For Those Who Came In Late: In recent weeks, we’ve been hip-deep in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA goodness, discussing the team’s origins, history, roster, enemies and headquarters. This week, we’ll take a look at some highlights of the team’s adventures, at least in your Professor’s humble opinion. Without further delay, let’s get right to some COMICS 101 favorites, in an installment we’ve thoughtfully subtitled…
Back in the day, an appearance by the Justice Society of America was a treat.
Today’s comics reader, with a monthly dose of the JSA at their fingertips, will probably find it hard to realize just how cool those annual visits by the world’s first super-team were. Every summer, come rain or shine, JUSTICE LEAGUE readers knew that the much-anticipated teamup with the Justice Society was just around the corner, more often than not the only appearance by the JSA for the entire year – so it better be good. And, more often than not, it was. In past columns, we’ve already discussed the first meeting of the Justice League and the Justice Society in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #21-22 (August, September 1963), as well as their first reunion the following year, teaming up to face Earth-3’s Crime Syndicate in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #29-30 (August, September 1964), so we won’t retread that ground here today. What’s important is that the public had spoken: the Justice Society appearances were among the most popular issues of the year, cementing the tradition of the late-summer JLA-JSA teamup.
Every year, DC would take advantage of the JLA-JSA teamup to reintroduce new members who hadn’t been seen, in some cases, in decades; folks like Mr. Terrific and Wildcat, who had only been in the Justice Society for the proverbial cup of coffee back in the 1940s.
Throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, the JLA-JSA teamups would be when big changes would take place, things like the reintroduction of the grown-up Robin, the debut of the android Red Tornado (who would later join up with both teams), and the Black Canary’s immigration from Earth-2 and the JSA to Earth-1 and the JLA.
Synchronicity played a part in 1972, as the summertime JLA-JSA teamup coincided with the 100th issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, which also happened to be the 10th annual meeting of the Justice League and the Justice Society. Clearly, something special was called for, and new JUSTICE LEAGUE writer Len Wein was determined to deliver. Not content to settle with just two super-teams, Wein decided to add a third to the mix: the Seven Soldiers of Victory, DC’s other, albeit little-known, superhero team from the 1940s.
Deciding that an explanation needed to be given for their long absence, Wein and artist Dick Dillin came up with “The Unknown Soldier of Victory” in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #100 (August 1972), which teamed the Justice League, the Justice Society and JLA associates Metamorpho and Zatanna in a quest across the fabric of time to track down the lost members of the Seven Soldiers of Victory, who had been scattered throughout history following their titanic battle with the cosmic menace known as the Nebula Man, a battle in which one of the Seven Soldiers paid the ultimate price.
Where were the Seven Soldiers? Which had sacrificed his life? Would they be found in time to prevent their old enemy the Iron Hand (who used to just be called “The Hand” before losing his hand in battle with the Seven Soldiers. Ahh, the irony’s so thick you can spread it on a cracker…) from unleashing a new Nebula-based threat? Over the next three issues, readers would find out.
A word about the Seven Soldiers of Victory, if you’ll permit. Created in Winter 1941 at the behest of National Comics editor Harry Donenfeld, in a clear attempt to replicate the smashing success of the Justice Society in the pages of All-American’s ALL-STAR COMICS, the Seven Soldiers of Victory made their debut in LEADING COMICS #1, and consisted of the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, the Green Arrow and Speedy, the Crimson Avenger, the Vigilante and the Shining Knight.
Even for National Comics, at the time the biggest and most popular comic-book publisher, these weren’t exactly A-listers. Like the JSA stories in ALL-STAR, the Seven Soldiers stories followed a pretty strict formula of “team meets to discuss big threat, team separates to face big threat in individual chapters, team reunites to vanquish big threat once and for all.” Except, in the case of the Seven Soldiers, the threats weren’t all that big, and certainly not as exciting.
Perhaps it was the team’s decidedly more Earthbound nature. Unlike the JSA, which boasted such fantastic, superpowered members as Green Lantern, Dr. Fate, the Spectre and Wonder Woman, the Seven Soldiers were to a man normal humans, with no special abilities beyond their fists and their wits (granted, the Shining Knight had a flying horse, but you get my point). Maybe it was the writing, with the Seven Soldiers never really facing a truly powerful foe, usually facing off against racketeers, hoodlums and crooks, with the occasional evil genius thrown into the mix. It’s all the more clear how much of an asset Gardner Fox was in plotting out the JSA stories, as SEVEN SOLDIERS writers like Mort Weisinger and Bill Finger struggled with the same formula. The Seven Soldiers couldn’t even settle on a name, sometimes calling themselves “Law’s Legionnaires” or “The Seven Legionnaires.”
