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.

To be Brave and Bold: Part 2 – The Try-Outs Phase


According to their house ads, DC’s Showcase, which debuted in 1956, was a response to their reader’s demands for new characters and new stories. In one sense, that was true, except that Showcase existed because the readers weren’t buying whatever new characters the company put out and, by feeding these through a try-out title, DC could massively cut their extensive losses.
And Showcase worked: the Barry Allen Flash, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, Challengers of the unknown, Lois Lane; the list is magnificent.
But Showcase appeared on a bi-monthly basis, six time a year. With most of its features getting two and three-issue runs, there was something of a clog in the system. So, in issue 25, in 1959, The Brave and the Bold was given a new remit, to become ‘Showcase junior’. New characters, new stories would be tested here as well.
And, given that B&B‘s bi-monthly schedule was the opposite of Showcase‘s, that gave us new experiments every month of the year.

No

Robert Kanigher had replaced Whitney Ellsworth in issue 23. He’d started by making the Viking Prince the sole character, though whether this was to run through the existing stories without wasting any, or a silent preview of the new direction, I do not know. What I do know is that B&B‘s first subjects were a Kanigher creation. These were the original Suicide Squad.
One thing to note quickly is that, as soon as he became editor, Kanigher changed the logo on the cover. Previously, the design, housed in a banner, dominated in the usual manner, but from issue 23, Kanigher had it drastically reduced in size, to emphasize the subject logo: the Viking Prince, not the Suicide Squad, etc.
The original Suicide Squad bears very little resemblance to their present day successors, only the overall idea that Task Force X carries out suicide missions. All I knew of them before came from Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant The New Frontier (really one of the best things DC’s published this century). The group consist of ex-Air Force pilot and war veteran Rick Flag, the team leader, Flight-medic Karin Grace, physicist Jesse Bright and Astronomer Dr (Hugh) Evans. All four were survivors of terrible incidents in which the dying told them to ‘carry on for us’, placing them under an immense burden that prevented Flag from giving way and making love to Karin, who loved him: they had a duty to both the dead and the living that came first, besides Jesse and Dr Evans were also crazy in love with her and it might affect team morale. Were we in any doubt about this being written by Bob Kanigher?
Actually, the mental diversions everybody has to relate these repetitious incidents clogs down the opening story, where the Squad fight and eventually defeat a mutating monster by turning it into a frozen satellite circling Earth, whilst leaving themselves trapped in a space rocket almost 90,000,000 miles away from the planet, and all without any of the men so much as even loosening their ties (an odd pre-echo of their fate in The New Frontier).
There were two stories in issue 26, the first bringing Task Force X back to Earth whilst shrinking them so that they accidentally discover and destroy an enemy atomic sub-base about to fire missiles run by the only country (unnamed but they use a wolf insignia) that dare attack America, and of course destroy it. If the synopsis sounds off, don’t worry, the full story is one of Kanigher’s freewheeling, make it up as I go along disasters that clunks from the moment the team discovers their rocket comes equipped with a box of matches in case the power goes out (I am not making this up), not to mention engineering collisions with meteorites to increase their speed (nor that): sheesh!
After that, the back-up story is merely silly about a giant serpent emerging out of the metro in Paris that can only be destroyed by putting a plastic bag over its head, whilst both stories are filled with Karin’s obsession with getting Flag to pull her knickers down and his stone-faced refusal to even think about it, which puts me in mind of Kanigher’s treatment of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. Suicide Squad did not get its own title.
They got a third shot, a book-length story again, similarly wasted on another monster, this time emerging from a lake As you would, the monster goes for Karin first, and she spends most of the story in a strapless black swimsuit that manages to look unflattering.
The Suicide Squad would get a second try-out later. In fact, in total only four would-be series would appear in this phase of Brave and Bold, of whom two only would get series, the second through no thanks to B&B. Coming up next was the one unqualified success the title produced.

YES!!!

Of course I mean the Justice League of America, issues 28-30, written by Gardner Fox, drawn by Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs, with Julius Schwartz taking over the editorial chair for the next duration. I really don’t need to say anything about these three issues because we all know what happened. That this was intended to be a revival of the Justice Society of America except that Schwartz always thought that Society was a bad name for a team fighting heroes, so changed it to League. That in the Roll Call for the first story, J’onn J’onzz was named as John Jones. And that in his usual manner Schwartz opened up a lettercol and in issue 30 dealt with: the Justice Society, why Green Arrow or any of the teen sidekicks weren’t members (not enough space), why Superman and Batman didn’t feature as much (they’re absolutely everywhere else so we’ll play up the others – no mention of Mort Weisinger prowling with an axe) and why not team the teen sidekicks up as the Junior Justice League (we’re thinking about it, but they thought about it for a long time).

No!

‘Normal’ B&B service resumed with issue 31, this time featuring Cave Carson – Adventures INSIDE EARTH. For this Jack Schiff took up editing, assisted by Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan, but the result was just another monster romp, in fact two of them. Cave Carson (clean-shaven unlike more recent depictions of him) goes investigating underground in the Mighty Mole (a souped-up hot limo with a laser to cut through stone instead of a super-borer) alongside Christie Madison and Bulldozer Smith.
Essentially, this was another attempt to rip off the dynamics of Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, another twist on Sea Devils and Rip Hunter, Time Master. On the strength of the first story, by France Herron and Bruno Premiani, it was one too many trips to the well. Neither of the other two issues offered anything better, though Premiani was immediately replaced by an unfamiliar artist with a much more jagged style (and issue 32 contained a plug for the JLA’s own magazine, so the wait wasn’t at all long). Underground civilizations planning to invade the surface, aliens using giant metal robots to invade the surface (with Christie reduced to a cameo appearance): imagination was not a feature.
So to the first highlight of this phase. I speak of Hawkman, edited by Julius Schwartz, written by Gardner Fox, drawn by Joe Kubert, three gorgeous issues that, unfortunately not unaccountably, flopped.

Mmmmaybe…

Hawkman was the fourth of Schwartz’s moves to revive Golden Age heroes and if goodwill counted, he was going to be a shoo-in. Gardner Fox wrote a long letter about the creation of both original character. Leading fan Roy Thomas virtually pleaded for the old upper-and-lower beak helmet, and Joe Kubert wrote to express his delight at returning to the Feathered Fury. The middle issue followed the pattern of having two stories but that was repeated for the final issue, no 36, instead of another book-lengther.
Then, nothing.
Why didn’t Hawkman take off the way Flash and Green Lantern had? His stories were more wide-ranging and imaginative than the Suicide Squad and Cave Carson (no monsters in sight), and Kubert’ art was stunning: lyrical, elegant, varying his angles. But that was the problem. Kubert was good and very good, but his style, which had been mostly used in the war stories, no longer suited superheroes. There was a house-style at DC, rounded, clear, touched with blandness, and Kubert looked nothing like that.
For issues 37-39, it was back to Kanigher and the Suicide Squad, ‘By Popular Demand’ (if there had been popular demand they’d have been in their own mag, not Brave & Bold). It was exactly the same nonsense. In the first story, the Squad’s been disbanded for no reason except to have it recalled to battle the menace of intelligent dinosaurs – who have the power to turn green sweaters black by breathing on them – invading from a parallel Earth via Karin’s paintings. That Karin has a talent for painting isn’t discovered until the second story, which is mission 4 to the first run’s missions 1 to 3, notable for being the one in which I recognised the stupidity of sending an athletic woman out to run, jump and hurl herself about flexibility in a 1960 tight-fitting below-the-knee skirt. Madness.
This last three part run was more of the same with no real difference, linked by an unusual obsession with dinosaurs in each comic not to mention the lovely Karin’s desire (which eventually came true in The New Frontier) to get into deadly situations so she can die with him (I suppose that when the man you love refuses to even kiss you, let alone help you out of your too-tight-to-fight skirt it’s some consolation.)
It was time for Cave Carson to have another try, though this was limited to only two issues. The stories were the same cheap garbage – monster, monster, monster, bloody monster – but with the appeal of Joe Kubert giving us something to look at it. And not even Joe on issue 41 but someone trying to ape his style in a more deliberately cartoonish manner.
Meanwhile, Julius Schwartz wasn’t giving up on Hawkman so easily, bring him back for issues 42-44, but without making any significant changes to the approach. The first story took the hawks back to Thanagar, related how Katar and Shayera first met, and saw Hawkman be awarded the wings on his helmet he’s worn ever since.
The Hawks got back to Midway City next issue, much to the delight of Mavis Trent, to face down some old Thanagarian enemies, but this second run was no better at persuading the readers to buy Hawkman in enough copies. Meanwhile, via Showcase, Schwartz had had far more success in getting the new Atom into his own book. It would take only four issues of Murphy Anderson art in Mystery in Space to work that trick.
But this phase was nearly at an end. To close out the try-out spell, Brave & Bold devoted five issues to ‘Strange Sports Stories’, something you can’t imagine being intended as a possible comic in it’s own right.Only four of the issues were accessible off my DVD but I don’t mind that much. The theme is mixing sports and science fiction together and I think that if I’d known it had ben done before, I probably wouldn’t have dared write my Tempus Fugitive. There really is no such thing as an original idea, and this one is so oddball, it’s almost impossible to describe.
But that was the end of it. With issue 50, The Brave and the Bold was once again re-purposed. We’ll look at that era next time.

