During the nearly yearlong period (June, 1971 through April, 1972) that DC Comics published most of their books in a giant-sized, 25-cent format, Justice League of America presented a particular sort of challenge for its editor, Julius Schwartz. The problem arose from the fact that the new, larger format called for a certain amount of reprint material — generally, 13 to 15 pages’ worth — to fill out each issue. And whereas for Schwartz’s other books, such as Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Superman, there was a ready archive of suitable old stories featuring the titular stars, the same wasn’t true for JLA, which from the beginning had been devoted to issue-length tales of more than 20 pages. Such stories weren’t going to work as backups in the new format without being either cut in half or severely abridged, neither of which options seems to have appealed to the veteran editor.
As we’ve covered in previous posts, Schwartz initially relied on a hodgepodge of oddities that could be at least thematically linked to the JLA, including a mid-’60s Flash story where the speedster temporarily becomes “The One-Man Justice League!” (pretty much a no-brainer) and an early-’50s “Knights of the Galaxy” adventure from Mystery in Space (um… because they were a team, I guess?), before ultimately settling on a steady diet of ’40s tales featuring the members of the Justice Society of America in solo action. That made a kind of sense, as JLA was the closest thing that most of DC’s Golden Age greats had to a home in 1971-72; but this reader, at least, would have preferred for the Justice League of America comic book to feature the Justice League of America all the way through, cover to cover.
And in January, 1972, I finally got my wish — as Schwartz (or JLA writer Mike Friedrich, or maybe someone else in the DC offices altogether) had the bright idea to retell a tale of the League’s past — and to incorporate pages from the story’s original presentation into this retelling. And it wasn’t just any old JLA story, either — as the banner below the cover image by Neal Adams and Murphy Anderson proclaimed, it was nothing less than “The Origin of the Justice League!”
And while some fans might have looked askance at DC’s presenting a rehashed, partially reprinted old story, framed by a modest amount of all-new material, like it was some sort of event — “A 37-Page Super-Star Spectacular!”, no less — my fourteen-year-old self was not one of them. Though I had begun reading Justice League of America during the era it was still being produced by the original creative team of Gardner Fox (writer), Mike Sekowsky (penciller) and Bernard Sachs (inker), their JLA origin story in issue #9 had come out in late 1961, when I was but a wee lad of four. Even the story’s one and only reprinting to date, in 80 Page Giant Magazine #8 (“More Secret Origins”), had been published in January, 1965, a good seven months before I bought my first DC comic book. So not only had I never read the Justice League’s origin story, but I also had no reason to assume it would be reprinted again anytime soon; its presentation here thus did feel like something special, at least to me.
And there was something else which made JLA #97 special, aside from its revisiting of the team’s foundational adventure; “The Day the Earth Screams” was the second chapter of the first three-parter in the title’s history. For that reason, we’ll be taking a look at the preceding issue, #96, before digging into our main topic of discussion today.
Actually, we’ll be going back further even than that, as scripter Friedrich had begun laying the groundwork for the “Starbreaker trilogy” as early as #94. As you may recall from our post about that comic last September, towards the end of “Where Strikes Demonfang?” there was a one-page scene near the end in which Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman, responding to an emergency alert from Black Canary that something was interfering with the signal transmission of the team’s new teleportation machine, vanished en route to the JLA’s satellite headquarters… after attempting to use the ailing teleporter. Yeah, smart move, guys.
This story thread continued into the next issue, though only as a subplot, as the main action of issue #95 found the non-missing members of the team involved with “The Private War of Johnny Dune!” Over the course of the narrative, however, Batman did manage to deduce that the teleporter disruption had been caused by the signal’s having been intercepted by a Zeta-Beam — you know, the ray that instantaneously transports Adam Strange from Earth to the faraway planet Rann every so often. Then, immediately after Batman’s announcement of his discovery, the JLA received an incoming power-ring transmission from Green Lantern, confirming that he and the others had indeed found themselves in their friend Adam’s usual stomping grounds — and what’s more, they’d arrived in the middle of a crisis, one that had the potential to threaten Earth as well as Rann. At the story’s end, Superman was shown streaking through space en route to the latter planet — which, Rann being 26 trillion miles distant from Earth, probably took him at least an hour or two.
