According to the Mike’s Amazing World of Comics web site, Robert Kanigher scripted 2,707 comic book stories in his five-decade career, the vast majority of them for DC Comics. But despite the fact that I’ve been reading DC comics myself for over five decades — three of which overlap with those during which Kanigher was working — I’ve never really felt like I had a handle on the guy.
That’s probably mostly due to the fact that the greatest portion of Kanigher’s writing was done for war comics, a genre I never really warmed up to (although one of the very first comic books I can remember reading — as opposed to buying — was an issue of Our Fighting Forces, featuring Gunner, Sarge, and Pooch in a story that was almost certainly written by Kanigher). As regards my most favored genre (superheroes, in case you didn’t know), his longest run was on Wonder Woman — a book I sampled just once during his original tenure as writer and editor, and didn’t care for much. And as for his other major superheroic project during my formative years as a comics reader, Metal Men — well, I never got around to giving that one a shot during its original incarnation.
Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t run into Kanigher’s writing here and there anyway, in the mid-to-late Sixties. The man was extraordinarily prolific, and even while he was serving as the full-time editor of (as well as writing scripts for) Wonder Woman, Metal Men,and DC’s war line, he somehow still found time to write stories for his fellow DC editors on a fairly frequent basis. Among these were a number of Batman tales for his then-office-mate Julius Schwartz, several of which I bought and read (including the first appearance of Poison Ivy). So it’s not like I didn’t know his name by the time it showed up in the credits for Justice League of America #84’s “The Devil in Paradise!” Nevertheless, it didn’t represent a known quantity to me in the way that Denny O’Neil or Gardner Fox’s names would have.
In addition to not being all that familiar with Kanigher’s writing, my thirteen-year-old self would have been ignorant of how the man’s professional status had changed back in 1968, when he was caught up in the editorial reshuffling instituted then by DC’s new man in charge, Carmine Infantino. Looking to invigorate the company, Infantino had brought in a number of new editors — mostly professionals who, like himself, had a background in comics art, rather than in writing — and let others go. Kanigher was one of the latter, being replaced as editor of the war comics line by his own longtime artistic collaborator on “Sgt. Rock”, “Enemy Ace” and other strips, Joe Kubert. For his part, Kubert made this unavoidably awkward transition work about as smoothly as it possibly could, continuing to use Kanigher as a regular writing contributor on the books.
Also somewhere around this time, Kanigher is known to have suffered a nervous breakdown, though it’s unclear whether it preceded or followed his losing his editorial position. In any event, it hardly seems to have slowed him down as a writer, as his stories continued to appear regularly in DC’s comics from 1968 into 1970 with no noticeable break. According to comments Kanigher himself later made in an interview, DC pretty much had to continue to run at least some of his stories, as they’d opted to keep him on staff as a salaried employee. Still, he had to request assignments from the current editorial roster (at least, if he wanted to work for anyone besides Kubert), which may have provided him with some difficulties — as, by virtually all accounts, Kanigher was often a difficult person to get along with.
In an interview published in Alter Ego #131 (Mar., 2015), comics writer Gerry Conway, who first began freelancing for DC around this time, recalled overhearing a conversation between Kanigher and his former peer, Julius Schwartz:
Kanigher and he [Schwartz] had shared an office as editors for some twenty years. Kanigher wanted to write something for Julie. This was at a stage where Kanigher’s career had started to peter out a bit and he was looking for assignments. He had a contract but it depended on him getting assignments. He asked Julie for an assignment and Julie said, “No! I don’t have anything for you.” Kanigher got upset. He said “Julie, you’re my friend. We shared an office for twenty years.“ And Julie said to him, in one of the coldest and hardest ways I’ve ever heard anybody speak, “We shared an office for twenty years. We were never friends.” And that was it. [laughs]
(Conway didn’t offer a specific time-frame for this anecdote, which I suppose might have occurred later — both Kanigher and Schwartz continued working well into the Eighties — but I think it still speaks to the rather fraught relationship between the two men.)
