1968 was a watershed year for my first favorite comic book, Justice League of America, though I don’t think that my then eleven-year-old self fully realized that at the time. Sure, artist Mike Sekowsky — who’d drawn every single issue since I’d started buying the series three years before, as well as every earlier JLA story I’d seen reprinted in DC Comics’ “80-Page Giants” — had left the book with issue #63, with Dick Dillin coming in as penciler starting with the following issue. And Gardner Fox, who’d written every League story I’d ever read, was gone as well, just two issues later. But Sid Greene was still inking the book (for now), so it still looked very much the same* (to my young and unsophisticated eye, at least). But, even with both Greene and (more importantly) editor Julius Schwartz still in place, there had most definitely been a changing of the guard; and JLA #66 represented the beginning of a new era — whether I knew it or not.
Among the most obvious harbingers of that new era was the cover — the first for JLA drawn by Neal Adams (beating his cover for the all-reprint JLA #67 by just a couple of weeks). Adams would go on to draw a whole lot more covers for the series, of course, though he’d never draw the book’s interiors (excepting a handful of pages in 1971’s issue #91). But I think it’s especially interesting to note that out of the six Justice Leaguers who appear on this first Adams cover (out of the nine who were currently on the team roster), half of them — namely, Batman, Green Arrow, and Green Lantern — were all characters on which Adams would soon be collaborating on extensively with JLA‘s brand-new writer, Denny O’Neil — and creating a body of classic work in the process.
But that work was still a couple of years away. In 1968, O’Neil was simply the new kid on the block — at least so far as DC was concerned. He’d broken into the business at Marvel in 1966, but as he was receiving assignments from them only sporadically, he’d soon gravitated to Charlton Comics, where editor Dick Giordano gave him regular work — until Giordano himself made a jump from Charlton to the higher-paying DC, and invited a number of his favorite artists and writers at Charlton, including O’Neil, to join him.
Among Giordano’s initial challenges were a couple of low-performing titles previously edited by George Kashdan, Aquaman and Bomba the Jungle Boy. As fellow comics writer and Charlton alumnus Steve Skeates tells the tale, Giordano planned to assign one of those books to Skeates and the other to O’Neil — and Skeates managed to nab Aquaman simply by the expedient of getting to the DC offices first, thereby sticking his fellow writer with Bomba. O’Neil was only able to script two issues of Bomba before the title folded; but luckily, he had other assignments — not only from Giordano (who put him on Beware the Creeper, a new series created by yet another former Charltonite, artist Steve Ditko), but from other DC editors as well, including Jack Miller (for whom he wrote Wonder Woman, illustrated by former JLA artist Mike Sekowsky), Joe Orlando (for whom he scripted Bat Lash) — and Julius Schwartz, who had him do a couple of Green Lantern scripts before assigning him to Justice League of America.
It’s possible that O’Neil’s quick finding of favor with multiple editors at a time when most DC writers still worked almost exclusively in a single editor’s “shop” (for example, with one or two exceptions, Steve Skeates wrote only for Dick Giordano from the time they both arrived at DC in 1968 until Giordano’s departure from his editorial position there in 1971) was due, at least in part, to his being championed by Carmine Infantino, the longtime DC artist who’d recently moved into an executive role. As Infantino himself would put it decades later, in Carmine Infantino: Penciler, Publisher, Provacateur (TwoMorrows, 2010), “I knew Denny was not a good plotter, but he was good on dialogue. He was like having a Stan Lee in my pocket.” And it’s certainly true that, in 1968, DC was concerned over Marvel’s rising market share, and was looking for creators who could produce material that would appeal to readers in the same way that Marvel’s comics did.
