As noted in my recent post regarding Gold Key’s Star Trek, I didn’t get to see the TV series on which that comic was based until it hit my local market in syndicated re-runs, around 1970-71. And since I started consuming licensed Trek tie-in media (what there was of it) almost immediately upon discovering the show, concurrent with my viewing the television episodes for the very first time, my initial encounters with some classic Trek stories ended up being by way of the printed page, rather than the cathode-ray tube. That’s because the earliest licensed prose fiction based on the property, a series of paperback books written by James Blish and published by Bantam Books, were collections of short stories adapted from the TV episodes themselves.
If I recall correctly, this was how I first experienced “The City on the Edge of Forever”, considered by many to be the finest single episode of the entire Star Trek franchise. Blish had adapted the story for his second volume of “novelizations”, Star Trek 2. Unusually for his process, however, he’d combined two distinct versions of the episode’s teleplay to do so: the extensively revised iteration that was actually produced and broadcast, and an earlier one represented by the original draft of the script by its sole credited author, Harlan Ellison. In a footnote to the published adaptation, Blish described both his anxiety that he might have ruined the story by taking that approach, as well as his relief when Ellison subsequently assured him that he had not, in fact, botched the job. That little look behind-the-scenes stuck with me — as did the name of the screenwriter, at a time when I never paid any attention to the credits on television shows beyond the names of the lead actors.
But though I now knew the name Harlan Ellison, other than that one Star Trek credit I knew nothing about him. Which was why I didn’t recognize him when, not very long after I’d read Star Trek 2, I encountered him as the central character in a Justice League of America story, in which he bore the (barely) alternative moniker “Harlequin Ellis”.
The writer of that JLA story, on the other hand — the then 21-year-old Mike Friedrich — knew quite a lot about Ellison. By 1971, the latter author had won two Writers Guild of America Awards, two Nebula Awards, and five Hugo Awards, all within the past six years. In addition, he was an avowed comics fan, who’d written on the subject for the well-known fanzine Xero. I suspect it would have been difficult for a young American comic-book writer of the time not to be at least glancingly familiar with Harlan Ellison.
But Friedrich was more than that, at least when it came to Ellison’s work. As he would tell interviewer Michael Eury many years later (for the latter’s Justice League Companion [TwoMorrows, 2005]), he was impressed enough with the older author’s writing that he came to consider him a role model, and even to identify with him — a feeling that eventually resulted in Justice League of America #89’s “The Most Dangerous Dreams of All!”:
I remember it [the story] came out of a very intense realization, but I can’t remember the specific circumstance, that I was now a writer with a capital “W,” and that I attributed this to my reading of Ellison’s work. Ellison wore his heart on his sleeve, and was just as obvious in his biases and social attitudes in his stories as I was in Justice League, although he was a lot more subtle about it and craftier about it than I was. But he was a very real inspiration to me.
Friedrich had even met Ellison — if only briefly, and several years prior to the epiphany described above. As he related to Eury:
I was 18 and in New York for the first time… I had written a couple of stories, and one of them was a Spectre/Wildcat story that Neal Adams was about to start drawing (for The Spectre #3). I’d met Marv Wolfman and Len Wein and Mark Hanerfeld and some related friends of theirs… I went with these friends of mine to the World Con that was held that year at the Statler Hilton Hotel across the street from Penn Station… Anyway, Ellison had been roasting Isaac Asimov at some awards ceremony or banquet…
And I remember very clearly sitting down in the lobby after this, and Mark Hanerfeld brought Ellison over to me and introduced him to me saying, “This is Mike, he’s writing The Spectre.” Now, Harlan Ellison had grown up on the Spectre. (laughs) He was now in his mid-30s, and he’s looking at this 18-year-old kid that looked like he was 12… and his jaw literally dropped. He did one of these comic jaw droppings… And so we were introduced and that was it.
That was it… in 1967. In 1971, Mike Friedrich and Harlan Ellison were about to become rather better acquainted.
