The Chimes of Midnight: Smash Comics Part 1


Long ago, in the Eighties, I had an on-and-off relationship with DC’s Golden Age-set series, All-Star Squadron. On the one hand, I was a card-carrying Justice Society of America fan of a decade and a half’s standing, but on the other hand it was being written by Roy Thomas.
Not having been a Marvel fan in the decade when it really counted, I’d only really been exposed to Thomas’s writing on things like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, and had seen barely, if any, of his superhero work. With the JSA’s most recent stint, under Paul Levitz and Joe Staton, having petered out, I was glad to see another vehicle for them, and one that set them in their prime, in World War 2, looked ideal.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account the degree by which Thomas had become obsessed with continuity, and ‘retroactive continuity’ or retcons. From the very start, All-Star Squadron was bogged down by Thomas’s urge to draw connections between old and obscure stories, old and even more obscure characters, and not just simple and well-thought-out connections but multiple connections, many of which had to be tortured into place to even stand, leading to the story collapsing under a weight that coherence was never meant to bear. Indeed, it was painfully obvious that Thomas simply could not tell a story for a story’s sake any longer.
Sometimes I could stand it. Sometimes it got just too fussy for my liking, the elevation of things that, even in a comic book universe, didn’t mean anything like enough to be worth it.
But when we got to issue 31, my blood boiled. It began with a full-page splash page of very recognisable design, a man running full tilt towards the ‘camera’. The man was equally recognisable. Blue suit. Blue fedora. White shirt and loose red tie. Blue gloves. Blue domino mask. It was The Spirit, Will Eisner’s classic creation, whose reprinted stories I was then collecting in the Kitchen Sink magazine series.
But DC didn’t own The Spirit. And this wasn’t The Spirit, it was Midnight, aka radio announcer, Dave Clark. It was a blatant, out-and-out ripoff, as if we wouldn’t notice, and it infuriated me.

Q - Invisible Hood

However, I didn’t know as much then as I knew later and in this instance I was maligning Roy Thomas unfairly. It’s true that Midnight was a blatant rip-off – his alter ego even has the same initials as Denny Colt – but it was not Thomas who perpetrated it: the real culprit was Jack Cole, the creator of Plastic Man.
Cole was operating under the instructions of Everett ‘Busy’ Arnold, publisher of Quality Comics, where Eisner’s Spirit appeared in comic books. Apparently, concerned that Eisner might be killed or incapacitated whilst in the Army (or was he just plain ripping him off?), Arnold had Cole create Midnight to ensure he had things covered. Midnight debuted in Quality’s Smash Comics 18, hit the cover in issue 28 and kept it until it was cancelled with issue 85.
And you know how curious I can get…
Nevertheless, Midnight’s delayed debut means we have ground to cover before we begin. The first issue, cover-dated August 1939, was credited as published by Everett M. Arnold. It’s a weird business, multiple strips, mostly drawn decently well for the period, mixing all sorts of adventure and comedy, but most of the writing is poor. The closest we come to a costumed hero is in ‘Hooded Justice’, which features the Invisible Hood, aka Kent Thurston, who dresses in a voluminous and decidedly non-invisible cloak and initially wields a gas gun a good year or so ahead of The Sandman.

