The Justice Society of America
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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
Gardner Fox often built his plots out of what I've dubbed Fox cycles. A Fox cycle is: a repeatable series of plot events that leave its protagonist in the same state at the finish as at the beginning. Please see my article on Adam Strange for a detailed discussion of Fox cycles.
No one today knows who first suggested bringing the comic heroes together, to share a story. It is unprecedented in comics history. My guess is Fox himself. Fox would go on to write another formally unique kind of collaborative story: "Flash of Two Worlds" (The Flash #123, September 1961). Both involve a kind of formal experimentation with the process of narrative itself. Fox's life-long interest in Fox cycles also is a form of narrative experimentation.
Many of the tales begin with Fox's summary of the super-hero's background, super-powers, and individual characteristics. These little mini-summaries can be regarded as among the first comic book criticism. They are the attempts of an outsider - Fox only created a few of these characters - to set forth everything that made each character unique. Fox's analysis is especially crisp. Each super-power, technological gimmick, weakness, and aspect of the character's life is itemized methodically. And in an explicit way that is not always encountered in the original tales involving the character. Fox is NOT interested here in the characters' origins. Only their on-going powers are the subject here. If the character has no super-powers - like the Sandman or the Atom - Fox mentions this explicitly, too. Such a methodical, systematic approach anticipates the way the Superman mythos would be set forth in 1958-1966. It seems less common in the Golden Age. Even when Fox does not summarize each aspect of the character's powers, the stories themselves form an unusual methodical exploration of what the characters can do: see the Spectre and Green Lantern stories, for instance.
The Flash's tale, like his episode in the next issue #4, is a sea adventure: the Flash had appeared on boats in his own magazine, in a story written by Fox, as well, "The Gambling Ship" (Flash Comics #4, April 1940). Both stories have a delightful, light-hearted feel, with the Flash exploring his own powers, and having fun. This JSA tale is a model of breezy adventure, as the Flash makes short work of the "sunken treasure at sea" plot. Fox actually has him speed the storytelling up, jumping over all the clichés of the genre in ingenious ways, and leaping over story-telling conventions. There is something reflexive about such a work. Here Fox is offering variations on a widely used set of story-telling plots - just as he will later provide variations of his own Fox cycles in later works.
The Hawkman tale is of a kind Fox frequently wrote for his hero: the Hawkman goes to a remote corner of the globe, and meets a race of exotic beings. Interwoven with this, is a plot about a sinister inventor who creates advanced machinery to attempt world conquest. The story combines approaches used in the only two good Hawkman stories from his first year of existence. "The Globe Conqueror" (Flash Comics #2, February 1940) has a sinister, ambitious scientist with one of Fox's frighteningly plausible weapons; "The Creatures From the Canyon" (Flash Comics #9, September 1940) has the poetic fantasy about the strange race of beings. This story also anticipates later Fox work, in that the hero visits a real, remote locale, (here the Krakatoa volcano near Java), anticipating all the visits Adam Strange would make to Southern Hemisphere locales.
This seems to be Fox's first Spectre tale. He emphasizes the science fictional elements of the Spectre, including the telephone trick, and travels to outer space.
The Hourman story deals with what would be a beloved plot in the comics, other men who impersonate the masked super-hero. Fox has fun with this. It is part of Fox's long time interest in doubles. The story is also an early example of a locale that will be common throughout comic book history: the costume party. Please see my list of costume parties in comic books.
The Sandman encounters giant monster animals: like Fox's Flash tale "The Giant Animals" (Flash Comics #9, September 1940), which appeared just a few months previously.
The Atom meets crooks who impersonate using uniforms of social authorities - also an early comic book favorite.
Finally, the Green Lantern tale deals with another kind of archetypal comic book story: the hero cleans up a corrupt city government. This is also Fox's first encounter with Green Lantern. He introduces the tale with a background sketch of Green Lantern, summarizing all his powers. And once again, the story emphasizes the use of GL's most unusual and characteristic abilities, in the way that the early tales written by GL's first writer, Bill Finger, do not always do.
Five Hundred Years into the Future with the Justice Society of America (1942). Writer: Gardner Fox, based on a plot by Sheldon Meyer and Fox. Art: Various. The Justice Society travels to the world of 2442, to get a formula that can protect the United States from bombing attacks. Fox is showing his pacifism here. Bombing attacks are considered a deeply evil military tactic, used by what he calls "totalitarian militarists" of the Axis. The formula here will give people a defense against such attacks. It is purely defensive; it is not an offensive weapon of war in any sense.