A Spot of Adventure: The Bronze Age – Part 1


Enter Supergirl

She’d been around for ten years, initially as Superman’s secret cousin, hidden away in Midvale Orphanage until he was certain she knew what she was doing which, given how he was used to treating Lois and Lana, was not a recipe for total disaster, oh no gollum. After four years, and an adoption by Fred and Edna Danvers, her cousin revealed her to the world, instantly becoming the world’s favourite blonde teenager. She’d gone on to Stanhope College, still wearing her brunette wig, still loyally backing up Cousin Kal in Action Comics. And in June 1969, Supergirl transferred from Action to Adventure Comics, bouncing out the Legion of Super-Heroes to claim her first real solo slot. The Legion – all 26 of them – had to exist in the back-up slot in Action. She would lead Adventure for the next forty-four issues, into the Bronze Age.
Whereas there is a pretty firm consensus as to the beginning and end of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver Age, there’s no such unanimity about the transition from Silver to Bronze. I’ve chosen for the purposes of this series of posts to make the transition from the Legion to Supergirl as the marker: you are welcome to suggest any alternate time.
But by 1969, people who had started out as fans had started to have scripts and art accepted at DC. Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich had preceded them at Marvel. But some of the medium’s respected writers of the next couple of decades were starting out, taking over from those veterans whose attempt to secure a future for themselves led to their gradual ejection from DC.
I didn’t think much of the first story, which saw Supergirl going undercover at a ‘Sleuth School’ that was training shapely females (don’t look at me, that was the scripter’s word) to carry out robberies under hypnosis. It was just a bit too herky-jerky, with a poorly timed conclusion that revealed that Batgirl was also undercover with the same goal, not to mention a trip to the Batcave when Batman and Robin were ‘out’, without tripping a single alarm. But it was Supergirl’s first book-length story ever.
When placed against the next couple of issues, it quickly started looking like a classic. But there was an intriguing story as the lead in issue 384. Her room-mates’ use of the Campus Matchmaker computer inspires Supergirl to use her cousin’s supercomputer at the Fortress to pick out an off-world hero for her. Minus thirty points for such a condescending introduction, but plus fifty or so for having Volar’s planet be a Chauvinist heaven, in which all the women are brainwashed from birth to see themselves as fit only to be servants to men. Supergirl is determined to show how stupid that is, and Volar is on her side until one day he turns on her and drives her off the planet because the serum that gives him his powers can no longer be reproduced. Supergirl is happy to accept Volar for whatever he is after he stops being strong, handsome and dreamy, until she learns the truth of what Volar is and leaves humiliated and heart-broken. Because Volar is like her – a girl. Yes, there’s a weird mixture of sexual politics in here, and a lesbian undertone buried much deeper than it used to be in old Wonder Woman comics.
On the other hand, emboldened by Supergirl, Volar decides to carry on superheroing, as a girl, and start to change ‘his’ planet the long, slow way.

Coose costume

Yet I should be aware that this is the tail-end of the era when Supergirl’s series was a way for girls to enjoy superhero comics, with romances, dates and heartbreaks. Yes, it is patronising, to our eyes fifty years on, and the stories are tedious when they’re not being silly. But this is because they were intended for an audience of which I never formed part, and I should bear that in mind.
But that was until issue 396, for with that issue, Mort Weisinger stood down as editor of Adventure Comics. The role was given to Mike Sekowsky, former Justice League of America artist and one of the new editors that Editorial Director Carmine Infantino was bringing in from the pool of artists. Sekowsky had already taken over Wonder Woman and promptly removed her powers, turning her into a Diana Rigg-like human agent: what might he have planned for the Maid of Steel?
In one word: Change. To begin with, Sekowsky took over pencilling Supergirl and, from the look of it, writing the feature itself. His first story began with a bored Linda Danvers going shopping (?) for new fashions, with one of the groovy dress-shops she hit being the one where the non-super Diana Prince now worked. Next up, a new magical threat on campus shreds Supergirl’s staid old costume. With Ms Prince’s assistance she came up with a change of style that was hip, groovy and utterly horrible: a tabard-like miicro and thigh length red boots ought to look seriously hot but far from it (the new costume was chosen from reader’s suggestions over the past few months, and judging by the alternatives depicted on the cover, this one actually was the best, my life!).
The back-up story fared better by introducing a new regular creep in Nasty. This nick-name was short for Nastalthia, a name I’ve only ever heard elsewhere in Milton Caniff’s Terry and The Pirates (if you’re going to steal, steal from the gods). Nasty was out to discover Supergirl’s secret identity for her Uncle: Uncle Lex Luthor, that is.

The bathing-suit one

The next issue introduced a new logo for the ‘New Supergirl’ but only one Sekowsky story, the lead being a particularly naff reprint from Supergirl’s High School days. And there was another reprint the next month, but as this was an unpublished Golden Age Black Canary tale with prime Infantino art, it was the highlight of the issue.
And so to Adventure 400. Only two other DC Comics had reached the number by 1970, only four titles had run longer. Sekowsky celebrated by delving into the past for the return of Supergirl’s old foe, the Black Flame, a comeback that fell flat for one latterday reader who has to ask Black Who?
It might be a new era for Supergirl, with Sekowsky confounding the old expectations to the point where expectations left town, but that didn’t avert the double nadir of issue 401, in which the Supergirl lead turned out to be a dream, and a new back-up, Tracey Thompson, debuted. Who or what was Tracey Thompson? She was an inquisitive girl with a less-inquisitive friend. Have series been built on lesser information than that? Probably, but I wouldn’t want to read them.
Anyway, Tracey and Betsy lasted exactly two episodes before being abandoned whilst Sekowsky started to churn things up even faster. In issue 404, Supergirl was fed a pill that turned her powers on and off and two issues later she graduated from Stanhope College, inadvertently revealed her secret identity to Nasty, moved to San Francisco to join a TV news team and found Nasty joining her there, intent on exposing her. Also, her new costume got burned up: guess it wasn’t as popular as the letter columns suggested.

With guest star reprints

Issue 407 introduced a newer, and even uglier costume, whose military style top and red pants made it look even bulkier and more awkward than the first. It also reminded me that I’d once owned this comic.
I’d definitely stopped buying all comics, American or British, after September 1970 and wouldn’t resume until January 1974. This issue would have reached Britain sometime around June/July 1971. But once I started again, and accelerated by discovering my first comics shop in Manchester, with back-issues, I kept stabbing at filling in the gap. I had a few Supergirl Adventures, a product of collecting the later and short-lived Supergirl title. This was the oldest I recognise.
By the time of the back-up story in issue 408, Supergirl’s red pants had turned to blue, and I was already sick of Nastalthia’s constant needling of Linda Danvers about being Supergirl.
The next month saw the adoption of a new 48 page size format, and a then-massive leap from 15 to 25 cents. This was an adventurous policy by DC, trying to avert an increase to 20c for the same old package by leaping past it to give more for the money, the more in this instance being selected Legion reprints. It was supposed to be a joint venture, agreed with Marvel but, after just one month at this size, Martin Goodman pulled his last great shark-move and pulled back to 32 pages at 20c, undercutting DC and further cutting into their market.
As for the original material, I was surprised to find a back-up story that not only cut Sekowsky out with script by E. Nelson Bridwell and art by Art Saaf but provided Supergirl with yet another new costume, and this time an attractive one, being basically a backless blue bathing suit with a fair amount of the sides cut away, plus cape and red boots. Decidedly sexist and decidedly hot.
The swimsuit outfit only lasted one half-length back-up because it was replaced in the following issue by the costume Supergirl would wear for the next decade plus, the loose long-sleeved blouse with the miniature Super-logo on the left breast, the red frilly tennis-knickers and the lace-up moccasins. And there was a change in editorial leadership as Sekowsky was replaced by former EC Artist Joe Orlando, who would take Adventure into some strange places, as we shall see in the next instalment.
But, oy! The stories that Orlando started with. Plain, dull, even stupid stories by John Albano and Bob Oksner, with clean, neat art but not heart and silly premises. Sekowsky had at least tried to do something new. Only the new costume worked.
I’m sorry to go on about the costume thing but issue 412 featured a rogue Supergirl impersonator wearing the tabard-and-thigh-boots outfit whilst the real Supergirl wore an all-blue all body sleek costume that looks like the one Melissa Benoit wore into Crisis on Infinite Earths but the story was an horrendous mish-mash, dragging Supergirl into space for a careering fight with no logical development to it. Adventure had literally lost the plot.
The Legion reprints went out the window in favour of an eclectic mix of characters – Animal Man, Zatanna, Hawkman, Robotman – whilst the sleek, form-fitting blue costume stayed for an issue before the blouse and tennis knickers one was back in issue 414, another of my former back-issue acquisitions, which I remembered well, especially for its cover.
Ridiculously, yet another costume, an off, impractical, sleeveless square-necked blue top with red mini-skirt was used in the front of issue 415 before the long-term look came back in the back. That however was the end of the Constantly-Changing-Costumes, but not of the uninspiring stories. Frankly, only the changing back-ups, mixing new work and unexpected reprints, was worth attention, as these certainly went in for oddities.

