Today’s 50 year old comic book ranks as one of the most personally significant that I ever bought, for several reasons.
The first, and most obvious, is that it introduced me to a number of superheroes I hadn’t encountered before. I had known about Superman (and maybe Batman) before I bought my first comic, of course, and in my first month of comics buying I had picked up books featuring those two heroes (and possibly one starring Green Lantern), but this book was packed with colorful, memorable new characters. The Flash! The Atom! Hawkman! Aquaman! Green Arrow! J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter! Wonder Woman! (Waitaminnit — who let a girl in the clubhouse?) And not just heroes, but villains as well, with cameo appearances by the Penguin, Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and — the Shark! (OK, maybe not all the characters were A-listers.)
But just as important, if not more so, was the impact that the story had on the development of my personal moral philosophy. Seriously.
“Indestructible Creatures of Nightmare Island!” is an unusual story for its genre in that (setting aside the brief cameos mentioned above, and a murderous bandit named Chung Ka who disappears after the third page), there isn’t a real villain in the tale, super or otherwise. The closest thing the story has to an adversary for the Justice League is a well-meaning scientist named Andrew Helm, the reclusive inventor of a machine with which he stimulates the cerebral cortices and amygdalae of human brains worldwide in an attempt to release the power of their consciences and “compel men to heed the moral laws”. Unfortunately, Helm uses the art of astral projection (learned from the lamas of the mythical Tibetan city of Ta Ming) to send his spirit out across the globe to see how his invention is working. Overwhelmed with delight by his apparent success, Helm’s astral form stays outside his body just a little too long, and is unable to return to his physical form. The “Corti-Conscience” machine goes haywire and begins to work in reverse, suppressing humanity’s moral sense rather than stimulating it. The Justice League are the world’s only hope for discovering the source of the evil-inspiring radiation and shutting it down.
The real interest of the story to me, though, then and now, isn’t in the mechanics of how the JLA go about doing this, but in how writer Gardner Fox frames and explores the essential human dilemma that Andrew Helm is attempting to solve with his invention. Expounding on the problem in an internal monologue, Helm notes that “one man alone has been able to do but little to make his fellow humans hear and obey their consciences”, a statement accompanied by portraits of Moses, Christ, Confucius, Mohammed, and Buddha. (Yes, illustrator Mike Sekowsky included a rendering of the Prophet Mohammed, probably completely unaware that Muslims would find it offensive. No, I’m not going to reproduce it here.) Considering that I was thoroughly immersed in a devout Southern Baptist religious culture at the time, not to mention that comparative religion was not part of the third grade curriculum at Watkins Elementary School, I believe that this may have been my first exposure to the latter three figures.
But Helm’s invention, he says in his monologue, will do what these five great religious leaders couldn’t. He then considers the kinds of evil that the Corti-Conscience machine will eradicate, beginning with this example:
It’s worth noting that this issue was published in September, 1965, only a few weeks after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The story would have been written and drawn some months before that; probably after the act’s introduction in Congress as a bill in March, but before its ultimate legislative fate could be known.
I’m not sure I had any idea that that momentous piece of civil rights legislation had just passed when I first read this story, however. I was living in Jackson, Mississippi, but I was largely ignorant of much of what had been transpiring in my city and state over the last several years — and this was only a year after the Freedom Summer and the murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County; only two years since Medgar Evers’ assassination in Jackson itself; only three years after the rioting over integration at Ole Miss. I was pretty damn clueless about it all — but as a reasonably well-off young white boy, I could afford to be.
But back to JLA #40. After completing his interior monologue, Andrew Helm turns on his machine and then projects his astral self out into the world to observe its effects. We, the readers, accompany him as he watches two of the aforementioned super-villains give up their nefarious pursuits and turn themselves in, and as a Caribbean island’s dictator (unnamed, but obviously Fidel Castro) calls a halt to an imminent missile attack against the U.S.. We see two more villains surrender, while somewhere in Southeast Asia guerilla fighters and uniformed soldiers lay down their arms and shake hands. The Justice League of America calls an emergency meeting to discuss this unprecedented breaking-out of peace and justice:
(I have a distinct memory of asking one or both of my parents what the word “utopia” meant after reading this panel.)