Many of the early Justice Society stories show Fox approaching the "cycle" story construction that will be so prominent in his later Silver Age work. (Please see the article on Adam Strange for an in-depth discussion of Fox cycles). Each issue of All-Star Comics has a frame tale, starting and ending the issue, in which the entire Justice Society plays a role. This sets up some goal. Then each Society member has an individual adventure, all of which tend to show them working towards this goal. The stories can seem like "variations on a theme". Each has a common basic plot goal; they also can reflect similar ideas and approaches along the way. It takes ingenuity to come up with 8 tales, all variations on each other, that are not boring or repetitive. The variations in fact tend to add interest to the story; it is fun to see how the Atom or Starman use different approaches to the same challenge. Some of the All-Star issues are fairly loosely coupled, with only a little common material. Others show many repeating sub-themes. This tale, "Five Hundred Years into the Future with the Justice Society of America", has so many common ideas between the stories, that it almost, but not quite becomes a Fox cycle in the classic sense.
Some of the common ideas:
This story sends each member into the future; when they complete their mission, they return to the present. This is close to a key idea of a true Fox cycle: the journey is circular, with the protagonist in the same position and same state at the end as at the beginning. Fox explicitly invents a ray machine that takes the members to the future, then a small portable ray that returns them to our time. This is for all the world like the return of Adam Strange to Earth after his adventures on Rann. However, Adam Strange's zeta-beam wears off whether he wants it to or not, automatically causing the cycle to complete, whereas the Justice Society has to choose to complete the cycle.
This is hardly the first comic book story to send its heroes into the future. Siegel and Shuster looked at future times in Federal Men tales, such as "Federal Men of Tomorrow" (Adventure Comics #12, January 1937) or "Junior Federal Men of the Future" (Adventure Comics #25, March 1938), while they actually sent Slam Bradley and Shorty Morgan forward in time to "In Two Billion A. D." (Detective Comics #23 and 24, January and February, 1939).
The Starman episode has him caught in a trap, from which he has to find an ingenious means of escape. This anticipates the traps into which Fox will place Adam Strange. Both heroes use intelligence to escape from the trap. The story also involves a landscape filled with high tech devices used for athletic stunts; such landscapes will recur in some of Fox's Star Rovers tales.
Shanghaied into Space (1942). Writer: Gardner Fox, based on a plot by Sheldon Meyer and Fox. Art: Various. Nazi scientists kidnap the JSA members, and send them into space in rockets; each one travels to a different planet of the Solar System. Another science fiction tale, definitely somewhat of a rarity in the Golden Age. This is not a masterpiece, but it is full of pleasant science fiction ideas.
Each episode is another instance of the Fox cycle that underlies the tales:
The way the "visiting human hero defeats a Menace threatening an advanced civilization on another planet, then returns to Earth", anticipates Fox's Adam Strange tales. The JSA heroes use brain power, or fighting, or both, to defeat the menaces. Adam Strange would always have a strong component of brain work in his tales. Among the JSA heroes, Starman and, unexpectedly, Johnny Thunder, do some of the heaviest brain work and creative thinking.
The aliens on Jupiter build a giant version of Starman's gravity rod, one that can influence events on a planetary scale. Starman's rod is a personal device, used by him alone; it has been transformed into a machine that is planet-wide in scope. In later works, Fox will sometimes change the protagonist of one of his cycles, from an individual to a city or an entire planet. (See such Adam Strange tales as "Invaders from the Atom Universe" (Showcase #18, January-February 1959), "The Weapon That Swallowed Men" (Mystery in Space #63, November 1960).) What happens to the gravity rod in this tale is a related idea.
Starman's gravity rod has always looked phallic. But never more so than in the giant version in this tale. It is built up of pure geometric shapes.
The the bugs on Mercury have a simple sort of alien ecology. Such ecological systems will return in the insect world in Fox's "The Green Lantern Disasters" (Green Lantern #23, September 1963).
Cliff Young's art for the crystal men is creative. It has a geometric or Constructivist approach, building up the aliens from triangular components. Fox would go on to use crystal beings again in the Adam Strange tale "The Challenge of the Crystal Conquerors" (Mystery in Space #71, November 1961).
Wonder Woman's tale is so different from the others, that one suspects it is only partially by Fox. It has some of the steps of the above cycle, such as an advanced civilization and a way for the heroine to communicate with the aliens. But much of it is a strange men vs women battle, in Wonder Woman mode.
This Is Our Enemy (1945). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Various. A young man is sent on a time travel trip to many different eras, to learn about the evils of German militarism throughout history. This story combines education and propaganda. It is an attempt to use the comic book medium to create war information for the public. It is absorbing, and makes some good points. The tale is fiercely anti-war, perhaps a bit unusually so for a war propaganda tale of 1945! A major limitation: It condemns only Germany for war-mongering and enslaving other countries, and fails to mention British Colonialism, the Soviet Union's wars of conquest, etc.
A notable emphasis: the German militarists believe in the superiority of German Culture to that of other nations, and use spreading this Kultur to justify their wars of conquest. Today, nothing upsets right-wingers more than multiculturalism, and the idea that the cultures of non-white people can have any value. This story reminds us that similar views were once held by the Nazis.