The cover of Justice League of America #89, pencilled by Neal Adams and inked by Dick Giordano, does a good job of getting across the idea that this will be a JLA tale of a different kind — even if the promise of reader wish-fulfillment will ultimately prove somewhat misleading (with the notable exception of one particular reader, as we’ll see).
The splash page continues with the cover’s conceit of directly addressing the reader, as Friedrich and his usual artistic collaborators, Dick Dillin (penciller) and Joe Giella (inker), invite us to join the Justice League for their regular meeting:
The story’s title contains Friedrich’s first nod to Ellison and his work — though, of course, there’s as yet no reason for us to recognize it as such.
Dangerous Visions was a groundbreaking (and massive) anthology of original science fiction stories edited by Ellison; published in 1967, it would soon come to be seen as a milestone in the ’60s “New Wave” movement in SF, with several of its stories going on to win awards. (It would be followed by a second, even larger volume, Again, Dangerous Visions, in 1972; a projected third volume, to be entitled The Last Dangerous Visions, was promised for decades, but remained unfinished at the time of Ellison’s death in 2018.)
The “certain celebrated publishing firm” mentioned in the last panel above, is, of course, DC Comics. (This had been an ongoing gag since the introduction of the JLA’s satellite HQ in issue #78; although, to the best of my knowledge, the identification was never stated overtly within any story. Maybe on a letters page?)
Another aspect of the League’s satellite set-up in its early days, and one which seems awfully inconvenient in retrospect, is that it apparently only had one planet-side transporter station. So once the teleportation system deposited you on a rooftop in ““a very large city on the eastern seaboard”, as it was called in issue #78 (i.e., New York City), you still had to make the trip the rest of the way home. Which was no big deal if you were Superman or Flash, maybe, but sort of a pain for the Atom (did Ray Palmer look for the nearest telephone booth so he could he could zip back to Ivy Town via the phone lines?) or Aquaman, who’d have a long swim back to Atlantis ahead of him. Granted, these same problems had existed with the JLA’s old Secret Sanctuary — a hidden cave outside the small town of Happy Harbor, RI — but the addition of Thanagarian transporter technology to the team’s milieu underscored the awkwardness of the set-up.
The other thing notable about this panel, of course, is that it gives us the rare chance to see a group of Leaguers together in their civvies. Interestingly, about the only hero we see here whose look now seems conspicuously outdated is Aquaman — who, ironically, virtually never wore “surface-dweller” duds in his own series during this era, no matter how much time he spent on land.
Mike Friedrich’s turning up at the top of page 3 was hardly the first time a DC creator had broken the fourth wall an appeared on-panel to directly address the reader. But it was still pretty unusual.
Even more unusual is Friedrich’s use of second-person narration to invite his readers — who in 1971 could safely be presumed to be overwhelmingly male — to identify with a female protagonist, Black Canary.
The name “Harlequin” is an obvious derivation from “Harlan” — but I think it’s worth noting here, for any readers who may not be all that familiar with Ellison’s oeuvre, that’s it’s one the author had already made himself, several years prior to Friedrich’s knowing appropriation of it for this story.
“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, published in 1965, is probably Ellison’s best-known short story. A winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, it tells the story of a dystopian future in which a trickster character, the Harlequin, rebels against the strictures of an extremely time-regimented society, represented by the Ticktockman. It’s not an autobiographical story, obviously, but it has been widely interpreted as at least partly inspired by its author’s own struggles with meeting deadlines. In other words, on one allegorical level, the Harlequin was Harlan Ellison.
“Three times have I lost a wife — always a warm and beautiful woman!” Ellison had indeed been married (and divorced) three times as of 1971; however, he had not always been quite so gracious in describing his exes as his comic-book surrogate is here, having referred to his first marriage in 1961’s Gentleman Junkie as “four years of hell as sustained as the whine of a generator”.
