where Robin is helping a rather battered Emerald Crusader The Lantern has encountered, and been beaten by A-Rym, who has taken his Power Ring, sensing that it might be able to restore him to Teppy, if he can only make it work.
The Lantern is sent back to JSA HQ to recover, whilst Robin is reluctantly accepted onto the mission by a disdainful Hawkman, as a barely-adequate substitute for Batman.
Back on Earth-1, a Thanagarian medical unit saves the Flash’s life. He bursts out at speed just as Black Canary and Green Arrow arrive, but lasts only long enough to mention alien monster and New Carthage, home of Hudson University and College student Dick (Robin) Grayson. However, a summons from Aquaman demanding Batman and Green Arrow diverts them, Canary stays to tend to the Flash and the rest take off.
En route, they see Robin following up the same lead and take him along, with Hawkman disdainfully suggesting he might be a barely-adequate substitute for Batman.
Green Lantern’s ring detects a strange vibe emanating from Earth-2, suggesting another joint peril.  They contact the JSA team and discover this is so. The Atom1 suggests a mingling of teams on a scientifically sound basis: after the swap over, the Earth-1 squad consists of both Supermen, both Atoms and the Flash2, and the Earth-2 outfit of both Hawkmen, both Robins and Green Lantern1 (hang scientific soundness, this is obviously a put-up from Friedrich).
The Earth-2 squad locate A-Rym, who is going through the throes of a very painful cold turkey. They approach him cautiously as he is currently quiescent, but Robin1 is impetuous and starts an attack. This sets A-Rym off: he rips Robin1’s tunic off him. Robin2 goes to the rescue, over Hawkman2’s protests, and has to be rescued. Green Lantern1 sends both Robins off to the Earth-2 Batcave whilst he and the Hawkmen attempt to subdue A-Rym. But the frightened boy’s extraordinary strength beats down the Lantern, seeking out his ring (though GL wills it to become invisible before he goes under). Frightened, A-Rym knocks out both Hawkmen with GL’s body before running deeper into the swamp.
Meanwhile, on Earth-1, the pet creature Teppy is getting bigger, more panicky and more destructive. When that Earth’s outfit finds him, he semi-recognises the Flash2, being reminded of Flash1, and lashes out, starting a fight. The team have more success: whilst Atom1 distracts Teppy, the Supermen and Flash2 scoop out a deep ‘moat’, leaving the pet stranmded on a suddenly-isolated pillar of rock.
With their situation under control, Flash2 and Superman1 vibrate into Earth-2 to contact their squad. This being Slaughter Swamp, A-Rym has finally bumped into its notorious denizen, Solomon Grundy, the marshland monster. Grundy’s presence provides a strange, temporary relief for A-Rym’s pains.
When the augmented Earth-2 squad arrive, Grundy reacts violently to Green Lantern1’s power ring and attacks, taking out everybody, including Superman (his strength is partly magical in origin, hence Superman’s vulnerability). A-Rym beats up GL1 again and a hate-filled Grundy raises Superman, intending to kill the Lantern by smashing the Kryptonian’s invulnerable body down on him.
End of Part 1.


After four pages of contrasting two of each hero with one of Grundy, plus one page recapping A-Rym and Teppy’s plight, the story resumes. Superman fights his way out of Grundy’s grasp and everyone makes a tactical retreat.
Meanwhile, in space, S-Kyr’s rocketship is monitoring the rapidly decreasing life-force of A-rym, who tries to stop Grundy smashing Green Lantern1: he is still desperate for the Power Ring. The heroes mount another fruitless attack and A-Rym, realising Grundy isn’t his solution, leaves.
Back at the Earth-2 Batcave, Robin2 has finished repairing Robin1’s wounds and the two are sympathising about the generation gap as it is being applied to them by Hawkmen everywhere. Robin2 provides his junior with a fresh costume, a slick, sleek outfit in a grown-up combination of red, green and yellow, designed by the Earth-2 Neal Adams. They return to the fray.
On Earth-1, The Flash1 comes out of his coma and tries to stand up. Fortunately, his wife Iris turns up at that point and takes him home for TLC, leaving the Canary on her own.