Q - Bozo

This is not to say that the Invisible Hood is the top feature, anything but. It’s hard to distinguish any of the features from the rest, several of which were starting in midstream, having previously run in Feature Funnies. Some, like Abdul the Arab, were intrinsically racist. Hugh Hazzard, just one of a number of identikit adventurers would have his strip overtaken by Bozo the Iron Man: seriously, Bozo.
Hooded Justice became Invisible Justice in issue 2, in which the Invisible Hood gains the power of invisibility. A new feature arriving in issue 3 was John Law, the ‘Scientective’, no relation, in theme or quality, to Will Eisner’s unsuccessful later creation. He was joined by Flash Fulton, newspaper photographer, next issue, rather unnecessarily since we’ve had Chic Carter, newspaper reporter, since the start. And my mild curiosity about the Invisible Hood was already sated before then: it’s rubbish. Quality Comics? Far from it.
It’s noticeable that the vast majority of the art in Smash Comics is drawn on a rigid 12 panel grid of three panels in four tiers, with variation mainly to combine two panels on a tier. This and the Eisner connection suggests to me that these features were being supplied by the Iger-Eisner Agency, who built their conveyer-belt process on pre-designed panels that would be passed up one side of a room and down the other, speeding up the procedure of producing the comic immensely at a cost of creative suppression.
There was a weird story in issue 5, in the ‘Espionage’ series, starring a monocled US Agent known only as Black Ace. The story was about an impending Europe-wide War, a continent of Kings not Dictators, a massive American re-armament Defence programme and a campaign of sabotage foiled by Ace, after which Europe enters into a Peace Pact, because America could wipe it out – innocents included, but there are no innocents in this scenario – inside a year. What a bizarre mix of elements and national chauvinism! But in an issue cover-dated December 1939, it’s very much an up-to-the-minute production that must have been barely finished when the actual War was declared.
Black Ace had been Black X in Feature Funnies and reverted next issue, once War had started overseas, his monocle being disclosed as concealing an eye put out during unsuccessful torture. The same issue also introduced the contemptible racial stereotype of Wun Cloo, a Chinese amateur detective: disgusting. And from Jack Cole, too.
A dozen issues represents a full year and a moment to reflect on the series to date and the omens are not favourable. Smash Comics thus far is a pretty flat experience. Surprisingly, the art is of a pretty high standard for the era, and the DVD is scanning from actual issues, not microfiches, so reproduction is very good, but the stories are flat and samey. ‘Espionage’ is the best by some margin, despite the pompous, portentous tone it had taken on since the start of the War. The artists can’t draw maps of Europe with the least accuracy and the overriding tone of American super-superiority rings hollow in the face of what we now know of the real events. But it’s a window onto a certain attitude towards the War in 1940, and the tone is consistently anti-War on the simple grounds of the death and destruction it causes to ordinary people. It may be simple but it’s heartfelt and genuine.

Q - Magno

In contrast, Wings Wendall of Military Intelligence is penny plain. The same basically goes for the two journalists, Chic Carter and Flash Fulton. The stories are trapped within the rigid four-by-three panel grid and there are frequent rushed moments when you’re wondering just how A got to G. The same goes art-wise for the two detectives. Captain Cook of Scotland Yard is dull and bears an even greater distance from the real London than usual. John Law, the private criminologist, was advantaged by running as a quasi-serial but had poorer art. Clip Carson is a super college athlete who wins things for his college at the last minute like a Roy Race without the semi-decent soap opera.
I refuse to consider the comedy stuff, especially the repugnant Wun Cloo, and although it’s played straight and the character is shown as a hero, I refuse to read Ahab the Arab just on account of the name. The Archie O’Toole stuff is pleasantly drawn but usually negligible, until issue 12, when as vile a stereotypical blackface character was introduced. As a bootblack, naturally.
But the bottom of the pile are the two vaguely ‘superheroic’ series. I was curious to see the Invisible Hood stories for myself but they’re dull as dishwater and the hero’s ‘costume’ is not just a dotted outline but a bulky and preposterous one at that. Elsewhere, issue 12 sees the series header switched round, as Bozo the Robot gets top billing above Hugh Hazzard. I am neither old enough nor American enough to know what meanings Bozo might have had in 1940 but it makes the series, which is nothing to write home about anyway, impossible to take at all seriously.
I do so hope Midnight is worth it after all of this.
Espionage and Black X are credited to William Erwin. Erwin was the middle name of Will Eisner who, by that time, was working with ‘Busy’ Arnold on The Spirit Section. I think we know who was really producing the feature, though that doesn’t explain the maps…
A new feature came in with issue 13, The Purple Trio, impecunious vaudeville performers who can’t get a paying job so turn their particular talents to fighting crime. Also on debut was Magno the Miracle Man, another of those superheroes whose most impressive power is getting people to not recognise them when they don’t wear any kind of mask. To make room, Flash Felton and John Law were dropped and there was a double dose of Philbert Veep, the Holmes-esque cartoon detective instead of the disgusting Won Cloo, which I hope is a permanent uplift.