The permanent version

But DC’s run at 48 pages was always going to be limited and this came to an end with issue 420, and announcements as to a cutback to 32 pages and 20 cents. The last Supergirl story was an oddball tale set in space, a whirlwind effort of love, War and death that nowhere anchored itself to reality. It used Dylan Thomas for its evocative title, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, a line the story bent itself to accommodate. I searched it out as a back-issue on reading a letter-of-comment giving it extravagant praise and was once mightily impressed. Now, I’m just wondering how such a ragged thing ever got published.
I was familiar too with the next story, a farrago involving black magic that tied itself to a spurious significance by turning the evil witch into Supergirl’s easily-eliminated death-wish, but I remember it mainly for the truly astonishing art, by the impossible but somehow gloriously effective team of Mike Sekowsky and Bob Oksner, a combination no more compatible than than Pablo Picasso inked by Norman Rockwell. But it worked.
Then it all finally ran out of time and place. Adventure 424 was a mainly down to Earth adventure about a Syndicate stool-pigeon that took an incongruous turn into outer space but this was the last time these flying by the seat of the pants stories would appear in Adventure. Some memorable art from Tony de Zuniga ended with Linda Danvers throwing a fit of pique, walking out of her job, her life in San Francisco, her rivalry with Nastalthia and her unrequited love for her boss Geoff, the guy who, three months earlier, had gotten her past her death wish and become closer to her than any man before: not that close, obviously.
Supergirl cleared the decks to go into her own title (which would only last thirteen issues) and Adventure was given a two-month hiatus, presumably because nobody had any idea what to do next.
What they did do next will be the subject of the last part of this series.

Don’t boither remembering her this way

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.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1967


Justice League of America 55, “The Super-Crisis that struck Earth-2!”/Justice League of America 56, “The Negative Crisis between Earths 1-2!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Sid Greene (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

In China, bandit How Chu is tied to a stake, awaiting execution, when a black sphere appears out of the sky and merges into him. He gains immense strength and invulnerability to bullets and escapes to continue robbing. In Chicago, stenographer Claire Morton is dreaming of jewellery during her lunch hour when a black sphere merges with her: she smashes the windows and steals the gems. In London, businessman Horace Rowland is striding towards the bank to complete a profitable business deal when a sphere lands near him, and he picks it up out of curiosity: he breaks into the vault with great strength and steals the cash. Lastly, ex-fielder Marty Baxter, invalided out of the game due to arthitic pain, is disconsolately watching baseball when he too is merged: full of anger, he sets out to destroy the stadiu,.
Rapidly, all four people adopt costumes and start a crime rampage.
All this, we learn, has taken place on Earth-2, where the Justice Society are meeting to welcome their first new member in 19 years. This is Robin, the former Boy Wonder, now fully grown and inducted into the JSA as an (implicit) successor to Batman (who is not present: though semi-retired, he takes on special cases and is off on one at the moment).
Robin’s first mission is to assist the JSA against these four super-powered crooks. The Sports-Smasher beats Wildcat and Robin into a pulp. Wonder Woman is beaten by Gem Girl’s ability to manipulate jewels to assist her. Hawkman and Mr Terrific are brought down by the Money Master’s ability to manipulate external objects and floor them, whilst Hourman tackles How Chu, but is left buried by his ability to conjure up whirlwinds.
The defeated JSA return to their meeting rooms to find Johnny Thunder, who’d been late, waiting for them. Directly he hears what’s been going on, Johnny T sends his Thunderbolt to capture the four super-crooks, but half an hour later, the Bolt returns, beaten and bruised and unsuccessful.
Crestfallen, Johnny sends the Bolt to Earth-1 to bring back some Justice Leaguers, in the hope they have some new ideas. The Bolt returns with Superman, The Flash, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, all of whom are similarly dishevelled, and none too pleased at being snatched off their Earth. It seems they have been struggling against similar super powered foes and didn’t like being interrupted. However, they agree to stay and see if a joint action can bring any results they can take back to Earth-1.
By chance, it is revealed that the Thunderbolt, being less dumb that Johnny Thunder, has checked out what the black spheres are. It appears that they were creatures from another Universe. They, and it, had reached the peak of evolution and, when their Universe began to fall back, flung themselves into Earth-2’s Universe, hoping to connect with creatures that can help them survive and grow further.
Unfortunately, for the black spheres, only four of them made contact with humans and, unfortunately for everybody else, a chemical reaction between the two has turned the humans evil. What’s worse is that, at the moment, the black spheres are dormant in their hosts’ bodies. When they awake to full sentience, they will be unstoppable.
End of part one.