Friedrich — with his usual artistic collaborators, penciller Dick Dillin and inker Joe Giella — picks up the story in JLA #96’s “The Coming of — Starbreaker!” In its opening scene, Superman’s telescopic vision allows him to locate his teammates even before he makes planetfall:
Superman expects to make quick work of these bugs, but finds they’re tougher than they look — among their other attributes, they’re able to shoot jets of flame that are “like prominences of a red sun“. Ultimately, however, he’s able to fool them into firing their jets at each other, causing them to explode.
Once that immediate danger is taken care of, Supes’ pals begin to fill him in on what’s been going on. Rann is currently under assault by a villain known as Starbreaker, they say, whose nature and background are helpfully explained by GL’s power ring:
“Good God!” exclaims Superman. “This Starbreaker is like a cosmic vampire — living off the life-energies of shattered worlds!” You said it, Big Blue — which makes him the latest in a series of recent comic-book villains who, while they may not technically be vampires of the traditional undead variety (Starbreaker, for example, really has more in common with Galactus than he does with Dracula), are at least now allowed to be referred to by the previously verboten “V” word, thanks to the relaxation of the Comics Code Authority’s rules regarding horror in early 1971.*
Setting aside the vampiric aspect for a moment, Starbreaker’s modus operandi, as outlined here by Friedrich, seems more than a little sketchy. The conflation of physical energy (such as that released by “the crashing of planet-and-sun”) with the psychic variety (that contained in “minds and emotions”) is conceptually problematic to begin with; but even if one accepts that idea, the notion that the latter would be more potent than the former is rather hard to swallow — at least if we’re talking about the kind of energy that can be auctioned off “to the highest bidder”. (When Starbreaker was brought back in 1992, writer-artist Dan Jurgens did a pretty good job of cleaning all this up by making a clear distinction between the two types of energy, and establishing that Starbreaker used each for different purposes; in 1972, however, I’m afraid we’re on our own.)
It’s also not clear how the villain’s “mechanix bugs” can cause planets to jump out of their orbits and hurtle into their suns, simply by crawling around and wreaking destruction. But we’ll have to roll with it — as will our four Justice Leaguers, because Green Lantern’s ring has detected two more sites on Rann currently under bug attack. Naturally, in time-honored JLA fashion, the heroes split into teams to take on these menaces…
Then, in a novel twist, Starbreaker — who’s been monitoring events from his spaceship — splits himself in two in response. (Well, actually, he creates “energy-duplicates” of himself, but close enough…)
Unfortunately for Starbreaker, this strategy backfires — despite the fact that he’s able to absorb vast amounts of energy (physical and psychic) and discharge it as force blasts, not to mention that he has (in his own words) “solved the problem of linking science and magic” (very handy, especially when you’re fighting Superman), dividing his strength in two ultimately allows both teams of JLAers to get the upper hand and defeat his surrogates (and his bugs, as well), in successive chapters.
After coming back together, our victorious heroes are greeted not only by a thankful Rannian populace, but also by Adam Strange, who managed to catch the next Zeta-Beam off of Earth — arriving too late to help in the fight, obviously, but still in time for a quick cameo (and for a quick plug for his reprinted exploits then appearing in Strange Adventures)…
Where are the defeated Starbreakers disappearing to? Why, to the spaceship where awaits their furious “daddy” — who takes the time to slap both his disappointing progeny across their miserable faces, right before reverting them back to raw energy and re-absorbing them…
With Starbreaker’s grim promise still ringing in our metaphorical ears, we’ll now segue from December, 1971’s Justice League of America #96 right into January, 1972’s issue #97:
Hawkman precedes to give a slightly abridged version of the Starbreaker briefing provided by Green Lantern’s power ring in the last issue, wrapping up with the following:
As bummed out as all these JLAers are by Hawkman’s little presentation, Green Arrow, at least, is still eager to head down to Earth to get ready to take Starbreaker on — but Hawkman says there’s no point in doing so for the moment, as “Superman, Flash, and Green Lantern are on a 24-hour super-alert — sentinels for Starbreaker’s slightest move!”
