Justice League of America #55 (August, 1967)

From June, 1966 through May, 1967, DC Comics published nine issues of Justice League of America, all of which capitalized on the enormous popularity of the Batman television show by prominently featuring the Caped Crusader on their covers.  Upon its publication on June 13, 1967, Justice League of America #55 clearly marked the end of that year-long run of exploitative, Batman-dominated covers.

Um, sort of.  OK, not really.  Because this issue’s Mike Sekowsky-Murphy Anderson cover, featuring the debut of “a grown-up Robin” whose costume was an amalgam of the duds traditionally worn by both the Boy Wonder and his august mentor, was obviously trading on Batmania as much as any other JLA cover that editor Julius Schwartz had seen through production in the last twelve months. 

(The timing of the cover’s appearance is interesting, since, as discussed in our most recent post, in this very same month Schwartz had indicated [in the letters column of Batman #194] that he thought the “camp” trend sparked by the Batman TV show’s success was on its way out.  Whether he was making a distinction between the recent craze for camp, and what he considered to be the more general popular appeal of the TV series — or was simply hedging his bets — is an interesting question, but one we’ll probably never be able to answer with certainty.  What we do know, however, is that with the very next issue of JLA, Schwartz would finally take the plunge and dare to publish a cover with no trace of a Bat-themed character whatsoever — though our discussion of that cover will have to wait until a later post.)

The publication of Justice League of America #55 would have been an event even without the debut of a new version of Robin, however, at least for avid fans such as my nine-year-old self, since it comprised the first half of a two-issue team-up of the JLA with their predecessors from comics’ Golden Age, the Justice Society of America.  The joint adventures of the JLA and JSA, which had begun in 1963, had become an annual event for fans to anticipate each summer; 1967’s was the fifth such, though it was only my second.  The first JLA-JSA team-up I’d been privileged to read (in issues #46 and #47) had immediately become my very favorite comic book story of all time (though I should note that at that point in my comics reading career, “all time” meant all of 10 months).  A year later, it was still at the top of my list — so I was plenty excited when my subscription copy of JLA #55 showed up in the mail.

“The Super-Crisis That Struck Earth-Two!”, written by Gardner Fox, with art by Sekowsky and Sid Greene, opens with a series of scenes depicting four relatively ordinary people, from all around the world, being mysteriously transformed through each one’s close encounter with a small black ball — beginning with Chinese bandit How Chu:

Others “blackballed” include Chicago stenographer Claire Morton, London business magnate Horace Rowland, and another American, onetime baseball player Marty Baxter.  All of them, upon being struck with the strange spheres, develop superpowers; and all then proceed to immediately embark on new careers as costumed criminals — perhaps not surprising in How Chu’s case, but hard to explain in regards to the other three, all previously law-abiding citizens.

At this point in the story, having established the threat to peace and justice our heroes are soon to face, scripter Fox would now be expected to bring on stage the issue’s featured members of the Justice League  — however, there’s a small surprise in store:

Still a relatively new reader, my nine-year-old self was delighted to see that the only one of the JSA members whom I’d seen before was Wildcat, who’d appeared in the previous year’s team-up adventure.  All the others were new, at least to me.  Of course, Wonder Woman was virtually identical to the “Earth-One” version I read about regularly in JLA; similarly, the JSA’s Hawkman seemed very much like the one I already knew, with the only obvious difference being his headgear.  And Robin was, well, Robin (though we’ll have a bit more to say about him, anon).  But Mr. Terrific and Hourman were both complete unknowns, as far as I was concerned.

As I would eventually learn (though not for several years), Mister Terrific had made his debut some 25 years earlier, in the pages of Sensation Comics #1 (Jan., 1942) — an issue considerably better known for featuring the first appearance of Wonder Woman.  The creation of writer Charles Reizenstein and artist Hal Sharp, Mr. Terrific was the costumed identity of Terry Sloane, a rich man with exceptional (but not superhuman) physical and mental capabilities.  Poor Terry was so amazingly good at everything he tried that he eventually became depressed enough to consider suicide, before stumbling onto costumed adventuring as a swell way to escape his ennui.  His original stint with the JSA lasted for just one issue of All-Star Comics; he and Wildcat replaced the Sandman and the Spectre in #24, only to be replaced themselves by a returning Flash and Green Lantern by the issue’s end.  Mr. Terrific’s feature in Sensation ran rather longer, until issue #63 (March, 1947).  After that, he wouldn’t be seen again until brought back for the third annual Justice League-Justice Society team-up in JLA #37 (Aug., 1965).