Suddenly, Robin has a brainwave. Only four black spheres may have connected with humans, but all the others may have left radiation that they can use to enhance their own powers. The four fastest heroes team-up to find, mark and mine sites, eventually gathering enough radiation to energise four heroes. Because they have powers already, these are Earth-2’s Wonder Woman and Hourman, and Earth-1’s Flash and Green Lantern. And because each of them will be vulnerable to the evil effects of the radiation, each is accompanied by other heroes.
Superman and Robin accompany Hourman to Rome, where Marty Baxter is carrying on his destructive course. As soon as he comes within the villain’s influence, Hourman turns against and fights his colleagues. He is beating them when Robin realises that Hourman has unnecessarily avoided his blow when on the banks of the Tiber: bodychecking his team-mate into the river, he confirms that the black spheres are affected by water, and Superman brings the irradiated hero down.
Hawkman and Green Arrow and tracking the Flash against How Chu, until the Flash goes bad. However, Green Arrow that notices that the Flash preferred to cut, dangerously, across the path of one of his trick arrows rather than run through a wisteria field: the heroes are tipping their colleagues off as to their weaknesses, and the black spheres are allergic to wisteria blossom.
Wildcat and Mr Terrific are shadowing Green Lantern as Horace Rowland is now robbing in Scotland (complete with steam trains and gorges). But when the Lantern uses a power ring glove to punch Wildcat up into a tree, it breaks off a branch that floors the Emerald Gladiator: wisely, the two heroes grab branches and beat the crap out of him.
Finally, Wonder Woman, with Johnny and his Thunderbolt for company, trails Gem Girl to the villains lair. As soon as she turns bad, the Amazon Princess knocks Johnny out and actually starts fighting her opponent, until they inadvertently smash a water-cooler, which wakes him up. Gem Girl flees as the Bolt discovers that the black sphere people have been simply reflecting his magic back at him.
Nervously, Johnny tries to clear the air with a joke, a terrible joke, but Wonder Woman giggles. Encouraged, he tries another (equally bad) which renders her helpless with laughter: it is a major, major black sphere weakness.
Having incapacitated Wonder Woman, Johnny advances to find all the villains together with the Bolt warning him that the spheres themselves are about to wake up. Fortunately, Johnny has not exhausted his stock of cheap gags, creasing up the villainous quartet until the Bolt can drive the spheres out of everybody’s bodies, to their death.
Almost immediately, heroes arrive from all over with water, wisteria and wood, only to discover that they’ve been outdone by, er, wit. Kindly, they don’t let on to Johnny that he hasn’t saved the day all alone, not that he’d notice as he’s so busy writing out jokes for the Justice League quartet to take back to Earth-1 to overcome their black spheres…
* * * * *
It’s Johnny Thunder again, isn’t it? Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed. At least it’s the real Johnny Thunder this time, in all his… glory… and not some purple jacketed imposter.
Having run out of old Justice Society members to bring back, Fox and Schwarz went to the opposite extreme and inducted a new JSA member for the first time in almost two decades. In doing so,they acknowledged a point that the previous year’s team-up had rather fudged – that the whole Golden Age revival to this point had fudged – which was the question of whether there were also two of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
So now we know there were, which opened up a smaller but, for those interested in the minutiae of continuity, absolutely fascinating can of very exclusive worms. Batman exists in the Justice Society (though it is noticeable that he can’t be bothered to turn up to celebrate his ward’s graduation into the big time). And if Batman exists on Earth-2, Fox and Schwarz can introduce Wonder Woman for a first active adventure.
Needless to say, there is little (or in Wonder Woman’s case, no) time spared to explore the differences between the Earth-2 edition and the standard model. The Earth-2 version is staider in her fashion tastes, preferring to retain those laced Grecian sandals than revert to red and yellow boots. However, it is Robin who is the sartorial highlight, choosing for some incredulous reason to retain the design of his costume but kit it out in Batman’s colours, whilst retaining his yellow cape and insisting on a symbol of a bright red R superimposed on a headless bat.
The story is astonishingly simple compared to previous editions of the team-up. Villains rob. Villains beat JSA. Villains beat Thunderbolt (offstage). Thunderbolt hauls in four JLAers to make it into a team-up before Fox goes into typically talky ending to explain what’s going on. Heroes supercharge some of their number to try to compete. Each one goes evil and, in Marvel fashion, turns on their team-mates. However, in Fox fashion, each drops a clue as to how they can be beaten and Johnny Thunder saves the day (he actually does, you know: the others didn’t get there in time).
What bulks the tale out is splitting the action into four fights each time, with each fight taking rather longer than most JLA/JSA encounters have previously done, in which we see the growing influence of Marvel again. Bigger art, more fights, heroes turning upon one another (albeit via a perfectly reasonable alien influence, they would never have done that normally). The Sixties were beginning to catch-up to DC.
Structurally, Fox once again rings the changes. The action, this time, takes place wholly on Earth-2, and for the first part, the Justice League are literally out of sight and out of mind, until page 20 of 23. The overwhelming prominence of the Society, and the fact that the League are in exactly the same state as them, deprives the move of the suggestion it might once have had  of the JSA being inferior.
And Fox is careful to split the heroes chosen to be infected with the black sphere radiation equally among the teams, although by this point there are nearly twice as many JSA as JLA.
It should be noticed that, with this team-up, Dr Fate loses his perfect record, and that Mr. Terrific doubles his previous number of missions with the Justice Society. Twice in three years: unfortunately, this was not the beginning of a new lease of life for the Man of a Thousand Talents, the Defender of Fair Play: he would appear in action only twice in the next decade, the second of these very briefly before his death. But that’s a matter for another day.
This story is also a good illustration of the attitudes that Americans have towards those lesser beings who fill out the more unimportant parts of this planet. As an English citizen, I obviously look with a critical eye upon money magnate Horace Rowlands. True, he is introduced in bowler hat, rolled umbrella and briefcase, and it’s only when he gains super-powers that he acquires a florid top hat and a monocle (none of the villains fare well on costumes, except for Gem Girl, with her mini-dress, kinky boots and utterly chic little hat).
But as Horace, he’s an accurate picture of a City-based businessman of the time, and at least he doesn’t have a double-barrelled surname, and I for one have seen dozens of incredibly more insulting portrayals down the years in American comics.
Though I do have issues with the idea of England sending its as yet unstolen gold into Scotland on trains travelling on wooden trestles across deep gorges in the Scottish Highlands that are far to the north of cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh that might have security facilities better than the Bank of England for gold bullion. Gorges, incidentally, in which primroses grow and apple trees offer bright red apples of a shade not even a supermarket has yet produced.
But you can’t complain about that when you’ve got the question of How Chu (and yes, that gag is also in there). How Chu is a Chinese bandit, which is an almighty cliché in itself. In 1967, China was a Communist country, saving only Nationalist China on the island of Taiwan. This much is, apparently, recognised when we meet How Chu about to be executed by Chinese Communist Soldiers.
However, once How Chu makes his black sphere inspired escape, he dresses something like a Mongol warrior from the days of Ghenghis Khan, and robs ancient Chinese merchants on the Silk Road from Lanchow to Kashgar (so, not Taiwan, then). The Silk Road, of which there are many, was a trading route from the west into China, dating back to the First Century BCE. The Chinese merchants (on a 2,000 year old road) in Communist China, are being chauffeured in an ancient, black 1930’s car of a kind usually only found in very early Terry and the Pirates adventures, before Milton Caniff started doing research. These merchants, in Communist China, are carrying bags of gold and are dressed in mandarin suits of bright collars, in which they stand, hunch-shouldered, their hands concealed in their great, wide, drooping sleeves, whilst wearing little skull-caps on shaven heads.
Nearly a decade later, Paul Levitz would become the first Justice Society writer to exploit the fact that Earth-2 was a different planet, likely with a different political history. It’s possible that, in a subtle manner, Fox and Schwarz may be prefiguring his efforts by presenting a China that had never known a Mao Tse-Tung. But I doubt it.
It was all so long ago, and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. And yes, it was a kid’s comic. But it is emblematic of the total disregard for accuracy as to conditions in other countries that typified mainstream America than and, sadly, now.
I nevertheless enjoyed it in 1967, and the fun it brought me burns still in my memories, meaning that I can specify its flaws, and still forgive it those failings, because a part of me lives in this story still.
And a shout out must be made about the horribly dull titles for this pair of issues.
Unfortunately, this is one of those that could very easily be adapted to fit the post-Crisis canon. It sorta works that way, doesn’t it?

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1965


Justice League of America 37, “Earth – Without a Justice League!”/Justice League of America 38, “Crisis on Earth-A!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Bernard Sachs (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

At last Johnny Thunder has received an invite to a Justice Society meeting. It’s been very frustrating, them having adventures without him. He calls on his Thunderbolt, only to find that, after having had nothing to do for so long (17 years), the Bahdnesian Hex-Bolt was about to try Earth-1, in the hope that its Johnny Thunder had something for it to do. The easily-distracted Johnny muses about wanting to meet his Earth-1 equivalent, and the Bolt immediately zaps them there.
The Earth-1 Thunder, who lives in a small, ill-kept apartment room, looks identical to Johnny, except for his frown and his preference for purple jackets, not green. He has the same history as Johnny but, being a crook, was never given a Thunderbolt. Johnny sympathises: Thunder knocks him out and, after a few tries at getting the right words, eventually hits on “Cei-u” (i.e., Say you), and orders the Bolt to hop down to the local factory and rob it of its payroll.
Hopping down literally (he is a literal being), the Thunderbolt, being rusty, misjudges and bangs his head against the safe. This attracts the attention of Barry Allen, who changes to the Flash and intervenes. Surprisingly, as someone whose favourite comic book was Flash Comics, Barry-Flash does not recognise the Thunderbolt of another Flash alumni. The Bolt escapes when a suspicious and impatient Thunder orders his return.
When he hears about the Flash, Thunder comes up with a grandiose plan to prevent the Justice League from interfering: he sends the Bolt back into time to prevent all of them ever coming to be.
Thus the Thunderbolt intercepts the lightning bolt bound for Barry Allen’s lab: no chemical bath, no Flash. He converts Krypton’s fissionable uranium core to lead: no explosion, no rocket containing baby Kal-El. He prevents the blast of yellow radiation from crashing Abin Sur’s spaceship: he remains Green Lantern elsewhere in this sector. He smashes the fragment of white dwarf star matter that Ray Palmer would have used to create the Atom’s size and weight changing controls. He shorts out Dr Erdel’s electronic brain before it teleports the Martian Manhunter to Earth. And he drops into Detective Comics 27, into the first panel of Batman’s career, and helps the crooks he faced whale the shit out of Bruce Wayne, who concludes that being a crimefighter was a silly idea and he’s going back to being a playboy!
In similar, but unspecified fashion, the Thunderbolt also disrupts the origins of Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Hawkman. When he returns to Thunder, utterly exhausted, he advises him that the Earth has now been changed into an alternate: Thunder promptly christens it Earth-A.
Meanwhile, on Earth-2, the other Justice Society members – The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman, Doctor Fate and Mr. Terrific – are wondering where Johnny has got to. There’s no trace of him on Earth-2 in Fate’s crystal ball, but they pick up the trace of his Thunderbolt disappearing into Earth-1. Looking for the Bolt there, the JSA eavesdrop on a scene of Thunder assembling his gang to go out and rob now the Justice League are no longer there to stop them. Horrified and mystified at their counterparts’ disappearance, the Justice Society head for Earth-1.
Once there, they interrupt Thunder’s gang’s robbery. The gang are easily captured and Thunder sets the Bolt against them, with orders that the Bolt interprets very literally: slap ’em down, kick them off the Earth. The Bolt refuses to kill: that is Tabu. As the JSA are too much for the Bolt, Thunder orders him to get them out of there.
After visiting various of the putative Justice Leaguers and discovering they know nothing of their heroic lives, the JSA regroup. They decide to disguise themselves as various JLA members, in the hope that their appearance will cause Thunder to blurt out what he’s done to them. Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom become their Earth-1 equivalents, Doctor Fate and Mr. Terrific impersonate Superman and Batman which Hawkman opts to cover the Martian Manhunter.
Once the Bolt tells Thunder that the JSA have ‘vanished’, he goes out to rob a cruise liner, using only the Bolt. The disguised JSA catch up with them and Thunder does indeed blurt out what he’s done, but despite instructing the Bolt to split himself into six, one for each ‘Justice Leaguer’, each Bolt is only one-sixth and strong. The ‘League’ prevail and Thunder and the Bolt flee again.
Having discovered just who the ‘JLA’ were, Thunder adopts the same plan. The Bolt breaks six of his gang members out of jail and substitutes each of them in the various Leaguers origins. Thus, when the JSA find Thunder’s lair, they are confronted by a six-man Lawless League. In preparation for the fight, the Bolt removes the JSA’s disguises, leaving the two sides ready to face-off
End of part 1.