On Earth-2, the ringless Green Lantern2 is alone until the battered outfit return with their wounded soldiers, Flash2 and Superman1. GL1 summons his Power Battery and creates a duplicate ring for GL2: they take GL1’s oath together (as they took GL2’s oath together in the 1969 team-up), and return to the fray.
A-Rym, whose withdrawal symptoms are getting worse, is trying to work the Power Ring2. On the rocketship, his life-force glows, until, that is, the heroes arrive, joined simultaneously by the Robins, and Robin2’s batarang removes the ring from A-Rym’s grasp: his life-force dims, ending his last hope of being found.
A-Rym’s last burst of strength drains away, allowing Robin1 to best him, and he begins to shrink and fade, falling unconscious into Robin1’s arms.
Elsewhere in Slaughter Swamp, Solomon Grundy is on a destructive rampage, with the two Lanterns trying to halt him. They discover that, individually, neither ring has enough power, but once they combine their willpower, they can finally drain his of power, if not of life. Once Hawkman1 turns up with Power Ring2, however, the Lanterns can make Grundy safe for all time by sealing him into Slaughter Swamp behind an unbreakable green barrier.
On each Earth, the alien monsters are shrinking and fading. But a couple of comments about the coincidence of fighting two such beings, on different Earths, simultaneously, clue in the Robins to the true situation. The heroes bring A-Rym and Teppy back together, saving their lives, and so regenerating their life forces that S-Kyr can track and collect them and go home. It’s such a happy ending, even the two Hawkmen apologise to their respective Robins for under-rating them as kids
So everyone heads back to where they belong, including Robin1 to his interrupted case, musing over keeping his new costume (Schwarz invites the readers to write in and say if they want him to). He muses on how odd it is for Batman to be there at the beginning but not the end of a JLA case, but the caption warns that this is not the end, as we will see next issue…
* * * * *
Just as Julius Schwarz had, from the Fifties onwards, cultivated a small stable of writers and artists with whom he would work, in the Sixties he cultivated a small ‘stable’ of letter-writers, young, thoughtful, articulate, passionate and interesting boys (and in Irene Vartanoff, one girl), whose letters recurred time and again in his titles. It was hardly a surprise that almost all of them (“Our Favorite Guy”, Guy H. Lillian III, being the notable exception) went on to work in the industry.
“Castro Mike” Friedrich (from Castro Valley, California) was one such. In 1970, he replaced Denny O’Neill as Justice League of America scripter, bringing youthful enthusiasm and an eagerness to experiment with, amongst other things, the approaches of Marvel. His JLA stories were intended to be ongoing, as can be seen in this team-up, where the opening is heavily affected by carry-over issues from the previous story, and in which the final panel is loaded with a lead-in to the succeeding story, which follows on from that continuity laden opening.
In a way, that makes the entire team-up a diversion, an interruption to the League’s run of events, and to be honest, the story reads that way, an impression not helped by a letter from Friedrich printed in the comic, bitching about the monumental size of his task in setting up so many heroes in so few pages.
And he’s right: it is a hell of a task, and he makes an uncomfortable, awkward mess of it, from start to finish.
If it wasn’t already noticeable in itself, Friedrich takes no less than three full pages at the start of the second part to belabour the reader over the head with his gimmick for this story – thankfully never repeated – of only using pairs of heroes in the story, even to the extent of dragging in Robin the Teen Wonder as a guest star to complement the first appearance of the grown-up Earth-2 Robin since his 1967 début.
But having gimmicked his story, even to the extent of mixing the teams to get the pairs working in tandem, for “scientifically sound” reasons that are as transparently meaningless as anything ever published in comics, Friedrich does nothing of significance with them. Except, of course, introduce a clumsy ‘generation gap’ theme as the two Hawkmen – both portrayed as crusty, disrespectful veterans – each put down their respective Robins.
The menace itself is also a clumsy gesture by Friedrich. The intentions are good: the set-up is clearly aimed at exploring the misunderstood monster territory that, a year later, Len Wein and Berni Wrightson’s Swamp Thing would march into and occupy, but his treatment of it is awkward and ineffective.