Mr. Terrific is probably best remembered today for the “Fair Play” motto emblazoned across his midriff, and also for being murdered in a later JLA-JSA team-up, the first (and, I believe, only) one to be conceived and executed as a “whodunit” mystery tale.  At DC Comics, however, no character concept ever seems to go away completely; and so the “Mister Terrific” mantle would eventually be taken up by another character, who in turn would inspire a television version, currently appearing as a regular cast member on the CW network’s Arrow series.  Not too bad a showing for an obscure Forties second-string comic book hero.

Hourman, for his part, had a similarly modest career in the Golden Age, though he made a bit more of a mark in regards to the Justice Society of America.  Created by Ken Fitch and Bernard Bailey for Adventure Comics #48 (April, 1940), Hourman was actually Rex Tyler, a chemist who invented a super “vitamin” called Miraclo which, when Rex popped it as a pill, would give him superhuman strength and speed for exactly one hour.  Rex went on to become a charter member of the Justice Society, appearing in the first seven issues of All-Star Comics before getting the boot (he was replaced by Starman, who knocked him off the cover of Adventure at the same time).  His solo feature continued in Adventure through issue #83 (Feb., 1943), at which time he went into comic book limbo until being revived for the very first Justice League-Justice Society team-up, in JLA #21 (Aug., 1963).

In later years, as comics creators began to take a more realistic approach to telling superhero stories, the darker implications of Rex Tyler’s dependence on what was, after all, a drug for his super-abilities began to be explored.  Eventually, like several of his fellow JSA members, Hourman was killed off in DC’s “Zero Hour” event, but was later resurrected.  Along the way, he spun off not one, but two legacy heroes bearing the Hourman name, and in recent years he, like Mr. Terrific, has had a version turn up on a live action TV show (Legends of Tomorrow, in this case).  Like the rest of the original Justice Society members, he went back into limbo with DC’s “New 52” continuity reboot in 2011; and, also like them, his status in the currently evolving “Rebirth” continuity is unknown (though his, and their, prognosis appears to be improving).

So, now — what about Robin?

Up until this issue, though it was generally understood that DC’s Big Two — Batman and Superman — must have Earth-Two counterparts (just as Wonder Woman, the only other JLA member who had also appeared in the Forties with the JSA, did), we hadn’t seen any sign of either one of them since the JSA officially came out of retirement in Flash #137 (June, 1963).  The closest DC had come to that had been in a story Gardner Fox wrote for Detective Comics #347, in which the Earth-Two versions of both Batman and the Dynamic Duo’s butler Alfred appeared — but that had been a “what if?” story that “didn’t really happen” in the main DC continuity, and thus didn’t count.  It’s possible that when it came time to write JLA #55, Fox (or, probably more likely, editor Julius Schwartz) saw a good opportunity to bring at least one of the Big Two to the Justice Society party, but was still a little leery of going all the way by depicting either the Caped Crusader or the Man of Steel as a member of the JSA in full standing.  Or, perhaps either Fox or Schwartz (or both) just thought a grown-up Robin was a cool idea.  Which, actually, it was; although the costume could have used more work (and would, thankfully, be overhauled for the Earth-Two Robin’s later appearances.)

But getting back to our story — now that the heroes of our tale have all been introduced, it’s time for the JSA to figure out a strategy to deal with the current crisis:

Robin and Wildcat take on Martin Baxter, now calling himself the Smashing Sportsman, who’s on a crusade against the sports world due to his bitterness over his own athletic career being terminated untimely due to his contracting arthritis:

Ah, a grown-up Robin, still making with the puns!  Some things never change.  (Except — was that actually a pun?  If so, it was a really, really bad one.)