On the other hand, the publisher also needed new writers simply because they’d just sacked several of their old ones, in the infamous “DC writers purge of 1968” — Justice League of America scribe Gardner Fox among them. As I related in my JLA #65 post a couple of months back, Fox — along with several other veteran DC scripters — were dropped by the company in the wake of a semi-organized push for better pay and benefits. By most accounts, the new writers that effectively replaced Fox and company — who included not only ex-Charlton creators such as O’Neil and Skeates, but also even younger fans-turned-pros like Len Wein and Marv Wolfman — had no idea what was actually going on behind the scenes. In a 2007 interview with Bryan Stroud, O’Neil had this to say:
We didn’t really know why DC had hired us… Basically in our infinite childish ego Steve [Skeates] and the other Steve [Ditko] and I and a couple of other guys thought that those people at DC are seeing the wonderful work we’re doing at Charlton and they can’t wait to get us into their stable. Well, it was really that they were having a conflict with the old line guys and I’m reasonably certain they wouldn’t have known us if they’d run over us and maybe not even recognized our names. I needed the money. The money was triple what we were getting at Charlton and I was working occasionally for Stan [Lee], but irregularly and I had an infant son and an unworking wife. So I didn’t know I was a scab and I don’t know what I would have done if I had known, but it was years and years and years later before we found out.
O’Neil may be selling himself and his fellow ex-Charltonites a little short, here — if Infantino’s later recollections are to be believed, at least some of “those people at DC” knew their names — but it seems indisputable that the need for warm bodies to fill vacant scripting slots was at least partly responsible for the young writer’s rapid rise.
In any event, that’s the background behind Denny O’Neil’s fall ’68 debut as the new writer of JLA. Now, we’ll take a close look at his first story for the title, starting (as we usually do) with the first page:
From the first scene, it’s clear that we’re in considerably different territory from the “social relevance” topicality, or even the straightforward but intelligent genre writing, for which O’Neil would later be known. To the contrary; Generalissimo Demmy Gog and his five-man Offalian army** are at least as silly as anything that appeared in any of DC’s books during the heyday of “Batmania”-fueled camp — and considerably sillier than anything that showed up in JLA on Gardner Fox’s watch.
As the Leaguers themselves enter the story on page 2, we readers are presented with something else that we rarely (if ever) saw in a Fox JLA story — namely, a hero speaking crossly to a few of his fellow team members. And the cranky hero is Superman, fer cryin’ out loud — the “big blue Boy Scout” himself!
But, of course, that conception of the Man of Steel is one that has developed in the last several decades — at least, in the sense of it distinguishing him from his JLA teammates. Up until now, all of the Leaguers had been cut pretty much from the same square piece of cardboard. Superman was thus as likely as any of the rest of the group to get his nose out of joint — which is to say, not likely at all.
But hey, the cross talk is just getting started…
It would be inaccurate to say that the League members never disagreed in Gardner Fox’s stories. But it didn’t happen often — and when it did, it was generally a minor difference of opinion, usually about which was the very best strategy or tactics to use in addressing a particular crisis. For the Justice Leaguers to have a disagreement based on principle — and to display emotion while doing so — was something new for the title.
What O’Neil is doing in this scene is essentially taking the first baby steps towards real characterization of the JLA heroes. There’s still very little to distinguish one Leaguer from another in terms of personality, but they are at least speaking, and behaving, a little more like actual human beings. It’s a start — and, since more realistic characterization was one of the main distinctions between DC’s and Marvel’s comics in 1968, it’s presumably what Carmine Infantino wanted to see from O’Neil and the other “Young Turks” who were then coming aboard.
On page 4, we come as close as we will this issue to seeing a physical altercation between a couple of our heroes, and I think it’s worth noting that the two heroes involved are Green Lantern and Green Arrow — the very characters whose interpersonal and ideological conflict would later form the backbone of one of the works for which O’Neil remains best known. At this point, of course, we’re still about nine months out from the complete visual makeover of the Emerald Archer by Neal Adams (O’Neil’s future Green Lantern/Green Arrow collaborator) in Brave and the Bold #85; one full year out from O’Neil’s stripping GA’s alter ego Oliver Queen of his fortune in JLA #75; and, finally, a whole seventeen months out from the debut of the “Green Team” in O’Neil and Adams’ Green Lantern #75. But while the similarity of this scene’s GL – GA conflict to their later confrontation in GL #75 may be just a coincidence, it’s at least possible that the seed for the latter was planted here. And I think it’s more than possible — perhaps even probable — that the writer’s eventual characterization of Green Arrow as a champion of the “little guy” (and a hothead, to boot) got its start with this scene.