Jeez, GA, possessive much? Actually, the extreme territoriality of Green Arrow in regards to “his” woman was a fairly consistent aspect of Friedrich’s characterization of Oliver Queen during his stint on JLA.*
After Ellis stomps upstairs, we get a brief scene with the two unnamed folks glimpsed in the last panel above (presumably they’re both his employees, though only the woman is given a defined job; she’s his secretary), as they wonder aloud what’s put a bug up the boss’ ass. The secretary ultimately decides to go up and confront Harlequin before things get altogether out of hand:
The scene now shifts back to Black Canary and Green Arrow, as we get a reference to a JLA meeting — presumably, the same one we saw on the first two pages, where these two members were conspicuous by their absence — which only serves to point out the absurdity of the satellite/transporter set-up as currently established. If GA and BC are already late, and they still have to travel from Los Angeles to New York before they can beam up to JLA HQ… then I’m not sure it’s really worth them even making the effort, y’know?
The preceding scene is an odd one. Its only purpose seems to be to insert the two JLAers into Ellis’ “current story” — but since they’re almost immediately transported to a completely different, seemingly unrelated locale (as we’re about to see), and since the little curio shop is never seen again afterwards, it ultimately feels entirely superfluous.
As the story shifts to assume the perspective of Harlequin Ellis, the second-person narration is resumed — though this time “you” are Ellis, rather than Black Canary.
Taking his cue from the Canary, “Superman” quickly (if reluctantly) locates the other Justice Leaguers with his telescopic vision:
Ellis-as-Superman flies to face the Cyclops in battle — but, despite his best efforts…
“…I’m shattered… like a glass goblet…” Poetic phrasing, even if slightly more prosaic than its inspiration — the title of another Ellison short story.
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” was originally published in 1968; a horror tale dealing with drug abuse, it was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1069, but didn’t win. (Another Ellison work nominated that same year, however — “A Boy and His Dog” — won in the Best Novella category.) While it admittedly has nothing to do with Friedrich’s JLA story, thematically speaking, the reference would have been easily recognizable to the young writer’s fellow Ellison-heads.
Again, a shift in the focus of the second-person narration, as “you” once more become Dinah Drake Lance, aka Black Canary:
What, you thought Ellis would have learned his lesson after what happened to “Aquaman”? Pshaw. We’ve still got seven pages of story left to fill, folks. Not to mention a certain cover-made promise about the reader getting a turn being Batman…
Green Arrow quickly fires off a shot, but his arrow harmlessly bounces off the Minotaur’s super-tough hide. Black Canary is about to rush to his aid, but then…
“Batman” first staggers the mythological creature with a blow, then, when it charges, plays toreador:
I suppose that Ellis’ imagination is so terrific, he can precisely emulate Batman’s learned skills just as well as he can Superman’s innate super-powers. Or something like that.
Um, I don’t have to tell you what tune from a classic 1969 rock opera the Derrick’s house band is covering here, do I? I didn’t think so.
If memory serves, my younger self had ambivalent feelings about “The Most Dangerous Dreams of All!” when I finished reading it for the first time. On the one hand, I tended not to like stories where most of the action wasn’t “real”, and this was certainly such a story. Most of the “real” JLA didn’t even appear following page 2, after all. On the other hand, I was also beginning to appreciate it when creators pushed the envelope and did something I’d never seen before in a comic book — and this story was very much an example of that, as well. I liked that Mike Friedrich was addressing “me” directly, even if I wasn’t 100% sure what his message to “me” was. (I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all Harlequin Ellis?)
Fifty years later, I’m rather less inclined to worry about the “reality” of an individual superhero comic book story than I was then. But I’m also considerably more likely to cringe at phrases like “the crash-pounding of his creative soul” and “the soul-shatter of the nova-awareness”. So painfully earnest, so self-important. But pretentious? That, I’m not so sure about. I’d prefer to call Friedrich’s efforts ambitious, myself — and if he doesn’t quite fully achieve the object of his ambition, well, there’s a Robert Browning quote for that, y’know? No, I wouldn’t want every Justice League of America story, then or now, to be like “The Most Dangerous Dreams of All!”; nevertheless. I’m glad that Mike Friedrich’s creative soul crash-pounded this particular one out, a half-century ago.
