As regular readers of this blog know, I went through a brief period at age 12, lasting roughly from the fall of 1969 through the spring of 1970, when, for one reason or another, I became disaffected with comic books. By June, 1970, my interest in them was again on the increase, but I wasn’t quite all the way back yet; and one unfortunate consequence of this was that I failed to buy Justice League of America #82 off the stands when it was released that month. Why was missing this one comic such a big deal? Simply because it featured the first chapter of that year’s two-part team-up between the Justice League of America and their counterparts on “Earth-Two”, the Justice Society of America — an annual summertime tradition at DC Comics ever since 1963, and one in which I’d faithfully participated ever since 1966. That mean that not only had I been buying and enjoying these mini-epics for most of the time I’d been reading comics, but for a significant chunk of my life, period. Four years is a pretty substantial period of time when you’re only twelve years old, after all.
Nevertheless, I did miss JLA #82 when it came out, for whatever reason. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from picking up the second and concluding chapter of the story in #83, when that issue arrived in the spinner racks in late July. Especially once that I knew, courtesy of the book’s cover (a moody piece inked, and perhaps pencilled, by Murphy Anderson), that the story featured the return of the Spectre — an early favorite character of mine, whose Silver Age series (now cancelled) I’d followed regularly (or tried to, anyway) ever since the revived Golden Age hero’s third tryout appearance in Showcase (drawn by Anderson, incidentally). The last time I’d seen the Astral Avenger had been in the ninth and penultimate issue (Mar.-Apr., 1969) of his title, in which, following his ruthless execution of a criminal, the divine “Voice” that had originally given him his powers bound him to investigate and judge the lives of those mortals named in a “Journal of Judgment”. Had the Ghostly Guardian already finished serving his sentence? If so, what was he doing hanging out in this spooky-looking crypt? I had to find out.
The story in JLA #83, “Where Valor Fails… Will Magic Triumph?” was by the series’ regular team of writer Denny O’Neil, penciller Dick Dillin, and inker Joe Giella. (As things turned out, it would be the last story produced by this team, though I didn’t know that yet.) This being the second part of a two-issue tale, the comic’s first page was devoted to recapping the events of the previous chapter:
This single page, sparse of copy as it is, does a pretty good job of explaining what’s come before — better than O’Neil had managed in his last JLA two-parter, for sure. But even though my younger self managed to get by with only this much information back in July, 1970, it may yet be worthwhile to clarify a few points for you, dear reader, especially if you’ve never read JLA #82 before (or even if it’s just been a few years/decades since you did so). Therefore, we present the following:
Why does Creator² want to “make a perfectly splendid new planet” in the first place? Quite simply, because he’s been contracted to do so by a client. The dude’s only in it for the money, in other words, and no, he’s not particularly concerned that his creative process will result in the destruction of all life on two existing worlds. As he tells his underlings on page 20 of issue #82: “…I have studied their history — a chronicle of war, slavery, brutality, ugliness… Surely civilization loses nothing from the destruction of such barbarians!” Pretty harsh, if not entirely inaccurate.
And how does the Red Tornado, the mishap-prone android (and would-be JSAer) introduced back in JLA #64 (Aug., 1968) figure into this plan? Well, Reddy’s tornado powers allow him to traverse the dimensional gulf between Earths One and Two, meaning that he’s attuned to the vibrations of both worlds. All Creator² and his minions have to do is stick a “harmonizer” in Reddy’s metal noggin, drop him into interdimensional space at the central point between the Earths, and then wait for nature to take its course — i.e., for the two Earths to move inexorably towards each other, until they ultimately, and catastrophically collide.
While waiting for the big boom, however, Creator² sends his servitors to Earth-Two to plant “matrix correctors”, intended to “ensure the proper type of explosions” when the worlds collide. These devices, fashioned in the form of “web-snares”, have also been designed to counter the powers of the Justice Society. But when three JSAers do in fact get taken down by these web-snares, there’s an unintended consequence, as their JLA analogues on Earth-One are neutralized as well (as dramatized on Neal Adams’ cover for #82, shown near the top of this post) — though why Earth-One’s Batman should be considered an analogue for Doctor Mid-Nite, when Earth-Two has its own Batman, is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Once they realize something strange is going on with the dimensional barrier between the Earths, the Justice League begins to speculate on what might be causing it — and Black Canary leaps to the conclusion that it must be her. After all, she’s a native of Earth-Two (and a former JSA member), though she’s been living on Earth-One since the tragic events of JLA #74 (Sept., 1969). She’s wrong, of course, but the JLA doesn’t know that — and if they don’t discover the truth in time, they may end up making a decision that they’ll all later regret.
There’s one more thing to note before we proceed on with issue #83’s conclusion of the story, and it’s something I picked up on as soon as I read the comic’s first page, back in 1970: the story’s basic premise of a pending disastrous collision between Earth-One and Earth-Two had been done before, in the 1966 JLA-JSA team-up tale that ran in JLA #46 and #47 (my own first such event). As would soon become evident, there were enough echoes of that earlier epic in this one tthat one might be tempted to call it O’Neil’s adaptation of the original story, which was scripted by Gardner Fox.