In anticipation of the fight, Thunder has the Bolt set him up with wide-screen TV. Black & white is not acceptable, even though Batman is beating Mr Terrific: by the time the screen changes to colour, the roles have been reversed. Each JSA member takes on the Lawless League equivalent of the one they impersonated. In each case, the Lawless League seem strong at first, but are easily taken out by the JSA: the Bolt explains that it is a matter of experience with powers.
Infuriated, Thunder has the Bolt whip up an earthquake, a hurricane and a typhoon to assault the JSA, knocking three members out immediately. Hawkman grabs the capes of Doctor Fate and Green Lantern, struggling to hold them aloft, whilst the other three fall into a crevasse. Once out of the wind, Terrific grabs a spur of rock, The Flash supports himself by drumming his heels to create wind pressure that stops him falling, and once the Atom wakes up, the three are propelled upwards, like a circus act. They help Hawkman as his wings are torn off, and once recovered Doctor Fate and Green Lantern anchor themselves in a magical gondola.
Frustrated, Thunder decides to escape by having the Bolt take him to the Moon. Once there, he demands air be added.
Whilst his team-mates search for Thunder, Doctor Fate attempts to undo the Bolt’s interference with history, but it is accomplished magic and he can do nothing. However, the Flash has discovered the column of air leading towards the Moon, and the JSA set off in pursuit.
On the Moon, Thunder has had the Bolt create three monsters to destroy the JSA. When the heroes arrive, The Atom and Mr. Terrific charge into the attack against Medusa-Man, but his face changes them both into solid wood: Fate stops him by covering his face with a blank gold mask. Hawkman and the Flash attack Repello-Man, who repels their assaults back at them, knocking them out of the fight. And Green Lantern pours it on against Absorbo-Man, who then sends all the power back at him, wiping him out.
This leaves Doctor Fate alone against the remaining two monsters. He takes out Repello-Man by flinging bolts of reverse magic at him: when Repello-Man tries to repel them, they are reversed and attracted to him, shattering him. As for Absorbo-Man, Fate banks on his having absorbed the weakness of Green Lantern’s power ring as well as its power: hurling Atom and Terrific’s wooden bodies against him, he causes Absorbo-Man to crumble.
By now at screaming pitch, Thunder turns the Bolt against Fate, in an all-out magic war, but as they fling all manner of bolts at each other, thunder is caught in the middle, battered from all sides until he finally screams that he has had enough, that he wants none of this to ever have happened and to see none of them ever again.
The Justice League of America gather for a routine meeting at which the only crime news is about a small-time crook named Johnny Thunder. The Flash, smiling, suggests that he’s heard of that name before. The Thunderbolt winks at the reader: he knows what happened, but he isn’t sharing it.
* * * * *
Ok, it’s the ending, isn’t it?
It’s an unashamed “And then they woke up, and it was all a dream”, even though it’s not even that, because it all never happened, not even in a dream, and no-one remembers it. Except the Thunderbolt. Oh, yes, and the readers.
I’ve no idea how far you have to go to find a time when it was possible to get away with that kind of ending, but I suspect it was way before 1965. On the other hand, when I read this adventure, in two widely separated parts, in 1966, I was ten years old and I was a sucker for it, and despite an adult appreciation of the flaws in this story, it was my introduction to the Justice Society, and it is still one of my favourite comics stories ever.
Because, for all the ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ nature of the ending, an obvious device to bring to an end a story that had spiralled out of any rational means of closure, it could not possibly mar a tale that had opened my eyes to the vastness of the Universe and of all possibility. Those two pages when the Thunderbolt goes up and down the timestream to invade and destroy the origins of the Justice League opened my mind far wider and further than any comparable incident in literature of any kind.
Once is a great success, two a commercialised sequel but three is a tradition. With this team-up, the annual meeting of the super-teams became a fixture of the summer issues of Justice League of America that the two teams would continue to meet every year.
Might there have been a moment when the tradition could safely have been broken, without too much complaint from readers? Not in 1965, nor the year after. DC’s Golden Age revival was reaching the heights. Schwarz had announced that there would be no more new versions after the success of the Atom, but instead he was experimenting with full-scale revivals. Green Lantern teamed up with his Golden Age counterpart for a couple of adventures, as did the Atom. In Showcase, Doctor Fate and Hourman had a couple of outings in tandem, as did Starman and Black Canary in Brave and Bold, and Schwarz even planned for a Dr Mid-Nite/Sandman team-up, before deciding to go for a solo revival of the Spectre.
But even though the Spectre’s re-emergence, intended as the springboard of an actual series, to be set on Earth-2, failed to make the intended impact, the annual team-up would last long enough that, like the continuing performances of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, it would continue because it had already played for so long, and no-one could work out how to take it off, whilst the Multiverse persisted.
There’s a substantial difference between this team-up and those preceding it, and I like to think that criticism of how the Justice Society were demeaned in 1964 influenced this year’s story, because it’s not a team-up at all. Forget what it says on the cover of issue 37: the Justice League don’t so much not appear on their own cover, as not (the penultimate panel of issue 38 excepted) appear at all in the entire two issues! This is a solo Justice Society story in everything but name.
Of course, the image of the Justice League is preserved for their fans, with the Justice Society in issue 37 and Thunder’s gang in 38 masquerading as the stars of the series. And the appearance of the latter isn’t an exact match as they’re all drawn as different, criminal body-types and faces.
As for the JSA line-up, Doctor Fate and Hawkman retain their 100% record and the other three of Schwarz’s revivals return. The two new revenants this year are Johnny Thunder and Mr. Terrific.
We don’t see much of Johnny at all, and certainly not in conjunction with anyone except his Thunderbolt and his Earth-1 counterpart. And after three pages of that, bop, Johnny’s knocked cold and we are left with his evil equivalent, who’s a completely different kettle of fish. You have to say this for Thunder, he may have a permanent frown and prefer purple jackets to green, and like any member of the criminal classes, he can only pronounce the letters ‘th’ as ‘d’, but when it comes to schemes and plots, he’s wildly inventive: Johnny would never have thought of a fraction of what he comes up with.
So we are exposed to only a small dose of Johnny Thunder, Comic Relief, which suggests to me that Fox and Schwarz were uncertain about how to play Johnny T, and settled for a brief taste, to invite audience reaction.
Terrific, on the other hand, slots in without the slightest sign that this is Terry Sloane’s first mission as a Justice Society member. On his one previous appearance in All-Star, Mr Terrific was only a guest, a fact that was heavily emphasised at the time, but here he is, one of the boys, and sufficiently well-regarded (by Fox and Schwarz, let alone his team-mates) as to be a suitable double for Batman.
There never was any story about how and when Terrific was invited into membership. He’s generally been reassigned a role as a JSA reservist in later years, but if anyone at National had bothered with the issue in 1965, I’d expect the answer to have been that, under the JSA’s revised by-laws, he was upgraded.
One thing about this story puzzled me for years. Flash, Green Lantern and Atom naturally impersonate their namesakes, but Hawkman, rather implausibly, opts to imitate the Martian Manhunter, even though his Earth-1 counterpart is a member of the League. Then it struck me that this could be explained as a particularly subtle piece of continuity from Fox and Schwarz: the Katar Hol Kawkman was now a Leaguer, but he’d only been inducted in Justice League of America 31, the following issue from the previous year’s team-up, and the teams never had any contact between annual meetings, so the Prince Khufu Hawkman simply did not know he too had a JLA equivalent.
On the other hand, even four years into the Marvel Age, a concern for blatant continuity never bothered Fox and Schwarz, so something as low-key as this seems implausible, but it still wouldn’t surprise me if, during those legendary morning/afternoon plotting sessions, one of editor and writer made that very objection.
Of course, the story is not without its flaws. I’ve already pointed out in the story summary that, despite being an avid reader of Flash Comics, Barry-Flash apparently doesn’t recognise Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt when Johnny T appeared in all but the last dozen or so issues of the whole series, but more serious is the introduction of “Accomplished Magic”, which, having been accomplished, cannot be undone.
It’s a necessary device to stop Doctor Fate simply undoing everything halfway through issue 37, but its glaring inconsistency is that Fate’s own “Accomplished Magic” doesn’t stop the Thunderbolt stripping away the Society’s disguise as the League.
And even at the age of ten, when I first read this story, I couldn’t help but think that Fox and Schwarz missed a trick in the first scene where the Society first tackle the Thunderbolt. Thunder orders the Bolt to ‘slap ’em down!’: he turns himself into a giant hand and slaps them down onto the ground. He orders the Bolt to ‘kick ’em off the Earth!’: the Bolt turns himself into a giant boot and kicks them ten feet into the air, ‘off the Earth’.
Finally, Thunder orders the Bolt to kill them. This is the Bolt’s sticking point: not killing, that’s Tabu.
Almost fifty years later, I still expect a raging Thunder to shout back, “Ok, then, Tabu! Now kill them!”
As far as post-Crisis canonicity is concerned, you might think that this one’s impossible as well, but it’s surprisingly adaptable. Make Thunder into a grandson, or grandnephew of Johnny who gets control of the Bolt and decides to eliminate the Justice League and the story would still play out. And if young Thunder is appropriately contemptuous of the older generation, that might explain why he only has the Justice League eliminated from history, and not the ‘beneath contempt’ Society.
But you’d have had to lose that ending…

