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.