Justice League of America was my first favorite comic book. As I’ve written about here before, it was the first series I subscribed to through the mail (my first USPS-delivered issue being #44, in 1966), and even after my sub ran out, I managed to score every new issue when it hit the spinner racks — up until issue #69, that is, which I either missed or intentionally passed on (the former seems a bit more likely, but who knows). A couple of months later, I missed (or skipped) #72 as well; and then, after #74, I apparently more-or-less dropped the book. In any case, I didn’t buy another issue of JLA until the one I’m writing about today, which arrived on stands in January, 1970. By this time, as regular readers of the blog know, I had entered a period in which comic books in general held less appeal for me, and I was buying hardly anything at all. So what could have grabbed me about Justice League of America #79 so much that I felt compelled to pick the book up?
Well, duh — it was the cover, of course.
Neal Adams had drawn a number of JLA covers over the past year and a half (beginning with that of issue #66), but #79’s may have been the best yet; it was certainly the most dramatic, with the anguish of the foregrounded hero, Superman, seeming almost palpable. One might complain that the title’s new trade dress, with banners at the top and left, reduced the physical area available for the cover illustration and thereby diminished its impact; but the look was new to me in early 1970 (it had actually debuted three months earlier, with issue #77), and the left-side “roll call” of Justice Leaguers, with their faces rendered by Murphy Anderson, had its own interest, besides.
But the clincher was Superman’s dialogue. I generally disliked the use of word balloons on comic book covers, but this one time, at least, it was highly effective: “Stop the deadly pollution — or no one on Earth will be left alive!”
Pollution? In a comic book?
Pollution wasn’t some made-up menace; it was a real-world problem, that I had heard about in school, seen on the evening news, and even read about in Mad magazine. What the heck was it doing on the cover of Justice League of America? I had to find out, obviously.
Unfortunately, as I may not have realized until after I’d bought the book and brought it home, I was coming in on the middle of a two-part story:
This was an unexpected turn of events, because while I’d read multiple continued storylines in JLA since having bought my first issue back in 1965, each and every one of them had been a summertime team-up event co-starring the team’s Golden Age antecedents, the Justice Society of America. While there’d been a few instances over the years of plot threads continuing between issues, a full-on cliffhanger appearing outside the June-August window was something I hadn’t seen before.*
Writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Dillin and Joe Giella do a fine job on this opening page in establishing the straits in which the team members find themselves (even if the claim that the present crisis represents the team’s “worst moment” seems a bit of a stretch). However, they don’t offer much explanation, here or in the pages that follow, as to how our heroes got into these particular situations — or even who “their new-found ally”, this Vigilante guy, might be. So, how to proceed here, with our fifty-years-later look back at this story? I have to confess, I’ve been tempted to structure this blog post to reflect my own experience of being thrown into the deep end by doing the same thing to you, my faithful readers; nevertheless, I’ve decided that “Come Slowly Death, Come Slyly!” works considerably better as a story if you know the details of what’s come before, rather than just having to roll with things the way my twelve-year-old self did in 1970. So, here’s a recap of the key events of Justice League of America #78’s “The Coming of the Doomsters”, by the same team of O’Neil, Dillin, and Giella (though the issue’s cover, shown at left, is by Gil Kane, this time).
The story opens with Green Arrow on nighttime patrol in his home base of Star City. Hearing gunshots coming from the direction of a newly opened factory, he races to the scene, where he finds…
Hoping to cast some light on the situation (literally), the Emerald Archer shoots a flare arrow into the sky. Its light allows the mysterious night watchman to overcome his equally mysterious foes; unfortunately, however, when the arrow at last descends, it falls into the the river that flows by the factory — and promptly sets said river on fire. (This plot development was almost certainly inspired by the real-life Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, which, along with the catastrophic Santa Barbara oil spill earlier in the year, helped to galvanize the burgeoning environmental movement.)
Realizing this is more than he can handle alone, GA signals for Justice League assistance; Superman and Green Lantern quickly arrive in answer to the call, and then just as quickly extinguish the blaze. Afterwards, the three heroes then take off together for JLA headquarters, Green Arrow having apparently forgotten all about the night watchman — whom we readers see running after the JLAers, calling for them to stop, but to no avail.