Regardless of how he might have felt about his colleague, however, Schwartz did send some work Kanigher’s way in the months and years that immediately followed the latter’s losing his editorial position, including jobs for Atom & Hawkman, Flash, and, of course — though only once — Justice League of America.
JLA #84 is frequently referred to as a “fill-in” issue — and that’s a logical conclusion, considering that it falls smack-dab between between the multi-issue runs of writers Denny O’Neil and Mike Friedrich. Still, I can’t help but wonder if Kanigher, at least, didn’t see the job as a tryout for being the series’ new regular writer — if only because he introduces at least one, and possibly more plot elements that seem to have been designed to be picked up on in later issues.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding its genesis, however, “The Devil in Paradise!” may be the single oddest Justice League of America story ever written, by any author. At least, that’s my opinion. But why don’t we take a look at the thing, and then you can make up your own mind, alright?
Behind a striking cover by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, Kanigher is joined for this story by regular artists Dick Dillin (penciller) and Joe Giella (inker). Our creative team hits the ground running on page one with an action scene (though one that’s told in flashback):
It’s worth noting that the JLA’s adversaries in this opening sequence — the 100 — were a recent Kanigher creation, appearing regularly in the writer’s new “Rose and the Thorn” backup series in Lois Lane.
As the unnamed Nobel ceremony presenter goes on to relate, the JLA eventually located the kidnapped Prof. Hansen just as he was about to be transferred from a roller coaster car to an already-in-the-air helicopter (!); fortunately, due to the efforts of Hawkman and Flash, the chemist was ultimately safely rescued (though, of course, the 100 organization survived to commit perfidies another day).
Black Canary had only recently gained her sonic powers, aka her “canary cry”, which first manifested themselves in the O’Neil-penned JLA #75; this issue, however, was the first time we readers had been given any inkling that those powers had a telepathic component. (Perhaps Kanigher felt comfortable introducing this fairly major character development in a one-off issue of JLA due to the fact that he himself had co-created Black Canary way back in 1947, in collaboration with Carmine Infantino.) However, this enhancement of the Canary’s “SP”, as Kanigher styled it, didn’t last beyond the final page of this very story; to the best of my knowledge, it was never heard from again (pun intended, sorry).
But speaking of unexpected new enhancements to existing super-powers — or, at least, weird new manifestations of such:
Pretty weird, huh? You might expect that a later scene would provide a rational, plot-based (as opposed to thematic) explanation for Superman’s bizarre vision; if you did, however, you’d be disappointed.
The story’s next scene amounts to a plug for a story currently on sale in another Julius Schwartz-edited title:
Yes, here Kanigher — at his editor’s direction? — uses four panels of his story to alert readers to be on the lookout for World’s Finest #198, on sale the same day as JLA #84 (Sept. 10, 1970). This issue, which happened to be the first of Schwartz’s tenure on that title, introduced a new format which would see Superman teaming up with a different DC hero every issue, rather than always being paired with Batman. This new approach was being launched with an appropriately major event — the third race between the Man of Steel and the Scarlet Speedster.
As a reader who’d eagerly devoured both the first and second races between DC’s speediest heroes back in 1967 (and who thought the Flash was robbed — robbed, I tell you — both times), I was eager to read about this latest contest. Somehow, however, I ended up missing WF #198 on the stands — though, thankfully, the story continued into the following issue, and I did manage to score a copy of that one. (Will I be blogging about that comic, World’s Finest #199, when it reaches its golden anniversary next month? Do you even have to ask?)
Our current story’s next scene is, frankly, about as extraneous to the main plot as the World’s Finest teaser preceding it — yet, it’s probably the scene for which this comic is best remembered.
Umm… what just happened?