Q - Ray

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Philbert and Captain Cook were out with issue 14, to make room for another and this time more interesting superhero, The Ray. Though the costume was instantly familiar, apart from the bare legs, the character was not the one that turned up in Justice League of America 107: the origin’s the same but ‘Happy’ Terrill, reporter is supposedly dead and The Ray is The Ray. He turns up from nothing in beams of light and his powers are more electromagnetic than light-based, and we’ve already got the feeble Magno for that.
The second instalment was more like it, with spectacular art credited to E. Lectron, who was the great Lou Fine. There’s still no sign of Happy Terrill, and The Ray’s powers, though more oriented to light and rays, are still uncontrolled but Fine can sure draw an excellent short-skirted lady, and I’m talking more-than-Carnaby-Street short here.
By the next issue, The Ray had replaced ‘Espionage’ as the lead feature. And the rapid turnover continued with a new series, The Scarlet Seal, though that was as dodgy as month-old bread. Barry Moore, film star, quits the industry to take a job with his hometown Police, under his Police Captain Father. But the new Commissioner has declared war on brutality and stoolies: henceforth policing will be calm and polite. So Barry goes undercover. Alright so far, except that Barry yellows up as a Chinese stereotype, or to use the strip’s parlance just this once, a Chink. Ok, that does it. Add in the cliché of the Commissioner being more determined to bring in The Scarlet Seal – named for the symbol he stamps on bad guys’ foreheads – than he is actual criminals, and this is one ripe piece of pus demanding squeezing out, but if Wun Cloo is still running…
Interestingly, The Ray’s story in issue 17, which brings back Happy Terrill as if he’d never been missing, let alone dead, is the only one I’ve previously read, in a 1972 100 page Reprint Giant that also featured the Black Condor, already flying in sister title Crack Comics (now there’s a title we won’t be hearing much about reviving).
But at last the man we’ve all been waiting for arrives. Midnight made his debut near the end of issue 18, and my prayers are answered because it’s the ‘funny’ strips that take a dive for him, Archie O’Toole and the despised Won Cloo. It’s credited to Jack Cole from the first page. It’s a pretty perfunctory five pager in which Clark, a spot announcer for Station UXAM doesn’t wear a mask and seems to be known as Midnight when he’s dressed for his day job. This is not Eisner-standard work.
With mask in place, Midnight made it onto the cover parade next time, with a better story, though we’re really not seeing the real Jack Cole art yet. We are seeing those god-awful ‘funnies’ again, including guess who.
Though overall it’s a more entertaining prospect than it was a year ago, Smash, like its four stable-mates, is suffering from the fatal flaw of carrying eleven features each, which means far too little space for far too many things. And far too little attention to what you’re doing, as when Espionage brought back the beautiful villainess Madame Doom, despite having shown her blown to pieces from within.
Issue 21 started with the Ray as usual. Lou Fine was one of the most gracious and accomplished artists of the Golden Age with a wonderfully flowing and delicate line, instantly recognisable for his clear images and lithe figures. Frankly, he’s a hundred times better than the story, though this episode showed a certain premonitary cleverness in positing a would-be Emperor of the Pacific intending to provoke America into war by attacking Hawaii.
It’s hard to assess Midnight at this early stage. Cole’s drawing mostly straight and the stories are bouncy and energetic, but they’re rather more fantastic than the Spirit. I’m not really familiar with the first half of The Spirit’s career, so I don’t know the like to which Midnight may be like. The later Eisner, post-War, was something very different. The Spirit never acquired a sidekick in the form of a talking monkey named Gabby.