Green Arrow, expecting to travel to the team’s mountain-based Secret Sanctuary near Happy Harbor, Rhode Island, is surprised instead to be taken by his teammates to “a very large city on the eastern seaboard” where, on the roof of a structure G.A. recognizes as “the building that houses that publishing outfit… the one that’s always bugging us for stories” (909 Third Avenue in New York City, I presume?). Superman explains that, since the Secret Sanctuary was recently compromised by the Joker (as depicted in issue #77, in the same story that saw the League’s long-time mascot Snapper Carr betray them), some changes were in order. Green Arrow is then escorted into a transparent tube, which he’s told works courtesy of Hawkman’s “Thanagarian relativity-beam system” — and the next thing you know…
As blogger J. Caleb Mozzocco put it over ten years ago, this sequence asks you to accept “that the whole Justice League got together and decided to build a brand new headquarters in outer space and no one even told Green Arrow until it was completely finished.” Which seems rather unlikely, but, hey, whatever. In any event, the JLA’s “Satellite Era” has arrived, folks!
But Green Arrow has hardly had time to brush the relativity-beam residue off his jerkin when all the team members — who, in addition to those we’ve already seen this issue, include Atom, Batman, Black Canary, and Hawkman (the latter of whom inexplicably has his floating head replaced by that of the Flash on the covers of both this issue and #79) — have to leave the satellite for a public appearance at a charity event, which, by a credibility-straining coincidence, is being held right back where our story began, in Star City. Said event barely gets underway, however, before it’s crashed by the mysterious night watchman from earlier, as well as by a couple of ray-gun wielding thugs pursuing him. The Justice Leaguers quickly put down the gunmen, who then proceed to, well, explode. Luckily, Superman’s X-ray vision has forewarned him of the danger, and the Man of Steel is able to shield his comrades (and the charity event’s guests) from any harm:
Not only was the factory pumping soot into the air 24/7, but they were also dumping chemicals into the river nonstop as well (hence the river’s flammability). Ultimately, the watchman realized that the factory wasn’t manufacturing any products at all — none, that is, save pollution. He then stole some potentially incriminating documents from the plant’s office and ran for it, but was immediately pursued by armed goons of the same sort that the Leaguers just watched blow up — which, of course, was where Green Arrow (and the reader) came in.
The Vigilante, aka Greg Sanders, was a creation of Mort Weisinger (writer) and Mort Meskin (artist), who’d first appeared in Action Comics #42 (Nov., 1941). Essentially an Western-style character cast into the role of a modern-day superhero (of the non-powered variety), Sanders’ “day job” was as a country-and-western singer, the “Prairie Troubadour”, whose shtick was obviously patterned on the “singing cowboy” type popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and their ilk. (Sanders’ adventurous, crime-fighting sideline was analogous to Autry’s and Rogers’ movie personas, as well.)
Though never a headliner in his heyday, and largely forgotten by contemporary comics fans, the original Vigilante bears the distinction of having lasted in his own continuing feature longer than most of his costumed Golden Age compatriots; indeed, as his series in Action didn’t end until 1954, he almost (though not quite) survived all the way into the Silver Age. He was also one of the first DC Comics characters to be adapted for the silver screen, with a 15-chapter Columbia Pictures serial appearing in 1947, a year before Superman achieved that status.
The decision to bring the Vigilante back in this story is somewhat mysterious — after all, besides a general sense that the guy would be pretty much at home on the range (you know, where the deer and the antelope play) there’s really nothing about him that says “environmentalist”. Perhaps Denny O’Neil — who would have been around fifteen when the hero concluded his original run — was just fond of the guy.**
But, to return to JLA #78… having now explained who he was before he retired from costumed crimefighting, Sanders lays out the documents he stole from the factory office for the Justice Leaguers’ examination:
Unfortunately,Star City’s city manager is currently ill, so the Arrow has to make his case to the official’s second-in-command, one Jason Crass — who lives up to his surname by blowing off the local hero’s warnings. “That factory brings in thousands in taxes…” declares Crass; to which G.A. replies, “Yeah… while it’s ruining the air and water…”
Green Arrow’s lecture here could reasonably be faulted for being less than entirely relevant to the immediate crisis in Star City — after all, what’s happening at the mysterious factory is obviously something beyond ordinary industrial pollution — but the environmental message is quite timely in the context of 1969-70, and obviously important to writer O’Neil. Indeed, as will become ever more clear as the narrative progresses, it’s the whole point of the story.
