This issue of JLA features “The Negative-Crisis on Earths One-Two!”, a story written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene. It’s the second part of 1967’s Justice League – Justice Society team-up, an annual summertime tradition that DC Comics maintained from 1963 all the way through 1984. I blogged about the first half of this tale a few weeks ago, and I’m sure you’re all eager to find out how our heroes get out of the mess they were in at the conclusion of JLA #55. And we’ll get to that pretty soon — but first, I’d like us to spend a little quality time with the book’s cover.
To begin with, it’s just a great piece of work — one of the final, as well as one of the finest, products of penciller Carmine Infantino and inker Murphy Anderson’s long and profitable collaboration. And as perhaps the first comic book cover to feature what would become an everlasting motif in the superhero genre — two line-ups of superheroes charging each other — it has historic significance as well.
I mean, I don’t know for sure that this Infantino/Anderson classic influenced Jack Kirby’s cover for Fantastic Four #73, or John Buscema’s covers for Avengers #53 and Avengers Annual #2. But since JLA #56 reached the stands at least five months before the earliest of those three (FF #73, if you’re curious), it certainly couldn’t have worked the other way around.
After 1968, of course, there were enough of these charging-team covers out there that it’s hard to say which later iterations of the motif were influenced by which earlier ones. But I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the cover of 1973’s JLA #108 — featuring yet another JLA – JSA team-up (though this one also included a third hero team, the Freedom Fighters) — has a lineage that goes straight back to JLA #56. I mean, just look at those speed lines. (As a side note, the cover of JLA #108 includes something that #56’s cover doesn’t, namely a textual error — because the two opposing hero groups actually include representatives of three different Earths, not two, as the cover copy states. The group on the left includes members of both Earth-One’s JLA and Earth-Two’s JSA, while the group on the right, the aforementioned Freedom Fighters, hail from “Earth-X”. But, I digress.)
That’s not all there is to say about the cover of JLA #56, however — because it’s not only notable for what it depicts, but also for what, or rather who, it doesn’t depict — namely, Batman. The Caped Crusader had appeared on every single JLA cover from #42 to #54, and beginning with issue #46, had been given greater prominence than any of the other heroes, regardless of how large a role he actually played in the story the cover supposedly illustrated. (A couple of what are merely the most egregious examples, from #47 and #53, are shown here.) The rationale behind this editorial approach was, of course, the desire to capitalize on the incredible popularity of the Batman television series that began airing in January, 1966, less than a month after JLA #42 came out.
From the perspective of fifty years later, it’s pretty easy to decry the crass commercialism on display here, and the distorting, deleterious effect it had on the cover artists’ work. But we really should at least try to remember just how huge the Batmania phenomenon was. It not only sent most of DC’s comics industry competitors scrambling to capitalize on the sudden vogue for “camp” superheroics, by either reviving moribund heroes or introducing hastily-conceived new ones (or both), but also significantly influenced other media as well, giving the world short-lived TV superhero comedies like Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific (no relation to the JSA member of that name). Frankly, it would have seemed pretty strange, maybe even professionally negligent, if DC hadn’t tried to make the most of the pop-cultural moment with their comics that actually featured Batman.
But by the summer of 1967, something had changed. The Batman TV series had wrapped up its second season and had been renewed for a third, but the ratings appear to have fallen considerably from their peak in 1966, and come the fall, Batman would air only once a week rather than twice, and with cheaper production values. The sales of Batman-featuring comics were also beginning to slip, or at least to plateau*. In any event, DC editor Julius Schwartz, who oversaw the Batman and Detective titles as well as JLA, seemed to have come to feel that the “camp” approach had run its course, more or less — indeed, he actually said as much in the letters column of Batman #194, published in June, 1967, as we discussed in our recent post about that issue. And he was now willing to experiment, at least, with seeing what would happen sales-wise if Batman didn’t appear on a JLA cover — starting with JLA #55, which one might say tried to split the difference by making the grown-up Robin of Earth-Two, wearing a costume that was a hybrid of the Boy Wonder’s and his mentor’s, the centerpiece of Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson’s illustration.