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1964


Justice League of America 29, “Crisis on Earth-Three!”/Justice League of America 30, “The Most Dangerous Earth of All!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Bernard Sachs (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

We are introduced to three sets of five costumed characters on the splash page: The Flash Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern of Earth-1, Hawkman, Black Canary, Doctor Fate, Dr Mid-Nite and Starman of Earth-2 and, making their first appearance, Superwoman, Owlman, Ultraman, Johnny Quick and Power Ring of Earth-3.
On the next page, the concept of parallel Earths is re-explained, as Barry-Flash prevents a rookie cop being gunned down, and Jay-Flash a Bank Messenger from being robbed, but the third red-clad speedster, Johnny Quick is actually stealing a priceless sculpture. He’s quickly caught in a net-trap prepared by the Police, from which he escapes, but not without a fright. Johnny Quick has been short of decent opposition for a while and is getting rusty.
His two fellow-members of the Crime Syndicate, Superwoman and Power Ring, are similarly facing unexpected opposition from the Police and making heavy weather of getting away.
These super-equivalents of the JLA are actually villains, not heroes for, though Earths-1 & 2 are similar-but-different, Earth-3’s history has been oddly reversed. Columbus was an American who discovered Europe, which won its independence in the Revolutionary War (this is definitely a different Earth if America has lost a war), whilst President John Wilkes Booth was assassinated by the crazed actor, Abraham Lincoln.
Which is why all Earth-3’s heroes are villains, and losing their edge for lack of super-powered opposition.
This can be remedied for Ultraman, who gains extra powers from exposure to Kryptonite, has discovered Earth-1 and the bemusing example of super characters who don’t use their powers to rob. This thrills the whole Syndicate, who plan to travel to Earth-1 to sharpen themselves up. But Owlman, whose power lies in his brain and his meticulously planed heists, who proposes a precaution against the possibility that they might lose.
Thus, a five-strong JLA meeting (again chaired by Batman) is interrupted by pleas for help against these new supervillains robbing across America. The League splits up to face their equivalents but arrive on the various scenes to find that everyone except Superwoman has swapped round to go on robbing. So Wonder Woman defeats Superman, Flash takes down Ultraman, Batman outsmarts Johnny Quick, Superman overcomes Power Ring and Green Lantern captures Owlman.
But as each villain is grabbed, they whisper the word ‘Volthoom’, triggering a trap that draws each of them, and their JLA assailant back to Earth-3. There, either by some mysterious ‘home advantage’ or simply the JLA being dazed, the Crime Syndicate reverse the results of their individual battles.
Having lost ‘away’ and won at ‘home’, the Syndicate believe they have proved nothing until they can take on the League on neutral territory, i.e., Earth-2. The Leaguers are imprisoned in their cave Sanctuary again whilst the Syndicate prepare the invade Earth-2.
However, the Justice Society have observed strange eyes peering at their world. Wondering if the eyes come from Earth-1, Doctor Fate uses his crystal ball to connect to the cave Sanctuary. He’s unable to free the League but can release them long enough for them to explain to the JSA what the Syndicate are doing, and warn them not to let the Syndicate make physical contact and say ‘Volthoom’…
End of Part One.


The Justice Society are on the alert for the Syndicate’s attack. Suddenly, the five villains enter from five directions. The battle swiftly splits up into five duels.
Hawkman defeats Johnny Quick, Doctor Fate takes down Power Ring, Dr Mid-Nite outsmarts Owlman, Black Canary overcomes Superwoman and Starman captures Ultraman. No contact is made, no Volthooms are spoken but Owlman has foreseen this and this time the trap is triggered by the Justice Society heroes proclaiming themselves as having won.
On Earth-3 they are placed in a carefully prepared prison.
The Syndicate then release the Justice League and start a deciding battle on Earth-2. After an overture in which each Leaguer ignores their own safety to save a team-mate, the fight breaks up into battles between the Leaguers and their opposite number.
Each Leaguer wins by overloading their opponent’s powers to the point where they cannot control them. However, a problem arises when it comes to imprisoning the Syndicate, who show extreme fear at being held captive on either Earth-1 or 2, though they grin all over their faces at the thought of going back to Earth-3. Green Lantern extracts from Power Ring’s ring the information that the JSA’s prison is constructed so that, if they are released, both Earths-1 and 2 will blow-up.
So the League imprison the Syndicate in a power ring bubble in between dimensions, surrounded by multi-space-lingual signs warning everyone off letting them out. Then they release the JSA on Earth-3 whilst GL siphons the destructive force into deep space where it blows up two uninhabited planets instead.
The teams then return to their own Earths.
* * * * *
Just as Barry-Flash’s discovery of Jay-Flash’s Earth in The Flash 123 was so big a success, it spawned a sequel in The Flash 129 (given the lead-time before publication, the sequel must have been decided on within minutes of the first response to The Flash 123), the delighted response to issues 21 and 22 (and their sales figures) guaranteed a sequel, the same time next year.
The 1964 team-up once again played things conventionally, with superhero vs supervillain as its theme. Fox structured the story differently, by giving the League and the Society a common enemy, who they each fought separately, and by having the heroes fight individual battles through (except for one token page in issue 30).
But the real twist is in introducing a set of evil duplicates for the Justice League’s (then) big five characters.
It’s interesting that DC took the step of expanding their parallel worlds set-up to include a third Earth so very quickly, though future Earths would be introduced to the continuum must more circumspectly for the next decade. And it’s almost impossible not to see a link to that throwaway introduction of the very idea of an Earth-3 at the end of last year’s team-up.
At the time I first read this story, several years after its publication, I was aware of enough American history to understand the reversals, even that of Lincoln’s assassination, though it took until the Eighties, when my interest in American history really kicked in, for me to start envisaging the colossal distortion required to produce the Lincoln/Booth switcharound.
Not that Fox or Schwarz would have given it a moment’s consideration. It was, after all, a Reverse-MacGuffin, a totally unimportant, completely inconsequential, wholly irrelevant detail that only exists to lend verisimilitude to your central conceit. Which is, naturally, creating evil doppelgangers of half the Justice League.
Once again, the Justice Society play second fiddle in this team-up. Despite dominating the cover of issue 29, they don’t appear in the story until the penultimate page, and though they get first crack of the whip at the action in issue 30, their victory over the Crime Syndicate is merely pyrrhic: despite being warned about the very technique, they fall into the Syndicate’s plot and have to be freed from prison by the victorious League at the end.
Even a contemporary letter-writer complained about the demeaning approach to the JSA, which may have had an effect on what would come next.
Whilst the JLA line-up is chosen specifically to parallel the Crime Syndicate, there is no apparent logic to the JSA line-up. Doctor Fate, Hawkman and Black Canary survive the cut, and, in a nice touch, paralleling their joint début in All-Star 8, Dr Mid-Nite and Starman are reintroduced in the Silver Age.
Interestingly, though Mid-Nite is apparently unchanged from his last run-out in 1950, Starman (who  disappeared in 1945) refers to his scientific weapon as his Cosmic Rod, and it seems to have a wider range of abilities than his old Gravity Rod.
And it’s immediately noticeable that that seven-active-member, see-our-by-laws nonsense has already been abandoned. Each team has five members in action, giving Sekowsky a relatively easy fifteen costumes to cope with (that is, if you don’t count cameos by five more heroes – three League, two Society – in the build-up).
It’s fresh and enjoyable, especially in the chance to welcome another two Golden Age gladiators back into the action, but as a whole the story doesn’t match the standards of the first team-up, in 1963.
A large part of this is attributable to the way the Justice Society are depicted as losers, but the largely downbeat ending to the story kills its momentum. The Crime Syndicate are defeated, for good, at the top of page 21. What follows is a silly pantomime show as the Syndicate members send out facial signals over what they want to see happen to themselves, which leads to this simultaneously overblown and pathetic threat to the existence of Earths 1 and 2, that Green Lantern disposes of in the corner of a panel.
It kills the story in its traces, and the naïve idea of imprisoning the Syndicate for all eternity, in a globe lacking food, water and air supplies, surrounded by warning signs, just emphasises how perfunctory the conclusion is.
I’ve also one complaint about this story that has nothing to do with the team-ups, and that’s the first round of battles in issue 29. Let’s get this straight: the Syndicate split up to rob in five specific places and the JLA split up to tackle their exact counterpart. Leave aside the sexist implications of allowing only Superwoman and Wonder Woman meet, since you can’t (in 1964) have either of them fight men, because no man would be so unchivalrous as to strike a poor, weak, defenceless woman.
No, what actually happens is that all four male JLAers arrive to find a different male villain. That’s four villains who, having finished looting a location, all go to a location where one of their colleagues has also been looting, meaning that all four are actually expecting to find that their team-mates have not looted everything but will have left stuff – rich, valuable stuff – behind for somebody else to come loot. And not only is that the stupidest idea any supervillain could ever have had, but it actually turns out to be the case in every case.
Famously, at the end of Fantastic Voyage, the grandson of screenplay writer Isaac Asimov asked, if the suddenly growing scientists (and Raquel Welsh) had to get out of the patient’s head before they killed him, why did the suddenly growing submarine they left behind not kill him. Asimov explained that it was because his infant grandson was smarter than a Hollywood Producer.
That makes my eight year old self smarter than Gardner Fox and Julius Schwarz. If only I’d lived in New York, and not East Manchester.
Post-Crisis canon or not? As the story’s sole raison d’être is parallel worlds and the Crime Syndicate coming from an Earth where evil predominates, it’s impossible for this story to have occurred. Or is it? As early as Justice League International in 1987, DC had reintroduced Bluejay, Wandjina and the Silver Sorceress (affectionate parodies of Marvel’s Avengers) as survivors of an alternate Earth destroyed by nuclear disaster, so why couldn’t the Crime Syndicate have come from that kind of alternate Earth themselves?
However, the kind of rewriting required to accommodate the shift from three Earths to two would probably have forced changes out of all recognition: in the DC Universe, it makes no sense to even involve the Justice Society at all. So, again, no.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1963