Q - Wildfire

As for Magno, I confess I rarely read it, which is down to Paul Gustavson’s art. Like Fine, it’s clear and graceful, and not confined to rigid lay-outs but his figure work on Magno puts me off with its effeminacy. Magno is always skipping around of tiptoes; like a Fotherington-Thomas I expect him to be lisping ‘Hello clouds, hello trees’ all the time. It clashes horribly with the superhero action and I can’t shift my automatic antipathy.
The next issue introduced The Jester, also drawn by Gustavson but in a much more solidified way, with Magno moving elsewhere. This is another one who arrives already in costume and notorious but it’s a bright start and looks potentially good. Wun Cloo was once again missing: dare I hope? Nah…
The ongoing costumed adventurer takeover of the comic was extended in issue 24 as Chic Carter, the reporter, donned a costume to clear himself of murder. He also picked up a sword, being a fencing champion at college (of course he was) and called himself The Sword. Not only that, Wings Wendall caught a costume, whilst Midnight’s popularity was evident in the announcement that his series was to be expanded from five pages to six.
In contrast, a new Police series started in issue 25, Rookie Rankin, along with Wildfire, the series’ first costumed heroine who, when in costume, has red hair down to below her ankles. And Chic Carter, alias or not alias the Sword, made way for them, transferring to first Police Comics (home of Plastic Man) then Military Comics (Blackhawk). The Scarlet Seal was also out, for which heartfelt thanks.
And then, exactly as promised, Midnight hit the cover for the first time, in issue 28, though the Ray continued to hold the premier slot, and next issue he showed why, with a phenomenal art job from Fine that would have been astonishingly good in any era: linework, body language, panel breakdowns, compositions, this was fantastic and, quite frankly, worth the whole damned DVD alone. If this is what Fine’s art was evolving into, roll on further episodes. And I’m getting seriously impressed with Paul Gustavson’s work on The Jester.
The Ray story in issue 31 was much less impressive, suggesting Fine had had less time to work, or possibly couldn’t maintain the intensity for so long, which was supported by the far better, but still not quite top quality episode that came next. And I’d like to make it plain that this extravagant praise is for the art alone.
The attack on Pearl Harbour was reflected in issue 33, with everyone suddenly hot against the caricatural Japanese. It’s no less racial for the time, but very understandable, for which I am forced to give it the pass that Won Cloo will never have. At the same time the European Front was reinforced by the Marksman, a hooded archer and Polish Count undercover as a Nazi Agent. This was achieved by shelving the Invisible Hood.

Q - Midnight

Issue 35 saw Midnight promoted to the first feature, and to nine pages, a reflection of his growing popularity and, after a succession of cartoony Jack Cole covers, the next issue saw a beautifully drawn, dark and moody head shot that belied his every appearance to date. It covered for a moody but ridiculous story about Midnight dying and going to Hell to battle the Devil, but being hooked back by some mysterious old codger who wanted Gabby and Doc’s lives in exchange… There was a new name in the credits for Espionage and Black X, Alex Kotsky replacing ‘Will Erwin’, whilst Wildfire’s costume was abruptly rendered much more modest by joining her bikini top to her high-waist pants (boo).
Modesty only lasted an issue, thankfully, bringing a pleasant little wrinkle when Carol ‘Wildfire’ Martin decided she was fed up of being thought of as just a playgirl and punched out two crooks! Sadly, that was her last appearance. Smash Comics was paring down its features. Old stalwarts were falling by the wayside. Wings Wendall and the Purple Trio both cashed in their chips to leave space for the Yankee Eagle, who was as nondescript as they came, but patriotic in a time of War. And in his second appearance, sheer poison beyond the justification of that War.
Lou Fine had left The Ray, leaving the series moribund. Paul Gustavson left The Jester, dealing a similar blow. Issue 40, a good enough point at which to end this first part, sees the comic in a bad state, with its two catastrophic ‘comedy’ series intact, The Marksman and Yankee Eagle crude rubbish and its two strongest features artistically with their legs cut out from underneath them.
Thankfully, Midnight was going from strength to strength, and slowly taking on a distinctly Spirit-esque spirit. Apart from the obvious visual similarity, which is not that pronounced when viewed through Jack Cole’s cartoonist style, there’s not really been any equivalence between the two features, though I say again that I am comparing different eras, Midnight 1941-3 against The Spirit 1946-50. And Cole’s style is much more kinetic and unrealistic than Eisner’s, and much closer to a pulp-hero/costumed hero crossover. And whereas The Spirit had Ebony White, over whom there is still so much controversy, Midnight has Gabby the Talking Monkey and Doc Wackey, inventor of preposterous machines. Though it’s considerably more lightweight, I do enjoy Midnight, and I look forward to every instalment in the same way that I avoid reading the asinine Wun Cloo.
Next time, we’ll see how things progress in the second half of the series’ life.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier – 1977

Justice League of America 147, “Crisis in the 30th Century!”/Justice League of America 148, “Crisis in Triplicate!” Written by Paul Levitz and Martin Pasko (147), Martin Pasko (with an assist by Paul Levtiz (148), art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