But, you may be wondering — how much of all of this was my ten-year-old self actually cognizant of, back in July, 1967, when I first gazed upon the cover of Justice League of America #56? Well, my memory is pretty spotty, but I’m pretty sure I at least noticed that neither Batman nor his adult Robin stand-in were featured. I mean, I may not have been especially subtle of mind as a youngster, but even I understood that Batman had been disproportionately emphasized on the previous year’s worth of JLA covers. So yes, this was different — and enough so that it would be hard not to notice.
However, I suspect that I gave relatively little thought to the absence of a Bat-character on the cover, being considerably more interested then in what, to this day, still always interests me the most about any scene depicting two lines of heroes charging each other (and what I rather suspect most interests most other superhero fans as well, regardless of their age, or how long they’ve been reading comics) — and that’s the question of how well the heroes shown paired off against each other match up, powers-and-abilities-wise.
I mean, look at this setup, and tell me that the Justice Society members aren’t at a disadvantage, taken as a group. Sure, Hawkman can fly, so he can probably take Green Arrow, especially if the latter doesn’t get a chance to draw his bow. But an accomplished athlete with no actual powers, or even weapons, against the Fastest Man Alive? A cat-costumed boxer against an intergalactic lawman wielding one of the most powerful weapons in the universe? And a guy who takes a pill to give him enhanced strength, speed, and endurance for an hour against, well, Superman? Please. It may look as cool as hell — but there’s no way that this fight should last more than 30 seconds, tops.
Fortunately — for the JSA, as well as for us readers — matters don’t proceed within the story itself quite the same way they do on the cover.
If you’ve read our post about JLA #55 (and if you haven’t, why not pop on over and read it now? We’ll still be here waiting when you get back.), you’ll recall that four ordinary human beings of Earth-Two were struck from the sky by mysterious small black spheres which gave them super-powers and also influenced them towards evil. Unable to overcome these four new super-villains in combat, the heroes of the Justice Society of America summoned their Earth-One allies from the Justice League of America to come to their aid — only to find that the JLAers were dealing with virtually the exact same crisis on their own world. By the issue’s end, the combined teams had learned the origin of the black spheres — that they were super-intelligent beings fleeing their own dying universe, who had randomly bonded with the first advanced life forms they encountered upon arrival on Earth. They also learned that the spheres were, for the time being, still dormant within their human hosts, but would become even more unstoppable once they “awakened” and took full control of their hosts’ bodies.
Part two of our story opens with all the heroes in a glum mood, but nevertheless determined to find a way out of their predicament:
It seems like a something of a long shot — but as any regular reader of Silver Age DC superhero comic books knows, such long shots have a way of working out in stories like this. And so, using his X-ray and telescopic vision powers, Superman locates the existing remnants of the black spheres’ radiation all over the world, and soon thereafter he and his fellow speedy heroes — Green Lantern, Flash, and Wonder Woman — have gathered them all up:
I can remember my ten-year-old self being a little disappointed by how the storyline was developing at this point — I had expected (and had been looking forward to) the scope of the action growing to include Earth-One, and to seeing the four villainous counterparts to the Earth-Two villains actually make an appearance. With the division of the assembled heroes into four teams on four separate missions, such a scenario was beginning to look pretty unlikely. Still, I’m fairly sure that I shrugged off my mild disappointment, and got back into enjoying the story as it was unfolding, without a lot of trouble.