Dillin drawing the aliens as identical yellow-skinned humanoids – wearing masks! Did they truly fear that someone might otherwise recognise them and strike back through their loved ones? – and the pets as cute puppy equivalents does not help one little bit. Even when they’re on a rampage, they look stupid rather than menacing.
And at intervals, just to ram down our throats that these guys are more to be pitied than feared, Friedrich treats us to lurid descriptions of heroin withdrawal pains, making an ill-suited comparison that is inappropriate given that A-Rym and Teppy are symbiotes, whose life depends on physical proximity. To illustrate this with addiction is not playing with equals.
There are so many little things about this story that do not hang together. It’s easy enough to limit the JSA contingent to only members with a Justice League counterpart, but not so simple to dispose of the rest of the League: in Friedrich’s world, they can’t simply not turn up to this particular meeting. Aquaman’s apparent snit (I did used to have most of Friedrich’s run but cannot recall anything of it now) takes care of him and his summons of Batman and Green Arrow moves them out, but it still leaves Black Canary as nursemaid, and requires that awkward page in part 2 with Iris turning up to take Barry off her hands.
I’ve already mentioned the “scientifically sound” nonsense, but there’s also this business about A’Rym and Teppy have only 37½ hours to live separately, which is an awkward choice of period. Presumably it’s meant to be a change from the usually state where alien deadlines somehow break down into multiples of 24 hours, but then Friedrich goes on to stipulate that 23 hours at least have already gone by during which the two lost babies were utterly harmless, and only now do they start getting big and in your face menaces.
The story is full of such contrivances which do not derive organically from a thought-through story but which are thrown in to keep things stumbling along, or make things convenient for the writer, like Solomon Grundy. There is absolute nothing in the story to support the notion that this Golden Age creation, with his terrible rages, should in any manner be able to substitute for Teppy and sustain little A-Rym’s life force, except the desperation of the writer to find an excuse to bring Grundy in as someone the heroes can fight who isn’t actually a helpless and scared kid.
Besides, after going so heavy on the heroin withdrawal stuff, Friedrich has painted himself into something of a corner when it comes to A-Rym’s durability.
Frankly, it’s a mess.
Of course, come the end of the day, it’s the much put-upon, sneered at Robins who solve the case. It’s put down to their having been trained by the greatest detective mind in history, Batman, to put infinitessimal clues together to make four where others have yet to spot either two but we all know that it’s really because they’re the Younger Generation, who can see things clearly where the Older Generation have eyes covered with scales. Especially when it comes to making peace, not war (a metaphor badly spoiled by the fact that the first and completely unnecessary punch in part 1 was slung by the Teen Wonder).
As for the two Hawkmen having been selected as the stuffy Older Generation, I’m assuming this was derived from the Thanagarian Hawkman’s role as law’n’order opposite to the hot-headed, ultra-liberal Green Arrow. It’s far less appropriate to the Reincarnate Egyptian Prince Hawkman, though Friedrich tries to justify it by having Robin2 excuse him because he wasn’t present on Adult Robin’s one previous JSA adventure to date.
Which casts severe doubt upon Richard Grayson’s deductive capabilities, because Hawkman2 was very present on that 1967 case.
Having come down hard on Friedrich over what he did do, it’s a shame to also criticise him on what he didn’t do. So far in DC’s comics, the Flashes had teamed-up, the Green Lantern’s had teamed-up, the Atoms had teamed-up, multiple times, but this was actually the first time the Hawkmen had appeared together. Not only do they appear together, they spend most of the story working in tandem, yet despite their similarly stiff-mindedness, there is barely a word spoken to or about each other.
Indeed, this is the only major occasion of which I am aware in which the Hawks appeared together, and they treat each other as no more than fellow team-mates. Not even a two-man flying team trick: Gardner Fox would have burned his typewriter rather than miss that opportunity.
This was Friedrich’s one and only script for the JLA/JSA’s team-ups. His run as scripter would end with issue 99, leaving his successor, another fan-turned-writer, Len Wein, with not only the 100th Anniversary issue, but also the tenth team-up as his first script. An uncommon task. Friedrich wrote only fourteen issues of Justice League of America, including this solitary team-up: Wein would write only fifteen issues, but his spell would include three team-ups, each of different length, and he would make the most significant change to the annual team-ups of them all.