Justice League of America 21, “Crisis on Earth-One!”/Justice League of America 22, “Crisis on Earth-Two!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Bernard Sachs (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.


On Earth-1, the Justice League has called an emergency meeting, chaired by Batman, to handle a challenge issued by the new Crime-Champions, who consist of the Flash’s Doctor Alchemy, The Atom’s Chronos and the League’s own Felix Faust, The criminals plan to rob and vanish with their loot, without the League being able to stop them. The League accepts the challenge and splits into three teams to tackle the crooks.
Meanwhile, on Earth-2, the Justice Society have opened their former meeting rooms for the first time in thirteen years. Doctor Fate explains to the attending members that, under the team’s revised by-laws (i.e., constitution), they are to operate with a rotating membership of seven. Those present have been chosen by lot, and the other members have sent telegrams of congratulations.
The Society has received an identical challenge from three old supervillains, The Flash’s Fiddler, Green Lantern’s Icicle and the Society’s own Wizard. Filled with the rush of nostalgia, the Society split into three teams and rush out to tackle their foes.
Back on Earth-1, Felix Faust easily evades capture by Aquaman, J’Onn J’Onzz and The Atom, Dr Alchemy gets away from Superman and Green Arrow (The Flash mysteriously vibrates into nothingness) and Chronos eludes  Batman, Wonder Woman and  Green Lantern.
We follow the Crime Champions to a giant satellite-like bubble in an inter-dimensional limbo, where they meet their allies, the Earth-2 villains. The Earth-2 trio congratulate their Earth1 counterparts, whilst recalling their own luck in meeting them: having escaped at last from prison, the villains had been surrounded at a deserted crossroads outside Keystone City (where the Flashes cross from Earth to Earth), and when The Fiddler tried to fiddle up an escape, he accidentally took the trio to the Central City Community Theatre on Earth-1.
In turn, the Earth-1 villains reminisce about how they planned to rob the takings but, recognising convict garb, spirited the newcomers away before anyone else could see them.
Learning of the parallel Earths, the sextet have got together to rob in their own worlds and spend their ill-gotten gains in the other world, unrecognised by anyone: except the Flashes, that is, who have had to be captured and caged in traps that automatically neutralise their ability to vibrate free.
The villains go off to have a good time, but the Earth-2 trio, having spent the last fifteen years or so in jail, are tempted by the riches on display. In order to protect their plan, they disguise themselves as the Earth-1 Crime Champions, and set a trap for the Justice League at a casino hotel.
One by one, the eight League members touch ordinary items that the Wizard has magicked to doom them: they are wisked away into a magical trap that confines them in their own cave sanctuary.
Unable to escape, the Leaguers use Marlin’s crystal ball to contact their Flash. They learn the whole story from him, and go on to invite the Justice Society into Earth-1 for the historic first meeting of the heroes of two Earths!
The Justice Society, who aren’t confined by the Wizard’s magic, leave the sanctuary to hunt down their villains. The Justice League are sent into Earth-2, to pursue their villains. The two Green Lanterns team-up to travel into limbo to rescue the Flashes.
End of Part One.

The Justice Society emerge from the Secret Sanctuary and split up to hunt down their foes, who have dropped their disguises. Hourman and the Atom capture the Fiddler, Doctor Fate overcomes the Icicle and Hawkman and Black Canary defeat the Wizard.
The Green Lanterns see something in limbo.
On Earth-2, the Justice League go after their rampaging foes. J’Onn J’Onzz, the Atom and Green Arrow bring in Felix Faust, Batman and Wonder Woman (again!) are too much for Doctor Alchemy and Superman and Aquaman clean up Chronos.
The Lanterns reach the Crime-Champions satellite and find the Flashes, but their vibrational bubbles are impervious to every power ring attack. Finally, the Lanterns realise that air can get in and out so they transform the Flashes and bring them out. But this triggers a pre-set trap that couldn’t be sprung without the additional energy of the Rings: all sixteen heroes are drawn into specialised two-person traps in limbo.
Each cage is specially protected against the heroes’ powers, but this proves the Crime-Champions’ undoing: the Atoms’ cage may be super-dense, preventing the Eaarth-1 Atom from shrinking to subatomic size and slipping out between the molecules of its base, but the Green Lanterns’ cage doesn’t stop them shrinking themselves out.
The Lanterns’ power frees the Flashes, and the knock-on effect enables everybody to free someone else. The two teams head back to Earth-2, where the six villains have gathered.
As soon as they realise what’s happened, the villains know they have no chance. They try to find a way out. If Earth- and Earth-2 exist, there must logically be an Earth-3: can they get there? Not before the avenging League and Society arrive and totally clobber them.
Agreeing to keep in touch to be able to deal with similar incidents, the teams gather their villains and return to their respective Earths.