Interestingly, the last issue of JLA prior to #66 that had given this much attention to Green Arrow had been #57 — the plot of which, like #66’s, involved a mini-team of three Justice Leaguers going to the aid of an ordinary person (or persons) with a serious but less than earth-shattering problem, at the instigation of team mascot Snapper Carr. There aren’t a lot of other similarities between the two stories — certainly, there’s no dissension in the JLA’s ranks in “Man, Thy Name Is — Brother!” of the sort we see in “Divided — They Fall!”. To the contrary; in the former tale, Green Arrow, Flash, and Hawkman all act in perfect accord with one another, thereby underscoring its themes of peace and unity. Nevertheless, I can recall that when I read JLA #66 for the first time, back in September, 1968, I was definitely reminded of JLA #57, which had come out just one year earlier. And so, fifty years later, I have to wonder: Did Denny O’Neil — or his very “hands-on” editor, Julius Schwartz — use the earlier story as a partial springboard for this one? We’ll probably never know for sure, but it certainly seems plausible. And if it did happen that way, then perhaps there’s a line to be drawn from O’Neil’s later depiction of the Emerald Archer as a full-fledged crusader for social justice straight back to Gardner Fox’s “brotherhood” booster in JLA #57.
But, I digress. Returning to page 4 of our present tale…
One might quibble with the words that Wonder Woman uses to describe the difference between the three heroes left in the Secret Sanctuary and those that have just bailed. Green Lantern isn’t technically “more than human”, after all — rather, he’s just a normal guy who happens to have a magic ring (or, if you prefer, a normal guy who happens to have access to extremely advanced alien technology). But the power differential she speaks to is undeniably real, and in lieu of any other distinguishing personal traits, it’s as good a place as any for O’Neil to start to develop more realistic characterizations for the Justice League heroes.
(Another element that doesn’t quite ring true, though it’s a minor one, is the fact that there’s no direct interaction between Superman and Batman in the preceding scene, in spite of their decades-long association as the World’s Finest teammates and pals. I can’t recall whether or not I noticed that omission when I first read this story in 1968, but it certainly stands out in 2018.)
Meanwhile, as the other heroes head on down the highway, Batman reveals that he’s deduced that Snapper himself penned the missive allegedly written by Professor Aiken. Snapper admits to the deception, but explains that the prof is a good guy who’s simply too proud to ask for assistance. The three heroes are all still game to help, and so the Arrowcar proceeds on to the campus of Snapper’s alma mater, Happy Harbor College — just in time for the guys to be mobbed by a horde of autograph-seeking students. Or so it seems at first, anyway:
As it turns out, the undergrads are actually turning out for the home team, Happy Harbor’s football squad having just scored a major 83-0 upset over their arch-rivals at Ivy University. Of course, Green Arrow, Batman, and Atom aren’t the least bummed out by this turn of events; indeed, they’re about to offer their own well-wishes to the conquering heroes, when…
The heroes do their best to overcome the jocks without hurting them:
(It’s a measure of how big a deal Batman has become even “in-universe” in latter-day DC stories that it’s startling to see him described here by a student as one of the “Minor Leaguers“.)
Eventually, GA shuts the whole thing down with the aid of a “dazzle-arrow”. That allows our heroes to proceed on to Delany Hall, where Prof. Aiken has his office — and to find that the unprovoked aggression of the football team is just one instance in a wave of aberrant behavior that’s beginning to swamp the entire campus:
The plot device of a machine that can invisibly manipulate human emotions and behavior had been used in JLA stories before, including issue #40’s “Indestructible Creatures of Nightmare Island!” (which just happens to have been my own very first encounter with the Justice League). In that story, the human attribute affected by the mechanical device was conscience, rather than morale; though, just as in this story, the ultimately deleterious effects of the machine’s invisible rays seemed to affect people in ways difficult to relate to the core concept (e.g., it’s not clear why having one’s “morale” tampered with should make one act as if they’re in the throes of a heavy hallucinogenic drug experience, as a couple of the students shown on page 10 seem to be doing).