Having captured the Psycho-Pirate on Earth-1 in All-Star 68, the Justice Society enjoy a breather on the Justice League’s satellite, a get together extended when Green Arrow’s boxing glove arrow switches off the transmatter cube, much to the annoyance of Wildcat. Power Girl seems very taken with a much younger Superman who isn’t actually her cousin and the Star-Spangled Kid is snottily jealous over it.
This scene is interrupted when a gigantic hand penetrates the satellite. It grabs ten heroes, five from each team – Leaguers Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Black Canary, JSAers Doctor Fate, Hawkman, The Flash, Green Lantern and Power Girl – and drags them 1,000 years through time, to 2977, the time of the Legion of Superheroes. The hand belongs to their sorcerous foe, Baron Mordru.
Mordru, present in his spirit form, is disappointed. He did not want more heroes, he wanted to seize those three mystic talismans, the Green Bell, the Silver Wheel and the Red Jar, which govern the imprisonment of the League’s old foes, the Three Demons, Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast.
In order to regain his place as master of the planet Xerox, Mordru plans to release the Three Demons. But the whereabouts of the three artefacts have not been known since the Justice League satellite exploded some time in the past millennium. Mordru has located them and imprisoned five Legionnaires as hostages to force the rest of the Legion to retrieve the artefacts. When they failed to return, he tried to snatch them from 1977 but failed.
The historical heroes attack him but are easily overcome and Mordru threatens to kill them, though he is surreptitiously persuaded by a spell from Doctor Fate to send eight of the heroes after the Legionnaires, keeping Green Arrow and Black Canary in a mystical hourglass round his neck, to drown in sand if the heroes don’t move fast enough.
Hawkman, Superman and Doctor Fate rescue Sun Boy and Wildfire from a planet of shape-changing aliens that worship the Silver Wheel. When Doctor Fate mocks up stars to cover the snatching of the wheel, the aliens switch to worshipping stars instead.
Batman and the two Lanterns succeed where Brainiac 5 and Princess Projectra have failed to persuade a planet to give up the Green Bell, whose ringing drives off the space Dragons that menace the planet: the Lanterns sculpt the shape of the Dragon’s natural enemy into the planet, creating a space Scarecrow.
And Power Girl and the Flash enter another dimension where the Red Jar, in its vault, is guarded by one of a number of strange frog-like aliens, who are actually all mothers sitting on eggs, and the one they have to deal with has actually mistaken the vault for her real egg, and hops off as soon as her actually baby is produced.
By now, we’ve learned that Mordru has no intention of keeping his word about releasing the prisoners, but the Flash and Power Girl refuse to hand over the Red Jar until this happens. As Mordru turns to the three artefacts, the heroes attack him, but they’ve forgotten all about Green Arrow and Black Canary, who are still in the hourglass and have to back off.
So Mordru releases Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast, but when he orders them to destroy the Thirtieth Century they refuse to acknowledge him as their master and turn on him. The Twentieth Century heroes are disappeared, except for the Arrow and the Canary, whilst the Three Demons plan to destroy the artefacts so that they can never be imprisoned again.
End of Part One.