* * * * *

The first JLA/JSA has always been described as a classic, and it’s deserving of the accolade. It would be a classic in any event, solely for what it was: a completely unprecedented meeting between the pre-eminent superhero teams of the present and the past, between the protectors of two Earths, between the familiarity of the League and the otherworldliness of the Society who, for the overwhelming majority of the readers, would be nothing more than a curiosity spoken of by elder brothers.
If Showcase 4 was the implicit conception of the Multiverse, and The Flash 123 its birth, Justice League of America 21/22 was the moment that it became the foundation of DC Comics.
This first team-up is fascinating on many levels. Whilst crossovers between Earths were only taking place in The Flash, it was enough to describe the two Earths as Barry and Jay’s worlds, but this breakout required a more objective designation, and so Earth-1 and Earth-2 were formally named as such. And, in the light of such later and transformative series as Crisis on Infinite Earths etc, this is the fountainhead: these are the original Crises.
In the light of where the annual team-ups would soon go, ‘Crisis on Earth-One/Two’ seems unusually unambitious. The story is nothing more than a standard hero vs villain tale, on a larger scale. The superhero teams are doing nothing but their everyday jobs, only in greater numbers, and so too are the villains: between nine JLA, seven JSA and six supervillains, there are 22 costumed characters cavorting throughout this double-length story, and the DC-reading kid of 1963 would have been giddy with excitement at page after page of superpowers in action.
In a way, this two-parter represented the end of a phase for Justice League of America. From its inception in the Brave & Bold try-outs, the League – like the Society before it in the Forties – had always put its entire membership out every issue. But the JSA had, according to Doctor Fate, reconstituted itself as a team consisting of no more than seven active members at any time (like that would last), and perhaps that notion – intended only to keep the Justice Society ranks down to manageable proportions – appealed to Schwarz and Fox after such an extravaganza, but from this point forward the League would drop its unwritten rule requiring everyone to attend. Most adventures would feature 5-6 members at a time, with the whole team reserved for special events, which would, in turn, lead to the perhaps unconscious development of a ‘Big Five’ within the League.
I’ve started these series with the intention of looking at the Justice Society’s changing depiction throughout the years, but it’s impossible to ignore that all these stories are taking place in the Justice League’s series They’re the stars, and the Justice Society the guests, and this story was written and drawn in an era where the star was very much the star. Guests were fine, but they had to know their places. The guest could help out, but it was the hero who won the day.
In respect of the final outcome, the Justice Society get to stand alongside their hosts as equals: the Crime-Champions are swept away in a sixteen hero onslaught over two background-less, silent pages, with the League and the Society mixing up their forces to simultaneously knock down each of the six villains.
But that’s not the case prior to that point. In issue 21, the League gets nine pages to tussle with their trio, not to mention a further four against the disguised Earth-2 villains, whilst the Society’s battled is gotten over in three flashback panels, related by their enemies and occupying a single tier on one page. Then, in issue 22, the ‘Earth-Two’ half, the Society get to strut their stuff over eight upfront pages, but the League still get their second round at length, over another nine pages.
And let’s not forget that we’re continually being reminded that the Society are old men (and woman). Though none of them are drawn to look significantly older than the League, there are constant references to the Society being older: references to lined faces, greying hair, and bringing back a clearly distant past.
Which, to be fair, was only the true situation. Excluding their previous cameo in The Flash 137, this is indeed the JSA’s first outing in costume in thirteen years: longer than most of the target audience have been alive.
As far as team-ups go, Fox structures his tale to have the League and the Society operating separately until the end. Even then, there’s little real interactivity: only the two Lanterns get any real conversation, all of it focussed on the job at hand, and the concluding melee is simply six single multi-hero panels.
Not that anyone should or would have expect any emotional underpinning to the story. The JSA’s delight at being back in action, at reliving their old glories is as far as Fox and Schwarz are prepared to go: it is, after all, what distinguishes them from the JLA, But this is an action comic: that historic first meeting is historic only in the captions. It was DC’s formula, especially under the plot-driven Fox and Schwarz. The story was and is all.
It’s slightly surprising that writer and editor devoted as much time as they did to the organisational foundation of the new JSA. It’s also interesting that, despite the same pairing having been responsible for Hawkman announcing himself as the JSA’s former Permanent Chairman, it is Doctor Fate in the chair despite the fact that Hawkman is on the team.
That initial line-up is equally interesting. It includes all four Golden Age originals whom Schwarz had already updated for the nascent Silver Age, plus two further founder members, neither of whom had been seen with the Justice Society, or in comics at all, since 1943 and very early 1945 respectively. It makes sense to include the four characters who would have seemed the strangest to contemporary characters, heroes who now had other, more familiar costumes.
But the Black Canary is a true anomaly here, given that she didn’t appear until 1948, and thus had never before worked with, or even met Fate or Hourman. Not that you’d realise that from this issue. Fox and Schwarz would never have wasted good story-telling time to touch upon that. However, a female Society member was needed, and as Wonder Woman was still in print from the Golden Age, there was no other choice.
Black Canary’s lack of previous experience with her elder comrades helps introduce another aspect to the story that modern readers will have difficulty comprehending. The Crime-Champions kidnap the two Flashes because only they have visited each other’s Earths and could recognise the other villains. This, and the explanation that Barry-Flash gives once the League make contact via their Souvenir Room Crystal Ball, makes plain that, in the two years since his first trip to another Earth, and despite the very public appearance of Jay in Central City as being from another Earth, The Flash hasn’t yet told his colleagues in the Justice League about Earth-2.
But then we would have known that as little kids anyway. This is 1963, and it will be nearly two decades before retcons – ‘retrospective continuity’ – are invented, and in this time, if you hadn’t read it in a comic book, it hadn’t happened. Dinah Drake didn’t meet Kent Nelson or Rex Tyler in that intervening thirteen years, Barry Allen (whose secret identity wasn’t known to anyone except Hal ‘Green Lantern’ Jordan) had never discussed Jay Garrick at a Justice League meeting.
It was a different era.
These two issues were drawn by the art team of Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs, who’d been the JLA’s penciller and inker from the outset. Selowsky is justly noted for his eccentric anatomy, and the curious poses he put his characters through, and his take on many of the characters will look wholly alien to modern audiences. But there’s a key to his success on Justice League of America on page 2, third tier of issue 21, and again on the same tier of page 4.
The first is the stock shot of the Justice League running from their cave Sanctuary to head for the action, the second is a Justice Society equivalent. Both feature the heroes, against a white background, running towards the character in a straight line, and every single figure, across both panels, is moving differently. Batman may look too top-heavy to run at all, but everyone is different.
And it’s like that throughout. Remember that Sekowsky is dealing with no less than twenty-two costumed characters in this story, in multiple combinations, but for all his weird positions and awkward stances, he handles the combinations expertly. Your eyes may pop, but they’ll never go to the wrong place in a Sekowsky page.
Such a pity that Sachs was so unsympathetic an inker, all weak, fussy and scratchy lines, exaggerating Sekowsky’s worst traits and robbing the images of any energy.
Though you can’t help but smile at one point. DC’s artists would often swipe film stars faces for characters, and Sekowsky has indulged himself with the unmasked face of the Icicle (who is somehow moustached in real-life whilst his costumed face is clean-shaven), drawing him in two panels as Groucho Marx, complete with cigar in a characteristic splay-fingered hand. I’m always ready for the panel to start spouting, “When I was in Africa, I shot an elephant in my pyjamas…”
As the choice of villains. The Golden Age was nothing like as big on super-villains as the Silver Age had been from its very start, and certainly not as keen on recurring villains, and whilst The Fiddler had already been seen in The Flash 123, the other two were obscurities. The choice of Earth-1 villains is actually more intriguing, as none of the trio was anything remotely resembling a major villain: when your heaviest player is Felix Faust…
Despite being one of the Silver Age Flash’s earliest villain, under his original nom de crime of Mr Element, Dr Alchemy has never made the cut in relation to the long standing Rogue’s Gallery. There’s an instructive pointer to early Sixties’ DC comics here: after starting out as Mr Element, Paul Desmond discovered the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, which could change one element into another. Giving himself a new costume and title, he fought the Flash, but had the Stone taken off him, and hurled into space by the Flash at a speed in excess of escape velocity, meaning it will never return. It poses a little difficulty about bringing Doctor Alchemy back.
Fox and Schwarz dispose of this inconvenient and fatal incident in a single thought bubble, as Alchemy reminds the reader that the Philosopher’s Stone was hurled into space, but he later retrieved it and changed it into a matter transformer. How easy it was, then.
But it’s Chronos who, for me, is the real let down in this story. In 1963, he was still in the early stages of a criminal career that got started when a petty thief became obsessed with improving his timing. His first move in this story is to crumble the walls of a bank by hitting it with “bottled time” that ages it, but after seeming like a worthy opponent, he starts taking on the likes of Wonder Woman and Batman with a pocket watch, whose hands shoot out to nudge Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth out of the way, and whose face cuts Batman’s batrope. In the big melee, he looks like he’s trying to hurl clocks at people! This man does not belong here, folks!
But let’s get back to the Justice Society of America: seven heroes returned from comic book limbo. The Flash, Green Lantern, Hourman and Black Canary are as they always were (though Fox and Schwarz will go on to muddy the waters over Hourman’s miraclo pills). Not so the other three.
In 1948, after years of being no more than a pint-sized bruiser, the Atom inexplicably developed superstrength, and radically redesigned his costume: he returns in that second costume and, whilst he doesn’t display any especial strength here, future stories will confirm he’s still got it.
But Doctor Fate, as long ago as 1942, lost virtually all his magical powers, and cut back his golden helm to expose the lower half of his face. That development is overlooked: Fate sports his old full-face helm and has all his magical powers again, though the gothic, Lovecraftian approach to the character, whom Fox co-created, remember, is lost for this time, and he’s as normally, pragmatically American as everyone else.
But, though being a purely minor aspect, it’s intriguing to see Hawkman return in that simple yellow cloth hood he started wearing at the same time the Atom changed his costume. The reason is obvious: unlike the other three, the Silver Age Hawkman wears an identical costume to his predecessor, so the Golden Age Hawkman must perforce look different.
It’s just that in The Flash 137, he was wearing a proper Hawk-helm, like the old days…

PS: After Crisis on Multiple Earths, whilst everyone was waiting to see what shape the DC Universe was going to take, there was considerable fan speculation about exactly what out of pre-Crisis history would be held to be still canon. One sector of that focussed on which of the JLA/JSA team-ups were still in continuity if the two teams had been based on the same Earth. No authorised list was ever published, at least not that I was ever aware, but despite the fact that this first team-up depended heavily on there being two Earths, It could have made the cut. It would have needed a lot of revision, but the basic story could be retained by making the Crime Champions into a team of older and younger villains, with the older ones escaped from long imprisonment, and wanting to catch up on their interrupted careers. Score 1 in the positive column.