And after a brief scene in which our villain charges himself up by making a quick snack out of the emissary of an alien dictator who’s dared to question the energy broker’s going rates, Starbreaker does indeed finally make his move on planet Earth — and it’s not at all what you’d call “slight”:
With Flash out for the count, Green Lantern steps up to take his shot — but Starbreaker easily turns GL’s “two-way punch” back against him:
If the rest of the JLA were kind of mopey before, the return to the satellite of their thoroughly whipped “three top super-stars” (in Aquaman’s phrase) leaves them completely demoralized. “If these guys can’t save Earth,” moans the Atom, “what could we minor Leaguers do?
It’s pretty easy to look at this scene now and think, “Really? With the Earth facing total destruction, you guys figure that now’s the time to watch an old video?” But that’s the way we fans rolled back in 1972. (Or maybe it’s just the way your humble blogger rolled, at age 14.)
One of the more clever aspects of this story’s integration of the JLA #9 material is how it takes advantage of the original tale’s structure. As it is in JLA $97, the League’s origin was presented in #9 within a narrative frame, as the members who were around for the events described them to those that weren’t (i.e., “mascot” Snapper Carr [who first met the League in Brave and the Bold #28] and Green Arrow [who joined the team in JLA #4]), on the occasion of the team’s third anniversary. In the present retelling, using the device of having the original League members relate the story on tape allows for the inclusion of the original story’s rotating first-person narration.
“Its blue beams must be what’s getting everyone stoned!” Yeah, we saw what you did there, Mr. Friedrich. (Though it probably went right over my younger self’s head in 1972.) In case you’re wondering, Gardner Fox’s original line was, “Those blue beams from his eyes must be what causes everyone to become stony!”
With the next page comes this issue’s first reprinted content, straight from JLA #9’s “The Origin of the Justice League!”, where it appeared as page 5. The visual transition from Dillin-Giella to Sekowsky-Sachs is hardly seamless, but that’s sort of the point — the presence of the vintage material is actually part of this issue’s appeal (at least theoretically), so one ought to be able to recognize it when shows up. (And in any event, it’s a less jarring stylistic shift than the one we had between Dillin-Giella and Neal Adams in JLA #94, just a few months back.)
Having gleaned from the stone giant’s mind that he was vulnerable at a particular spot on his noggin, the Martian Manhunter delivered a mighty wallop to that precise point, and…
At this point in JLA #9, J’onn J’onzz turned the narrative over to Aquaman, and so the same thing happens here, as the Friedrich-Dillin-Giella team returns for a single panel:
The King of the Seven Seas explains how he swam to investigate the weird phenomenon that was turning the ocean’s living creatures to glass, only to find himself beginning to go glassy as well. Just about then, the Appellaxian showed up…
But even as the trunkfish swam to the attack, Aquaman was calling in more help, such as “the Indian trigger-fish, the Australian Ceratodus… the coffer, and the gurnard, among others…” (Nothing says “DC in the Silver Age” quite like the inclusion of a few random morsels of scientific fact, which provide the young reader with the vague but pleasant impression that they’re learning something [though without the unpleasant associations of homework]. Never mind that one of the kinds of fish listed [the Australian Ceratodus or lungfish] is a freshwater fish that wouldn’t be caught dead in the Indian Ocean… actually, on second thought, “dead” is the only way it would be caught there.)
As it turns out, it’s good that Aquaman wasn’t depending just on the trunkfish, as their assault failed miserably when the Appellaxian’s eye-beams turned them all to glass. But the others he’d called — “the noisemakers of the fish family”, of which he hoped at least one would be able to shatter the glass alien with its characteristic sound — fared little better, at least at first…
Gee, J’onn and Aquaman showing up at the same time was quite the coincidence, huh? I guess stranger things have happened, though. Anyway, moving on…
Wonder Woman watched in horror as the tape-viewer showed her how the weird being’s radiation had turned all her fellow Amazons, including her mom, Queen Hippolyta, into globs of liquid mercury, which proceeded to follow their progenitor towards the sea…
Even if Diana couldn’t hurl the creature into outer space, she could swing it around and around, really, really fast…
So WW managed to arrived at the same time as our previous two heroes, eh? Well, that does seem rather unlikely… but not impossible, I suppose.
Unfortunately, Green Lantern’s protective energy sheath wasn’t quite up to the task of shielding him from the effects of the alien radiation — I guess it was all that yellow — and he too began to turn into a big golden bird. But then he realized that they were flying over Victoria Falls, and he got an idea…
Four superheroes all arriving at the same time? Well, er… let’s see, now… hm.