Wildcat and Robin ultimately go down in defeat, and so we turn our attention to Wonder Woman as she faces Claire Morton, aka Gem Girl, whose superpowers are channeled through the very gemstones she covets:

The Amazing Amazon soon falls to her foe, as well.  Next up are Hawkman and Mr. Terrific against Money Master, the super-villain formerly known as Howard Rowland, who has uncanny telekinetic abilities:

Following the inevitable failure of these two JSAers, we catch up with Hourman as he challenges How Chu:

Unfortunately, Rex Tyler fares no better than his teammates.

And now, we come at last to the final Justice Society member participating in this year’s adventure, Johnny Thunder.  Though my nine-year-old self had never seen him before — I’d started buying and reading Justice League of America just a couple of months too late to catch either part of 1965’s JLA-JSA team-up, in which he’d played a key role — I had read about him, via the fan letters commenting on that very story in the later issues of JLA that I did buy — and I was very keen to find out more about him.

Johnny Thunder had first appeared in Flash Comics #1 (Jan., 1940), a comic book better known for the first appearance of… well, you can guess.  Created by writer John Wentworth and artist Stan Aschmeier, Johnny’s shtick was that he controlled an incredibly powerful genie, the Thunderbolt, through use of the magical phrase “Cei-U”, pronounced “Say, you” — words which Johnny tended to say accidentally (and in his earliest adventures, unwittingly), frequently leading to humorous situations.  Johnny became a member of the Justice Society in All-Star Comics #6 (Aug.-Sept., 1941), and continued in that role (usually providing comic relief) through issue #39, when he was replaced by Black Canary — a heroine who’d been introduced as a supporting character in Johnny’s own strip, some years earlier.  She took over his spot in Flash Comics at around the same time, with issue #91 (Jan., 1948), at which time Johnny, like so many other Golden Agers, slipped out of sight for years.  He was one of the first JSAers to be revived, however, appearing with the other members who came out of retirement in Flash #137.

In returning Johnny and his Thunderbolt to active service, Gardner Fox (who’d been the regular Justice Society writer in the Forties, and knew these characters as well as anyone working in comics in 1967) kept to tradition in using the characters for comic relief — as can be seen in the following panel, which comes along as Johnny, seeking to aid his teammates who’ve come back to headquarters following their battles against the black-sphere-empowered villains in a state of utter defeat, decides to send his Thunderbolt against the bad guys:

Well, you can see how it was supposed to be funny, right?

As you might expect by this point, the powerful Thunderbolt fares no better against the quartet of super-villains than have Johnny’s teammates.  But then Johnny has another idea — maybe the Justice League of Earth-One can help!  So, he sends the Thunderbolt across the dimensional divide for some JLAers:

(My nine-year-old self was appreciative of the fact that the four Justice Leaguers fetched by the T-bolt were the ones I thought of as the JLA’s “Big Four” — well, three of them anyway.  Batman had been replaced on the roster by the similarly non-powered but gimmick-rich Green Arrow, which made a kind of sense, as we already had Grown-Up Robin on hand.)

As soon comes to light, the Justice League of America has been facing an almost identical crisis on Earth-One — not a surprising turn of events, actually, since, as the Flash reminds everyone, “What happens on our earth generally happens on yours.”  At least the Thunderbolt is able to fill everyone in on where the black spheres came from in the first place:

T-bolt goes on to explain that the black spheres sought to escape their doom by transporting themselves into a universe “still on positive time” (i.e., the universe of Earth-Two), and bonding with the highest life forms there — but they were forced to hurl themselves into our universe at random, and only four were able to survive by bonding with human beings.  “But,” Hawkman asks, “what made the four humans act – evilly?”

Man, my nine-year-old self wanted to know how all this was going to turn out, too!  Although, truth to tell, the suspense generated by this issue’s cliffhanger wasn’t quite as high as that achieved by the conclusion of the previous year’s JLA-JSA team-up’s first half, which featured the heroes facing multiple crises, both terrestrial and cosmic, on multiple fronts.  Still, it was going to be a long six weeks I’d be spending as I waited for Justice League of America #56 to show up in the mail.

And just like I had to wait in the summer of 1967 to find out what happened next, if you want to know, dear blog reader, you’re going to have to wait as well.  (Unless you want to go hunt up a copy of JLA #56 on your own right now, and why go to all that trouble?)  I’ll see you back here in six weeks, OK?

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