Flash turns out to be correct, of course. As previously described, Helm is unable to turn his machine off, and soon people are behaving much worse than they were before. Conflict breaks out across the globe, and even the Justice League members themselves are affected, with the exception of the invulnerable Superman. Fortunately, Superman manages to quickly “cure” his allies with the help of Green Lantern’s power ring, and the team splits off into two groups, one to track down the source of the conscience-altering radiation, the other to “straighten out the world”:
It’s very satisfying to see Superman using his powers to stop a war. Of course, reading the story as an adult, one can’t help but question why the Man of Steel doesn’t do this all the time. Why is war “bad” only when it’s the result of Corti-Conscience radiation? People get killed just as dead in “normal” wars, don’t they? (On the other hand, the eight-year-old me who read this story in 1965 wasn’t bothered by the obvious illogic of this at all.)
Next, we see Green Lantern put a stop to two simultaneous launches of intercontinental nuclear missiles (whew!), followed by Wonder Woman resolving a civil conflict that’s erupted in some country “south of the border” — by imposing her own will and personal values on the country’s dictator. Interestingly, said values start out with a paraphrasing of the Golden Rule, followed by what could easily be taken today for a couple of planks from Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign platform:
Again, one has to ask, why isn’t she doing this all the time? After all, the story strongly suggests that the dictator has been oppressing his populace since long before the Corti-Conscience stirs them to violence. And I’m certain that Earth-One in 1965 has plenty of other despots that could use a good talking-to from Princess Diana.
But never mind. While all this is going on, the remaining JLA members manage to track down the source of the conscience-altering radiation, and invade Andrew Helms’ secluded (and force-field protected) island, only to find themselves beset by super-powerful, nightmarish foes. Eventually, Hawkman figures out that their unstoppable enemies are simply figments of their imagination, brought to life by the island’s automated defenses. The JLA members simply “think” the illusory creatures away, shut off the Corti-Conscience machine, and thus restore order (of a sort) to the world.
Of course, the heroes have no idea what to make of the recumbent and apparently-dead body of Andrew Helm himself. Rightly guessing that this is what remains of the well-meaning inventor of the machine, the heroes proceed to sum everything up — for themselves; for the unseen astral form of the poor, doomed Helm as he hovers nearby; and of course, for us, the readers:
Corny? Yeah, I guess. On the other hand, just what is so funny about peace, love, and understanding, hmm?
I will readily concede that parts of this story have not aged well at all — including one scene of “juvenile delinquents” creating terror by running through a subway car yelling “Hiyah!”, and another in which Wonder Woman refers to the populace of a Latin American country as “peons”. And then there’s stuff which would have had more sophisticated readers than my eight-year-old self scratching their heads even in 1965 — such as when the main effect of the Corti-Conscience machine on the Justice Leaguers seems to be the negation of their concept of personal property. As Green Lantern tells Superman when the latter demands his power ring, “Take it! What right do I have to hog it for myself?” Apparently, consicenceless-ness is virtually the same thing as… communism?
Still, I cherish this story. For all its flaws, in 1965 it gave me a glimpse of a moral universe somewhat more complicated than that represented by the simplistic “good guys versus bad guys” narrative that dominated the other popular entertainment I was consuming. It also informed me that morality and ethics were subjects of deep human concern that were addressed by religious traditions other than my own. And perhaps most importantly, it implied, however clumsily, that How Things Were and How Things Ought To Be were not at all in harmony in the society in which I lived, and raised the possibility that achieving a better world might require more than just being law-abiding and going to church three times a week.
Would I have still become the same person I am today, holding the ideals that I do (however imperfectly I live up to them), if I hadn’t read “Indestructible Creatures of Nightmare Island” in September, 1965? Oh, probably. But then again… maybe not.