A bunch of Legionnaires attack the Three Demons fruitlessly: the artefacts are destroyed. Under the Demon’s spell, the Legionnaires take Mordru’s spirit form to unite it with his physical body. What this might do to Green Arrow and Black Canary concerns them, but in the short run the hourglass is upturned, saving them.
The Demons turn to taking over the Thirtieth Century, but for the first time ever, their plans diverge.  Abnegazar wants to make peace, to join in with the harmony of the planet, Rath wants to take it over, exploit its power and Ghast to restore Earth to its original form, when only they existed.
The Demons are split, but they are too equally matched in power to destroy each other, so Abnegazar takes five Legionnaires as his proxies, to fight for him. Rath and Ghast reverse the dismissal of the JLA/JSA back to their own time and drag them back to 2977, the JSA serving Rath and the JLA under the dominion of Ghast.
The three teams start a three-cornered battle. Meanwhile, at Mordru’s tomb, Green Arrow and Black Canary are about to be buried when Green Lantern 1 turns up to rescue them, and turn them into puppets of Ghast as well. Another battle with the Legion rages.
But it’s noticeable that Power Girl alone among the JSA has some mental resistance to Rath, like the JLA have to Ghast. That is attributed to her (and their) greater youth and stamina, though it doesn’t appear to do anything for the Legion.
At first, the JLA and Power Girl use their freer will to let the Legion beat them, but a more permanent solution is needed. The League theorise that just because Rath controlled the JSA, Ghast assumed he needed only the same amount of magic to control the League. So they plan to get themselves knocked out, and let the JSA and the Legion fight each other to a standstill, so that the Demons have to face each other directly again.
The plan succeeds. Abnegazar and Rath turn on each other, the latter forced to relinquish his hold on the JSA. Doctor Fate, first to recover, leads an attack that is thwarted when the two Demons destroy each other, leaving only Ghast. His body energized by the release of magic, Fate summonses the fragments of the JLA satellite from all across the Universe,, forming these around Ghast. Infused as they are with the magical residue of the three artefacts, the satellite imprisons Ghast again.
With the menace defeated, the JLA and JSA can return to their own time.
* * * * *
At the back of Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 4, collecting this and the two previous team-ups, there’s an amusing piece about the changes that DC was going through in the years represented by these stories: about how DC’s comics, in their slow-moving, monolithic manner, were turning towards extended stories, told over a series of issues.
What this means, without mentioning once the cause of such a development, was that DC, over a dozen years later, was finally trying to emulate Marvel and pretend to a continuity.
It didn’t last long: in the following year, the much-ballyhooed DC Explosion/Implosion would reset the base form back to single issue stories that could still be read in more or less any order you chose without making any difference to their sense.
This essay is amusing in that it has almost no bearing on any of the three stories from this period. Indeed, the article makes much of the fact that these Justice League stories are completely uninfluenced by anything else happening to the heroes at the time.
The closest we come to any such concern is in the 1977 team-up. By the time this story saw print, the Justice Society had been active in their own series, in the revived All-Star, for eighteen months, at first under Gerry Conway, then for the past half-year by a young Paul Levitz. Thus we can commence the team-up in the most unusual fashion possible, without any semblance of a Crisis, on any Earth you care to mention.
It’s the beginning of a new phase for the JLA and JSA. From here, their joint adventures will almost invariably start as social events, as the two teams gather for the fun of it, and not at the behest of conveniently spaced menaces.
But the idea that the team-up now had to involve a third force was cemented in place, and in the absence of any other teams from the past, Julius Schwarz opted to go for a team from the future, in the ever-popular Legion of Super-Heroes. It was surely inevitable at some point.
Although Justice League of America now had a permanent writer in Steve Engelhart, spending a year at DC doing his balls-out best as a ‘Fuck You’ to a Marvel Comics that he believed had shafted him, Engelhart was not to write this team-up. Whether this was because he had no interest in doing so, or was not trusted, I don’t know. But with the young Levitz also writing the Legion, it made perfect sense for him to play a major part in the story, along with Pasko.
As for the discrepancy in the credits for the two issues, Levitz has admitted that due to over-committing himself as a young and eager writer, he was not able to do more than kibbitz on the second part. So at least we know who to blame.
The story is interesting in its first part, despite some early sloppiness. Dillin’s pencilling is appalling on the first page: for those unfamiliar with the character, the Psycho-Pirate is neither ten feet tall nor as immobile as a cigar store Indian, but that’s how he’s drawn. Wildcat’s punch-drunk slurring was part of a Levitz plot, but Power Girl’s strident feminism has gone out of the window at the sight of Superman’s muscles and the Star-Spangled Kid’s adolescent whininess over the fact she doesn’t fancy him in the slightest was tedious then and soul-destroying now.
Thank God therefore for Mordru’s millennium-crossing hand, though we might want to gloss over the miraculous manner in which all such devices infallibly bring back a perfectly balanced mix of heroes from each team.
These minor issues aside, the first half of the story sets things up well, until its conclusion. We can overlook the League being effortlessly superior to the hapless Legion – they’re only children, after all – and we can perhaps ignore the patronising way in which two planets are tricked into surrendering their artefacts. Well, maybe we can ignore the planet of shape-shifters and their primitive worship, but I for one find it less easy to accept a race of other-dimensional frog-types that are so amazingly dumb that they can mistake a metal vault for an egg: you know, their baby.