The JSAers fight valiantly against the “snare-nets”, as they’re now called, but, just as Creator² promised, the devices have been programmed to counter the heroes’ powers; and Starman, Wonder Woman, and Hourman quickly fall before them.
Meanwhile, back in the JLA’s satellite HQ, the Earth-One heroes continue to argue over whether Black Canary is or isn’t the cause of the current crisis, and what they should do about it if she is. Green Lantern comes up with the idea that perhaps they could place her in a third dimension, “one where her vibrations would be harmonious — and harmless!” He heads straight out into the interdimensional void, intent on scouring “the space-time matrices” for such a place…
While GL strives to reach Red Tornado, back on Earth-One, a disturbing phenomenon which has already occurred once (in issue #82) makes a return appearance:
The notion that everyone on Earth-One has an exact doppelgänger on Earth-Two doesn’t really square up all that well with what we know about the relationship between these two parallel worlds, where the rule up until now has been similarity, rather than duplication (the two Green Lanterns and two Flashes are hardly doubles of each other, after all, and even the heroes with closer counterparts — Superman, Wonder Woman, et al — have a significant age gap to distinguish between them). But it makes for an eerie, unsettling tableau — as well as a interesting contrast with Gardner Fox’s earlier “worlds collide” tale, in which a somewhat similar scenario — in Fox’s take, ordinary people suddenly found themselves switched between Earths — was played (at least in part) for laughs, as seen in the panel from JLA #46 shown at right. (Art by Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene.)
Back at the JSA’s Earth-Two headquarters, things are looking grim; Hawkman has now fallen to the snare-nets (causing his Earth-One counterpart to simultaneously collapse, as well)…
As it turns out, the fretting Green Lantern is the next JSAer to meet defeat, as those darn snare-nets prove capable not only of withstanding his ring-blasts, but of using the energy of those blasts to begin changing themselves…
Black Canary figures she’ll just set the JLA’s transporter controls to beam her atoms into the void of space, but Green Arrow is having none of that. (By July, 1970, Ollie and Dinah’s romantic relationship had advanced considerably since I’d last seen the couple in January’s issue #79, courtesy of O’Neil’s scripts for both JLA and Green Lantern.) The Atom, however, convinces them that they can afford to wait another 20 minutes before they have to make a final decision.
In the summer of 1970, the Spectre’s imprisonment in a crypt was a mystery to me, though I assumed it had some sort of connection with the Journal of Judgment that the “ghost who walks” (wait, isn’t that another guy?) got saddled with back in Spectre #9. But it must have been even more of a puzzler to fans who had read JLA #82 (as I had not), since the hero had actually appeared on page 20 of that issue:
It’s worth noting that, in addition to the Spectre, the panel above features several other Justice Society members who otherwise play no role in the entire two-part story, including Sandman, Mr. Terrific, Wildcat, and even Batman*. In fact, with the exception of Robin (who officially joined the team in JLA #55), and the three “missing” heroes (Superman, Flash, and Dr. Mid-Nite), every member of the JSA is included. This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if the decision to have penciller Dick Dillin draw this scene as an “all hands on deck” moment might have been made by editor Julius Schwartz after O’Neil had already turned in his script for the issue. It’s true that the Spectre actually has a line of dialogue in the scene, and that he’s specifically addressed by name by Dr. Fate; but those bits could be explained as changes made by Schwartz at the editing stage. In any event, I believe this theory could go some ways towards explaining not only the incongruities in how the Spectre is handled in the story, but also how O’Neil’s script for #82 can claim with a straight face that Dr. Mid-Nite is the Earth-Two equivalent of “our” Batman when the Earth-Two Batman is, you know, sitting right there. Not to mention the odd business of the JSA’s Bats, Sandman, Mr. Terrific, and Wildcat all going AWOL in the midst of a planet-shattering crisis, immediately following this scene. (Not cool, guys.)
Any way you slice it, however, the inconsistency between the Spectre’s appearances in JLA #82 and #83 represents a whopper of a continuity gaffe. And while I’m sure it’s possible to craft an “explanation” for the resulting narrative dissonance, I think most of us would probably be better served by acknowledging this error for what it is, excising the last panel of JLA #82, page 20 from our respective headcanons, and moving on. (Though if you’re the kind of person who happens to enjoy crafting clever solutions to continuity flubs as a creative exercise, go right ahead. You do you, fellow fan!)