As of September, 1970, the Black Canary — Dinah Drake Lance — had been in mourning a little more than a year for her late husband Larry, who’d perished heroically in the climactic scene of JLA #74 (Sept., 1969). But she hadn’t exactly been lacking for male attention all that time, as the previous JLA scribe, Denny O’Neil, had begun planting the seeds of a romance between Dinah and Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow, as early as issue #75. Since then, O’Neil had been developing the relationship between the two heroes not only in JLA, but also in another series he was writing, Green Lantern (which now co-starred the Emerald Archer). And while “Dinah + Ollie” was certainly still in its early days, it still seemed to be a definite “thing” — or, at least, it did to my thirteen-year-old self.
Was Kanigher unaware of the groundwork that had already been laid to establish BC and GA as a couple? Or was this another instance where he may have assumed that, as the Canary’s co-creator, he had at least as much right to write about her love life as O’Neil did? (Especially since, unlike O’Neil, Kanigher sometimes wrote romance comics.) We’ll probably never know; but it seems odd (to say the least) that he would include such a scene if he knew at the time that this would be his one and only opportunity to write JLA.
There’s actually another interesting piece to the “Batman-Black Canary romance” puzzle that I wasn’t aware of in September, 1970 — simply because I hadn’t yet read Brave and the Bold #91 (Aug.-Sept., 1970), a comic I’d passed on when it came out three months earlier (though I’d eventually buy it as a back issue) — but which many other fans surely must have picked up on at the time. Because that comic had given readers a different situation in which Black Canary became romantically interested in someone who wasn’t Green Arrow — though, on that occasion, it was the Earth-One doppelgänger of her late, lamented husband, Larry Lance — and had also strongly hinted that Batman himself was attracted to Dinah.
In “A Cold Corpse for the Collector”, written by Bob Haney and illustrated by Nick Cardy, the Caped Crusader tries to warn Dinah (shown here in her civvies) of his suspicions that this “new” version of Larry — who, like her late hubby, works as a detective — is actually crooked; and gets a hard slap in the kisser for his pains:
A little later in the story, Batman finds himself musing whether Black Canary might be right; is he jealous of Larry, and has that affected his judgment?
Even if you’ve never read this story, I’m sure you can guess how things work out; Larry is indeed ultimately proven to be a no-good, duplicitous louse, who ends up buying the farm when he attempts to kill Batman. At the story’s end, Bats comforts the heartbroken Canary, who wonders if she’ll “ever find a new life on this Earth”, by telling her that “anyone as brave and beautiful as Black Canary certainly will!” Those assurances notwithstanding, the two costumed crimefighters end their mutual adventure firmly in the friend zone.
Was the Batman-Canary scene in JLA #84 informed by this then very recent story? As a young comics fan who first read BatB #91 no later than a couple of years after its publication (and perhaps a good bit sooner than that), I simply assumed that it was. After all, I had no real reason at that time to believe that DC, as a company, was any less committed to maintaining a coherent, interconnected fictional universe than was their rival publisher, Marvel. Later on, of course, I’d learn that each editor at DC ran their group of assigned titles pretty much as their own independent fiefdom during this era, and that there was no reason to assume that Julius Schwartz was paying much attention to what was going on in Brave and the Bold, which was edited by Murray Boltinoff — or the converse, for that matter.* Still, there were occasional exceptions, and the Black Canary-Batman thing could have been one of those; again, we’ll probably never know for sure.
One aspect of the scene that we haven’t touched on yet may be the most mysterious (if not the oddest) thing in it: who is the mysterious lost love that Batman refers to on page 8 — the “only one” he ever wanted to marry, but couldn’t? At this point in the Caped Crusader’s history, he hadn’t yet met Talia al Ghul, and his attraction to Catwoman had never been portrayed as anything more than superficial. His relationships with Bat-heroines Kathy Kane (Batwoman) and Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) were friendly, but nothing beyond that. As for old flames like Vicki Vale, Julie Madison, and Linda Page, they hadn’t appeared in so many years that most younger fans probably didn’t know who any of them were (though that doesn’t mean Kanigher couldn’t have remembered one or more of them, of course).** But, truth be told, I think it’s likely that the writer himself didn’t know who Batman was “carrying a secret torch” for (as Black Canary puts it), and introduced the idea just for the sake of the scene.