Also worthy of note, the writer’s use of Green Arrow as the mouthpiece for his message is, I believe, the first instance of his doing so, and thus serves as a sort of prototype for how O’Neil would write the hero in the near future in Green Lantern — as, in fact, this entire two-issue storyline can be seen as a sort of preview for O’Neil’s subsequent run on that series in collaboration with Neal Adams.
For the moment, however, the message falls on deaf ears, as Crass calls in a couple of uniformed guards to haul GA out of his office and then off to jail.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the last team of Leaguers — having first made a quick stop at a Western goods store to allow Greg Sanders to put together a new Vigilante costume — arrives at the factory, where they’re once again attacked by trenchcoated gunmen. The Vigilante decides to put the strange “irons” he confiscated earlier to good use — which turns out to be a bad move on the out-of-practice crimefighter’s part:
The four heroes swiftly succumb to the gas — and before you know it, their unconscious forms have been gathered in a steel cable net, which is then slowly lowered “toward a vat of bubbling, noxious… death —”
And with that, we’ve reached issue #78’s cliffhanging conclusion, and so have returned to the point in the story at which my twelve-year-old self first came in, i.e., the beginning of issue #79 — the comic book to which we now return.
As we’ve already seen, the opening splash page of “Come Slowly Death, Come Slyly!” recapitulated the closing scenes of “The Coming of the Doomsters” as a triptych of troubles — Superman and Green Lantern searching for any sign of life on Monsan***, Green Arrow getting the bum’s rush out of Crass’ office, Vigilante and company descending towards their doom — but the second of those situations gets summarily dealt with as early as the second panel on page 2:
Well, yeah, that does make sense. Unexpectedly (and undramatically) set free, G.A. heads out to join his fellow heroes at the factory — and, of course, arrives right in the very nick of time:
Once Green Arrow has resuscitated and freed his comrades, it’s time to again go into battle against the trenchcoat brigade:
“Right smart for a lady”? Oof. Outside of that bit of gratuitous sexism, however, the preceding page’s dialogue serves as a nicely “meta” commentary on the venerable genre convention of having superheroes crack wise in the middle of a slugfest.
Next, Vig and the Leaguers chase the overmatched trenchcoaters across a catwalk, driving them to take refuge in a corner chamber; with no other way out, our heroes figure their foes are trapped, but then…
Per the Vigilante’s cue, the scene shifts to the wasted surface of Monsan, where Green Lantern and Superman finally do come upon a survivor, though he’s in pretty bad shape:
The preceding sequence might be considered heavy-handed by some, but in my opinion, it’s probably the most effective part of the story, as well as the most successful at delivering O’Neil’s anti-pollution message. The decline and fall of the planet Monsan is a sort of fable; and fables, after all, are supposed to have obvious morals.
Back at the JLA’s new satellite HQ, Hawkman gets an alert from Batman that an alien rocket-ship has taken off from Star City, and so he swiftly sets off in his Thanagarian “spacer” to intercept it:
But the factory building walls quickly fall away, to reveal the “sleek, deadly, battle vessel” within. Hawkman promptly discovers that his own craft’s controls have jammed, making him a sitting duck. He abandons ship, just before the aliens blast the Thanagarian cruiser to smithereens:
Okay, this is a problem, storytelling-wise. Apparently, the Doomsters of Monsan have had the capability of poisoning the entire Earth virtually instantly all along — but Leader Chokh chose to start off their planet-wide project by ever-so-slowly polluting a single community, Star City, just because the latter process gives him “special joy”? Sorry, Mr. O’Neil; my twelve-year-old self might have accepted that revelation without batting an eye, but sixty-two year old me can’t quite swallow it.