This sequence presents one of this story’s most obvious parallels to 1966’s JLA-JSA team-up, as the Spectre used the exact same method in that earlier tale to prevent (or at least delay) the two Earths from colliding, as you can see in the panel shown below (art by Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene):
Returning to JLA #83, we find Creator² gloating to his staff as the moments count down towards interdimensional catastrophe…
We never do see any survivors from page 20’s explosion, so I think it’s safe to assume that Doctor Fate has indeed annihilated (to borrow the Doc’s own word from the page’s first panel) Creator² and all his associates. This sequence is strongly reminiscent of the climax of the previous year’s JLA-JSA team-up event (also scripted by O’Neil), in which the two Green Lanterns deliver equally final justice to a villainous sentient star named Aquarius. In both stories, O’Neil arranges matters so that it’s difficult to see any other option save for the lethal one ultimately taken by the heroes; nevertheless, it’s interesting that neither of these situations is framed as presenting any sort of moral dilemma, especially in the context of the notion one frequently hears expressed by comics fans of my generation, that superheroes never killed their enemies back in “our” day. Sequences like the ones in JLA #74 and #83 serve as evidence that the reality was rather more complicated than that.
There’s another question raised by Dr. Fate’s actions, as well, one that’s less about superheroic ethics and more about simple narrative plausibility: If Fate had the power to take out the alien menace all along, why the heck didn’t he polish off those nutty snare-nets/web-snares earlier in the issue? He couldn’t be bothered to make the necessary “tremendous effort” until right before both Earths were going to be destroyed? That’s cutting it pretty close, Doc.
“…a moving sequence, and a fittingly heroic end to the Spectre’s saga…” So wrote your humble blogger in an article for the fanzine Amazing Heroes, some 33 years ago.** And so it was, and is, but even so, there was still one question it raised in my young mind back in July, 1970 (and I’m sure did in many other fans’ minds, as well) — namely, how come the Spectre couldn’t pull himself back together again after being blasted apart, the way he’d done back in JLA #47?
In that earlier story, the threat of Earths One and Two’s colliding had been averted in a somewhat similar fashion to what happens here, as the Atom applied his size-and-weight control powers to the Spectre (who, you’ll remember, was keeping the two Earths apart with his own body), first shrinking him down to one inch in size (!), and then making him really big really fast, causing an explosion that not only blew Spec apart, but also put Earth One and Earth Two back where they were supposed to be. The end result, however, was rather different (art by Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene):
You’d think that if the Spectre was able to maintain enough control of the “elements” of his “spirit body” to allow him to eventually reincorporate back in 1966, he should have been able to do so in 1970, as well, wouldn’t you? Hmmm…
Back in July, 1970, I’m pretty sure that I had few doubts that the Spectre would indeed return one of these days (especially since, due to my recollection of JLA #47, I wasn’t sure why his experiences in issue #83 should have killed him in the first place). And I was right, of course — although I certainly had no idea that the next time we readers saw Spec, it would be in the context of a new series that pretty much completely ignored not just this story, but all of the character’s prior continuity, as the Astral Avenger embarked on a spree of summarily (if colorfully) executing ordinary human criminals — which, of course, was just the sort of thing that had gotten the Astral Avenger saddled with the Journal of Judgment in the first place, back in Spectre #9. But further discussion on this topic will have to wait for another post, in another year (2023, to be precise).
The 83rd issue of Justice League of America, in addition to featuring the (apparent) final appearance of the Spectre, also marked another, less ambiguous ending: the conclusion of Denny O’Neil’s tenure as the series’ writer.
O’Neil — whom, as most of this blog’s readers will be aware, passed away last month at the age of 81 — was only the second scripter to write the Justice League, having succeeded the original wordsmith, Gardner Fox, with issue #66. The young writer’s two-year tenure had been marked from the beginning by a greater emphasis on characterization; in recent issues, he’d introduced more socially relevant themes (as in #78-79’s anti-pollution parable), and had launched DC’s premier super-team into what would later be fondly remembered as the “Satellite Era”. But the writer never found the series to be an entirely comfortable fit. As he told interviewer Michael Eury for The Justice League Companion (TwoMorrows, 2005):
There are technical problems involved with writing Justice League, and other later writers solved them far better than I did. I quit the book when I realized, “I am about to do my third alien invasion in six months.”
After his departure from JLA, O’Neil would continue on with his other assignments for editor Julius Schwartz, including the collaborations with artist Neal Adams, on “Batman” and Green Lantern, through which he would achieve his greatest renown. Meanwhile, Justice League of America would pass on to another, even younger scribe, Mike Friedrich. But before Friedrich’s run could get started, DC would release a single “interim” issue of JLA penned by yet another writer — an industry veteran who, like Fox, had been around since the Golden Age: Robert Kanigher.
And to learn more about how that went, you’ll only have to wait until this September, when I’ll be blogging about JLA #84. I hope to see you then.
*This is actually the very first appearance of the Earth-Two Batman (in DC’s Silver/Bronze Age continuity, that is; his “real” first appearance would of course have been in Detective Comics #27 [May, 1939]).
**”The Lives and Deaths of Jim Corrigan, Alias… the Spectre: Part One of a Hero History”, Amazing Heroes #112 (March 1, 1987), pp. 28-35.