Justice League of America was the first comic book title that you could say I “collected”, though I wouldn’t have used (or understood) that term at the time. I bought my first issue, #40 (Nov., 1965) at the age of eight, just a month or so after buying my first comic book, period, and didn’t miss a single issue out of the next twenty-eight — a run of a little over three years. Of course, it helped that I sent “National Comics” (i.e., DC) a dollar in the mail for a year’s subscription early on (and was then obliged to live with the legendary, dreaded folded-in-half crease for the next ten issues); but even after that ran out, I was able keep the run going without a break up through #68. If you’re old enough to remember how unreliable standard newsstand distribution was in the latter half of the 1960s (or if you just happen to be a regular reader of this blog) you’ll realize that was something of a feat — especially for a kid who had to rely on his parents for transportation to the convenience stores where he bought his comics, and couldn’t be certain of getting to the spinner rack every single week.
But in late 1968, my luck finally ran out. Or something like that. I don’t actually remember ever seeing JLA #69 on the stands, so perhaps I never did. On the other hand, I’d begun buying an ever-greater quantity of Marvel comics over the past year, and it’s possible that I did see this issue and ended up passing on it in favor of Avengers or Thor or something. Either way, though, I missed it.
And then, just a few months later, it happened again. I missed JLA #72. While the first time might have been a fluke, this one clinched it; I was no longer buying each and every issue of Justice League of America. To this day, I don’t know whether this development was due simply to the mere vagaries of fate, or if it had more to do with my own evolving tastes; still, however it happened, an era of sorts had passed for yours truly.
But miss the annual summer two-part Justice League-Justice Society team-up epic? Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.
Seeing issue #73 on the spinner rack, with its lineup of JSAers in view, I doubt that I hesitated for a single moment before snatching the book up — although, frankly, I wasn’t crazy about the cover, which, like that of the issue immediately preceding it, was by the great Joe Kubert. Part of that was probably my lack of familiarity with Kubert’s style — I didn’t read DC’s war comics, which was where most of the artist’s work appeared — but it probably also had something to do with the static, passive posture of the Earth-Two heroes, who were drawn to appear subordinate to some nameless, super-strong kid (who, as I’d be annoyed to learn upon reading the issue, didn’t even play a significant part in the story). Of course, since DC’s new Editorial Director, Carmine Infantino, was designing most if not all the publisher’s covers at this time, it would probably be unfair to blame Kubert for all of its weaknesses; on the other hand, it’s probably also fair to say that the veteran illustrator (who’d recently been promoted to editor) wasn’t really into the capes-and-tights stuff, especially at this point in his career.
But, no matter, really. The cover wasn’t going to keep me from buying the comic; and besides, as my eleven-year-old self discovered as soon as I opened the book to the first page, the interior art was by the regular, reliable team of Dick Dillin (penciller) and Sid Greene (inker):
The Council of Living Stars is an intriguing (and colorful!) concept that, to the best of my knowledge, has never appeared again in any of DC’s comics (though the “parliament” of cosmological phenomena that shows up in the third chapter of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Endless Nights comes pretty close).
Scripter Denny O’Neil’s choice of “Aquarius” as the name for a “bad” star, “guilty of crimes most heinous” seems a little odd; while as the signifier of a constellation as well as an astrological sign the name certainly has stellar associations, in everyday use the term “Aquarian” usually connotes benign ideas, like expanded consciousness, peace, love, etc.; this would have been especially true in 1969, with the hippie movement going strong, and the musical Hair (“This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius…”) packing them in on Broadway. Perhaps O’Neil, staunch political liberal though he was, was subtly sending a message of skepticism regarding some of the more mystical aspects of the late-Sixties counterculture (though I should add that this is pure speculation on my part).
I suspect that my eleven-year-old self was at least slightly surprised to see a member of Earth-Two’s Justice Society, the Red Tornado, already present and speaking with members of the Justice League as the story began. Obviously, by missing issue #72, I had missed some significant plot developments; in 1969, that was still a rare occurrence in DC’s comics, where the sort of issue-to-issue continuity commonly found in Marvel’s books was the exception, rather than the rule. With the advent of newer, younger writers like Denny O’Neil, however, things were beginning to change at DC on that score.
Incidentally, this was the first JLA-JSA team-up story not written by Gardner Fox, who’d developed DC’s “multiple Earths” concept in collaboration with JLA editor Julius Schwartz eight years prior, in Flash #123. And while Denny O’Neil seems to have been among the least “fannish” of the emerging new generation of comic book writers, he appears to have enjoyed the opportunity to script the superheroes of the Golden Age for an issue or two, even though it made for a extra-crowded cast (and consequent storytelling challenges). “The Justice Society — those were my characters from when I was a little kid,” O’Neil explained to interviewer Michael Eury some four-and-a-half decades later for The Justice League Companion (TwoMorrows, 2005), “so there is just enough of a fan in me to enjoy revisiting these things.”