In any event, Robert Kanigher started all this up, but then wasn’t around to do anything else with it. Did his successor as writer on Justice League of America, Mike Friedrich, pick up the ball? Well, yeah, he did — albeit briefly, and not entirely conclusively. But we’ll have to wait for a few months to have a look at those developments. For now, let’s move on ahead with our current story…
Hmmm… wasn’t there something about “savage, primitive tribes” earlier in the story? Oh, right, the people of “the Matto Grosso country”, who’ve supposedly been turned to peace by Dr. Viktor Willard’s Nobel prize-winning “Pax Serum“. But in our real world, Mato Grosso happens to be located in Brazil, not Australia… so, I dunno.
In any case, Kanigher’s characterization of indigenous peoples as uncivilized savages obviously hasn’t dated well, though the damage is mitigated somewhat by Superman’s remarks in the second panel above. (The same can’t be said of the issue’s cover’s reference to “primitive savages”, unfortunately, although the blame for that particular bit of wording probably shouldn’t be laid at Kanigher’s door.)
Ummm… now what just happened? Obviously, the “Aborigines” — who, though described in Kanigher’s text as “nightmarish tormentors” and “creatures of darkness”, are drawn by Dillin and Giella to look like ordinary human beings — can’t entirely be “a group illusion”, since we’ve been told that they’re responsible for the massacre of their peaceful neighbors. And “black magic“? What, if anything, does that have to do with Dr. Willard’s Pax Serum?
I don’t know about you, but I’m confused. Maybe the next scene will shed some light on things…
A-ha! It’s Dr. Willard’s fiancée! The threads of our story finally seem to be coming together…
Ummm… OK. Kanigher happened to be the co-creator of both Iris and Barry Allen, having scripted the classic story in Showcase #4 (Oct., 1956) that introduced both of them — so here’s another instance where he might have felt he had a proprietary right to mess with the characters, even in a fill-in issue of JLA. Probably more to the point, he was also regularly contributing scripts to the Flash’s own comic around this same time — although, to the best of my knowledge, none of those stories played on the notion of marital discord between Barry and Iris. (I should note, though, that I was only a very occasional reader of Flash at the time; so if there’s anyone out there reading this who is more familiar with that run of issues than your humble blogger, please feel free to weigh in in the comments section.) In any event, I’m pretty certain that Mike Friedrich, at least, never picked up on this notion of Barry’s taking a leave of absence from the Justice League to smooth things over with Iris.
Anyhoo, moving right along… Thirty minutes later, the rest of the JLA arrives at the hospital, and Black Canary promptly goes to work tuning in on Phyllis’ thoughts. Soon, our heroes are hearing all about how, following their wedding, Viktor flew his bride to his private island for their honeymoon. There, inside a domed extinct volcano, the Nobel prize-winner maintained a well-appointed research laboratory:
Yes, the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize turns out to be a genocidal maniac! Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
The idea of a scientific “cure” for the problem of human conflict, the effects of which may then be disastrously reversed, is somewhat reminiscent of Justice League of America #40 (Nov., 1965), in which a new invention temporarily makes the entire population of Earth peaceful and virtuous, before going haywire and generating the opposite effect. (Both stories even have paralleling dialogue in which the JLAers, believing peace in our time could be imminent, speculate about being made obsolete.) Considering that the immediately preceding storyline in the series — JLA #82 and #83’s two-part Justice League-Justice Society team-up — was itself reminiscent of another such epic from four years past, one is tempted to speculate that Julius Schwartz might have been turning to old mid-Sixties issues to help develop springboards for new stories by his 1970 JLA writers.
