When Last We Met: Our long look at the classic “Satellite Era” of the JLA was winding down, with one humble reader’s opinions of some of the best JLA stories to be found, which more often than not happened to be JLA/JSA teamups. This week, we’ll continue in the same vein, and begin with a quick glance at a few of the last Justice League/Justice Society meetings…
Following up the more intimate Justice League/Justice Society crossover of the previous year, writer Gerry Conway went back to the epic scale of years past in 1980, in the three-part “Crisis on New Genesis!”, appearing in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #183-185, by Conway and artists Dick Dillin and George Perez.
Here the Justice League and Justice Society, expecting to meet up for their annual get-together, are instead teleported to New Genesis, to help Mr. Miracle, Orion, Big Barda and Metron recover the population of New Genesis, which has been kidnapped and enslaved by Apokolips, with the help of the Injustice Society of Earth-2, all with the fiendish purpose of resurrecting Darkseid himself. Seems strange that the JLA had never met Kirby’s NEW GODS characters before this, but the unfamiliarity fits the storyline like a glove, and makes for a fresh dynamic in the JLA/JSA formula, which admittedly at times could feel a bit stale. The mixing up of the three teams makes for some memorable and intriguing character interplay, such as Batman and his interdimensional “niece” the Huntress teaming up with Mr. Miracle to perform some stealthy reconnaissance.
We also see Hal Jordan taking the torture of Highfather very personally:
And in a nice gag that would run for a couple of these teamups, we see new JLA member Firestorm attempt to put the moves on the way-out-of-his-league Power Girl:
In the end, it’s Firestorm, Power Girl and Orion (with the typical deus ex machina assist from Metron) who manage to put down Darkseid and foil his plan to teleport Apokolips from its own universe to Earth-2’s universe (destroying Earth-2 in the process).
A word about the art here: the story began under the pencil of longtime JLA artist Dick Dillin, who left a mark on the series arguably even more significant than original JUSTICE LEAGUE artist Mike Sekowsky. Dillin had a remarkable tenure on the series, well over 100 issues, which tragically ended with his death of a heart attack on March 1, 1980. With the loss of the perennially underrated Dillin, whose art combined handsome draftsmanship with clear, competent and compelling storytelling, a number of artists stepped in to fill his shoes, including Don Heck and Rich Buckler, but the artist who made the biggest splash in succeeding Dillin was the one who took up the task of completing his work on the 1980 JLA/JSA teamup: George Perez.
Perez had left Marvel and come to DC in the hopes of getting a chance to tackle the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA series, and in fact, the story goes, only took on the NEW TEEN TITANS book that Marv Wolfman offered him because DC promised to give him JUSTICE LEAGUE as well, with the expectation that TITANS would quickly be cancelled as the previous revivals of the series had been. (Amazing as it is to believe, for a time Perez was providing pencils for two monthly team books, an amazing accomplishment in sheer page count alone, besides the fact that Perez was producing superior work.) As it turns out, the wild and unexpected success of TITANS forced Perez to only do interior pencils for a mere 10 issues of JUSTICE LEAGUE, but they’re some of the most fondly remembered issues in the series’ run. Even after that, Perez remained as the series’ cover artist for another year and a half, providing the series an artistic consistency that its rotating roster of interior artists lacked. Some of my favorite Perez covers on non-Perez interiors were the covers for the 1982 JLA/JSA reunion, a sprawling time-travel story teaming up the Justice League, the Justice Society and the 1940s All-Star Squadron. Perez cleverly hearkens back to the old Mike Sekowsky covers of the 1960s, with his framing device of headshots of the various team members looking quite concerned at a central image. It’s a cool, retro conceptual device that I’ve always been fond of.
While we’re talking creatives, just another word about JLA writer Gerry Conway, whom I can’t say enough good things about. It’s a tricky thing to try and advance character development in a series like JUSTICE LEAGUE, in which so many of the characters are under the control of separate creatives and editors, making it hard to effect any real change or growth. (This constrainment might explain Conway’s decision to alter the team to its final, second-stringers-only “JLA: Detroit” iteration, a move much belittled by everyone, including yours truly. But is it really as bad as all that? Does the run have nothing to offer? Come back next week for the answers…) Conway was the primary writer and creative force on the series from issue #151 until its demise in issue #261, a nearly decade-long stint that would be admirable merely for its longevity alone, apart from its first-rate quality. Conway managed to bring to the book both a bigger-than-life sense of legend, and a real humanity, allowing the reader to see the League both as we mere mortals must see them, and as real, fallible, flesh-and-blood folks as well, with tempers, frailties, emotions and faults. As much as the League is Gardner Fox’s, to my mind, it’s Gerry Conway’s as well.