The Flash managed to counter the radiation’s effects, at least temporarily, by vibrating at high speed, but dousing the alien’s flame proved more difficult. After a column of water our hero whipped up out of the nearby Lake Como was instantly turned to steam, the Fastest Man Alive scooted across the Mediterranean Sea to scoop up some sand from the Sahara Desert…
The panels above represent the last of the issue’s material pulled directly from Justice League of America #9 — with #97’s reprint quota having now been filled at 13 pages (more or less), the remainder of the JLA’s origin story will be (re)told by the book’s current creative team.
OK, here’s your rationale for these five proto-Leaguers all arriving on the Carolina seashore (and is that North or South Carolina, I wonder?) just a few seconds apart from each other: it’s called narrative convenience.
J’onn’s strategy became apparent in the next moment, as the Flash’s bumping into Wonder Woman moved her — or at least her left side — into the path of Green Lantern’s bark-removing power-ring beam…
Friedrich’s version of this scene differs from Fox’s in one important respect. In the retelling, Wonder Woman’s lasso merely planes the wood-creature “down to its bare essence”; in the original, however (as shown below), the alien is reduced to “a pile of slivers and splinters”:
Why the change? It seems unlikely that the Comics Code Authority could have had anything to do with it, seeing as how they’d passed the story through in both its original 1961 presentation and its 1965 reprinting. And JLA editor Julius Schwartz had been on hand for both those occasions, as well. The most probable answer, then, is that writer Mike Friedrich was uncomfortable with having Wonder Woman cause the (apparent) death of a sentient being — even if said being was a bad guy, and made of wood, to boot. (UPDATE 1/22/22, 9:30 pm: As pointed out by reader brucesfl in his comment below, Friedrich did in fact later claim responsibility for making the change, stating in an interview for the 2005 book Justice League Companion: “I felt that good guys don’t kill people.”)
After the Martian Manhunter filled in his costumed colleagues on what he’d learned from the mind of the stone Appellaxian, all five heroes decided to head to Greenland to deal with the sixth and final meteor — “together!”
“After returning the inactivated meteor-beings to their own world…” There’s a similar, but not identical line on the last page of the original story, where Wonder Woman tells Snapper Carr, “We returned such meteor-beings as we could to their own world, keeping the pile of splinters as a souvenir!” (italics mine). You can see now, I hope, why Friedrich felt he needed to make an adjustment regarding the disposition of the splintered wood-creature, whereas he didn’t for the shattered glass-being, or for the vaporized mercury-person; just speaking for myself, I’m not all that keen on the idea of the JLA killing a foe and keeping their mortal remains as a trophy, either.
Back in the Silver Age, writers had Superman squeezing lumps of coal into diamonds so often that it could almost be considered a distinct superpower — but reversing the process? Not so much. Intriguingly, in Fox’s original script, the Man of Steel’s means for accomplishing this feat wasn’t explained at all, whereas Friedrich’s at least makes an attempt. To wit, on page 35 of the current story, Supes’ thought balloon tells us, “The super-heat I’m causing by friction is breaking down the menace’s molecules — changing it from diamond to coal“; meanwhile, the corresponding line in Fox’s version simply has Superman-the-narrator make the flat statement, “I reduced the dangerous diamond menace to a mere chunk of coal”. Um, OK, then. Frankly, you can easily understand why Snapper would want to ask a follow-up question; but in JLA #9, the Action Ace’s answer comes across less as a “priceless crack”, and more of a blow-off (probably because Fox didn’t actually have an answer):
I’m not at all sure that Friedrich’s version really makes more sense than Fox’s, scientifically speaking — but you’ve got to give the younger author points for at least trying.
And with the unexpected advent of Sargon the Sorcerer, we come to the end of this Very Special Issue of Justice League of America. If you’re curious, the original version of “The Origin of the Justice League!” ran 26 pages, with roughly four of those devoted to the framing sequence; JLA #97’s version, which for argument’s sake we’ll say begins with Hawkman’s inspirational speech on page 11 and runs through page 36, is practically the same length. So, as far as storytelling efficiency goes, it’s pretty much a wash between the two.