The remainder of this issue is largely taken up by a single long flashback, as “Reddy” relates his tale to the listening Justice Leaguers:
Starman’s cosmic rod-blast merely rebounds upon him, with extra juice. He next tries “old-fashioned fisticuffs“, which prove equally useless.
“…Earth-Two’s foremost feminine fighter”? Hmm, I dunno… seems Wonder Woman (who’ll be showing up in just a few pages, as it happens) might have something to say about that.
I’d never seen the Black Canary’s hubby Larry Lance before, but I assumed that he’d been a member of her series’ supporting cast back in the Golden Age; and, of course, I was right. He’d been introduced in Flash Comics #92 (February, 1948) — just six issues after Dinah herself had debuted in the “Johnny Thunder” strip running in that title, and two after she’d achieved billing as that JSA member’s co-star. (Flash Comics #92 was in fact the issue in which the Canary finally pushed poor Johnny completely out of his own strip completely.) Dinah and Larry’s marriage, on the other hand, had taken place sometime between her last Golden Age appearance (in All-Star Comics #57 [Feb.-March, 195]) and her Silver Age return (in JLA #21 [Aug., 1963]). Larry had turned up once since then, in a 1965 issue of The Brave and the Bold that teamed up Starman and Black Canary, but I’d never seen that story, as it had predated my inaugural comic book-buying experience by a couple of months.
Something that neither my younger self nor anyone else reading the above scene in 1969 (or anyone involved with writing, illustrating, or editing it, for that matter) would have then guessed was that Dinah Drake Lance and Ted Knight had a history of having once been more than mere Justice Society colleagues, or even close friends. As would be revealed decades later in James Robinson and Tony Harris’ Starman series, Dinah and Ted had carried on a love affair for a time, behind the backs of their respective spouses. (Of course, that particular revelation technically concerned the “post-Crisis” Starman and Black Canary, not the original Earth-Two versions; so whether or not the heroes on view in JLA #73 have the same adulterous episode in their past is ultimately up to each individual reader and their own personal headcanon.)
Even if I’d believed that Larry Drake had never appeared before now, I doubt I would have thought for a moment that the Black Canary’s husband would turn out to be an actual, bona fide homicidal maniac. Nah, something had to be off here:
Larry comes to his senses as soon as he hits the groud, naturally; but Dinah, convinced that something very big and nasty is happening, activates a signal device in her belt-buckle to summon the rest of the Justice Society:
Re-reading these early O’Neil JLA stories a half-century later, I get the impression that he took advantage of every available opportunity to plug the “New” (i.e., the de-powered, uncostumed, martial-arts wielding, Jet Dream lookalike) Wonder Woman, of which he’d written the first several installments and seems to have still been quite invested in. (He’d also eventually resume writing the series, a couple of years after this.)
The panel shown above represents the very first Silver Age appearance of the Earth-Two Superman, whose final appearance during the Golden Age had come around back in… well, that depends on who you ask. As Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman were all published continuously from their respective debuts on into the Sixties (as were Aquaman and Green Arrow, for that matter), the existence of their “Earth-Two” iterations is really nothing but an imaginative construct, and the line of demarcation where their adventures cease to be about the “original” versions and begin to be about their Silver Age “successors” is — just like that Starman-Black Canary extramarital hanky-panky business discussed above — up to each fan to work out for themselves (or simply to ignore, if they’d rather).
Perhaps because of this very ambiguity surrounding their fictional histories, DC had shied away from using the Earth-Two Superman and Batman in any capacity at all in the earliest JLA-JSA annual team-up stories.* The first break with this policy (if that’s what it actually was) came along in the summer of 1967 — while “Batmania” was still a thing — with JLA #55‘s introduction of a grown-up Robin, who joined the Justice Society in that same issue. Next, of course, came the Golden Age Superman’s latter-day “debut”, in the comic book currently under discussion; while the Earth-Two Batman would follow suit (although only via a one-panel cameo) in JLA #82, a year later. After that, however, there was no turning back, as DC’s writers discovered and explored the story potential offered by older incarnations of the “World’s Finest” duo (and their supporting casts) who could, and would, have different life histories from the “main” versions.
“Swords Against Sorcerers”! It’s likely that this throwaway reference to the fantasy fiction subgenre of “sword and sorcery”, then growing in popularity largely due to the success of Lancer Books’ paperback editions of the “Conan” stories by Robert E. Howard, went right over my head in June, 1969. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic was still more than a year away from launch, and while I had probably noticed the Conan paperbacks on the racks — those spectacular Frank Frazetta covers would have been hard to ignore — I didn’t necessarily associate the phrase “sword and sorcery” with them, as Lancer’s front-cover blurb text tended to eschew that particular phrase, referring instead to “fantasy adventure”. If I recognized the terminology at all, it’s likely due to DC’s house ads for their Showcase issues featuring “Nightmaster” (written, incidentally, by Denny O’Neil), the third of which came out the same month as JLA #73.