Although we’re talking about specific issues I consider some of the JLA’s best, ambitious readers looking to accumulate a good-sized run, to really get a larger sense of what Conway accomplished in his lengthy tenure as JLA scribe, should start with JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #151, and are probably safe with ending at about #220.
A good example of artist Don Heck’s work on the series can be found in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #198 and 199, in “Once Upon a Time in the Wild, Wild West!”, in which Conway and Heck transplant an amnesiac Green Lantern, Zatanna, Flash and the Elongated Man in the Old West, pawns in the Lord of Time’s scheme to harness the power of an anti-matter meteor strike, which hit the Grand Canyon in the year 1878.
Naturally, while the Justice Leaguers struggle to remember who they are, they run into several stalwarts from DC’s line of Western characters, namely Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, Cinnamon and the Scalphunter. Heck’s rougher style works perfectly with this fish-out-of-water story, and it’s a real treat to see Ralph Dibny and Zatanna riding the trails on horseback.
Viewers of the Cartoon Network JUSTICE LEAGUE series may recently have seen an episode in which the League wound up in the Old West for a teamup with Hex and Bat Lash, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that these issues were at least a partial inspiration.
My favorite Don Heck JLA tale was a bittersweet little story from Conway and Heck entitled “A Hero for All Seasons,” from JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #201 (April 1982). The story focuses on the return of Ultraa, another parallel-Earth refugee from the world of Earth-Prime, ostensibly the Earth where the readers lived. In previous appearances, Ultraa had been introduced as a counterpart to Superman, rocketed to Earth from a dying world, and in his case discovered and raised by an aboriginal tribe. When his world was threatened by its first supervillain, Ultraa realized his presence on Earth-Prime would only lead to more heroes and villains troubling his world, so he abandoned it for Earth-One. Here, Ultraa is discovered working as a busboy by onetime JLA antagonist Joe Parry, from way back in JLA #31 (remember him from Hawkman’s induction?), and manipulated into a life of crime.
The story contrasts Ultraa’s feelings of isolation at leaving his homeworld with Hawkman’s own despair over his troubled marriage, in a nice bit of characterization for Katar that was very much out of the ordinary. As it turns out, Ultraa is more than a match for the JLA, and it’s only through Katar offering an outstretched hand that a peaceful resolution is reached.
Things are ended on a happier note for Ultraa, and it’s a shame that, with the elimination of DC’s parallel-Earths concept, the Ultraa character is gone for good.
Never quite gone for good is the Justice League’s very first enemy, Starro the Conqueror, who made a splashy return in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA # 189 and 190, “The Return of the Starfish Conqueror!”, by Gerry Conway and Rich Buckler.
Here the last remaining chunk of Starro is fished out of a lake by an unwitting boy, who’s made to nurse the alien starfish back to health, and then, months later, delivers it to New York City’s Central Park, where it encounters a picnicking Wonder Woman and Red Tornado, and gives them a pretty solid thrashing. The League returns in greater numbers, to find that Starro clinging to the top of the Empire State Building and spraying the city with miniature versions of himself, which adhere to the faces of the populace and allow him to mentally dominate them. Before long, the Leaguers are all sporting facial seafood, and the entire city is under Starro’s control, leaving the remaining Justice League members safely ensconced outside city limits at a loss, and fighting against military officials who are planning to destroy New York.
Hawkman discovers a way to keep the remaining Leaguers from falling under Starro’s control, while the Red Tornado reveals that, being mechanical, the starfish on his face has no effect (a point that I found to be quite satisfying when I originally read the story as a kid, as I distinctly remember thinking “What! That starfish shouldn’t work on him! This is bogus…”), and works from within to find a way to defeat Starro. While Batman and company fight the brainwashed Justice Leaguers, the Red Tornado takes out Starro’s ever growing power supply, and the Hawks discover Starro’s other weakness, besides lime: extreme cold. Firestorm and Green Lantern ice him down, and it’s freezer burn for Starro.