I enjoyed this issue back in 1972, and I still find it entertaining today (though I’ll be the first to acknowledge that it shows its age, in both its fifty-year-old and sixty-one-year-old parts). But, of course, it’s not a complete reading experience on its own, being the middle part of a trilogy — and so, seeing as how we covered this story’s first chapter earlier in the post, I figure we might as well go ahead and tackle issue #98’s concluding segment here as well. (Especially since there’s no way we’re going to be able to squeeze it into what’s looking like a very packed blogging schedule in March.) Before we do, however, we should probably say a few words about Sargon.
Sargon the Sorcerer made his debut in All-American Comics #26 (May, 1941); the creation of writer John B. Wentworth and artist Howard Purcell, he was one of a number of Golden Age heroes whose stage-magician-with-real-magic-powers shtick was ultimately derived from Lee Falk’s popular comic-strip hero, Mandrake the Magician. Though he never became as well-known as many of his fellow 1940s-era crusaders, Sargon proved to be a pretty durable second-stringer, holding down his A-AC slot for twenty-five issues before moving on — first to a brief stint in Comic Cavalcade, then settling in for a four-year run in Sensation Comics before taking his final bow in the 37th issue of Green Lantern (1941 series), cover-dated March-April, 1949. Not a bad showing at all, really.
Following that last adventure, Sargon languished for a full twenty years, until he was brought back in Flash #186 (Mar., 1969) by a young writer named, you guessed it, Mike Friedrich. Intriguingly, Friedrich seems to have felt (at least initially) that Sargon would be more interesting as a villain, and thus had him team up with the Scarlet Speedster’s arch-foe from the future, the Reverse-Flash. As the Sorcerer explained to his new ally: “For twenty years I fought on the side of the law! However, when I matured, I decided it was a waste of my special talent…” Such self-assurance notwithstanding, however, by as early as the conclusion of his second Flash outing (in another Friedrich-scripted tale, published in issue #207 [Jun., 1971]), the one-time good guy was definitely having second thoughts regarding his new path… which is how things stand at the beginning of JLA #98’s “No More Tomorrows!”:
Using the power of his Ruby of Life, Sargon easily counters the Atom’s attack, and even staggers Superman. He protests to the Leaguers that he’s on their side — “Despite our differences, we have a common enemy — Starbreaker!” — but the heroes remain skeptical, especially Green Arrow, who keeps an arrow notched and pointed at the Sorcerer’s chest…
At this point, we’re going to skip over the next ten pages, which are completely extraneous to the main plot (not only does Starbreaker not show up even once, but none of the new characters we meet even appear to be aware that the whole planet is currently facing destruction) — existing, it seems, only so that Friedrich can stretch his story over three issues. Seriously, you could easily ditch the whole “quest for the ‘two counterparts’ of the Ruby of Life” business, and it would have no impact on anything that happens once the League comes back together; and indeed, that’s just what we’re going to do, at least to the extent possible. I thus sincerely hope you’ll take my word for it that the parallel expeditions to “tropical Sierra Verde” and “the mountains of southern Germany” worked out just as Sargon expected, because we’re about to jump right to…
Is it just me, or does the close-up of Supergirl in that last panel look like it was drawn by someone other than Dillin and Giella? What say ye, faithful readers?
Yeah, Starbreaker’s going to split himself up again, because that worked so well for him the last time. It seems a pretty boneheaded move on the villain’s part — but there’s an in-story explanation for it, as we’ll see a bit further on.
And besides, this development allows Friedrich to split the JLA up into smaller units one last time — scratching an itch the writer seems to have had pretty bad all through this storyline…
If you, like Flash, recognize that very colorful building in the next to last panel above, it may just be that you’ve read our post about Flash #203 from back in December, 2020.
I love the touch of having Hawkman knock Starbreaker right out of the panel borders; it’s the sort of visual playfulness we don’t really see all that often from Dick Dillin.
I think it’s supposed to be wood for a vampire, silver for a werewolf — but what the hell, it’s all make-believe, right?
Meanwhile, back in the present — where only a moment has passed since their teammates blinked out of sight — Superman and Batman watch bemusedly as their badly weakened foe falls to his hands and knees. But Starbreaker’s still not ready to concede defeat, and drawing on his “deepest reserves” of power, he makes one last stab at victory — by attempting to bury Superman in Central City’s accumulated trash. Is this guy kidding?