At the very end of Friedrich’s script for JLA #89 is an epigraph: “To H.E., that you might understand, brother…” The words imply a familiarity between the two writers that might seem more than a little presumptuous, considering that at this point the two men had met only once, briefly, at a con. But as things turned out, they were actually rather predictive.
Let’s let Friedrich himself tell the tale:
After I wrote the story and Julie [Schwartz, JLA editor] accepted it, I kept a carbon (copy) of it, and somehow or other, I made another copy. Somehow I had Harlan’s address and I mailed the script to him. And I was short on the postage, so he refused it (laughs)—he didn’t know who I was. I mean, he actually knew who I was, but he was making a point. And the package comes back, so I’m embarrassed and a little pissed off… But I put enough postage on it and sent it again to him. I get this incredible letter back from Harlan telling me that he was completely overwhelmed. It was like we were now blood brothers, that he was just so completely entranced. He was so flattered that I had written this story because he was a big comics fan himself and now he’d become a comic character. To him, that was like, wow, being on television, being in the movies. You know, he’s in a comic…
It was like, “My house is your house,” which I took him up on — once. (chuckles) And then apparently, he calls New York, and tells Julie he wants the character to be called “Harlan Ellison.” Julie kept it the way it was written [Harlequin Ellis”], and I wish he’d made it “Harlan Ellison.”
Schwartz confirmed the latter part of Friedrich’s anecdote in the letters column of JLA #89 itself, where he wrote:
Ellison later did get his wish, however, after a fashion, when Schwartz gave him Adams and Giordano’s original art for #89’s cover. Along with adding a handwritten inscription at the top of the piece (“To Harlan Ellison — the all-time comics [sic] book fan”), Schwartz also had one of the Flash’s word balloons re-lettered…
…finally making the promised wish-fulfillment of becoming Superman and Batman accurate, by name-checking the only reader it was ever literally true for.
As I mentioned near the beginning of this post, though I knew Harlan Ellison’s name from his single Star Trek episode before I picked up JLA #89 — or, at least, I think I did — I didn’t make the connection with “Harlequin Ellis” until after I’d read the story. Presumably, though, I “got” it once I’d read the letters column and seen Schwartz’s note.
But if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’m having a little trouble trusting my admittedly vague memory regarding this timeline — in part because I don’t remember at all that the appearance of Harlan Ellison in a DC comic in March, 1971, happened concurrently with his appearance that same month in not one, but two Marvel comics — though as a creator, this time, rather than a character.
Yet, that’s exactly what happened. And you’ll be able to read all about it in the next two installments of this blog, the first of which will be coming your way in just three days. I hope to see you then.
*Here’s another good example of Friedrich’s Green Arrow demonstrating an egregious amount of possessiveness, via a 2-page scene from the issue just prior to this one, JLA #88. (The more astute readers out there will doubtless realize that my sharing this now also fulfills a promise I made in an earlier post — namely, to let everyone know how the Batman-Black Canary “romance” plot element rather bizarrely introduced by writer Robert Kanigher in issue #84 was ultimately resolved. Since I ended up not doing a whole post on #88, this looks like my best shot.)
Of course, Black Canary herself doesn’t come off too great, here — first, by choosing to completely ignore what had happened earlier between her and Batman, in what one presumes is their first real moment alone together since That Night, just so that she can hit him up for “brotherly” advice — and then by standing by passively when her boyfriend unjustifiably goes off on their teammate.
Still, Green Arrow is such an insufferable ass in this scene that someone who read this story back in January, 1971, and then “The Most Dangerous Dreams of All!” in March, might wonder if the Canary actually would be better off with Harlequin Ellis. (For the record, my thirteen-year-old self wasn’t one of those “someones”; in 1971, I thought GA was the coolest superhero on DC’s roster, and didn’t recognize his attitudes as being toxic in the slightest. I’ve progressed a bit since then, thankfully; at least, I’d like to think so.)
As for the last panel’s ominous reference to a “seed of bitterness” being planted within Batman due to the incident — to the best of my knowledge, neither Friedrich nor any of his successors on Justice League of America ever picked up on this notion in any way. If you ask me, that’s probably for the best.