There’s lots of good stuff in here: the awkwardness between Flash and Zatanna following their brief romantic encounter (relationships with co-workers are always a bad idea, Barry), a brief but intense martial-arts duel between Batman and Black Canary, the Red Tornado sacrificing himself yet again for the greater good, all with a real creepy George Romero-style zombie vibe as the League makes its way through a city swarming with starfish-faced drones.
And the issues sport some wonderfully menacing covers by Brian Bolland. Good stuff.
As for George Perez, well, the issues he did with writer Gerry Conway are for me the highlight of Conway’s run. Let’s take a look at a few. We’ve already touched several of them , including the two-part exploration of the Red Tornado’s origins in “Quest for Genesis” and “Secret of Genesis,” from JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #192 and 193 (July, August 1981).
In the story, the League investigates what at first looks like the death, and later disappearance, of their teammate the Red Tornado, after duplicates of the Tornado invade the Justice League Satellite and attack the League, injuring Flash, Batman and even Superman, thanks to a chestful of Kryptonite carried by the second robot. It’s the little details that Perez brings to any book that are always such a joy to discover (and such a boon to characterization), such as these moment in which we see Superman convening a JLA meeting at which the young, impulsive Firestorm looks bored out of his flaming skull.
Perez was also already experimenting with his multi-paneled storytelling, as seen here in this sequence in which Aquaman busts in on T.O. Morrow’s soliloquy over the helpless Red Tornado:
Conway’s revelation, that the Red Tornado actually bore the soul of an alien being known as the Tornado Champion that had encountered the JLA years before, may have struck some as a little too cloying, but it worked for me as a way both to explain the Tornado’s numerous resurrections over the years and to end finally the debate over whether he was “just a machine.” As for the plot execution, the bit in which Firestorm reforms the Red Tornado around the Tornado Champion, knowing that he’ll be the only one who knows that the android really does have a soul, was a touching bit of characterization, showing the callow youth of the JLA taking his first steps toward growing up.
Usually, anniversary issues in comics are almost always a letdown. One of the few to actually succeed not only as a celebration of the book’s history, but also on its own merits, is JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #200 (March 1982), “A League Divided.”
Here, all of the League’s new recruits, from Green Arrow on down, find themselves facing off against the founding members, under the sway of a post-hypnotic suggestion to recover the meteors from the Appallaxian invasion they foiled way back during their first case, with the intention of reviving the aliens.
Written by Conway, George Perez provides the framing sequence of the book, while each successive chapter detailing the newer Leaguers facing off against one of the founders is drawn by an artist well known for his depiction of the character. It’s quite a lineup, with Pat Broderick on the Firestorm vs. Martian Manhunter chapter, Jim Aparo on Aquaman vs. Red Tornado, Dick Giordano on Zatanna vs.Wonder Woman, Gil Kane on Green Lantern vs. Atom, Carmine Infantino on Flash vs. Elongated Man, Brian Bolland on Green Arrow & Black Canary vs. Batman, and Joe Kubert on Hawkman vs. Superman. Let’s take a look at just a couple of these chapters:
The amazing roster of artists only enhances the book, and doesn’t at all seem a distraction, thanks to the excellent transition pages by Perez, neatly tying in the various plot threads as the JLA founders consistently thrash their opposing teammates. When the founders succeed in reviving the aliens and then find their memories restored, they’re quickly beaten by the elemental creatures, before being revived by the rest of the team and returning at full force to tackle the alien monsters. Perez is in fine form here with his double-page spread of the team, and his art on the final three battle sequences doesn’t disappoint.
AND THE WINNER IS…
However, my entirely biased personal pick for favorite Justice League story has to be JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #195 -197 (October – December, 1981), “Countdown to Crisis!” by Conway and Perez.
A rare three-part JLA/JSA teamup, it’s even more unusual in that, for the most part, it’s much less a story about the JLA, and much more about their opponents, a new version of the Secret Society of Super-Villains. In fact, the JLA and JSA really take a back seat to the Secret Society in this story, with the heroes acting as little more than cogs in the Secret Society’s machine.