Whatever that intangible is that makes a great team or a great series, the Seven Soldiers just didn’t have it. They always came across as second-rate.
Which just happened to play perfectly into how Len Wein utilized the characters in his JUSTICE LEAGUE story, as the Seven Soldiers of Victory, mostly forgotten by comic-book fans, wound up being entirely forgotten by their own world, at last defeating a truly threatening menace, and rewarded for it with only oblivion. Across time the JLA and JSA members travel, finding the Crimson Avenger in an ancient Aztec temple, the Shining Knight in China brainwashed into fighting for Genghis Khan, Green Arrow filling in for Robin Hood in merry olde England, Stripesy trapped in an Egyptian pyramid, the Vigilante kidnapped by Indians in the old west, the Star-Spangled Kid on the run from a tribe of Cro-Magnons, and Speedy transformed into a centaur by the sorceress Circe in ancient Greece. Soon all seven are safely returned to the present – but wait a minute. Wasn’t one of them supposed to be dead?
As it turns out, in a bit of a storytelling cheat, it was actually the Crimson Avenger’s sidekick Wing who had sacrificed his life to stop the Nebula Man. Considering that Wing accompanied the team as a sort of “Eighth Soldier” throughout their original run, never getting cover billing or even official membership, his unheralded death and interment in an anonymous grave seemed perfectly appropriate. Wing wasn’t the only casualty to be mourned that day, as the Red Tornado went to another one of his unfortunate demises, sacrificing himself in the same manner as Wing to stop the new Nebula menace.
The Seven Soldiers’ return was a big hit at the newsstands, so JLA editor Julius Schwartz ordered Wein to come up with another big multi-team extravaganza for the 1973 Justice League/Justice Society teamup. Lucky for him, there was another batch of forgotten heroes newly arrived at DC, just waiting to be reintroduced. Not long before, DC had acquired the publishing rights to the stable of characters published in the 1940s by a rival outfit, Quality Comics. Wein went through the list and cherry-picked the best superheroes (with the exception of the two biggest names on the list, Plastic Man and Blackhawk, who were already slated to receive their own solo books) for a new super-team, the Freedom Fighters. Wein also came up with a great premise with which to introduce them, which unfolded in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #107 (September-October 1973), in “Crisis on Earth-X!”, by the usual team of Wein and artist Dick Dillin.
As the Justice League and Justice Society work to perfect a device that would allow them to travel between Earths 1 and 2 at will, that pesky Red Tornado (back from the dead again already and now trapped on Earth-1) disobeys orders to stay out of the Transmatter Machine while it’s given its maiden voyage, and as a result, its passengers, Batman, Elongated Man, Green Arrow and the Red Tornado from Earth-1 and Dr. Fate, Sandman and Superman from Earth-2 find themselves on an unfamiliar parallel Earth, and faced with an unexpected sight: Nazi tanks, on American soil.
After a brief skirmish with the Nazis, the JLA and JSA succumb to a “cerebro ray” wielded by the Nazi forces, and face immediate capture, were it not for the timely arrival of the Freedom Fighters: the Black Condor, the Ray, Doll Man, Phantom Lady, the Human Bomb (my personal favorite, not only for his great name, but for one of the least responsible and plausible origins ever: to prevent it falling into the hands of Nazi agents, chemist Roy Lincoln – get this – swallows the only sample of the new explosive formula 27QRX, and rather than the expected result of a lingering, painful demise, Lincoln develops the power to generate devastating explosive power in the palms of his hands. Nice.), and the group’s leader, Uncle Sam, the very spirit of American liberty come to life.
As the JLA and JSA swiftly learn, on this parallel Earth, the death of FDR was followed by an incorrect choice of policy by the United States, leading to both sides having the atomic bomb, allowing World War II to continue for decades. The stalemate was only broken a mere five years previous, when Germany developed a mind-control ray that allowed the Third Reich to take over the globe within weeks. Only Uncle Sam and his Freedom Fighters have developed a defense to the mind control, and now stand alone against the Nazis. Thanks to Dr. Fate’s magic, the combined heroes are able to at last locate the projectors of the mind-control rays sweeping the globe, and split into three teams to destroy the mechanisms at Mount Rushmore, the Eiffel Tower and Japan’s Mt. Fujiyama.
In turn, the Red Tornado discovers a previously unknown fourth projector in a secret Nazi satellite, where he dukes it out with – what else? – a Hitler robot. The Red Tornado trashes the joint and sends the satellite hurtling back to Earth, and with that, Earth-X is free.