Chokh, his face completely covered by a hood, interrupts TV broadcasts across the world to inform humanity that he’s giving them one hour to “make peace with themselves…”
The party of Justice Leaguers who, with Vigilante, have been on Earth through all this teleport back up to the satellite for an emergency meeting; at the same time, Supes and GL arrive under their own power, just in time to save the space-marooned Hawkman:
According to science, a human being can survive unprotected in outer space for approximately 90 seconds — which wouldn’t seem to be enough time for all that we’ve seen transpire over the last couple of pages. But hey, Hawkman’s a Thanagarian, so I suppose we can assume they’re a somewhat hardier breed.
As Green Arrow predicted, the JLA’s “ion-scope” quickly pinpoints the location of the Doomsters’ ship — and Green Lantern and Superman, the only Leaguers who can fly through space under their own power, head there straightaway:
The two JLA powerhouses quickly subdue all the Doomsters — all but Chokh, that is:
Automated repair equipment immediately begins to seal the breach, but not before Chokh gets through. Battle between him and our heroes is quickly joined, but then a mishap occurs:
Equipment that leaks oil the first time it’s used? Makes you wonder if maybe the JLA rushed things a bit trying to get their satellite up and running…
Green Arrow has demonstrated interest in Black Canary on several earlier occasions, but his confession here takes things to a new, and more serious, level.
“Hideous” isn’t really in the Dillin-Giella wheelhouse, and frankly, the unmasked Chokh doesn’t actually look much, if any, worse than any of the other Doomsters (who are, admittedly, a pretty unappealing bunch). This page’s final panel nevertheless made an indelible impression on me at age 12, and remains the first image that comes to my mind when I think about this story; perhaps that’s due less to the alien leader’s alleged ugliness, and more to the bitter, but fitting, irony of his ultimate fate, as, without his protective headgear, he asphyxiates on… fresh air.
“Did we? I wonder…” According to Mike’s Amazing World of DC Comics, Justice League of America #79 went on sale January 27, 1970. Some four weeks before that (but well after Denny O’Neil would have completed his script for this issue), on New Year’s Day, the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon.
That moment would prove to be only the first of several landmark events of the environmental movement that would transpire in 1970, including: the first Earth Day, on April 22; the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in December; and Nixon’s signing into law yet another historic bill, the Clean Air Act of 1970, on New Year’s Eve. The next few years would see still more dramatic progress made, with the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.**** While it could hardly be said that human beings “saved our Earth” in the early ’70s — President Nixon’s 1973 declaration to Congress that the environmental crisis was basically over was certainly premature — perhaps we at least mitigated some of the worst damage. And the decisive (and relatively rapid) response of government, which enjoyed support across the political spectrum, was unquestionably spurred on by the groundswell of public concern that arose in 1969 and 1970 — a groundswell of which Justice League of America #78 and #79 were a part, if only a very small one.
In our present times, when the human species faces an even more severe and seemingly intractable environmental crisis — and there seem to be way too many Jason Crasses around, all too happy to tell climate scientists to “shaddap” so they can “get on with the ball game” — the example of the early 1970s may offer a glimmer of hope. A faint glimmer, perhaps — but I’ll take what I can get.
There’s a good argument to be made for considering JLA #78 and #79 to be the first examples of what would come to be called the “relevance” movement in mainstream American comics. Of course, as many others have pointed out before me, social relevance had been part of comic book storytelling virtually since the medium’s beginning, with Superman’s early crusades against crooked factory owners, slumlords, and domestic abusers frequently being cited as an obvious and prominent example. Closer to JLA #78 and #79 in time, DC and Marvel had both published stories touching on racial justice, campus unrest, and other contemporary issues. Nevertheless, the idea of relevance as a deliberate approach to comics-making seems to have emerged in 1970.
By anyone’s reckoning, the flagship title for this new movement was Green Lantern (or, as I believe most of us thought of it as at the time, Green Lantern/Green Arrow) — more specifically, the run of issues produced by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, which began with #76 and ended with #89 (when the series was canceled). For many fans, then, GL #76 — which was published February 24, 1970, according to MAW — logically represents “Ground Zero” for the relevance movement. But most of the important features of that issue’s classic “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!” — the thematic focus on a serious real-world problem, the editorship of Julius Schwartz, the presence of O’Neil as writer, even the use of Green Arrow as the primary mouthpiece for the writer’s concerns — were also present in Justice League of America #78 and #79, both published a month or more prior to Green Lantern #76’s arrival on the stands.