The story takes its time in setting the scene, as the Society’s organizer, the Ultra-Humanite, recruits five of his fellow supervillains from Earth-Two (Brainwave, Psycho-Pirate, Rag Doll, the Monocle and the Mist), along with four Earth-One supervillains (Signalman, the Cheetah, Killer Frost and the Floronic Man). The recruits were chosen for a reason, as the Ultra-Humanite has discovered that the removal of five specific superheroes from each world (placing them in limbo between worlds) will cause the cosmic balance to rewrite itself and remove all superheroes entirely from one of their worlds.
Naturally, this sounds right fine to the Ultra-Humanite’s new teammates, who quickly head off to plot the capture of the Atom, Batman, Black Canary, Firestorm and Wonder Woman from Earth-One, and the Flash, Hawkman, Hourman, Johnny Thunder and Superman from Earth-Two.
A word about the Ultra-Humanite: A relatively obscure Superman villain from the Golden Age, the Ultra-Humanite appeared a half-dozen times in the 1940s, usually swapping his brain between human bodies (including a female movie star, making him the first transsexual super-villain by far), but never made the jump to first-class villain in my mind until this version of the character, with his super-powerful brain transplanted into the body of an enormous albino gorilla.
There’s something about the notion of a verbose, cultured, smooth-talking, mastermind gorilla that’s undeniably appealing, a concept that Cartoon Network JUSTICE LEAGUE producer James Tucker undoubtedly realized, as he reportedly pushed for the Humanite’s inclusion in the new animated series, making for one of the cooler villains to appear on the show. (And by the way, I never thought I’d see the day where there would be Ultra-Humanite figures at my local Toys R Us, either…)
The Secret Society succeeds in ambushing the necessary heroes, and they’re taken to the Humanite’s Sinister Citadel, where they’re loaded into a giant centrifuge and zapped away to limbo, and within minutes, the reality of Earth-2 reshifts itself, eliminating all superheroes from the planet.
The Earth-1 villains realize from the Ultra-Humanite’s demeanor that they’ve been had, that there was never a chance for their world to be affected, and before they can object more forcefully, the Humanite teleports them back to Earth-1. Enraged, Killer Frost, Cheetah, Signalman and the Floronic Man make plans to spoil the Humanite’s party, and execute it flawlessly. Needing a ticket off of Earth-1, they quick-freeze Green Lantern and use him to access the JLA Satellite, then knock out Ralph Dibny and use the Satellite’s Transmatter Machine to get to limbo, where the kidnapped superheroes languish.
Meanwhile, the Earth-2 Secret Society runs rampant, with folks like the Rag Doll settling for beating up cops, while the Ultra-Humanite has somewhat loftier aspirations – he heads right for the U.N.
In limbo, Killer Frost manages to channel the Cheetah’s undying hatred of Wonder Woman, manipulating her into breaking open the heavily fortified centrifuge. Of course, the Earth-1 villains hadn’t exactly figured on their next move after breaking the heroes out:
On Earth-2, the Secret Society is lured back to the Sinister Citadel, where the combined Justice League and Justice Society awaits to deliver a restaurant-quality ass-whooping.
The full-page shot of the JLA and JSA about ready to attack was probably one of my favorite pages of art as a kid; the composition of the shot, the oddly jovial Batman, the cheerful-looking Firestorm, the supremely pissed-off-looking Hourman, the slightly rumpled Johnny Thunder in the background, all centered around the main event, the original Golden-Age Superman. (And if anyone knows where I can find the original art for this page, e-mail me…)
While the Secret Society takes their beating (including this great moment of Jay Garrick treating the Rag Doll like a speed bag)…
…Batman and Atom hotwire the Ultra-Humanite’s dimension vortex thingie, and send the villains packing to limbo, with the big ape being the last to go.
There are lots of reasons why I like this story so much, although I’ll be the first to admit that nostalgia no doubt plays its part. But even when I read it as a kid, what struck me most about it was the way it went against my expectations at every turn: the villains have a great plan, it works well, the heroes are taken down relatively easily, and only escape their fate thanks to the Humanite’s ingratitude.
Had he not been such a punk to the Earth-1 contingent, the JLA and JSA would still be locked in that cosmic salad spinner. It gave the idea of the supervillain as a bona fide threat, at least for me, a much-needed shot in the arm.
Besides, it’s got a super-intelligent albino monkey. What more do you need?