Green Lantern makes quick work of the animated signs (good thing they weren’t made out of wood, right?), and is soon back on his way. Meanwhile…
So much for our cover scene. You can see why my eleven-year-old self might have been a bit put out, right?
Dr. Fate is ultimately driven down to the ground — luckily, he was just above Ted Knight’s observatory, so he’s able to immediately rendezvous with Black Canary and the other JSAers who’ve arrived in response to her call. Not so luckily, he’s been followed by the same mysterious force that attacked him up above:
A voice “like the legs of a thousand monstrous spiders scraping over slate!” So, not exactly Ronnie Dyson and the original Broadway cast of Hair, then.
“It doesn’t take a medical man to recognize those symptoms!” avers Charles McNider, M.D., just before he goes ahead and delivers his diagnosis anyway. This may have been the first time I’d been exposed to the (now outdated) term “manic-depressive“, at least in comic books. (But not to “schizophrenia” — Roy Thomas had already beaten Denny O’Neil to the punch on that one, per Avengers #60.)
Aquarius seems to underscore Doc Mid-Nite’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder by first gloomily describing how all those eons of exile had robbed him of his self-confidence, then turning on a dime to brightly assure the JSA that he feels all better now, like he could take on the whole world — literally: “First I shall reduce Earth to shambles! Then, I shall turn my attention to the whole universe!” Uh oh.
OK, so maybe Reddy’s accidental (?) counterpart over at Marvel, the Vision, has to contend with having been programmed by his evil creator to betray his teammates when they least expect it. At least the Avengers don’t treat him like a red-faced, cape-wearing, android Joe Btfsplk! I mean, jeez, folks, enough already.
In June, 1969, I’m sure I dutifully accepted O’Neil’s invocation of magic as the reason that Aquarius can more than hold his own against the Man of Steel. Fifty years later, however, I can’t see that the idea makes much sense. Why would the energies of a sentient star, whether or not they’ve been enhanced by a scientific device (Starman’s cosmic rod) be “magical” in any way whatsoever? Oh, well…
I guess sexism was so rampant throughout the DC Universe in the late 1960s that even sentient stars were prey to it. (Being in exile for eons is no excuse, IMHO.)
It’s a stirring scene, as the overmatched Justice Society heroes, inspired by the words of the non-powered civilian, Larry Lance, make their valiant charge — but knowing that we’ve just got four pages left until the conclusion of Part One, it’s easy to guess that this initiative isn’t going to end well:
“We have just witnessed… the end of the world!” I’d seen JLA-JSA team-up cliffhanger situations that were just as dire as this one (the one in JLA #46 comes particularly to mind), but somehow they’d never seemed as desperate as this. What can possibly save the JSA — and their Earth — now? And what about the rest of the universe (or the multiverse, for that matter)?
Oh, wait a minute. Where’s the Red Tornado gotten off to? Isn’t he the one that’s supposed to be telling this story to the Justice Leaguers in the first place? Hmmm…
Ah, OK. Everything’s going to be all right after all. I know that upon his arrival on Earth-One, Reddy got a little sidetracked, because he had to rescue the JLA from some demonic horde or other (per page 2’s recap of issue #72), but that couldn’t have taken all that long…
“Almost two weeks“?!? WTF, JLA?
Of course, being an eleven-year-old Southern Baptist churchgoer, I didn’t express myself quite that way in June, 1969. (No “crude” language for sheltered, pious me. No, not even acronyms standing in for such, if that had actually been a thing at the time.) But I was plenty angry with my heroes for making Red Tornado sit around for all that time while the Justice Society and their whole world were in such dire need. And it was anger at the heroes themselves, not anger at Denny O’Neil for writing them that way; that’s simply not how I thought about this stuff at age eleven.
Many years later, I’d finally get around to reading JLA #72, and would thus learn that the extended delay between Reddy’s arrival on Earth-One and the JLA’s learning why he’d come had to do with a magic spell which had turned Hawkman to salt and could only be reversed after a thirteen-day waiting period (or so the JLA thought, anyway). So the Justice Leaguers had some in-story justification for keeping Reddy cooling his heels. On the other hand, if they’d at least let him speak, they could have tried to deal with both crises at the same time by splitting into teams or whatnot. But, hey, it all happened a half-century ago, so whatcha gonna do.
And, of course, even as ticked off as I was in June, 1969, there was no way I wasn’t going to come back next month for Justice League of America #74, to find out how the combined heroes of two worlds were going to defeat Aquarius and restore Earth-Two. Hopefully, you’ll be back next month as well, when we’ll be discussing that very comic book in this very space. See you then, friends.
*DC didn’t seem to have the same concerns regarding Wonder Woman, in spite of the same issues applying — which probably just reflects the regrettable truth that the publisher’s leading female superhero was still years, if not decades, away from achieving the exalted (and deserved) “Trinity” status she would eventually enjoy. (As for Aquaman and Green Arrow — since neither of them had ever appeared with the Justice Society during the Golden Age, it was easy enough to avoid the subject of their Earth-Two careers completely, at least for the time being.)