I’ve written before on this blog — several times — about my admiration for comics writer Gardner Fox’s reference library — a library I don’t really know anything about, but the existence of which can (or must, even) be inferred from the assortment of off-the-wall factoids (mostly, but not exclusively, related to mythology and folklore) to be found scattered throughout his Sixties ouevre. The Justice League of America story featured in today’s post — “Secret Behind the Stolen Super-Weapons!” — is another sterling example of this penchant of the prolific scripter’s; but before we jump right into the story, let’s take a moment for a look at the cover. (It’ll be brief, I promise.)
If you’re new to this blog, or to Silver Age comics in general, you may be wondering — is this book actually Justice League of America, or should it rather be called Batman and His Super Friends? But most of you out there are probably already well familiar with DC’s efforts in the mid-Sixties to capitalize on the TV-driven popularity of Batman as much as they possibly could, which included giving him as much real estate on JLA covers as the artists (Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson, in this case) could technically manage, irrespective of his relative importance to the stories within. JLA #53’s cover is undoubtedly one of the worst in this regard, ranking right up there with issue #47’s — but lacking even that cover’s clever manipulation of perspective. It’s just godawful, frankly, with no merits I can see past Anderson’s reliably meticulous, and always enjoyable, inkwork.
Thankfully, in March 1967, we were already nearing the end of the Batmania era, at least in relation to Justice League of America, even if we fans of the time didn’t know it yet. In just a few months, we’d actually see a JLA cover that featured no Batman (or other Bat-characters) whatsoever! But that’s a blog post for another day.
And now, on to our story. Though the cover gives no indication of it, there’s a special guest star this issue — Hawkgirl, partner and wife to JLA member Hawkman. (Hawkgirl had already made several appearances in JLA prior to this, in fact, but hadn’t gotten featured billing before now.) The tale actually begins with the two Hawks, who discover that a nationwide rash of mysterious museum robberies has reached their very own Midway City Museum, where they both work in their civilian identities of Carter and Shiera Hall. Someone is stealing rare artifacts and leaving worthless duplicates in their place. Carter and Shiera use a Thanagarian detector to determine that there’s an odd radiation given off by the duplicate items — but it’s not a strong enough signature to trace, so…
Yeah, wouldn’t it be great if Hawkgirl could actually participate in Justice League adventures, like the identically-powered equal partner to Hawkman that she in fact is? It’s just too bad the JLA has those pesky bylaws…
Arriving at the JLA’s Secret Sanctuary, Hawkman soon learns of another mystery that just may be related to the museum robberies. Someone has managed to steal Green Arrow’s quiver of trick arrows, Wonder Woman’s magic lasso, and Batman’s utility belt right from under the heroes’ noses, replacing them with useless fakes. Hawkman uses his radiation detector on the duplicates, with no results — however, Batman figures out that maybe if they get all the museum robbery fakes together and put them in a pile, they may emit enough of the radiation Hawkman detected in Midway City for them to trace it to its source. Since Flash and Superman are on hand, they volunteer to scoot off, collect the items, and return lickety-split:
No, JLA mascot Snapper Carr doesn’t get to find out who’s the “fastest man alive” in this sequence — but it was a nice tease for a special event DC had coming up in a few months. Though, once again, that’s a blog post for another day.
Batman’s idea pans out, of course, and once Hawkman has a read on the radiation’s source, he, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Arrow are on their way to catch a thief:
Our culprit (whom Fox never provides with a villainous sobriquet, or even an ordinary name) is a brilliant criminal scientist who’s invented a matter transportation device that can teleport an object from anywhere in the world to the thief’s cavern hideout, leaving “a reasonable copy in its place — an operation made necessary by the law of the conservation of matter and energy…” (Science! Or the Silver Age comic book version of it, anyway.) He’s not the most memorable of JLA villains (in fact, he’d never appear in another comic book after this one), but you can say this about the guy — his physiognomy provides a prime example of penciller Mike Sekowsky’s flair for the grotesque — a quality that’s only enhanced by Sid Greene’s slick, detailed inking.