The first 12 Justice League/Justice Society teamups are currently available collected in three trade paperbacks from DC, CRISIS ON MULTIPLE EARTHS, Volumes 1, 2 and 3, under gorgeous new covers from Alex Ross, Jerry Ordway and Alex Ross again, respectively.
(And while I’m at it, those among you with an extra 50 bucks in your pocket and a desire for self-punishment can pick up THE SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY, ARCHIVES, Vol. 1. Hey, I won’t think any less of you; I bought one myself.)
DC tried to recreate the Freedom Fighters magic in 1976 in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #135, “Crisis in Eternity!”, by writers E. Nelson Bridwell and Martin Pasko and artist Dick Dillin, this time with the introduction of Earth-S, the home of the characters acquired from Fawcett Comics.
However, the new “Squadron of Justice” didn’t catch readers’ imaginations the same way the Freedom Fighters did, primarily because, other than Captain Marvel and the rest of the Marvel Family, Fawcett’s stable of characters didn’t quite measure up to the Justice League or the Justice Society. Meeting the JLA and JSA for the first time here were the Spy Smasher, Bulletman and Bulletgirl, the Egyptian wizard Ibis the Invincible, and masked acrobats Mr. Scarlet and Pinky the Whiz Kid. Yes, you read that right. Pinky the Whiz Kid.
The story itself is no great shakes, with Captain Marvel bad guy King Kull plotting to destroy humanity on three worlds, and what you’d expect to be the climax of the story, a clash at long last between Superman and Captain Marvel, winds up not with a bang but with a whimper, consisting of little more than a panel or two.
Still, these issues are noteworthy and well worth picking up, if only for the sole DC appearances of some of these non-Marvel Fawcett characters, whom DC very seldom makes use of.
One of the best JLA/JSA teamups came in the late ‘70s, a refreshing change of pace provided in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #171 (October 1979), “The Murderer Among Us: Crisis Above Earth-One!”, by writer Gerry Conway and artist Dick Dillin.
Rather than another world-threatening disaster or menace, Conway and Dillin provide an intriguing superhero version of a locked-room whodunit, as the Justice League and Justice Society convene in the JLA Satellite for their annual get-together, for once motivated by camaraderie instead of catastrophe. It’s a rare glimpse at the teams just relaxing and enjoying each other’s company, like this moment when the JSA’s Hawkman congratulates new JLA member Zatanna.
There are also more somber moments, as when Batman consoles the Huntress on the recent death of her father, his Earth-2 counterpart.
However, the JLA and JSA can’t ever get together without something going wrong, and sure enough, there’s suddenly a hull breach aboard the Satellite, leading to the discovery of a casualty: JSA member Terry “Mr. Terrific” Sloane. Even worse, further investigation reveals that Mr. Terrific didn’t die from the explosion; in fact, he was strangled, meaning that someone in the JLA or JSA was the killer.
The whodunit continued in the following issue, with “I Accuse…”, in which Batman and the Huntress, as the teams’ resident detectives, conduct the investigation into Mr. Terrific’s murder. There are a few cheats and flaws in the whodunit’s structure, to be honest, as one of the clues involves evidence found at the scene, a piece of steel with finger indentations, which seems to indicate that the killer had super-strength. However, Batman correctly points the finger of blame at Jay Garrick, the Earth-2 Flash, who has been possessed by Mr. Terrific’s old enemy, the Spirit King.
This despite the fact that neither Flash has ever displayed the ability to bend steel with their bare hands. That’s why they call Batman the world’s greatest detective, I guess. Sometimes, he doesn’t even need to bother with the facts…
As for Mr. Terrific’s enemy, the Spirit King, well, they just made him up for this issue (complete with a rockin’ white man’s afro), which also makes it kind of hard to guess that he was behind it, since no one reading the issue had ever heard of him before.
And in the ultimate cheat, take a look at the cover, where Batman is pointing at the killer and speaking to him directly.
Now look who’s behind him. That’s dirty pool. At least make an effort to play fair, people.
Even with its faults, the story is a compelling one, and so different from all previous JLA/JSA teamups that it really stands out as memorable. The tale ends on an uncharacteristically downbeat note, with the Spirit King getting away and the JSA retreating to their own world, bearing their dead. It also highlighted just why the JSA appearances were so highly anticipated back then, because unlike the JLA, the JSA members were a little more open to change. Not only did the characters age, but people could (and did) die. With the JSA in town, anything could happen.