Finding that the students’ behavior grows ever more erratic the closer they get to the old, unused bell tower at the center of campus, the JLAers and Prof. Aiken decide to investigate said tower. They manage to escape a collapsing-stairway trap, but…
The involvement of Gog and his cohorts in this mess was a foregone conclusion, of course, but their presence on campus raises questions that the script never gets around to answering. It makes sense that, after stealing the Morale Machine in Offalia, the bad guys followed Aiken to the U.S. to nab his notes — but why did they hang around the Happy Harbor College campus for weeks afterwards? They had no reason to expect the JLA to show up there, so why use it as their base?
Oh, well. Julius Schwartz let Gardner Fox get away with plot holes at least as big as this one all the time, so it’s hard to come down too hard on O’Neil for doing the same kind of thing. Let’s just roll with it, OK?
Oh, but it’s going to be hard to give O’Neil a pass on this one, I’m afraid. “Wonder she may be — but mostly she’s woman!” Urgh. The writer’s stereotyped-even-for-1968 portrayal of DC’s premiere female hero seems especially egregious, considering that he was, as already noted, the new regular scripter on Wonder Woman, and part of the creative team overseeing Diana’s then-in-progress transformation from Amazon princess to non-powered martial artist-cum-florist — a drastic overhaul that was supposedly intended to establish Wonder Woman as a more contemporary and relatable character. (O’Neil’s second issue of WW, which found Diana exiled from Paradise Island and de-powered, was published one week prior to JLA #66, though it obviously follows it in continuity.) In later years, O’Neil would speak of his involvement with this era of Wonder Woman with some chagrin, though he would also assert that he was a feminist, or at least thought of himself as such, and had the best intentions while writing Diana’s adventures. Nevertheless, it may be for the best that WW only made one more appearance during O’Neil’s run on JLA — and that was to take an indefinite leave of absence from the team, in JLA #69.
The excessive ennui that suddenly overcomes Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern is, obviously, the result of the Offalians’ deployment of Prof. Aiken’s Morale Machine — but how is it affecting them at such a great distance? Rest assured, that question will be answered — though not before the story’s conclusion.
“Up, up and… awww… nuts!” I’m sure this sequence struck some readers as silly/campy in 1968, and it may strike many modern readers the same way. But I thought it was pretty funny in 1968, and I still do.
Once the JLAers are all free of the Morale Machine’s influence (as well as the “slop” the “Minor Leaguers” have been trapped in), they take down the Generalissimo’s five subordinates in two pages (which is probably about a page and a half longer than it should actually take, but hey, there’re still five story pages left in the comic to fill somehow).
Gog’s still not quite ready to surrender, however…
Yeah, that was another silly sequence, I suppose — but still, funny. (To me, anyway.)
“Some of the waves… bounced off the heavyside layer back to Earth!” I told you that there’d be an explanation for how Supes, GL, and WW were affected by the Morale Machine from many miles away; I never said it would make sense, however. (And who knew that the “heavyside layer” is a real thing, and not just a bit from Cats? You learn something new every day.)
All’s well that ends well, one for all and all for one, all together now… you get the idea. The JLA might have squabbled a bit in this issue, but O’Neil and company finish their tale on an unequivocally upbeat note, reassuring readers that no one’s about to storm off in a huff and quit the team. (Well, not yet, anyway.) The Justice League is still the Justice League; DC is still DC.
But this first issue of the series’s post-Fox era — despite its silly villains and retreading of old plot ideas — lays a lot of groundwork for more changes to follow. For better or worse, Justice League of America would never be the same again after September, 1968.
And we’ll continue to track the ongoing evolution of DC’s premiere super-team in the months and years to come, of course — right here at Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.
*In the interest of total historical accuracy, I should note that issue #64 actually represented Greene’s return to the series, following two issues — Sekowsky’s last — which had been inked by George Roussos. As I mentioned back in my post on #64, I was so happy to have Greene’s slick embellishing back following those two remarkably rough-looking issues (sorry, Roussos fans) that it hardly registered on me that Sekowsky was gone. Greene would continue on the book through issue #74, after which Joe Giella would take over for a three-year run.
**The cover’s labeling of this unprepossessing group as “the Dirty Half-Dozen” — a play on the title of a popular 1967 war movie — doesn’t surface in the story itself. That’s probably just as well, since, as a fan pointed out in the book’s letters column a couple of issues later, 1959’s The Mouse That Roared is actually a better cinematic reference point.