Yep, our criminal genius has invented a matter animator as well as a transporter. And it’s here that the fun really begins, as Fox cracks open his books and prepares to introduce us readers to some famous (and not so famous) figures out of American folklore — beginning with the Doodang:
As the “Editor’s Note” correctly states, the Doodang comes to us through the “Uncle Remus” stories of Joel Chandler Harris. Harris, a white journalist, supposedly collected these stories from African-American slaves when he worked on a Georgia plantation in the early 1860s. His retellings were extremely suceessful when first published, and soon became a staple of American children’s literature, a status they held through the first half of the twentieth century. In later decades, however, the stories fell out of favor, as Harris’ use of an eye dialect to represent the speech of his African-American characters, as well as the overall tone of his presentation of Southern plantation life, came to be perceived as racist. For this reason, B’rer Rabbit and his associates are much less likely to be familiar to today’s young readers than they were to my nine-year-old self, and others like me, in 1967 — a year that was, after all, only three years removed from the release of Chubby Checker‘s Folk Album, featuring the famous popularizer of the Twist singing about none other than you-know-who:
Interestingly, recent decades have seen some critical re-appraisal of Harris’ “Uncle Remus” material, as a number of the stories have been discovered to have close analogues to African folk-tales, indicating that however much Harris may have adapted or transformed his sources, there remains in his work an authentic core of traditional material — a valid, and valuable, piece of African-American heritage. And so, while B’rer Rabbit may never again have the cultural cachet he once did, it’s not too difficult to find modern versions of his story cycle in public libraries, in such works as The Further Tales of Uncle Remus: The Misadventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, the Doodang, and Other Creatures, by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinckney.
Moving on from the Doodang, we find Hawkman beset by a second creature out of folklore:
Re-reading this story for the first time in a few decades, my initial assumption when perusing this panel was that the Monster of Leeds, or Jersey Devil, was a figure from British tradition (the UK has a city called Leeds, you see, as well as an island named Jersey). Obviously, I’m not much of a hockey fan — because the Jersey being referred to here is of course the New one, while “Leeds” here denotes the name of a notable New Jersey family. According to one version of the legend, a Mrs. Leeds living in the 1700s, upon learning that she was pregnant for the thirteenth time, cursed the child in her womb. Soon after the baby was born, it mutated into a creature with hooves, a goat’s head, bat wings, and a forked tail, then flew up the chimney and away — and it’s apparently been haunting the Pine Barrens region of New Jersey ever since, with the largest rash of supposed sightings occurring around 1909.
The Jersey Devil, then, unlike the Doodang, falls into the category of folkloric creature that has, at some point, been believed by a significant number of people to actually exist in the real world. Most of us are familiar with other examples of this type — the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and the Mothman, to name a few — which are the subject of study by self-styled cryptozoologists as well as by folklore scholars.
The third of the animated creatures sent against the Justice Leaguers sets its sights on Green Arrow:
For modern audiences, the Ring-Tailed Roarer is probably the most obscure of all the legendary creatures Fox works into his story. This panel’s “Editor’s Note” references Davy Crockett, and the phrase “ring-tailed roarer” does seem to date back to the nineteenth-century frontier humorists who wrote of Crockett and other larger-than-life characters both real and fictional. But the phrase generally appears to denote a human being — a braggart whose exaggerated boasts may include the claim of being “half horse, half alligator” — rather than an imaginary animal. Green Arrow may claim to have “read tales” of the formidable creature he’s fighting, but I have yet to turn up a single one. It seems evident that Fox either misunderstood his source material somewhat, or that he fudged things a bit on purpose, for the sake of his story. (And hey, whatever else the Ring-Tailer Roarer may be, it’s definitely in the public domain.)
The fourth and final animated folkloric threat is not one figure, but rather a pair of them:
Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox — in addition to being the least monstrous of the Justice Leaguers’ folklore-derived foes — are probably the ones best-known to readers today. While there appears to be some disagreement among scholars as to how much of the Paul Bunyan tall-tale material is authentic folklore that actually originated in North American logging camps, versus “fakelore” created by commercial writers, there’s nothing particularly objectionable about anything in the stories, which continue to entertain audiences and inspire the creators of books, films, and, of course, comics –a recent instance of the latter being Bill Willingham and Lilah Sturges‘ Jack of Fables, which included a memorable interpretation of Babe.
After seven pages of mayhem, all four Justice Leaguers have vanquished their foes (as you knew they would), and are back in pursuit of the criminal mastermind they believe stole their stuff. The fleeing inventor (apparently) stumbles and falls, knocking himself out. At least, that’s the state he’s in when the JLAers find him, just a panel later. And then…
The four heroes have become invisible, but not intangible; their teammates can still touch their breathing bodies, so they know they’re still present and alive. Guessing that this strange turn of events may be related to the radiation given off by the fake artifacts, but unable to use Hawkman’s detector since it’s turned invisible along with him, the non-incapacitated Leaguers turn to Hawkgirl for help. Hawkgirl, who has her own identical radiation detector (of course), is more than willing to assist.