You might say that Supes is Hulking out, here…
As we noted earlier, Starbreaker would return to bedevil the JLA again one day… but not for twenty years. It seems the Guardians of the Universe would do a better job of keeping him on ice than they could ever mange with, say, Sinestro.
And Sargon the Sorcerer? He’d (mostly) stay on the straight and narrow from this point on… all the way up to his fiery death in Swamp Thing #50 (Jul., 1986).
And there you have it — the first three-part storyline in Justice League of America‘s history. Somewhat ironically, it would have the status of being the only such storyline for just one more issue, as JLA #100 would see the beginning of yet another trilogy.
Mike Friedrich wouldn’t be around for that one, however, as #99 would feature his last script for Justice League of America. The “Next Issue” blurb shown above makes “Seeds of Destruction!” sound intriguing, and the book’s Nick Cardy cover shown at right is appealing as well. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more about it than that, as I not only didn’t buy the book upon its original release in April, 1972, but also never acquired it as a back issue — and to this date I still haven’t actually read the story. (In my defense, it’s only been reprinted twice, and both times as part of a large anthology, surrounded by JLA stories I have read and don’t need to re-acquire. One of these days, though…)
JLA #98 was thus my last Mike Friedrich issue; and so, I’m going to take the opportunity provided by this post for a few last comments regarding Friedrich’s run on Justice League of America, even though it’s still January and the first issue of JLA written by his successor, Len Wein, won’t be eligible for blogging about until June. I know that the “Friedrich era” of JLA has its detractors — some of whom have shared their less-than-glowing opinions of the work in comments on this very blog — and I myself recognize its flaws (as I believe should be obvious to anyone who’s read this post up to this point). Still, for all of their sometimes clunky plotting, frequent emotional excesses, and occasionally overwrought prose, I find Friedrich’s stories in general to be more memorable than most (though surely not all) of those that followed them in this title, on through the remainder of the Bronze Age of Comics. From my perspective, Friedrich brought a sense of personal investment and commitment to his work here that I simply value more than I do airtight plotting and other markers of “professional” writing. Others’ mileage will surely vary… and that’s just fine, as far as I’m concerned.
Ironically, some of the qualities I admire in Friedrich’s JLA stories, as well as in his other work for DC, may have been in part responsible for the writer’s leaving DC for Marvel. In an interview with Michael Eury for the book Justice League Companion (TwoMorrows, 2005), Friedrich explained:
…I was just really not in sync with Julie [Schwartz]. I remember very, very clearly Julie telling me that my work was too much like Marvel; and all this time, Roy Thomas is telling me, “Any time you want to come work here [at Marvel], let me know.” And so at some point, I took him up on it. I just said, “Listen, I’d like to start working here. Is there regular work?” And [Marvel] handed me a silver platter…
Perhaps even more ironically, much of the work that Friedrich went on to produce for Marvel was, at least in your humble blogger’s opinion, less personal, and ultimately, less memorable, than what he’d done at DC. Again, his interview with Eury hints at at least one possible reason:
…as a writer, going to Marvel was great and it was terrible at the same time. Going to Marvel for me was making more money, having more fun for a while. But then, I’m no longer writing my heartfelt characters. I didn’t care about Iron Man the way I cared about Green Lantern. [At Marvel], I’m no longer writing about my childhood heroes. It’d become a job, and although it was a really good job, but I couldn’t sustain it much for more than a couple of years.
Writing for love versus writing for money. Maybe it doesn’t always make a difference in the quality of the work; but I think it’s fair to say that sometimes, at least, it actually does.
Of course, not that all of Mike Friedrich’s writing for Marvel was forgettable; any list of credits that includes scripting the story that introduced Thanos and Drax the Destroyer (albeit from a Jim Starlin plot) is hardly one to be dismissed. And his time spent writing for Marvel hardly represented the end of Friedrich’s contributions to the comics medium, either. Arguably, his most significant achievement in the field was yet to come, with his founding of Star*Reach Productions, the pioneering “ground-level” comic book publisher.
But that event, of course, is still a few years out from our present frame of reference. Here’s hoping that you, I, and this blog are all still around when it comes time for us to discuss Star*Reach and its kindred, later this decade.