Of course the worst-case scenario has come to pass — the irradiated Hourman has been turned towards evil, and has become more powerful, to boot. He’s obviously now more than ever a match for the non-powered Robin, and, after luckily managing to score some kryptonite from an underground deposit directly below the Roman Colosseum, he even gets the better of the Man of Steel — though only until the former Boy Wonder (Man Wonder?) manages to make the Tick-Tock Man drop the deadly green chunks with a clever karate trick. But then:
Robin suspects that “the good in the evil Hourman” may be resisting the black spheres’ influence, and trying to give his erstwhile allies a clue as to how he can be defeated — and, indeed, after Superman follows Hourman into the Tiber River, it becomes apparent that the latter has become considerably weaker underwater:
The plot device of “a foe’s mysterious weakness that the hero(es) must discover” is a familiar trope in scripter Gardner Fox’s JLA stories; and now that the formula’s been established, it’s not too difficult to predict how things will go down for the remaining three teams — beginning with the group pursuing the villainous How Chu:
Like Hourman before him, Flash can’t resist the siren song of evil that makes him turn on his friends — but he also still possesses enough agency to give them the telltale clue they need to figure out how to beat him:
As it turns out, the immense power of the black spheres is no proof against at least one mundane earthly allergen — and thus, after being showered with wisteria petals by Green Arrow and Hawkman, the Scarlet Speedster wheezes himself into unconsciousness:
Moving on to the third team, composed of Green Lantern, Mr. Terrific, and Wildcat — it should come as no surprise what happens immediately upon their arrival in Scotland, where they’re to take on the third super-villain, Howard Rowland:
It soon becomes evident that the single weakness of Green Lantern’s power ring — the color yellow — has been nullified by the black sphere radiation — though, of course, GL hardly needs a power boost to make him a more than a match for a couple of costumed, but entirely non-powered, athletes:
(It’s hard to know whether to take Green Lantern’s thought-balloon comment in that last panel as a nod to the camp aesthetic, or as a dig at it. Maybe Gardner Fox himself wasn’t sure. In any event, it clearly demonstrates that DC hadn’t put all thought of that trend behind them yet.)
Of course, GL, like the irradiated heroes before him, has an ulterior motive in knocking Wildcat into that tree:
Both of the black spheres’ weaknesses previously uncovered by the earlier groups of heroes (water and wisteria) seemed pretty arbitrary, but with the third, we’ve finally reached one that, frankly, doesn’t make any sense at all. The implication is that our heroes should also be able to use wood against Howard Rowland and his evil cohorts — but why, if its efficacy has only just now been generated to “compensate” for having eliminated a vulnerability of Green Lantern?
Oh, well, whatever. We’ve still got one more team of heroes to check in with:
“Sheer evil!” Yow!
Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt are at least relatively well-matched against Wonder Woman; or, rather, would be, if only Johnny didn’t have so much trouble remembering that he has to intone the magic words “say, you” to get the genie-like magical being to obey his commands (you’d think he would have caught on after 27 years, wouldn’t you?) — and if the black sphere radiation hadn’t given the Amazing Amazon the ability to send the Thunderbolt’s magical hex-blasts right back against him:
Now, this is an interesting scene, since the episodes involving the other three hero teams implied that, having discovered the black spheres’ weaknesses, the heroes would be getting right back after the super-villains they’d been attempting to apprehend in the first place — yet here the villains all are together, with no pursuing JLAers or JSAers in sight. Oh, well.
(Well, fine. The other heroes have finally caught up with their respective quarries. I guess having to stash their unconscious irradiated comrades somewhere would have taken some time.)
After everyone is back together again, we have a brief scene in which all the other heroes but Johnny congratulate each other for not spoiling their teammate’s triumph by telling him that they’d all come up with ways to vanquish the black spheres on their own — which seems a little inappropriately smug of them, considering that they didn’t accomplish anything more or better than Johnny did. But that’s the way it goes when you’re “comic relief”, I guess.
That certainly seems fair — except that when we first met How Chu in JLA #55, he was facing execution by the Chinese authorities for banditry. Oops. Well, maybe someone will point that out before this ruthless professional criminal is released back into society.
And that’s it for 1967’s Justice League – Justice Society two-part team-up extravaganza. I have to say my ten-year-old self didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the previous year’s, which had a larger cast of characters and a more cosmic scope — but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. If nothing else, it introduced me to a bunch of Golden Age heroes I had yet to meet (since, other than Wildcat, none of the JSAers featured in this team-up had appeared in the previous year’s) — and discovering new super-heroes was always a good thing. I had no doubt that I’d be back in the summer of 1968 for the next joint adventure of the JLA and JSA.
But well before that date — in fact, just a couple of weeks after I first read Justice League of America #56 — I would be making the acquaintance of yet another super-hero team, one that was published by a whole other comics company than DC. But to learn more about that, you’ll have to join me for the next installment of this blog.
*John Jackson Miller’s Comichron tells us that the Batman comic book itself, having almost doubled in sales between 1965 and 1966 — with its reported total paid circulation per issue rising from 453,745 to 898,470 — saw sales fall somewhat over the course of 1967, with the per issue circulation averaging 805,700 that year.