What neither the JLA members nor Hawkgirl suspect, however, is that the matter-transporter device is now in the hands of a gang leader named Johnny Marbles:
So, as it turns out, the nameless inventor-thief wasn’t responsible for the theft of the Justice Leaguers’ weapons after all — it was Johnny Marbles and his gang! How did these ordinary-seeming crooks manage to pull off not just one, but four such incredible robberies? Well, unfortunately, we’re already on page 19 of our 23-page story, so we’re not going to have time for an explanation. We’ll just have to go with it.
Having conned the JLA into believing that the treasure-thief was also responsible for the theft of their weapons, the Marbles gang followed the heroes to the cave, incapacitated the fleeing thief before the good guys could catch him, and made off with the matter transporter. But now…
Among his other talents, Johnny Marbles has enough scientific aptitude to have figured out a way to make the matter-transporter immobilize things, such as a door (?) — or, rather more usefully, the JLAers and Hawkgirl. Then, once the heroes have been frozen in place, Johnny prepares to go for the gold — literally. He sets the matter-transporter for the United States gold reserves at Fort Knox:
Johnny’s men come after Hawkgirl not only with GA’s arrows, but with Wonder Woman’s lasso and a laser torch from Batman’s utility belt — which, if you’ve been paying attention, is as close as the story has managed to come to replicating the dramatic cover scene of the heroes’ weapons being turned against their owners. But with the strength, skill, and smarts you’d expect from the first-class superhero she is, Hawkgirl overcomes and subdues the crooks, super-weapons notwithstanding. Then, all that’s left is a page of wrapping up — which, as is often the case, is mostly about ‘splaining things:
“If I could find a girl like you… I’d get married myself!” The highest compliment a man could pay a woman in 1967 — at least, in the world of DC superhero comics. (In case you’re wondering, in spite of her saving the day in this adventure, it would be another ten years before Hawkgirl would be admitted into the JLA’s membership, in Justice League of America #146.)
And so concludes “Secret Behind the Stolen Super-Weapons!” — a story I find memorable primarily for the sequence involving the animated folkloric characters, even though they didn’t really have much to do with the central mystery indicated by the tale’s title, when you get right down to it.
It’s a funny thing, this “reference library” of Gardner Fox that I’ve imagined. As I’ve already noted, I have no idea what it actually contained, or even how big it was. But with the whole Internet at my disposal, I still had some trouble verifying a number of the facts that Fox apparently had ready to hand in 1967. We tend to assume today that “everything” is on the net — yes, even professional librarians such as myself, who really ought to know better. But for all their indisputable glories, in the end Google and Wikipedia had a hard time meeting the research challenges presented by this particular fifty-year-old comic book. I’m not entirely sure what that signifies, but it’s something to think about.
In 2004, DC Comics honored the memory of recently-deceased editor Julius Schwartz with a series of eight one-shot specials, each featuring a modern recreation of a classic cover produced under his editorial guidance, accompanied by two different stories inspired by the cover — a conceit derived from Schwartz’ well-known penchant for coming up with an idea for a cover first, then challenging a writer to script a story around it. We blogged about one of these specials last year, in our post about Batman #183, and here’s another — DC Comics Presents: Justice League of America, based on the cover for JLA #53 that I described as “godawful” near the top of today’s post.
The cover recreation (seen at left) was done by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and I’ll allow that he did a creditable job, considering what he had to work with. Batman’s dominance is scaled down a tad, and the figures generally look less awkward. And, OK, I guess the idea of the cover — presumably conceived by Schwartz — was kind of clever, after all.
The first of the two new stories based on the cover concept was written by famous science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, in collaboration with fellow prose author (and longtime comics writer) Peter David, with art by Silver Age stalwart Joe Giella. The second was scripted by the veteran comics writer Marv Wolfman, with art by Dustin Nguyen and Richard Friend. And while neither tale could be said to be a timeless classic that ranks with the best work of any of the creators involved, both stories are definitely entertaining — especially the first, a touching personal tribute to Schwartz from his longtime friend Ellison. Also, it must be said that both stories do a considerably better job of capturing and embellishing the basic cover concept than does Gardner Fox’s original tale. (Though I personally still like Fox’s story better. Just sayin’.)