And there’s yet another demonstration of the failure of superheroes to remember anything, ambushing Mordru whilst he’s still got his hostages under complete control. Whilst it’s plausible perhaps in the Legion and, to a lesser degree, the Justice Society, how the hell can the Justice League forget Green Arrow and Black Canary?
But this is as nothing to the second part. Rich Buckler’s cover for it is sadly indicative: a shapeless, ill-conceived ring of heroes fighting each other. Because whilst the idea of the Three Demons, after all eternity, ceasing to think alike is interesting, the decision to conduct their fight by proxies, one team per Demon, leads into a dull fight-by-numbers stodge, with no clear line of development, and a very convoluted attempt to elevate the League above its guests, at the expense of the Justice Society.
I’ve mentioned before the tendency to slight the JSA in these team-ups, making them out to be inferior to the League. At the beginning of this series, that was at least explicable, given the unconscious imperative that the star should star, but the longer things went on, the more the Society were treated as equals.
But there’s no trace of that in the issue to which their scripter barely contributed. On the contrary, the JSA are under Rath’s complete domination, no leeway – except for Power Girl, because she’s young and has more mental strength. And why does the League have so much freedom of mind? Because Ghast foolishly assumed he could take them over with the same amount of magic as Rath had used, and this was foolish because the JLA were so much younger and inherently mentally able to resist.
That this is arrant bullshit that should never have been considered for an instant is further emphasised by having it come from Black Canary, who, let us remind ourselves, was actually a member of the Justice Society and is therefore considerably older than anyone around her in the Justice League, oh yes, and Power Girl, but has all the mental acuity of the superior beings of the League…
Astute followers of this series will, I hope, have already started muttering about the twenty-year rule, that Denny O’Neill conception that made the Society almost exact contemporaries of the League. Though this notion was never officially abandoned, it should henceforth be disregarded. In the pages of All-Statr, the Justice Society have gone back to being veterans – implicitly so under Conway, explicitly under Levitz, who had approached taking the series over by working out exact ages and biographies for each participant.
It’s a peculiarity of this year’s event that, although it occupies one issue fewer than its predecessor,  it is almost a third again as long as the Earth-S story. That had appeared in the year when the mainstream American comic book had reached probably its lowest ebb as a physical entity. Rising prices throughout the Seventies had been ever more frequent, but would have been far more common if the industry hadn’t conspired to do the comic worse and worse to cut expenses.
Thus, by 1976, the standard DC comic consisted of only 17 pages of art, as opposed to the 22 of the Sixties, and a three-issue team-up only added up to 51 pages of story, including splash pages and recaps.
To counter this, DC had decided to jump some of its titles, Justice League of America included, to a Giant-size. It wasn’t the 100-page Spectaculars of 1974, but then again it did not include reprints. With 32 pages of story in #147, and 34 in #14, this story topped out at 64 pages overall. And whilst the additional space suited the three-team format, we can perhaps be a little more generous to Pasko and Levitz, if we bear in mind that neither had great experience at plotting their stories out to this length.
Engelhart would return for an explosive two-part finale in the next two issues of Justice League of America before getting out of comics ‘for good’, after which Gerry Conway would take the series over until its end, writing, in the process, more issues than even Gardner Fox. The Justice Society would go back to All-Star Comics 69, and an explosive end to their current plot-line.
Future team-ups would not be as dire as these last three (actually one of them would be even worse, but I am prejudiced about that story and if I am to be objective about it, even my virulent loathing of it allows me to accept that it was less of a mess). Though the Justice Society’s future publication history was not to be stable, they would not find themselves wholly reliant upon two issues of Justice League of America for their sole exposure.
Ironically, in inducting Hawkgirl into the League as a formal member at last, Steve Engelhart had used the phrase ‘traditions arise as a matter of inertia’. Fifteen years on, the fans still loved the annual JLA/JSA team-up, and looked forward to it every year, and Julius Schwarz gave the fans what they asked for.
But it was patently obvious that the writers, whose nostalgia for the comics of their youth extended only to the early adventures of the League, had so much less interest in coming up with unusual, entertaining and exciting adventures for a wide-ranging group whose line-up changed dramatically ever year and for whom they were not prepared to go through the work of animating as people.
The ‘third team’ notion had been conceived as a Special Event, but it had become a mandatory factor, a substitute for real thinking about how to write a story about teams of heroes representing different generations.
Inertia had taken its toll, but inertia was the most powerful force now sustaining the series. It had happened every year for years, and therefore it would continue to happen every year, in the same manner that The Mousetrap‘s longevity on the English stage secures its infinite future: by being the longest-running play in History, it continues running.
Though I am sure that nostalgia affects my judgement, I don’t think that I am wrong in saying that once the Justice Society came back, in their own right, their team-ups with the Justice League should have been retired, gracefully. The heart had gone out of them, and with the heart had gone the life. The best had been done. But there were still years to pass through.
On the subject of post-Crisis viability, naturally this story could have happened, with only the tiniest of adjustments.