Acting on Batman’s hunch that Willard’s base will have hidden defenses, Superman runs all over the island at super-speed — and, sure enough, sets off a bunch of land mines. Once that’s done, Atom shrinks down into the lock of the volcano’s lead door to pick it (just in case there’s kryptonite on the other side). Finally, Hawkman sweeps through the entrance corridor, triggering a laser-beam barrage over which he flies harmlessly. Teamwork!
Despite Kanigher’s description of them as a “nightmarish horde”, Dillin and Giella’s robots are anything but intimidating. To my eyes at least, they look more like something a kid might put together in his backyard using cardboard boxes, flexible dryer vent ducts, and other assorted junk.
Has any comics writer besides Robert Kanigher ever used the phrase “greening out” to refer to Superman succumbing to green kryptonite? Probably, but I can’t think of one.
(Of course, only a couple of months after JLA #84’s publication, a major change to the Superman mythos would ensure that no writer would be referring to green kryptonite, period — if only for a while. Most of you reading this already know what I’m talking about, but just in case you don’t, be sure to check back with the blog in November.)
“It was beauty killed the beast!” An old trope, even in 1970, but a reliable one.
And that’s that, for Robert Kanigher’s one and only Justice League of America story. Sure, that Batman-Black Canary business is still hanging out there, not to mention the Barry-and-Iris misunderstanding, but otherwise, I’d say he wrapped things up pretty neatly.
What’s that you say? We never did find out what the hell was up with those mirror-shield-wielding Aboriginal Australians from pages 10 through 12 (not to mention the cover)? Or what, if anything, they had to do with Dr. Willard and his Inferno-Bomb? Well, um… OK, you’ve got a point. Perhaps Kanigher had a connection in mind, but as written, that three page scene seems to be as disconnected from the main plotline as, well, the Bats-and-Canary satellite scene.
In fact, the entire story has a disjointed feeling to it, as we move from the Nobel ceremony (and its essentially extraneous “JLA vs. the 100” sequence), to the Flash-Supes warm-up race, to the satellite interlude, to the Australian sequence, and finally back to our villainous Nobel laureate and his scheme. I’m not certain if this meandering structure reflects the possibility we’ve already mentioned — that Kanigher hoped to be able to continue as the JLA’s writer, and was thus trying to set some things up for later issues — or if it was a product of the writer’s expressed preferred method of working, which emphasized a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants spontaneity. Either way, it made for an exceptionally odd Justice League of America story — but by no means a boring or unmemorable one. Whatever else I might think about Robert Kanigher’s writing, I’m going to have to give the man that.
For some reason — my best guess is that it had something to do with advertising plans falling through — DC would in this era occasionally feature a short reprint in the back of a book that already carried a full-length story. Such was the case with Justice League of America #84, which filled out its page count with the following golden oldie from Strange Adventures #30 (Mar., 1953):
Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson’s “Great Ant Circus” isn’t a bad little story. But it is a very little story — just 3 2/3 pages — which very much depends on its twist ending.
Which makes it unfortunate — and a bit of a head-scratcher — that it uses its splash panel (representing 18% of the tale’s entire real estate) to give away that twist ending. Ah, well. No use crying over 67-year-old comic book stories, I suppose.
*Somewhat ironically, Brave and the Bold #91 featured one of that title’s rare instances of a reference to DC’s multiple earths (which, in 1970, might more accurately be referred to as Julie Schwartz’s multiple earths) during its long Boltinoff-Haney era, as the entire plot revolves around Black Canary having emigrated from Earth-Two. In virtually any other BatB story teaming Batman with a character who’d been established as an Earth-Two native, such as Wildcat or the Spectre, the concept was ignored completely.
**For the record, I had my own theory back in 1970 about whom Bats might be talking about, and I’d been planning to share that with you here; however, in doing my research for this post, I discovered that my candidate didn’t actually make her debut until the month after JLA #84 came out. So, I was probably wrong all along; nevertheless I’m going to hold off until October, when I’ll be writing about that particular story, to fill you in on her identity. Oh, the suspense!