The 1923 episode wimps out: it treats the Nazi persecution of the Jews as simply an attempt to spread divisiveness between religious groups. This seriously understates and distorts the reality.
The tale ends with calls to re-educate the German people after the war, to get them to stop supporting German leaders and militarism. Such concerns were widely discussed in the US in that era.
The tale mixes science fiction (time travel) with fantasy (the method of time travel). Unusually, the hero keeps taking on new roles in each era. Each episode is another instance of the Fox cycle that underlies the tales:
The way that the hero is transported to different environments, then leaves them at the end, anticipates Fox's hero Adam Strange, and his zeta-beam cycle. The hero travels through time, though, and gos to different eras, while Adam Strange keeps visiting the planet Rann.
"This Is Our Enemy" is atypical of the Justice Society, in that its main focus is on a guest star hero, who is the protagonist of all the tales. The Justice Society members play strictly supporting roles, in each episode.
Martin Naydel's splash is striking. It shows numerous copies of the handsome hero lined up, each in a different fancy costume from the eras he visits.
A Place in the World (1945-1946). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Various. The JSA advocates for jobs and acceptance for the disabled, in six detective tales in which disabled young men help JSA members solve crimes.
"A Place in the World" is notable for its full scale advocacy for the disabled. The stories explore various kinds of disability, show in detail the numerous prejudices that the disabled face, especially job discrimination, and depict the capabilities of the disabled. The emphasis is on the disabled's need for jobs, social equality, and opportunity to make a contribution to society. It is one of the most richly detailed looks at a minority group in the history of comics.
There was already a long tradition in prose fiction of disabled detectives. Blind sleuths in prose literature typically developed their other senses, such as hearing, to levels beyond those of most sighted persons. They then used these senses in their detective work. Fox follows this tradition in three of the stories: The polio youth has developed his arms, the blind sleuth can interpret what he hears especially well, the deaf student can lip read. While Fox's use of this tradition is perfectly sound, it is not especially innovative or original.
Several of the tales emphasize their hero's special knowledge of a subject. The blind student knows the local forrest in detail, the one-armed one is an expert on Native American culture. The sleuths employ this knowledge to solve mysteries. This learning is not directly related to these hero's specific disability: there are no direct links between being an expert on anthropology, and being one-armed, for example. Instead, the point is that the heroes' disability has not prevented them from developing their mind: something they can use to succeed at jobs and use to make a contribution to society.
This praise of knowledge and brain-work has deep roots in comics. This is one of many comic book tales to value intellect and thinking. The stories anticipate Fox's Adam Strange tales, showing a hero solving a problem through thinking and mental effort. Several of the intellectuals jobs the heroes get at the cend of the tales, also anticipate the scientist heroes of the science fiction comics Fox would go on to write for, Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures.
The Green Lantern story also fits into another long-standing mystery tradition: the apparently "supernatural" event exposed as being a hoax. The tale, like many others, speaks out against "superstition". This attitude makes a marked contrast, to the sick contemporary fascination with the supernatural and paranormal. Such works are worthless junk. Fox's ideas are infinitely better.
The Man Who Knows Too Much (1946). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Various. A man from the future travels back to our time, and uses his advanced scientific knowledge to commit crimes.
There is a small Fox cycle in the episodes. But the episodes are less purely based on one pattern, that are some other JSA adventures. The cycle is:
The future-man winds up back where he started, at the end of the frame tale. Fox cycles are typically circular, with the protagonists at the same situation at the start and end; this frame is an example of a circular journey by a Fox protagonist that is NOT part of a cycle.
There is a very brief Fox cycle of sorts in the Hawkman tale: the future-man modifies a pen, so that ink squirted on someone makes them heavy, and drags them down to earth. This is done twice in the tale: once to a mobster, once to Hawkman himself. This is Fox's standard strategy of a change of protagonist: the same events in a Fox cycle, occurring to two different heroes. There is another Fox storytelling strategy: interference. The Hawkman's "n'th metal belt" interferes with the ink's effect, opposing the heaviness, and allowing Hawkman to rise. This only happens to Hawkman: nothing interfered earlier, when the mobster was squirted wit the ink.
Martin Naydel's art for the frame story is good. It is full of complex curved geometric objects. Some of these are in the future, including the cityscape of the advanced civilization. Also a time machine, and the chair in which the future-man sits at the end. Others are in the present-day, including a diner with curved ceiling and rounded equipment. A briefly seen plane interior is rounded too. The Art Deco radio to which the JSA listens is also striking.
Naydel's art for the Flash episode also contains "curved form" machinery. The geometric shapes in the machinery, recall a bit the geometric forms in the cityscape in the frame tale.