I realize, of course, that the distinction of being the “first” of the “relevant” comic books of the early ’70s doesn’t exactly commend these JLA issues to some fans. There are plenty of people who consider the relevance movement comics to be, by and large, overly preachy, sanctimonious, and misguided — or, in the pithy words of veteran comics creator Howard Chaykin, “banal and silly” (Back Issue #49 [July, 2011], p. 17). For my part, I’m not planning to offer a comprehensive judgment of the whole movement on this blog — at least, not until after I’ve had the opportunity to discuss a number of the more notable individual examples, a process which will (hopefully) continue over the next few years. I will say, however, that the very fact that comic books were beginning to deal openly and seriously with issues such as pollution may have helped keep me connected to the medium at a time when I was beginning to lose interest, and might have even felt that I was getting too old for them.
Or, to put it another way — when I thought I might be growing up and out of comic books, I perceived that comic books were growing up too, right alongside me. To what extent that perception was actually based on reality is, naturally, something we’ll be considering in some depth here on the blog, in the months and years to come.
HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: Observant readers may have noted that this post, the first of the new year (and new decade), has been labeled with a new category, “Bronze Age comics”, though the older “Silver Age comics” has been applied as well. A word of explanation may be in order.
As most of you reading this are likely already aware, while the terms “Silver Age” and “Bronze Age” are widely used by comic book fans and historians, there is no definitive consensus on exactly when one age ends, and the next begins. While most observers seem to agree that the transition takes place around 1970 (though some see the Silver Age as extending into 1973, or even further), there’s no agreement on what, if any, single event during that year marks the changeover from Silver to Bronze. Strong contenders include DC’s release of Green Lantern #76 in February, Jack Kirby’s abandonment of Marvel Comics for DC with Fantastic Four #102 in June, and Marvel’s publication of Conan the Barbarian #1 the month after that. There’s also the argument that different comics publishers and/or titles transitioned from the Silver Age to the Bronze at different times, over a period extending from the late ’60s into the early ’70s.
After considering the various options — and in recognition that these are arbitrary categories of convenience in the first place — I’ve decided to split the difference, as it were, and label all of my posts about the year 1970’s comic books as being in both the “Silver Age” and “Bronze Age” categories. Come next January, however, we’ll say good bye to the former classification, and sail on under the single banner of the latter, at least until 2035… or until I decide to give up this blog. (Whichever comes first.)
*The series had seen one earlier non-JSA-related two-parter, back in issues #10 and #11, but that had appeared in 1962, well before my comics-buying time.
**O’Neil’s revival of the Vigilante here in JLA #78 (and #79) would clearly establish that this Golden Ager, who hadn’t made an appearance since 1954, was a denizen of Earth-One. This was fairly unusual by the standards of the Julius Schwartz-edited JLA, where revived (as opposed to reinvented) Forties-vintage heroes were generally posited as living on Earth-Two, home of the Justice Society. Nevertheless, just two and a half years later, readers would learn that there was indeed an identical Greg Sanders on Earth-Two, when writer Len Wein brought back the long-lost Seven Soldiers of Victory — the super-team to which Vig had once belonged, the exploits of which had appeared in Leading Comics back in the ’40s — in a three-part Justice League-Justice Society team-up epic that began in JLA #100.
***Seeing as how other names in this story — “Crass” and “Chokh”, to be specific — carry a secondary meaning, I’m inclined to believe “Monsan” isn’t an arbitrary construction on O’Neil’s part, either. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to come up with anything (or anyone) the name might have been meant to evoke. (I considered Monsanto, the agribusiness company, but their public notoriety regarding environmental issues doesn’t seem to have emerged until some years after 1970.) Any ideas, readers? UPDATE, 12:50 p.m. — per Mark Waid, who should know (see comments below), “Monsan” was indeed a dig at Monsanto by O’Neil.
****At the risk of getting “too political” for some of this blog’s readers, I’d like to point out that all of these achievements took place during a Republican presidential administration; and also to note that times have most certainly changed.